Navigating Three Cultures: A refugee’s story

Navigating culture has been a lifelong journey for Hthamay Paw (pronounced Ther-may Paw). From the time her family arrived in the United States from Thailand as Burmese refugees until today, she works to ensure that her family navigates and stays connected to all three of their cultures - Burmese, her father’s; Karen (pronounced Kah-ri՛n), her mother’s; and American, her younger siblings’.

When Hthamay was younger, her parents allowed her to be immersed in American culture, knowing that they needed her to understand it fully in order to ultimately help them through the transition.

She shifted roles from child/student to parent midway through high school when her younger siblings were struggling, and her parents were unable to navigate the parent-school connection. Her focus became writing notes to teachers, reviewing homework, addressing disciplinary needs and translating as best she could.

She did this all on her own. There is no guidebook and the American adults in her life did not understand the deeply seated Asian cultural norm that family comes first and that the eldest child moves into the caretaking role when needed. Thus, balancing her own studies, her parenting duties, bringing her parents into the fold and her siblings into their culture of origin placed enormous stress on Hthamay and caused her own mental health struggles.

Now a college graduate, Hthamay continues to create a childhood for her siblings and an environment for her parents that allows the family to be part of their American culture while also remembering and celebrating their origins.