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Getting to know the neighbours from Myanmar

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The pink card was homemade and delivered to my door by the neighbour's relative -- a tween who speaks English well. It was an invitation to a birthday party for the little girl next door.

My daughter's buddy was turning two years old. My neighbours don't speak much English, but it hasn't stopped us and our babies from striking up a relationship. Our girls are only six months apart in age.

It seems there are more and more newcomers moving into our neighbourhood every day. I wonder if my ancestors felt the same curiosity.

Like the poet Robert Frost said, it doesn't hurt to get to know your neighbours. In this neighbourhood, it's even more important, since we all look out for one another.

Well, the birthday party was more than just a birthday party.

We walked into the house and were greeted by about 15 people who were sitting on the floor, chatting quietly. A few of the elders sat on two couches in the living room. An elderly woman who spoke English well told me this was also a thanksgiving celebration.

After some prayers, we would all share in a feast. Huge bowls and pots of food were laid out all along the kitchen counters.

I sat down and soon found out my neighbours aren't Korean -- but Karen, an ethnic group of Myanmar, otherwise known as Burma.

From Myanmar to the North End. Wow -- that's quite the trip to start a new life.

I already knew the family didn't have a lot of money, but I did not know what circumstances they'd come from. I dropped off a few things from my garden last year and noticed their new infill home is beautiful but sparsely decorated.

Considering the difficulties my neighbours left behind, Canada is a country of big opportunities.

One of the elders told me that there are 100 or so people who've moved to Canada from Myanmar.

I enjoyed the sermon, even though it was in another language.

The speaker's tone had a nice flow that rose and fell, like the far-away mountain ranges where he's from. Everyone sat and listened, and then we sang a few songs.

The sound of birds singing and children playing occasionally streamed inside, but it didn't break the sense of calm in the house.

When the sermon was over, the elder of the family spoke to his family.

Then, the elder woman translated into English for us and said the sermon reminded everyone to not be wasteful and remember when their families lived in camps with very little food.

She also spoke about the young men among her family, and how there is good and bad everywhere.

Sometimes, young men might be tempted by the bad ways of the environment, but not to "follow your environment" and stay true to following a good life.

The young men who showed up for the feast reminded me of my own cousins.

A few of them had tattoos peeking out of their shirts and were dressed casually in T-shirts and runners.

They are a little rough around the edges, but could do anything with their lives given some opportunities and self-confidence.

Soon we were enjoying a banquet of noodles, veggies, chicken, fish, rice, barbecued pork and muffins. I remembered not to be wasteful and to eat everything, like at the sun-dance feasts I've been to.

No matter what our differences are, it's the similar things we go through that bring us together.

A couple of people asked me if I'm from Canada, which is probably a polite way to ask about one's ethnicity. I don't mind. All my life people have asked me that, especially when I colour my hair black.

I think it has something to do with my hooded eyes.

I tell them, yes, I am from Canada.

There's lots of time to tell them I'm aboriginal and about our traditions. I will tell them our story one day, but for now it's better to get to know each other a bit more.


Colleen Simard is a Winnipeg writer.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 26, 2012 A19

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