Burmese Americans in Dallas find solace and community in food as conflict continues in Myanmar


When I first visited May Naing Joe’s Garland House, known as The Burmese mom for his 32,000 Instagram followers, his first order of business was to feed me not one, but two bowls of Burmese noodles so that I “wouldn’t go hungry” during the interview.

Joe is from Myanmar, who currently suffers from “The longest civil war in the world. “For her and the approximately 7,000 Burmese Americans who live in Dallas-Fort Worth, the continuation of the conflict causes distress as they await international intervention or a successful resistance movement to save the democracy of their homeland and, often, the remaining members of their families.

To remember the lands they fled and raise awareness of Myanmar’s political crisis in their new home, many like Joe turn to food.

May Naing holds a plate of Nan Gyi Thoke, a popular dry noodle dish in Myanmar, at her home in Garland.(Shelby Tauber / Special Contributor)

In Joe’s house, I make my way through bowls of ohn no khao swè, a spicier and far more exciting version of chicken noodle soup, and nan gyi thoke, a chicken curry made with the spongiest, most comforting noodles I can remember ever having eaten.

Joe tells me about communicating with his mother through Facebook Messenger during times when the country’s internet service is on. The woman who saved up for Joe’s schooling and the bribe to get her passport while working at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees is now sitting in a small dark room of her house in Myanmar, counting on deliveries clandestine for food and basic necessities, while maintaining the faith that this will be the final revolution of the country.

In the eight months following the coup in Myanmar in February, The New York Times reports that the army-installed government injured thousands and killed at least 600 Burmese citizens, many of whom were protesters. The number of civilians killed, however, is probably closer to the Associated Press estimate at 1,100.

Joe compared the Myanmar uprising to the US Capitol riot, saying, “Imagine if what happened on January 6 was successful – it’s happening in my country right now, only worse. . They [the armed forces of Myanmar] kill everyone… all ethnic groups, all those who disagree with them.

Protests erupted, including the Civil disobedience movement, designed to stop the military’s business interests and the day-to-day functions of society. About three-quarters of a million public servants in the country – including healthcare workers, educators, electricians, bankers and even garbage collectors – refuse to go to work.

“The younger generation gets a taste of democracy now, and they never want to go back,” says Joe, adding that many young people are currently training in the jungle for guerrilla-type attacks on the army.

Joe, now 40, left Myanmar in 2000, arrived in the United States in 2001 to study at university, and now works as a clinical laboratory scientist at a hospital in Dallas. But “old wounds have resurfaced,” she says. In Burma 1988 Uprising, when Joe was 7 years old, she received tear gas on leaving school and then saw students killed by soldiers. Joe’s cousin and childhood friend, Dr Mie Mie Thet Twin, was head of the computer science department at a university in Yangon. She joined the disobedience movement and died this summer after contracting COVID-19 in a prison dedicated to questioning strikers.

“We have been busy fleeing Burma, but the survivor’s guilt hurts a lot. I am here in my comfortable home while they die there in the worst possible way, ”says Joe. “My heart hurts even more because I ran away, and many Burmese have never had the chance to taste this freedom, or know what free people should be like.”

To console himself, Joe cooks the dishes his mother taught him to cook while growing up. She shares them with her family, using it as a link to tell her three children about what’s going on in Myanmar. Before the pandemic, she sold her labor-intensive dishes in quarterly pop-ups in Deep Ellum, not for the money, but as a way to introduce people to her culture through the food.

“I never forget Burma, so I have to keep cooking,” she says. “Food is in my fondest memories of Burmese and Burmese culture.”

Khao Soi is a Southeast Asian coconut curry soup with noodles.  It's one of the dishes that May Naing Joe, also known as Burmese Mum, cooks at her home in Garland.
Khao Soi is a Southeast Asian coconut curry soup with noodles. It’s one of the dishes that May Naing Joe, also known as Burmese Mum, cooks at her home in Garland.(Shelby Tauber / Special Contributor)

When I told Joe that I was planning to visit Burmese kitchen marquetry in Lewisville to try lahpet thoke, a popular fermented tea leaf salad, she insisted on coming with me, eager to continue teaching me about Myanmar. Speaking Burmese, she placed an order with co-owner Titus Mahkaw, who left Myanmar as an asylum in 2000.

Like Joe, Mahkaw’s mother remains in Myanmar. The feeling of not being able to get her out is terrible, he says.

Mahkaw opened the restaurant with his wife, Seng, in 2019 “to introduce Burmese culture to the world,” he says. “We don’t just depend on the Burmese people here. “

In addition to the deliciously crispy tea leaf salad with an array of seeds, nuts and dried garlic, Joe also orders the whole fish wrapped in a banana leaf, a dish that comes from Kachin state in Myanmar. , where the Mahkaws and his grandmother come from. The herbed steamed fish was his grandmother’s favorite dish, and Joe explains in detail how she would prepare hers differently – with more peanuts and the boneless, chopped fish. She still savored every bite, showing me how to slice it to avoid the bones, how to eat it with a fork and a spoon, while remembering her grandmother.

When May Naing isn't doing her shifts as a clinical laboratory scientist at Parkland Hospital, she enjoys cooking all kinds of food for her family, friends, and social media followers.
When May Naing isn’t doing her shifts as a clinical laboratory scientist at Parkland Hospital, she enjoys cooking all kinds of food for her family, friends, and social media followers. (Shelby Tauber / Special Contributor)

One of the positive outcomes of the recent war that Joe and Mahkaw both agree on is that it brought Myanmar’s 135 different ethnic groups to unite around a common peaceful cause, both in Myanmar and the United States.

Displayed on the window outside Inlay Burmese Kitchen is a flyer announcing a fundraising event for the Myanmar ethnic community DFW. The group has organized several events, using the food as a means to raise awareness of the situation in Myanmar and its impact on the Burmese community currently living in D-FW, where the second largest population in the United States resides.

One of the group’s founders, Khin Gerard, says food and politics have always been linked in Myanmar, where it is customary to meet in teahouses and discuss politics. “We couldn’t talk about MTV because the government had censored it,” she laughs. “It’s in our blood.

At previous events, Gerard has said food has been a “major icebreaker” in bringing Burmese Americans from different tribes and regions to come together and discuss solutions.

“Food brings people together and opens a conversation: How can we help for the future? It will be long, we know, and then we will have to repair it, ”said Gérard.

Residents prepare food for sale at a Kachin State Community Fair and Fundraiser at DFW Kachin Baptist Church on Sunday, July 25, 2021 in Grand Prairie, Texas.


About James Almanza

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