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Sushi rolling, meatpacking and community gardening

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KAYTE YOUNG:  From WFIU and Bloomington Indiana, I'm Kayte Young and this is Earth Eats. 

TAMMY HO:  We know that there are all sorts of good chemicals that come out of the dirt and working the land and working with plants that are beneficial to our mood and our health. Where refugee populations that have had to be on the run, who have had to live in refugee camps for decades, having a little piece of land that you can tend to, that you can take care of and then see the results and not feel like you're going to be bombed out the next day, it brings a peace of mind and a little bit of healing. 

KAYTE YOUNG:  This week on the show, Professor Tammy Ho of University of California, Riverside shares her ongoing research about refugees from Burma and the surprising ways they participate in the US food system. Stay with us. 

KAYTE YOUNG:  Thanks for listening to Earth Eats, I'm Kayte Young. I'm always thrilled when I have the chance to talk with someone whose lands at the inner section between food and broader social issues. My guest today is Tammy Ho and her work looks at communities of recent immigrants and, in particular, refugees from Burma and their participation in food systems here in the US. I'll let Tammy Ho introduce herself. 

TAMMY HO:  I actually have three different names, but my English name is Tammy Ho. I publish under Tamara Ho, but on my birth certificate my name is Tammy Ho and I'm moving to publishing more under Tammy Ho. I'm an Associate Professor of Gender and Sexuality studies at University of California, Riverside. I was born in what used to be called Burma, the country is now officially been renamed Myanmar. I was born in Burma in the capital city of Rangoon which is now called Yangon and my parents and I left Burma in the early 1970s during a period of escalated anti-Chinese violence and hostility that went hand in hand with both the post-colonial government and the military coup that had happened in 1962. 

TAMMY HO:  Because the military was hostile to what they considered middle men, the populations that had somewhat benefited in their minds under British colonialism which meant that Chinese people of Indian descent, people who weren't Buddhist, the military actually passed a law that said that if you were Chinese you could not go to college. You just weren't allowed to enter higher education and part of that was an attempt to respond to what they considered differential privileges under British colonialism. My father wanted his children to be educated and, so he applied to emigrate and work outside of Burma. My father was a medical doctor and the US had an immigration window that allowed professionals from Asia to come. 

TAMMY HO:  So, we left Burma and moved to Albany, New York. We ended up moving to California where I was educated and raised. I got my PhD in comparative literature at UCLA, but my education at UCLA was very intra-disciplinary. I specialized in post-colonial literature in English and French and did work in ethic studies and feminist studies and then I ended up at UC Riverside. I am a Professor of Gender and Sexuality studies, I teach all sorts of interdisciplinary classes on gender theory, on feminist epistemologies, literature by women. Probably about ten years ago, my department took an interest in sustainability and eco feminist climate change issues and, so we started designing classes that were more oriented towards thinking about the environment. One of the classes that we introduced was a class on food which I started teaching. 

TAMMY HO:  I teach a class at UC Riverside called the Feminist Politics of Food and, so I have long been a fan of food scholarship and food studies. I am a big fan of food in general. [LAUGHS] Then during the pandemic, I was part of a writing group that it just turned out the other members of the writing group were all doing projects on food. So I had originally thought I was going to do another project on religion and inter-religious political solidarity within the Burmese diaspora and Burmese population, but the food peer pressure won out and I pivoted to start writing my thoughts and observations about Burmese food, and Burmese immigrants, and refugees and how their lives had been shaped by food based employment or certain projects like community gardens. 

KAYTE YOUNG:  Tammy Ho visited the IU campus in January of 2024 and gave a talk about her work. She offered background information about Burma to help the audience understand the context of her work. 

TAMMY HO:  I find that it's useful to introduce Burma just because most American's don't know a lot about it, so during the period of the dictatorship of Ne Win, who was the General who took over in 1962. Ne Win was very paranoid, so he basically closed the country for almost 20 years. There was only one plane going in and out of Burma, I think once every two weeks. It was impossible for those who had left to come back because they didn't want outside ideas coming into the country because the military that had taken over was very bitter about British colonialism and what they felt it had done to the national culture. So, they were very anti-western, anti-outsider, anti-international, despite the fact that Burma had been part of the 1955 Bandung conference which was a gathering of non-aligned countries that did not want to declare themselves either capitalist or communists. 

