Karen Culture

Karen Culture, By Sunday Paw and Eh K Blue Lah, Denver, CO, USA

The Karen ethnic minority group from Myanmar has their own unique culture passed down as heritage by their ancestors. As you prepare for your trip, here are some helpful insights.

About Eating:

During eating time food will be shared but meals are often eaten in silence. The reason for this is that for many years Karen people have been forced to always be ready to quickly escape enemy attacks. They have to be very cautious about their surroundings. Therefore, they have to eat fast and quietly to not alert the enemy. After many years, this style of eating has become part of Karen culture.

When a guest is visiting at home or at work place, guests are the first to be served at any mealtime and then the host will eat later. However, if the guest requests for the host to eat with him/her, the host (only adults, often male, the head of the house) will obey and will start eating after guests have taken the first bite. As per tradition, Karen people eat with their hands.

Gender Roles:

In Karen culture, women and men have their own roles.

Women are often at home cooking, cleaning, raising kids, weaving, and foliage vegetables in the wild..

Men are often out in the rice field doing the heavy work, carrying water, building, hunting, fishing, and providing resources for the family. Even though, men and women have their own roles, as man can hunt, fish, and farm, women too have those skills. Likewise, as women cook, men can also cook and do the other work women do. Weaving clothes is more of the women’s expertise, while men are typically the ones to weave crates, baskets, and hats. Even so, there are more women who can weave items and men who can weaves clothes.

Affection and PDA:

The only way the opposite sex of Karen people should show affection towards each other is through smiles. Other forms of affection such as hugging and kissing are forbidden among the opposite sex of young adults and teenagers. Grown ups do not practice public displays of affection or affection itself towards another grown up nor to young adults and teenagers. Only babies are given public display of affection because it’s innocent. Today, many young adults from opposite sex, whether they live in western countries or eastern, they will show public displays of affection which is influenced by western culture through television and being part of it. Affections are forbidden because it’s disrespectful and creates lust.

Respect for Elders:

Children are always taught to show respect towards adults whether the adult is a stranger or not. When children are passing by an adult who is sitting down, they must pass behind the adult and ask for permission to pass behind the adult. When they pass they must bow as they pass by. That is to show respect and to avoid interruption and distraction. When children choose to walk between two older people or adults talking to each other, they must bow as they walk to show respect and avoid interruption.

When someone has extended their legs, and if they are in the path you are walking, you should never cross or walk over the legs. If you accidentally cross over them, you should immediately step back across them. If you don’t, it is considered rude and could even cause a curse! It is best to politely ask the person to move his or her legs before walking. Never walk over a person’s legs or body!

Respectful Greetings:

When greeting, such as shaking hands, Karen people use both hands – one hand to shake, and the other to support the hand that is shaking the other person’s to show that their whole body is present to this greeting. When giving and receiving something, Karen people use both hands and they bow to each other. It is also common for younger Karen people to cross their arms when passing by their elders. This too, is to show respect and politeness. Eye contact is not used as it shows aggression. Your full attention is shown when using both hands while shaking, and responding to someone who has talked to you. That response can be a body language such as nodding and shaking heads.

Per Karen tradition, younger people will often cross their arms as a sign of respect to their elders and to teachers or other community leaders. You’ll often see this as you encounter students on the path, or when you arrive in the classroom.

When Karen people address each other, it is disrespectful for younger people to call the older ones by name. Instead, they address the older one by grandma, grandpa, if they are the age of the grandparents of the addressee. They use aunt and uncle, if they are of the age of the addressee’s aunt and uncle. And Karen people use older brother, older sister or younger brother or younger sister. If not addressing someone older, Karen people can call people by their nicknames because it is OK for the older ones to address younger ones by their names.

Karen people address parents by the father or the mother of the nickname of the eldest son or daughter. For an example, Mu La Sa’s mother or mother of Mu La Sa.

When addressing teachers, Karen people will also not call them by their name. They call them teacher or “thera” (for men) and “theramu” (for women). Example “Thera John” or “Theramu Mary”, or simply “Thera” or “Theramu”.

Most of the time the older Karen people will only address younger ones by their childhood nickname or they might make up a nickname for them. Friends among friends will also call each other by nicknames. Everyone in the village will address each other as if they were family. Because Karen people take care of each other, each other’s children, and each other’s parents. That’s what makes Karen culture beautiful.

When you say “Thank you” to a Karen person, they would not typically say “you’re welcome” but rather “Thank you” back to you.

Dress Code:

Karen people wear clothes that don’t reveal too much of their skin. It is an expression of respect to their community and surroundings.

Women usually wear clothes with short sleeves that cover their shoulders and skirts or shorts that extend below their knees. At specific places such as schools, offices, and churches, women should always wear skirts or surround below their knees and lower.

For More Information:

See the Cultural Orientation Resource Center