Justin Thang uses fashion to educate, promote Burmese traditions and fit into American culture
By helping to organize the fashion show for the Myanmar Union Day and previous Chin National Day celebrations, Justin Thang is doing more than simply celebrating these historically-significant events. He’s using the clothing to educate others, promote the Burmese culture and reflect back on how far he and his family have come.
“Cultural costume or fashion is the easiest way to promote who you are and introduce where you come from,” he said. “This is one of the unique things we have as a Burmese youth. We can show our American friends where we come from, who we are and introduce them to what we face to get here. I thought that this is the way I can fit into American culture.”
Thang moved to the United States at 17, arriving in a small Michigan town in 2007. A year later, he and his family moved to Indianapolis where he enrolled as a junior at Perry Meridian High School. He started seeing that many of the other Burmese youth have different traditional customs.
Thang participated in his first “fashion walk” at the Perry Meridian 6th Grade Academy in 2008. He also joined the fashion group for the Chin National Day celebrations that year.
“Until 2011, we only had four or five couples all the time showing almost the same colors, type of fashion,” Thang said. “I was like, we have more than that. Why do we only have five all the time? I asked can I start leading this fashion show? They trust me and they let me do it.”
The first year Thang organized the show during Chin National Day, 2013, there were 16 female and 16 male participants modeling clothing on stage at the Southport Life Center. The next year, there were 20 pairs of participants.
“We stepped up every year,” he said. “I was so motivated by seeing them. A lot of our youth who grow up in this country still love our fashion and still love to wear our costume on National Day to show who they are. The last year was the most successful year.”
To give back to these participants, Thang asked to set up a scholarship. Chin Town Auto Sales donated $1,100 last year to give as a scholarship. Forty females signed up for the fashion show last year; they could only accept 20. Three people who were most involved, enthusiastic, was selected winner of the scholarship.
“We practiced two months straight for Chin National Day,” Thang said. “Four days a week. I took this on as my mission field. We practice, pray for each other and share our background. I shared about what we face in the U.S. when we arrive. Some of us, we’ve been here 10 years or more. We almost forget where we come from. Especially high school kids, they are so busy with technology, schoolwork, activities. When we come together and share, I see the transition. I share what Chin National Day is about, why we celebrate and explain the costume.”
While Thang has had to step down from leading Chin National Day celebrations this year to concentrate on his own startup organization, he was asked by the Burmese American Community Institute to help with the 70th Annual Myanmar Union Day fashion show.
“I have been working with Chin, but not all of Burma,” Thang said. “We only have one month. We practice for three nights. The committee helped get eight ethnic group costumes and we used BACI students. The thing I liked this year, it was lovely to see it all come together and show unity and diversity. We use only English. We have 135 ethnic groups in total in Burma. We still have fun.”
Most of the refugees from Burma on the Southside are from the Chin State of Burma. Within the Chin State alone, there are 53 subgroups and each have their own unique fashion. Thang’s family is from Falam. In Falam there are 11 groups. Thang’s attire is Khualsim and (Lenhrin), dialects of the Falam language. Each layer and detail in the clothing is significant and tells about a piece of their history and ancestors.
Thang is currently a student at Crossroads Bible College and works as an interpreter for a health network. Before he came the the U.S., his mother, who was a teacher, would ask what he wants to be when he grows up. His reply was a model or singer, to which his mom wasn’t too pleased.
“I always had in my mind who I want to be when I grow up,” Thang said. “Sometimes they ask me why I am doing this, as a person who will become a minister or pastor, who will preach about God. I feel like God has given me a talent, a little knowledge about fashion, and I can use the talent and gift that I get to promote my culture with fashion. I am here in this country for a purpose. When God brought us here, He brought us with our culture, our customs, our language. I feel as a Burmese youth, I have a responsibility to show and share about where I come from, who I am and what is my history about. If all the people in the United States have a willingness to share who they are, we will make a better country.”
Now that the Union Day celebrations have concluded, Thang is looking forward to his next venture. Once he graduated high school, he felt a pull to give back to the people of Burma.
“I told my mom I need to help the people I left in Burma,” he said. “In the years I live in the United States, it changed me so much. I graduated high school, I have my own car, I live in peace. I have American friends and family who love me so much. But the friends who I grew up with are the same people who live in mountain, who don’t have hope, who still live in fear of the Burmese government, military dictatorship. The people back home have not changed.”
In 2013, he and his pastor met with more than 20 students from Perry Meridian Middle School. They told them, “you here are very lucky. When you go home, you have a fridge full of food – apples, veggies – food you want to eat. When you want to go to school, the school bus picks you up in front of your house. The people back home don’t have a school in their village. They walk to another village. I start seeing emotion. They want to help.”
The group, naming themselves Hope for Tomorrow, helped to raise $400, which was used to purchase clothing and textbooks in a Burmese village for the year.
“The government requires students go to school in uniforms, green and white, but they don’t provide it,” he said. “This school, they go to school six years straight without uniform. If the government finds out, they will punish them.”
The group helped another school the next two years. Knowing the struggles of first arriving in the U.S., Thang felt a need to help other refugees. Near the end of 2015, the group of students joined again. They began brainstorming about what they needed when they first arrived: transportation, help reading mail and bills, help going to appointments, knowing where to go in school and much more.
Thang has taken those ideas into consideration as he opened an office for Hope for Tomorrow, hopefortomorrowusa.com, on 3020 S. Meridian St., Indianapolis. He aims to begin offering homework assistance for elementary and middle school students (BACI helps high school students), basic english classes for daily conversation for parents, immigration rights classes, cultural education nights and community service activities. He intends to celebrate a grand opening next month and later apply for 501c3 status.
“We want to be a bridge builder between Burmese community and American,” Thang said. “The most exciting thing about my Hope for Tomorrow is the reactions from the community. The adults, they feel like they have hope. We didn’t officially open yet, but the reaction from the community has excited me so much.”