TAMMY HO:  In the 1960s and 70s, Burma was officially I quote, "socialist country", although the socialism was overshadowed by military dictatorship and corruption. So, growing up in the United States, I knew that we sent and got letters from relatives who were still in Burma, the little blue-borne airmail stationery that used to be the standard for international mail, but I also knew that the letters had been opened, that there were censors who always opened the letters and the communication with Burma was always under surveillance, so even when we sent letters to say my grandmother or my uncles, it could take one to two months before we got a reply. So, growing up I did not meet a lot of American's who knew anything about the country. 

TAMMY HO:  The would ask me where are you from and I would say I'm from Burma and they would say, well is that part of China, is it a city in Thailand [LAUGHS] and I said no, it's a whole country. So in my scholarship and in my talks I try to provide a basic introduction for those who might not know much about the country. So, Burma is a country about the size of Texas, has 55 million people, but what's interesting about Burma is that it officially recognizes 135 ethnic minorities or ethnic populations. So, this is quite confusing for a lot of folks who can't imagine that level of diversity within a country that they imagine is mono-cultural. When the government took over, the predominant majority, the ethnic majority is called Burmin in English, it's called Burmar in Burmese and so those are the folk who run the military, those are the folks that are at the top of the hierarchy in terms of wealth, in terms of power and influence. 

TAMMY HO:  Then the ethnic minorities which include Karen, Chin, Mon, Shan, those populations have their own languages, their own cultural traditions, they would like to have their own territory and they do have designated "states" in Burma that are not independently or autonomously run, but they would like to be. So that's the source of a lot of the civil conflict, and fighting, and militarized violence that happens in the country is over control of territory and resources. So the ethnic minority populations would like to be autonomous, retain their language, retain their traditions of dress, diet, rituals, religion, but the central government wants the country to be Buddhists and they are run by the Burmar or Burmin majority. 

TAMMY HO:  Many ethnic territories, especially those that are resource rich have been continuously bombed, villages burned. Men and children conscripted into labor for the military to carry stuff for the military or to build roads or whatever infrastructure the military finds necessary and then the stories of sexual assault and rape as a weapon of war, as well as imprisonment, torture, genocide have been unfortunately prolific in Burmese history over the last six or seven decades. 

KAYTE YOUNG:  So, the ruling majority wants a unified culture somehow, or they just want control over those? 

TAMMY HO:  Both. So, there's a level in which Burmese folks, folks from the country of Myanmar understand that there's an ethnic diversity, but there's also a hierarchy. So some populations are considered more I quote "backward", so although they're recognized as indigenous and ornative, they're not considered as advanced intellectually or cognitively. There's certain populations that tend to be more limited in terms of educational opportunities who are consigned to hard, menial labor or domestic labor. Some monks are friendly with the military, in other words the military ostensibly is Buddhist and supports building of pagodas or donate to monasteries and some monks are very nationalists, very adamant that the country needs to be Buddhist. But, at the same time, there are also monks who have stood up to the military. 

KAYTE YOUNG:  So, because of all of the religious and ethnic persecution within the country, a lot of people have fled or have been driven out or? 

TAMMY HO:  Yes, so both. The ethnic minorities that are predominately Christian, who tend to be Chin, Karen, those populations were exposed and took in American missionaries who were Christian, who were Protestant, Baptist predominately. So those populations are predominately Christian, although some of them are also Buddhist and, or animist and obviously being Christian in a country that wants to be Buddhist, that is politically and ideologically Buddhist, is challenging. So, when my parents were growing up in Burma, there was sort of a proliferation, it was okay to go to either the monastery and the church. There were inter-religious families, people went to different religious spaces for social interaction or good food, so there wasn't the level of hostility that has taken place in the late 20th century and certainly in the 21st century. 

TAMMY HO:  So, those areas have been, as I mentioned, bombed, villages burned, people literally driven out of their homes, either because some of the ethnic populations also have their own resistance militia that are guerrilla forces that are fighting against the central military. There's ongoing fighting, there is warfare and a lot of civilians who may not be directly involved can still lose their homes or get beaten up if the army's coming through and they feel like, oh this might be a stronghold for one of the ethnic army's. Some people are literally forced to leave because their homes are burned to the ground and they have nowhere else to go. 

KAYTE YOUNG:  And, so there are extensive refugee camps in Thailand mostly or other places as well? 

TAMMY HO:  A number of refugee camps exist along the Thai Burma border, although there's also a huge refugee camp in Bangladesh at the Bangladesh border and that is predominately where the Muslim minority population, known as the Rohyinga, have been driven or have a lot of the refugees who are Muslim have ended up in the refugee camps closer to Bangladesh. 

KAYTE YOUNG:  Is that Cox’s Bazar? 

