E Myo lives with her two little sisters and three pets in her Bowling Green home. However change hasn’t always been easy for E Myo. She says, “As a child, I felt like i was watching myself and my family go through this drastic change through the eyes of an outsider; I couldn’t really process it.” (Photos by Rhiannon Johnston)
Three women on their journey as refugees to Bowling Green
Bowling Green’s immigrant population left their home countries for a myriad of reasons including ethnic genocide, war and famine for a new life under American skies. For many, the path to immigration may consist of hardship and trauma, and life in the United States leaves some desiring to retain a piece of their ethnic home.
The immigrant population within Bowling Green mirrors that of the U.S. as a whole, as “one in seven U.S. residents is an immigrant, while one in eight residents is a native-born U.S. citizen with at least one immigrant parent,” according to “Immigrants in the United States.”
While the influx of refugees from Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, may have slowed down in recent decades, the children of these immigrants have established lives for themselves in Bowling Green.
Senior biology major E. Myo Zin said her family escaped a refugee camp for the Karen, an ethnic minority in Myanmar, when she was 8 years old for a better life in the United States.
“America is the land of opportunities,” Zin said. “That’s why we came here.”
The Zin family initially fled war-torn Myanmar, a country within Southeast Asia, for a refugee camp in Thailand after their ethnic group were targeted in an ongoing genocide.
Zin, 21, said she doesn’t recall much about her experience living in the Thai camp where she was born, and that her ties to Myanmar are small, as she’s never been to her home country. Zin said she would like to go someday.
Zin said there’s a large difference in living conditions between the U.S. and Thailand. When she lived in the refugee camp, she said there wasn’t any Wi-Fi or electricity.
“Only the fortunate fews could afford battery-generated electricity,” Zin said.
Zin said that a lower-income American’s life is of higher quality than that of a Burmese native or refugee.
“Here, even if you’re considered lower class, you still have a lot more wealth than what people back there would have, you know. We’re just a lot more fortunate,” Zin said.
Zin said life in the U.S. hasn’t been easy for her and her family, as her parents struggled financially in addition to learning the English language after moving to Bowling Green.
“For them, the financial part of it I think was the hardest because, yes, we did get help the first months we were here, but then they were thrusted on their feet,” Zin said about her parents’ struggles. “They’ve just had to work really hard to provide for us, and I feel like we as a family are still adapting till this day.”
Zin said she had to overcome hardships such as navigating the language barrier and learning English.
“Me and my siblings adapted easier because we went to school every day, and we spoke English every day,” Zin said.
Zin said she considers herself to be “more Americanized” than she is Burmese, but she said she is most proud of her ethnic group, the Karen, and their ability to overcome genocidal circumstances in addition to her heritage.
For Zin it is important that she “continue the legacy” of speaking and writing the language of the Karen, as she said the numbers of people who can do so are dwindling.
“I’m just proud that I can identify with the group,” Zin said. “Even though we’ve gone through a lot of hardship and stuff — and we don’t have a country — but we’re still able to make ourselves known in the United States.”
Zin said one of the ways in which she retains her Karen culture is celebrating Karen New Year, a prominent holiday for her culture.
“We gather every year to listen to elders reciting our stories, and then we do cultural dances, food and keep in touch as a community,” Zin said.
Zin said she sometimes feels as if all ethnic groups within Myanmar are grouped together as one people in the minds of Americans rather than the acknowledgement of unique, ethnic cultural differences.
Zin said she doesn’t feel fully American or Karen and would consider herself to be somewhere in between.
“As somebody who’s straddling both cultures, it is hard for me to fit into either one,” Zin said.
Zin said she wants Americans to know that even though there is a large population of Burmese immigrants in the United States, there are still Burmese people trying to escape genocide and war.
“We’re not all free, and I just feel like more attention to that cause could help a little bit because those people haven’t done anything wrong,” Zin said. “They’re just caught in the middle of a war, and it’s been going on forever.”
Zin said her proximity to part of her extended family has served as a support system for her since immigrating and was one reason behind her decision to attend WKU as a first-generation student in addition to the affordable cost.
“In my culture, it was not common for women (and) young girls to move far away from the families,” Zin said. “I just felt like I had an obligation to stay close to my family, and WKU is a great school, so it wasn’t an off choice.”
For Anna Ciin S. Dim, a senior majoring in healthcare administration, the path to obtaining American freedom differentiated a bit from her close friend Zin after she moved to the United States at age 9.
