By Jean Zhu

If someone points out Shwe Pyie for you in the hallways of James Logan High School, you would not think she is any different from the other students around her.  She dresses like the typical teenager and goes about doing the same things.  However, if you have the chance to strike up a conversation with her, you would notice that she has a slight accent.  In fact, in 2001 at the age of twelve, Shwe immigrated to the US from Yangon, the capital of Burma.  For Shwe, there was a culture shock and she struggled with making the transition.  Her personality has become more introverted and her lifestyle has also changed dramatically.  You could tell she prefers to dwell on the positive aspects of events and retains an optimistic outlook on life.  As someone who takes pride in her heritage, Shwe continues to grow as a person with hopes of establishing a career in this country.

In Burma, everyone speaks Burmese.  The roads are mainly made of dirt and it rains a lot.  Also, everyone living on the same road knew one another and I felt much more closer to my neighbors in Yangon then here in Union City.  As for food, white rice is usually served as the main dish with curry along with different types of salads that served as side dishes.  In the streets, men and women wear sarongs, which are called longyi in Burma.  My homeland is filled with humble people and tradition.  People do good deeds such as actively taking turns to clean the temples and cooking for monks.  But, despite all that, I miss my relatives and friends the most.

My parents decided to come to the U.S because of better education opportunities and better living conditions.  We came by airplane.  It was our first time riding an airplane and I remember holding onto my little brother’s hand.  I also have two older sisters and I remember all of us being confused in a strange new surrounding.  Therefore, it was difficult to find the route we needed to reach the next airplane after the first stop.  Once we were on the plane, I did not take my eyes off the windows as the plane moved past all the clouds and away from the place I grew up. 

I remember sitting in my seat and thinking about how my life would change and everything I have learned could be challenged.  I imagined the US to be a beautiful country and more technologically advanced.  I also imagined America to be a place with a better lifestyle.  I believed that my life would be much easier and manageable with less work and more free time because everyone knew that Americans liked to play.  People have told me that, in American schools, the curriculum is so much easier and there would be nothing to worry about.

When the plane arrived in the US, I felt relieved that the long journey was over, but I also felt nervous because a new life begins and now I have a new home.  I knew little English and encountered many problems attempting to speak to people at school.  My culture and traditions were totally different from my classmates and communicative issues arose when we talked about certain things.  In Burma, I used to wear htamains, which are cylindrical shaped cloth worn like a skirt, and blouses.  Now, I wear T-shirts and jeans.  Unlike in Burma, where the maids my mom hired did all the chores in the house, my siblings and I are required to do the chores in the apartment since my parents have to work full time.

Because I had trouble assimilating into the American society, I became more independent.  Ever since I arrived in US, I spent most of my time doing indoor activities, like using computer or watching movies, than playing outdoor games with my close friends and neighbors like I used to in Burma.  My parents knew a little English, but that did not create any problems since we were on the same page.  Eventually, I learned English by reading books, watching movies, and trying to listen to my classmates’ conversations.  I don’t think I will ever forget my native language because we would only speak that language at home.  I will teach my children to speak both languages.  Since they are going to learn English at school, they will learn Burmese from me at home.  I feel proud to know more than one language, which could help me greatly when I look for jobs in future.

Back in Burma, I used to just memorize to do well on tests without actually understanding much.  Here, my teachers taught me to think for myself and be more expressive.  The only discrimination I felt is that I think teachers here and in Burma prefer or pay more attention to good students.  More broadly, people usually prefer the ones that are better at doing things than the ones who aren’t as good.  I don’t think this type of discrimination can end since this is the usual behavior that happens everywhere, not just with teachers.  If a person wants recognition, he or she needs to earn it.

I believe that to be an American, you need to follow and practice its culture.  The advanced technology here has inspired me to become an engineer.  Yet, I think I am more Burmese than American.  The culture identity comes from who you live with or your surroundings.  Since my parents chose their native culture, this became part of me as well.  I learn easily about the current events of my native country from my dad and I am eager to learn the issues about government.  If my country happens to achieve democracy and offers better salaries than US, I might consider going back.  I think a person can have both cultures if his or her parents can take in the American part they like and not let go of the values they treasure from their homeland.  The US should allow immigrants to come because it would allow more diverse cultures, and will improve its economy because it will create more labor force.

Shwe Pyie