Ko George Swar is a professional photographer based in Orange County, California. He moved to the USA in 1989 as an 18 year old after his father urged him to escape the political unrest in Burma.
In this episode, Ko George recalls entertaining stories about his first impressions of America when he first landed over 30 years ago and some cultural differences he has noticed between Westerners and Myanmar people.
We speak half the show in English, and the other half in Burmese.
Listen to the full conversation (Part 1 in English and Part 2 in Burmese) or read a selected excerpt below.
➤ If you meet somebody and they ask, ‘What do you do?’, how do you answer?
Well, I’m a photographer mainly focusing on the wedding and portraits. Weddings are my main bread and butter but right now with all the COVID, everything is closed and nobody’s getting married. Most of my clients are Vietnamese and Chinese and they know how to party and they know how to do a good wedding.
➤ Take me back to the beginning. So I understand, before you moved to the states, you were already doing photography with your dad in Myanmar, right? So tell me about that. When did it begin for you?
Okay well what happened is I’m not really the brightest student, okay? I don’t really like to study, I don’t really like to read a lot and so what happened was when I was in eighth grade, somewhere around that time about when I was 14, for summer time – you know we have about three months so kids don’t usually do much – my dad put me into the portrait studio at one of his coworkers’ business.
It was like a passport place and then so I was developing the film and you know when you process it I’m like, ‘Wow! This is amazing!’ This magic happened and it really really lit up. I was really into it.
➤ Your dad was a photographer?
He’s actually a physician actually. His coworker owned the portrait studio and that’s how I got into it. Later on I was actually grabbing my dad’s point and shoot camera and I actually started shooting black and white film.
I learned to process my own film with the help of [my dad’s friend at the portrait studio]. I owe him a lot and I really wanted to go back and see him and contribute a camera or cash or whatever but unfortunately he already passed away. I don’t even remember his name but he was my first teacher.
➤ Tell me about moving to the States. What do you remember? What was the reason your family left Burma?
Oh I came by myself. Like I said I wasn’t really a good student so you know of course I did all kind of crazy stuff. I liked adventure! Even back then, you know, I was doing camping and hiking you know. Nobody was really interested in that kind of stuff in Burma but I was. And then of course when the ‘88 uprising happened, we all get involved.
➤ How old were you at that point?
I was 18 in 1988. My cousin lived in the US and my father said, ‘If George stays around, he’s either gonna go to the jungle with these rebels groups or go to prison.’ I don’t think I would have but who knows. It depends on who you hang out with and stuff like that.
So he shipped me out of the country! And after the uprising all the schools were closed and a lot of young kids they tried to leave the country in any way. Some of my friends became sailors and some of them went to Japan or Taiwan to get jobs, you know, for a better life. I’m one of the lucky ones – I had a cousin living in California so she brought me over here. She sent me a ticket and here I am.
And I never intended to live this long here. I was like, ‘Maybe four years?’ While things are going crazy back home, I wanted to just hang out over here, study and when I finish school go back home and do something. I know I keep saying that’s home even though I left 30 something years ago. I left when I was close to 19, I had friends you know, I knew all the locations… things like that.
➤ To leave your life at that age must’ve been difficult.
I think it was probably the right time to leave. It’s not as crazy as some of the folks who came over here with their family and they are already in their mid-40s and mid-30s. It’s tougher for them, I think. I’m easy going and I can adapt well to any situation.
➤ Tell me what you remember about first landing there as an 18 year old straight from Rangoon. What do you remember about landing at LAX?
Actually I landed in Seattle, Washington first. That was like the first port of entry to the US back then. There was no direct flight from Rangoon to here. Let me go back a little bit. So that was in 1989 – July 10th.
➤ You remember the date!
Oh yeah I remember the date. It could have been in the evening time too.
Back then there was no International Airport like the one we have right now. There’s no shuttle. You got to walk two or three football fields to the plane! And then the jet was like, you know, the engine was already starting so you can smell the fumes, and the heat and you’re walking.
And then of course my family and my girlfriend were left behind. You turn around once in a while and then you try to wave at them. You don’t really know where they are and you just imagine that that’s where they are. And a lot of my friends are there too, you know, saying goodbye.
And I left and then I took off. I had to actually stay overnight in Bangkok airport and then my dad actually drew a map of the Bangkok airport with instructions, in case I got lost.
➤ Think about that- in the old days once you leave there’s no contact, right? There’s no cell phones, there’s no nothing so you have to have all the instructions with you.
Yes and he actually had a brochure or a map of the airport. I don’t know how he got it. He actually contacted one of his friends in the foreign office or something like that and he wrote every single didn’t turn, left, right, whatever, you know.
So when I get to Bangkok somebody picked me up and took me straight to the hotel and then the next day the same people came to pick me up and took me to the flight to go to America.
➤ You mean people from the airline?