“We came here for a better opportunity and better life,” Dim said.
Dim, 22, who belongs to the Zo ethnic group in Myanmar and immigrated to the U.S. from Malaysia, said her expectations of the U.S. changed after immigrating. She said she always fantasized about how everything in the nation would be advanced but that the reality differed from what she’d pictured.
“Before coming to the U.S., I always thought as a young girl that America would be filled with skyscrapers and nothing less,” Dim said.
Dim, whose hometown is the Lungtah Village, Tonzang Township in the Chin State of Myanmar, said that her quality of life in the U.S. is a lot better than it was in Myanmar because she does not have to worry about not having enough food to eat.
Dim said she grew up with different cultures and traditions as a minority in Myanmar compared to mainstream Burmese culture.
“We have our own language and culture that sets many ethnic groups apart from Burmese culture,” Dim said. “We have to learn to speak and cultivate our own traditions and cultures, and we also have to adapt to the Burmese culture to get jobs or live among the Burmese in the big cities.”
Dim said some cultural practices native to her Zo ethnicity contradicted American culture, such as the presumed disrespect involved with making eye contact.
“In our culture, making eye contact is considered rude and disrespectful, which is the opposite here in the US, which made me terrified of talking to people because I would always get in trouble for not making eye contact,” Dim said. “My first American teacher would always remind me to look at her whenever I talked to her.”
Dim said she appreciates certain aspects of American culture, such as the existence of the nation’s constitution.
“I appreciate how American culture is extremely open-minded, and the fact that they have their own constitution that states their rights as human beings, which we didn’t have back in Burma,” Dim said.
Dim said her criticism of the U.S. regarded people’s lack of appreciation for the lives they have in America.
“There are some things that I dislike , such as people not appreciating what they have and under-appreciating the country and the rights they have as citizens,” Dim said.
Dim said one challenge she faced after immigrating to the U.S. was overcoming her dislike for popular American food choices.
“For years, pizza, burgers, anything to do with cheese, soft drinks — basically everything that represents America was not so much of my go-to food,” Dim said. “I overcame them, though it took a while for me to fully adapt to it. Now I love pizza, cheese and more food I used to not like.”
Like Zin, Dim said she doesn’t think Americans understand how ethnically and culturally diverse Myanmar is.
“I get asked many questions about whether this one other Burmese and I are the same though we share different cultures and languages,” Dim said. “I don’t mind at times because we are from Burma, but that doesn’t necessarily mean we are all Burmese with the same cultures and language.”
Dim said she retains her Zo culture in the U.S. by using the language and involving herself in the culture as much as possible. She said her favorite customs and traditions include the hand-weaved patterns of Zo clothing and the healthy, traditional food.
Dim said she is most proud of the traditions and the family-oriented aspect of Zo culture.
“To us, everyone who considered themselves as Zo ethnic group is like a family because there aren’t many of us left to maintain the traditions and cultures passed down from our ancestors,” Dim said.
Dim believes it is hard for people to consider her as an American.
“I also have a hard time identifying myself at times because I can’t fully adapt to the American culture like those who lived here for generations,” Dim said. “I am a citizen, and I am using the privilege that this country has to offer.”
Dunja Zdero, 33, from former Yugoslavia, had a similar immigration path as Zin and Dim. Zdero can identify herself in the struggle to escape a country inflicted with war.
Zdero’s heritage is of mixed origin, as her father is Serbian while her mother belongs to the Croat ethnic group.
“Because my parents were mixed nationalities, we didn’t really have a place where we felt like we belonged there after the war because the country is split up into now seven different countries,” Zdero said.
The Bosnian conflict and ethnic genocide began in 1992 when Zdero was 4 years old.
Around 100,000 people died at the end of the three-year war involving Bosniaks or Bosnian Muslims, Serbs and Croats, according to the article.
Zdero and her family moved to Louisville when she was 10 years old, and she later attended WKU. Zdero said she and her brother were excited once they were told they were moving to America because they would have their own beds and rooms.
“I remember being mostly excited because the situation that my family was in in my country was not good,” Zdero said. “My brother and I didn’t really have a childhood, and we didn’t have an opportunity to really be kids.”
Zdero said the biggest challenge she experienced in immigrating to the U.S. was the language barrier considering she didn’t speak any English.
