First, let me say that there are many refugees from many backgrounds. On the other hand, a casual reader of this blog will notice that my interests seems to be focused on the refugees from Burma. I make no apology for this, although I also wish to state that I mean no disrespect for other refugees. It's simply that with a strange Asian background this is naturally where my interest would gravitate.
The hill "tribes" of Burma are related to the minorities of China and the other areas of southeast Asia. The history overlaps. (For instance, I took a course on the Mongol expansion and the Mongols conquered Burma in the 13th century in a battle that is often described in military history books.)
The language interests me as does the culture. (Burmese is a non-Western tonal language with a phonology that is alien to an English speaker, and although I have not progressed terribly far, I still feel confident saying that it is much easier than Chinese.)
After four years of living abroad and several years of academic study of Asia, it fascinates me to watch large portions of an Asian culture transplant itself here.
Some images: A dozen or so Karen men, recently laid off from a plant that paints cars, playing soccer on the fringes of Albany in the shadow of the FBI station.
Rensselaer has added a new Burmese focused grocery store, Win's Grocery, that stocks such things as canned coconut milk, shallots, fish sauce and noodles. The owner is a Burmese, not Karen, man who clear has suffered the effects of an explosive at some point in his life. His left arm is missing and the fingers of his right hand show exaggerated stubs. He is accompanied by his daughter, a little girl around four, who sits on a stool behind the counter. While shopping with a Karen friend, I try out my measly Burmese and do so in such a way that not even my friend can tell what I'm trying to say. The little girl laughs and I ask her if my Burmese is good. She giggles and tells me that no it is terrible.
I soon stand corrected. "Canaw bama lo nian nian pyaw dait deh." is the proper way (I think) to say "I speak a little Burmese." (I could be wrong.)
This weekend, Easter Weekend, is also the New Year for much of Southeast Asia and several of the refugees.
Saturday night was a Nepali celebration at RPI college and included local Nepalese immigrants, graduate students and refugees of Nepalese descent from both Bhutan and Burma. Dinner was served.
Sunday morning in Rensselaer a Burmese New Year festival is being held at a non-descript, run-down old ramshackle building that now serves as a Burmese monastery and temple for the Buddhists from Burma. Although the entrance signs were exclusively in Burmese, I entered as people had told me it would be fine to do so. I saw a few familiar faces, but most were strangers to me.
I soon found myself ushered to sit at a table with, oddly enough, mostly White folks with a wide spread of food, food that to my surprise included meat, something one would never see at a Buddhist celebration in Taiwan.
The table was directly in front of the primary altar.
I found myself seated with a few of the refugee center staff across from, of all people, its director, although she soon left. I introduced myself and began talking to the young woman next to me, and she explained that her relative taught the refugees poetry and photography. I considered asking her if this was really what the refugees wished or needed to learn but it was neither the time nor the place. (Truth is a friend of mine is taking a photography class for refugees. He says it's not bad and a good chance to practice English.)
Due to the demands of my other job, I soon left.
Madhav Nalapat on Taiwan issues....
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