Ithaca student, refugee from Burma, adjusts to different norms for women

Mar 15, 2017

When refugees resettle in a new country, they often deal with tension between new cultural values and traditional ones. For Joh June See Na, grappling with these values is overwhelming, including the differences in how women are expected to interact with men.

Taylor Swift and "woman power"

At her apartment in Ithaca, posters of Southeast Asian women wearing dresses in fuchsia and turquoise hang on most of the walls. June See, as she's called, lives there with her mom, who sews dresses like these for other ethnically Karen women.

Joh June See Na stands in front of the apartment she lives in with her mom. They moved to Ithaca from a refugee camp in Thailand, where they fled to when the Burmese military started burning down villages.
Credit Monica Sandreczki / WSKG News

Her mom does not talk very much nor does she look you in the eye. That's because, said June See, looking someone in the eye is considered rude in Burma. Yet while giving that explanation, June See looks you straight in the eye.

Instead of sewing, June See studies -- a lot -- for her nursing program at TC3 Community College. For fun, she takes photos and listens to music. Taylor Swift is in her Top 10.

“Every song that she has, pretty much, represents some kind of woman power, and I like it,” said June See.

Cultural norms, old and new

Feeling empowered did not happen quickly, she said. June See and her sister struggled in Burma and Thailand. For one, domestic abuse was a big issue in the refugee camps. Plus, she doesn't appreciate what was considered attractive in women: keeping a nice home and keeping quiet.

And talking with boys could hurt your reputation.

“Every time I talk like that, I was treated like I’m a kind of [a] slut," said June See. "A woman hates being seen like that, so they try to avoid it as much as possible."

That expectation followed her to Ithaca. She moved there in 2009 with her mom, sister and stepfather. Her stepfather got in trouble with the law and ended up in jail. After that, she started to feel a new sense of freedom.

She started dating a guy who lived in Canada, and went up to visit him. People in the Burmese and Karen communities in town, she said, didn’t think it was appropriate.

“When people would talk about me, and I heard it, I would cry. It’s like pain, unbearable pain," said June See. "After maybe five or six years, I got used to it.”

"When you overcome it, life gets easier"

Even though it was hard, she could deal with the different expectations more easily, in part, because intimate relationships are more accepted in American culture.

“I don’t like, ‘women need to be [a] virgin. Women need to feel ashamed.’ I don’t like those kinds of negative thoughts in my head,” said June See.

As she talked, her mom called to her from the sewing room, and June See responded to her.

"She just doesn’t like me [talking] about my personal life. But I’m fine with it," said June See. "It's part of my culture, not to talk to much about personal [things], but I don't care."

This kind of culture clash is common, according to Sue Chaffee, Director of Immigrant Services at Catholic Charities Tompkins/Tioga.

Sue Chaffee, Director of Immigrant Services at Catholic Charities Tompkins/Tioga in her office in Ithaca.
Credit Monica Sandreczki / WSKG News

It’s part of women figuring out their own identity, she said, combined with taking ESL classes, working and watching American television.

“She’s not going to put up with cheating in her relationship because of something she saw in a Lifetime Movie, which sounds a little sweet and naive," Chafee said. "But it’s also a way that’s making her feel empowered."
 
June See does want to have a family one day, but wants to do it on her terms.

“I like to push myself to the point where I overcome it. And when you overcome it, life gets easier,” said June See.

When you push yourself, she said, you get stronger and don’t feel the criticism anymore.