In addition to learning English at school, Zdero said she routinely had to translate for her parents.
“Anytime we needed to go to the Social Security office or doctor or a lot of the logistical errands, I had to translate for my parents, especially because I was the older child,” Zdero said.
This process, known as child language brokering, is not uncommon for immigrant children according to The Conversation.
Zdero said one of the ways her parents tried to preserve as much as possible of Serbian and Croatian culture within her household was establishing rules such as only speaking their native language within the house. Zdero said she and her brother “almost naturally” switched to using English between them after learning and speaking in English at school for most of the day.
Zdero said one thing she loves about America is the presence of all the different cultures. She said she’s been exposed to a variety of different viewpoints, religions, lifestyles, ethnicities and nationalities, sexualities and races, which she said she feels are generally more celebrated in the U.S. compared to other countries she’s lived in.
“That’s been really wonderful to celebrate that diversity,” Zdero said.
Zdero said the most challenging aspect of American culture is that she feels everything is driven by capitalism. She said this contrasts with her cultural experiences growing up where family and friendships were the emphasis.
“People tend to put more focus on their careers rather than social life,” Zdero said. “In the U.S., it feels like people live to work, whereas in many other places, people work to live.”
Zdero said it’s hard to find work and life balance as a result.
She said that one of her favorite parts about Bosnian culture is the orthodox environment in which religion is practiced. She said that Christian holidays are more commercialized in the U.S., such as how Easter is celebrated.
“We tend to color eggs using traditional methods like using plantsto dye the eggs and flowers to decorate them,” Zdero said.
Zdero said that, due to globalization, traditions are changing in Bosnia and falling in line with American culture, such as purchasing and giving gifts at Christmas.
“Presents were never part of our culture at all, but I’d say in the last 10 to 15 years, Christmas presents are becoming a big thing in Bosnia too,” Zdero said. “Holiday traditions are more focused on family and handmade things versus commercialized things.”
Zdero said she’s been trying to reconnect with her first culture more often and rebuild friendships with some of her Bosnian friends in addition to reading more Bosnian literature and trying to learn the history of her country.
“My English is way better than my first language, and my knowledge of U.S. history is better than my knowledge of the Balkans,” Dzero said. “My hope is to go back to my country and spend about a year there just reconnecting with family and improving my language and trying to reconnect with our culture.”
Zdero said the aspect of her culture she is most proud of is perseverance. She said the Balkans’ history is challenging due to a constant change of power through many wars in the Balkans.
“You have three of the world’s biggest religions meeting in one spot, and it’s a beautiful, complex region of the world,” Zdero said. “I’m just proud of how we somehow make it work. We keep persevering and still making life the best way it can be.”
Zdero said even having lived in the United States longer than in her home country, she still does not fully feel as if the United States is her home.
“I feel like this is my home, but I also don’t. I will always feel like an immigrant here,” Zdero said. “When I go home, I feel like a foreigner there, so it’s like I live in this like third culture.”
Zdero said she’s struggled her entire life with being a Third Culture Kid, a term used to describe “a person who has spent a significant part of his or her developmental years outside the parents’ culture,” according to David C. Pollack and Ruth E. Van Reken, the authors of Third Culture Kids: The Experience of Growing up among Worlds.
Pollack and Van Recken said a Third Culture Kid adapts to his or her upbringing as a child and “builds relationships to all of the cultures” they experience while “not having full ownership of any.”
Zdero said she has gone through periods where she felt she did not understand her identity.
Zdero said that her feeling of not belonging anywhere also stemmed from the fact that her home country, Yugoslavia, no longer exists after it became a part of Bosnia and Herzegovina following the war.
“I’ve lived in Serbia within Bosnia, but I don’t feel fully Bosnian. I don’t feel fully Serbian. I don’t feel fully Croatian. I don’t feel fully like a US citizen,” Zdero said.
Zdero said the time she spent living abroad in countries such as Brazil, France and Mexico and being a Third Culture Kid with a “complex” identity led to her questioning what her first culture and first language are.
“It gets kind of messy,” Zdero said.
Despite her experiences, Zdero said living in the United States has influenced her outlook on the world and how she identifies herself.
“Living here has really shaped a lot of my worldviews, and when I say I feel like a foreigner in my country, I think it’s because I find myself to be so different than a lot of my cousins,” Zdero said. “I would say a lot more Westernized.”