When we landed in Rangoon, the whole family was there: the uncles and the aunts, their faces and smiles reflecting the fading lights of Mingaladon Airport. Old, chartreuse light, pregnant with the dusty updraft of the potholed tarmac. Lights first installed in the 1970s, updated and fixed in—
—no. Never updated, rarely fixed. This was Burma, 1997, where everything you touched was a relic, a leftover, jury-rigged to survive like Frankenstein’s monster or moldering in rusted obscurity. The luminescence of the airport lights had corroded to the yellow of dry parchment, after years of sweating in tropical heat.
I was seventeen, away from America for the first time. Like any youngster on the road, I had hopes of adventure and exploration, dreams realized in the smiles of Burmese relatives, the aggressive pitch of taxi drivers outside the airport gates, the stream of blood-red betel juice spit that dribbled over the cracked footpaths, the hungry eyes of pye-dog packs.
Beyond the airport security gate, my great-aunt, Tin Tin Thein. Tall, graceful, long black hair pouring an ink waterfall across her back. I remembered that hair, or dreamed a trace of a memory, of sifting dark, jasmine-scented strands through my fingers as a toddler, when she stayed with my mother and helped raise me during my first year on Earth. Tin Tin—built like a willow with a spine of iron. She berated the security guards and customs officials until they smiled and threw their hands up, the olive-drab agents of one of the world’s most brutal totalitarian regimes cowed into embarrassed acquiescence by the sustained chiding of an energetic granny. Aunt Tinny, pushing through the guards, held my smooth, teenaged hands in hers.
“Let’s go home,” she whispered.
Those aren’t the words that typically begin a travel saga. My parents were behind me, and having your folks in tow isn’t how great adventures usually begin. But when you are young and abroad for the first time, the horizon seems endless, even if you’re seeing it with your relatives. A family friend picked us up, and we drove through Rangoon. Old, old Rangoon, a Southeast Asian Havana. Ancient cars, slain by decades of driving on un-maintained roads, revived by local mechanics working a sort of automotive necromancy on rusted shells that had turned from powder-blue to oxide-red in the typhoon-prone rice bowl that encircled the then-Burmese capital.
Rangoon was no thriving Asian sweatbox. Later in my life, I would visit or work in Jakarta, Manila, Kuala Lumpur, and Ho Chi Minh City. In those cities, humanity and concrete and neon press against each other like tinned sardines, creating a Malthusian vice that squeezes out a constant broth of traffic horns, durian rinds and the acidic tang of petrol. There was none of that in Rangoon, 1997. Burma, which had officially just become Myanmar—no one called it by the new name—was too isolated from the world to experience the growth that precedes megapolisation. Here, the night smelled of fruit and sizzling fry oil. There were stretches of Rangoon that were darker than the indigo night sky: black groves of coconut trees, copses of panadu. The orange reflection of candles and oil lamps shakily flickered off the gold leaf of Buddhist stupas—inverted bells that stood in areas once worshipped for their animistic energy, their powers of fertility, wealth, and luck, now dedicated to a humanistic philosophy that preached worldly renunciation. Candlelight and paraffin fire. Sodium bulbs barely illuminating the cracked streets. I won’t pretend there was no neon, but these were fitful bursts of electricity, likely to be snuffed by frequent power outages.
The car drove on, under starlight, which was visible even in a city of six million. We turned onto a street of large houses, huddled behind high walls. We stopped at a gate, tooted the horn. The wrought iron protested years of rust, then stood aside. An old man was waiting on the front step of a two-story house, a residence that was modest by American standards, enormous by Burmese. My dad inclined his head.
“Hello, sir,” he said. It was the first time I had heard my dad call anyone sir.
“Hi, Grandpa,” I said. My tone was respectful as well, if weighed with the affection of a grandson who used to play “sumo wrestler” with his ample-bellied grandfather. Still, I knew he was held in high public reverence. Born into British colonial Burma, my grandfather, or Po Po, became a leader of the colonial independence movement. For much of the 1930s and ’40s, he battled the British, then the Japanese, and then—following Burmese statehood—a long list of opium warlords, Kuomintang militias, communist insurgents, and hinterland bandits. At one point he was captured and held as a POW in a jungle camp. He made two escapes, succeeding in the latter attempt with the aid of Burmese commandos after piloting a Jeep over the slumped corpse of its driver.
Following a military coup that ended Burmese parliamentary democracy in 1962, Po Po, then a general, was seen as a threat to the dictatorship’s power base, but still considered a hero of the revolution. So he was sent into exile as a diplomat, where he served his country as a military attaché to Thailand and the UK, and ambassador to Yugoslavia and Israel. He brought his three children with him to all of these places, and in Israel, his youngest daughter met an American studying abroad—my dad. While the international, interracial relationship was not without its bumps, my grandfather would later tell me that, upon becoming a diplomat, he had expected at least one of his children to marry a foreigner. And besides, he saw a kindred soldier spirit in my father, who had spent a tour of duty in Vietnam.
