Genealogy Search Brings us to Mandalay, Myanmar and Hitting the Research Wall

Prior to our trip to Mandalay, Myanmar a woman on Tripadvisor had told us that St. Mary’s school where my great grandmother had worked as a matron was now NO. (8) Basic Education High School. A volunteer working for FIBIS also provided us with the same information (from the same source unfortunately). I also found on a post that most of the cemeteries had been moved out of the city to Kyar Ni Kan Cemetery ages ago but that some gravestones had been collected prior to the move and were still behind St. Thomas Aquinas Pre-Major Seminary in Mandalay. So, these places were the focus of our search when we arrived in the city.

Planning our trip I made a fatal mistake. Since we had important work to do I decided to choose a hotel which belonged to a reputable international chain. Based on their reputation I was sure that the employees would be highly trained and would be able to assist us in where things may be located and such. Unfortunately though, by the time we arrived in the city the hotel was no longer affiliated with this company and though many of their employees remained the same, they were having serious training issues. One employee was absolutely amazing and helped us as much as he could but he was doing the work of 10 people at the hotel. 

Going to Mandalay, Myanmar? Search for hotels here! 

The hotel was a bit out of town. In Yangon our hotel had also been a bit out of the city center and it was no problem at all. We easily and cheaply got taxi rides to and from the hotel at any time. In Mandalay though there were no taxis near our hotel ever. Instead we needed to hire a private care each time we went out into the city. The hotel was 20 min from the city center in moderate traffic and at $10/hour the cost of transportation quickly added up. We soon ran out of our remaining available transportation funds so each trip to investigate needed to be short.

The day before we headed out the first time to find the school I did some more digging around about No. (8) Basic Education High School. From what I could find online I had a feeling that this was not the correct school. It looked like this school had used to be St. Joseph’s and not St. Mary’s. The manager at the hotel called the school and the person who answered the phone said that they were not sure and to come on by. 

So, we took the car to the school and there were signs everywhere saying that it used to be St. Joseph’s. I don’t know how the person who answered the phone had not been aware of this. If someone is looking for St. Joseph’s though the people who work at this school were very friendly and welcoming and they have a booklet of history and old photos of the school available for people who visit. 

One woman at the school told us that there had never been a St. Mary’s School in Mandalay. Another woman said that there was a St. Mary’s school and it had been just down the street. So, with our driver we went down the street and found St. Mary’s church but no school. An old blind woman at the church told us also that there had never been a St. Mary’s school but then asked if it had been Catholic or Anglican. I told her it was Anglican. Suddenly she said “Oh yes!” there HAD been a St. Mary’s school next to St. Andrew’s school and her own father had attended it. She said it was now No. (1) Basic Education High School. 

So we found No. (1) Basic Education High School. There were 3 ladies at the front gate who were very nice but then suddenly a man came up and wouldn’t let us talk to anyone anymore and wouldn’t answer any questions. We just wanted to know if this school had been St. Mary’s. He told us to go away and to get a pass from the school’s office a few blocks away. So we went there and they told us that the person we needed to see was in a meeting and would be unavailable all day. They suggested that we talk to the school chairman who was back at the school. We went back to the school and they told us that he wasn’t there. We asked if we could perhaps call him and the same man at the gate told us that he didn’t have a phone number and ushered us out of the gate area. We finally got out of him that we should try asking at the school’s main office a few blocks away. 

We went to the main office and they told us that we should come back later in the afternoon to speak to the chairman. No one at the main office could tell us if the school used to be St. Mary’s or not and they also would not call the chairman. Our driver suggested that rather than coming back in the afternoon we should come back on Monday at 9am. Classes would be starting then and so someone would have to talk to us. 

Instead we went to find St. Thomas Church to find where some old grave stone of the British have been kept. When the military took all the old graves out of the city a priest saved a few stones there. We had been given the wrong address and had been told that it was not a seminary but a church. It IS in fact a seminary and eventually we did find it. Only around 30 stones remain there and most are in pieces. After 3 hours we were exhausted and had found nothing. 

St Thomas Seminary-2 St Thomas Seminary (2)-2 St Thomas Seminary (3)-2

The stones that remain at St. Thomas Seminary

On Monday we set out on our search again. Unfortunately they fantastic driver we had had before the weekend wasn’t available to help us on Monday. This second driver was not as um…”dedicated to the search” as the previous man had been and asked few questions.

