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Poet uses words to empower others, inspire change

Meet the Future: Thang Lian

Name: Thang Lian 
School: East Kentwood High School
Jam: Poetry and Politics 

Kentwood — East Kentwood senior Thang Lian shares his story unapologetically through his poetry.  

Thang’s story, of fleeing Myanmar and settling in the United States as a young child, is told through his portfolio of poems, which recently won a Gold Key Award from the 2021 West Central Michigan Scholastic Art & Writing Competition hosted by Kendall College of Art and Design. 

Thang Lian Writing Portfolio
Leaving Home: A Bittersweet Journey
A Call Home
The Gates of Freedom
Ka Pa (Father)
Just 1055 Miles
Slippery Lies
Just as Bitter, Just as Sweet

“Writing has always been my form of expression. Because I came from a country where people are deprived of education and opportunity, I relished in the opportunities to express myself freely through writing.”

— Thang Lian

The Gold Key Award is the top regional honor and Thang’s poems will be sent to New York for national judging, where they will be considered for the national award.

How did you choose your poems to submit? 

“I was hesitant at first, but then my friends encouraged me to submit my poems. Poetry allows you to tell your story in a rich, simple way. I wanted to submit this portfolio because it is currently the best representation of my story that I’ve ever written.”

“Leaving Home: A Bittersweet Journey” chronicles Thang’s journey from his home country, Myanmar, to the United States. At 5 years old, Thang arrived in the U.S. with his mom and dad, leaving behind his grandmother and favorite cousins, who he remembers let him win during games of tag. 

In his first five years of life, Thang experienced civil conflict and unrest in Myanmar. As refugees, Thang and his family traveled through Thailand, Malaysia and finally, to Kentwood. 

“Writing has always been my form of expression. Because I came from a country where people are deprived of education and opportunity, I relished in the opportunities to express myself freely through writing.”

East Kentwood senior and Myanmar refugee Thang Lian received the Scholastic Gold Key Award for his poetry about coming to the United States (courtesy)

How old were you when you started writing poetry? 

“My second-grade teacher encouraged me to tell my story through poetry. I began experimenting with free-verse and loved it. Writing free-verse is like water, it just flows out of you and tells your story.”

Adjusting to a new country, culture and community proved to be a struggle for Thang during his first few years. He identifies middle school as the time he discovered the opportunity to use writing to connect with his community and culture.

“Initially I didn’t feel like I fit into my community. I was the new kid on the block, didn’t understand English and didn’t have any friends. I grew up trying to Americanize myself and push away my culture to fit in. I saw how prideful other Asian American students in my school were about their own culture and realized how proud I should be about my roots and my culture. Writing was a form of celebration and reconnecting with who I was and where I came from.”

In third grade, Thang applied and was accepted into Kentwood’s gifted and talented program, PEAKS. During his years at Discovery Elementary and Crestwood Middle School, Thang pursued academics and developed fruitful relationships with his teachers and peers. 

“I am beyond grateful and am very blessed to have an amazing group of friends. They’ve helped me cultivate my writing and empower me to write from the heart. Because of the connections I’ve made, I let my story shine and have grown in a positive way.”

Is there a teacher or teachers who have impacted your life?

Definitely. My second grade teacher, Ms.(Amanda) Tollas, my middle school social studies teacher, Ms.(Melissa) Truskowski, and my high school advanced English teacher, Ms.(Kourtney) Merrill. They have all helped nurture my talent and encouraged me to write.”  

Thang also serves as co-President of the Asain Student Union, facilitated by East Kentwood’s AP art teacher, Le Tran.  

“I’ve been filled with gratitude for my school and the community for their overwhelming support. I’m grateful for the people who have nurtured me and sacrificed their time to allow me to bloom into the person I am today.”

What is your writing philosophy? 

“My philosophy in life is to perceive the world not for what it is, but what it can be.”

Thang also believes writing is a powerful form of political activism. 

“For countries like Myanmar, who do not have the necessary funding or education to provide for their youth, being able to express themselves is a privilege. The purpose in my writing is to help other refugees see they are not alone and that they are a part of a supportive community.”

Thang Lian serves as Co-President of the Asian Student Union, alongside officers Christina Nguyen, Anh Duong-Tran, Lian Le, Naomi Philip, Whitney Tran, Amy Van and Tiffany Pham (courtesy)

What are your other hobbies/interests?

“Politics is the other essential driving force in my life. I want to use my writing to change the world to be an equitable community that stands united against any form of oppression.” 

Thang devotes his free time to the Asian Student Union and the Chin Leaders of Tomorrow, a national youth-led organization. Through both groups, Thang and his peers use social media platforms to educate others about world events and encourage action.

Resulting from the military seizing control of Myanmar’s government, mass protests have been taking place across the country since the start of February.

“With the Chin Leaders of Tomorrow, we hosted a virtual protest seen by over 7,000 people all over the world. I wrote a letter to senators to take action in Myanmar and shared it on social media for people to copy and paste and send to their senators,” Thang explained.

Do you plan to pursue writing professionally? What is your plan after graduating high school?

“In my next steps I hope to attend the University of Michigan to major in international relations with a minor in political science. One day, I would also love to be a published author and tell my story about refugeeism, to empower other people who had similar experiences.” 

After receiving a college education, Thang hopes to start a non-profit organization to help refugees and immigrants acclimate into society.

“I want to be a voice for change and tear down the barriers of inequities in the world.”

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Alexis Stark
Alexis Stark
Alexis Stark is a reporter, covering Caledonia and Kenowa Hills and is a roving reporter for Byron Center, Kentwood, Wyoming and Grand Rapids Community College. She grew up in metro Detroit and her journalism journey brought her west to Grand Rapids via Michigan State University where she covered features and campus news for The State News. She also co-authored three 100-question guides to increase understanding and awareness of various human identities, through the MSU School of Journalism. Following graduation, she worked as a beat reporter for The Ann Arbor News - covering stories on education, community, prison arts and poetry.  Following a stint as a copywriter for a Grand Rapids area PR firm, she transitioned from communications to freelance writing and reporting for SNN.  Read Alexis' full bio

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