My guest Ki Ki Jenny Moe shares her journey of growing up Myanmar, going to International School in Yangon and applying to Community College in Orange County, California.
Jenny explains the importance of gaining wider life experience outside of the school environment and we discuss how and why basic human biases prevent us from doing what we know we should do.
Listen to the full conversation in audio or read a selected excerpt below.
The first part is in English and we switch to Burmese language at 33:40.
➤ When did you first leave Myanmar?
I left Myanmar in January 2019.
➤ What were you thinking at the time? What made you apply to this school?
So I knew I wanted to come to America. I looked at other schools in the UK and the difference I found was that in America they're more flexible with your change of major. So while you're in college you decide, 'Oh this is not what I want to do anymore, I want to switch to another major,' the school is pretty flexible with that. But what I saw in the UK was not like that and as a 19 year old, I wasn't sure if fashion design was something that I want to do in college so that's why I ended up choosing Orange Coast College because it's a community college. It's not as expensive as a four-year university and as an art student I thought that it would be a smart decision. And to this day I really think I made the smart move in choosing Orange Coast College.
➤ So you knew you wanted to go to America; what was the main reason? Was it just the fact that you could change major? I'm sure there are other reasons.
Yes and also because I went to an international school that was American based so I grew up with American teachers mostly. And yeah it's obvious that the western culture definitely has its influence in Myanmar. The clothes, the celebrities, Justin Bieber and you know, I grew up listening to his songs, watching Selena Gomez... all that. So I had that preconception of living in America, having that college life experience in America.
➤ And how does the real experience compare to what you imagined?
It is completely different I'll tell you that! I feel like Hollywood has really glorified it. In American movies, you see the Hollywood sign, you see celebrities but when I got here it's more of um.. LA is actually having a problem with the homeless. And even when homeless are portrayed in television and movies they're not like it is here.
➤ A little bit different yeah.
I just want to put it out there too that all homeless are as bad as you would think or as good - it just depends on each person, I guess.
➤ About the application process - so you were in high school. Which school were you in?
I was in Yangon Academy International School.
➤ Okay and what was the process of applying to school outside of Burma?
So for me specifically, when I applied to Orange Coast College, I didn't need to show english proficiency level because my school Yangon Academy has already connections with Orange Coast College so I took four years of English courses in Yangon Academy. Orange Coast College acknowledges that and it didn't require me to take [anything extra] but I did take TOEFL so it's always good to take the tests such as like TOEFL, IELTS or the SATs. Even if your school doesn't require them, there could be other schools who would require it from you. It's good to have it.
Actually I would say almost all of the schools in America require SATs if it's a university but some other schools would require ACT instead of SATs and you can take TOEFLs instead of IELTS but then again some schools only want IELTS or some school only wants TOEFLs so it's important to check that requirement on their school webpage because they do say that. Like, 'This is what you need to take and this is what you need to show us.'
➤ So it's just a matter of doing your research going to the website of the school and just doing the research.
And of course applying for visa. So, once you apply and you get the acceptance letter and they give you your I-20, which is a student visa - once you get that, you can apply for a visa at the US Embassy in Myanmar.
➤ Okay so you have to get the offer from the school first and then you get the student visa from the embassy?
➤ And do you know if there are any age limits? Do you have to be under a certain age to be able to go to school in America?
I don't think there is a maximum age limit but there is a minimum age limit. So like, 18 and above can apply or if not then you would have to spend the first two years with a guardian or anyone who can co-sign with you [to show] that you're taken care of.
But for Orange Coast College, I met other Burmese international students as well and they were 16 and 17 and I was surprised because I thought you could only apply and live by yourself at 18. They were like, no, they came straight out after 10th grade and then they applied and they got in and I was like, 'That's actually pretty smart,' because you get to finish school early and you know go like jump right into the work field.
➤ Interesting! Okay so now let's talk a little bit about what you're actually studying. So what is your major?
My major is Fashion Design. I'm studying Fashion Design at Orange Coast College so because it's a community college I can only get Associates level at the highest. If I want to get a Bachelor's degree I transfer to a four-year university to get my Bachelor's.
➤ So do you have plans to do that?
I definitely have plans to do that. I have plans to get a Bachelor's. I had a talk with my parents, I was like, 'I'm going to Orange Coast College, get my Associates and transfer right away to a four-year university to get a Bachelor's.' But when I got here, I learned that I can do an OPT - Optional Practical Training. So what that allows you to do is that after completion of your Associate's degree you can work in the US legally off campus at any job that is related to the major that you graduated with. So it gives you one year time after you graduate community college and then you can transfer to a four-year university to get your Bachelor's, so I thought that was interesting.
➤ And do you have a school in mind that you would like to transfer to?
I actually have plenty of schools in mind. One is in California, one is in New York and there's one in Georgia but I'm not too sure about that. At this moment I'm focused on getting my OPT first... because I honestly think the American university system, in terms of expenses are too much, especially for an international student because we pay 2, 3, even 4 times more than what locals pay here.
➤ Can you give me an idea of the numbers? So how much is tuition for an international student?
So my school for one semester, you have to take 12 credits of classes in order to maintain your student visa. So if you take 11, 10 or 9 credits in one semester, you can get your visa revoked. And 3 credits is the usual amount for one class and three credits cost around $1000 or $980 that range depending on the classes. 3 credits make up one class usually but there are also 2 credit classes or 1.5 credit classes.