TAMMY HO:  That's Cox’s Bazar, yes. 

KAYTE YOUNG:  Tammy Ho's current researches focused on refugees from Burma, living in the US and the places where they're involved in food systems. So far she has identified three case studies. 

TAMMY HO:  Specifically, sushi entrepreneurship, employment in corporatized meat processing and then community farms or refugee gardens as they're sometimes called. These three particular case studies, I tend to think of them as two sides of a coin in terms of the American dream, but then also American nightmares. The sushi entrepreneurship is very much a American dream narrative where the sushi rolling phenomenon among Burmese immigrants was started by an immigrant by the name of Philip Maung who arrived in California in the late 1980s. He ended up getting experience and employment at a southern California sushi company that was owned and started by Japanese immigrants. 

TAMMY HO:  He worked at Advanced Fresh Concepts and then decided that he could borrow their model of sushi counters and franchising that are located at grocery stores which were just starting to take off in the 1990s as sushi became more popularized and more normalized as part of the American diet. Maung took his experience and knowledge from his employment at Advanced Fresh Concepts, he went off to North Carolina to try and start his own company. He started Hissho Sushi and was able to partner with some independent grocery stores there after he had to max out his credit cards and live in his car as the narrative goes because he couldn't get loans from banks to support this endeavor. He started with a few sushi counters at grocery stores and was able to grow his business by employing other new immigrants from Burma and Myanmar. 

TAMMY HO:  The thing about sushi rolling is that it doesn't take English to do it well and he was able to teach the skill to make the sushi and the business model of running a counter to new immigrants from Burma. He was very successful, his business was recognized by Inc. Magazine as one of the 5,000 fastest growing businesses between 2010 and 2018 and he made millions rolling sushi and, so sushi rolling became a niche form of employment for many Burmese immigrants coming to the United States who didn't otherwise have other opportunities or connections. Growing up I remember hearing these stories of so and so does sushi rolling, so and so is rolling sushi and I'm like, wait, but sushi's not an indigenous Burmese dish. [LAUGHS] 

TAMMY HO:  But, you can learn how to do it and many Burmese did. Some Burmese started their own companies and were rolling it home and selling to markets or putting their rolled sushi in markets for American consumers to purchase on their way to work and with their busy lives. 

KAYTE YOUNG:  Do you think this whole tradition, of this being a thing that Burmese immigrants do, comes just from this one guy? 

TAMMY HO:  I'm still in the process of doing the research honestly. The trail that I have followed has been predominately journalistic, so I haven't done intensive historical research. But there have been many reports in the New York Times and various newspapers as well as industry recognition as I mentioned, Inc. Magazine, that have celebrated Maung's success story and I know anecdotally from conversations within the Burmese diaspora and among Burmese immigrants that the sushi rolling is far more prolific than most non-Burmese realize. So, yesterday I met three Chin students who are undergraduates here, all three of them had sushi connections. One of them said, oh my mother used to roll sushi, the other one said they had a cousin who would roll sushi, one was dating a guy who was rolling sushi. So, once you start the sushi conversation, it seems like everybody has some sushi connection. 

KAYTE YOUNG:  You know and it's also funny when you said this isn't an indigenous Burmese food tradition, but, just hearing about how many ethnicities and there's so many different cultures you get sort of picture, well maybe one of them has sushi in there [LAUGHS] or something. But you're saying that's not it, it's an American thing, it's something that happened in America through a connection to a Japanese sushi company-- 

TAMMY HO:  Right. 

KAYTE YOUNG:  That then, someone was like, hey, we could do this too. 

TAMMY HO:  Yeah. 

KAYTE YOUNG:  And it could have been a burger joint or it could have been something else, but this is what it happened to be and it worked. [LAUGHS] 

TAMMY HO:  Right and there's a parallel story in terms of Cambodian immigrants and donuts, I don't know if you've heard that story? 

KAYTE YOUNG:  Oh no, okay. 

TAMMY HO:  Yeah, so there's a claim documentary called 'Donut King' that covers this history about as I mentioned a parallel story of a Cambodian immigrant, I believe he worked at Winchell's and then decided I can do this on my own and then he started making donuts and then he taught other Cambodian immigrants how to make donuts and he started franchising and he also became a millionaire. [LAUGHS] 

KAYTE YOUNG:  Right, so it's really about the food entrepreneur who achieves success, whatever food it is they've grabbed on to, it's going to spread throughout the community and it sounds like not just in California, but all over. Yeah, that is super interesting. 

