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Culture shock: Burmese refugee's heart remains with homeland
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More photos from this shoot
Photo: Gary Krambeck
Nawseng Myishi, of Burma, now lives in Rock Island.
More photos from this shoot
Photo: Gary Krambeck
Nawseng Myishi, of Burma, now lives in Rock Island.
ROCK ISLAND -- Life in the United States is difficult for Nawseng Myishi.

In the summer of 2008, the 35-year-old man left his home country of Burma with his wife, Lumnu Mayit, because of conflict going on there.

"Because of that, we have to be here," he said.

Many Burmese people left the country about the same time, he said. With the help of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, or UNHCR, Mr. Myishi said, the couple traveled to Thailand for "processing" and then to Malaysia. Conditions weren't safe in Malaysia, he said, and many of the people there fled to China. He and his wife stuck it out, though, and later made their way to Germany, then Chicago and finally to the Quad-Cities in the fall of 2011.

"It took a while (to get here)," he said.

A number of countries participate in the refugee program, he said, and the UNHCR placed the couple in the Quad-Cities. While he has acquired an apartment and a job with the help of World Relief, living in the "Quad-Cities was not my choice," he said.

"It was, like, crazy, you know," he said. Almost every day, the UNHCR was helping groups of Burmese people, he said. Wherever he went, luckily, he found a lot of his people, he said, adding he wasn't alone.

He began learning English in Malaysia, he said. Now he is earning his pre-GED at Black Hawk College in Moline and working "on the line" at Tyson Foods in Joslin.

Being in the United States is "so hard," he said. But, "I am learning."

His life is "very different" in the Quad-Cities than it was in Burma.

Understanding and speaking English is difficult for Mr. Myishi. He said the people he has met in the community haven't always been the most patient people to speak with. If they speak too fast, he cannot understand them, he said, and often they don't have the patience to listen and understand him.

Because of that, "(my) confidence is all gone," he said.

The culture is quite different in the states, too. In Burma, "when we see people, we are happy," he said, but in the states, people tend to be a bit busier and don't have the time for chit-chat.

Without a car, Mr. Myishi must rely on getting rides from friends, walking and riding buses to get around. In Burma, very few people had cars. Everyone walked, he said, walking his index and middle fingers in the air.

"We feel like we are in a jungle" because of all of the cars, he said, laughing.

Winter also has taken some getting used to, he said, especially snow. The first time he looked out the window and saw snow, he thought, "Ooh, la la. (Everything was) all white," he said. He didn't know where it was coming from -- "Heaven," maybe, he thought.

He said he's happy to have electricity now because his village in Burma did not. For light, they used kerosene lamps and candles. But it was OK because his people, who are farmers, were early to bed and early to rise, he said.

When his family needed food, they didn't travel to a supermarket as he does now. Food in Burma was grown on the farm or gathered in the jungles. His family only ate meat when they had guests, he said. Otherwise, they ate only vegetables and rice.

And the only time he saw snow was in the mountains.

What makes his life more difficult now is living without his wife, Mr. Myishi said. Soon after the couple moved to the Quad-Cities, her health began to wane, and she became lonely.

"She didn't want to stay here," he said, so she moved to Texas with family.

Now, Mr. Myishi lives in his Rock Island apartment with a roommate, who also is from Burma.

He said he has met other people from Burma in the community and at Calvary Church in Moline, and they have become his family. "That changed my life," he said, adding he was starting to think he had a "plan."

Mr. Myishi isn't exactly sure of his future.

"Before (coming to the U.S.), I had a lot of hope," he said. Now? "I'm scared. ... (It's) very hard."

His immediate goal is to earn his GED and then continue his education.

"I want to fight for that GED," he said.

He said he is afraid because working full time and going to school is tiring, and he worries his exhaustion prevents him from learning. He also fears he won't be able to pay his bills or pay for school.

He also worries about whether he can hang on to his "mother tongue," called Kachin. Of the six languages spoken in Burma, Mr. Myishi said he speaks four. But since he rarely uses them now, it's difficult to remember them. It was much easier to speak them "when I was young in (my) village," he said.

He said he plans to stay in the states until he "grows old," but he definitely would take the opportunity to return to his village and visit his family if it ever came.

While he is living in America, "all my soul" is in Burma, he said. "I miss my land."

-- Location:Southeastern Asia, bordering the Andaman Sea and the Bay of Bengal, between Bangladesh and Thailand.

-- Population:54,584,650 (July 2012 estimate). No. 24 in the world.

-- Languages:Burmese (official). Minority ethnic groups have their own languages.

Source: CIA World Factbook.

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