➤ So roughly, 3 credits is around $1000 for international students and you need 12 credits to maintain your student status is that right?
Yes, that's true.
➤ 12 credits per year?
12 products per semester.
➤ So that's $4000 approximately per semester.
Yes, $4000-5000 and not to mention your personal living expenses.
➤ Yeah and for international students, what are the scholarship opportunities? Because there's a lot of Burmese that don't really have that money. What opportunities do they have if they want to study in the States?
Yeah for four-year universities they do offer merit-based scholarships that you can apply before you even go to the school. For community colleges, like the one I'm attending they don't give scholarships before you come. But once you're in the school and you've completed at least one semester you can apply for a scholarship which I did actually this semester. You can apply for scholarships and even if the school itself doesn't grant scholarships or no scholarships are available for you, you can look at scholarships from outside sources - this is what I've heard. I haven't actually applied for those yet but they're outside scholarships - there are a lot of rich people here who would love to give away their money to students who need scholarships because it's a win-win situation. Us students get money to pay for our college, the rich people can have a tax write-off. That's what I learned.
➤ Tell me about current attitudes from people when they hear that you're from Myanmar.
I get all sorts of responses when I tell people that I'm from Myanmar. Some of them would be like, 'I've never heard of that' and then I would have to explain where. I think that's fine but there was this one time I told them, 'Oh yeah I'm from Myanmar,' and then they were like, 'Oh yeah I've heard of that place,' and I was so surprised because not a lot of people know where Myanmar is so I was like, 'You know where it is?' and then she was like, 'Yeah it's right next to Japan, right?
➤ It's funny and what about now? What about these days? What's the reactions to what's going on? What do they think or what are they told what do they know?
So these days the kind of responses I was getting is, 'Oh the Rohingya thing,' you know and one of my friend actually experienced that first-hand here in America when she said she was from Myanmar, this local went off. He started saying, 'You guys are murderers,' you know, 'You guys did this and this to those people.' Ignorance is not a bliss sometimes.
➤ No, not at all.
So there are those certain cases but you know every country has its problems.
➤ Yeah so you notice it's not the vision that Hollywood has created. There's ignorant people everywhere.
Yes because one thing that I also realized here specifically in California is that they they don't go out much. They think traveling to the east coast is the world already. I mean I don't blame them either because America has made the system comfortable enough for the people who do not want to go to countries and explore.
➤ The interesting thing that I noticed from what you just said was the power of media. Right? So for kids in growing up in Myanmar: Justin Bieber, Hollywood sign, beautiful ocean, California, intelligent, progressive, developed people - that's the message they get. But think about what that guy that you told me about - what he received about Myanmar: one-sided story, Rohingya-this, murder-this, ethnic cleansing, all of this. So we're all victims of the messages given to us by the media.
Yeah I do agree and I don't think it's pessimistic because it is what it is you know. Especially now.
➤ Whatever they say is the truth.
They hold the power.
➤ So for an individual - let's say for a young Myanmar individual right now in Burma - what is the first step to improving yourself? To developing yourself?
I would say the first step is to open your mind. It sounds easier said than done. Even for myself, I thought I was so open-minded...!
➤ Great point! How do you know if you're open-minded or not because nobody walks around thinking, 'I'm so close-minded. I must open my mind,' right? So the first question has to be, 'How do I know? How do I get an accurate judgment of how open-minded I am?'
So what I think is that humans are always developing. We're always changing and we're not the same person that we were two days ago even.
➤ Absolutely. If you want to get technical, if you want to get absolutely accurate and physical, we're changing every single moment.
That's true. That's very very true, so how do you know if you're open-minded? It fluctuates. You can be open minded [now] but after a few days you could be like, 'Oh what is this? I don't like this,' you know? So it's not a one-time thing, that's what I'm saying. Sharpen your mind, you have to keep being alert and on the lookout for what is going on, what is going on with the world and 'How do I feel about that? Am I being ignorant by saying I don't like this or I don't like that?' Like, where is this opinion coming from?
➤ I really loved what you said last week - you were talking about, 'Fighting fire with fire is not the answer.' Tell me what you mean by that.
So it's just like the phrase, 'An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.' If someone punched you and you punch them back, it just ends up with both of you getting hurt or in the hospital even. Did the problem get solved? No. [You just acted] your frustration and anger out on another person or another living thing. That's why I feel like Myanmar needs to be aware of that. In order for our country to grow, you have to know that the solution is not just, 'Doing what they did to you.' [Acting out] vengeful and all that revenge feelings that you have. It's so easy for us to be consumed by our negative thoughts as humans in general. Like I was saying with everything that has been going on, just because someone did this to you and you feel like I have to do this the same exact thing back to them is not the solution. Fighting fire with fire just creates a bigger fire.
➤ When I was growing up in Myanmar, the elders that's all they talk about. That's the kind of stuff that's put into you young. It's about forgiveness, you know especially being such a strong Buddhist country, what the 'Pongyi' would tell you, it's all about peace and forgiveness and controlling your anger and emotions. But then the thing I learned is, 'Theory is easy to learn. Applying it is pretty friggin impossible.' We know this stuff, we know this message but it's hard to apply. Why do you think that is?
The full conversation is available on the podcast.