Author(s): Christine Anne Scarlis
Reviewer(s): Members of the Seattle-area Chin community
Date Authored: June 02, 2010
Interviews were conducted in 2009 with a group of Chin refugees, and also with established members of the community who graciously facilitated introductions and hosted gatherings for the author and refugees. Additional information was obtained from various web sites.
Chin State is located in the southern part of northwestern Burma (Myanmar), bordered by Bangladesh and India to the west, Rakhine State to the south, and Magwe and Sagaing Divisions to the east. The entire state is about 14,400 square miles, an area slightly smaller than Switzerland. Chin State is also known as the “Chin Hills” due to its mountainous geography that has an average elevation of 5000-8000 feet. The highest peak is Mt. Victoria that rises 10,017 ft. above sea level (Center for Applied Linguistics, 2007).
The land is rich in natural resources that are primarily forest based, and the climate includes three main seasons: summer (hot), winter (mild), and rainy (wet). April and May are the warmest months of the year, with temperatures reaching 90 degrees Fahrenheit. Most Chins live at higher elevations in the Chin Hills. The capital, Hakha, lies at approximately 6000 ft. above sea level. The Chin people live primarily in Chin State, but also inhabit areas of the Chittagong Hills tract of Bangladesh, and in Mizoram and Manipur states of India (Center for Applied Linguistics, 2007 and Karen Human Rights Group & Open Society Burma Project, 1998).
History and Politics
The British first conquered Burma in 1824, established rule in 1886, and remained in power until Burma’s independence in 1948. The 1886 Chin Hills Regulation Act stated that the British would govern the Chins separately from the rest of Burma, which allowed for traditional Chin chiefs to remain in power while Britain was still allotted power via indirect rule (Human Rights Watch, 2009). Burma’s independence from Britain in 1948 coincided with the Chin people adopting a democratic government rather than continuing its traditional rule of chiefs. Chin National Day is celebrated on February 20, the day that marks the transition from traditional to democratic rule in Chin State (Center for Applied Linguistics, 2007).
The new-found democracy of Chin State ended abruptly in 1962 with the onset of the military rule of General Ne Win in Burma (Center for Applied Linguistics, 2007). Ne Win remained in power until 1988 when nationwide protests against military rule erupted. These uprisings, commonly known as the 8-8-88 because of the date on which they occurred, were met by an outburst of violence by the military government. The violent government response killed approximately 3,000 people in just a matter of weeks and imprisoned many more (Human Rights Watch, 2009). It was during this period of resistance to military rule, that the Chin National Front (CNF) and its armed branch, the Chin National Army (CNA), gained momentum (Human Rights Watch, 2009).
In 1990, the National League for Democracy (NLD) won multiparty legislative elections in Burma. Despite the grand win of the NLD, the military government refused to step down from power. The leader of the NLD and subsequent Noble Peace Prize recipient, Aung San Suu Kyi, was first placed under house arrest from 1989-1995 and again from 2000-2002. She was imprisoned in May 2003, and then placed once again under house arrest where she continues to remain today (CIA World Factbook, 2009).
In present day Burma, the Chin National Front (CNF) and Chin National Army (CNA) are not a threat to the government’s armed forces, or “Tatmadaw.” There are ongoing small-scale conflicts between the CNA and Tatmadaw, but the CNA are consistently outnumbered (Human Rights Watch, 2009). It must be noted, that within the Chin group, divisions between Chin sub-tribes have historically been present and continue to exist in the present-day. In present day Burma, the Chins are heavily abused by the Tatmadaw (Burmese Army). These abuses include extrajudicial killings, arbitrary arrest, detention, torture, forced labor, religious repression, restrictions on movement, forced military training and conscription, and sexual harassment and violence (Human Rights Watch, 2009).
It is estimated that at least 60,000 Chin refugees are living in India while more than 20,000 Chin refugees are living in Malaysia. Several thousands more are scattered in North America, Europe, Australia and New Zealand (Chin Human Rights Organization, 2010).
