Wed to Home : Refugees Marry in O.C., but Hearts Are in Burma

Neither the bride nor the groom smiled during the ceremony, which was translated from a language they do not understand, in a country they do not understand either. When the American minister said, "You may kiss the bride," the bride was not kissed.

I am a stranger invited to this strange ceremony, snagged in a sort of cultural abyss. There is no music, no bridesmaids or ushers, nor is there incense or the bowl of water the Burmese use to symbolize the strength of the marriage vows.

This is, quite simply, the best that could be done. The clothing is borrowed, the wedding ring, a gift. There is no real family present. The couple's friend and elder speaks to them after the American minister is through.

They are like two streams coming together to form a river, he tells them. Water sustains life; it cannot be divided. "May you stay together until your bones fall to the soil," he says. "May you be loyal to each other and may you be happy. Victory. Victory. Victory."

The couple, now kneeling on the carpeting of the church floor, bow their heads and clasp their hands, as if in prayer, to give thanks to the other guests. There are only four of them in this otherwise empty church, Mesa Verde United Methodist in Costa Mesa, on a weekday afternoon.

But sitting in the pew, quiet, unsmiling too, I write in my notes, "Didn't kiss the bride. Didn't understand?" Somehow, this seemed like a big deal.

Nyunt Nyunt Wai, 25, and her groom, Aung Khaing, 33, are very new to this country, and I was expecting happy, at the very least, on this, their American wedding day.

But it is I who did not understand. I was thinking hackneyed: The Immigrant Dream, A New Life in the United States, maybe Get Rich Quick.

This is a dream that Wai and Khaing do not know. They want to go back to Burma, a free, democratic Burma. They thought that they would be there by now.

"I am very grateful that people here have helped us," says the groom. "If it weren't for this hospitality, I don't know where we would be now."

He waits stoically as his words are translated so that I may understand. Yet Wai's eyes pool with tears.

"I cannot forget what happened to Burma," she says. "This is always in my mind and when I think of it, I always cry. . . . I am lonely. I miss my brothers, my sisters, my family and those who are in trouble, those who are left behind, whose lives have been destroyed."

The other guests, all but one of them Burmese, listen closely, seemingly breathing in these words. None will ever recognize their Southeast Asian country as Myanmar, the name the latest cast of ruling military thugs decreed in 1989.

Lately there have been some encouraging, yet paltry, signs that international pressure against this pariah regime may be doing some good. It has released dozens of political prisoners, while keeping hundreds of others behind bars.

Aung San Suu Kyi, winner of last year's Nobel Peace Prize for her nonviolent campaign for democracy, was recently allowed a visit from her British husband. Still, she remains under house arrest; by July, it will be three years.

And Wai and Khaing are here.

Each escaped separately from Myanmar with little more than their lives. There were times when it seemed they should have died; many others did.

The couple have already had one marriage ceremony, on Aug. 4, 1989, at the Thai refugee camp where they met. There are no papers from that. Among the Burmese, marriage is cemented by word of mouth.

Wai had been studying chemistry at the University of Rangoon, now known as Yangon, when she joined the general strike begun at 8:08 p.m. on Aug. 8, 1988. Three fellow demonstrators were shot dead in front of her as they all marched in the street.

Later during her escape by foot through the jungle toward Thailand, she was stricken with malaria, and leeches left her with open sores on her skin. She feels fortunate, she says, because she was not raped.

Khaing was a lance corporal in the air force. He and 32 other airmen joined the pro-democracy demonstration, too. They had hoped to overthrow the regime, but they never got close. After Khaing and 10 others fled by boat to Thailand, they organized other refugees in a futile effort toward forming a guerrilla band.

Khaing would take food from the refugee camp, where Wai worked in the office, to the fighters in the jungle. But the group had only one M-16 and two crude muskets, which they would share. Wai was one of the two women learning to fight. The training lasted six months, until a cyclone leveled the camp.

Wai says she fell in love with Khaing because he made her smile. He was her protector in Thailand. Women need one there. Still, Wai was jailed for five months, as an illegal alien. The Thai government does not recognize the Burmese as refugees.

This, now, is their official status here. They are among the 100 or so Burmese refugees who will be admitted to the United States this year. They arrived on March 31, and are still waiting for promised government assistance, perhaps a temporary stipend of $300 a month, to kick in. They have signed an I.O.U. with the International Organization for Migration to pay back the cost of their flight here.

The Burmese community, meantime, is helping as much as it can. The couple are staying with a Burmese psychiatrist at his Anaheim home. Another Burmese immigrant, who owns a gas station in Long Beach, is paying Khaing as he learns how to pump gas.

Wai and Khaing say they will start English lessons soon. Wai would like to go back to school. She assumes chemistry is out, but perhaps computers might not be so bad.

"Things here are so different," she says. "Everything I see, I touch . . . . I can't quite adjust. Here, the students smile. In Burma, we didn't smile. We were so restricted. So I want to learn as much as I can. To help Burma."

As soon as the government falls, the couple say again and again, they will go back.

This is not The Immigrant Dream. This is The Patriot's Hope.

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