I can't believe it's almost over. We're back in the US, severely jetlagged, and finished presenting to Libbey. There are signs that life in Asia has messed with my mind: while in Toledo, Ohio for our final client presentation, I started to cross the street and stopped. "Do I just cross against a red light, or do people stop for j-walkers here?" "C'mon, Patrick," ribbed Brad, "nobody is going to run you down in downtown Toledo."

And now that we're back stateside, I can post a story I'd written after our first week in country:

"We're almost there," Pastor Ha called out from the driver seat of his shiny Toyota four-by-four. It had been three hours on a surprisingly smooth highway north of Yangon, and I was stuck in the trunk buried by backpacks.

We were on the way to a town next to the Karen state boarder, and I was transporting a package from my friend in Canada to her mother: souvenirs from her children whom she hadn't seen in over a decade. Brad and Rahul spent their weekend off to come along for the ride.

My friend and her brothers came to Canada as Karen refugees from the camps of Thailand. Like many ethnic groups in Myanmar, the Karen have had their share of conflict with the Burmese government. The Karen fight for a Burmese federal government that would allow each state to control its education, healthcare, and natural resources. By contrast, many of these ethnic groups view newly built government roads and schools that encroach on their state as the government's means to influence and control the groups and their unique cultures. In their view, the recent ceasefire is contradicted by government soldiers that continue to man the frontlines of these border regions. As a result of the tension, Myanmar is divided into zones: white, no danger to the population; brown, some danger; and black, imminent danger and continued fighting. The town we visited sits along the border of white and brown.

Pastor Ha pulled my numbed body from the back of his truck. I was sweaty and tired. The pastor gestured toward two men. "This is your friend's uncle and her brother." I was dazed, confused, and didn't quite recognize them. I was hesitant to handover the package of mementos—photos, letters, and cash—to people I'd never met. 

When my friend was still a young girl, she went on vacation with her four brothers to visit her Aunt in Thailand. While she was away, fighting broke out. When she went to cross back into the country, the border was closed. At 13 years old, without her mother, she raised her four brothers in a Thai refugee camp until she arrived in Canada. That was 15 years ago.

A few minutes later a scooter stopped and a woman took off her helmet. As she looked over I could tell that this was my friend's mother. The resemblance was uncanny. I didn't even know this woman, and I wanted to run up to her and give her huge hug. We took pictures, recorded video, and exchanged packages—one photo album for a small envelope with letters to her daughter and sons on the other side of the world. 

I hopped back into the four-by-four. Funny, I never met any of them before, yet my eyes felt a little damp. I felt like I had completed some sort of circle.

Check back in a few days for Part II.

Author: Patrick Mah