A Love Letter for Myanmar

Myanmar helped me come to terms with grief. Now I am grieving for Myanmar.

Will Buckingham

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Image of pagodas in Kayah State, Myanmar. Photograph by the author © Will Buckingham

I arrived in Yangon for the first time in January 2017, my life broken into pieces. The previous year had been punishing. In August, Elee, my partner of thirteen years, died of breast cancer. Before her death, we talked about what I would do after. I said I didn’t know. ‘You should get away,’ Elee said. ‘Once everything has settled down, you should get away.’

And because Elee’s advice was always good, that’s what I did. The week after Elee died, I saw a job advertised in Myanmar. I had never been to Myanmar before, and knew very little about it. But it seemed as good a place as any to rebuild my life, so I sent off an application. A few weeks later, I was offered the job, teaching humanities in a postgraduate institute. I accepted the job and bought myself a teach-yourself guide to the Burmese language. For my final few of months in the UK, I spent hours in coffee shops, reading books about Myanmar, struggling to get my ears and mouth around the sounds of the language: the strange music of unfamiliar consonants and creaky tones.

In January the following year, I left my home and cat in the care of some friends, and I flew to Yangon. A couple of days later, still jet-lagged and awash with grief, I was sitting in front of my new students. I was terrified I had made a wrong decision. I thought that here among strangers, I might drown in grief.

Club Tropicana

But it didn’t happen like that. I settled into Yangon fast. Life in Myanmar suited me. I found a regular breakfast spot: a tea-stall around the corner from my apartment. The owner had spent much of his life at sea, as a cook working on merchant ships. His English was broken, but he could do two things well: he could swear with eye-watering skill, and he could sing word-perfect renditions of 80s pop songs. In the mornings, I sat at the low tables of his tea-stall under the tarpaulin and drank hot, sweet Burmese tea. I jotted notes in my notebook for my morning’s classes, and the tea-stall owner sang snippets of Club Tropicana.

I taught all morning. My students were wise and fierce and kind in equal measure. They fizzed and crackled with ideas. They challenged me. We…

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Will Buckingham

Writer & philosopher. PhD. Stories & ideas to make the world a better place. HELLO, STRANGER (Granta 2021): BBC R4 Book of the Week. Twitter @willbuckingham