The memories came flooding back as soon as I stepped into the school building at the Centennial Village Museum in Greeley, Colorado. Even though the small classroom was supposed to represent school life for American children in the 20th century, it was impossible to overlook the similarities between American and Burmese schoolhouses. The strict teacher, the lack of books, or the messy chalk boards all reminded me of home as a child. However, the differences between school life in Burma and America are what truly surprised me.
My school house in Burma was loud. All the children were packed into the same room and I could barely hear the lessons. The lessons were never fun anyways. There were no activities, just a constant state of memorizing and repeating. The schoolhouse was built out of trees and had a leaf roof, with only one wall. It felt so open and inviting. Schools in America felt much more closed off and unwelcoming, and I am not just talking about the walls.
The hardest decision I ever had to make was to decide to leave my home country and come to America. I often heard scary stories about life in United States. One brainwashed person told me that they eat people here. That was some scary stuff to hear, but Burma was dangerous and they were running out of jobs and food in the refugee camp. We had no other options. Many of my family and friends had to stay behind, and some of my family was assigned to different cities in the Unites States. I arrived in Aurora, Colorado with my parents and two siblings. I did not know a single person, I did not know the language, and I did not know the culture.
However, the worst part was trying to go to high school. I went to school on the first day and they handed me my schedule. When I went to school in Burma, we stayed in the same classroom for the whole day, so I never had to worry about changing classrooms before. I was so confused but I did not know how to ask for help. I wandered the school and never said a word. It was embarrassing. I sat next to other kids at school and they never talked to me either. No one tried to be friendly and I always ate lunch alone. Even though I was the only one in the whole school who would speak Burmese, and I barely knew how to say my name in English, no one tried to speak to me. Every week, I was forced to see an advisor in order to share my feelings. I wanted to tell them how sad I was and how I would cry often, but the only words I had learned how to say were “I’m fine.” Oh my God, it was such a lonely time in my life.
I lived in the same refugee camp on the border of Thailand and Cambodia for nine years while I waited for my refugee application to be approved. When you live in such close quarters with the same people for that long, you become very close with them. Everyone in my class was my friend and we did everything together. There was such a strong sense of community there and everyone shared everything they could. The country was going through a civil war. It completely unstable and dangerous, but I at least had family and friends.
I made another hard decision to go to college after high school. I decided to go to the University of Northern Colorado. I wanted to study human services so that I could help others who are struggling like I was when I first came to America. At first, I was nervous to change cities because my high school experience had been lonely and difficult. However, being in Greeley has been a better experience.
I finally found a place that I can call home. I have found friends, who I now consider my family. Greeley has become a place where I finally feel like myself again. I enjoy going to school and I am studying to become an American citizen. I look forward to getting my citizenship so that I can legally change my name to A’Klay. The name “A’Klay” is a traditional version of my Burmese name from a Buddhist tribe called the Karen. People always ask me if it has any special meaning and they expect it to mean something nice. While the name I have chosen does not translate to any particular word, I think it’s a really cool name. It has special meaning to me and I feel it is a name that completes my identity. I will be so happy when it’s changed.
There has been so much change in my life, but I feel these changes are leading me in a positive direction. It was difficult coming to America and trying to find myself here. However, I have rediscovered a sense of community that I missed so much in Burma. Greeley has become my new home and I am happy I can build a new life here.
This story originally appeared in Facing Change: Reflections on Civic Health & Social Trust, a publication of The Facing Project that was organized by the University of Northern Colorado in Greely, Colorado.