I arrived in New York City when I was 6 years old. We migrated to the U.S. because the education system here is far superior to what’s available in my home country, Myanmar. When our plane first hovered over NYC the passengers clapped. Some even cried tears of joy. At the airport, the first thing I noticed was the diversity of the people. Unlike in Myanmar, where everyone spoke Burmese, here I heard a variety of languages.
When we arrived at the small house in Queens we would be living in, I felt surprised at its rather modern interiors. In Myanmar we lived in the capital city of Yangon. There, parts of the walls of most homes were decomposing cavity walls and the roofs were a thick sheet of metal. We bathed by pouring water on ourselves using a mug. Seeing a silver head sticking out of the ceiling which performed that function shocked me. In homes in Yangon, there was a gap in the space where kitchen walls connected to the ceiling. This detail drove me into lunacy as all types of flying insects and small geckos entered through those gaps. But it also heightened my connection with nature, and eventually I accepted it as a part of life. In America, every part of the home was closed off to the outside.
Not only the buildings, but even the culture here was totally different from the one I was used to. As I stepped outside my home, I stared into a street of shallow relations. Even though my neighborhood here had twice the population of my neighborhood in Myanmar, there was isolation in the air. In New York, everyone acted like they were lifeless ghosts, senselessly floating in the direction of the wind.
I remember a trip home from Costco soon after we arrived in New York. My mother was pushing a stroller with all the food we had just bought. While I was stabilizing the front of the cart, the bottom broke. No one shifted their eyes or bodies toward the panicked child helping his mother pick up her fallen groceries. Seeing everyone’s inert faces looking down on me as I hurriedly gathered my mother’s scattered groceries, I familiarized myself with this now disconnected life.
My parents enrolled me in elementary school at PS 139. I couldn’t speak English, so my mom also enrolled me in ESL classes. My classmates ignored me, and I felt like they saw me as an extraterrestrial. Though there was one person who I became friends with, I still felt like I didn’t belong at my school. My friend and I trapped ourselves in our own world, isolated from the foreign atmosphere of the school. This was the world where I found comfort in this new, scary school.
A Connection to Home
Two months after our arrival in New York, my mom told my brother and me about a church on Grand Avenue that was planning a celebration of Burmese culture. She said she had overheard two people discussing this church in Burmese. She was shocked because this was the first time she had heard strangers speak our language. She suggested we go visit this church on her day off.
Finally, this long-awaited day arrived. Before approaching the church, we decided to tour the surrounding neighborhood. Visions of moments in Myanmar flashed in my mind. On every corner of the street, we heard multiple voices speaking in Burmese. There were shops with billboards in Burmese and restaurants with posters in Burmese. My physical body was in New York, but my mind felt like I was still in Myanmar.
Afterward, we walked toward the church. The first thing I noticed was its astronomical size. But it wasn’t medieval-looking, as I had imagined. It was just a square building with a regular roof. A man greeted us with a smile that spread from cheek to cheek, and handed us a pamphlet. He explained that the church aims to bring people of this community together through cultural events.
He added that the church would be hosting a Burmese-themed festival a week from today, and that my whole family should attend as the event would be a great way to connect with other Burmese people. There would be stalls serving food and beverages and a DJ would play music from Myanmar. He explained all this to us in English as we were slowly trying to piece together an understanding of his sentences.
The Long Awaited Festival
When the day of the festival arrived, my mom put on a pink traditional dress that Burmese women wear to festivals, something I hadn’t seen her wear in a long time. She instructed my brother and me to wear similar traditional attire.
As we got closer to the church I noticed how other families were dressed like ours. Engaging in familiar cultural customs in the new city made me feel more comforted and connected to others. With every step I took toward the church, the constant feeling of nervousness that had once engulfed me whole shrank, and my body was able to resurface again. I no longer felt like I stood out as everyone here was not only connected by culture, but we were all also dressed the same. My dislike for this city that was once visible as a deep pencil mark on a piece of paper started to fade away.
The church was exactly as described in the pamphlet, with many different food stalls inside. My mom was initially afraid the food was going to cost a lot of money, but one of the volunteers informed her that each dish cost only one ticket, and 20 tickets cost 5 dollars. My mom saw this as a good deal, so she bought the tickets and pulled my brother and me toward the stalls.
We started with a traditional Burmese dish named mohinga, composed of noodles and fish soup. Another stall served nan gyi thoke, a dish composed of rice noodles and various sauces including fish and oyster sauce. The aroma of these dishes made my mind hallucinate, replacing the interior of this church with the inside of a Burmese restaurant back in Yangon.
After dining at more stalls, we went to the side yard of the church. There was a mini stage and a decent-sized crowd in front of it. On the stage was a man with a microphone singing Burmese festival songs such as “Pan Sin Par.” The crowd was singing along too. My mother joined the crowd because she recognized these songs from her adolescent years.
An Attempt at Friendship
My brother and I saw a group of kids under the shadow of a big tree playing tag. These kids were speaking Burmese. The language barrier that distanced me from engaging in my school environment was no longer a block. I could envision myself happily interacting with these people as I now had the freedom to express myself. My elation began expanding like a balloon being blown up. My brother and I walked up to them and asked, “Can we play with you?” in Burmese.
“Yesss, we need more players and you showed up at a perfect time.”
He introduced us to the teams and the rules of the game. While playing with them my face shifted from expressionless to a natural smile. My world went from being monochrome to colorful once again.
After the game of tag, we took turns playing multiplayer games on a single iPad while cheering each other on. This support for one another was something that was rare in school, but here everyone brought comfort and consoled one another even if the other person lost at his or her round. This period of happiness passed by at a sonic pace and so did my joy, knowing that I had to return to the miseries of reality.
But before we left, one of the kids, let’s call him Shway, gave me his phone number to call him in case I wanted to play with them again.
The Call Back
Weeks passed by. Feelings of isolation began to grow back inside me so I decided to reach out to my friend. “You finally called!” he exclaimed when I reached him. “I was waiting so long since I didn’t have your number!”
I was surprised that he seemed happy to hear from me, and we made plans to play at the park near the church again.
That day arrived and it was just like the day we played at church. My emotions were again composed of nothing but happiness. At the end of the day we walked home together and past the church, where we stopped to admire the day we had shared together there.
That was the last time I saw Shway. Our lives got busier, occupied by the different schools we attended, I could never arrange a time to see him. Any attempts made ended in failure. I initially felt bad but later learned to look back at my time playing with him as a sweet and melancholic memory.
I am now 17 years old, and this church remains a place of great comfort to me. This was the place where I first saw my culture in a new environment. This was the place where I made my first Burmese friend. I enjoyed Burmese meals with other Burmese people who weren’t my family for the first time there. Because of these memories, I wanted to take part in providing this experience to others. I don’t attend the church but I volunteer at it every year with my mother at the Burmese Cultural Festival cooking a variety of Burmese food and distributing them among people.
Occasionally, as I pass by the streets adjacent to the church, I hear the voices of adults and teens talking in Burmese. Knowing that my heritage, unknown to a lot of people, is part of such a diverse city makes me feel more at home. I am able to explore the diverse backgrounds in New York City from the foods to the many sights, knowing that no background, no matter how small, is excluded here.
Bhone Kyaw is a senior in high school. In his free time, he likes to read fictional novels and watch television shows.