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A Journey to Myanmar Sheds Light on His Ancestry

September 15, 1998|MATTHEW McALLESTER | NEWSDAY

Editor's note: Myanmar is ruled by a military junta that does not look favorably on Burmese citizens talking to Western journalists. The names of some people and places in this story have been changed.

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On a trip to Myanmar in 1993, my sister inquired of the authorities if a certain distant town was open to foreigners. It was closed, they said. It had been closed for years.

When my sister returned home, we discussed her trip to the Southeast Asian country, formerly Burma, where our maternal grandfather was born and which for decades has been under the rule of one of the world's most brutal military regimes. For much of that time, it has been completely closed off to the rest of the world.

In her few days there, my sister had looked for the gravestones of our ancestors in Yangon, as the former Rangoon is now known. The cemetery was long ago destroyed. All of the family had died in Burma or fled the country decades earlier, before World War II.

All but one.

"Apparently there's some old guy still up in the hills somewhere," my sister said. "I asked if I could go there, but it was closed."

I didn't give much thought to this information at the time. Then, late last year, I decided to take a look at the country that a chunk of my family, including my Burmese great-great-great-grandmother, once called home. Before I left, I wrote to the "old guy," Andrew Matthaus.

He was my grandfather's first cousin. All I knew was that he was very old, taught English, had married a local woman and had a son who was a Catholic priest. I wrote to him in advance to let him know I was coming. I never heard back.

Three months later, I arrived in Yangon.

"Is Lautan open now?" I asked tourism officials at the airport, still unsure if the government had relaxed travel restrictions to Andrew's town. If it was closed, that part of my trip was over already.

"Lautan's open. No problem."

In three days I was looking out the window of a small plane. Below was a curling brown river and mountainous jungle for as far as the eye could see. At the air strip, a taxi driver took me to one of the two hotels in town. I had told no one that I was looking for my relative. But I decided there was no point trying to conceal that I was looking for Andrew. This was a small town. I was the only white person I'd seen. I was looking for the other white guy in town. It's hard to sneak around.

"Yes--Mr. Matthaus--he taught me English," said one of the women at the hotel's reception desk. She told the taxi driver where to take me.

We drove down roads that became narrower and dustier at every turn. People on bicycles turned to stare at me as we crawled past in one of the only cars on the road. After five minutes, the houses had become smaller, more primitive, spaced farther apart. I assumed Andrew's house would be one of the grander affairs in this distant corner of one of the world's poorest nations. Our mutual forebears had lived in beautiful colonial houses in Rangoon.

The taxi driver left me at the gate of Andrew's property. Along a muddy driveway I could see a white and brown house, apparently made of wood beams and plaster and as humble as the others in the neighborhood. It had a corrugated iron roof and was surrounded by a few acres of lush, cultivated land, on which stood about half a dozen huts made of bamboo, wood and grass.

Two men in their 30s sat in the main room of the house. I stood at the front doorway, which did not have a door.

"Does Andrew Matthaus live here?" I asked, hoping Andrew had given English lessons to these two also. "Andrew Matthaus?"

They smiled. The man on the left, thickset and wearing a mustache, nodded. He indicated that I should wait, and he left the room. I sat on a bench by a table and looked around. Hanging from the walls were old black-and-white photographs of family members, both European and Burmese. Pictures of popes and images of the Virgin Mary and Christ suggested that the Catholicism that my Scottish and American families still vaguely adhere to was alive and well here.

A woman in her 30s appeared. I walked across the concrete floor to shake her hand and asked if Andrew lived here.

"Yes, I am Anna, his daughter. This is Andrew, his son," she said, gesturing toward the man with the mustache. "He will be here soon. He is not here now."

I looked at her. If I blinked, her face, with its high cheekbones, wide mouth, broad forehead and kind but firm eyes, could become the face of my cousin Christian, who is about the same age.

"I'm a relative of Andrew's," I said. "And of you."

I sat down to wait for Anna's father. Her English was exhausted and we sat in silence.

Twenty minutes passed.

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