Burmese Mermaid

Burmese Mermaid

Friday, May 27, 2016

Badass Burmese Girls, Part III - Patricia Magdamo

Patricia Magdamo
January 1, 1931 - April 19, 2016

My dear Aunty Pat wrote her own obituary, which is so like her - always planning ahead! Pat inspired me to pursue education, more than anything else. She earned her Masters and PhD at Columbia University while caring for her three young sons and while battling breast cancer, among many other challenges. She did have the support of her loving husband, Ben.
  Here is what she wrote about herself, in the 3rd person:

Patricia Ling was born in Rangoon (Yangon), Burma (Myanmar), the first of four children for Louisa and Samuel Ling. She had a happy childhood, but as the eldest, she felt the weight of heavier expectations. Her parents were strong advocates of education; they faithfully read books, told stories, and supervised homework for Leslie, June, Michael and Patricia. Their Aunt Ella was a schoolteacher who emphasized geography, showing the Ling children how to use atlases and maps. Their father gave them piano lessons. Church was a big part of the Ling family's life at the American Baptist Old Emanuel Church, near the beautiful golden Shwe Dagon Pagoda, City Hall with its Burmese architecture, and the Supreme Court building. Rangoon was a center for work and worship. 

When Patricia was 11 years old, World War II caught up with Burma. The sought-after prize was India, and when the Japanese army rushed westward, the region was thrown into a panic. The British government evacuated its staff, and the people of Rangoon had to flee - some by boat, others on foot. Patricia's father worked for the Forest Department, so he needed to stay behind to close the office. He sent the family to some friends in Mandalay, in the middle of the country. Lack of communication caused fear and confusion, and for a time the Lings were not sure if they would ever see their father again. Worried, they traveled back down the hills to look for him.

Finally reunited, the Lings headed north, but were delayed by a train accident. Their suitcases and clothes now gone, they had to find shelter. Carrying mosquito nets and some bully beef cans in their pockets, the began to walk. Patricia carried her younger brother across railroad trestles, not an easy task for a young girl. When the reached a train station, a man helped them find food. He then directed them through the  jungle to a small Kachin village, whose leader happened to be a Christian. The village welcomed the refugees, and they were able to stay there in a bamboo house for several months, hiding by day in the paddies or corn fields. 

They faced many challenges, and suffered from malaria and dysentery. When Samuel decide that his family could no longer stay in the jungle, they walked to Myitkyina, where they found an empty bamboo shed hidden in a teak forest. They stayed there for over a year, all the while getting more desperate about food and medicine. If the sun was shining, the children could go outside; then it rained they stayed inside the shed, under its dripping thatched roof. Life in hiding became routine, and the children adjusted as best they could. They planted vegetables and kept some chickens. They dug a trench covered with sod to run into at the sound of bombs. They made their own calendar with Louisa's Book of Common Prayer and the Bible, and they said their prayers while they counted the days and months. 

When small  planes flew over them one day, they could see the pilots waving as they dropped leaflets, which told of the progress being made in building the Burma Road and in fighting battles in the Pacific - Solomon Islands, Tarawa, Guadalcanal. Aunt Ella included this information in a geography lesson for the children. Using a stick in the sand, she also taught them math. Samuel made knitting needles out of bamboo and Ella taught them how to knit, using yarn unraveled from blue Air Force balaclavas. Weeks later they heard a thumping sound as planes were coming in, perhaps the sign of a battle. Samuel hired a bullock cart to take the children away, along with the last of their clothes and the mosquito nets. After a long trek across hills and streams, everyone was exhausted. The soldiers at the airport gave them rations, and even entertained them with songs. They all watched as C - 54s dropped color-coded parachutes - red for food, green for medicine. The soldiers were preparing for what was to be the final battle of Myitkyina, close to the Chinese border. The people working on the Burma Road were digging their way out. Lower Burma was being attacked by British forces - a turnaround in the war. 

