What does it mean to be Karen?: Student shares her experience as member of ethnic group

I am proud to be Karen (pronounced “kuh-REN”).

My family is from Burma, also known as Myanmar, a country in southeast Asia. The Karen people are just one of many ethnic groups in the country. And since the early 2000s, more than 12,000 Karen have settled in St. Paul.

St. Paul is home to one of 
the largest Karen communities
 in Minnesota, according to the Karen Organization of Minnesota. Many of us believe that life here in Minnesota is better because of the opportunities in education and jobs, and because of that, the Karen people are here to stay. But, there’s still a lot of people who don’t know who we are and why we’re here. I’m here to share more about my people and heritage.

After thousands of years in Burma, the Karen were forced out starting in the 1960s. Many, like
 my family, escaped to Thailand, where we lived for about nine years. It’s the first home I remember.
 Our house was made of wood and bamboo with a straw roof. It was located at the top of the hill. Next to our house was a garden where we grew lemons, pineapples, ginger and sugar cane. I had a lot of fun in the refugee camp with my friends. We ate rice, vegetables and fish with chilies. We Karen people don’t typically eat breakfast.

In 2009, when I was 9, my family moved to the United States. We first landed in Texas, then we moved closer to my grandmother in Indiana. We didn’t like that state either. My mom heard that there were more Karen people settled in Minnesota, so we moved here.

I started school in the Roseville Area School District. My classmates were mostly white. And I didn’t understand what they were saying nor what my teacher was saying. I was frustrated.
 Karen people speak Karen. It’s my first language and it connects me with my parents and grandparents. I learned how to read and write in the Thai refugee camps, but without a lot of practice, I forgot most of it.

“You’re Karen and forgot your language?” yells my mom when I try to read the Bible at night before bed. Eight years later, I’m realizing how important it is for me to read and write Karen. I’m trying to reteach myself, and going to church helps. It is important for me to learn to read, write and speak Karen because I want to pass it down to my children, so they can learn their history and heritage. That way they don’t forget where they came from. I don’t want my children to learn only about the American culture, 
I want them to learn about their Karen culture, too.

In Karen traditional culture, women’s roles are to cook, clean, look after the family and do the laundry. The men’s roles are to go make money.

But it’s changing. The roles of men and women are blending. In America, Karen women are also going to school and becoming professionals, such as interpreters, teachers and lawyers. Karen men know how to cook, clean, take care of children and do laundry. My uncle is even the main caretaker for his children while his wife works.

Family is our number one priority. A family is your support system. And most Karen families I know stay close to each other.

We are also punctual. Even our church youth leader told the congregation that Americans respect us because Karen people are known to be on time.

The most important holiday for the Karen people is Christmas, celebrated on the same day as Americans. Many Karen have adopted the Christian religion. My family and I look forward to Christmas every year. Last year, I practiced a play about Jesus’ birth for one month. We performed it during a church service for more than 100 people from various local churches.

Some people may think Karen people are poor, uneducated and don’t care to get to know others. But we are more than that. We are a people who are proud of our culture and language and try to preserve it. We are here because we were kicked out of our country after a war and want what everyone else wants—an education and a good job.

I also want to make a difference in my community. I dream of being a teacher one day. I dream of working with students from all backgrounds so they can see life from a Karen woman’s perspective. The more we know about each other, the more we are aware of each other’s history, struggles and achievements.