by Kathleen Gamble
I am typing up my mother’s letters. My parents and two brothers moved to Burma, now called Myanmar, in 1952. (The country’s name change from Burma to Myanmar is controversial; I will refer to it as Burma, since that is what it was called during my childhood). My father had spent time in Brazil during World War II, but my mother had never been outside the United States. It was all very new to her. They had been living in Fargo, North Dakota, and they both originally came from Iowa, so tropical Asia was not anything they could imagine.
The letters are full of instructions on how to send letters and packages, anticipating letter arrivals, wondering why she hasn’t heard from her family, happiness when she hears from them, wishing they were with her, and all kinds of information about her life and her impressions. She talks about the weather a lot. A big concern is cleanliness. She oversees the servants to make sure they are doing everything to keep things clean: the water, the food, the house. She tries to make the home as “American” as possible. She worries when her son has dysentery. She mentions that everybody has heat rash.
By the time I came along, four years later, they were living up-country in a village halfway between Yangon (formerly Rangoon) and Mandalay. There was no doctor; water was from a well nearby; the refrigerator ran on kerosene; any electricity came from a generator; and when they first moved in, pigs were living on the first floor. My father was an agriculturalist and he helped set up a government agricultural college in Pyinmana. It still exists today. My brothers went off to boarding school in Kodaikanal, India, while I grew up with a lovely nanny. My mother had more or less acclimated, but she never fully adopted the local lifestyle and culture. She still tried to make things as “American” as possible—even when it became less and less possible.
Between 1952 and 1985 my parents spent a total of three years in the U.S. They went from Burma to New York to Mexico to Colombia to Nigeria to the Netherlands; I grew up on five continents.
As I grew up, I learned to adapt, re-invent myself, blend in, speak different languages, pick up new mannerisms. I learned to blend in with the wallpaper—to not stand out—at least until I understood the lay of the land. Sometimes I miscalculated, but generally the system worked. Except when I returned to my passport country for college—I was totally unprepared for that.
My parents never understood the problems I had with my passport country. After all, it was their homeland. What could go wrong? Except my mother did encounter a few blips while shopping on home leave back in the U.S. She was a talker and always chatted up the salesperson and of course told them why she was buying so much. The salesperson could not have cared less. They didn’t even know what she was talking about most of the time. It was extremely embarrassing to be with her on those occasions. She also found that friends of her parents and other acquaintances were uninterested in her exciting life overseas. That didn’t stop her talking about it, though. She thought people needed to be aware of what it was like in other parts of the world. Her intentions were good.
By the time she got to Africa, she was a seasoned expat. But she was still overseeing the kitchen and other activities. I remember how outraged she was when she saw the cook frying bacon in butter! It was pretty funny. I guess that is what got us through a lot of things—humor. When a rat took a big bite out of my sandals, I learned to laugh about it (eventually). My parents spent a lot of time entertaining, and often the electricity would go out when a major event was planned. The word would go out that anybody who opened the refrigerator door was a dead person. But my mom secretly loved it when the “bigwigs” from New York would visit and there would be no electricity or water. Then they could see how life really was for most of the world.
My mom died in 2019, at 99. I wish I could have had access to her letters before she died because they bring up lots of questions for me. My father is 103, and I am sharing the letters with him. When I was growing up, he never ate chicken and we never had chicken for any meals that I remember. He grew up on a farm and was the designated chicken killer so his mother never made him eat it. But in my mother’s letters from Burma, she served chicken all the time. Neither my father nor I can understand that. A question for my mother—one of many that will go unanswered.