One day the soldiers herded all the refugees on an empty C-54 that was going back to India. Flying was a frightening experience, especially with the door open. They landed in Gayhali, Assam and were then sent to Calcutta by train. Once there, Samuel decided to join the Burma government in exile in Simla; he needed to earn some money, and wanted to get back to work. Louisa and Ella were left with the children. They rented a house in the hills near Darjeeling, overlooking bushes of the tea that was grown there, and in the distance they could see the beautiful Mt. Kanchanga in the Himalayan Range. The children went back to school, and were given uniforms for both warm and cold weather. It was a relief for them to be able to study again, and they welcomed the return to normalcy. 

After the war the Ling family returned to Burma, and Patricia entered the University of Rangoon. She was thriving in her studies when once again politics interrupted her life. One night when the ethnic Karen group decided to protest the government, the students hid under their beds in the dorm to escape the crossfire. Soon afterwards, the University was closed down. Patricia then learned secretarial skills, but she felt an uproar broiling inside herself. Then, three missionary friends got her a scholarship at Eastern Baptist College Seminary in Pennsylvania. Having never been abroad, Patricia didn't know how she would manage for four years without her family. But as she set out on this new adventure, she found other people who helped and encouraged her. Her dear friend Phyllis Wales Twiss helped her with spiritual and physical needs, invited her home, and shared her family. Patricia was forever grateful for Phyllis' kindness.

After completing her Bachelor's degree in two years, Patricia earned a Master's in Religious Education, then returned to Burma to work at her home church. But change was brewing again - there was a call for more diversity in mission work, and she accepted an invitation to serve at a University church in the Philippines, working with students, youth groups, and professors. She also planned conferences, created resources for teachers, and developed curriculum.

During this time, Patricia became acquainted with Ben Magdamo, who worked at the University radio station. They met by chance one day when Ben was checking fire extinguishers in the building. Later, as they were planning to go back to Burma to be married, politics interfered once again, with strict travel restrictions. Without the proper visa, Patricia risked being detained if she returned. Her mother was able to come to the Philippines for the wedding and they spent a wonderful week together. But one of Patricia's greatest regrets was that she never saw her father again.

In the Philippines, Ben worked for a Christian radio station under the United Church of Christ. After Christopher, Marco, and Kirwan were born, Patricia moved into teaching. In time she was offered an opportunity to do graduate work in the States. Ben got a scholarship to New York University and completed a Master's in Industrial Engineering. Moving the boys from a nice little bungalow near the sea in the Philippines to a Manhattan apartment was a great culture shock - they could hardly get outside to play. In New York, Patricia's mentor was Dr. Paul Lauby - the same mentor she had had in the Philippines, who was a role model of both work and preaching. He became Vice President of the University, and later returned to New York, where he and Patricia saw each other occasionally.

Patricia completed her doctoral degree from Columbia University, but when the family prepared to return to the Philippines, yet another political change occurred - President Marcos had declared a revolution. Ben's own mother urged the family to stay in the States, as the radio stations and media in the Philippines were under suspicion, and the University was being punished because it had been run by a member of the opposition party. Patricia's mother had already come to the States from Burma, and helped Patricia get a green card so that she could get a job.

The Magdamos ended up living in King of Prussia, near Patricia's friend Phyllis. At the Valley Forge American Baptist Center, Patrica found interesting work in Communications and International Issues. Later at the United Board for Christian Higher Education, she became the Vice President for Southeast Asia, covering the Philippines, Cambodia, Vietnam, Indonesia, Thailand, India, and Pakistan. Traveling to each country twice a year, she learned so much more about Asian culture as she interviewed possible scholars and talked with professors. She enjoyed this position, right up to her retirement, as it strengthened her love for Christian higher education, for Asia, and for travel.

Badass Burmese Girls, Part II - Aung San Suu Kyi

Friday, May 6, 2016


"Often the hands will solve a mystery that the intellect has struggled with in vain." ~C.G. Jung

"And in that moment, he was finally able to accept it all. In the deepest recesses of his soul, Tsukuru Tazaki understood. One heart is not connected to another through harmony alone. They are, instead, linked deeply through their wounds. Pain linked to pain, fragility to fragility. There is no silence without a cry of grief, no forgiveness without bloodshed, no acceptance without a passage through acute loss. That is what lies at the root of true harmony."

From Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki, by Haruki Murakami

Thursday, May 5, 2016


by Ricardo Fernandez Ortega, Mexican Surrealist painter

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Le Lumacche

Snails! They're what's for dinner.

My dear little land locked sea-bent creatures, my heart breaks for you at the thought of hungry Italians yearning for your tender flesh!

My Roman friend Nicoletta told me of how, after a spring rain, she and her Nonna Rosa would often go out into the suburban lots and country lanes to collect snails in metal pails. The tiny snails clung in clusters on low hanging branches, so it was very easy to run a hand along the branch and plonk, plonk, plonk, collect the falling snails in the pails. It was easy work. Within 20 minutes, the two of them could fill two good sized industrial pails.

At home, Nonna laid out lettuce and other juicy edible greens in a layer in a low, large plastic bin.  Here, the snails were lovingly put to rest on the blanket of lettuce, and left to do their thing, which is nibble.  They would inch their way around the bin and nibble and excrete, nibble and excrete.  Snail heaven. Little did they know what awaited them.

After 24 hours of gorging and purging, the delicate creatures would be transferred to the kitchen sink and gently tossed with sea salt and allowed to rest for a few minutes. They were then vigorously rinsed in copious amounts of cold tap water.

The snails, now drained in the sink and squeaky clean, were placed in a large soup kettle with a generous splash of white wine. The lid was placed tightly on top of the pot, the heat was put on low,  and the snails lulled gently into a blissful eternal sleep. If the heat is low enough, each and every snail will stick out its head before oblivion comes calling.

Nonna Rosa had earlier collected some wild fennel, just a handful of the tender tops, growing in the scrubby lot down the road.  Now she set a large stainless steel pot on the gas stove. Over medium low heat, she sauteed garlic and hot crushed red pepper in extra-virgin olive oil. Next, a manciata of the chopped wild fennel tops was added to the pot and stirred with a wooden spoon. Then was added canned San Marzano tomatoes, crushed in Nonna's able fist, without the liquid in the can, and some salt. The sleeping snails would then be folded into this sauce, allowed to cook only until they were thoroughly enveloped in the elixir. The heat would be extinguished and the whole thing allowed to rest.

Served in soup plates with good bread on the side, snails cooked in this manner are exquisite, I can assure you.  With their little heads doing you the favor of sticking out of the shell, all you need to do is give a little slurp. Buon appetito, cara umana!

Venere Nascosta

Dance of Venus and the Earth around the Sun

The astrological Venus sometimes hides herself behind the veil of the last, twelfth house. When this occurs, the Burmese mermaid has observed that Beauty itself goes into hiding, as though dismissed or forgotten by the world. Banished. Venere nascosta.

But, astronomers engaged in the study of the physical universe have tracked Venus as she orbits around our Sun. Their findings reveal the nature of universal phenomena, also expressed as Beauty. The magic of numbers is visible all around us, all the time. But perhaps, dear Human, you have not evolved sufficiently to perceive the truth. The Burmese mermaid encourages you to stop and look profoundly at the world around you.

Watch as the combined paths of Earth and Venus create a five pointed star, also known as a pentagram.  The earliest known pentagram was found inscribed on a jar, in Thebes, Egypt, and dates back to 3100 BCE.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Badass Burmese Girls - Part I

Badass Burmese girl, snake priestess Saya Hnin-Mayla, kissing the star on the head of a King Cobra.

This will be the first in a series of stories featuring badass girls in my native country.  The Burmese mermaid counts herself among this elite group.

In the hills of Northern Burma shaman priestesses perform a ceremonial dance with King Cobras, luring them from caves and planting kisses on their hooded heads. The cobras are in a kind of trance, apparently created by the lithe movements of the young priestesses.  As you can imagine, it's a deadly game, but few priestesses, surprisingly, die from this wildly dangerous devotional sport.  

King Cobras are highly poisonous snakes. They are also extremely strong and agile and can strike a target five to ten feet away. Those who are bitten die a horrible and painful death rather quickly. But the priestesses are Badass Burmese girls, impervious to the sting of death and unafraid, like their mermaid sisters of the sea.