In Mandalay, The New York Times reported, Daw Htay Shwe, a restaurant owner, said she had written her will before joining a rally at the train station. “I will protect our country’s democracy with my life,” she said.
Growing up, my grandmother would always tell my father, a white Irish Luxembourgian third-generation American from northeastern Iowa, that there was a special kinship between their people. “Don’t you know, Carl? The Burmese are known as the Irish of the East,” she would say, “because we are always smiling and laughing!” This notion—that we were a jolly Asian people, unperturbed by the difficulties of life—always stuck with me as a sort of perverted badge of honor, the lucky little Southeast Asian leprechauns living at the end of a colonial rainbow.
Myanmar today is riddled with racism, and the Burmese have not only accepted but supported the genocide of their country’s Muslim Rohingya minority. It is a moral stain that underscores the magnitude of the work ahead. But this moment suggests that a new generation of leaders and advocates is willing to peer into the darkness, unflinching, to find the light. Today, reading the stories of my long-distance compatriots, ready to lay down their lives in the pursuit of democracy, I find it clear that this generation of Burmese has created an identity for itself that rejects the preposterous, embarrassing stereotypes of the past. The kinship they feel is not with those who seek to please, but with those who are willing to fight.
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When my mother finally arrived in America in the late 1960s, she attended Swarthmore College and majored in political science. She was enrolled under her real name, Tin Swe Thant; the name “Maureen” is nowhere in her school transcripts. In the heady days of 1970s American counterculture, she began to wear bell-bottoms, and she fashioned herself a Marxist.
But by the time the ’80s came around, she had turned to power suits and recreational jogging. She was still Burmese, still Asian, but that part of her identity—aside from cooking—seemed to have atrophied. Perhaps this was because of immigration, and what the vague but powerful forces of American assimilation seemed to require. Or perhaps it was because Asian culture—and Burmese culture—dictated modesty, accommodation, calm, obeisance. Pushing too aggressively against the grain, whatever it was, is not what she had been taught.
I didn’t really think too hard about this until a moment last summer when my mother, now a septuagenarian retiree living in a small town on Long Island, texted me about a local Black Lives Matter protest happening that weekend. She was going. Was I?
I marveled, in that moment, at the intersectionality of the whole thing—a Burmese exile in New York seeking racial justice in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd in Minnesota. But her text was equally indicative of something else: My Asian mother was paying attention, and she was going to put up a fight.