In this episode, Ko Ye Naing shares his story of moving to Los Angeles in 1995 after graduating high school in Yangon.
After attending university in California, he eventually moved with his family to Minnesota where currently lives and works with immigrant communities as a language specialist.
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.
➤ Which city are you in?
I live in Roseville which is about 15 minutes from Minneapolis, so more like a suburb rather than downtown area.
➤ Very nice and why did you choose that city because it’s not a very popular city for Burmese people?
Yeah, it was not. When I first moved to the United States I moved to Southern California, Los Angeles area to go to university and at that time many immigrants from Burma settled in big popular cities like New York, LA, San Francisco, Chicago but you know in the 90s and maybe 10 years ago many people from Burma who are war refugees, they were allowed to resettle in America. The United States government assigned where they were going.
So, many war refugees from Myanmar – like Karen people, Chin, and these days Rohingyas too – they are resettling in states like Minnesota, Wisconsin, Kentucky. These are kind of like rural type areas and that’s where a lot of jobs are for them because of the language barrier and educational [barriers]. They have a lot of factories in those states like meat processing factories – those type of places need a lot of immigrants to work. So that’s how they resettle all these people from Myanmar.
So now we have a large population from Myanmar in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Indiana and Kentucky. So that is the reason that I got a job in Minnesota and moved here. I mainly work with immigrant communities.
➤ Can you take me back to the beginning? When did you first arrive to the States?
I graduated high school in Burma. At that time around ‘93, ‘94 because of the political conflict over there the universities were on and off, on and off. So when I graduated high school I went to Pakistan with my father because my father was working for the UN at the time, so he wanted us to visit where he was working. We had never been to where he worked – he worked with war refugees resettlement mainly in Afghanistan but he was stationed in Islamabad.
So for that summer vacation, my family plan was to visit my father for three or four months and then go back to Myanmar to attend university. But because of the situation, my father’s friend gave me an idea to go to the United States to attend university you know which could be more beneficial for me. So that person called her uncle in Los Angeles who was working for the university at the time to help me get into university you know in LA, so that’s how I got an opportunity to come to the United States. I moved to United States in 1995 October.
➤ So it’s always useful to have friends and connections.
That is so true yeah, you can never have enough friends.
➤ Which university did you go to?
I got accepted into a small Christian university called Azusa Pacific University which is located in the city of Azusa, about 40 minutes from downtown area.
➤ And what did you study there?
I first studied computer science. My major was computer science and also minor in maths.
➤ When did you decide to stay permanently in the States?
After I graduated, I decided to get a job, try to get a work visa and stuff like that. You know so that’s how I was allowed to remain in the country after I graduated.
➤ And now you are a citizen?
Yeah and gradually you know I got a green card, you know, I became a citizen in 2012.
➤ Tell me a little bit about America in the 90s. What were your first memories of being away from Myanmar?
It helps a little bit because you know I first visited my father in Pakistan and I ended up living in Islamabad with my family for about let’s say 14 months, you know in a diplomatic community with a lot of foreigners so I got to know other people, so I got a little bit of experience talking to international [people] so when I moved to California, I did not really have a culture shock or you know feel homesick or anything like that. I already had some experience in a foreign land.
California is, you know, a melting pot, very diverse so when I went to the university, it was the same thing. There were a lot of international students there, I got involved with international students organizations and stuff like that, so I was quite happy at that time. I was quite glad that I had a chance to come to the university to study and of course there were times that I missed my family and Myanmar but I was so grateful for the opportunity.
➤ How often did you go home to Myanmar?
I never went back to Myanmar.
➤ So you’ve never been since 1995?
No, I never went.
When I got accepted into the university, I was still in Islamabad. I decided to go back to Burma [one last time] to see my grandmother who was elderly at the time – I think she was in her 80s. I went to see her and then I moved to United States. I knew that once you come to the United States, you never know about your future – how it is going to be.
So yeah since then I never went back because after I came to the United States, a few years later my brothers followed and then later on my father and my mother decided to emigrate to the United States. All my family is here and also most of my wife’s family is in the United States so the only way we will go back to Burma is to see relatives and to visit. My son is still young so I am waiting for the right time to go back, you know, to visit, to show my son where we grew up and stuff like that. So yeah I’m hoping that in the near future that would be materialized.
➤ So where do you guys usually go for vacation? If you don’t want to go to Myanmar, do you usually just travel within the States or do you go Europe?
Me and my wife you know we love to go to the coastal area, we love beaches. So our favorite vacation spot in the United States is Hawaii, of course. We’ve been to Hawaii twice, Maui you know it’s a big island and also O’ahu, you know Honolulu area. And also we love to go down to Florida, you know, Caribbean area. We were planning to go to Greece this year but because of COVID, you know we can’t, so we just went to the lake in Minnesota instead. That’s where they have a beach and we got a small cabin so that’s where we went.
➤ Was that in the summer?
Yeah in the summer, in August yeah.
➤ Because I know about the Minnesota winters, I’m sure they’re a little bit challenging.
Yeah it can be brutal!
➤ In terms of Myanmar, how much do you keep in touch with the developments, like what’s happening?
You know I check Myanmar news every day – BBC Burmese, Ayarwaddy, a lot of websites. I keep checking all the news and also social media. I don’t check a lot of political stuff you know, mostly how people are doing, how development Myanmar is you know.
➤ My favorite thing to do is watching YouTube – all these people traveling and visiting Yangon.
Oh yeah I watch these, you know, drone videos where they go like, above the Yangon city, Yangon area, Mandalay area… Naypyidaw.
➤ Yeah I love watching these travelers and backpackers.
Oh yeah there are these foodies. Some of my favorite Youtubers are foodies and they’ve been visiting Myanmar. I watch all these videos, yeah I love them.
➤ You know because Myanmar is the final frontier in Asia, right? It’s the last country to develop in Asia, so for Myanmar to develop successfully, do you think it’s important for young Burmese people to get an international education or do you think it’s okay to stay in the country and rebuild from inside?
I think it is very important to have international experiences.
Let’s say for example you know what happened in Vietnam. A lot of Vietnamese people went outside of the country because of the civil war and then now the country is opening up and a lot of young people are going back to start their own businesses. So Vietnam is just exploding you know. It is now one of the first world, you know, developed countries. If you visited Vietnam 20 years ago and visited again today, it is totally different – you are not even going to recognize it.
So I’m hoping that Myanmar will be like that in 10 to 20 years because a lot of young people are going outside to have good experiences and then bringing them back to the country. That is really important because seeing the world, taking the opportunity to bring back technologies and all kind of experiences back to the country, I think that is very important and beneficial.