My dad’s friends actually. He arranged all this stuff to make sure I don’t miss the flight. It was TG 750 – that’s the flight number. I remember that because I kept that air ticket for a long time. I’m very sentimental and I collect all kinds of junk!
And then we had a transit in Japan Narita airport. My parents gave me money but you know back then you’re only allowed to carry $64 officially. And you got to pay $14 in Rangoon airport for airport tax. So I’m left with $50 in my pocket. I’m going all the way to America with 50 dollars. I don’t have a credit card, I don’t have anything you know. Imagine that!
My parents actually asked me if I wanted to exchange a couple hundred bucks within the black market back then, you know. I said, ‘Don’t bother, I’ll be fine.’ And then when I landed in Japan, you know what I did with the $50? I actually bought a disposable camera for $10!
➤ You got your priorities right! That’s good.
Yep! I shot a few pictures but of course I didn’t know much about photography so they didn’t come out well. Then I went to Seattle, Washington and I remember that the first feeling that you were asking me about – I remember the popcorn smell. You know.. Butter.
➤ That’s your first memory of America!
Yeah the butter with the popcorn and to me it was very strong you know. And I remember Coca-Cola. You know on the airplane, they offered me and it was very refreshing. Coca-cola and butter. That’s what I remember!
➤ ‘Welcome to America!’
That’s right! We came from ngapi land and I smelled butter so that was a little bit strange for me.
➤ So when you landed, were you happy? Like, were you excited about a new life or were you questioning, ‘Why did I come here?’
Well, when I first landed in Seattle – I don’t wanna say it was degrading but – the immigration officer was asking me a whole bunch of questions.
➤ How was your English?
Well broken English, you know. I kind of understood but not that great. That was pretty harsh for me and there was a lot of people getting sent back to Burma from the airport – a lot! And I went through.
➤ So how come you got through?
Well I guess God helped me. It was meant to be.
And the next morning, you know I was half asleep, trying to get up with jet lag and things like that – I was planning to go to the corner of the street to eat mohinga and I woke up and I was like, ‘Oh shoot I’m not home anymore.’
That was sad and happy at the same time. When I saw -coming from Japan to the US- from the airplane window, the Pacific ocean that I’d been crossing I was like ‘Oh my god, I went really really far. I went too far.’ I had never been alone that far. I mean, back when I was 16 or 17 years old I traveled in Burma with my friends you know but this was like, ‘Oh my god, this is really far!’ and I actually cried. And I realized that there’s there’s no turning back.
➤ And how long before you visited Burma for the first time after 1989?
You know what? I actually counted how many days it was. I counted 4500-something. I actually counted -every day I wanted to go home- how many days that I’ve been gone. I don’t have an exact date anymore but I do remember it took me 14 and a half years to get back. So everyday I was like, ‘I want to go home.’ Not that I wanted to go home like crazy, but I wanted to go to visit, you know?
So the first plan was like just stay here for like four or five years, get the education, save up and go back home and do some kind of business, you know. Well that dream slowly faded away. [At first] whenever I bought something like a camera, I tried to pick something that had the same kind of battery you can buy in Burma. You know electronics items and things like were limited back home so I only picked the one with AA batteries you know, not the CR2016 or whatever.
Then I saved up one thing after another and I finished my school. My girlfriend actually came over here and we got married.
➤ Let’s talk a little bit about entrepreneurship. America is known around the world as a land of opportunity. We all go there to chase the American dream so tell me, how was your experience building your business as a foreigner, as an Asian?
Well you know nothing is easy anywhere, period. Especially if you’re an immigrant. I have a mindset that I don’t like to follow the traditional path.
I like to do my own thing. I remember joking around even when had a day job, 9 to 5 Monday through Friday, I told my co-workers, ‘I’m looking for a new job. I wanna work 2 days a week and get 5 days pay.’ Well that’s not true, right? You know you actually end up working 7 days a week.
➤ But at least you’re doing it. You’re doing the thing you enjoy, so it doesn’t feel like 7 days.
Exactly. You nailed the point. I never felt that this is my job even though I work 7 days a week and I feel like I never work, you know. I actually quit my job in 2005. I started my [entrepreneur] journey in 2006 January 1st.
➤ Okay you’ve been doing it for 14 years successfully. Well that’s it, that’s the American Dream bro. Congrats!
Thank you! I actually started my wedding gigs in 2001 part-time. I still had my day job and I built my clientele for 4-5 years. Another thing is I’m lucky enough to have a wife that fully supports me. You know we have a long relationship, we’ve known each other for too long. So she knows me and I know her and we support each other.
I actually worked like 2 or 3 jobs to support her while she was in school so after she finished her school and got a job, that’s my turn so that’s why I did. Without her, it’d be tough because the most important thing is the healthcare so I got healthcare benefit through her job so it at least I covered that part.