How do you say dollar store in Burmese?
It’s very likely the first Burmese take on that all-American institution — the dollar store.
In a move that highlights the diversity of Alhambra’s Asian immigrant population, Kyaw Myanmar $ Store recently replaced the Dollar Indian Store on the corner of Mission and Atlantic.
The proud new owner, Thin Thin Kyaw, sees a business opportunity providing goods to her fellow immigrants from Myanmar (Burma) despite the challenges of importing products from a nation still under U.S. sanctions. She also hopes that the modest corner store, with its bold new sign emblazoned with Burmese letters, will draw local attention to the transformation her native country is undergoing.
Kyaw’s father, Maung, has been an Alhambra resident for more than a decade. He says that when he tells people about his homeland, located in Southeast Asia, on a sliver of land between India, China, and Thailand, they often think he is talking about somewhere in the Caribbean: "When we say Burma, they say Bahamas," Kyaw said. "They have never heard of it. We just come here to let people know what Burma is, and how we are struggling."
The store's opening comes at a hopeful time for the resource-rich but revenue-poor nation. After more than a half century of military rule, Burma is holding elections and freeing political prisoners, and there is talk in the international community of lifting sanctions. Joseph Stieglitz, the economist and Nobel laureate, wrote recently that he believes the changes are as significant as the Arab Spring, but require a lifting of sanctions to be completed.
In the meantime, Thin Thin Kyaw quickly discovered how lack of free trade impacts pricing in an import business. When she took over the store from the previous Indian owners, who had decided to focus their efforts on their new restaurant and store in Rosemead, her aim was to add products from her native country and elsewhere in Southeast Asia to the Indian wares, as a way of expanding the shop’s clientele. But while sourcing the Indian products was easy — warehouses exist locally for Indian goods and shipping is free on purchases of $1,000 or more — getting the Burmese goods turned out to be a challenge. “The sanctions are here, so the stuff cannot get out right away from Burma,” she said. Instead, she has to import them from producers in Thailand, or ask friends and family visiting Burma to bring them back in their suitcases.
Word has already spread quickly in San Gabriel Valley’s Burmese community, amongst the largest in the nation. Most of the area’s immigrants come from Burma’s small Chinese minority, according to Chin Khai, pastor of Alhambra’s Myanmar Full Life church in Alhambra. Although he says the community is growing and includes poorer refugees and reflects Burma’s full ethnic diversity, most in the San Gabriel Valley are relatively affluent and educated: “Doctors, engineers, business people,” Khai said. “People who are looking for a good place, a nice place, they also come and live in this area. People who have their family members and settled here.”
At his church, he says, the news of the market has created a wave of excitement. “We just spread the news,” he said. “People are happy.” He only wishes another Burmese store would open closer to where he lives in Arcadia.
For Kyaw, a former zoology teacher, it is also an opportunity to return to her roots after a tumultuous journey. Kyaw fled Burma in 1988 amid a deadly repression of student uprisings. She went with her then husband to Jamaica where she taught school, but when she moved without him to the United States, she couldn’t find a job in her profession. Instead, she raised her daughters in Ohio and opened a sushi restaurant.
With her youngest daughter now in college, Kyaw decided to move to be closer to family in Alhambra. But she had a hard time finding a job in the Los Angeles area as a foreign-educated, middle-aged woman. One day, she noticed that that the Indian Dollar store was up for rent and decided to become an entrepreneur once more.
Putting the sign up in Burmese was a particular point of pride. Burmese is related to Tibetan and Chinese, but has its own script of circular letters that even her own children can barely read, but which she felt was important to put on the wall to show that her nation had left its impression in this corner of California, where one more often sees Chinese, Vietnamese, and Spanish signs.
The argument that many Westerners make for lifting sanctions is that it would help the nation’s poor farmers and enable multinational companies to provide capital needed to develop Burma’s financial system. But Kyaw sees an additional direct benefit for expatriots, who for decades have been largely cut off from their favorite childhood products. She would love to be able to import products whose names she has never learned in English and can't find locally: a purple fruit with white inside, or special flowers that are used in salad. “We’re waiting for those things to eat,” she said, eyes gleaming as she stand behind her new counter.