What does it mean when somebody puts up a “Not Welcome” sign? You do not get to see this sign every day. Most places that do have signs about welcoming simply say “Welcome”. Sometimes they have a nice greeting to go with it.
Being an outlier is something I am used to. I am someone living as a diaspora. I do not know if there is an actual name for my kind of people. I suppose the word “diaspora” suffices. But as someone with such an experience, this one word doesn’t really describe in full what it means to be someone of “diaspora”. Sometimes I align myself with others who can call themselves “Third Culture Kids” or TCK. However, I do not know if I am a true TCK by definition. Here is my story below.
I was born in Burma, now known as Myanmar. It will always be Burma in my heart but these days I can use the name Myanmar for certain purposes. The fact that the country of my birth and cultural heritage has its own identity crisis with the two names is a clue to what I have come from. The story to that is better told at another time. I left Burma at about 3 years and 8 months or so with my whole family to live in Singapore. My father had a working permit there and his family were all considered dependents in Singaporean immigration legal terms. About 10 years into living in Singapore, we became permanent residents of Singapore. Prior to that, my siblings and I were on student visas once we started school, and I assumed my mother might have had her own working permit once she started work as well. We were “visitors” to Singapore for 10 years before being considered as residents.
I remember that my parents tried to emigrate to other countries even prior to us obtaining our permanent residency status in Singapore. They explored United Kingdom, Australia and the United States of America. I had vague memories of myself telling my classmates I’ll be moving to either one of those countries when I was still in primary school. But it never happened. Then, my uncle and his whole family from Burma immigrated to Canada. At the same time, my brother needed to go to college somewhere. So he ended up in Canada. With family already there, my parents applied for immigration to Canada and within 6 months, we were approved to become permanent residents of Canada. That was when I was 16 years old.
My mother had gone to Canada for a year when my brother first moved there prior to us applying for Canadian immigration. I still remember my mother bringing back the “Culture Shock!” book about Canada. I read it from front to end. She even brought back shopping flyers so we would know what sort of fashion and supplies were available in Canada. I remember the immigration interview and health check. I had to take a Chest X-ray at the laboratory where the technician taught me how to take my bra off without having to take the shirt off. I remember the packing up for such a big move, saying good-byes to friends, families and communities I grew up with, and the excitement of a world I only get to watch on TV. I remember the first few months of the cold weather, the empty streets, the crowded apartment, and trying to find a part-time job to kill time before school started. I also remember the nostalgia, the loss and emptiness when realization hit about how my whole life I’ve known and the people who I’ve counted upon were left behind.
We worked hard in Canada. We had our challenges. My father didn’t join us to live in Canada because it didn’t make any financial sense for him to move along with us. He had a high teaching position in his school in Singapore with a good salary. He was in his 50s and to start a new career as an Asian man in the higher education or industry sector in Canada was not going to be easy. This left my mother to be technically a single mother for the next 5 years of her life in Canada, where there was no community or family support. My siblings and I were in prime of our adolescence and assimilating to a whole new culture vastly different from the one we grew up with. The cultural and generation gap widened exponentially. It wasn’t happy times for me in Canada. So when my brother graduated college after our 4 years into living in Canada, I decided to join him to move to California, United States of America to live a better life. A better life for him was job opportunities, particularly in his subject area of engineering and computer sciences. For me, a better life was a life around my own community and culture. San Francisco had a large Burmese American community. We just became naturalized as Canadian citizens 2 months before we were to move to the United States of America. Our Canadian citizenship made it easier to enter the United States of America. I went in on a student visa initially, while my brother went in simply as a visiting Canadian but obtained a work visa when he finally got a job. I remember it took him a while.
