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…

October 22, 2007

Table as metaphor

Posted in Uncategorized at 10: 54 am by MK

I am welcomed and quickly urged to sit at the mismatched kitchen table.  Before I can say yes, please to the hand motions asking if I would like to eat, a bowl of flat noodles is placed in front of me.  I am encouraged to spoon out coconut flavored soup over noodles and told, this is a Burmese traditional dish by my interpreter for the evening.  I’m given a drink to calm the spicy flavors:  a bottle of Sunkist orange soda is placed next to my glass.  You know, the kind you would drink at the roller skating rink on Friday night to make your upper lip turn orange.  Noodles, coconut soup, Sunkist soda and a slowly becoming familiar grocery store two blocks up.

October 21, 2007


Posted in Independent Study at 7: 12 pm by MK

After meeting with my professor to discuss the progress of my independent study, we’re realizing that my current reading list and focus might need to be adjusted slightly.  I’ve been reading a lot of composition theory focusing on second-language learning and writing.  While some of this is obviously relevant, it seems that my project has really taken on more of an anthropological/sociological study.  In light of this realization, I’m going to read more books like Fadiman’s.  I want to understand what it means to be both participant and observer of a group.

So perhaps the bigger question is why?  As I think about my goals for this study, and my interaction with A. and K. and their children, I realize that this is much bigger than a class in my graduate program.  I can’t simply separate my interactions with the family as simply a “project,” and when the semester is over I’m not walking away.  But at the same time how do I balance my personal investment with that of my research investment.  What is at stake for both?

Bottom line, I’m already personally invested.  So my goals for research I think begin to heighten my personal investment.
I believe that by telling A. and K.’s story, I can put a real name and face to the thousands of refugee families crossing U.S. borders each year.  In many ways, A. and K. and the hundreds of other Burmese families living in my community are invisible.  Without the ability to speak English and become active participants in their city, they fade to the background.  And yet their desire to be part of it all is fierce.

At this point I fill the role of both observer and advocate, and for now that feels right.

Building trust

Posted in Uncategorized at 6: 48 pm by MK

Some kind friends cleaned out their closets and gave me things (bedding, towels, clothing, a hairdryer!?) to give to A. and K.  I brought my husband, P., with me when I went to deliver the items.  They have been so welcoming of me into their home, meeting their family and friends, I thought it might be nice for them to meet mine.  After introductions were made, K. tapped my arm, smiled and gave me a big thumbs up sign.

From the welcoming I receive when I visit A. and K. and the information they confide in me when we have an interpreter, I feel they are beginning to trust me.

Today, after P. and I brought in all the stuff we had to give them, we sat, drank juice and ate cookies.  I’ve learned not to rush out after stopping by, because it usually takes a little time for A. or K. to bring up a problem or issue they are having.  After a bit, A. brought me his food stamp card and K. called a friend who speaks English to relay the problem:  there should be money on the card but when they went to the grocery store they were told the card was inactive.  I tried to call the 1-800 number on the back.  Get this:  it tells me to refer to the handbook I was given with my account if I have questions.  What wonderful advice.  And of course the local D.S.S. office is closed on Sundays.  I promised A. and K. I’d come back tomorrow, and in the meantime try to figure what is going on with their food stamps.

I’m going to try to find out the information on my own.  As they distrust their case worker, I do a bit now as well.  Of course I will probably need to contact her to get everything figured out, but the more I know the more I’ll be able to help.  Again, it’s about trust.  If they don’t trust their case worker, who else are they going to ask for help.  At least maybe they’ll trust me.

October 16, 2007

Burmese Cooking

Posted in Food at 1: 11 pm by MK

A coworker of mine just faxed me some information on Burmese cooking, including some delicious sounding recipes. 

From the intro. page:

The food of Burma reflects the influences of her many neighbors, especially the two largest, China and India.  China’s influence can be seen in the use of noodles and soy sauce, while Burmese curries are Indian in origin, though not highly spiced.  They are flavoured with lots of garlic, ginger, turmeric, chilli, onion and shrimp paste and served with bowls of home-made chutneys and pickles.  Bowls of piping hot rice are served at every meal, though unlike in other Asian countries, the rice is boiled not steamed until moist.

