Making Places Personal.
Within a hundred-mile radius of our house in Oark, Arkansas, you can find industrial pig and chicken farms, places where flesh is only measured in weight, where a half-dead but artificially fattened animal is the norm. Driving down the switchback Ozark Mountain roads, we often pass semi-trailers full of chickens, their bodies pressed together so tightly that it looks like they will suffocate. When those birds arrived at the Clarksville plant, a line of mostly Mexican workers would rip their innards out, would rip and rip and rip them out for so many days and hours that eventually their nails would become infected, their hands swollen, their joints stiff. In recent years, Tyson, the main chicken-processing company in the state, has replaced Mexicans with Burmese, who proved to be cheaper labor given the desperate situation in Myanmar. As the local Clarksville newspaper reported in June 2013, “The sudden Myanmarese population boom started more than two years ago when management at the Tyson chicken rendering plant in Clarksville hired a Myanmarese recruiter to help address problems with turnover and chronic absenteeism.”
My mom spent time volunteering with the Burmese community in Clarksville, a town 45 minutes from our house. The town of some 10,000 is home to 300 Burmese refugees of the persecuted Karen ethnic minority. They are 8,614 miles from home, and most of them don’t speak English. My mom helped Ler Pwe Paw, the daughter of one family, get the necessary official documents to enroll in high school. “The extended family bought a house, moved in and were doing well with most members working at Tyson, a fate I hoped to help my high schooler avoid,” said my mom.
In a 2013 letter, my mom wrote me, “I am working to get my new Burmese daughters acclimated to life in Clarksville. The 17-year-old is going to start 10th grade and she has almost no English skills. I asked about her clothing situation. She went to Walmart (where else is there?) and things were too big, too long and not colors she liked. She and her sister wear wrapped skirts and loose tops and flip flops, but winter is going to come, and they will need real clothes. I think the one going to high school needs to have the trappings of belonging as much as possible.” I wondered what future would await these daughters, and if they would be able to escape their destiny processing chicken parts. Strife and commercialism collide in global flows, bringing together unlikely pairs like the Myanmarese and Tyson.
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The New Territory is a 112-page, full-color, longform magazine published periodically by and for Midwesterners.
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