Burmese teens open up about going to school in America

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In 2005, Rita Kuk walked into a classroom where she was the only Asian face, beside her sisters who accompanied her. Her family had moved across the world and she was forced to start from what she calls, “ground zero.”

The U. S. Census reported a population of 135,500 residents in Calhoun County in 2011. A little more than six percent of that population is foreign-born, many who come to America with refugee or asylee status. This year, the Calhoun County Public Health Department listed at least 28 percent of the county’s foreign-born population as Burmese, with the likelihood that they were underrepresented in the study.

Kuk’s parents are refugees who went through Guam to come to America in hopes of finding a better life. The children of refugee parents have spent half their lives in Burma and the other half in America. Some of the teenagers who were brought to America as children say they feel divided and find it hard to intertwine their Burmese background with their new American lifestyles.

Kuk’s mother, Rai Sung, was a teacher in Burma and currently works at DENSO Manufacturing. Sometimes she goes to work at four in the morning. When the family first moved to America, Kuk said she knew very little English and because her mother had to work, she was no longer available to help her daughters with their education. After a year of immersion, Kuk began to get accustomed to the English language and American culture.

“We were kind of nervous because we didn’t see any black hair people and we didn’t have a good background in English,” Kuk said about her first day at Riverside Elementary School.

She said she learned how to act and speak by watching her American classmates.

Kuk, 18, now attends Kellogg Community College and works at the Burma Center, helping other Burmese people adjust to the American lifestyle. Though she has lived in America for eight years, Kuk said she still hasn’t been able to merge the two cultures.

“Basically you have new beliefs, new rules and a new system going on and then sometimes it does make me overwhelmed and I guess it takes time,” she said. “I’m not sure if I can ever mesh the two worlds because our cultures and beliefs are totally different.”

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