We were sent to an old Methodist school/church, which sent us to a church next to the YMCA. They sent us back to St. Mary’s church which in turn sent us back to No. (1) Basic Education High School. They in turn ended up sending us back to No. (8) Basic Education High School where we had started our search originally on Saturday. A nun there sent us to a Baptist Church where she believed the school had been and her sister had apparently even attended the school there! The people at the Baptist Church told us there was never a school there and didn’t offer any additional leads. 

Mandalay Palace (6)-2

We know that St Mary's school was on the South side of Mandalay Palace

We headed over to the Mandalay Cultural Museum and Library but found that it was closed on Mondays. Probably for the best. Costing nearly $5 per person, Lonely Planet describes the museum as “This dowdy, poorly lit three-room collection displays archaeological finds, Buddhas and a bullock cart. It’s ludicrously overpriced”. I doubt a trip there would have helped in our search. We decided to skip going to Kyar Ni Kan cemetery on this trip. I think it is our best bet for finding my great grandfather’s grave there but we couldn’t even get a straight answer as to whether there are still British graves there. We had run out of enough time and money to spend our day searching the stones as the following day we had to leave Myanmar. 

I strongly believe that St. Mary’s School may still be in the city. In our round about search we were sent to numerous colonial era schools, churches and buildings but what each one once was has been lost to the general public. Some have little plaques with dates and names. Others, the current occupants hold the history and information like the nuns at the school that once was St. Josephs. Mapping it all out and recording it all would be a great and worthwhile project! Perhaps someone has already undertaken this task but we were unable to find the information.

We’re hoping to make it back to Mandalay in the next year if possible to search again. Online I think I’ve hit a brick wall. I have not been able to find out any new information through the genealogy sites in ages. I’ve recently been sent a message that the location of the old St Mary’s School is now St. Mary Language School between 77 & 78 roads on 26 Street in Mandalay but I have not been able to find any information about that school yet. So, at this point our search is on hold until new information arises or we can make the trip back to Myanmar.

Things I am still wondering:

  • Who was Gladys Edith May’s mother? 
  • Who was Gladys and where did she go after marriage?
  • Where is St Mary’s school?
  • Where is the grave of Joseph Plato Cooper?
  • Is there any additional documentation that shows Joseph is the son of George James Cooper?
  • Are there family photos from the time?
  • Where did the sisters do their nursing training?
  • Audrey said she was in Calcutta at one point nursing. How did she end up there?
  • Is there any documentation of my great aunt Heather at the time? Where was she born?
  • The family visit that took place in the 1950’s, what were they doing there?
  • What were they all doing in their lives there?
  • And anything else that may come up in the search!

​Click here to read how the search for our family history in Myanmar all began!

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Myanmar (Burma) travel guide, 12th Edition Jul 2014 by Lonely Planet 

Searching for Family History Beyond the Genealogy Sites

We started off our search for information about our family in British India with some fairly usual sources. One of my mother’s cousins joined Families in British India Society (FIBIS) before I got very involved in the search for the family history and later I also began searching the site. The organization is a charity which helps people who are researching the history of their family in British India. Since we do not live in England, a volunteer from FIBIS was able to help us with search in country and online which was incredibly helpful! We then turned to some of the bigger geneology sites for information: ancestry.com, findmypast.com and familysearch.org were the main sources of focus. Just before our trip to Myanmar and since I have been branching out. Here are some of the additional resources which may prove useful that we have used at this time.

monks at a temple in bagan using cell phone

Freemasons

After finding that my great grandfather had been a Freemason, I consulted a friend of mine who is also one for some additional information. He informed me that many lodges keep good records and are eager to help families of past members. Through the Library and Museum of Freemasonry it is possible to request genealogical information. If you know the United Grand Lodge of England lodge name or the number of the person you are asking about, there is no charge. I had found my great grandfather’s registration with the lodge Victoria in Burma through ancestry.com. If you have your own lodge number the fee is £15. If none of the above applies to you, then the fee for the search is £30. The search can take up to 8 weeks. 

I got a response approximately 5 weeks after I submitted my request. Unfortuantely the only information they could provide me with was the same as what I had already found. No further records for my great grandfather could be found. They were very patient with my follow up questions about terminology and helped to clear up some questions I had. This included whether men who had registered at other lodges in the area who held the same first and last name of my grandfather but didn't list his middle name were infact him. It doesn't look like it was.

