A Journey to Myanmar Sheds Light on His Ancestry


Editor's note: Myanmar is ruled by a military junta that does not look favorably on Burmese citizens talking to Western journalists. The names of some people and places in this story have been changed.


On a trip to Myanmar in 1993, my sister inquired of the authorities if a certain distant town was open to foreigners. It was closed, they said. It had been closed for years.

When my sister returned home, we discussed her trip to the Southeast Asian country, formerly Burma, where our maternal grandfather was born and which for decades has been under the rule of one of the world's most brutal military regimes. For much of that time, it has been completely closed off to the rest of the world.

In her few days there, my sister had looked for the gravestones of our ancestors in Yangon, as the former Rangoon is now known. The cemetery was long ago destroyed. All of the family had died in Burma or fled the country decades earlier, before World War II.

All but one.

"Apparently there's some old guy still up in the hills somewhere," my sister said. "I asked if I could go there, but it was closed."

I didn't give much thought to this information at the time. Then, late last year, I decided to take a look at the country that a chunk of my family, including my Burmese great-great-great-grandmother, once called home. Before I left, I wrote to the "old guy," Andrew Matthaus.

He was my grandfather's first cousin. All I knew was that he was very old, taught English, had married a local woman and had a son who was a Catholic priest. I wrote to him in advance to let him know I was coming. I never heard back.

Three months later, I arrived in Yangon.

"Is Lautan open now?" I asked tourism officials at the airport, still unsure if the government had relaxed travel restrictions to Andrew's town. If it was closed, that part of my trip was over already.

"Lautan's open. No problem."

In three days I was looking out the window of a small plane. Below was a curling brown river and mountainous jungle for as far as the eye could see. At the air strip, a taxi driver took me to one of the two hotels in town. I had told no one that I was looking for my relative. But I decided there was no point trying to conceal that I was looking for Andrew. This was a small town. I was the only white person I'd seen. I was looking for the other white guy in town. It's hard to sneak around.

"Yes--Mr. Matthaus--he taught me English," said one of the women at the hotel's reception desk. She told the taxi driver where to take me.

We drove down roads that became narrower and dustier at every turn. People on bicycles turned to stare at me as we crawled past in one of the only cars on the road. After five minutes, the houses had become smaller, more primitive, spaced farther apart. I assumed Andrew's house would be one of the grander affairs in this distant corner of one of the world's poorest nations. Our mutual forebears had lived in beautiful colonial houses in Rangoon.

The taxi driver left me at the gate of Andrew's property. Along a muddy driveway I could see a white and brown house, apparently made of wood beams and plaster and as humble as the others in the neighborhood. It had a corrugated iron roof and was surrounded by a few acres of lush, cultivated land, on which stood about half a dozen huts made of bamboo, wood and grass.

Two men in their 30s sat in the main room of the house. I stood at the front doorway, which did not have a door.

"Does Andrew Matthaus live here?" I asked, hoping Andrew had given English lessons to these two also. "Andrew Matthaus?"

They smiled. The man on the left, thickset and wearing a mustache, nodded. He indicated that I should wait, and he left the room. I sat on a bench by a table and looked around. Hanging from the walls were old black-and-white photographs of family members, both European and Burmese. Pictures of popes and images of the Virgin Mary and Christ suggested that the Catholicism that my Scottish and American families still vaguely adhere to was alive and well here.

A woman in her 30s appeared. I walked across the concrete floor to shake her hand and asked if Andrew lived here.

"Yes, I am Anna, his daughter. This is Andrew, his son," she said, gesturing toward the man with the mustache. "He will be here soon. He is not here now."

I looked at her. If I blinked, her face, with its high cheekbones, wide mouth, broad forehead and kind but firm eyes, could become the face of my cousin Christian, who is about the same age.

"I'm a relative of Andrew's," I said. "And of you."

I sat down to wait for Anna's father. Her English was exhausted and we sat in silence.

Twenty minutes passed.

