The Karen clans, Soi Min tells me, fare the worst of all the clans in Burma. Some of Battle Creek’s refugees are Karen. Typically they have almost no education, and they’ve experienced unspeakable atrocities. Yet they’re kind, polite and hungry for education.
Having so much experience with well-adjusted Korean ESL students, I tend to approach my Burmese students with the same level of animation that Koreans have. So I’ve walked towards new Karen students ready to shake their hands and pat them on the shoulder.
But when a Karen sees you approach in this way, he has this look about him, this posture that says maybe you’d better slow down and back up a foot or two. Keep in mind most of these refugees are about five-foot tall. It doesn’t matter. You can sense that it’s best to tread lightly.
It’s like when a good, loyal, loving dog, (let’s say a Staffy-Bull since Staffies are loyal, affectionate and tough), has had to spend his life caged, starved and beaten so that he seems to despise everyone and everything.
And then he’s suddenly released into a new environment. He knows that things are different now, and yet he doesn’t know how to orient his thoughts in this new environment. Everything he knows is based on the abuse. And so you never know how he might interpret your actions or how he might respond.
It’s very sad, to meet Karen and realize how they’ve had it. But like I said, somehow they have this spirit, it seems to me intrinsic, that keeps them appearing positive, and definitely hard-working and caring; their values have not been destroyed by genocide, and they long for the American Dream.