I found home in San Francisco Bay Area. I lived under several different types of visa – student visa as I transferred and finished off my Bachelor’s degree program, F-1 OPT permit as student and post-baccalaureate practical training, NAFTA based TN visa, then back to student visa when I attended my Masters degree program, and again another F-1 OPT permit as student practical training, then finally H1-B work visa. While working under the professional occupation H1-B visa, I got married. So I applied for permanent residency status. By this time I was 9 years into living under various visa statuses in the United States of America. I even had to “stay shaung tae” as my fellow Burmese would say it, which is to temporarily move to other countries to try to reapply for a different visa category. Usually I would return to Canada in between student and work visa statuses. However, I did a one year working stint in Singapore (where I still had my permanent residency status at that time) because I had to “stay shaung tae” upon the termination of F-1 OPT permit with no other option available for me and I was not ready to go back to graduate school. I had suggested marriage with my then boyfriend of 3 years so that I could apply for permanent residency through marriage to a citizen but he wasn’t ready for marriage. With no other choice, and with my relationship having some issues, I decided to return to where I came from.
I had no intention of becoming an American citizen. I was okay being a permanent resident. I had been one a couple of times before in Singapore and Canada. Although I gained Canadian citizenship, I left before I could fully use the benefits and privileges of citizenship. I was basically without sense of citizenry for 32 years of my life. I was a citizen of Burma up until just before I met my husband. I held on to the Burmese passport until I was 25. But I never truly did experience Burmese citizenry. I was too young at barely age 4 when I left Burma to know anything about being a citizen. Though I was a Burmese citizen in the other countries I’ve lived in, I never experienced the privilege of Burmese citizenship. In fact, it was more like a burden and a curse to be a Burmese passport holder when living, traveling, and renewing travel documents. When I recited the allegiance to Canada during the citizenship ceremony, it was truly exciting and welcoming to finally have found a country to be called a citizen of, and be proud to hold a passport associated with the country. But I never did engage in citizen duty nor will I ever get to reap the benefits of citizenship in Canada. I do not foresee moving back to Canada in my future, even though I still hold the Canadian passport.
I wasn’t expecting to naturalize as a citizen of the United States of America. I was happy and proud to be a Canadian, even if only in name. However, as I had children, and they came to grow up in a society, I become very much aware how it takes a village to raise children, and I want to be able to have a say what kind of village I want my children to be raised in. I am concerned about their safety, their education, their rights and futures. The only way I could have a say in shaping these things in the society we live in would be to become a citizen and gain the right to vote. So I applied for American citizenship 5 years ago. When I attended the citizenship ceremony and I swore my allegiance to the United States of America, I truly believed in the American Dream. U.S.A. had been the first place I voluntarily moved to and settled in. All the other places I have lived in Burma, Singapore and Canada had been chosen for me, not by me. Though I wasn’t so sure of the American culture and politics as a whole to call it my own, I was attached to and felt part of the Californian and Bay Area society. Yes, I have always felt myself first and foremost as a Burmese woman. But my life is American now, and I took on the American citizenship and this is home now.
These past few years, as my children grow up as bi-racial, I begin to reflect upon how much of my Burmese heritage I would like to pass on down to them. Because my identity is so intricately linked to my culture, I couldn’t be a mother to them, be a person to my children, without sharing this important part of who I am. Moreover, my family has a strong legacy and cultural history. As the next generation, it is their inheritance to know about this legacy and family history. I am still in exploration and formation of this identity of mine as I return to my Burmese roots after having given up my Burmese citizenship and taken on the American citizenship. I cannot fully call myself Burmese American. Even the hyphenated version will not do. I am Burmese. I hesitate to call out that I am American, but practically and technically, I am American too. Neither one comes first before the other. My cultural lives run parallel.
This is my story as a person of Burmese diaspora. I have not even covered the other side of it, which is how I am seen by the people from my culture of origin. This is more from the perspective of the immigrant. TCKs move around frequently from country to country due to their parents’ work and never form lasting attachment or complete identities to any one of those cultures they’ve lived in. I did move from one country to another, but I have had opportunities to form attachments and identities during those periods I lived in those countries because each stay had been quite an extended period, leading to some sort of residency status within those countries. Though my emotional and psychological experiences align closely with TCKs, I am not a true TCK. I am not Burmese American nor Burmese-American. I do not even know I can comfortably add the American part despite being an American citizen. I also have no place to add the Singaporean and Canadian experiences, though those experiences, as this point, appear to fade away as background in my identity formation. But we all need background because without it we have no context. Background is important too.