British Library India Office

I also contacted the British Library India Office. They provide a family history search and when I contacted them they got back to me in about 4 days’ time. While they did provide me with information, none of it was new to us at that point. They probably would have been a good starting point earlier in our search. They did though provide a list of organizations which may be able to help further as well as a list of research agents who might be able to undertake further paid research for us.

Google Book and Map Searches

The name of the school where my great grandmother was a matron is St. Mary School in Mandalay. I did a Google Books search of the school and was able to read excerpts of books containing related information. The entire book isn't online in most cases but a fairly large preview is usually available to be read. Through various Google searches I was able to eventually make contact with two women whose families had been connected to the school in some way. 

Using Google Maps I also searched for St. Mary's School in Mandalay…and didn't find it. But it was a good try! When they moved to England from Burma my great aunts Phyllis and Heather both listed the same address that they were going to move to on the passenger lists of the ships they traveled on. I was able to find an image of the house which is still standing.

United Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (USPG)

The first person I connected with as a result of my Google search was the author Anne Carter who has written the book Bewitched by Burma. As mentioned in her book, her aunt Fan had taught years ago at St. Mary’s but unfortunately her time there and my family’s time there does not seem to have overlapped. She did though suggest that I contact the United Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (USPG), now shortened to United Society (US). At the time St. Mary’s was run by them. US has an archivists who can help with the search for family connected to the Anglican Church but as they work part time it can take up to 4 months to receive a response. As of this writing it has been just over 4 months and I haven’t heard back yet. I have sent a follow up email.
 

TripAdvisor

Though it is the place where I do most of my planning for my trips, TripAdvisor also has a wealth of information beyond that! They have forums where travelers can ask for travel advice and information in the area. This also includes a Myanmar forum and its different regions which was helpful to our search. This is how I found the second woman I made contact with.

The second woman I connected with was the wife of a man who lived at the school with his mother who was a teacher at the same time that my family was there. Her husband wasn’t able to add too much information about his time while our family was there since he was so young but we have kept in touch. While we were in Mandalay he relayed his childhood memories of his walks around the school area to us so that we could try to locate the school in present times. There were some great “Ah ha!” moments as we would see something in front of us that he had mentioned.

I also found a post asking about St. Mary’s made by a spouse of one of my relatives that I had not been aware of. A local travel agent had given suggestions where to look for sites in the city. Another person had an old map of the city and give suggestions as to where the school may be. and a third person even told us the current name of the school. None of this is verified though so, as we later found out, comes with no guarantees. 

Follow this link to learn what we have found in our family search!

Genealogy: Finding out About my Grandmother’s Family in British India

Daisy, Joseph and the Girls

On December 12, 1904 my 19 year old great grandmother Daisy, married my 34 year old great grandfather Joseph at a Methodist Church in Lahore, Pakistan. Daisy’s family had been living there but just a few years earlier Joseph had been in Yangon, Myanmar. On his marriage certificate Joseph is listed as a millwright. He was an engineer who worked for various railway maintenance shops including North Western Railway. The most likely scenario is that work brought Joseph to Pakistan. 

daisy joseph marriage cert-2

Just over 9 months after the wedding my great aunt Alice Sylvia was born on September 23rd, 1905 in Lahore, Pakistan. Finding her registered as such was a bit of a surprise to me as we always called her Sylvia, not Alice. Next on April 1st, 1908 great aunt Phyllis Marjory was born in Hinthada, Myanmar followed by my grandmother Audrey Pheobe January 8th, 1910 in Yangon, Myanmar. Finally was Heather Adair was born around 1916.

The birth records for the sisters are a bit confusing. Sylvia was born in 1905 but baptized in 1932. This may be a reissue of the original baptismal. I was speaking to a volunteer at FIBIS recently though and it may be that this was her first issue. A birth certificate was not required in British India at the time but either a birth certificate or a baptismal record would be necessary to acquire a passport. This new document in 1932 may have been so she could get her passport issued. Sylvia’s father is listed as Joseph Plato CASPER. Phyllis’ record have her father listed as Joseph PLATE Cooper as does Audrey’s. In fact Audrey’s name is spelt without an “E” as well. Transcription errors were common all around. I can find no birth or baptismal record for Heather at all and different records from her adulthood work out to have her birthday be 1913, 1916, 1918, or 1919!