The majority of Chin refugees entering the United States and coming to Seattle are Christians who are either young, single males or young couples (20-40 years old), some with children. Most are uneducated and come from villages. Many are pushed to leave by their parents for fear that they will be forced by the government to take part in dangerous or difficult jobs that range from road paving to human mine sweeping – it has been documented that civilians forced to porter in Burma’s conflict areas are sometimes sent before the troops so that they will detonate mines (Online Burma/Myanmar Library, 2010). The government is known to treat ethnic groups and non-Buddhists more harshly than the predominant Burman ethnic group (68%) and Buddhists (89%) (CIA World Factbook, 2009). “The Chins are a double minority” explained one refugee interviewed for this profile. Because of this discrimination, some Chin refugees may not want to be called Burmese.
The Chins who flee Burma usually enter the United States directly from Thailand, Malaysia, and India. For most leaving Burma, the trip is illegal, dangerous, and expensive. There are brokers involved who charge approximately $1000 per person to transport refugees across the border. If those fleeing are caught by either the Burmese government or the government of the country they are trying to enter, they face imprisonment that may include harsh treatment such as being beaten. Those in refugee camps (located mainly in Thailand) are told that it will be easier to gain entry into the United States if they have children, thus many young, new parents (sometimes still in their teen years) are entering the United States and need jobs immediately in order to support their young families.
Employment in U.S.
Chins are quite gender conscious regarding employment, thus certain jobs such as housekeeping are considered “women’s work” and a man would not consider such employment. In the Midwestern states, a common job for Chin refugees is working in the slaughterhouses. Heavy labor is not a desirable job, as many Chins tend to be small in stature. Thus, jobs such as carpentry and cooking are much more desirable.
There are about forty to forty-five dialects of the Chin languages. Of these, the most widely spoken are: Tedim among Northern Chin; Hakha and Falam among Central Chin; and Mindat Cho among Southern Chin. (CAL, 2007) Each dialect is so distinct that people who speak different dialects will not likely understand each other. While the Chin languages are those spoken primarily by the Chin people, about 80% of Chin refugees in the Seattle area also speak Burmese. Chin patients who speak Burmese are happy to receive interpretation in the Burmese language if an interpreter who speaks their Chin dialect is not available.
Names and Naming
The Chin people do not have a first, middle, or last name as is common in Western countries, but rather one name that may reflect the achievements of a grandparent or the grandparents’ future wishes for the child (Center for Applied Linguistics, 2007). The naming of a child is considered very important among the Chins and this honor is given to the grandparents. Parents of children who are born in the United States may appreciate an explanation that in the U.S., children are given names (both first and last) immediately at birth and there is no waiting period.
A gentle handshake is a common greeting in Chin culture.
Body Language and Displays of Respect
Among the Chin people, direct eye contact is sometimes viewed as an act of challenge rather than a sign of attentiveness and politeness. Thus, when having a conversation, most Chin will not look the speaker directly in the eye. When elders are present, the following actions are common signs of respect: walking with the body bent at the waist, crossing both arms over the chest, sitting at a lower level than the elders, and not pointing feet at the elders (Center for Applied Linguistics, 2007). Pointing feet at anyone is a sign of disrespect.
Marriage, Family, Kinship and Gender
The majority of marriages among Chins are not arranged, though parental approval is sought. Wedding ceremonies are considered very large events and the entire village may be invited. People tend to marry young, with most women being married by the age of 25. In the Chin Hills it is quite common for couples to have four to six children. Children are considered to be one’s future.
In the Chin Hills, the husband is considered the head of the household, the decision maker, and breadwinner. Women are expected to do all of the housekeeping including cooking and tending to the children in addition to working in the fields. Once the family moves to the United States, both parents tend to work and provide for the family. However, despite both parents being in the workforce, it is still common practice among Chin refugees here in the U.S. to think of household chores as “woman’s work” and thus leave such tasks to the woman.