The rattling of an old bicycle made me look toward the door. Wheeling the bicycle in was a walking skeleton of a man, his eyes sunk deep in his skull, his jawbone outlined as if in a pencil sketch. His tall frame was topped by a broad-brimmed straw hat. He wore a white shirt and loose-fitting khaki trousers. On his feet were sandals, the footwear of most Burmese. But this man did not have the dark skin of a Burmese. This was Andrew. I walked up and shook his bony hand.

"I'm the grandson of your cousin Bobby Taylor. I've come from New York to visit you."

"Have you really?" he said. "Oh, my! Oh, my word!"

I'd had weeks, months to prepare for this. It was a complete surprise to Andrew. He had not received my letter, he said.

He hung his hat on a hook, rolled his bicycle into the room alongside four others and sat down. He gazed straight ahead, not at me. Young women brought us sweet, milky tea in blue-and-white china cups and plates of white toast spread with margarine. I told him the family was keen to know about him, to hear how he was.

"Who is your mummy?" he asked in an elusive accent. And so began four days of talk with Andrew.

Before my arrival, Andrew had not seen a member of his family since one of his brothers visited in 1971. Before that, another brother visited in 1965. Occasionally he receives letters from his sister, who lives in the south of England. He has not lived among English speakers since the end of World War II. And so it is that period of life that he immediately begins to talk about. He fires off a few anecdotes about the war and conversation somehow dies. So I tell him a story instead. I have brought with me a photocopy of a short family history that my second cousin Alastair has e-mailed me from London. The three pages of type go a long way toward explaining how Andrew comes to be in Myanmar.

At the very birth of colonial Burma, in the 1850s, a German named Capel Hermann left his native Hamburg to make his fortune in the new colony. Hermann set up home with a Burmese woman. They were my great-great-great-grandparents.

They had at least two children, one named Eugenie. On May 30, 1883, Eugenie met Charles or Carl Matthaus at the altar of the Catholic Cathedral in Rangoon. Matthaus, a German native, was 32 at the time, and worked on the Burmese railroads as a fitter, a sawmill foreman and superintendent. Such positions don't sound particularly impressive, but he made a fortune supplying timber for the rapidly expanding railways that enabled the British to control the country and harvest its enormous natural resources. Matthaus bought a large plot of land in Rangoon and built three houses. The couple had four children.

When I was about 7 years old, I was taken with my sister to visit my great-grandmother--the third of Eugenie and Carl's children--in a house somewhere in the south of England. The old lady sat in a chair, made sure we had tea and cookies and didn't seem to remember things that had happened to her the day before. My mother's middle name, Pauline, was her first name.

Pauline, educated in a convent in India, married Ralph Taylor on June 30, 1909. Taylor was a sailor, captain of a passenger ship. One of their children was Bobby Taylor, my maternal grandfather. The family left Burma sometime around 1930. I assume they, like many British, realized the Burmese independence movement was unstoppable and the end was nigh for the colonists.

Only two members of the family stayed in Burma after World War II. They were brothers, Hugh and Andrew Matthaus. They were the sons of Carl Matthaus Jr., the oldest of Eugenie and Carl's children. Hugh married a Burmese woman and lived on an old family farm in Insein, until his death there in 1993. Andrew, who hadn't seen Hugh for decades because of the difficulties of traveling in Burma, is very much alive.

I read the family history out loud to Andrew and he sits completely still. He's hearing names he hasn't heard for decades, names he thought he would never hear again. "It's quite extraordinary," he says. "And it's all correct." As other members of the family were heading back to Britain in the 1930s, Andrew was becoming further immersed in Burma.

"I joined Steels in 1938," he says, referring to a Scottish timber company that operated in some of the more distant parts of the country. "I had 265 elephants under me at Steels." In other words, the young Andrew had weighty responsibilities when it came to hauling timber around the jungle.

Andrew, who had been schooled in India--the only foreign country he has ever visited--wasn't much impressed with working in the jungle. He disliked the animals, the insects, the diseases, and he longed to go back to Rangoon. A year after he joined the company, war broke out. But it took a while to reach this outpost of the British Empire.

"After two years out in the forest I received a little card," Andrew says. "'It said, 'Report to Head Office.' I got the train the next morning. At the office they told me I had to join the British army. 'Sir, I don't want to go.'

