(Note: The picture I used is not an actual picture of me and Tina. It’s just found in my files and I thought it’s a good general symbol about friendship.)
In my memory as a kid, Myanmar seemed close and distant at the same time. During the Kuala Lumpur Commonwealth Games in 1998, my dad were saying things like boycott, only to realize they were boycotting Myanmar, but I was a 10 year old that didn’t pay too much attention. Then, not sure when, but I was drawn to the struggles of Aung San Suu Kyi, and would read her up whenever possible.
My tiny little mind couldn’t fathom the ugliness of it all. I just thought of Myanmar as “just that other country”. Just that neighbour, just that part of Southeast Asia. I couldn’t understand terms like “military junta”, I just know that Aung San Suu Kyi was house arrested for non-violent protests.
It wasn’t until I was 19 that I have this unforgettable experience of meeting, and befriending a Burmese, that I would cherish everything she said for the next few years to come.
It was not the longest friendship I’ve had, but it was one of the most memorable, for the things she told me still remains with me all this while.
During a three month semester break from university, I found this position as a sticker label maker, which allows children to pick the sticker of their choice, and they write their name, we type it in, and out the printer goes in printing their names on tiny little stickers! It wasn’t hard work, and the employer was nice enough to pay me a fair amount of wage.
My partner was a Burmese girl named Tina. She was tall, skinny, Chinese-looking actually. We were so shy around each other when we first met, due to the language barriers. With her limited English she tried teaching me the mechanisms and how to work the machine and computer. I tried to talk to her with as simple English as possible.
Tina explained to me that she got this job through the same employer, who helped applied for her working visa, volunteered to pay her accommodation and food. She stayed with a few other Burmese who’re working at the same few stalls, as they appear in different shopping malls.
As we got closer, we talked about where we come from, and what our lives are like. She explained that she’s a Chin, after much difficulty, because I couldn’t fathom that different ethnicities existed in her country. The only other country that has multiple ethnicities, besides Malaysia, was Singapore.
“Nooo,” she said, smiling, “We have Chin, and KaChin, and many many more!”. That was my first lesson into the sociological aspects of Southeast Asia I guess.
She explained that she stayed somewhere in the Northeast of Myanmar (of course, that was my memory, I checked, and the Chin State is in the Northwest) and she said there are many people there who looked like her.
One time, we were talking about education, and I was telling her about my degree in Journalism. She excitedly took her degree out. I couldn’t read Burmese, but in some of the English words I could tell that she holds a degree that majored in Chemistry.
“So you were skilled Chemistry, and Science?!” I said, in awe, since I wasn’t a bright Science student, “But, what are you doing here? Why are you selling stickers here?”
She gave an awkward smile, and said “Your government don’t recognize Burma certificate. If I work in Burma, I will only become teacher, no bright future,”
But she immediately brushed it off, saying “If I work here, two years! Maybe I earn enough to bring my parents here!” she smiled so widely.
I felt horrified and sad inside. Education felt like a precious thing for me. Can you imagine giving up four years worth of education only to have it unrecognizable somewhere else, and only do labour work?
But, she said, to be fair, the employer provided her with enough money, and a place to stay. She said she even got time off to go to church to pray at the church in Lot 10. She just started smiling again, so I dropped the subject.
However, my short stint with the sticker work ended when I couldn’t agree with the new requirements by the employer, and I never get to say a proper goodbye.
After I returned to the university, we started our new degree course life with an introduction to Political Science.
The lecturer began the subject by talking about the usefulness of knowing political situations, and he began by mentioning how ignorant we are as university students, when we don’t know what’s happening with Burma, the military junta, the refugee situation in Malaysia, and the ethnic cleansing the military is allegedly doing. He mentioned the Christians, the Chins and KaChins, and the refugees that were hidden in the underbelly of Kuala Lumpur and that church at Lot 10 where we would find them.
My heart froze and my head was throbbing. Chins, running away? Christians being purged? Lot 10? I feel like I want to turn back time and ask Tina about all this.
Why didn’t she tell me?? Why didn’t I know? And all I could do was nod my head in class, because I seem like the only person who knew the existence of these people, unknowingly, through Tina.
I felt like a jerk that day, for not knowing, for not asking when I had the chance.
Sometimes I thought of Tina, wondering where she is. I hope she’s okay. I hope, that she wasn’t a refugee, and that all the ugly things that happened did not happen to her family
Funny thing is, when I went to a debate and media camp in Chiang Mai. I met up with another girl. She had a beautiful Burmese name.
But to protect her identity, she also fashioned herself with the name “Tina”.
I felt a sense of closeness hearing that name.