(Editor’s note: Unsplash photo by Kyle Glenn.)
By Leah Hunter
The immigrants that make up the Kentucky refugee city of Bowling Green, Kentucky, left their countries for myriad reasons — ethnic genocide, war and famine — for a new life in America. For many, the path to immigration may consist of hardship and trauma. And life in the United States leaves some longing to retain a piece of their homeland and culture.
The immigrant population within Bowling Green mirrors that of the United States of America 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.”
Bowling Green is home to a population that is “roughly 14 percent foreign-born,” said Sean Baute, the author of “Bowling Green immigrants and their varying paths to citizenship.”
Baute said many immigrate to the city as refugees “through state and federal resettlement programs.”
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 in Bowling Green.
Junior E. Myo Zin, a biology major at Western Kentucky University, said her family escaped a refugee camp for the Karen, an ethnic minority in Myanmar, when she was 8 years old.
“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, the Karen, were targeted in an ongoing genocide.
The Karen, one of more than 100 ethnic groups in Myanmar, were targeted for generations during a civil war by a military coup known as the Tatmadaw for generations, wrote to Amy Neiman, Eunice Soh and Parisa Sutan, the authors of a biography on the Karen people on EthnoMed.
The between the Karen and the Burmese began in 1886 when the Karen were grouped with other ethnicities within Myanmar during British colonization, wrote to Amy Neiman, Eunice Soh and Parisa Sutan, the authors of a biography on the Karen people on EthnoMed.
The conflict between the Karen and the Burmans intensified during World War II after the Karen aligned themselves with the British — part of the Allied powers — while the Burmans fought with the Japanese who aligned with the Axis powers. Once the war ended, the British neglected their promise to grant the Karen people independence from Myanmar while the latter became independent in 1948.
The authors said that a stable government was never established within Myanmar and that negotiation attempts by ethnic groups such as the Karen “were destroyed by assassination and military oppression.”
Instead, a military regime has held power in Myanmar since a 1962 coup.
The regime targeted the Karen in creating the “Four Cuts Campaign,” which sees Karen villages being attacked usually the dry season and their people “forcibly removed to relocation sites, forced to labor for the military and used as human land mine detectors,” the article stated. Women are often raped after the attacks.
Those who escape the attacks are forced into hiding and lived as “Internally Displaced People.” Some may flee into nearby refugee camps, such as the one Zin lived in with her family.
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 because she’s never been to her home country.
But Zin knows a big difference in living conditions exists among people living in the United States compared with Thailand. When she lived in the refugee camp, she said there wasn’t any Wi-Fi or electricity.
“Only the fortunate few could afford battery-generated electricity,” Zin said.
Zin said that a lower-income American’s life is 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 been a lot more fortunate,” Zin said.
Zin said life in the States hasn’t been easy for her family because her parents struggled financially and had to learn English language after moving to Bowling Green to be closer to her cousin and his family.
“For (my parents), 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. “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 the language barrier when she moved to the United States at age 8.
“Me and my siblings adapted easier (than my parents) because we went to school every day, and we spoke English every day,” Zin said.
Zin said considers herself “more Americanized” than Burmese but is most proud of the Karen and its ability to overcome in genocide.
For Zin it is important that she “continue(s) the legacy” of speaking and writing the language of the Karen. The number who can do that is 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 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 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.
“I feel like awareness has increased a lot over the years since I’ve been here like with the International Center and the International Festival and stuff, but overall United States, I’m not sure,” Zin said.
Zin said the greatest difference between American and Asian culture is the American emphasis on the individual instead of the community the individual belongs to.
“Here you’re an individual; you have your own thoughts,” Zin said. “You have your own destiny.”
Zin wants Americans to know that even though there is a large population of Burmese immigrants in the United States, there are still several Burmese people running from 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.”
A ceasefire between the Karen and the Burmese government was established in 2004 according to the Minnesota Department of Human Services, but the violence between the two groups has continued.
“There continued to be human rights abuses such as village burnings, genocide, ethnic cleansing, forced labor, rape, arbitrary taxation and killings that occur without trials or convictions of crimes,” the report stated.
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 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.”
Zin falls somewhere in between American and Karen, she said.
“As somebody who’s straddling both cultures, it is hard for me to fit into either one,” Zin said.
Different paths but close friends
For Anna Ciin S. Dim, a WKU student majoring in healthcare administration, the path to American freedom differentiated from that of her close friend Zin. Dim moved to the United States at age 9.
“My family, and I came to the U.S. as refugees from Malaysia,” Dim said. “We came here for a better opportunity and better life.”
