“I was named after the sound of gunfire and I have no last name”
An Introduction to the Names and Naming Practices of Karen and Burmese people in the Capital District.
When Westerners interact with people from Burma (Myanmar), they encounter many differences. Some of these differences become problems, some become points of curiosity and some become items of interest in their own right. Names and naming practices of people from Burma can easily be all three.
For instance while Western names tend to follow a basic standard pattern of given (or first) name followed by a surname (or last name), names of people from Burma traditionally do not follow this pattern but instead follow patterns of their own.
As the number of refugees arriving in Western nations from Burma increases, the number of Westerners who have contact with these names will increase. It will become increasingly important for Westerners to be familiar with the naming practices of the people who come here from this troubled nation. Prior to 2006, the United States had tight restrictions on admitting Burmese refugees. (Gashler, Anonymous 2006) As of 2007, the United States resettled nearly 5,000 refugees from Burma of whom 3,500 were Karen, more than 1,000 were Burmans and more than 400 were Chin. (Barron, et al) Although these figures are dated and the number that have arrived today much greater, it is my belief that these figures give a rough idea of the proportional ethnic make up of refugees who arrive from Burma, although it does need to be said that an increasing minority are Karenni, a group that is sometimes classified as Karen and sometimes classified as a separate ethnic group. Today refugees from Burma arrive in the United States for resettlement at a rate of approximately 1,200 per month. (U.S. Department of State, Arrivals sorted by month) The number arriving in the Capital District, particularly Albany and the city of Rensselaer, has increased as well. Due in large part to the actions of two non-governmental agencies that have contracts with the state department to resettle refugees, Albany and its environs have become the new home for newly arrived refugees in large numbers.
In addition there are people from Burma who have resettled here who are not classified as refugees. Such people have been admitted to the USA under various categories. These include “asylum” status, getting a green card through the U.S. open lottery system, and family unification. Although people from Burma have lived in the Capital District for some time, their numbers have greatly accelerated since the admission of Burmese refugees started in 2006. I know of no people from Burma who are here illegally and expect that due to geography and travel difficulties, if such do exist their number is very small.
Although refugees do not get to choose where they will be initially settled within the U.S., or for that matter even if they will come to the USA or some other refugee destinatation country (i.e. Norway or Australia, among many others.) after arrival refugees are free to come and go as they please and many do move to live elsewhere on their own initiative, a phenomenon known as “secondary migration.” They usually seek out locations where they have friends and family and believe jobs are available. The Capital District, and the city of Rensselaer, is often such a place.
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