Our Asian Spring

In the ashes of violence and death, Asians and Americans of Asian descent are ready to put up a fight.

Tin Swe Thant
Courtesy of Alex Wagner

About the author: Alex Wagner is a contributing writer at The Atlantic and co-host of The Circus.

My mother’s name is Tin Swe Thant. She was born just outside the former capital of Burma (now known as Myanmar), in a humid city on the delta of the Irrawaddy River called Rangoon (now known as Yangon). Names are always changing for the Burmese, and that includes our own names: My mother grew up during the sunset of British colonialism and attended English schools, where she was not allowed to be called Tin Swe Thant, but was instead required to have a Western “school name.”

The story about this name came to be a family chestnut, one that was trotted out for amusement at dinner parties. My grandfather, U Thant Gyi, had not realized that his daughter could not be educated under her given Burmese name. At enrollment, he was asked by the school headmaster, “And what is her English name?” Flummoxed, the only English name he could think of was Maureen O’Hara, a Hollywood star of the period whose celebrity had made its way across the Pacific Ocean. And so Maureen it was—Maureen Thant Gyi, because, of course, a proper English girl would have the same last name as her father.

To this day, I can tell my mother’s childhood friends apart from her adult friends, the people she met in America, by the fact that she is still known to these old school friends as “Maureen.” After long periods apart, they embrace her as “Maureen!” They call her house asking to speak with “Maureen.”

Growing up, I didn’t think much about this duality, or the irony that the Burmese called my mother Maureen, while the Americans called her Swe. Back then, ensconced as I was in the worlds of Garfield and Saved by the Bell, the story about her name change mostly seemed curious and absurd.

But as I’ve grown older, as I have become a more eager student in the lessons of racism and oppression—and as the world, in turn, has grown more volatile and less accepting of the costs of that oppression—the story of this name change has left me feeling both outraged and unbelievably sad. How could we, our family, our people, have let them change her name? Her Asian identity was willfully erased, and we let them do it to us. We accepted it, and didn’t ask any questions.

The present hour feels like an awakening for the people of Asia and of Asian descent. For years—most of my life, at least—many of us have been answering to the wrong names, allowing our screen roles to be filched, accepting designations steeped in bigotry. But the current of history carves a wide swath, and it is impossible to ignore the cries for justice sweeping the globe, just as it is impossible to forgo the tools that have been presented in order to achieve that justice.

In Myanmar today, a ruthless and bloody military coup is unfolding. The Burmese people, to some extent, are used to this. Today’s events recall a similar coup and resulting uprising in 1988, when the military junta did very nearly the same thing it is doing today: cracking down on protesters, attempting to stifle the flow of information, and otherwise grinding the gears of democracy to a halt.

But so much has happened between then and now, and the Burmese—like everybody else on the planet—have seen it. The protests in Hong Kong, in particular, have provided a new playbook for Myanmar’s movement: decentralize the uprising across cities and towns, arrive prepared for combat, target the moneyed interests, don’t let superpowers off the hook.

These strategies are in evidence today. The Burmese protesters of the late 20th century wore flip-flops; the ones today arrive in hard hats. The uprisings of 1988 were in large part organized by students and mostly centered around Yangon; the ones today are scattered throughout the country, in rice paddies and on assembly lines, in dusty towns and bustling cities. Leading the movement are Burmese laborers, keys to Myanmar’s economic engine—including garment workers, who represent a third of the country’s export economy. Striking alongside them are nurses and doctors, railway workers, civil servants, teachers, miners. Protesters have targeted important Chinese-backed projects in the country, endangering Myanmar’s powerful economic relationship with China. The Burmese today are angry, and they are defiant.

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.

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.

Asians across the United States heard the noxious, racist language of the previous president and may have wondered whether there would be an increase in explicitly racist violence, the same murderous impulse that has targeted Black and brown-skinned Americans for generations. Across the country—in California and New York and now, this week, in Georgia—there has been. The slurs have always been there, and the violence too—but the impunity and lawlessness feel new. And so does the response, both here in the United States and abroad: Just as the Burmese in Yangon have forged a new cultural identity for themselves, so too have Asians in America.

For the first time in my life, Asian politicians, celebrities, and activists are in conversation, publicly and privately, about latent and explicit racism directed toward Asian Americans. They are speaking out about vulnerable communities and what needs to be done to support them. A generation has witnessed the fight for racial justice from the front lines: Asian Americans have been paying attention, and they are ready to put up a fight. Some of them are much younger than I am—but some of them are not.

When I had my first son, in 2017, we decided to give him a Burmese middle name. I picked Mindon, after the penultimate king of Burma. It sounded strong and regal, and it wasn’t too difficult for a Western speaker. Before I had my second son, two years later, we wanted to do the same: give him a name to help him remember his roots, his inextricable connection to a place far away, and a culture growing more distant from the one in which he was being raised.

A few weeks before he was born, my mother informed me that she had the name—there was no set of options to choose from, no alternative. “He will be called Thiha,” she told me over the phone. “It means lion.”