In 2020, when the pandemic broke out, school dorms shut down and students were forced to leave campus. My girlfriend Diana and her brother, Aye, who had been living on campus, moved in with me, in my apartment near Chicago’s Chinatown.
Photo: Diana, Yangon, Spring 2021
The three of us lived together like a small family until they left the US for Burma in 2021. The day Diana and Aye left Chicago was January 31. When they landed in Korea, on February 1, to transfer planes, they were informed that a coup was happening in their homeland.
Burmese people from all over the world awaiting the connecting flight in Korea had the chance to gather, among them two government doctors studying in Europe, another student in Switzerland, one in the US, two Buddhist monks from England, a Christian pastor, a couple of sailors returning from Egypt, and a big family of eight who had immigrated to the States, all returning to Burma to see their loved ones.
Photo: Diana, Yangon, Spring 2021
After a week of being stranded at Incheon Airport, Diana and Aye made it to Burma safely. When they arrived at their quarantine hotel, crowds were already marching on the streets. Much more that has happened since has been organized into A Lost Train of Thoughts, a series of monologues by Diana.
Alson Haotian Zhao
A Lost Train of Thoughts
On February 1, 2021 in Burma (Myanmar), the military orchestrated a coup d’état by overthrowing the legitimately elected civilian government by force. The country rose up in protest and the Spring Revolution began. At the time of writing, over 600 unarmed citizens have been murdered by the terrorist Burmese military. This collection of monologues is one Burmese person’s thoughts during this dark time. In order to fully understand the contexts behind each monologue, please look into #whatshappeninginmyanmar.
I have always believed that I was born to be someone special. That I had a destiny or a calling. I feel I am always awake. Perhaps this is what it feels like to be alive.
I have too much pride to admit that my dreams are broken. I would rather say I threw them away instead.
I joked to my boyfriend on video- call that I have had enough thriller/horror movies for a lifetime. I am currently living in one. They just released 23,000 prisoners. Drugged them and paid them to commit arson, to murder and to rob our neighborhoods.
Yangon didn’t sleep that night. Yangon couldn’t. It was 30°C, but I have never felt that cold in my life.
Our government wants us dead? They released bioweapons to kill us in the night. Am I human? Are they human?
I spent years tackling decolonization theory during college, and in the recent years, Burma was making progress.
One of my thoughts during the first moments of the coup was that I didn’t want my country to become some tragic case-study in a college political science seminar. I don’t want to be picked apart and analyzed. I don’t want the concern. I don’t want the pity.
Image from the Internet
In hushed voices my friends talked about fighting back. About making weapons. About assassinations. Everyone’s blood was boiling that night. Kyal Sin had just died of a bullet to her neck in Mandalay.
My friends talked of fighting back. I said to myself, “If I lose any one of you, my heart will break and will never recover.”
“So how are you guys going to take down the bad guys?” asked an international friend through Instagram message. I wonder if he thinks I have the time and energy to water down and explain to him all the tactics we have been using to fight this evil in a few text messages. No, I am exhausted, and there’s Google for that.
My boyfriend is from mainland China. The Burma-China relationship during this period has become very, very bad.
It isn’t fair, but after every insensitive statement that comes from CCP, I lash out at him. I also do that to give him a taste of what to expect if he wants to marry me. Because I don’t plan to leave Burma.
I wondered what kind of a conversation Aung San Suu Kyi had with her husband, Michael Aris, when she decided to stay in Burma and to stand with the people.
Did they talk about the future of their kids? Was Aris angry when the subject was first brought up? What was Suu Kyi feeling? Did she need a hug?
Before the coup, I’d always wanted three kids. My brother and I were the only siblings, so when we fight, it’s brutal. I’ve always wondered, if there were three of us, which side the third would take.
Now, I frequently have thoughts about never marrying and never having kids. That I want to end this karma with me. I don’t want to bring new life into the dark, dark world I’m in right now.
My boyfriend gets very sad when I say these things.
