John was born in Myitkyina which means “near the big river” in Burmese. The city of 150,000 people sits on the west bank of the Ayeyarwady River in Myanmar (Burma). John’s homeland, part of the British Raj, gained independence in 1948. This former colony found itself bereft of homegrown, stabilizing institutions.
Sectarian violence erupted, triggering a 60-year civil war. A 1962 military coup resulted in a junta that finally ended when Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy won national elections in 2015. Today, Myanmar is deemed a “partial democracy.”
John, a member of the Christian Kachin minority, faced limited career prospects in the Burmese-majority society. He was in his second year of law school at Myitkyina University when his studies were interrupted by civil strife.
“We had no human rights,” John said. “We lost everything as human beings. We had no freedom of expression and no good jobs.”
John travelled to Malaysia, leaving his mother and sister behind. He worked to support himself while petitioning the United Nations Refugee Agency for recognition. He arrived in the United States in 2014, with two suitcases. A treasured item he brought is a traditional, bell-shaped, cross-body bag, accented with silver ornamentation. John spoke Kachin, Burmese and very little English.
“I came to the U.S., the land of freedom,” John said. “I came here and I feel very safe. I do not have high expectations to get a higher living standard for myself. The reason I am trying to do what I can is for my children. My ambition is for my children to be anything they want to be.”
John works many hours. He owns a small sushi business that he operates at Middlebury College. He receives free tutoring services from Vermont Adult Learning’s Addison County Learning Center in his quest to improve his English. He works with a volunteer named Andrew.
“Andrew is a very good tutor,” John said. “Because of COVID-19, we meet online or outside and take a walk on a trail when the weather is good. Andrew is a quiet and kind person. He understands me. Every time we have a class, he asks me how I feel and what my current situation is. If I have a problem, Andrew helps me and then we learn.”
John’s English is impressive. He points out that he is a very careful listener. This is how he learns. His listens to how phrases are constructed and notes new words, concepts and ideas. With Andrew’s help, John recently passed the rigorous U.S. Citizenship Test.
“John is a very hard worker,” Andrew said. “This applies not only to his business but to his language learning. John operates his business as the sole employee. He works extremely long hours, uncomplainingly. He puts a lot of effort into reading and is very diligent about vocabulary. I most admire his work ethic and how determined he is to give his son a better life.”
John lives with his wife, a fellow Kachin, whom he met in Malaysia. Their son is almost two years old.
“I would like to say I’m so grateful and thankful to be here in Vermont,” John said. “I arrived in Washington State and lived in New York, Florida and Pennsylvania. Middlebury is a quiet place and very convenient. I’m surrounded by very nice people and I feel safe.”