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.

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