A one-way ticket from Myanmar to the U.S.
Now, Chu Paing is a PhD student at CU Boulder.
Growing up in Myanmar, Chu Paing remembers looking forward to school everyday because she enjoyed socializing with friends.
Paing, who is now a doctoral student in anthropology at CU Boulder, says: “No wonder now I am pursuing a career that is related to school. I just want to be in school forever!”
Paing grew up in a single-mother household with a large age gap from her elder two sisters, who were 14 years and 11 years older than her. After her sisters married and moved away from Yangon, the city they were from in Myanmar, it was just Paing and her mother.
Unexpectedly, on the evening of September 7, 2012, seven days after celebrating her 20th birthday, Paing left Yangon. Not for a nearby town, but to move to the U.S. With a one-way ticket, she did not know when she would be back.
She recalls: “I brought two suitcases and one carry-on filled with stuff my mom made sure I wouldn’t need to buy for almost a year—from needles and threads and an iron all the way to shampoo bottles and almost a year-worth of sanitary pads—all of which I later found I could buy in the US!”
“But there I was, all prepared to make this life-changing journey across the world.”
The Big Decision to Move to NYC
What led up to this big move? On a whim, Paing had applied for the Diversity Visa lottery in Myanmar, one night at an internet cafe. She told her mother and both of them did not think anything of it.
When they found out, Paing had been selected, there were mixed feelings at first. After making the decision that Paing should go to the US, her mom dug up an old phone book and found a number for an old friend owho had left for the US and was now living in New York City.
Paing says: “So, she decided that I should go to NYC, just in case I needed help with finding a job or anything else.”
“As a young teenager, all I knew about the US was big, tall buildings and fancy business people. We had no idea there were suburbs or other places outside of NYC or LA.”
It turned out that her mom’s friend was running a hostel in NYC and promised to secure a room for Paing and pick her up at the airport when she arrived.
“When I landed at the JFK airport and came through the immigration, I didn’t see my mom’s friend. I attempted to call her at one of the public phones, but kept getting error messages that this number did not exist. Finally, a janitorial staff helped me call the number. And that was when I found out that I had to put +1 before US numbers!”
Life in NYC
Initially, the transition to NYC was not too much of a culture shock. Paing recalls the weather being familiar and similar to Yangon’s in September. She acquired different jobs before going to college.
“One of my first job interviews was for a cashier position at a Vietnamese takeout place near Times Square. My then-boss, who herself was an immigrant from Vietnam, offered me a floor-cleaning position instead.”
“She claimed that I had ‘a very strong accent’ and that customers would not understand me as a cashier. What was worse was that I later found out that she took advantage of my naivety by only offering $4 per hour, half of a legal minimum wage in NYC. She told me not to discuss this with other employees.”
Paing only ended up working there for a week but it is an experience that has stayed with her.
“That encounter with linguistic discrimination—from a fellow immigrant—was the driven force behind my decision to pursue a degree in language teaching and later linguistics when I had the chance to go to college.”
Paing enrolled at LaGuardia Community College in Queens with an interest in sociocultural linguistics. She came to understand how language was important not only as a communicative tool but also how certain languages influenced perceptions about people in society.
“Why do we find the French language and British accents romantic but let’s say not Spanish, a language highly associated with Mexico in the context of the US? And why is a group of ethnic minority populations like Rohingya in my home country Myanmar being persecuted for not speaking the ‘official language’ of Myanmar? Linguistics help me reflect on those questions,” she says.
The Path to a PhD
It is at LaGuardia Community College that Paing was able to work with two professors, Daniel Kaufman and Miki Makihara, on various research projects on language documentation and language ideology. Both Kaufman and Makihara changed her life and remain a part of her family in the US.
Paing helped Professor Kaufman’s work to document immigrant languages in NYC by interviewing speakers of ethnic languages from Myanmar such as Chin and Rakhine.
With Professor Makihara, she started her own research project working with two Chinese immigrants from Myanmar in Queens to understand their perspectives about teaching their mother languages (both Mandarin and Burmese) to their American-born children. She spent a year observing the two families and spending time with them on a daily basis.
She says: “And before I knew it, I was hooked on doing ethnographic research.”
In her last year of undergrad, Makihara encouraged Paing to apply for graduate school, informing her about the City University of New York Pipeline Program that helps underrepresented students of color who are interested in academia. It is a rigorous year-long program that provides financial assistance and other academic preparation for the grad school environment.
“I got accepted into the program, which was the main reason why I was able to apply for PhD programs,” Paing says.
“After being accepted into four programs, I chose CU Boulder because of the Linguistics program’s interdisciplinary compatibilities with other departments such as Anthropology, Geography, Religious Studies, and the Tibet-Himalaya Initiative program.”
Paing’s move to Boulder from NYC was a drastic social change with much more of a cultural shock.
“There are very few people who resemble me. Aside from weekly chats with my mom, now I have to travel almost two hours to Aurora to speak my mother tongue.”
Luckily, she found an oasis with a group of like-minded people at the Graduate Students of Color Collective (GSCC) at CU Boulder. She is now also a part of the group Radical Black, Interracial, and People of Color Womxn with other brave women and femme-identified folx.
“I cherish these two spaces in Boulder for which they replenish my soul when the academia dries it out.”
Through GSCC, Paing also met her now-fiance, Juan Garcia Oyervides, a fellow graduate student (now a PhD graduate) in Spanish and Portuguese.
Paing became a naturalized citizen in January of this year. Now as the global pandemic hits all parts of the world, travel restrictions prohibit Paing from visiting Myanmar. She reflects on missing the rain and looks forward to returning to Yangon next summer to begin her doctoral fieldwork on urban visual culture.
“I was born in the middle of a monsoon season in August, so I have a certain kind of affinity towards the rain. Rain always brought a sense of calmness and coziness to the otherwise hot, humid, and bustling Yangon,” she recalls of her hometown.
To connect with Chu, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.