Pregnancy and Childbirth
In the rural areas of the Chin Hills, midwives assist women in childbirth. In rural areas, childbirth is not viewed as a difficult task, but rather as simply another task a woman must accomplish. In urban areas, women commonly give birth in hospitals.
After giving birth, mothers in Burma traditionally drink oxtail soup or chicken soup to increase milk production. This practice continues in the Seattle area.
Exposure to contraception varies among Chins entering the United States. In Burma, sex education is non-existent. A Seattle area physician who is Chin has suggested that Chin families space their children farther apart to improve health outcomes for mother and child.
Infancy, Childhood and Socialization
Childhood and Socialization
Much of the child-rearing philosophy of parents is dependent upon how educated the parents are. However, one universal aspect of child rearing among the Chin people is that respect for elders is of utmost importance. The notion of “children are seen and not heard” is still common among Chins.
Boys are raised to be strong and tough, so adult men can sometimes seem cold, unemotional, and unexpressive. Girls are raised to be nurturing and to obey their husbands.
Bridging Refugee Youth and Children’s Services (BRYCS) and the Office of Head Start’s National Center on Cultural and Linguistic Responsiveness (NCCLR) have partnered to create a cultural backgrounders focused on early childhood in Refugee Families from Burma.
This resource provide general cultural information, while recognizing that every family is unique and that cultural practices will vary by household and by generation.
Adolescence, Adulthood and Old Age
In the Chin Hills it is common for the younger generation of the family to care for the elderly. Due to the exodus of many of the younger generation from Burma, care is not available for many elders. In many villages today, one sees very young children and the elderly.
Nutrition and Food
The staple foods for the Chins in Burma are rice, corn, and millet. In the U.S. the staple is rice. Rice is eaten at every meal, usually with vegetables and meat. White rice is preferred by the refugee community as the brown rice in the U.S. is not considered as tasty as the brown rice grown at home in Burma. Additionally, brown rice is less desirable because the grain is not polished. Meat is typically boiled with vegetables (mustard greens or cabbage) or fried with oil. The typical ingredients used by Chins for their meals are available in most Asian food markets in the United States.
Drinks, Drugs and Indulgences
Alcohol abuse is common among male Chin refugees in Seattle. In the Chin Hills, the traditional alcohol, zu, is seen as a status symbol and is not as easily accessible as alcohol is in the United States. Zu is homemade and provided at village feasts and celebrations, and the symbolic nature of zu is clearly portrayed by the custom of only allowing the male with the highest status to take the first drink at a gathering. In the United States, Chins are surprised to find that alcohol (specifically beer) is easily available for purchase, “cheaper than water,” and thus becoming easily abused.
Another type of substance abuse among the Chin people is tobacco. As with alcohol consumption, smoking is seen as a status symbol, and thus if affordable, many will end up smoking simply because it is viewed as a sign of wealth. In the Chin Hills, the traditional means of “smoking” is through the use of nicotine juice called thibur. Thibur is primarily used by the elderly, who hold the juice in their mouths and eventually spit it out. The elderly carry thibur in containers made from small gourds. Children are expected to prepare the thibur for the elders. To create thibur, nicotine is smoked in a water pipe which produces thibur drippings. This practice is not done in the United States.
Religious Beliefs and Practices
Christian missionaries first arrived in Chin State in the late 1800’s. The majority of Chins today are Christians, with most belonging to Protestant denominations, especially Baptist. Among the Chin refugees arriving in the United States, almost all are Christian (Center for Applied Linguistics, 2007). There are still a few Chins who practice traditional animism. They believe that both good and bad spirits live in high trees and mountains, and that the bad spirits are capable of hurting people and thus must be appeased (Center for Applied Linguistics, 2007).
Chins provide a Christian funeral and burial for their dead. In the Chin Hills, there are no funeral homes, so the body will be wrapped in a traditional Chin blanket or puan and placed on a bed in the family home for one to three days. During this time, the family will receive visitors who come to pay their respects. Those who knew the deceased will sing funeral dirges, which focus on the achievements of the individual. After this waiting period, the body will be taken to the cemetery and given a burial ceremony (Center for Applied Linguistics, 2007).