TAMMY HO:  And to return for a second back to the point about sushi not being indigenous to Burma, so most Burmese populations, to the extent that I know, I mean I don't know all the ethnic populations, I'm not completely fluent in all their cuisines, but for the most part, Burmese folks don't like to eat raw fish or that's not part of the traditional Burmese diet. Most of the cuisine coming out of Myanmar or Burma is based on stews or soups, salads, but even the salads, the protein tends to be cooked. Raw fish is not, I haven't seen it outside of sushi rolling. [LAUGHS] 

KAYTE YOUNG:  The widespread adoption of sushi rolling franchises in the Burmese diaspora is one of the three areas Tammy Ho is researching. We'll hear about the other two after a short break. Stay with us. 

KAYTE YOUNG:  Kayte Young here, this is Earth Eats and my guest today is Tammy Ho, Professor of Gender and Sexuality Studies at UC Riverside. Her current research project looks at Burmese refugees in the United States and their participation in our food system. She has three case studies, one is sushi entrepreneurship which she touched on before the break. The second one involves community gardens. Here's Tammy. 

TAMMY HO:  Part of what led me to these three was my examination of the movie and non-fiction book called 'All Saints' which was about a real life situation that happened in Smyrna, Tennessee where a small Episcopalian Church was basically about to go under because the congregation had dwindled down to about 20 people, most of the parishioners had left to go to a neighboring church. So the Episcopal Church was going to sell its property and close down the church, so they assigned a new priest just out of seminary to sort of watch over the land while they proceeded with the sale. 

TAMMY HO:  And as he was running the church and offering mass, a Sunday service, a number of Karen refugees came in to attend the service and then proceeded to ask if they could, not only gather some of the plants on the church property just to eat for themselves, which the American's thought was quite odd because they're, like why do they want the weeds in the parking lot, but then they also noticed that the church had about 20 acres and, so they asked if they could farm, plant crops on the land for their own consumption. Initially, the priest as well as the Episcopalian Bishop was not enthusiastic about this idea [LAUGHS], they didn't really even understand who the Karen were or where Myanmar or Burma was. 

TAMMY HO:  But, these refugees insisted that they were Christian and coming out of an Anglican tradition which in American terms means Episcopalian. So, they agreed to let the refugees start growing plants on the church land. They used land that, I guess had been a soccer field owned by the church. 

KAYTE YOUNG:  Yes, so it was cleared, it was forested or anything. 

TAMMY HO:  And then they started planting and they planted what's called sour leaf or chin baung in Burmese and, again the American congregants or parishioners were unfamiliar with sour leaf, they're like we don't know this plant and they're like, it doesn't matter, we like it and we want to grow it. But, they also grew other things like zucchini, corn, tomatoes, squash, whatever they didn't consume themselves at home, they started selling their crops to farmer's markets and local grocery stores and the sour leaf ended up being the most profitable crop surprisingly to the Americans. So, the refugee farms sort of saved the church because not only did the congregation quadruple in size because the Karen refugees started attending church and bringing their friends and their new immigrant network to attend the church services, but they were also working this farm. 

TAMMY HO:  So, they were working on the farm mostly voluntarily to supplement their own diets, but their main employment was at meat packing plants in the area, so they were working for corporatized Agra business, working either poultry or beef packing meat processing. The parishioners at the All Saint's Church were trying to help their new neighbors and the Karen immigrants learn English and American survival skills, like how do you apply for a driver's license, helping them with paperwork at the welfare office. And they ended up because so many of them were employed at the Tyson Chicken Factory, they had a whole lesson on chicken parts, like what are the names for the different parts of the chicken that the refugees were working in the factories and cutting up. 

TAMMY HO:  They would work at the factories for paid employment then come home, work on the farm after work or on weekends, so a lot of them were doing double shifts. The farm was successful, the Episcopalian diocese decided, oh maybe we don't need to close this church, maybe we need to invest in this growing population of new Christians that we didn't know about. Not that the Karen were newly Christian, but they were a discovery for the Tennessee Episcopalian diocese though. 

KAYTE YOUNG:  That's quite a story and you do a close reading of the film and the book and talk about some of the different narratives that show up, but the story itself of what happened is quite interesting. 

TAMMY HO:  It's fascinating, yeah. 

KAYTE YOUNG:  And you also point out that the farm also served to vary and improved the diets of the people there, so they're not just succumbing to the American-- 

TAMMY HO:  Trying McDonald's. [LAUGHS] 

KAYTE YOUNG:  And the sour leaf, was it profitable because the locals were discovering it and were like, oh this is pretty good, I've never had this or was it more that it was being sold to Asian markets and folks who were already familiar with it, but weren't able to find it before? 