August 7th, 1932 my great grandfather Joseph died from pneumonia in Mandalay, Burma leaving Daisy as a widow with 4 daughters. It was originally thought that Daisy got a teaching job to help support the girls after Joseph’s death and to give them a good education. But by 1932 the ages of the older girls were around 27, 24 and 22 and they were either in the process of or finished their nursing training. Only Heather would have still been at home. We are not exactly sure when Daisy started to work but on Sylvia’s reissue of her birth certificate around 1932 Daisy’s place of residence is recorded as being St. Mary’s School in Mandalay, Burma. Daisy worked as the school matron there until sometime between 1938-1940. She was working there around the time of Joseph’s death but whether she got the job because of his death or before is unknown. 

Picture 1

Great Grandmother Daisy at St Mary's School

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During her tenure at St. Mary’s school Daisy adopted a girl. Before I started this search I was completely unaware of this adopted great aunt. Some of the family knew about her, others didn’t. She is present in family photos from the 1940’s and is still living but I have no contact. When I was 10 years old my family and I traveled to England with my grandmother. She was getting older and this was her last visit to see her sisters. I remember spending time with both Heather and Phyllis’ families but I did not meet her adopted sister. Perhaps they met privately but I do not believe I was ever introduced for some reason.

My grandmother and her sisters all did their nursing training in British India and worked as nurses there. My mother recalls that my grandmother ended up doing some nursing in Calcutta while she lived with friends (possibly the family name was Chip) who may have owned a sugarcane plantation. While there she was reprimanded for going to visit a helper from the hospital that was sick because that helper was Indian. At some point she also traveled through the Suez Canal. That is pretty much the extent of the stories from that time.

Around 1935 Sylvia went alone first to England where she did her UK re-registration for her nursing qualifications at Guys Hospital in London. In 1939 both Heather and Phyllis are listed on ships headed to London from Calcutta. One traveled in April and the other in March but the address that they were heading to in England was the same. Heather traveled on the ship named Domala which was in the British India Steam Navigation Company's fleet. Ten months after Heather traveled to England the Domala was requisitioned to the company's Liner Division. The following month the Domala was the first air attack by German aircraft on English Channel shipping as the ship was bombed and 108 lives lost.

Once in England, the 3 younger sisters also did their re-registration for their SRN badge form the General Nursing Council for England. Eventually Phyllis, Audrey and Heather all married and had children. My grandmother Audrey married a Canadian soldier named Stanley Simpson (Jr.) and made her way to Brockville, Ontario, Canada around the end of the war as a War Bride with my uncle who had been born in England.
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Audrey's SRN badge issued in 1940.

 So far in our search for the family history, no major scandal or reason for not talking about the time in British India has been found. Joseph’s first marriage may be a sensitive topic but without anyone in more recent times knowing about his first daughter, this is likely to have not been an issue. I can find no records of Heather before her adulthood but that may just be because of poor recordkeeping. There is one point though that should be mentioned as other people researching the family history may come across it. After moving to England one of the sister’s and her family returned to Myanmar for around 4 years in the 1950’s. The reason for this is currently unknown and as it involves people who are still alive, I am not digging into it further if they do not wish to share. 

The most likely cause for the silence of my grandmother and her sisters is that they were probably met with prejudice when they first came to the UK. Though British by nationality my grandmother and her sisters had only been to England for a few short visits over the years. They were not Indian or Burmese nor were they really English. They were unfamiliar with British life and those around them could never really understand the life their family had been living in the colonies. Consequently they denied being anything other than English or Scottish, didn’t speak of their time in Burma and lead even their children to believe that they had spent the majority of their lives in England. My grandmother spoke about the war in England with her English friends in Canada regularly giving the impression that this was a time in England that she really enjoyed speaking about. In fact, it was the ONLY time in England that she could talk with them about. In total, my "English" grandmother Audrey only spent about 5 years of her life in England.

Follow this link for suggestions on where to start your family search!
Follow this link to start at the begining of the story!

 

Genealogy: The Family Story in British India Starts to Unfold

Our trip to Myanmar was booked for the beginning of February 2016. Prior to our trip I wanted to see what I could find out about the family’s time in Myanmar. My mother’s cousins in both Canada and England had started the search and I extended on it as well as mapped out the family tree more. The search is ongoing and there are missing pieces and likely mistakes as well in the research but at this time, this is what I have. Considering we knew nearly none of this in advance, I think we’ve done a pretty good job! In a later post I will be sharing just how we found this information.

