Originally published in Hyphen Magazine.
In Battle Creek , MI, several hundred people are gathered to celebrate the grand opening of the Burma Center. Burmese women in the crowd are dressed in traditional floor-length wrap skirts, and men wear similar woven fabric draped and tied across one shoulder. Children run in and out while older women fry onion fritters to be set out alongside banana cakes, corn cakes, rice with peas and hot pepper sauce — all Burmese delicacies.
Edward Thawnghmung (THONG’-moong) strides to the stage and plays the cowboy classic “Red River Valley” on his harmonica, a favorite he learned as a child growing up in British-controlled Burma. He could hardly have known that six decades later, he would be performing it in the heart of America, to a room full of his own people.
Thawnghmung was determined to take his family out of Burma after a military coup toppled the fledgling democracy in 1962. Successive military regimes have perpetrated a string of human rights violations against the Burmese people, in particular the ethnic minorities such at the Shan, Karen, Rakhine, Chin and smaller groups that make up onethird of the population. Muslim and Christian minorities are also targets in the country, which is 89 percent Buddhist.
Battle Creek has developed as a hub for Burmese refugees, especially Christians, from the Chin region. The 2010 census reported 100,200 people of Burmese origin in the United States, including refugees, permanent residents and citizens, and that number has risen astronomically over the past decade, from only 631 Burmese refugee arrivals in 2000 to 16,901 in 2011. In Michigan, the annual number has grown from 16 to 639 in the same period.
The Thawnghmungs were the first Burmese to arrive in Battle Creek, after a local family agreed to sponsor them. More followed, from Burma or other parts of the United States. While Michigan is the only state to have seen its population decline over the past decade, refugees have helped repopulate both urban and rural areas of the state. In 2008, the US government raised the annual ceiling for refugee admissions from 70,000 to 80,000 in anticipation of a surge from Iraq, Iran and Bhutan. That year, Michigan doubled the number of refugees it admitted to nearly 4,000.
As an African American who came to this part of Michigan more than 20 years ago, I have watched these demographic changes with interest. The historic manufacturing town of Battle Creek has a population of just over 52,000 that is 71 percent white, 18 percent black, 6 percent Hispanic and 2 percent Asian. Stubborn patterns of residential and social segregation persist in the state, but it’s hard not to notice that the recent arrival of Asians from various countries has led to an increase in ethnic groceries, restaurants and informal catering businesses.
The intensively cultivated gardens in the Burmese community are completely different from the simple flatbed rows of those that characterize most neighborhood gardens. Burmese gardens are lush multilevel affairs with vines snaking along fences and climbing wooden poles to overhead lattices — leafy canopies that serve not only to support the growth of fruits and vegetables, but also as a shady resting spot on hot summer days. Their distinctive gardens have become wellknown in this area for their elaborate trellising and huge gourds hanging from vines. These gardens produce not just sustenance but other benefits as well: Some are trying to use the gardens as a way to teach good nutrition habits while others aim to bring what they have learned about food and agriculture back to their homeland.