" 'If you don't go, you'll be shot.' So I went off to bush warfare school."

When the Japanese invaded Burma, Andrew was among the young officers in a British force that was rapidly defeated and sent into retreat in the hills of the country, which became Japanese-occupied territory. During this period, he met a young Burmese woman and quickly proposed.

The wedding took place toward the end of the year. Andrew converted his new wife from the local animist Buddhism to Catholicism. She was christened and took the name Joan. "She followed me everywhere, even to the front line," Andrew says. "She was very brave."

As we talk, Joan is outside chopping sugar cane, feeding the chickens and preparing lunch. She speaks no English and rarely appears when her husband and I are talking. When I do see her she is polite and smiles, her round face becoming a web of crinkles and warmth. She has 12 children and 36 grandchildren. About half of them live on the few acres the family owns.

There were reasons that the Burmese heritage in my family was kept rather hush-hush for decades. The guardians of the secret, most dead now, were from a generation that suffered because it had "black blood." Two weeks before her marriage, one elderly relative was abandoned by the man she loved because he discovered that one of her great-grandparents was Burmese. The connection is so distant, the cultural times so changed, that it now seems laughable to keep such a secret.

One morning I ask Andrew about that ancestor, his great-grandmother, my great-great-great-grandmother. "What was her name?"

"Daw Dwe," he says, pronouncing it Daw Dway. "I remember seeing a painting of her husband. There were no cameras in those days. He had two big whiskers going down."

"So they were married?"

"I have no idea."

"What do you remember of her?" I'm asking Andrew to visit a time when he was an infant. It doesn't seem to tax him.

"She used to chew a lot of betel and she used to put bits into my mouth," he says, referring to the nut of the betel palm chewed by many Burmese for its mild stimulant effect. "She was toothless. I was very young when she died. Five or 6. That's all I remember. She was a Mon, you know."

The Mons are one of the many ethnic minorities in Myanmar.

"Am I right in thinking that she and the family would have faced racism because of her place in the family?"

"Oh, yes," Andrew says. He quickly changes the subject. It's perhaps a measure of the strength of the racist sentiments found in colonial literature of that time--George Orwell's "Burmese Days" is a good example--that my grandfather, who left Burma when he was about 20, never mentioned to his children where he got his straight black hair and golden skin.

My Aunt Jennifer, who lives in Rhode Island, remembers when she first heard mention of the Burmese side of the family. About 12 years ago, an old friend of the family casually mentioned our "Burmese family." That throwaway remark introduced the "Burmese family" to my mother, her siblings and all their children.

A curious phenomenon of inverse racism began. Everyone seemed delighted that we were part "Oriental." Eyes were examined and, when found to be almond-shaped, celebrated. Everyone's skin complexion was noted and it did seem that, generally, the older the hide, the darker it was. Every baby born into the family was examined for its Burmese characteristics, in spite of the fact that they were many generations removed from Daw Dwe.

It could be a desire to be somehow different from others in an era of multiculturalism. Or perhaps it's a less complicated excitement at discovering a part of family history. Whatever the reason, the currency of our Burmese blood-ties, once cause to break off engagements and steer conversations in different directions, is high these days.

On our final morning together, Andrew and I sit in hardwood chairs just outside the front door. We drink cups of Burmese tea, sweet and milky. I think we are both doing the same thing--trying hard to make sure there are no unanswered questions, because we both know that we're never going to see each other again. Andrew looks at the photocopied family history that my cousin Alastair wrote. Then he looks at me. I think it's sunk in that a member of his Western family has reached out to visit him one last time. Up till now, he's been almost blase about my arrival.

"It's amazing," he says. "It's completely amazing. It's the biggest surprise of my life. I never thought I would see anyone again. The family is now dying to know all about it, so I'm going to have to translate it all into Burmese."

"Have they always been curious about your family?" I ask.

"No, not at all. They never ask."

Imagine. Your father is the only white person in the whole state and you've never asked him about his family, his history. I'm surprised. But perhaps these things don't matter. He is one of them, a man who works on the land and has children and believes in God.

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