Electing Sunrise


We landed in Yangon before the sun did, early Christmas
Day. As we made our way downtown, the golden spires of Shwedagon Pagoda glimmered
from the dawn-dusted cityscape.
In awe, I took a deep breath—realizing only then that I had been holding
it for months.

November and December 2016 were a suffocating whirlwind.
Having interned on the Clinton campaign since January, the election results
were a total shock; the week following, I saw the doctor to check out some
abnormal knee pain (she attributed it to stress), and was stunned to find that
I’d lost ten pounds in the fall semester. Having worked all semester on the
boards of student government and other organizations, as a teaching assistant, at
a part-time job, as a full-time student, and on the campaign,
everything gave out at once. Entire days went by when I couldn’t get out of

But Myanmar gave new life, in a way that only a rising country
can. Throughout our capstone workshop trip, it was easy for Vlada, Gakuto, and
I to see optimism overflowing from excited youth; from the buzzing hive of civic
technologists at Phandeeyar to the motivated students marching for land reform
in Bagan, many were ready to build a better society. When one of our client contacts
casually asked about the U.S. election, I was partway through a postmortem before
realizing he’d inquired from polite interest—the development of his own country was still more

In the midst of all this energy, our Russian-Japanese-American
team reveled in the unparalleled beauty of the country and the resolute compassion
of its people. We finally saw the grandeur of Shwedagon Pagoda up close, ascending
the myriad hallowed steps up to its peak to watch the sky dim into dusk while
votive offerings flickered into life. In Old Bagan, we explored the city’s
fabled ancient temples on exhilarating e-bike rides, and cruised up the
Irrawaddy River with Kopaut, a friend we made there, to an isolated monastery north
of the major sites where a Buddhist layman with a hobby of collecting currency gifted
Gakuto a Japanese rupee issued during the occupation period. When dining in Nyaung-U
at a restaurant simply named “Restaurant” (full name pending grand
opening), we were treated to a staggeringly elaborate two-hour cultural showcase
of traditional dance with live orchestra and unforgettable music. At Nyaungshwe,
the dazzling sapphire serenity of Inle Lake brought tears to my eyes and calm
to my heart, and we were joined by a Hungarian-Italian couple on our Pa’O tour of
the dreamscape that is the Kakku Pagodas.

Again and again, our travels brought me beyond the previous
darkness to renew my belief that people are fundamentally kind. Some believe in
higher beings; I put my faith in our common humanity—for it is the very
foundation of the world we must make together. As we made our way through
Myanmar, so too did we actualize the ideal of SIPA as a place where the world
connects: by learning who others are, we learn who we are, and to help another
is to help ourselves.

When we finally did leave Myanmar, it was again from
Yangon, and again at sunrise. As I saw the sun rise over a nation so nascent in
its democracy, I thought to another time when a new democracy was brought into
the light: to the year 1787, at the United States Constitutional Convention. At
convention close, Dr. Benjamin Franklin looked upon the artwork behind
Washington’s chair where a sun was painted, and noted how painters often had
difficulty distinguishing in art a rising sun from a setting sun. “I
have,” said he, “often and often in the course of this session and
the vicissitude of my hopes and fears as to its issue, looked at that behind
the president without being able to tell whether it was rising or setting: but
now at length I have the happiness to know that it is a rising and not a
setting sun.”

In this breath of new life, I again can choose to believe
that the sun is rising—after
all, as I learned recently, the Burmese name “Yangon” has a literal
meaning: “end of strife”. 


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