Diversity is a struggle and a strength. That’s one of the many messages behind the Wing Luke Museum’s new exhibit, “Woven Together: Stories of Burma / Myanmar.”
The exhibit is part of a portrait series located on the museum’s second floor, highlighting tales from various Asian countries. While held in a compact space, a roughly 12-by-12-foot room, stories from Burma cover all four walls. Alongside the stories, the room is filled with color; woven tapestries hang from the ceiling, representing the different ethnic groups that are featured.
In 2008, 30 percent of refugees residing in Washington had originated from Burma and Burmese people continue to immigrate to the U.S. However the current presidential administration has decreased these numbers from 800 in 2010 to a little more than 100 in 2016. Many of these refugees had come here during the Rohingya crisis, seeking safety from ethnic persecution.
The exhibit stands for the fact that many Burmese immigrants and refugees currently reside in the Tri-Cities area, Kent and Tukwila.
Asian culture is embedded in the Pacific Northwest, Wing Luke Marketing Manager Shaun Mejia said, but little light is shone on the Burmese population that resides here.
“We wanted to highlight communities that aren’t always represented in Asian culture,” Mejia said. It’s the pan-Asian museum’s duty to display a breadth of cultures to the public, he added.
The largest country in Southeast Asia, Burma consists of 135 ethnic groups, and hosts a wide variety of languages, faiths and cultural traditions. However, with diversity came issues such as conflict between ethnic groups and civil war. This is reflected in some of the stories narrated in the exhibit.
Simon Khin immigrated from Burma to the U.S. in 1977 and has been impacted by the conflict.
“Ever since I was a kid, Burma is plagued with the civil war and different ethnic groups fighting with the central government,” Khin said. “Everywhere you go, you see this conflict. You feel this conflict.”
While the exhibit features stories from people of many different ethnic backgrounds, such as Karen and Rohingya, one thing that remains consistent is the large presence of youth.
“We wanted to push the narration of Burma and what their future holds and how they process their history,” Mejia said.
“I was born in Burma and I will always be a Burmese,” said Khup Kim, who is featured in the exhibit. “It took us six years to get here. Here we have food to eat, but in Burma, since we’re so poor, there are days we don’t eat. We didn’t always have this life. We had to work hard to get here. Our culture changed a lot in America because most Burmese people don’t exactly know their language anymore because all they know is English now.”
Other stories discuss how these young adults are bringing their heritage to academic settings, such as establishing a Burmese student association at the University of Washington and Highline College. Other examples discuss participating in community gatherings, illustrating how Burmese culture is being translated into new settings.
Christine McManigal’s work appears in the Seattle Globalist, KNKX Public Radio and The Daily of the University of Washington.
Read more in the Mar. 11-17, 2020 issue.