Caroline remembers two young soldiers—boys, really—in the loose, sandy fatigues and combat boots of the military junta, flexing and posing with their rifles beside the railroad track for her camera; she recalls, mostly, fear shivering through her body, as photos of the regime were strictly forbidden. But I do not. What I do remember is that the earth, all over the country, was a deep volcanic red. It was dry season, and Myanmar (Burma) was scorching. The ground simmered and cackled. The air tasted like burned ash.
“Where are you from?” Our big-shouldered, mahogany-skinned driver asked us. Outside, along the highway, women in straw hats and long-sleeve blouses were lifting blocks of concrete into wheelbarrows. They stood up and wiped the sweat from their brows, their gaze lingering on us—one Asian woman, three white—as we passed. This was, of course, before things started to change in Burma.
“America,” we said.
His eyes shot to the rearview mirror, the sea-black pupils glowing, “America! It is the land of Obama, a hero! You have democracy!” He was almost shouting, a fist in the air, “Hope! Yes, we can!”
The four of us laughed. He smiled, his uneven teeth stained red with betel juice. The exhilaration glimmering between us reminded me of the thrill, the delirious, intoxicated feeling that had swept across our college campuses at the height of the Obama campaign.
High on adrenaline, I blurted out, “Yes, but you also have a hero, whatshername?” I couldn’t yet understand why, but, in Burma, all I wanted to do was to talk about her—the Nobel Peace Prize Lady—an act our guidebook had strongly advised against.
Beside me, Betty’s hair was wavy, a chestnut color. She said, “Aung San Suu Kyi.”
All of a sudden, our driver’s face fell, the energy between us sucked dry. We held our breaths, not saying a thing, and a heavy, paranoid silence took root. Outside, coils of heat rose from a flat, unforgiving landscape.
As we rammed into another pothole, our driver, at last, said, “Daw.” His voice was hushed, deferential; it barely escaped his lips. And we left it at that. As we dipped in and out, in and out, of potholes, all of us swaying, I felt all around us then a mythic presence taking shape—something close to hope.
In the May of 2010, we were in our early twenties, almost two years into our post-graduate fellowships in Southeast Asia. Raised in a generation whose high school was marred by the terrors of 9/11, I’d spent the rest of my young adulthood disillusioned by our never-ending imperialistic wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. By the time I graduated from my liberal arts college, I was prepared to heed the words in Barack Obama’s artful orations, eager for change, tempted by a world closer to America’s founding ideals. Maybe we all were. My college hall-mate served in Teach for America; my athlete friend joined the Peace Corps. Caroline and I spent a year teaching in disadvantaged neighborhood schools in Singapore. After our contracts ended, I backpacked through Asia, picking up odd jobs along the way, while Caroline worked as a copywriter and a concept developer at a branding agency in Bangkok.
Katy and Betty, on the other hand, were Princeton graduates stationed at an NGO in Hanoi. Their task was to prevent road traffic fatalities and injuries. It sounded noble, I said over steamed rice and fish curry in Yangon (Rangoon), at which Betty rolled her eyes, “I just stand at the intersection and count mopeds.” With a faint but audible chuckle, she said, “My Princeton education hard at work.”
Back then, nobody went to Burma, a slice of land tucked between Southeast Asia and South Asia, notorious for its brutal military junta, opium and meth production, and a myriad of human rights abuses. Hillary Clinton was still a year out from becoming the first major American dignitary to visit. It was still three or four years away from the backpackers who would venture in. But we couldn’t have known that yet. There was a false rumor in those years that Burma, much like North Korea, was closed to visitors, and the Internet could neither confirm nor deny its truth. Burma was so far off the map that even in neighboring Thailand, travelers claimed they had never heard of such a nation.
But, during my post in Singapore, I realized that Burma was the fairytale land where a woman was imprisoned for standing up to pot-bellied dictators. It wasn’t that I was paying attention, exactly. It was just that, throughout my growing up, Aung San Suu Kyi had frequently appeared in newspapers my parents left on the breakfast table. Her portrait had stuck with me: a slender Asian woman with high cheekbones, a flower tucked above her ear, her chin lifted toward the heavens, both defiant and faithful.