The Family of Daisy Forbes

Daisy Forbes, my great grandmother, was born December 26th in Meerut, Uttar Pradesh India. Though she did have Scottish heritage, she herself was not born in Scotland as we originally believed her to be, nor does she appear to have ever lived there. Her father William Forbes was born December 8th, 1851 in Scotland but on February 2nd, 1881 he married Daisy’s mother Charlotte Carlton in Rawalpindi, Punjab, Pakistan. The exact date that he came to British India is not known.

Daisy’s mother Charlotte was born in Bangalore, India on September 28th, 1854. Her father Samuel Carlton (born around 1811) was from Rotherhithe, England as was her mother Sarah Brennan (born around 1815). Sarah and Samuel married in Bangalore, India though and the two of them lived out the rest of their lives there. 

Charlotte eventually moved to Mhow, Madhya Pradesh, India where she married James Gouldsworthy. She and James had 3 children but only her daughter Clara survived past infancy. James too died young at only 30 years old in 1883 in Peshawar, on the North West Frontier of Pakistan. There seems to be some confusion with the records though as her marriage to William Forbes is recorded as taking place February 2nd, 1881 and their first daughter was born the same year in October. Both the marriage and the birth took place in Rawalpindi, Pakistan. Perhaps the date of death for James is incorrect.

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One of the original theories as to why my grandmother and her sisters kept quiet about their past in British India was that they were ashamed that their father had had a wife prior to being married to their mother Daisy. Considering Daisy’s own mother was married twice, this seems unlikely. Throughout the family tree there are multiple instances of family members getting remarried after their spouse passed away. Many of them died young so it was a very common occurrence at the time and hardly a family scandal.

My great grandmother Daisy was the 3rd child out of 6 to be born to Charlotte and William between 1881and 1891. The first two were born in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, the next 3 in Meerut, Uttar Pradesh, India and finally the last in Sialkot, Pakistan. The family moved around a fair amount in those 10 years but at this time I have not looked into the occupations of family members that far back in the history so the reason for these moves is unknown. William’s death is recorded in Umballa, India shortly after or around the time his last child was born and a few years later in 1897 Charlotte also passed away. It seems that Daisy remained in Pakistan after the death of her parents as this is where she married Joseph.

The Family of Joseph Plato Cooper

Daisy’s family history was relatively easy to trace. Joseph on the other hand was a completely different story. There is no birth certificate that has been found but other records indicate that he was born some time in 1870. His parents were also difficult to identify. On Joseph’s marriage certificate to Daisy, his father is listed as George James Cooper.  Eventually through the hard work of Beverly who is a volunteer at FIBIS a will was found for a man of the same name. His name is actually listed as both George James Cooper and James George Cooper in the same will. In his list of surviving children there is a name that looks like Joseph Ralte or Ralto Cooper. No record of any Joseph Ralte Cooper has been found and the family connected to this will lived in the same area as Joseph. So, it is very likely that this is his father’s will and that “Ralte” is a transcription error.

Page of names in will

The final name in list of George James Cooper's children in his will looks to be Joseph "Ralto" Cooper

If my great grandfather Joseph’s connection to this will is correct, then Joseph is the son of George James Cooper and Isabella Laetitia Hampton. George was born December 15th, 1826 in Agra India. He was an Honorary Surgeon as part of the Subordinate Medical Department. He passed away July 3rd, 1877 in Shoay Gheen, British Burma which is now Shwegyin, Myanmar.

George’s wife Isabella was born in India (September 9th, 1830) and both of Isabella’s parents had been born in Agra, India in the early 1800’sShe passed away in Utah, USA in 1889 though. In 1899 Isabella and George's oldest son John Henry Cooper (born October 9th 1848) married his second wife in Utah. His first wife Lydia Georgiana Cooper (born March 19th 1857) had passed away in 1882 and is buried in Yangon, Myanmar. It appears that after his wife passed away, John made his way to America and his mother Isabella who was a widow by this time, traveled with him.

DSC_0235

I was not aware of the family connection to Agra when we visited the Taj Mahal in 2012 on one of the foggiest days I've ever seen.