Traditional Medical Practices
Many Chin people partake in the traditional practices of “coining” and “cupping.” Coining involves first rubbing heated oil on the skin and then rubbing a coin over the skin until a red mark is seen. This practice is meant to release the “bad” from the body; this “bad” is thought to be the cause of the patient’s illness. Coining is commonly used for treating less serious illnesses such as cough, headache or fever; however, the results of coining may be quite serious. Coining has been reported to cause burns and bruises. Parents will sometimes use this treatment on their children and may be at risk of subsequently being accused of child abuse (Creighton University School of Medicine, 2005). Cupping is an ancient Chinese practice that involves placing a cup over the skin and using fire or suction to create a vacuum within the cup which draws the skin and superficial muscle layer into the cup (Creighton University School of Medicine, 2007). It can leave marks on the body and there is a small risk of burns or swelling (American Cancer Society, 2008).
When a child is ill, a parent may bind the finger or the tongue and prick the skin to release a small amount of “bad blood” to cure illness.
A CDC 2009 investigation indicates that for Burmese refugee children there is a relatively high risk of lead exposure in the camps. Cultural practices and traditional medicines are among the risk factors for elevated BLLs among Burmese refugees in the U.S. Read more:Working with Refugees from Burma to Prevent Childhood Lead Poisoning
Experience with Western Medicine
Exposure to Western medicine in Burma is dependent on whether one lives in a rural or urban area. In urban areas, Western medicine is quite prevalent, however in rural regions traditional medicine is still used and relied upon (Center for Applied Linguistics, 2007).
In Burma, patients are not accustomed to asking medical providers questions. In fact, some may think that providers know what is wrong with a patient just by looking at him. For this reason, it is important to ask specific questions, such as “Does it hurt?” versus “Let me know if it hurts.”
Hepatitis B Fact Sheet in Burmese available from Public Health – Seattle & King County.
Recommendations for Providers
- Educate about contraception.
- Educate about child spacing.
- The parents of children who are born in the United States may appreciate an explanation that in the U.S., children are given names (both first and last) immediately at birth and there is no waiting period.
- Because the Chins are stoic, ask specific questions rather than open-ended ones. For example: “Do you have a headache? Do you experience dizziness?” Rather than, “Tell me about your aches and pains.” Providers must initiate conversation about “taboo” subjects such as sexual activity and menstrual cycles.
- Discuss alcohol, drug, and tobacco use.
- Providers must ask about vaccination status; many Chin refugees have been treated for latent TB infection.
- The importance of preventative care should be discussed.
- Personal hygiene should be discussed, including the importance of hand washing, hair washing, and oral care.
- A helpful idea is to have a “My medication list” where the patient can write down what medications they are on, why they are on these medications, and at what time they should take these medications.
- The refugees tend to bring their own medications from Burma, many of which are no longer used in the U.S. Providers should be sure to ask whether the patient has brought any medications from Burma. Common medications that are brought into the U.S. are: paracetamol (acetaminophen) and chlorophenocol (an antibiotic which has been banned in the U.S.).
Common Acculturation Issues
Overall, the Chin refugees arriving in the Seattle area (settling primarily in Kent, WA) are adjusting well, primarily because of a strong, supportive pre-existing church-based community. Chins have found that obtaining jobs here in the Seattle area has not been easy, particularly during the recent economic crisis. Within the Seattle area, common jobs among Chin refugees are in fish processing plants, furniture factories, bakeries, farms, and housekeeping. There are many Chin refugees who are unemployed and find themselves incapable of sufficiently providing for their families without external aid.
Upon arrival to the United States, refugees are provided with government assistance in the form of financial support and medical coupons for 8 months. However, for the majority of Chin refugees the difficulties arise after this period of assistance. Many within the Chin community find themselves either unemployed and without health insurance or employed in a position that does not provide health insurance.
