Brand New Expat 1953


I found this letter in an old scrapbook. My family was living in Rangoon, Burma. The letter is from my mother to a friend in Iowa.


February 15, 1953

Dear Mildred:

I’m sorry not to have written you sooner – I have thought of you so many times. I would like to tell you so much about Burma and our life her, but it is hard to condense all these new experiences and decide which might be the most interesting.

First, I think you might like to know what your home is like. We are fortunate in having a good-sized brick house, which is rented from a Burmese woman. It has 20 ft. ceilings, ceiling fans, concrete floors, and every piece of wood in the whole house from rafters to coffee table is of beautiful teakwood. Due to the high ceiling, fans and brick walls we hope to be as comfortable as is possible here during the humid hot season, which is just now beginning. To help run our household we have a cook who is indispensible, for he does the marketing, acts as interpreter since he speaks excellent English as well as four or five other languages, and he miraculously runs the temperamental kerosene stove! There are very few Burmese who work as house servants and our cook is Indian. He is a Hindu and does not eat beef, but does not object to cooking it for us. Then we have a sweeper who does the cleaning with includes scrubbing the concrete floor and waxing all the furniture at least once a week o prevent mildew. Then since babysitters are unheard of here as such, we have a nanny who lives with us and, besides babysitting, takes care of light laundry, helps me with mending and sewing and is a most pleasant person to have around. She is a young, pretty woman and a good Baptist. I usually take her with me when I drive so that she can interpret for me if the car should break down or if we should become lost (I’ still learning my way around the city).

Now, as Mother keeps asking, you might be wondering what I do with my new “life of leisure”. Well, everything is not perfect and leisurely even with so much help, believe me. Since many people in this part of the world do not have the same ideas of sanitation as we do, I have to constantly check on the kitchen to be sure the water is boiled before placed in the refrigerator for drinking, to remind the dishwasher to use soap, to see that clean dishtowels regularly replace dirty ones, etc. Our help is very fine, and they do everything to make us comfortable, but they often don’t realize how particular we must be to avoid becoming sick. One day I found nanny straining freshly boiled drinking water through a very dirty napkin into a pitcher! Language differences sometimes cause confusion – such as the time Bill asked our cook to get a mess of lime to mark out our new badminton court, and the cook appeared later with 3.5 lbs. of fresh green limes! Needless to say we are still drinking limeade. But, all in all, our household is very pleasant and as much like it would be in America as we can make it under the circumstances. I manage to keep busy – I am trying to learn to speak Burmese, I keep all the household accounts, of course, and do most of the meal planning, attend meetings of several organizations, read as much as possible, go out socially, some, and write letters. It doesn’t sound like much, I guess, but time is passing very quickly.

Our two boys both go to school from 8:30 to noon every day except Thursday and Sunday. Their school is English-speaking, but children rom all nationalities are represented. Some are learning English as they go to school. Our boys have very good friends who are Chinese, French, Dutch, and Burmese – some of whom speak no English at all. But neither race nor language is any barrier to their friendships – an example from which we all might profit.

Rangoon is a most colorful and interesting city with large Chinese and Indian populations as well as the pleasant, friendly Burmese. The city is dominated by one very tall gold-roofed pagoda which is a most interesting place to visit besides being a landmark for Rangoon and one of the outstanding pagodas in this part of the world. One climbs hundreds of steps to the top where there are many statues of Buddha of different sizes, colors and positions. The roof or dome of the pagoda is pure gold leaf and it has many valuable gems sealed inside. We enjoyed the long climb to the top almost as much as the worship center, for the stairs are lined with little shops where everything one can imagine is sold – Burmese, drums, ankle bracelets, cymbals, flowers, lacquer ware, Ivory combs, flutes made of bamboo, brassware, toys, etc, etc. Once Bill and I wanted to buy a delightful-sounding Burmese gong, and since one bargains over the price of most everything here we started bargaining. The merchant asked 15 rupees, we offered 6 and finally after much haggling got it for 8 rupees – very pleased with our bargain. When we got home one of our servants pointed out the price mark written in Burmese – 5 rupees!! But we had had fun anyway, and you can be sure we learned how to read Burmese numbers that very day.

We are at the moment thoroughly enjoying our Iowa news since the monthly ship from New York came in this week. We got about a month supply of newspapers. We get all our letters in about 10 days, but the magazines and papers take about 6 weeks.

We really like it here in Rangoon and are so glad we had the opportunity to come. It is a joy to find that these people halfway around the world are just as human as Americans are, and that it is as easy to become good friends with Asians as it is with Iowans. This is one thing that gives me a renewed faith in the world.

Book Excerpt: PART ONE: BURMA

It is not very practical to fill up a book with photos but on a blog I can do that.  Here is an excerpt from my book with additional photos, although they are not in the best of shape.  Enjoy!

