Finding a place to exist as a cultural entity in Akron, Ohio

Young Ka'Ren men and boys gather around a memorial as the first Martyr Day after the national pandemic lockdown concludes. The holiday commemorates the death of Saw Ba U Gyi, the first president of the Ka'Ren National Union. (Lawrence Sumulong)
Young Ka'Ren men and boys gather around a memorial as the first Martyr Day after the national pandemic lockdown concludes. The holiday commemorates the death of Saw Ba U Gyi, the first president of the Ka'Ren National Union. (Lawrence Sumulong)

Photographer Lawrence Sumulong’s project “A Proposed State” came about after he visited his father-in-law’s Boy Scout troop meeting in Ohio. The troop is mostly made up of Ka’Ren teenagers from Myanmar, also known as Burma. They live in Akron’s North Hill neighborhood, originally populated by Italian, Croatian, Polish and Irish immigrants. It also happens to be the neighborhood his father-in-law grew up in.

Sumulong sent me the following description of the project, presented below:

“Overseas, the Ka’Ren have been waging a decades-long war for liberation against the Burmese military junta’s violent and genocidal persecution. The working title of this series refers to the concept of Kawthoolei, or the endonym for an autonomous nation that the Ka’Ren have sought to establish in Myanmar. It also speaks to what I feel is the community’s profound desire for visibility and agency within the United States.

“ ‘A Proposed State’ continues my engagement with the daily lives and histories of emerging Asian and Pacific Islander communities, often specific ethnic groups that experienced forced migration — the marginalized within the margins.

“What I am doing differently from years and projects past is more deeply weaving the concept of locality and diasporic experience visually. As such, these pictures are inkjet prints on Philippine gampi paper (a nod to my own heritage) overlaid on northeastern Ohio milkweed paper. Both types of paper were handmade by Allie Morris of the Morgan Conservatory in the neighboring city of Cleveland. The milkweed paper was grown in their garden.

“There are larger Ka’Ren communities across the United States. However, my connection to them would not have the same personal stake. There is something shared between the community and myself in this notion of northeast Ohio as a second home. My wife’s family is historically from Cuyahoga County, Akron, Ohio, and as such this place is one of new roots and memories for me as well.

“However, it would be incredibly irresponsible for me to lean too heavily into the notion that the Ka’Ren community and I share or navigate reality and this surrogate home in the same ways. In a book that I was reading contemporaneously as I was working on this project, ‘The Loneliest Americans’ by Jay Caspian Kang, he incisively points out the marked striations across Asian American communities and experiences across time.

“Being out here, speaking with community members, and thinking about the fraught category of ‘Asian American,’ obfuscation appears closer to what’s on the ground.

“Especially for a working-class community trying to survive and make ends meet after the pandemic, it is a fight to preserve let alone define who they are.

“On a very pragmatic level, it is a struggle financially and logistically to simply find a space to exist as a cultural entity.

“Above all, my aim was to share Ka’Ren history and Ka’Ren American experiences in the present as a point of convergence and divergence. My hope is that the audience finds both connection and idiosyncrasy in my portrayal of this burgeoning community.

“Lastly, my profound gratitude to Ajino Wah, the chairman of the Ka’Ren Community of Akron, for opening up the community to me over the years. His kindness, patience and belief made this all possible.”

We’re publishing this work close to Aug. 12, which happens to be a big day for the Ka’Ren community. It is when its members celebrate Martyr’s Day. Sumulong contacted Hsa Win, one of the community’s leaders, to help explain the importance of the day.

Here’s what he had to say:

“In my past experience, Ka’Ren Martyr’s Day has been a day of gathering together at one location by sharing joy, mourning our respected leaders that has given their lives for the Ka’Ren people, and it’s also a learning day for our Ka’Ren people to reflect their history, pride, culture and most importantly their identity. This year, I hope to see the same thing. I want to see Ka’Ren people continue to preserve this particular celebration in the city of Akron. So that we can be visible and we can show other communities Ka’Ren does exist. In the next 5-10 years, I would like to see the Ka’Ren community of Akron have its own community office. A community center that is willing to provide assistance to the Ka’Ren people that are facing language barriers, offer driver’s license classes, U.S. citizenship class, dance class, language classes, etc. In this way, we can keep the Ka’Ren community prosperous and thriving.”

You can see more of Sumulong’s work on his website, here.