It was 6 am, February 1st when my grandfather woke me up. “အာဏာသိမ်းသွာပြီ.” “They’ve seized power.” Threats of a coup had recently surfaced, but I assumed they were nothing more than the cries of an illegitimate military regime whose landslide loss in the 2020 elections only solidified its unpopularity amongst the Burmese people. I asked my grandfather where he got the news from. Facebook. I sighed in relief; unlike him, I knew enough about Facebook to not trust anything in it. Regardless, I checked my phone just to be safe. My heart stopped. The phone lines had been cut off, and the internet nationwide had been throttled. My grandfather—and worse—Facebook, was right after all.
I got up from my makeshift bed and made my way across the cold hardwood floor. I had to get to my mother. Why or how she could help, I didn’t know, but I had to get her nonetheless. “Is it true?” I asked her. “I’m in a class; I’ll talk to you later.” She was sitting at her desk teaching English to a student thousands of miles away, and the stoic face she usually shooed me away with now had a sour, grim look to it. I was panicking. I paced her room back and forth, hoping for some sort of closure. My restlessness increased with every additional Facebook post I scrolled through. “All airports in Myanmar have been closed until the end of May.” Fuck. I had finished packing to leave Myanmar just 6 hours ago for a new beginning at Bennington, but my one escape route had been shut off. I collapsed on the bed.
As the eldest child of a traditional Asian family, I was never allowed to be a kid; my family expected too much of me. The best grades, the best behavior, and the best everything else; they didn’t rise from poverty and provide me with all the opportunities I had just to accept me for who I was and see me happy. I had to live up to their standards. Needless to say, it didn’t take long for my dreams to turn into goals, my imagination into anxiety. Every time depression incapacitated me to bed, I told myself it couldn’t get any worse. The pit had to have a bottom. But with each subsequent experience, it grew deeper, and I hit rock bottom harder and faster than the last time. I remember laying on my hospital bed recovering from appendicitis amid a raging pandemic, revealing to my mother everything I had hidden for 18 years: the sleepless nights, the troubled thoughts, and how close I was from doing something stupid and irreversible. She apologized. But then she told me she didn’t blame herself. Then, the military coup happened. Another rug pulled from underneath me.
I sunk deeper into the bed, the ceiling growing wider as I fell. This time the pit truly had no bottom. I was incapable of convincing myself it couldn’t get any worse. It could–and it did. I recalled having to stay up till three in the morning to get up at six the following morning, just to attend classes during my first semester online in the fall. Having had neither a proper orientation nor contact of any kind with other freshmen, the only thing that kept me going was the knowledge, or rather the hope, that the Spring was going to be different (after all, 2020 couldn’t last forever). I didn’t eat that day. Neither did I get out of bed. It was all too difficult. I knew the desperate emails I had sent to Bennington would be moot; if only we lived in a world where liberal arts colleges had the power to topple military dictatorships.
The sun set and rose again. February 2nd. The previous day had ended, but the nightmare hadn’t. Despite the desperate knocks on my door, I glued myself to my bed and refused to move. It all felt ethereal. I was detached from my body in a way I never was before. I could hear noises outside my door complaining about my insolence and my father moaning over how he had it harder as a kid when the same military staged a putsch in ‘88. I didn’t even care enough to be upset anymore.
It was evening when I got a notification on my phone. The Burmese military caved under international pressure and opened the airports to let foreigners out of the country. I had a way out. As I read the news, my glimmers of hope brewed beneath my despair. Hope that I’d experience the campus in the Spring, I’d escape my parent’s tyranny, and I’d get to connect to who I truly was and not have to don a persona to survive the wrath of my Burmese-Nepalese society. I wanted space to weep for the kid who blamed his parent’s dying marriage on himself, whose self-esteem was dragged through the mud every time his parents yelled at him for not “doing his best”, who was belittled and scorned for displaying emotions his family deemed inappropriate. I wanted to mourn my past and move on.
I gave my family a hug before entering the airport. They told me to study well and enjoy myself, but I wasn’t listening. The cloud of sadness that hung over me made the urgency and the difficulty of moving forward that much harder. It was only when I settled down in my dingy, uncomfortable window seat with stale airplane bread in front of me that I cried. I was out. Nobody could stop me anymore. I had never looked forward to 50 hours of sleep deprivation and awful airplane food as much as I did during that moment. I had escaped, and I had survived.
Written by: Win Aung