My great grandfather Joseph was the last child of 10 to be born to George and Isabella. As no baptismal or birth certificate has been found yet, I do not know where he was born but of his siblings who do have birth certificates, they were all born in Bengal, India (the North Western section of modern day India, near Bangladesh). He eventually made his way to Yangon, Myanmar as on August 29th 1892 his membership is registered with the United Grand Lodge of England Freemason’s at the Victoria in Burma Lodge. His occupation at the time is listed as a mechanic.

free mason mechanic

Sometime around 1898 Joseph had a daughter named Gladys Edith May Cooper. There is no record of him getting married though, nor is there any sort of birth or baptismal certificate for Gladys. The only record that can be found for Joseph’s connection to this woman is his name on her marriage certificate. We do know that she married James Raphael Senneville Desaubin (also listed as Seuville James Desaubin on other documents) May 28th 1923 in Bombay, India and James was from the Seychelles.

When Joseph married my great grandmother Daisy, his marriage certificate indicated that he was a widow. His daughter Gladys would have been only 6 at the time of their marriage. What happened to her before and after her marriage to James is a mystery. My grandmother Audrey never made any mention of a half-sister. Perhaps they never met or Gladys was away at school and they didn’t know each other well.

Another theory that has been suggested as to why there is no additional record of Gladys or her mother that we can find is that perhaps her mother was not British. Interracial marriages during the British Raj were not uncommon or looked down upon terribly but over time opinions shifted and it became something that families just didn’t talk about. With such a long history in British India, one would almost expect that there must have been at least one interracial marriage in the lot at some point! But of course, Gladys’ being the child of such a relationship is just speculation at this time. The fact remains though that she is my grandmother’s half-sister and no one currently can remember any mention of her.

Follow the link to read more about the family history we found!

Follow this link for suggestions on where to start your family search!

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Myanmar (Burma) travel guide, 12th Edition Jul 2014 by Lonely Planet 

Genealogy: British India Secrets and Scandals Revealed…or Maybe Not

Despite their best efforts, the children of “the sisters” were unable to find out much of anything about their mothers’ time in British India. Sylvia never got married but Heather, Phyllis and Audrey each had children. When they questioned their mother’s about the past, the topic would be changed and so over the years only bits and pieces came out. The family came to believe that there was a big scandal, a giant family secret and it was best left alone while any of the sisters were still alive.

In the Spring of 2012 Heather, the last of the Cooper sisters quietly passed away and her daughter revealed that she had been researching the family secret. It was passed on to me that after my grandmother’s father had passed away, their mother had taken a teaching job at a private school in England so that her 4 daughters could get a good education. Having their mother work was a great shame to the girls and so they did not speak about it. Their father had been born in Burma (Myanmar) and died there. Until his passing my grandmother and her sisters had lived there for some time.  We were told that more updates would come but if they did, I didn’t receive them.

 

The Search Begins for Forgotten Family

In the Winter of 2012 my son was born and we weren’t thinking at all about looking more into the family history at the time. By 2014 he was a year old and we started to think about our future more and whether we would stay in South Korea much longer. Now with a young family settling down in either Canada or the Philippines closer to family seemed like it may be a good idea and we started looking at options outside of Korea. We had really thought that we were going to have to give up traveling when our son was born and that our trip to India which had been our “last big trip before the baby” would possibly would be our last big trip ever. But we found ourselves trying to get in trips while we could still get tickets at a discountred price for infants. Before he was 3 we ended up going on 6 international trips together. With these things in mind we discussed where we wanted to go in Asia while we still had the chance and were in the area.

DSC_2917

Visiting Myanmar where my grandmother had been born was near the top of the list. We worried that it might be unrealistic though. The country was just starting to open up and we would be traveling with a small child. I had asked about trips to Myanmar with small children on parenting forums in Korea and people who had visited all told us it was a bad idea. It was dangerous, difficult to travel in and our son would get food poisoning and need hospitalization. Food poisoning seemed to be the main concern from most parents we spoke to as they kept bringing it up.

In the Fall of 2014 though our family participated in the Gwangju International Community Day. At this yearly event foreign residents living in Gwangju, South Korea and surrounding area gather for a multi-cultural festival showcasing food, performances and handicrafts from their home countries. Our family helped to run the food booth for the Philippines and right next to us was a group of international students from Myanmar running their country’s food booth.
 

