October 31, 2007

How much space do we need?

Posted in Cultures at 9: 28 am by MK

As I’m thinking about Saturday’s dinner with the two Burmese families, I can’t help to wonder what they’ll think about the size of my house. Now P. and I don’t have a large house when compared to American standards.  And it’s a far cry from a McMansion, as a standard center-hall colonial.  But A. and K. live in a three-bedroom apartment, where the whole family (mom, dad, and the three children) sleep in one bedroom (the other bedrooms are used as storage).  Their concept of space is very different.  I imagine they’ll think it odd that two people need the space of a two-story, 3 bedroom, 2.5 bath home.  And when I look at it from their perspective it makes me wonder why exactly P. and I moved out of our lovely 3 bedroom apartment into our house.  Was it for the investment of home ownership? Or did we simply follow cultural expectations of buying a house after getting married.   And, really, how much space do we actually need?

(And this question reminds me of when we went furniture shopping for our new house:  all of the furniture was huge! Far too big for our living room and sun room.  I couldn’t imagine the size of the rooms needed to accommodate the couches and chairs in all of the furniture stores.   We ended up going with love seats in the living room . . . )


October 30, 2007

What would you take?

Posted in Refugee at 11: 28 am by MK

P. posed an interesting question on his blog: If you were forced to leave your home tonight (knowing you’d never return to it) and all you could take with you was one small bag, what would you take?

Funny, just after I wrote that question I realized how privileged it is of me to be able to ask the question as a hypothetical . . .

October 29, 2007

Mae La

Posted in Refugee camp at 10: 23 am by MK

A. and K. met at Mae La, the refugee camp on the border of Burma and Thailand. The Thailand Burma Border Consortium Web site offers a lot of information about life in a refugee camp.

Here’s a glimpse: the below chart outlines the daily rations provided for a refugee. (Supplemental nutrition is provided for pregnant women and children under 5 years old.) Remember: A. spent 18 years of his life living at Mae La. I hope this makes you stop and think as much as it made me.

Rice 15 kg/adult; 7.5 kg/child <5 years
Fortified Flour (AsiaMIX) 1 kg/person
Fish Paste 0.75 kg/person
Iodised Salt 0.33 kg/person
Mung Beans 1 kg/adult; 0.5 kg/child < 5 years
Cooking Oil 1 ltr/adult; 0.5 ltr / child < 5 years
Dried Chillies 0.125 kg/person
Sugar 0.25 kg/person

Spicy Dinner

Posted in Food at 10: 12 am by MK

I love spicy foods.  And yesterday proved that even more.  P. and I went to A. and K.’s house for dinner.  Every dish:  beef, chicken, shrimp, and all the dipping sauces were so spicy P. and I were both blowing our noses and drinking lots of water while A., K., and their other guests just laughed and laughed.  But seriously the food was great; I think cooking lessons will be needed.

The other guests included another couple and their two young daughters who were friends with A. and K. in the refugee camp and just got to the States last month.  A.’s language skills are growing more each time I see him.  Although I think it may have more to do with his confidence in trying to speak English than the actual skills.  We communicated well through some minimal vocab words and lots of gesturing.  He told us that his mother and father were both killed by the Burmese government when he was young.  And because he moved to the refugee camp at such a young age, he never had the chance to go to school.  He’s grateful to be safe in the U.S. and have the chance at a new life for himself, and, most importantly, his children.

Dinner was fun and P. and I reciprocated the offer:  everyone will be coming to our house on Saturday.  Now the hard part will be choosing the menu . . .

October 28, 2007

20 Buddhist Monks

Posted in Buddhism at 2: 00 pm by MK

This past Friday I forgot that I lived in a city in upstate New York. I went to a Burmese temple in a neighboring town to celebrate the Festival of Lights (the end of Buddhist Lent) with my new friends. The temple was a small two story house nestled in a row of houses on a semi-busy street. I arrived and entered through the main entrance to a kitchen full of people, children, food, and shoes. I was told to keep my shoes on and ushered through the kitchen, out a back door, up an outside staircase to enter the second floor through another outside entrance. I slipped off my shoes and walked down the small hallway into a large living room filled with people: a small group of Westerners, a group of Burmese, and twenty Buddhist monks.

I sat with the westerners (mostly folks who work or intern at the refugee office) and kept trying to take it all in. The monks were eating around short, cherry colored tables. Eventually bowls upon bowls of food were put in front of us, and we were encouraged to eat. The westerners were served dessert first, although the Burmese ate it last. As one Burmese man told us, “We serve Americans dessert first because we know you like appetizers.” The dessert consisted of mango, custard-like squares, samosas, sweet sticky rice with coconut, among other things. We were also warned not to fill up on dessert, more was yet to come.