In later years, Po Po retired from public life and became a staunch supporter of the Burmese democracy movement, a deeply religious Buddhist, a grandfather who would stick his belly out to play “sumo wrestler” with me. He was older now. I kissed his head in greeting.
The author's grandfather in London in the 1960s / photo courtesy of the author
Inside: rice, fermented fish, dried, flaky shrimp, chilies pounded and mixed with oil, salty fried shallots. Two old uncles, not blood relatives, but former officers under my grandfather’s command, called on us for dinner. Buddhist monks arrived, wearing dark saffron robes. They had come to bless the household on the eve of the homecoming of my Burmese mother and her American husband and their half-Burmese son. I was a senior in high school, suspicious of anything that smacked of religion, but even I was taken with the soft, whispered spirituality the monks seemed to embody.
We toasted to democracy in Burma, but kept our voices down. Who knew if the secret police were prowling too close to a window. Who knew what the government, which was keeping Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest, would do to a family that openly supported democracy, even if the scions of said family were war heroes?
The night wore on, and aunt Tinny led me upstairs to my bedroom. She hugged me, and her river of hair smelled like jasmine. I turned the lights off, but the room was aglow; silver moonlight chased candle shadows across the chocolate teak wood floor. Outside the steel lattice of the window, the wind blew wet and hot, and jungle crows sang to each other in dinosaur rasps. The night drew in. I saw the moon wink behind the palm fronds.
When we landed in Yangon, my uncle was drunk. The lights of the new airport terminal were reflected in a fluorescent backwash off of his head, shaved to the skin in prayer and, I assumed, preparation for mourning. When a close family member dies, many Burmese will spend at least a few days in a Buddhist monastery. He hugged my wife and me briefly and looked at our infant daughter, his great-niece, for the first time. “Hello dear,” he said.
The driver arrived in a new car: Chinese, climate-controlled to frosty chill, with an air freshener and moist towelettes in the seat pockets. We drove into traffic—there was traffic everywhere. Other new, climate-controlled Chinese cars packed the streets, exhaust to bumper, filled with attractive young people, well-dressed and chic. Had they been hiding the last time I was here? Or receiving posh, private educations in Australia, Singapore, and Britain? They drove to new whiskey bars, new Italian restaurants, new studio galleries, new clothing boutiques.
There were barely any new traffic lights, though. All of the new spoke to personal consumption, not public infrastructure. The only new public projects I saw were enormous temples and stupas built with the wealth and lucre of an emergent upper class. In a comparative religion class, I had once read about the prominence of duality in East Asian religions. This was perhaps its ultimate expression: gold-dusted monuments to renunciation springing up alongside a thousand temples of conspicuous consumption.
I first came to Rangoon, Burma, in 1997. This was Yangon, Myanmar—everyone used the new names now—in 2015. In the eighteen years that had passed, the country had clamped down on the democratic opposition, relaxed, clamped down again. In 2007, thousands of Buddhist monks had taken to the streets to protest the totalitarian regime; many had been beaten or shot for their efforts. In 2010, for reasons academics still argue about, Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest. In 2012, she and her National League for Democracy swept into power in the parliament. There had been no bloody revolution. The army stepped aside—not completely, but enough to allow for some kind of democratic reform and a steaming load of crony capitalism.
Two parties came to fill the vacuum of military oppression: From the West, an alphabet soup of NGOs and development agencies; from China, a small army of contractors and construction firms bringing wads of cash. Not many Burmese had benefited from the newcomers’ presence, but some had. They worked as translators and fixers and consultants, bought cars, built shops, and got in traffic jams as they drove their cars to the shops. In the eighteen years that had passed, I’d seen all this change unfold on frequent visits. Along the way I had met and married my wife, had a kid. And my relatives had gotten older: Great-uncles had passed. Great-aunts had become invalid.
And then, in October of 2015, my grandfather took ill. His organs were failing. He was soon bedridden, uncommunicative. Our daughter, Sanda—Burmese for moon— had never met her one surviving great-grandparent. Now was likely to be her last chance.
The car drove on, under neon lights, which blotted out the stars and cast a red glow on children rooting through trash, girls in hot pants, and dogs with hungry eyes. We turned onto a street of gigantic houses, huddled behind high walls and newly built fences crowned with razor wire and spikes. We stopped at a gate, tooted the horn. The wrought iron screamed at decades of rust, then stood aside. There was no one to greet us at the two-story house, a residence that was modest by the standards of the gaudy mansions that had sprouted up around it. Most of the family was at the hospital with Po Po.
