Perhaps he was always destined to be a teacher, but for Kyaw T. Soe, teaching English to Burmese children in Fort Wayne was perhaps not the future he imagined growing up in Yangon, Burma. A student during the 1988 uprising, Soe was forced to flee his native land, spending time in Thailand before making his way to Fort Wayne. Now he helps other Burmese make the transition to living in a land of snow and fast food. Find out how he does it as we play 20 Questions.
The great Burmese democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi praised your work. How did that feel?
It’s great to be recognized. I couldn’t have done it without my family and the support from the community. I feel connected.
Tell us about your life before you came to Fort Wayne.
In Burma I was a (1988) generation (People Power Uprising) student leader fighting for democracy and human rights for the Burmese people, and after I fled Burma, I was a man with no country.
Why is education important to you?
One day when I was younger, my dad showed me how students from all over Burma made great efforts to attend school in my town (Yangon). He said it would be shameful if we (my siblings & I) who lived two blocks from the Rangoon University couldn’t make it to the university. From my own experiences, I see education as a very necessary tool in rebuilding Burma and sustaining a democratic society.
Describe your concept of assimilation.
To me assimilation is respecting others’ cultures and customs and beliefs — and being able to stay peacefully and understand each other.
What are your dreams for Burma?
It is for Burma to once again be a prosperous and peaceful place where people can enjoy their lives and have the opportunity to meet their full potential.
Would you ever return for good?
America is my home, and Burma is my motherland … I’m a man of two nations. I’ll definitely return to Burma, but “for good,” that’s just hard to say. All my children were born here. America is their home. I cannot go anywhere without my family. At this point, it’s not just up to me; it’s also up to them, too.
Describe your transition to America.
My early years were not easy. The language was the hardest thing for me to learn, and as of now, I’m still trying to learn more. I have had a lot of help from strangers — the Americans who later became my friends. I worked so much: factories, local schools, agencies, etc. I always held two or three jobs at a time, and on the top of that, I was a part-time student at IPFW. But it was all worth working for because now my children are happy and that makes me happy.
What was the worst thing you experienced moving here?
Driving in winter time. I was driving from work in Kendallville to Fort Wayne, it started snowing (something you wouldn’t see in Burma) and the road became very slippery, and then a man drove right past me at a very fast speed and then spun right in front of my car. I tried to avoid hitting him and found myself in a ditch.
If you could say one thing to the Burmese military, what would it be?
It’s time to move forward.
What are three things that surprised you about America?
Immigrants: America has given the opportunity to people all over the world to be a part of the world’s greatest democracy. Foods: the variety of food; Mexican, Chinese, Italian, Japanese, Indian, Korean, Vietnamese, Thai, etc. It’s truly a diverse society that connects through celebration of food cultures. Time zones: Burma is the size of Texas. There is no such thing as daylight savings.
What is your advice for new immigrants?
Be prepared. Learn how to speak the language, and brush up on vocational skills before coming to the U.S. Be ready for any difficulties and challenges that you will come to face.
Why did you decide to come here?
My colleague and old friend who was the first 1988 Burmese student to resettle in Fort Wayne had offered me a sponsorship. I actually received offers and visas to resettle in England and Canada as well.
What was the final straw for you that made you decide to come to America?
The dictatorial military regime’s soldiers were looking for me in hopes of arresting me. I had to flee. At the time I didn’t really know where to go. I fled to Thailand, and when it was time to leave I didn’t favor a country over another. I chose America because my old friend sponsored me, and since then America has been my home.
What is your favorite American food?
The Whopper. The Whopper is particularly special for me because my wife Ann used to work at a Burger King in Thailand and I would go and get a Whopper when I went to visit her.
What is your favorite place inFort Wayne?
My garden in my backyard. I grow plants there every year and tend to them almost every day during the summer because it reminds me of home and how I used to take care and love my garden growing up as a kid.
Have you had problems with more recent immigrants seeing you become Americanized?
At home, I keep Burmese/Thai traditions and manners (my wife is a native of Thailand). The kids understand both cultures. Outside the house, I believe “when in Rome act as the Romans do.”
What could people here do to make the immigrant experience better?
Remember the three B’s: be sensitive, be patient and be a good listener. Try your best to understand what they say.
Why can’t people be peaceful?
As long as there is greed, desire, ignorance, delusion, hatred and destructive urges, people cannot be peaceful.
Who has had the biggest influence on your life and in what way?
The biggest and greatest influence on my life is my loving wife Ann. Without her support, I wouldn’t be able to give back and make a difference.
What surprises you?
I’m surprised that I’m here living in America, thousands of miles from where I was born and once called home. I’m surprised that I have three beautiful healthy children growing stronger every day. I’m surprised that I made it in America.