TAMMY HO:  They were able to sell the sour leaf crop to Asian grocery stores in the area and I think different Asian populations either recognized the plant or were willing to try it as part of their culinary repertoire. I'm still in the process of researching to what degree sour leaf is popular among other Asian populations outside of Burma or Burmese folks. So, that research is yet pending, but they were also able to sell the other crops to farmer's markets and as I mentioned, you know, things like tomatoes and corn and things that go over well in an American farmer's markets. 

KAYTE YOUNG:  And it sounds like it was a successful farm. All the work that I do, I talk to a lot of farmers and farming's hard. 

TAMMY HO:  It is hard. 

KAYTE YOUNG:  And it's really hard to be successful, especially financially, but then again if all these people are just volunteering their labor and the land is free, that cuts down on the cost quite a bit, so what you're bringing in is going to be more profitable. 

TAMMY HO:  Exactly. They weren't reliant on the farm in terms of their only source of income, as I mentioned, they had jobs at the poultry factory or beef factories, so they were doing other work that also was a source of income for them. 

KAYTE YOUNG:  So, it sounds like they were doing it, one to supply their own kitchens with good food and two maybe, or at least how it turned out to help the church. 

TAMMY HO:  I don't think the refugees' initial aim or goal was to assist the church, but certainly the fact that they reinvigorated a church that had dwindled down to less than 20 people, and were able to generate some profit from selling their crops, certainly got the attention of the Episcopalian diocese and gave them a different model to consider in terms of growing their network because, you know, across the United States even today, there's a decline in affinity towards religion. 

KAYTE YOUNG:  And are you yourself familiar with sour leaf? 

TAMMY HO:  I am. 

KAYTE YOUNG:  What is it like? 

TAMMY HO:  It's basically what it sounds like, it's a sour leaf, so I think it's a form of hibiscus actually. It has about ten different names, it's not only used in South East Asian cuisine and cooking, but is also popular in Caribbean diets as well as some African diets. 

KAYTE YOUNG:  And is it like a big leaf, is it small like, is it red? 

TAMMY HO:  No, it's definitely green. When it's cooked it sort of looks like spinach. 

KAYTE YOUNG:  Do you know if there are other examples of these community gardens cropping up at church? 

TAMMY HO:  Absolutely. There are refugee gardens and community farms in Georgia, in New York, in Oregon, so I've seen a number of stories as well as examined websites of different endeavors in multiple US states. There's one very famous place called Jubilee, which I believe is in Georgia, and there have been a number of stories, journalistic stories written about the refugees who have gone to work at that farm. The interviews with the refugees have displayed the degree to which farming, although being hard labor, it's also a form of reparative ritual and therapy. We know that there are all sorts of good chemicals that come out of the dirt and work in the land and working with plants that are beneficial to our mood and our health. 

TAMMY HO:  But I think where refugee populations that have had to be on the run, who have had to live in refugee camps for decades, having a little piece of land that you can tend you, that you can take care of and then see the results and not feel like you're going to be bombed out the next day it brings a peace of mind and a little bit of healing that a lot of the refugees, I think are very gratified and that they benefit from. The other thing about a lot of the ethnic minority populations is that they themselves come from agrarian traditions, so many of them back in their homelands, when they were able to live in Burma or Myanmar, they had their own gardens, they had their own village gardens, their own community gardens. 

TAMMY HO:  One narrative that I found when I was doing my research was although the Karen have been on the run for the better part of more than half century, there's an anecdote that they will drop seeds wherever they are, so that the next population that has to run through that area will have plants that they could harvest and grow and eat and benefit from, so they're of used to farming on the run. 

KAYTE YOUNG:  And farming for not themselves. That's really interesting. 

TAMMY HO:  Yeah. 

KAYTE YOUNG:  My guest is Tammy Ho, Professor of Gender and Sexuality Studies at UC Riverside. More from our conversation after a short break. 

KAYTE YOUNG:  You're tuned to Earth Eats, I'm Kayte Young and my guest is Tammy Ho. She's a Gender and Sexuality Studies Professor at UC Riverside and her current research is on Burmese refugees and their participation in the US food system. Her third case study focuses on Burmese refugee labor in the meat processing industry. Starting in 2006, the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement or ICE launched an aggressive immigration enforcement policy beginning with a series of raids at large scale meat packing plants who were in the habit of employing undocumented migrants, primarily from central and south American countries. Following this crackdown, the meat packing industry faced a labor shortage. Here's Tammy. 

