| July 21, 2011 | Comments (4)


When I lived in Southeast Asia I came to realize how being in paradise could be torture. Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam, Burma – the matchless cultures, the cloyless cuisine, the gentle people, the fascinating blend of ancient civilizations with an overlay of European manners and architecture, of high English tea served on the banks of the Irrawaddy River overlooking the immemorial monuments of Pagan…..I could go on and on with this bewitching inventory of why Southeast Asia is so seductive, why it is the place you never want to leave.

And yet…on moonlit nights at Angkor Wat or blissfully blinded by dancing sunset  colors on the Chao Phraya River in Bangkok of an evening, I sometimes found myself on the verge of tears. For all its charm, more charm per square foot than anywhere else in the world, I’d venture to say, and no lack of bustling crowds of lovely people, Southeast Asia was a lonely place for me.

With my red hair and my long nose I stood out as a foreigner. I was different, a “farang”, a stranger. It took some time for this “strangeness” to get to me, to burrow into my very soul to the point where I began to hate myself. It was only then, living in this dream world of jasmine and smiles that I realized the sweet peace and acceptance that anonymity could bring; just being like everybody else was all I wanted, but it was impossible for me to achieve.

I could learn their languages, which I did, I could become proficient in local customs perfecting the “wai” greeting in Thailand with my hands raised and joined in just the right way below my chin, but I could never be accepted as “one of the family” because I stood six inches above most other people on the street and looked different.

It was not that I was treated badly; quite the contrary. Respect and deference were offered me in spades and a sort of friendly curiosity abounded when kids approached me and pulled the blonde hair on my arms. Sometimes it was fun to be the center of attention,  to be the star of the show, but I realized what I really craved was blending in,  the relaxed familiarity that can only come when people feel you are “their own kind.” The off-hand intimacy that borders on being ignored; not being stared at or pointed to by giggling children.

It was only when I moved to Burma and met Aunt Jean and her family that I began to feel at home in Southeast Asia.

Aunt Jean was my nickname for Sao Ohn Nyunt, a Shan princess whom I met in the second year of my five-year sojourn in Burma. Her son-in-law worked in our office in Rangoon and invited me  home  one day to meet his family and sample a Burmese dish of  spicey coconut noodles. When we arrived at his place we joked about their living on Highland Avenue because the Shans were a tribe of mountain people from Burma’s northeast plateau – highlanders.

My visit to Highland Avenue was pleasant and I found myself relaxed in a way I had seldom been before in Southeast Asian society where the local people always  received me,  sitting on the edge of their chairs  and treating me with cautious deference. That day,  as I recall, we were sitting on the floor  on finely woven reed mats.

I found myself totally at ease with the three generations of my friend’s extended family and was particularly taken by my friend’s Mother-in-law, a beautiful older lady named Sao Ohn Nyunt. Sao was the Shan title for princess, but soon I found myself calling her Aunt Jean, her English name. We got along famously and she later said she thought it was because we were both August-born.

There was something special, it seemed, between Shans and Europeans that made us feel like  family. Perhaps it was that Shans and ethnic Burmans, the majority race in Burma, had never really gotten on well and had been at war with each other for generations and that Shans considered Europeans to be their protectors. In fact, one of Aunt  Jean’s sons had been in the Shan rebel army at one point fighting for Shan freedom and independence from Burma.

That  get-acquainted call on the Highlanders became the first of many visits to their home to the extent that I became a regular and began to feel part of the family. Aunt Jean actually lived in the Shan State not far from the Chinese border in a town called Lashio with a cool climate and English gardens.  It was not easy for a foreigner at that time to gain permission from the security- obsesssed Burmese military government to travel to the Shan State, but somehow I managed to wangle a travel permit and, after a horrifically bumpy plane ride, found myself in the parlor of Aunt Jean’s cottage in Lashio before a roaring fire peering out at her beautifully trimmed rose bushes.

Hanging above the mantle of the fireplace was a  portrait of a young woman in Burmese court attire. She was sitting on a fine  Burmese mat, wearing a pink silk  ” thamein” or skirt and a delicate white blouse. Her hair was done up in an elaborate fashion and when loose must have fallen to her waist. This portrait had been painted in 1930  by Sir Gerald Kelly  when Aunt Jean was nineteen. She had accompanied her sister and brother-in-law to London where a constitutional conference  was being held between the British government and Burmese officials with an eye toward autonomy and eventual independence for the colony.

Their London visit involved lots of socializing with the smart set and at a lunch party one day Aunt Jean found herself sitting next to Sir Gerald Kelly, a well-known portrait painter who was immediately taken by her  demure beauty and unpretentious manner. He asked if she would allow him to paint her portrait, and after conferring with her brother-in-law, she agreed.

Later Aunt Jean returned to Burma and eventually married a Shan prince in a  storybook wedding that included a parade of caparisoned elephants and miles of turbaned  retainers paying obeisance to the newly married couple seated on their regal platform. I never tired of sitting next to Aunt Jean,  one of her brocade-covered photo albums spread across our laps, looking at faded photos  while she described, in her crisp British accent, her  life of privilege and splendor in those bygone days.

When I left Burma for another assignment – it was to be Indonesia – I said my goodbyes to the Highlanders and we promised to stay in touch which we did for some years. I remember once having a rendezvous in England with two of her sons who had not seen each other in 25 years. We met in a  picturesque village in Wales and it was a moving sight to see these two brothers re-unite after such a long absence. I remember, after a night of drinking and story telling, entering their bedroom in the morning to find these two manly siblings, both fathers and husbands, sleeping blissfully, wound tightly and lovingly  in each other’s arms.

Sadly as time went by, the Highlanders and I drifted apart. I heard that most of Aunt Jean’s clan had emigrated to Australia and were doing various things. One son had gone into the restaurant business in Sydney, another was an interpreter for Burmese refugees. They were all getting on with their lives and were glad to be out of Burma which had become a sinking ship of poverty and oppression. A holiday photo one year showed Aunt Jean, looking older but ever beautiful and animated, surrounded by her dozens of descendants. Not long after receiving that picture, I heard that she had passed away. A great lady and my surrogate Mother who had filled the gap of loneliness that had plagued me for so long in Southeast Asia.

Some years after I left Burma, I visited London and went “slumming” one night, bouncing from one working-class pub to another. At a certain point late in the evening I met an unemployed factory worker and we ended up back at his bed-sitter in the rather divey neighborhood near Vauxhall Bridge where the real cockney accent is said to have originated. His dimly-lit abode and my excessive alcoholic intake prevented me from noticing my surroundings, but in the morning as I was leaving, my jaw dropped when I  saw a picture on  his wall. Surrounded by a backdrop of peeling, grimy paint was a print of Aunt Jean’s portrait  – Sao Ohn Nyunt.

I asked my one-night-stand friend where he got the picture and he said that he had taken it from his Mother’s flat after she died. He added that the “Burmese Princess” picture had been the best-selling  print in Britain in the 1950s and 60s. I knew Aunt Jean was smiling down on us and would have been proud to hear that she had brought elegance and light to so many people in the UK ! It even lit up a grimy bed-sitter whose only illumination was a naked lightbulb.

Thank  you, Aunt Jean !


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Comments (4)

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  1. Petra says:

    Is this the picture you were writing about?

  2. Petra says:

    Most charming!

  3. Gary Presley says:

    Interesting. Many of the Montagnards who were forced out of the highlands ended up in the north woods, but lately there have been communities of them moving into remote areas of southwest Missouri. There are communities of Amish here too. Think about that combination.

  4. Thomas Lane Butts says:

    I love your website. I have never met you, but you must be a most interesting person. tlb

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