From Burma to New York
Trip Start Apr 17, 2001
279Trip End Ongoing
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Early Tuesday morning, the day after the Columbus Day long weekend, Ellen and I hit the sidewalk and entered the mass of New Yorkers heading to work. We had to pick up the pace. There was a guy heading straight for me with his nose buried in the New York Post. The Yankees had been beaten and knocked out of the playoffs the night before by the Cleveland Indians; the paper reader looked mean. I stopped like a doe in the headlights. Just as he was about to walk right over me there was a short hip movement and he was around me without missing a step - in a New York minute so to speak. We slid out of the chaos and elbowed our way into a jam-packed breakfast diner. Before our bums hit the stools menus and cups of coffee were shoved in front of us. A waitress peered down pencil and paper in hand ready to take our orders. Within ten minutes we were fed, billed and back out into the fast lane of the fastest city in the universe.
Cin, who now goes simply by the name C, seated us at a table in the Café Mingala, a Burmese eatery on Second Avenue between 72nd and 73rd Avenues in New York's Upper East Side. It was our final day in New York. Cin is tall by Burmese standards, about six feet, lean and bald as a monk. I looked at a mural on the wall of the ancient temple city of Pagan and said, "Ah Pagan, the most wondrous place on earth."
"You have been to Burma?" he said astonished. "Not many people visit my country. The government, it is very crazy."
It was late afternoon and New Yorkers weren't yet ready for dinner. We pushed our menus aside and began to talk. When Cin arrived at the New Jersey port just across the Hudson River in 1999 he went straight to the U.S Consulate, claimed and was given political asylum. Now thirty-one, he's been living in New York for almost eight years. Until the latest cry for democracy in his homeland he'd been able to communicate with his family by telephone and government censored e-mail. Now all communication has been cut off - he doesn't know how they are, where they are.
When Cin was very young, after the 1988 uprising which saw somewhere between 3,000 - 10,000 civilians killed, his older brother was jailed for ten years.
"It was something political." he said with a shrug. "Now he just sits, doesn't talk, doesn't do anything."
I gave Cin a copy of a couple of pieces that I'd written about the plight of Burma that were recently published in the Toronto Star. While Ellen and I ate huge platefuls of mango chicken and Burmese pasta, I watched from a distance as he read the articles with a smile on his face. People, even as far off as Canada do care, he might have been saying to himself. Later that night I sat alone on the steps of our Upper East Side brownstone and thought about democracy. How some nations that couldn't care less are getting it whether they want it or not and how others, who so deservedly crave it, are denied.