TAMMY HO:  The companies had to figure out who's going to do these labor, where can we find a population that's willing to work in very hard, dangerous conditions, they turned to refugees because the thing about refugees that have been resettled in the United States is they're here legally, they are supposed to be here. 

KAYTE YOUNG:  And they're supposed to be working. 

TAMMY HO:  And they're supposed to be working and they're also willing to work and do hard work that many American's would perhaps not want to do. They started working with the US resettlement agencies to offer employment to these newly resettled refugees that have been allowed entry into the United States. So, welfare and refugee resettlement only go so far and then they're supposed to develop some independence and find their own way to pay for rent etc. 

KAYTE YOUNG:  In some cases like within three months or something absurd. 

TAMMY HO:  Yes, exactly, so companies like JBS and Tyson recruit these refugees. 

KAYTE YOUNG:  And in some cases, the companies work directly with refugee resettlement agencies to place workers in their plants. There's a huge population of refugees working at meat packing plants in Greeley, Colorado, but also here in Indiana. The resettlement organization Exodus Refugee Immigration placed Burmese workers in a Tyson foods pork processing plant in Logansport, Indiana. Burmese refugees originally settled in Fort Wayne, Indiana make a two hour plus track to Logansport to work in the plant. 

TAMMY HO:  The Midwest has an appeal in terms of social services, in terms of employment, in terms of communities that have already been established here since 1988. 

KAYTE YOUNG:  Maybe lower cost housing. 

TAMMY HO:  Yes, definitely lower cost housing, that is also a big draw. So, all of those have been poll factors in terms of refugee populations moving. Even if they're not geographically close to a meat packing factory, the refugees will pull their resources and commute together, which unfortunately was also part of what led to the proliferation of Covid infection among some of these workers during the early days of the pandemic 2020. One of the cases that I talked about in my talk and in my article is that of Tin A who was a Karen refugee who had lived in a refugee camp for over a decade and she ended up settling in Denver, but she found a job at a meat packing factory in Greeley, Colorado which is 60 miles away. 

TAMMY HO:  She would get in a van with other Karen refugees, do the commute, 60 miles there, 60 miles back, but she did it and was able to support her family and work. Unfortunately it also led to Covid exposure because JBS had a very punitive policy about working while sick and did not provide workers with any sort of protective equipment. 

KAYTE YOUNG:  By punitive you mean they needed to work even if they were sick? 

TAMMY HO:  Exactly, so they were told to work even if they felt sick and they were actually even told that they couldn't take bathroom breaks, so the idea was you have to stay on the line and keep working and if you don't work, you're not going to get paid. So, there were no paid sick leave allowances at JBS. 

KAYTE YOUNG:  The meat processing became an essential service and, so they were allowed to keep their factories running even though they were Covid hot spots and they weren't either provided with or it wasn't insisted that they provide all the protections that they possibly could to keep workers safe and, so workers were getting sick and workers were dying. And a lot of them were refugees. 

TAMMY HO:  Exactly. For me that was one of the startling discoveries during the pandemic. We were certainly well aware that frontline healthcare workers were putting their lives at risk by doing their jobs, and we knew that grocery store workers as well, but in terms of meat processing labor as Professor Elizabeth Dunn has mentioned, that is labor that most American's don't want to see and is intentionally invisiblized to the average passer by. The factories are not advertising [LAUGHS] that this is where, you know, some people considered gruesome labor is being performed. 

TAMMY HO:  What startled me during some of the reports that were being shared by say like the New York Times about Covid related deaths across the United States, was every now and then you would see a percentage that was Asian because we knew that black and Latinx populations were being exposed and dying prematurely at rates higher than, say whites and Asians. But at the same time there was always sort of a small percentage of Asians and I start to examine and I'm like, I know those are Burmese workers [LAUGHS] at the meat packing factories. This was all over the United States in North Dakota, in Colorado, in Georgia, probably in Iowa in Indiana, Minnesota. But, because the data was not disaggregated and because most people know the big five Asian populations, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Filipino, maybe Vietnamese, Burmese is not on most people's radar. Tracing and disaggregating that data is one of my endeavors as part of this research project. 

KAYTE YOUNG:  You talked about the difference in terms of perceptions and model minority views of Asian immigrants and that when we're talking about refugees and we're talking about people who maybe don't have as much education or work, like you said a part of agrarian community, they're going to occupy a different place in American society when come here. 