1.  Pyinmana

I was born in Rangoon, Burma in 1956 while my parents were living in Pyinmana.  My father’s memory of this:

“We made our first road trip by car to Rangoon in May, on narrow, broken up blacktop.  Whenever we met another car, truck or animal drawn vehicle, we had to get off the road.  There were no possible toilet stops so we just chose a clump of bamboo or some shrubs.  We carried extra tires, gasoline, and of course took our own food and water.  The trip was bumpy and we averaged about 25 mph, and made the trip in 10 hours (about 250 miles). We went for Virginia to have a checkup with the doctor at the Seventh Day Adventist hospital (where she would go for the birth of the baby).  This was the best hospital in Burma and the doctor she was seeing, Dr. Dunn, had been born and raised in Nebraska City, Nebraska, just 30 miles from my home in Shenandoah, Iowa.  Dr. Dunn found Virginia to be in good health and anticipated no problems so we returned to Pyinmana to stay until about the first of July.

In early July, Virginia, Tim and Tom accompanied the Ford Foundation Representative and Assistant, John Everton and John Eddison, to Rangoon where she and the boys moved in with the Methodist Minister and his wife, George and Mary Hollister.  She would stay with them for about a month before the baby was due. 

Virginia went into the hospital on August 5 and Kathleen was born on August 7.  We also gave her a Burmese name, Ma Sein Hla (Pretty Diamond), fitting the day of the week on which she was born (Tuesday).  It took two days for me to receive the telegram from Rangoon, but Virginia’s parents in Iowa got theirs the same day announcing the new arrival.”

I spent the first three years of my life in Pyinmana speaking Hindi, Tamil, Karen (a Burmese dialect), Burmese and English.  We had a cook, who spoke Hindi and Tamil, my nanny, Naw Paw who was Karen, the “mali” or “houseboy” who spoke Hindi, and the driver Mg Thein Mg who was Burmese. We lived upstairs in a huge old brick house on the campus of the Agricultural Institute. The downstairs had been used as a pigpen and there was still a sow there about to have a litter of pigs when my parents moved in.  The house had two bedrooms, two bathroom, two large storerooms, a roomy kitchen, dining room, living room and a nice large veranda all the way around the house.  The refrigerator and stove ran on kerosene, as there was no electricity.  There was an outhouse out back and a well with a hand pump. At night we slept under mosquito nets even though my parents hired a carpenter to install screens on the windows.  The house looked out over rice fields to a range of wooded mountains that provided us with cool breezes.

Our house in Pynmina

There were still insurgents in the area and we would hear the occasional gun fight off in the distance.  My brother Tom delighted in this.   “Are those REAL bullets?”  , he would ask excitedly.

At 7 months, I embarked on my first international trip.  On March 6, 1957, we headed out from Rangoon to Beirut, Lebanon.  Because of the different electric voltages around the world, my parents carried a 110 electric hot plate as well as a 220 one, a pan in which to sterilize bottles for my milk and all my food for the trip.  I did okay except for a loud crying session in first class after the Vice Chairman of the Board of the Ford Foundation boarded in Karachi and sat down next to us.  We stayed a few days in Beirut and my brothers went and saw the ruins at Baalbek.  I guess I was too young to appreciate them.

From Beirut, we flew to Rome on a Viscount Turbo Prop plane, Middle East Airline.  We stayed at the Excelsior Hotel on the main avenue in the middle of the shopping area and I was taken for many walks in my stroller.

Where’s Waldo?



Our next stop was Zurich, Switzerland.  The Hotel Spugenschlos had been recommended and it turned out to be very nice near the lake.  We took the train and funicular up Mt Rigi and watched the skiers.  From there we took the funicular down the other side of the mountain, a boat across Lake Lucerne, and a train back to Zurich.

Mt Rigi, I believe

From Zurich to New York we had a four-hour stopover in Paris.  My Father recalls:

“We found the French sales clerks in the airport shops were not very nice to children, so we were glad to move on.  From Paris to New York we had our first flight on a Pan Am double deck Stratocruiser with a 4-course dinner, 4 stewardess in first class and an almost empty plane.  We each had a sleeping berth but Kathy and Virginia spent most of the night catnapping in the lower deck bar (they were not drinking) with a dog in a cage.  It was a 14 hour flight.”

After a few days in New York, we boarded a train to Wisconsin with a change in Chicago arriving on March 21.  Luckily we had a long home leave.

On July 10, we made the return journey.  We took the train to Chicago and a taxi to O’Hare Airport.  We had 14 bags plus hand luggage and had to pay for excess baggage.  My father remembers this leg of the trip:

“We left about noon and arrived in Frankfurt the following day, after stops in Shannon and London.  It was our first ever stop in Germany, which was still suffering shortages after the war.  The Customs Officer found it hard to believe that with 14 bags we had nothing to declare.  With the amount of luggage we had, we always had to take 2 taxis from the airports to our hotels.”












We spent three days in Frankfurt and then took an SAS plane to Athens.  We went to the Parthenon and other sites, and even went to the beach our last day there.


From Athens, we flew to Bombay on a TWA Constellation and arrived in the monsoon rain.  We stayed at the Taj Mahal Hotel and could see the famous Gateway to India from our hotel room.

After some sightseeing we flew to Madras and took the train to southern India – the Kodai Station.  My father registered Tom (9) and Tim (11) and we left them at Kodaikanal School. I always thought that was very young to be sent off to boarding school but I have since learned that there were many children at that very school as young as 6 or 7.

I arrived back in Pyinmana at the age of 11 months, my first grand tour completed.

You can learn more in my book Expat Alien.