A dual identity
What being Chin means to me, being American means to my community
May 10, 2019
The December drive back from College Station after a night out caroling with my youth group is an unforgettable one.
Little to nothing is seen on the road, besides the occasional stop sign or roadkill. But it isn’t difficult to hear the lively chatter and guitar riffs in the van that didn’t mind the emptiness of the night. Future plans, riddles and ghost stories comprise the conversation in the van until one person recalls their journey to America as a refugee.
It isn’t long until everyone chimes in; one recalls the shakiness of the tiny boat she was hidden in at 6-years-old as another interjects with the pain of his feet running through the forest; another shares how much he cried for relatives on his first day in the United States.
Camaraderie and laughter ensued their tales of life or death, while I sat quietly reflecting on my experiences, or lack thereof.
I immigrated to Texas at just 2-years-old from Hakha, the capital of the Chin State in Myanmar (Burma). It was impossible to have understood what those encounters were because, despite the gravity of their situations, they were just different narrations of the same story to me. Knowing my origin and birthplace is not even a distant memory, but a simple regurgitation of what my parents had told. For years of my childhood, the age-old story of success and stability following a gritty and tortuous path taken by immigrant Asian American families was drilled in my head – but I did not understand the capacity of what that meant.
The Chin State is one of the seven states in Myanmar, which houses hundreds of distinct ethnic groups, one primarily Buddhist, dominating Burmese politics and religion. Its refugee groups are some of the largest groups to flee to the United States, with 1.2 million migrants in 2017, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Reasons for migration stem anywhere from the religious persecution or ethnic cleansing from Burmese military rule and lack of legal representation – causing inhabitants to flee in neighboring countries with United Nations offices.
I heard the unimaginable journey to arrive here was more than a mere plane flight.
I discovered the people paid to guide families through unfamiliar terrain and the extensive legal processing for visas and identification cards from Southeast Asian countries, which can take a year or more.
“We stayed in Malaysia for about eight months,” said Lewisville High School senior Par Hniang, who identifies as Zephai-Chin and arrived in Dallas in 2008. “We were really lucky because my dad was already there. That’s what a lot of people do. They have one family member go ahead of time, so your application as a refugee gets processed faster. The fact my dad went and stayed there for a really long time helped us. Other people would just go all together as a family and wait five years in Malaysia waiting to be sent to a different country.”
Whilst having what seemed like the best of both worlds, I experienced a different kind of “fitting in”.
My bilingualism soon became what we coin “Chin-glish”. It was not unusual for those raised in America to get scolded for speaking in English in our church language recovery programs or struggle to even carry on basic conversation with relatives back home on the phone. I myself, was often times embarrassed to even sing on stage if it wasn’t an English song, as I’d receive criticism for my poor pronunciation and articulation.
“Whenever there’s a social event going on, oftentimes, someone makes jokes while everyone else is listening,” Coppell High School senior Paul Nung said. “So a lot of times, if you don’t understand the language, you don’t really understand the jokes.”
Though I had a community to always come back to every weekend at Emmanuel Chin Baptist Church (ECBC), the opportunity to embrace myself as one of only a handful Chin students in my schools was never there to take, until I began school in a more diverse place.
While the experiences growing up Chin American were very real, I soon realized these did not equate nearly as much the immense caution and sacrifice faced by others around me.
“One time we had to get inside a truck, there was about 10 to 15 of us – I think there was even more than that,” Hniang said, recalling her route to Thailand to immigrate to the United States. “Some people had to get behind the truck and be covered in fishing nets. It doesn’t matter. They didn’t think about strategy. I was one of the first people, and they put me in the back of the truck. People piled in on me and I was 7 years old, I was tiny. Men and women – they just sat on top of me, and I could barely breathe. One of the worst things I ever experienced. I thought I was gonna die, honestly.”
A common theme I noticed in those who immigrated here, despite the hardships faced, is the drive for betterment while only knowing a place where there is no room to dream.
“The people who experience the friendship, living the way we did there, while it’s not true for everyone – I feel like they are more motivated to succeed,” Hniang said. “They don’t want to experience that kind of hardship, they want to escape that kind of life. They want a better life for themselves. It is very hard for people to connect who haven’t seen what it is like back in Burma; it’s hard for them to understand what we’re talking about and understand how life is back home, because of the privileges that they have here. It’s just different.”
It wasn’t until I forged friendships with those dissimilar to me and those who had everyday inconveniences become their life, that I took in the message of assimilation.
“It was really confusing for [my parents]. I had to learn everything by just watching,” Coppell High School senior Dawt Sung said. “After watching and learning everything, I have to teach them again. Family work like paying bills and everything. I have to call and be the one who is like, ‘Hey, we need to pay this. We need to pay this much. This is due today.’”
The same people I see every week, I never questioned how they got here. The story of struggle they had to tell and the life they left behind as a result of it, left uncovered.
My culture is one of the most integral pieces of my identity, but I never once looked into the peril of the journey taken by those surrounding me, because ultimately I knew their destination, and that was enough. It is a lesson learned: despite coming from a community stemming from restlessness and displacement, I’ve found togetherness.
Follow Christine on Twitter @chriszacuai.