TAMMY HO:  Exactly. But what was interesting to me as well in the Tin A case that I mentioned in Greeley, Colorado, was that the way the union for the factory workers mobilized to not only honor those who had died prematurely of Covid or from Covid infection, but also the support that they gave to the workers and their families and that this is a situation in which refugees from Myanmar, or Burmese immigrants, can form solidarity both lived solidarity as well as political and economic solidarity with Latino populations and other white working class populations that are also placed in the same situation of precarity and risk because of socioeconomic status. 

KAYTE YOUNG:  Do you know much at this point about the Burmese refugees who have settled in Indiana or even in Bloomington? 

TAMMY HO:  My first visit to Bloomington was actually to look at their oral history archive here because they had recorded a number of interviews in oral histories with former student activists who had left Burma in 1988. So, in 1988 there were a series of actions by the military dictatorship and government that continuously disenfranchised people. One of the things the dictator did for example was he decided to change all the money and this was based on superstition and numerology. He just [LAUGHS] decided none of the money was good, he was going to issue new bills that were based on the number eight, [LAUGHS] because that was considered a lucky number. So, overnight if you had cash reserves, they were literally worthless. 

TAMMY HO:  People lost life savings and bank accounts and then there were other crackdowns on taxes on farmers and different workers, and the people were fed up and they had enough. I think there was a student at the university who perhaps was either beaten up by some soldiers or killed and then it just erupted, so it started with student protests and then they were joined by many other ranks, farmers, middle class workers, healthcare workers. So, 8.8.88, August 8th 1988, is a day that lives in infamy in Burmese history as one of the moments when the country took to the streets and fought back against military dictatorship. 

TAMMY HO:  Which is why subsequently when the military was able to crush that revolution, they changed the name of the country from Burma to Myanmar with the ostensible logic that they were shedding the legacy of Burmese British colonialism because the British had named the country Burma, they said no, we're going to give it a face lift, we're now Myanmar, which supposedly at the time was claimed to be more indigenous. So, the government tried to rebrand itself by giving [LAUGHS] the country a new name, but it was really the same logic of unjust rule and corruption and dictatorship by the military leadership. So after 1988, a number of the students who had fled to the borders of Burma and to the jungles outside of the urban centers, they ended up leaving the country. 

TAMMY HO:  Many of them ended up resettling in the mid-west and part of it was that universities in the mid-west were actually very interested in recruiting international students. So, they were able to come to places like Bloomington and Indianapolis and DeKalb, Illinois, and get a bachelor's degree or get a master's degree or a law degree. Some historians who were here at Bloomington recorded some of these interviews with the student activists from 1988 who had settled in the Bloomington area, so that was actually my first visit to Bloomington [LAUGHS] was to look at these oral history transcripts because this was pre-digital and the archives said no we won't scan them, we won't email them to you, you have to come and read them here. [LAUGHS] 

TAMMY HO:  So, I visited Bloomington and read the oral history archives and then now because Indianapolis has become a hub or center for Chin minority immigrants, that a lot of Chin families who now have children, those kids are now getting degrees here at IU or at Purdue. 

KAYTE YOUNG:  You mentioned Chin Indianapolis which I had not heard. 

KAYTE YOUNG:  Hadn't you really? [LAUGHS] 

INTERVIEWER:  No, I hadn't so that was news to me, that was really interesting. And, so that's just an area in Southport in Indianapolis or south Indianapolis where there's just a really huge concentration. 

TAMMY HO:  So, one Chin American scholar who's teaching at Yale, Doctor David Moe, anecdotally told me that he thinks there are 40,000 Chin who live in the Indianapolis area which is actually a bigger estimate than I've seen in print. 

KAYTE YOUNG:  What I saw was 20,000 just on the south side, in that Southport area, which is already pretty huge. 

TAMMY HO:  Yeah. [LAUGHS] The thing that's fascinating to me about the Chin population is, I think that because of limited vocabularies around ethnicity and racial difference that sometimes when people see or hear about Chin, in the United States, they assume you mean Chinese or there's a sort of slippage. 

KAYTE YOUNG:  Similar to what you talked about with the Karen? 

TAMMY HO:  Yes, exactly. So, Karen gets mistaken or conflated with Korean and Chin sometimes slips into, or is assumed to be, similar to Chinese or the same as Chinese. 

KAYTE YOUNG:  What are some of the other things you're thinking about looking at and do you think they will all be food related? 