I understand I am an “alien”. I am an outlier. I know I do not fully belong. I am of Diaspora. But to have a “Not Welcome” sign up when I am struggling to build my home in a place I do not fully belong makes it all the more alienating. In the context of my life, where all my immediate family members – my children and husband, are all American citizens by birth and have never lived outside of the United States of America in their entire lives, finding my home with them in the context of belonging is very significant. It is the context too where I am fully aware the other family that I have, the one of my origin, are all “aliens” or of Diaspora in relation to the United States of America. Then there are extended families, and friends and communities of childhood I was once soaked in and with some I am still tied to, who are complete strangers to the United States of America. I am here and there, but also neither here nor there. I know, I am not of here. I am here but not of here, and I never will be of here, because I never grew up here. I can be in here. I can be here, but I am never of here. This is always in my conscious experience. I do not need a “Not Welcome” sign to remind me this. I certainly do not need a “Not Welcome” sign to tell me to go away. Why would I go away? I made home here. I may not be of here, but my home is here. My family is of here. I belong to my family and they to me. I am welcome in my family. Yet this “Not Welcome” hangs high above my head and these days, in my face as well.
What is this “Not Welcome” sign? My immigration story is rather long, as you have read in the summary of it in previous paragraphs. I wouldn’t go into the details of my immigrant experiences where I have been left feeling unwanted in this country. I have had an experience of denial of entry into the United States of America with a related violation of privacy and denial of right to appeal. I have had my taxes deducted in excess without any refund in accordance with my immigration status. In other words, they will take my money but they won’t give me the privileges. I have had multiple times of detainment at airport immigration posts during international travels for no evident reason, and the end of it coming only after becoming married to my American husband. I have had employers refuse to continue hiring me or help me continue employment due to their reluctance to take on visa responsibilities, despite their expressed appreciation of my diligence and dedication at work. I have had survived on peanut butter and jelly sandwich or cup ramen for dinner as I stayed frugal while paying expensive non-resident tuition during my studies in the United States of America because I wasn’t allowed to work outside of school on a student visa. These and many others were the “Not Welcome” signs I was dealt with. I thought I was over with it when I became a citizen. Finally, this is my country too. Barack Obama in his congratulatory letter, the citizenship ceremony council during the speeches and presentations, and the Department Homeland Security’s stamp of approval said that I am welcomed here. Or so, I thought.
The last presidential campaign and how the ultra-nationalistic movement grew with its climax of the election of a president who was so openly racist baffles me to my very core. After 2 weeks of mourning (surprisingly, this is a clinical measure of normal bereavement period), I gathered myself together and returned to some resemblance of hope, or at least a sense of going-on-being. However, post-inauguration and the subsequent executive orders that were not just signed but were actually implemented left my mind in a shell-shock state. The huge “Not Welcome” sign in bold swung at my face. I did not know what to make of it. I still do not know. I am privileged enough as a citizen now, and not of the targeted populations to feel safe enough. However, the message is still loud and clear to me, even if not directed straight at me. Outsiders are not welcome. I will never belong.
After the many bombardments of all kinds of reactions from myself, my friends, my acquaintances, my communities, and the general public, I have to come to accept that many Americans do welcome me and people like me. So it is not I feel unwelcome with the day-to-day people in my life here. I do feel embraced by them. But when a president of a country, when a voting population and major political party that have backed up this president based on his rhetoric, and when the actions are taken with laws enacted, explicitly state that Outsiders are not welcome. This is their nation and not mine. I am left to face this “Not Welcome” sign head on. All my previous experiences of “Not Welcome” signs start to illuminate from the background into the foreground. And as a person of diaspora, someone who is neither of here nor of there, this “Not Welcome” sign is rather scary. It is rather like a vault door – heavy, hard, cold and unyielding. I am feeling quite left out in the cold. It is one thing if it I am alone in this. But I am not. My family is in this mess. The scariest part is, they are inside that vault door and I am outside of it. That is scarier than being left out in the cold alone. I cannot return to the only home I know now – with my family. I am at risk of being homeless, stateless. That is what a “Not Welcome” sign does. That is the power it holds for an immigrant like me, even one who is now a citizen.