Christine Wai and the Karen Planning Committee: Preserving Karen Culture in North Carolina
by Flicka Bateman
For almost a decade, the US Department of State has granted priority status for admission to refugees from Burma. Out of the annual quota of approximately 18,000 slots reserved for refugees from South East Asia, 17,500 have been filled each year by refugees from Burma. It is estimated that currently 700 such refugees live in Orange County and approximately 6,000 now reside in North Carolina.
These refugees began arriving in large number to the Chapel Hill-Carboro area in 2006. They include Burmans (Burmese), Chin, and Karen, the largest ethnic minority in Burma. After years of persecution in their native country and fleeing the Burmese army, thousands of Karen crossed the Burma-Thai border to enter refugee camps. Here they languished for years waiting for the situation to change in their own country. After abandoning that dream, they began waiting again—this time waiting to be resettled in another part of the world.
As the most persecuted of the ethnic groups in Burma, the Karen have always steadfastly held on to their culture. Even though their language was forbidden by the government and cultural celebrations were held in understated ways to minimize attention from Burmese soldiers, the Karen culture continued to thrive. As Karen are forced to flee and move to refugee camps where their children are born and raised with no contact to their native country, retaining their culture has become even more paramount. Finally, after being resettled from camps to the few countries in the world that accept refugees and having to adapt to Western culture in order to succeed, the Karen have become adamant that passing on their traditions is a necessity if the Karen culture is to survive.
Christine Wai has done more than any Karen person in the area to ensure that the Karen culture is not lost. She was born in a refugee camp and lived there until she was 13 when she was resettled with her family to Carrboro in 1999. The first few years she was here were spent learning English, adjusting to a very different culture, and overcoming obstacles to feeling integrated into American society. Also in those early years that Christine was here, there were very few other Karen in the area. Important Karen holidays and traditions were either not marked by celebrations or were observed in a low-key way in Karen families’ apartments.
Ask any Karen what their favorite holiday is, and universally the answer is “Karen New Year.” Ask any Karen who the brain and worker bee is behind each successful New Year celebration, and the answer is “Christine.” She is able to get Buddhist Karen, Christian Karen, Pwo Karen, and Sgaw Karen to work together to produce a festival each year that perpetuates their commonly held traditions and that unifies them as a distinct ethnic culture.
The Karen New Year celebration is held on an alternating basis in Chapel Hill-Carrboro, Raleigh, and High Point. Karen representatives from those areas serve on the Karen New Year Planning Committee, regardless of whose turn it is to host. Christine is the coordinator of that committee and is totally involved regardless of the location. She is responsible for the traditional decorations and for the program, including securing the speakers and performers of traditional Karen dances and songs. She organizes the meal, which involves the assignment of specific dishes to various families in the community to cook and bring; the set up and serving of the meal; and the clean-up. She is in charge of writing and distributing hundreds of invitations to the Karen community, a uniquely Karen custom to Americans who assume an open event needs no personal invitations. When the day-long celebration is held in Chapel Hill-Carrboro, it is Christine who goes through the bureaucratic maze of renting Carrboro Elementary School for the event.
Clearly all of this cannot be done by one person. Yet the organizing, coordinating, and overseeing of all aspects of Karen New Year falls to Christine. She is able to delegate some of the work and also relies on her Karen Htee Moo Youth Group, which she started while a senior in high school, to assist in many ways. Getting Karen people to agree on when and how Karen New Year is to be celebrated is no easy feat. She is able to accomplish this through her respectful manner in dealing with all Karen, especially those older than she, and through her credibility as someone who delivers.
Another way Christine contributes to the perpetuation of the Karen culture is through the leadership of her youth group. As a high school senior she was enrolled in two AP courses and was working two part-time jobs. Nonetheless, she found time to organize and start this group for adolescents and young adults in her church as well as for youth from the general Karen community. She continued to be its leader throughout her four years in college and is still the leader today. Her primary goal for the group is to preserve Karen culture; simultaneously she supports the young people as they try to adapt to American customs and helps them with ways to accomplish this without losing their Karen ethnic identity. Writing and sharing poetry in Karen, performing traditional music and dance, discussing the latest web-based information about news from Burma and Thailand, and speaking only in Karen and wearing traditional clothes at all meetings are typical activities of the group. For the past two years, this group has performed at the annual Community Diversity Dinner held at McDougle Middle School.
Educating the mainstream majority about the culture of a minority is an essential tool for ensuring that culture’s continuation. Christine has been teaching Karen language classes to Americans through the CHICLE Language Institute in Carrboro for the past four years. The demand for classes comes from public school teachers who work with many Karen-speaking parents and students, staff from non-profit organizations who serve Karen and other groups from Burma, and from volunteers who are involved with the Karen population through faith communities or other organizations. Part of each class session is devoted to some aspect of Karen culture; therefore, participants grow in appreciation of the culture as well as in rudimentary knowledge of the Karen language. In addition, she speaks to interested community groups who have ongoing contact with the Karen and who want to learn about their culture. Past speaking engagements have been to UNC student groups who volunteer as tutors, staffs of UNC Hospital and other facilities that provide health care services, and congregations of faith-based organizations that sponsor Karen refugees when they are first resettled.
By making sure that all Karen are able to celebrate their most significant holiday and by raising mainstream Americans’ awareness of the Karen culture and the refugee experience, Christine Wai honors her people and their struggle, and so is an outstanding person to represent Karen community traditions in North Carolina.
Flicka Batemen is Director of the Refugee Support Center in Carrboro, North Carolina.
Original publication citation:
Bateman, Flicka. “Christine Wai and the Karen Planning Committee: Preserving Karen Culture in North Carolina.” North Carolina Folklore Journal 60.1-2 (2013): 26-29.