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A taste of Burma in East Otter Tail County

New York Mills native and author Bernice Koehler Johnson signs one of her books at a special book reading held August 14 at the New York Mills Regional Cultural Center.

Try sampling some skewered prawns, diving into some Danbauk chicken, or tasting some tamarind pork-- as photos of malnourished, war-torn, and disease-ridden people flash in front of you.

To say it's unsettling is a gross understatement.

Images from Burma and Thailand were cycled in a photo slide show Friday, August 14 at the Eagles Café in New York Mills. Featuring everything from migrant housing to victims of "Jungle Disease", the foreign faces on the screen brought a distant reality closer to home.

While the images played, a pungent odor filled the back dining room at Eagles Café. An authentic Burmese dinner was prepared by the Eagles staff, providing locals with a taste of some exotic cuisine.

In order to make appropriate selections for the Burmese dinner, the Eagle Café enlisted the help of Bernice Koehler Johnson, a New York Mills native who was responsible for the Burmese dinner, and subsequent book reading at the NYM Regional Cultural Center. Eagles staff traveled all the way to Fargo to purchase some of the necessary ingredients from an Asian market.

The Burmese dinner was served buffet style, and included three meat options. Dessert plates were presented after the meal, with each plate containing portions of palm sugar sago, golden semolina pudding, and orange and lemongrass pudding.

After everyone had settled down with their meal, a one-hour documentary entitled "In the Shadow of the Pagodas" was shown on a screen. The documentary explained the history of Burma, a country controlled for nearly 50 years by an aggressive military junta.

Included in the documentary were the Shan people, the group author Bernice Koehler Johnson works with in Thailand. "The Shan are the largest ethnic group in Burma," Bernice later explained during her book reading.

Bernice has lived and taught English in Spain, Indonesia, Ecuador, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, and Thailand. Originally from New York Mills, she presently lives in Minnesota and Thailand--as her visa allows.

Many of Bernice's relatives still live in the Minnesota lakes area, with her brother, Buzzer Koehler, well-known as the New York Mills postmaster. Bernice's family members from throughout the area attended the Burmese dinner and book reading. By the time the book reading started at 7:30 p.m., a group of around 40 people had amassed to hear Bernice read from her book.

"The Shan: Refugees Without a Camp" is a mix of memoir, travelogue, and history as told by Bernice. In the book she recounts the trials and triumphs of Shan youth who have escaped slow genocide in Burma by fleeing to Thailand. Many of the children Bernice teaches have fled to Thailand with their parents, who live with the constant fear of being deported and subjected to torture, imprisonment, and death.

Bernice speaks to church groups, school groups, and civic groups, talking about the plight of Shan refugees and raising money for projects her former students have initiated, such as teaching the English, Shan, and Thai languages to Shan refugee children.

Although her passion continues to grow for those on the other side of the world, Bernice says she still harbors a deep appreciation for the New York Mills area. "I love being here and seeing bears--black bears--and deer," she told her audience at the cultural center. Bernice returns to the area regularly to visit her brothers.

She plans to return to Thailand August 24 to continue her work there. After releasing her book, Bernice explained that it is no longer safe for her to travel into Burma. Instead, she plans to continue to help the Burmese people as much as she can, just across the border in Thailand.

One of the common questions Bernice says she gets is why she refers to the country as "Burma" rather than "Myanmar." According to Bernice, "Myanmar" is the name given by the illegal Burmese government. Bernice, the Burmese refugees she works with, and the United States government all refuse to accept this renaming.

Bernice also shared her story about how she ended up in Thailand. It all started when she saw a job posting online for an English teacher needed for refugees in Burma. At her August 14 book reading, one of the selections Bernice read was about her first day at the school.

As Bernice recounted some of the unthinkable tragedies her students and their families have endured, the crowd at her book reading sat in collective silence. After the atrocities were shared, Bernice revealed to her audience her own hope for the Burmese people. It is through education that Bernice sees the opportunity to transform the nation, providing the brave Shan students with the tools they need to some day return to their country and help bring about a long sought after democracy.

In concluding her presentation in New York Mills, Bernice shared about one of the most profound lessons she taught her Shan students. She had the kids read Mary Oliver's poem "The Summer Day."

The last lines in the poem pose a poignant question: "Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?"

Bernice says she initially regretted teaching the poem to her students, as the realization dawned on her just how few choices her students really have in life. However, as the years have passed, Bernice came to realize just how thankful she is that she introduced the poem. She's seen these incredibly passionate and resilient Shan children grow up to do some outstanding things, bringing hope to Bernice and hope to a country desperately in need of change.