In a world like this, even something as simple as receiving the COVID-19 vaccine becomes political. The military terrorists have seized Aung San Suu Kyi’s hard-earned vaccines and are distributing them among themselves.
Several close and distant friends and relatives asked us if we wanted the vaccine. When I first heard the offer, my blood boiled.
Those vaccines are stolen from the people and the vulnerable. If we take it, we will be cursed forever.
A friend from college showed his support for Burma through his Instagram story: “#whatshappeninginmyanmar #fuckthecoup.” The next story was of him being high.
I am thankful for the support. But, I was also offended. These days, when I check social media, my friends from college seem to be living in a different universe from me. And I’m mad at everyone.
“Sometimes I want to run away,” he said, “Maybe to Cambodia. I have friends there. I get so depressed thinking about this every night.”
“Come live at my house,” I said, “We still have wi-fi here.”
“Yeah. Let me clean up the house here. I’ll come the second week of April. I’ll come before the war begins.”
There is a Golden Boy at the Art Institute of Chicago.
He has been a darling friend.
Image from the Internet
My boyfriend and I always talk about where we want to raise our kids. I am fine with the kids being Chinese citizens.
But for primary education, I say Burma. I want my kids to go to government school like I did. I need them to know the language and culture well. The Burmese language is one of the most difficult and most beautiful in the world. Merely living in Burma is not enough. One needs to know the slangs, the attitudes, the drama. So, public school!
English is easy and it’ll come naturally. And there are always proper classes for Mandarin. Burmese.? Well, Burmese is difficult.
“Where do you stand on the issue of staying or leaving the country?” my cousin asked,? “Our parents are encouraging us to leave.”
For one, having the option to leave is itself a massive privilege.
“What good is a good education if one can’t contribute to the good?” I said, “People have died now. Why read those dense socio-political books if one is not going to help make things better? If you’re going to stimulate your brain for fun with political problems, then it’s just political porn.”
I like my cousin. But if he decides to leave, I will swear to his face.
“Everything is possible if you believe,” she said. She’s Christian. “Even if you’re not Christian, when you’re in some kind of trouble. Just believe in Him. That He exists. And believe that everything will go just right. I mean, what i’s there to lose if you’re desperate, right? I believe.”
I am Buddhist. We believe in karma and effort. But I believe in Him as well.
It has been raining for three days straight now. As a personComing from Burma, I like the rain. I like the smell of the earth and the sound of rustling leaves in the wind. But ever since the coup, the sound of the rain is too similar to the sound of military trucks and soldiers dragging sand bags away. I kept looking out of my window. The gate of my house is closed but my mind is restless. With every suspicious rustle, I peer out to see if they have come to take my loved ones away.
“How are you?” a college friend checked in from Instagram.
“If I don’t make it, please write a book about me,” I said.
 Crowned and Bejewelled Buddha Seated on an Elephant Throne, Late 19th century, Gilded and lacquered wood with paint and colored glass glass, 144.5 x 85.2 x 49.2cm, James W. and Marilynn Alsdorf Collection, Art of Institute Chicago
Originally published in The Documentarian, Summer 2021 Issue
Letters from Yangon
My Dear Alson,
It’s summer again.
Today the weather is dreadfully hot. I’m glad I’ve chopped off my hair.
There are no Burmese New Year celebrations this year. The military was basically forcing people to go out and enjoy the water festival at gunpoint. But the streets are empty. It’s quite hilarious, really.
I just finished rereading “A Lost Train of Thoughts,” first published for the Summer 2021 issue of Documentarian Mag. I think I wrote it around this time last year. I have been hesitant to sit down and reflect about the monologue for quite a while now. So what has changed over the course of the year? Have I changed? How?
Photo: Diana, Yangon, Spring 2021
First of all, if I can help it, I’d very much like to go back in and fix the grammar mistakes and composition problems in the writing. You know me—I am a perfectionist as a writer (and basically in anything I do). When I wrote the piece last year, I was too anxious and in a panic (excuses) and simply wanted to scream my innermost thoughts out. At the moment of writing, I really wasn’t sure I would be alive the next day.
