University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology

Migrant Matters – Enika Selby

July 24, 2015

Every year, the Penn Museum provides support to Penn undergraduates and graduate students as they deepen their understanding of the human experience outside the Museum’s walls. Follow these blog posts from our intrepid young scholars as they report on the sights and sites that they encounter throughout their travels in the field.

June 15, 2015

As interviews for my research on Burmese migrant identity in Bangkok near their end, I reflect on related activities that have given me further insight into the life of migrant workers.

For the past few Saturdays I have attended a Seventh Day Adventist (SDA) Church frequented by many laborers from Myanmar. Most of the churchgoers are ethnic Karen, so the service mainly takes place in the Karen language with some songs in English. I learned that migrant workers typically negotiate their days off with their bosses, and many SDA ask for Saturday off in order to worship. Additionally, the church is a place for the community to gather, which therefore attracts people from a wide variety of professions and backgrounds. I met people engaged in jobs ranging from factory work to housekeeping, who had all come from different regions in Myanmar. At the church, I was fortunate to taste homemade Karen cuisine that some church members had prepared to serve in between services. During the meal I also spoke with some attendants who explained that the church served as a religious space, place of rendezvous, and a safe haven.

Traditional Karen food in Bangkok
Traditional Karen food in Bangkok. Photo by Enika Selby.

Apart from visiting a Burmese church, I had the opportunity to explore a small marketplace where people from Myanmar had set up eateries and clothing stores. At one restaurant I shared a typical Karen meal with a friend. I also spoke with the shop owner who explained that despite establishing a restaurant—and thereby a stronger sense of permanence—he still considered himself a migrant worker and wished to one-day return to Myanmar. The shop owner’s desire to return home was shared with nearly every single migrant I interviewed, even with some people who have been in Thailand or Bangkok for a decade.

There have been many places, such as the church and the marketplace, that have revealed unexpected details about migrant workers and their lives in Bangkok. As my work slowly comes to an end and I reexamine my notes, there are certain social patterns that have emerged. Going forward I will work to synthesize my research and make sense of my data. Although I will miss being in the field, I will forever remember the enlightening experience of engaging with migrant workers from Myanmar.

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