The recipes range from:  Coconut Prawn Curry to Fish Soup with Noodles.  I might (or rather my husband the cook might) have to give these a try!

Thanks, Tom.

Warm blankets

Posted in Uncategorized at 8: 57 am by MK

I stopped by A. & K.’s last night to drop off four blankets, which they took gladly.  I’m sure they’ll sleep better tonight.

Just a reminder:  if you clean out your closets and are looking for a place to donate clothing, blankets, sheets, towels, furniture, and any other household items check to see if there is U.S. Committee for Immigrants & Refugees in your area.  They are always accepting items to give to refugee families in need. 

October 14, 2007

Finally, a real conversation

Posted in Literacy Needs, Myanmar, Refugee at 10: 44 pm by MK

So I went to pick A. and K. up for the nutrition class and dinner but when I got there I discovered that A. had already left and K. was definitely not going. K. had visitors: a couple, their two-month old baby (an absolutely adorable little girl) and an elderly man who I think was somehow related to the couple. K. immediately welcomed me in and insisted I join them for dinner. Well the smell of coconut and spices was so good I couldn’t say no. The male visitor, I’ll call him D., had been in the U.S. for ten years (he’s also Burmese) and could speak English pretty fluently. He explained that K. had made a traditional Burmese dish for dinner: coconut soup that you pour over noodles. It was fantastic.

So upon realizing that I was sitting with someone who could speak both English and Burmese, and seemed eager to talk, I realized this was my chance. I could actually ask all of the questions I have wanted to, but couldn’t. I learned so much in a simple two hours.

First a little background on D., he’s pretty amazing. He told me that he married his wife in 1987. In 1988 when the first Burma violence began, she left for a Thailand refugee camp and he stayed behind to fight against the government. He wasn’t reunited with her until 2003; she had waited for him, most of the time not knowing if she’d ever see him again. Wow. He has some physical scarring and is missing both arms below the elbow. From what he told me, I got the impression these are wounds from the war. In a conversation we had about children (yes, he and all the Burmese folks I’ve met are pretty much in shock that at 30 I don’t have any) he told me that he was glad to finally have a child. He feels that by having a child she will be able to fight for his and her country after he is gone. He kept stressing how important that is: to have his children continue the fight for freedom in Burma. He said that he cannot be happy until the war in Burma is over.

So, he translated a conversation between myself and K., and it felt great. For the first time I felt like I really communicated with her, really got to ask her my questions and answer hers. I felt like we bonded.

Information I’ve discovered:

In Burmese culture it is not acceptable for K. to tell me what she needs when I ask her if she needs clothing or things for the house. D. couldn’t quite explain it, but I’m assuming it has to do with pride and taking charity. However, if she tells D. and he tells me, that’s okay. I could then bring things to her as presents. What does she need? a blanket. That’s what she asked for– a blanket. My heart literally broke. They are also clearly in need of warm clothing, jackets, etc… This I can help with; I’ve already started to go through my closets.

Bigger news: K. is expecting! She just found out and seems partially worried, partially excited. She said that when she arrived in the U.S. she had asked her case worker for birth control, but never received any. So this baby was not exactly planned. And she hasn’t yet been enrolled in Medicaid, so she’s concerned about seeing the doctor. She does have a doctor’s appointment on Tuesday. I’ve already e-mailed the case worker to ensure she’s getting the prenatal care she needs.

But K. confided in me that she’s not exactly pleased with her case worker. The details as to why make me concerned, but because she asked for my confidence I don’t feel comfortable discussing them here. I’m not sure what I’m going to do with this information, but I’m glad I’m aware of it.

After we got through all this, the doorbell rang and about ten other people, poured into the apartment. The network of Burmese families is really strong and I’m sure provides such greatly needed support on all levels. I said my goodbyes and asked D. how to say “thank you very much for dinner” in Burmese. They all laughed at my terrible attempt, but it felt great to see K. smile. It felt great to start figuring things out.

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