Dim, 22, who belongs to the Zo ethnic group in Myanmar, said her expectations of the U.S. changed after immigrating.
“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. “(I) fantasized about how advanced everything will be, but it’s not exactly like that.”
Dim, whose hometown is the Lungtah Village, Tonzang Township in the Chin State of Myanmar, said that her experience living in the United States is a lot better than her quality of life living in Myanmar because she does not have to worry about not having enough food to eat.
Dim grew up with different cultures and traditions as a minority in Myanmar compared with the 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 of aspects of Zo culture like the types of handshake greetings, the food and ethics may “seem weird” to Americans.
Dim appreciates certain aspects of American culture.
“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 United States regards focuses on attitude.
“There are some things that I dislike (about American culture), such as people not appreciating what they have and under-appreciating the country and the rights they have as citizens,” Zin said.
Dim said one challenge she faced after immigrating to the United States was overcoming her dislike for popular American food choices.
“For years, pizza, burgers, anything to do with cheese, soft drinks (and) 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.”
Dim said other cultural practices native to her Zo ethnicity contradicted American culture.
“In our culture, making eye contact is contact is considered rude and disrespectful, which is the opposite here in the U.S., 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 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 United States 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 said 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.”
From Yugoslavia to Harvard University
Dunja Zdero, 33, from Yugoslavia, now called Bosnia-Herzegovina, She took a different geographic trail to America, but like Zin and Dim, Zdero can identify with the struggle to escape a country destroyed by war.
Zdero’s heritage is of mixed origin. Her father is Serbian, and her mother Croation.
“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. The Bosnian Serb paramilitary forces began firing on Sarajevo, the Bosnian capital city, following the disintegration of Yugoslavia into Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia and Montenegro, Croatia, North Macedonia and Slovenia, according to a “Bosnian War” by John R. Lampe, a history professor specializing in Eastern European studies.
Around 100,000 people died at the end of the three-year war involving Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims), Serbs and Croats, Lampe wrote.
Zdero grew up in Louisville, Kentucky, and attended WKU after moving to the United States with her family as refugees when she was 10. 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 [about moving to the US] 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 United States was the language barrier.
“I think when you’re becoming a teenager, you’re discovering new people are changing the way that they act and learning about themselves,” Zdero said. “Doing that in a completely new culture with no language was really challenging.”
Zdero said part of her experience as an immigrant consisted of learning how to navigate the social customs “that make you feel like you’re part of the group.”
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. “Often letters (would) come in, or I had to make phone calls.”
This process, known as child language brokering, is not uncommon for immigrant children. Zdero now holds a master’s degree in teaching writing from Harvard University.
Zdero said one of the ways her parents preserved as much as possible Serbian and Croatian culture was establishing rules such as only speaking the 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.
“A lot of the differences I think in general are a lot more celebrated that I have noticed in some of the other places that I’ve lived,” Zdero said. “That’s been really wonderful to celebrate that diversity.”
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.
Zdero said living in other countries as well as learning about the history of the U.S., including history she said was not taught in school, has opened her eyes over the years. Zdero said she tries to consume American media as well as from media outlets around the world about American topics.
“I think as you get older, you’ll learn about the world,” Zdero said. “I think also because of social media, we’re given many different perspectives.”
Zdero said she is now more critical of the information she received when she was younger and even the information she consumes now.
Zdero said that one of her favorite parts about Bosnian culture is the orthodox environment in which religion is practiced. Zdero said that Christian holidays such as Easter and Christmas are “not as commercialized” in Bosnian society.
“We celebrate in very traditional ways that are now as commercialized as they happen to be here in the U.S.” Zdero said. “(For Easter), we tend to color eggs using traditional methods like using plantsto dye the eggs and flowers to decorate them.”
Zdero said that traditions such as not partaking in purchasing and giving each other gifts for Christmas are changing in Bosnia and falling in line with American culture due to globalization.
“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,” Zdero 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,” as there is lots of conquest in the region due to a “constant change of power.” Zdero said this has resulted in many wars throughout the history of 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 remains unsettled about where her “home” is, she said.
“I feel like (the U.S.) is my home, but I also don’t,” she said. “I will always feel like an immigrant here. 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,” wrote David C. Pollack and Ruth E. Van Reken, the authors of “Third Culture Kids: The Experience of Growing up among Worlds”.
Pollack and Van Reken 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 stemmed also from the fact that her home country, Yugoslavia, no longer exists.
“I’ve lived in Serbia within Bosnia, but I don’t feel fully Bosnian,” she said. “I don’t feel fully Serbian. I don’t feel fully Croatian. I don’t feel fully like a U.S. citizen.”
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.