After all the dessert dishes were cleared away, the tables the monks had eaten off of were transferred to our group. As they were carried and placed down in front of us, I realized that they were completely filled with tiny dishes of food: spicy shrimp, cooked bamboo, beef, chicken, fish, rice, nuts, sausage, bitter greens, and so much more. The spicy shrimp were definitely my favorite, but everything was incredible. We ate until we couldn’t eat any more. After declining more dessert,the food was taken away. We picked up the dishes and passed them assembly style through the room and then down the inside staircase to the kitchen. Once the food was cleared, the tables were picked up and put away.

One of the monks came over to greet us through an interpreter. We were told he was the leader of the group, and was pleased to have us there. Actually everyone was so welcoming. At times I felt a bit awkward, but I never felt out of place. We learned that every four years Burmese monks from around the country choose a new location to celebrate the festival of lights. This year, for the first time ever, our city had received the honor. The majority of the monks there had flown in from across the country. At the end of the day they were leaving to attend a conference in California to discuss the current situation in Burma.

We were told that the monks were going to now lead everyone in prayer. Everyone came up from the downstairs, and most of the Burmese sat down on their knees facing the monks who sat in rows, one behind each other, facing the group. The head monk spoke for a few minutes and led everyone in a series of chants and prayers. Another monk then spoke for about twenty minutes. This was all in Burmese, so I don’t know what was said. I just sat cross-legged, my eyes closed at times listening to the rhythm of his speech.

After the half-hour ceremony, we all stood and were ushered outside. Above the house there was a square brick patio with a large gold pagoda in the center. We took off our shoes to step up onto the brick and everyone formed a large circle around the pagoda. We were then told that the monks would be coming out for offerings. Everyone had envelopes in their hands, which I assume held money. In order to be in the circle you had to give something, so for the Westerners who didn’t quite know what to do they had post-it note pads for us to give! At first I was thoroughly confused. And I had the luck of being the first in the line of Westerners with post-its. Nevertheless, the monks came out of the house, walked up onto the brick and walked the inside perimeter of the circle with their robes held out. I hesitated when the first two monks passed me. The third monk made eye contact with me, nodded and looked down at the post-its, so I placed them in his robe. The other Westerners followed suit. After the others emptied their hands of envelopes, they knelt down on their knees to pray.

The monks went back inside and we were told the ceremony had come to an end. Simply put: it was an amazing experience.

I can’t help but note two funny anecdotes:

During the final prayer chant inside the house, someone’s cellphone rang. I glanced around with the other Westerners, with looks of, “oh crap,” please don’t let it be my phone. We then watched the head monk pull a cranberry colored razor phone out of his robe and speak for a couple seconds. I guess cellphone etiquette is a very cultural thing.

I always joke with husband about his need to spend weeks researching a product before he buys it. And when he finds a product he likes, he’ll go to great lengths to only buy that exact brand/type. The latest was his socks: he has been searching for this specific sock brand, which he claims is the most perfect sock ever made. I would shake my head, not quite getting it, won’t any pair of socks do? For P., not so much. Well, all of the monks had his brand of socks on. I was quietly laughing to myself, wishing P. was there. It seems that someone else knows the secret of the socks.

It was a day to remember, to say the least . . .

October 26, 2007

Rewarding Experiences

Posted in Community Education at 9: 27 am by MK

Being a community educator is the most rewarding job I’ve ever had. Last night’s experience teaching at the homeless shelter was both humbling and encouraging. There were 12 people in my class, all from diverse backgrounds. No one was required to attend so the folks that did were (for the most part) interested in what I was saying. Hopefully, I reached at least one person.

The shelter is beautiful. Just two-years-old it is modern, bright, and clean. The program manager seems like a good guy, and has a really nice relationship with the clients. The shelter has thirty beds and once you move in you stay as long as you need. Quite different from some of the 30-day stay places. The staff get to build relationships with the clients, and really help them get back on their feet, find a job, and a home. As as the program manager said to me, “There are a lot of misconceptions about homeless people. Trust me, we’ve had the best and brightest walk through these doors.”

Homeless shelters are always in need of volunteers.  If you can, seek out a shelter in your area and spend a couple hours a week helping out.  I know that shelters have a downside, I’m not trying to minimize that.  However, if you spend time in one I know you’ll find something positive, and when you do that’s what you’ll remember.

October 25, 2007

Thadingyut Festival of Lights

Posted in Myanmar at 3: 44 pm by MK

I am meeting A. and K.’s case worker tomorrow to schedule more Cornell U. Cooperative Extension classes for all of the clients of the refugee office. She has invited me to join her afterwards at a local Burmese Temple for the Thadingyut Festival of Lights .  From what I understand, it is an annual celebration in Myanmar to mark the end of Buddhist lent, give thanks to all life has given you, and ask for forgiveness of any wrongs.