In 1988, when Suu Kyi, daughter of the assassinated founding father of modern Burma, returned from England to visit her ailing mother, millions of her oppressed people rallied around her, crying for a democratic government. Over and over again, I read about the regime’s call for election, Suu Kyi and her party’s landslide victory, and her subsequent house arrest. For nearly two decades, Burma played like a broken record: each time the Lady was scheduled to be released, the junta extended her term again, and again, and American newspapers copied and pasted the same story into a new column. At a certain point, her saga became more legend than news.
Burma, of course, was as far as we could get from a fairytale. In the wake of the 1962 coup d’etat, under General Ne We’s dictatorship, Burma quickly became one of the world’s most impoverished countries. Its isolation was immediate. Even the former capital, Yangon, lacked any conviction as a commercial center; it had a quaint sleepiness, a small town feel. On a wide, deserted avenue from the airport, my taxi stalled and started, whirring alongside a man in a longyi, a patterned skirt-like cloth that fell to his sandaled feet, languidly stepping on his rusted bicycle. At the market, lean, graceful women ambled on upturned sidewalks, their cheeks painted with bark-colored swirls. We would fly from Yangon to Bagan, in fact, on a hand-written ticket.
After the junta had turned off the electricity again, the four of us sat on the unfinished roof at our hotel in New Bagan. The sky was aflame in gold and apricot and Bagan’s red dirt was a majestic spread before us, an arid forest spattered with the spires of temples and pagodas and stupas. Out along the horizon, the Irrawaddy River winded its way south toward the Andaman Sea. At the height of its powers, a key master had told us earlier that day, the Kingdom of Pagan had built over 10,000 Buddhist monasteries and pagodas. Imagine that, he said. Just imagine.
Slowly, the air was cooling, like a sigh exhaled over the land after a brutal day. “If we’re fighting for democracy in the Middle East,” I said, remembering the vacant stare of an elderly man on the steps of his forcefully-relocated house a couple of blocks away, “why aren’t we here? Doesn’t this place also deserve democracy?”
For a while, no one answered. I heard Caroline swallow. Katy was rubbing her burned feet. Beside me, Betty was wearing a pair of fake Ray-Bans she had bought for five crisp dollars in Yangon. She said, a pain in her voice, “There’s no oil here.”
As the sun fell toward the horizon, I lifted my sunglasses over my head. It turned out that the earth wasn’t a volcanic red. It was a dull, pastel color. I lowered my shades again. I much preferred it that way.
I wanted to do something. We all did, I think, but we didn’t know what. At 1,320 meters in Shan State, a province braided with various ethnic groups, Kalaw was a former British hill station town where the once rich servants of the Empire went to escape the sweltering summer heat. Earlier that day, wary of supporting the regime, we had found our way around junta-run trekking agencies, and, instead, met a Punjabi guide at a local guesthouse. Robin had a small face and lanky limbs, and his great-grandparents had come to Burma during the British Raj. We were shuffling through the quiet night market, looking for presents for the hill tribe weddings he said he’d take us to.
At dawn, we set out past crumbling colonial mansions into dry, golden knolls. Two hours in, we descended into a village in the parched color of burned grass, almost camouflaged with the surrounding hills. We were greeted by women in simple, elegant wax-print dresses, laughing under a mélange of colorful umbrellas. Men were dressed in longyis with Chinese-style jackets. “Mingalaba,” they said, smiling widely. At our feet, baby pigs, black and pink, snorted; chickens waddled and clucked. Betty played hide-and-seek with the children, full-cheeked and laughing, running hysterically in clouds of dust. For a while, I watched them, feeling like our presence here truly mattered, as if we were evidence that the world had not forsaken them.
We followed Robin up a wooden ladder and into the upper floor of a stilted hut, where we sat cross-legged on the floor and shared a pot of tea with the villagers. Katy struck up a conversation with a young doctor with a clean-cut, chiseled jaw. We shook hands with the village headman and chatted, half in broken English and half in mimes, with the bride and the groom. With a shy grin, the mother of the bride asked if we could take photographs of the wedding and send them back to the village. Of course, we replied right away. It’s the least we can do.
