Monday, February 28, 2011

Burmese diversity and the immigrant population

Although I've never been there, Burma (Myanmar) is one of the most troubled countries in the world. It is also an extremely complicated country. It has about a hundred languages and multiple ethnic groups.

And this complication shows itself in the composition of the population of refugees from Burma that find their way to the United States. Although the majority (off the top of my head I think about 60%) are ethnically Burmese-Hinayana Buddhists, much of the country is not. Although Burmese-Hinayana Buddhists do make up part of the refugee/ asylum seeking population from Burma, most of the refugees from Burma are some sort of Burmese minority. (I'd estimate about 70%)

This means that the "Burmese" refugee population gets very complicated very quickly.

In the Capital District area of New York, there are Burmese Hinayana Buddhists, Burmese Muslims, Karen Christians and Karen Buddhists, Nepali-Burmese Hindus (descended from the Nepalis who the British either encouraged to migrate to Burma to work or else sent there to serve in the military), Karenni (who are not Karen but are a similar ethnic group) and Chin as well as one individual whose father is Chinese and fled to Burma with one of Chiang Kai-Shek's armies that fled south after the Communist takeover.

There's a New York Burmese Youth Soccer league and they tell me it includes other ethnic groups as well, including Shan and Wa.

It's sort of like if you had a problem in America that was worse for minorities, and those affected fled abroad if they could. These hypothetical American refugees might consist of some small number of WASPS, many Blacks, many Puerto Ricans, several Amish and some Navajos as well as many Jews. If faced with such a group, someone in this new hypothetical country with no understanding of American culture might then take all these folks and try to use them as a basis for understanding "American society." Although this might seem an important step in understanding "people from America," in fact unless such an effort took into account the great diversity of the American population the result might be even greater confusion and less understanding of how to react and respond to these new people in an effective way.

There is, for instance, one tribe in Burma where the women wear high piled neck rings and guess what? Some now live in Albany. They've removed the rings but will show you the photos if you show any interest as they thought they looked nice. They often have pictures of themselves with the neck rings on the wall. (These are one kind of Karenni). And the Karen who live in the Albany area include members of three different dialect groups (Pwo, Sqaw and Bwee) as well as some who only speak Burmese and no Karen at all. (Sort of like a Puerto Rican who speaks no Spanish.) That means that when the Karen get together communication can even then be awkward.

i.e. they recently held the first ever "Albany Karen Organization" event which people tell me took forever as all the announcements were done in English, Sqaw Karen and Pwo Karen.They apparently left out the Burmese language because they decided it would upset too many Karen people to include it. I heard the singing and dancing portions were good though. (BTW, my friend who just got arrested for DWI was the MC. I do not excuse his actions but he is a talented young man.)
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