When a group of refugees from Washington State was asked what the primary obstacle for the Chin refugee community in Seattle was, the overwhelming response was navigating the health care system. Problems arose from simple tasks such as making an appointment at a clinic or doctor’s office to more complex issues such as understanding the health care paperwork and health care benefits. Regarding the former issue, one man reported having an extremely difficult time making an appointment due to language barriers and frustrations with a telephonic interpreting service. For this man, just making an appointment required two hours of phone calls and the aid of a World Relief case worker who is fluent in his language.
Most Seattle area Chin refugees do not arrive with strong English skills, though some are high school graduates who have studied English in school. As mentioned above, the primary languages spoken by Chin refugees are the Chin dialects, and potentially also Burmese. Local organizations, such as the Kent School District’s Refugee Transitional Center, provide basic English language classes which many of the Chin refugees attend.
See also: Burmese refugees, miles away from home, haunted by memories of war, an article in the Northwest Asian Weekly about the experience of Burmese refugees in Seattle.
Washington Burmese Christian Fellowship (at Panther Lake Church)
10630 SE 204th St.
Kent, WA 98031
Invisible Newcomers: Refugees from Burma/Myanmar and Bhutan in the United States
A report (2014) from the Association for Asian American Studies (AAAS) highlighting the demographic characteristics, challenges and policy implications of the two largest refugee arrivals to the U.S., who are largely invisible in the current national discourse on Asian American socioeconomic outcomes.
Chin Human Rights Organization
Founded in 1995, CHRO is the primary rights-based advocacy organization for the Chin people and has worked with Chin communities throughout the world.
UNHCR - The UN Refugee Agency
Regular reports available on refugee groups, including the Chins.
Burmese Refugee Health Profile
The information in this refugee health profile is intended to help resettlement agencies, clinicians, and public health providers understand the health issues of greatest interest or concern pertaining to Burmese refugee populations in the United States, as well as their cultural background and circumstances.
Refugees from Burma: Their Backgrounds and Refugee Experiences. This culture profile from the Center for Applied Linguistics and the Cultural Orientation Resource Center includes information about the Chins and other Burmese ethnic groups, including the Karen, the Karenni, the Burmans and more. The Center for Applied Linguistics has profiles available for many refugee and immigrant groups and is a great resource for information related to refugee resettlement.
Coalition for Refugees from Burma
Coalition for Refugees from Burma is Washington State based, nonprofit 501 (C) (3) Mutual Assistance Association striving to assist all refugees from Burma to become socially and economically self-sufficient, and become contributing member of the society by accessing educational opportunities, teaching job skills, strengthening family relationships, and promoting and preserving traditional customs.
Refugee Wellness Country Guide - Burma (Myanmar)
Published by the Gulf Coast Jewish Family & Community Services, this 2 page report provides historial timeline, overview and context, helpful tips foro resettlement workers and mental health providers, information about healthcare in refugee camps, beliefs and customs and more.
Refugee Families from Burma
Bridging Refugee Youth and Children’s Services (BRYCS) and the Office of Head Start’s National Center on Cultural and Linguistic Responsiveness (NCCLR) have partnered to create a cultural backgrounders focused on early childhood in Refugee Families from Burma. This resource provide general cultural information, while recognizing that every family is unique and that cultural practices will vary by household and by generation.
American Cancer Society, 2008.
Center for Applied Linguistics (2007). Refugees from Burma: Their Backgrounds and Refugee Experiences. Culture Profile No. 21.
Chin Human Rights Organization.
CIA World Factbook (2009). Retrieved March 15, 2010, from
Creighton University School of Medicine, Complimentary and Alternative Medicine web site.
Creighton University School of Medicine, Complimentary and Alternative Medicine web site.
Human Rights Watch (2009). ‘We are like Forgotten People.’ The Chin People of Burma: Unsafe in Burma, Unprotected in India. Retrieved April 15, 2010
Karen Human Rights Group and Open Society Burma Project. (1998). “All Quiet on the Western Front?”
Online Burma/Myanmar Library. Special Report #1: Landmines in Burma.