And we meant it. To her delight, we took pictures after pictures, eager for the opportunity to make a difference. In a strange way, Burma had a neat simplicity, a straightforward truth about it. Out here, the world was black and white: the junta was bad; everything else was good. As we trekked toward the next village, a swarm of children on the mountain trail invited us to their Nepali ceremony. We went, giving them handfuls of candies along the way. In Burma, I thought, we could be—as Gandhi preached—the change we wanted to see in the world.
I touched down in Newark two months after the four of us parted ways, by way of Indonesia, New Zealand, Fiji and Australia. “They say he’s Muslim,” one of my high school friends said at a Fourth of July barbeque. I was standing on a deck that opened out onto a lush lawn and a blooming garden. The boys—now young men—were drinking Bud Lights by the grill.
One of them said, shaking his head, “They say he wasn’t even born in the United States.”
“I mean, look at his name, for crying out loud.”
I was shocked to find that I was returning to a country transformed. In just two years, our nation had lost its patience. There was visible tension, a raw sense of disappointment and outrage. Barack Obama, it turned out, was not the hero we thought he was, and the hurt was teetering on some kind of violence.
I spent that New Jersey summer on the idyllic Orchard Road at my parents’ house, filled with a not-so-subtle threat that I must either apply for graduate school or get started on a career of making money—or else. I researched, half-heartedly, online; but it all sounded incredibly futile to me, almost meaningless. I felt stuck, not knowing what to do. One night, when I was chopping vegetables in my mother’s kitchen, my phone rang.
“Hello.” A soft voice came through. It sounded miles away, as if it was bouncing across continents and oceans. “It’s me.”
My heart fractured. I dropped the knife and stepped outside. All of a sudden, I was in Burma again, in the cool, fresh air of Kalaw, and Betty and I were sipping on sweet mango lassis in a Nepali restaurant, exhausted and delirious after the trek, cracking up at just about everything.
I said, “You made it home.”
“So did you,” Betty said. In her voice, I heard snowstorms and icicles. I wrapped my arms around myself. “I didn’t know who else to call. I had to get out. I just had to. I had to get out.”
“Are you okay? Are you back in Kentucky?”
“I’m in New York, at a bar. This place is so fancy, too fancy. I mean, how do people live like this? My drink costs more than what we spent in a day in Southeast Asia.” Betty sighed, and then she continued, “You know all the things they warn you about, about culture shock, and all the highs and lows of living overseas?”
“Well, no one told us about this part, right? Reverse culture shock.” I was watching my father through the lit window of our great room, fiddling with the remote of our flat-screen television. Out in Yangon, the Lady was going on a decade and a half of detention, sacrificing her freedom for her people. I wondered if our brief adventures in Southeast Asia were the best we had to offer—teaching English in neighborhood schools and counting mopeds as they passed.
“How am I here?”
I sighed, “I know.”
“No one understands,” she said. “You know this party I’m at, this gathering? It’s supposed to be for me, a welcome home kind of thing. And I’m having a nervous breakdown in the bathroom.”
I wasn’t supposed to, I knew, but I laughed and she cracked up too. For a while, Betty and I sat there, on opposite sides of the Hudson River, and I could almost see her, in her tight leggings, standing in front of a wooden shack in Inle Lake. It was our last afternoon in Burma. She was caked in dirt, all of us were. The junta had shut off the water, and it had been days since we had taken a decent shower. On the fragile door, a piece of paper, wrinkled and hardened with rain and sun, asked for assistance in their fight against tribal discrimination in the hills of Burma.
It’s an NGO, Betty had said with a bounce in her voice, like a stone skipping across a summer lake. She asked if we thought the office was still hiring.
Katy said, It looks abandoned.
Betty shook the door. She got on her tiptoes, a palm on the wall, trying to peek in through the cracks.
Let’s go, Katy said. I’m starving. Caroline and Katy turned to go, but Betty lingered. The sun, nearing dusk, sent a golden light slanting across our calves. I squinted at her, waiting, as a deep longing, a higher purpose, unfurled through her body: Betty wanted to join that noble rank of do-gooders who forsake the life of wealth and privilege to walk among the destitute; she wanted to be here when the revolution came, marching behind the Lady, side-by-side with messenger-bagged students and saffron-robed monks.
It’ll take years, I remember whispering to her, as much as to myself, to make a difference.