TAMMY HO:  Some other options and suggestions, which may end up materializing as chapters in my book project, are looking at Burmese restaurants and also cookbooks or chefs. There are, I think, some really interesting chefs of Burmese ancestry that I've been tracking and following via the Internet and then certainly the Burmese restaurants that are incredibly popular, particularly in the Bay area in San Fransisco, Oakland, Berkley. So, that's one possible chapter and then cookbooks are another very popular source for food studies. The other story that I'm interested in, thinking a little bit more about or bringing into the conversation, is also transnational circuits of food. 

TAMMY HO:  There was a Pulitzer Prize award winning expose done by associated press journalists of Burmese migrants, that had been enslaved on Thai fishing boats, to basically fish for the Thai fishing industry and then that fish was then sold around the world and ended up in American grocery stores, purchased and consumed by US citizens and American consumers who probably did not know that their fish and their pet food had been harvested by people who had been enslaved. 

KAYTE YOUNG:  Yeah that story was really disturbing to hear because it sounded like it was, people really being held captive, like physically? 

TAMMY HO:  Exactly. They were being held in cages with chains and shackles around their legs and arms. That was quite a gripping story and the associated press reporters that followed the story were amazing, actually all female which was even more fascinating to me as a gender studies scholar. 

KAYTE YOUNG:  So, you think that might be one of the chapters in the book as well? 

TAMMY HO:  Yes, I'd to talk about that. I mean, honestly, they have their own book, because, of course, they published their investigative journalism first there's articles and then collected them in their own publication. But, not many folks talk about it or know about it, so I would like to bring it into my project as well. 

KAYTE YOUNG:  Yes, it definitely seems connected if you're talking about food systems and the way in which refugees from Burma are participating in it and involved. 

KAYTE YOUNG:  I just want to thank you so much for talking with me about this. I just really have enjoyed the way that you're thinking puts all these things together and also the way that you've made it so accessible. 

TAMMY HO:  Thank you for your interest and I really enjoyed our conversation. I'm pleased and honored to be part of the Earth Eats dialog. 

KAYTE YOUNG:  That was Tammy Ho, Professor of Gender and Sexuality Studies at University of California, Riverside talking about her research on Burmese refugees in the United States and their participation in our food system. Find links to her work and more at 

KAYTE YOUNG:  That's it for our show this week. Thanks for listening, we'll see you next time. The Earth Eats team includes Eoban Binder, Alexis Carvajal, Alex Chambers, Mark Chilla, Toby Foster, Daniella Richardson, Samantha Shemenaur, Payton Whaley and Harvest Public Media. Earth Eats is produced and edited by me, Kayte Young. Our theme music is composed by Erin Tobey and performed by Erin and Matt Tobey. Additional music on the show comes to us from Universal Production Music. Our executive producer is Eric Bolstridge. 

Professor Tammy Ho at lecturn, with screen behind her showing a mans face on a magazine cover and an image of sushi

In her talk at Indiana University in January of 2024, Dr. Tammy Ho shared her research about how sushi rolling became a common occupation for Burmese refugees in the United States. (Kayte Young/WFIU)

“We know that there are all sorts of good chemicals that come out of the dirt and working with land–working with plants–that are beneficial to our mood and our health. For refugee populations that have had to be on the run or had to live in refugee camps for decades, having a little piece of land that you can tend to that you can take care of and then see the results and not feel like you’re gonna be bombed out the next day–it brings a kind of peace of mind and a little bit of healing.” 

This week on the show, Tammy Ho, Professor of Gender and Sexuality Studies at University of California, Riverside, shares her research about refugees from Burma and their participation in the United States food system. We’ll learn about a supermarket sushi mogul, Burmese meatpackers as essential workers, and how a group of refugees saved a failing church by starting a community garden

Professor Ho visited the Indiana University campus in January, 2024 and gave a talk cosponsored by IU Department of Gender Studies and the IU Program in Asian American Studies. She sat down with Kayte Young in the WFIU studio for a conversation about her work. 

Sources and Further Reading

BurmAmerican Foodscapes: Refugee Re-settlement and Resilience, Tamara Ho

Refugees and racial capitalism: Meatpacking and the primitive accumulation of laborShae Frydenlund and Elizabeth Dunn

Music on this episode

The Earth Eats theme music is composed by Erin Tobey and performed by Erin and Matt Tobey.

Additional music on this episode from Universal Production Music.


The Earth Eats’ team includes: Eoban Binder, Alexis Carvajal, Alex Chambers, Mark Chilla, Toby Foster, Daniella Richardson, Samantha Shemenaur, Payton Whaley and Harvest Public Media.

Earth Eats is produced, engineered and edited by Kayte Young. Our executive producer is Eric Bolstridge.

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