This is a great opportunity for me to learn more about Burmese culture; I’m so glad she invited me.  I’ll provide a full report afterwards.

Homeless Shelters

Posted in Community Education at 3: 29 pm by MK

So I find it interesting that I just finished reading Jennifer Toth’s Mole People, and I’m teaching tonight at a homeless shelter. I have to say that Toth’s book absolutely intrigued me; I couldn’t put it down. I’ll admit that I don’t think it was very well written, and after doing a little research I’m also aware of the controversy surrounding it. But before all that . . .

Mole People was published in 1993, written by Toth who was a then intern with the L.A. Times. She investigates the urban legend of thousands of people living below the streets of New York City. Yes, that’s right, below the streets: in the vast layers of subway tunnels, enclosed waiting rooms, and abandoned storage spaces. While many of the homeless living in these tunnels are alone, Toth finds that there are full-fledge communities of upwards to 200 people who have joined together to live. Some have elected “mayors,” and designated “runners” to provide supplies from aboveground. Some of these communities have electricity, and one in particular had rooms set up, a working shower, kitchen, and exercise room. Sounds pretty incredible right?

Some have discounted much of what Toth has written citing inaccurate setting descriptions in her book and other stories fact checkers have proved wrong. Maybe she embellished things, but why wouldn’t the homeless in NYC have escaped downwards? The tunnels provide warmth and perhaps a bit more (although not much more) protection and safety than some of the aboveground shelters. As Toth was writing, she estimated that there were 5,000 people living below Manhattan. I also read that in the early 2000s the NYPD launched a major initiative to drive people aboveground, so I don’t know what the numbers of NYC below-the-earth-dwellers would be today.

Toth spent a year of her life researching this book. At times she definitely provides hints that she got a bit too close to the people she met, trying to save them and often putting herself in dangerous settings. I just can’t believe that she made most of it up–it’s far too compelling to simply be imagined.

Not that my research project is dangerous or involves the craziness of Toth’s, but it was interesting to read about her experiences and think about them in light of mine. I also took note during her sections on the dangerous nature of homeless shelters. I don’t live in NYC, and I really don’t think I’m going to have any problems tonight, but it’s something to file away in the back of my mind.

And what am I teaching? Tonight it’s a basic money management class on how to make a spending plan/family budget, and how to set financial goals and reach them. Aside from volunteering at a soup kitchen a couple times, this will be the first time I’ve gone into a homeless shelter. I’m excited: this is exactly the population this workshop was designed for. Hopefully it will all go smoothly . . .

October 24, 2007


Posted in Uncategorized at 8: 14 pm by MK

I taught a class tonight at a public library on credit/debt management. There were 12 people in the class and seven were refugee-status Americans. The refugee office sent them my way because they could attend without needing a translator.

After the class a (non-refugee) woman lagged behind to tell me about her personal financial woes. After everyone had left the room she said, “So what were all those people doing here?” I said, “Excuse me?” She asked again, “Where were those people from?” I said, “I assume you were talking about the Burmese Americans in the class?” I then proceeded to give a brief explanation of how someone gets identified and defined as a refugee (one unable to return to his/her country due to war, danger, or persecution). She shook her head and said, “This country…I just don’t get it…accepting all these people and we can’t help our own.” I replied, “I guarantee you if you took the time to know any of the people in this room, or the struggles refugees go through you would feel very differently.” She said, “But what about the ones who come here and don’t work?” I said, “What about the Americans born here that don’t work?” I then encouraged her to become educated on refugee issues.

The sad part is I know there are a lot of people who think like this racist woman.

October 23, 2007

Invited to Dinner

Posted in Family at 10: 28 am by MK

Last night I was at A. and K.’s sorting out their food stamp issues (more on that in a later post) and they invited P. and I to dinner on Sunday.  I usually just show up on their doorstep, and while they always seem happy to see me there’s a small part of me that feels like I’m intruding on their personal space.  So, I feel like this dinner invitation is big.  Another step forward in establishing trust.  After some attempted communication, I then realized they wanted me to bring my entire family (mom, dad, siblings).  I tried to explain to them that P. and I live in Albany, but our families live at a distance away.  K. put her hand on my shoulder and looked so sad for me.

Our cultural expectations of living with our families is quite different.  I realize how “American” it is of me that I don’t mind living 2-hours from my parents and siblings (you know, that I’m close enough to visit, but far enough away that we all keep our sanity).  And actually, for a lot of families 2-hours is really close.

Anyway, P. and I will be there for dinner on Sunday….and now I have to think of a good “American” dessert to bring with me…

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