So one of the most fundamental things that has changed is this: I’m quite sure I won’t die soon (well, at least not immediately, I hope). Or perhaps what changed is that I have figured out how to live one day at a time. Because, really, the situation is always unstable, so instability has become our stability. But hey, the Earth is moving around the sun at a speed of 30,000 meters per second. And we are all living on as if the Earth is still, so… Anyhow, my point is, everything has been unstable since the beginning of time. We just ignore it, get used to it, and live on.
Alson Haotian Zhao, Spring, 2022, Intaglio print, 13x16cm
I actually found myself responding to some of the monologues in my head. In parts I do find myself being a tiny bit dramatic (the normal hindsight embarrassment). But I also fully respected my emotions and realities back then. Maybe I will write a sequel to “A Lost Train of Thoughts” sometime this year.
But for starters, let me just respond to the first monologue:
“I have always believed that I was born to be someone special. That I had a destiny or a calling. I feel I am always awake. Perhaps this is what it feels like to be alive.
I have too much pride to admit that my dreams are broken. I would rather say I threw them away instead.”
Oh yes, that sentiment has not changed.
Alson Haotian Zhao, Drawers – Oh Train, 2022, Intaglio print, 16x21cm
And I did indeed throw away my five-year-long dreams.
More than threw away, actually: I killed my darlings, cut them into tiny little pieces, burnt, and buried them—myself, before anyone else could. I think that’s the proper courtesy I should give to dreams and ambitions I have worked towards for my whole life.
I also don’t want to give the coup credit for my radical change of life-plans. The coup is one thing, but it is true that coup or no coup, my realities have changed, and I think it’s just stupid to remain inflexible like a rock.
Alson Haotian Zhao, Your Pride, 2022, Intaglio print, 13x16cm
I was honestly a little lost when I began the long process of killing dreams last year. But during the process I found new dreams, new possibilities, and now I am quite content with where I am. I hope you’re content with yourself too.
May this revolution end soon and may the people win.
Anyhow, hope to see you soon.
April 14, 2022
Alson Haotian Zhao, Those Nights I Talk to you about Chagall, 2022, Intaglio print, 16x21cm
Now it’s 2022, with nothing getting better, the news of war and pandemics continues as always. Although I have returned home, I still feel anxious. Without you, my heart has nowhere to settle. Yunnan and Burma share rivers and mountains, but the long border seems to create two completely different worlds. I was not there for what you have been through.
Recently, I reread your monologues from last spring, to seek some strength from your words. I wish to write something like you, so I can ease my restless mind, but I’m never as brave as you.
Alson Haotian Zhao, The Moon is on the Moon, 2022, Intaglio print, 13x16cm
“The stars pass through my body,
My thoughts of you almost filled a train.”
I wrote these words in the letter for you in the summer of 2019.
Recently, I’m getting back to drawing on the train, a habit I kept before the pandemic. I used to draw the people around me, but this time I drew myself.
You said to me in your recent letter that situations are always unstable, so that instability has become our stability.
Maybe this is the reason why I find peace from drawing on the train.
Alson Haotian Zhao, One More Station, 2022, Intaglio print, 16x21cm
Some of these train drawings were chosen to make etching prints: first I polished the plates, applied wax onto it, and redrew the sketches on acid paper. Then, like transcribing a letter, I carefully transferred the drawings to the plates, followed by the process of etching, cleaning, inking, and finally printing.
This is my monologue, and I see it as a response to yours.
May the revolution end soon and may the victory return to the people.
The shape of time changed between us, but it doesn’t matter so much. We will see each other very soon.
May 19, 2022
A collaborative project by Diana Zaw Win and Alson Haotian Zhao
Alson Zhao (b.1999, Yunnan, China) graduated from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 2021. He currently works and lives in Kunming.
Diana Zaw Win studied Art History, Theory and Criticism in Chicago. Upon returning to her home-country, she found herself surviving under a brutal military coup.