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...