My uncle poured himself a drink. We settled into the guest room, where the mildew had spread like a fungal web from the window A/C units. We waited to see if Aunt Tinny would come home to meet Sanda for the first time. An iPhone rang; my uncle called us downstairs. “Let’s go see Po Po.”
As we drove to the hospital, we got caught in another traffic jam. I took out a copy of the in-flight magazine I had saved from the plane and read an article about a Harvard alum who came to Yangon to partner with one of the country’s native oligarchs. Their grand business plan was to bring food trucks to Yangon. There was even talk of that most hipster of rodeos, a “food truck roundup,” which would gather near an ancient waterfront warehouse that was being converted into a studio space for contemporary art. The aim of all the above, according to the magazine, was to “ introduce art and culture and cuisine into Burma.”
Outside the car and its frigid air, in the heat haze of the outside world, I saw a mother suckle nurse a baby near a roadside noodle stand. A man squatted next to her, selling fried bananas crisping in peanut oil. Next to both of them was a wall overlaid with sketches of monks, hawkers, street life, village life. Next to that, a man hiked up his sarong and pissed on a pile of rubbish. It seemed odd, I mused, that the aristocrat and his Harvard friend wanted to bring something to Myanmar—street culture—that the country already possessed in spades. Art and food were already plentiful on the streets; it was the toilets and trash pick up that needed work.
I felt an anger growing. I wanted my old Burma, not this “new Myanmar.” The old Burma was palm trees in moonlight and bougainvillea petals in black hair; Buddhist monks who promised spirituality and political reform as opposed to golden pagodas built to the God of ego; bicycle bells instead of traffic jams. But then I immediately felt embarrassed, ashamed. The old Burma was also summary executions and no free press, poverty and starvation, secret police and the promise of torture for an overheard gripe in a tea house. The new Myanmar wasn’t perfect; even in 2015, the groundwork was being laid for the present-day displacement and genocide of the Rohingya people. But to want an old Orientalist fantasy back—no matter how beautiful the real edges of that fantasy often were—was the height of selfishness. I was indulging in the traveler’s conceit: wanting a country to bend to my desires, rather than bending myself to fit its reality.
We pulled up to the hospital. Inside: the beeps, the whirring lights, doctors and nurses rushing to their wards. New machines glinted under the lights, which glowed with the consistent power of reliable electricity. In the old Burma, I thought, my grandfather would likely already be dead.
We entered his room. The whole family was there: the uncles, the aunts, their eyes reflecting the worry of sleepless nights. Tin Tin, now in her eighties, had almost collapsed in grief, her river of black hair now wisped with cirrus clouds of grey and white.
In his youth, my grandfather was a tiger. Tall, broad-shouldered, full-faced, he had led soldiers into the mountains of the Golden Triangle to set ambushes for drug runners and bandits. Later in life, he wore bespoke tailored suits, drank scotch in one hand, and smoked a cigarette in the other while talking military tactics with Moshe Dayan and negotiating treaties with Josip Broz Tito. He could not smile now; there was a feeding tube in his throat. He could not run at me screaming, “sumo!” because his groin was attached to a catheter. His hair was white and thin. His hands, which had held machetes and assault rifles and scotch, were liver-spotted and paralyzed.
But his eyes, clouded and misted with cataracts and pain, turned to me and Sanda. She held out her arm, her fingers, and clutched his nose in her tiny, quarter-Burmese hands. He kept his eyes on his great-granddaughter. She kept her hand on her great-grandfather. The room was still.
The author's grandfather, with his daughter Tin Tin and great-granddaughter Sanda, in 2015
They held the moment for a few seconds, or maybe years; it was hard to say. I know that eventually we left and I sobbed into my arm, knowing that in truth the old Burma I wanted had nothing to do with jasmine and moonlight. It was the place where my family was alive. For all the romance I once wanted from travel—escape, adventure, possibilities—when all was said and done, I made the journey so that there could be a homecoming.
A homecoming could happen across many continents. It was not a physical place, but a family’s embrace. Or an infant’s fingers digging into her great-grandfather’s flesh.
U Thein Doke, a father of modern Burma, now Myanmar—my grandfather—died the next day. He had seen his country free itself from the shackles of British colonialism and Japanese imperialism. He had seen it torn apart by civil war, then repressed by military rule. He had seen it stagnate through decades of misrule, seen it fight for its democratic voice. He had seen all of these things because he had fought for them, and when he was close to death’s door, he fought for one more thing: a glimpse of his great-granddaughter.
I had been wrong. The old Burma and the new Myanmar shared the same moonlight.