Pascal Khoo Thwe’s memoir, From the Land of Green Ghosts: A Burmese Odyssey is a powerful and powerfully-written representation of Burma just before the war for independence (the rise of Aung San Suu Kyi and establishment of Myanmar).
Thwe begins his odyssey as a child in his home village. He invites the reader into the customs and the trials of his family and their small community. We gain insight into how the locals worship, somehow merging at least three religious traditions–Christianity, Buddhism, and pagan animism–into a cohesive practice, and we learn much about the people’s relationship to their government, which at the time was a kind of military socialism.
The turning point for Thwe is when he earns the opportunity to continue education beyond the 5th or 6th grade. He somewhat dishonestly tells the priests at his school that he wants to go to seminary, which means he needs an advanced education. His performance encourages them to sponsor him, though the road to university is still immensely difficult for such a poor young man from a poor family in a poor village. He meets difficulty after difficulty, from being robbed on his way to university, to finding himself in the middle of social protest and a military crackdown. But he also finds love, he meets one professor who helps his students learn around and beyond the university’s strictly government-sanctioned curriculum, and he meets a visiting professor from Cambridge, whose friendship will change the course of Thwe’s life forever.
From the Land of Green Ghosts reminds me much of Filipino writer Carlos Bulosan’s own memoir, America is in the Heart, but where Bulosan’s childhood ends in the Philippines and continues in the United States, Thwe’s story takes place almost entirely in Burma, whether in the village, at the university, or in the fighting fields up north, where he joins the rebellion for independence. Only the later chapters are devoted to his arrival at Cambridge and eventual graduation. I thoroughly enjoyed both of these memoirs, for many of the same reasons, but it was a treat to read them both back-to-back in order to compare not just the similarities as Southeast Asian memoirs, but also the remarkable differences in style, voice, perspective, and theme (though many of the themes truly are shared across these two.)
“My mother couldn’t speak my father’s language, Padaung, when she married him, only Karen. I myself ended up speaking Burmese, which is neither my father’s nor my mother’s tongue.”
“I began to notice that something was changing in our lessons. We seemed to hear more and more about obedience and good citizenship, at the expense of traditional teaching. Instead of our own, or even Burman, stories and legends, for instance, we were told about the heroic deeds of the Thirty Comrades . . . amongst which those attributed to [dictator] Ne Win figured prominently.”
“If someone was murdered or died in an accident . . . the belief was the deceased would become a ‘green ghost’ — the most feared of all the spirits.”
“The student did indeed take a holiday — which is to say that he disappeared from classes for several months. Later, I learned he had been sent to a hard labor camp. He never came back . . . he ended up in an asylum.”
“This was the ‘human zoo’ I had heard about, run by Thai business men and guarded by armed men, in which half a dozen families of my tribe, who had fled across the border at the same time I did, were being detained to be displayed for money to tourists.”