Battle Creek's Burmese now find the tastes of home in their own backyard

There are more than 132,200 Burmese in the U.S. and about 1,800 of those live in Battle Creek. Today they are finding new ways to fit into the community, including introducing the tastes they love.
Chicago and Grand Rapids may seem like a long way to go to buy groceries, but that’s what Burmese residents in Battle Creek were doing to get teas, spices, and produce that are native to their homeland.

Those trips are no longer necessary now that three different family-owned Burmese food shops in various locations along West Columbia Avenue are stocking the once hard-to-find staples of the Burmese diet.

The shelves in each of the stores are lined with brightly-colored packages and boxes labeled in Burmese. Refrigerated cases and freezers contain whole fish like tilapia, raw lemongrass, and Asian vegetables, whole chickens and cuts of pork. There's also a hodgepodge of dishware and the occasional items of traditional Burmese clothing such as handmade wraps.

Tah Cung, owner of Lairan Asian Grocery Store at 590 W. Columbia Ave., says he makes weekly trips to Chicago to purchase items to sell in his store, which opened in November. Cung, 23, came to Battle Creek by way of Seattle and Indiana.

"I moved here in October, 2009," Cung says. "It was just my sister and me. We were part of a refugee program."

The siblings left their parents and a sister behind when they came to the United States.

"My parents wanted us to leave because of the political unrest at home," Cung said. "We were young and it was a bit of a culture shock."

While living in Indiana, Cung and his sister, Cindy, 22, took college courses. They moved to Battle Creek to be closer to family, including an uncle who was among those who loaned them money to start their store. Their store became the second one of the three shops now opened that cater to Burmese residents (and others who appreciate being able buy Asian foods and spices).

Lai Dawr Asia Food Market, owned by Shan Pwe and his wife Annie, has been open since 2006. It relocated from its original Columbia Avenue location to a larger space in the former Besco building at 2106 W. Columbia. In January Yuyusue Vendlain opened Lairawn Asian Food and Grocery at 873 W. Columbia.

Cung said Saturdays are traditionally the busiest shopping day for the area’s Burmese residents. On a recent Saturday parking spaces were at a premium at Lai Dawr and the inside of the store was filled with store employees speaking with customers and bagging groceries. Shan Pwe stood in between the checkout area and the store shelves directing both customers and employees.

The shopping scene at Lairan and Lairawn was more subdued. Cung said he was expecting business to pick up as the day went on.

If three Burmese food stores located within one mile of each other seems like a lot, it’s really not, says Martha Thawnghmung, executive director of the Burmese American Initiative in Battle Creek.

In 2010 Battle Creek was home to about 900 Burmese residents. That number has almost doubled and is continuing to grow, Thawnghmung says. Valley View Elementary School reflects this growth with 120 Burmese students out of a total of 462 enrolled at the school.

"There is a demand for Burmese food products mainly from the Burmese community, but other Asian ethnic groups such as Filipinos, Thai, Japanese and Indian also shop at those stores," Thawnghmung says. "The store owners don’t look at their success in the conventional way of how many people come into their stores."

She says she is confident that each of the stores will continue to grow, especially as word spreads beyond the Battle Creek area that they are here.

"I don’t know how big they’ll get, but I’m excited for them that they’re taking that step," Thawnghmung says. "Knowing Burmese people they’ll make anything work."

Although opening a store was not something Cung has always wanted to do, the opportunity became a lot more attractive when he and his sister realized that it would give them the flexibility to continue with their educations while also meeting a recognized need in the community. At school, Cung is focusing on information technology and business and his sister is working towards a career in finance.

"If you have a community of people who don’t have easy access to foods that are key to their diet, it can be really tough," he says.

Like many cultures, Thawnghmung says food is central to the Burmese culture. She says food is present at gatherings and important meetings.

"It’s very central to our lives," she says. "We connect through food.

"We’re not afraid to mix flavors and we eat with excitement. The Burmese flavors are much bolder and more interesting to the palate."

Thawnghmung says she was among the Burmese residents who previously shopped in Grand Rapids, which has a sizable and strong Asian community with many more food options than Battle Creek.

"It was good, but not great," she says. "Now that we have stores here that sell to Burmese people it makes us feel more a part of the community."

She says she hopes the stores will create more of an understanding between the Burmese community and the rest of the Battle Creek community.

"I think it wakes people up and makes them take notice that there are people from Burma and other parts of the world here and hopefully that translates into more curiosity," Thawnghmung says.

"Hopefully this curiosity will lead to more energy to create the vibrant community we all talk about and also more of an understanding and seeing the possibilities instead of looking at us as liabilities."

Most Burmese Americans live in metropolitan areas with large immigrant populations -- Los Angeles, San Francisco Bay Area, New York City, and Washington D.C. are the four cities with the largest numbers of Burmese.

Thawnghmung says the laid-back atmosphere in Battle Creek appeals to the Burmese who have settled here. Her family was among the first to settle here more than 30 years ago when members of the city’s First Baptist Church agreed to sponsor them.

"Battle Creek is a good community for families. It’s not very busy and it’s not a high crime area," Thawnghmung says.

The gradual upswing in the economy has created an increase in the number of jobs at various companies in Fort Custer Industrial Park. Burmese residents are finding work closer to home which is another benefit of living in Battle Creek. Thawnghmung said companies in Fort Custer are becoming a lot more receptive to hiring Burmese residents to be a part of their workforce.

"Financial stability is important to them," she says. "Being able to live closer to where they work means they get to spend more time with their families."

Even though the Burmese community is integrating itself into the larger Battle Creek community and is gaining respect for what they bring to the area, Thawnghmung says she thinks there is still work to be done.

"We still have a ways to go before the Burmese people are considered an asset to Battle Creek," she says. "I think time will reveal it. On our end we need to stand strong and we have to keep pushing forward and asserting ourselves and let people know we really are a part of this community. We will get there."

Jane C. Parikh is a freelance reporter and writer with more than 20 years of experience and also is the owner of In So Many Words based in Battle Creek. 

Photos by Susan Andress
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