On the phone, she was crying. “I want to go back. How do I go back?”
It turned out that Betty was right. In the four months I spent in New Jersey, I never quite felt settled. I had to get out. So I counted my savings and I left again. I went to Peru and Japan, where I found myself accepting a six-month teaching job in Honduras, which then took me to El Salvador, Guatemala and Belize.
I wouldn’t see Betty again until I came back from Central America. By then, she was living in New York City in a two-bedroom apartment and working as an account executive for an international healthcare company. Quite by coincidence, Caroline was in town from London, and so we called up Katy too. The four of us met in a café on a Manhattan street corner, skyscrapers rearing up all around us. Outside, joggers, bikers, pedestrians—in spandex, Patagonia, Ann Taylor’s—sprinted by. The whole city was moving at a hundred miles an hour.
At the time, Caroline was running the marketing team for the Israel and Mauritius tourist board. Katy was an associate at Global Impact Investing Network. I was about to head out to Seattle to pursue my MFA in Creative Writing. It felt impossible that, in another place, the four of us had sat, just like this, in the garden of our guesthouse, the dirt of Burma under our fingernails, mosquito bites swelling on our faces.
Betty reminisced, “Do you guys remember those kids at the wedding? They were so cute. I took like a thousand photos.”
Katy said, laughing, “I could’ve sworn you were going to steal one.”
“I wanted to! I wanted to put one in my pocket and take him home!”
At the Burmese wedding, we took so many photographs, of Betty and the children, of the village headman, of the bride and groom. We uploaded them on Facebook, of course, but I was never quite sure if any of the four of us ever followed through on our promise to send the photos back. I told myself that I was too busy to print. I was still traveling, and I’d hoped that one of the girls would do it. But I didn’t ask. I didn’t bring it up at the café. None of us did. All the villagers had wanted was their wedding photographs. It was such a simple thing. As the Manhattan summer sun fell on our faces that afternoon, I wondered if, after all, we weren’t the kind of big-hearted people we had believed we could be in Burma—not anymore.
None of us knew what was going to happen to Burma when we left, and I guess we still don’t. In the years since then, the military junta had officially been dissolved and a nominal civilian government took its place. The Lady had been released, and the improvements in their human rights record has led to the easing of trade and lifting of economic sanctions. For a while, before the pandemic, travelers were flocking to see the golden spire of the Swedagon Pagoda, the majestic temples of Bagan, and the rebuilt Mandalay Palace. I heard from a traveler that Inle Lake, which had offered us half a dozen accommodation options back then, now boasted over two hundred guesthouses.
Aung San Suu Kyi had been elected to the State Counsellor of Myanmar, a position akin to the head of government; however, she was a figurehead in a shadow dictatorship that designed a constitution to curb her power. It didn’t take long for the world to feel the disappointment that the Lady we had held up as a saint was, after all, human. Journalists, human rights activists, and national leaders are clamoring to strip her of the Nobel Peace Prize for her complicity in the Rohingya genocide. Even as foreigners, we wanted her to be everything we couldn’t be. But, I think, at least for a little while, she was.
As the four of us finished the last sips of our lattes, I said good-bye to Caroline and Katy; and Betty and I went back to her apartment. I sat on her duvet, her bed neatly made, her pillows puffed and full. She was folding laundry, her closet slid open. Betty held up a gray suit jacket. “Look,” she said, “somehow this is what I wear now.”
I chuckled, looking hard at her. I was trying to find evidence of the girl who had, not long ago, sobbed for Burma. But Betty seemed whole, settled into her cosmopolitan life in New York.
As I took my car out across the country to start my new life in Seattle, Betty texted me, “Mingalaba!” Somewhere out in Burma, I thought, a key master snored in the shade of a centuries-old temple; along railroad tracks built by the British Empire, two junta boys, too young for facial hair, posed with their rifles.
Somewhere out there, a twenty-two-year-old Betty is still standing in front of that abandoned NGO shack, her palm on the wall. I call out to her, watching her, waiting. In time, she will look at me with that old Kentucky soil in her eyes, burning, for a moment, with a moral rigor, a noble idealism.
“Betty,” I say again. But she doesn’t turn around. Not just yet.