A Journey To The Other Half Of The World

During the winter, New York is a complete contrast to my parent’s home country of Burma. In Yangon, the capital of Burma, the heat scorches the pavement and the air vibrates in the light. My parents came from a country that was the opposite of New York City. My mother would have never imagined that she would live in a city halfway across the world. My father would have never imagined that he would be treating patients in an American hospital. I am sitting here today because of my parents’ journey to America.
 My mother was born into a family of merchants in Yangon. Her father owned a store on Lanmadaw, the capital’s main street. There was a constant flow of customers and supplies which led to the success of the store. Good finances resulted in a steady middle class upbringing. My grandmother made multiple attempts to have a son, but each time she had a daughter. My mother was the seventh child of nine children and struggled to maintain good relations with her sisters.

In 1962 General Ne Win seized power in a coup d’état. He then instituted the Burmese Way to Socialism which led to an economic disaster that the country is still trying to recover from. With the economy in disarray and the black market on the rise, students protested in the thousands. Realizing that the economic situation was getting worse, Ne Win employed the classic divide and conquer tactic by enacting xenophobic policies. There was a specific emphasis on anti-Chinese persecution. Starting in 1963, the Burmese government passed legal laws that targeted Chinese businesses and citizens. The legal discrimination later soon turned violent and anti-Chinese riots broke out sporadically throughout the 1960s and 1970s. During this time period one of my mother’s cousins moved to the United States, opening the path for the rest of the family. Before my mother could leave for the United States, she compromised with her father and had an arranged marriage. Her marriage partner was none other than my father, who had just completed Burmese medical school. However, when both my parents immigrated to the United States they split up. My mother went to New York City, where she stayed with some relatives on Mott Street. My father went to California, where he stayed with his relatives in Los Angeles.
My mother was taking vocational training in New York and soon got a job under the city government. She moved from her relatives apartment on Mott Street to a Brooklyn apartment that her uncle was renting out. In this tiny apartment in Ridgewood, seven people all crammed into the living room, bedroom, and kitchen. With the use of sleeping bags these rooms all served as bedrooms at night. My father eventually came to New York City to reunite with his medical school friends, who also immigrated to the United States. While my father studied for the medical examinations, my mother worked for New York City’s department of health. After months of studying my father passed the medical examinations and became a doctor.

That 70s style!
That 70s style!

Burmese culture continues to influence me significantly at social gatherings and events. Burmese tradition is one of tact and respect for elders and guests. Food must be provided along with proper hospitality. In exchange the visitors are often expected to return the favor when you go to visit them. There is also a very strong religious influence of Buddhism in Burmese culture. Monks are well respected and given alms in their study for enlightenment. The pagodas and temples are popular spots for socializing and meeting the rest of the Burmese community. Socializing is a critical feature in Burmese culture with the most extroverted people becoming organizers and leaders of important events. A darker reason behind socializing revolves around the rampant corruption in Burma. All services require special “tips”, while employment depends on family connections. Therefore, successful people spread out their connections network.

Here was where I fell out of the general flock. I was an introvert that preferred to go home rather than watch the movies. My life followed a pattern which I rapidly adapted to. First, I wake up and go to school. Second, I study tenaciously in my classes. Third, I go home and finish homework. Fourth, I play games and read on my free time. Finally, I go to bed. This pattern follows a constant cycle with the exception of weekends for family events and vacations. I avoid conflict with others and prefer to do projects alone. Of course if required by an instructor, I will do group work.

Being an introvert is not the best choice in a democratic society that revolves around participation. Many organizations and possible employers want leaders who are bold and confident in their actions. Job requirements often search for “leadership qualities” and “professional group cooperation.” I am not a confident leader who wants to lead the flock. I am the black sheep who prefers if he is left alone. Here, in Brooklyn College I follow the same procedure that I stated earlier. I do only do what is required, nothing less, nothing more.

– Thomas Saw Aung