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Gwamgju International Community Day 2014, Philippines food booth setting up

The first thing that caught our attention was the food. Oh, the food! If my memory serves me right, it was mohinga that they were serving and it was the most popular dish at the entire event. Food is always a good segue into conversations and soon we were discussing our thoughts about visiting Myanmar. Can we travel safely? Yes. Is it ok to bring our son there? Yes. Are we all going to get food poisoning and need to be hospitalized? No.

And then of course there was the lingering guilt of having a connection to the British colonies. Should I keep it quiet that my family lived in Burma as part of the colonies? Will people be angry? I was told that no one I met would be upset. I was skeptical but among the students I met that day, no one seemed to carry any ill feelings towards families of those who had been part of British India.

We had been saving money for a winter vacation and decided on taking a trip to either Indonesia or Myanmar. Though my interest in Myanmar had been increased, we were going on the trip in 3 or 4 months and our son would only be 2 at the time. I needed to plan more so in the end Indonesia was our choice. By this point we had traveled quite a bit with our son but nothing as ambitious as Indonesia or Myanmar. We opted for the location that was a more common tourist destination for families with children. Indonesia did not disappoint! Bali, Ubud, Yogyakarta and of course the famous Borobudur made for a wonderful trip but Myanmar would need to wait for another year.

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Sunrise at Borobudur, Indonesia

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British India Genealogy: The Search For Family in Faraway Places

Though my mother’s father was Canadian, the rest of my grandparents immigrated to Canada around the time of WWII. My father’s family came from the Ukraine or Russia and my mother’s mother came from England. Both sides of the family had had their first child back in the old country and my parents were both the second child in their families. They were also both the first to be born in Canada. The similarities did not end there as both sides did not discuss much of anything about their time before Canada. Food from back home was eaten but no holidays, traditions or celebrations from the old country. Bits and pieces came out over time but often in confusing and fragmented pieces that were hard to put together. 

Growing up in Brockville, Ontario in the 1980’s not knowing where you came from didn’t seem like much of an issue. Asking “Where are you from?” was poor manners. They were of course Canadian! How dare you imply that because they look or sound different that they are not Canadian! This hypersensitivity prevented meaningful dialogues and cultural exchanges from ever happening.

It wasn’t until I was in my 20’s or 30’s that I learnt that my childhood friend’s families had originated in the Ukraine, Philippines, Ireland etc. It also kept quiet the realization that I knew next to nothing about my own background. That was, until I moved to Toronto for university. One of the most multicultural cities in the world, it was of course by no means a utopia but my classmates spoke openly about where they came from. And when I moved to South Korea in 2005 nearly every introduction now started with your name and then where you were from.

 

What I Knew About Audrey

My grandmother Audrey Phoebe Cooper was British. She had been born in Burma while her father was helping to build the railroad in British India. Her mother was Scottish and she had 3 sisters. Each of the sisters had trained as nurses but where they did their nursing training was not exactly clear. My grandmother had spent time in Calcutta with the Chip family who ran a plantation there. That was nearly all we knew. She never spoke of her time in Burma and India.

She was British and it seemed safe to assume that prior to moving to Canada she had spent the majority of her life in England. There is a story of how during WWII she and her sisters were in London as the bombs were falling. Everyone was running in the streets but they turned to each other and said that they were British AND nurses and so they must set a good example. So, they walked through the streets as the bombs fell. British through and through. Not much more thought was put in to finding out about her family. 

 
Audrey Pheobe Cooper (Simpson)

 

He's been Working on the Railroad (in India)

When I completed my MEd program in the winter of 2011 we decided to go on a trip to India to celebrate. I had always been interested in the country and I wanted to experience the railroad that my grandmother Audrey's father had helped to build. My husband and I spent about 3 weeks traveling across Northern India to Delhi, Varanasi, Agra, Jaipur, Jodhpur, Jaisalmer and then back to Delhi. Between each leg of the trip we traveled by train

First class sleeper car for our 17 hour ride from Delhi to Varanasi. I've heard they are now phasing out these cars.

At the first hotel we stayed at the travel agency next door told us we needed to change our plans. They told us that the train was very dangerous. We would get robbed or killed or worse! We should of course instead book bus tickets through them. We just laughed off this advice and besides we had already pre booked our tickets online through Cleartrip. We traveled by several different classes, slept on the train between cities at night and never had any major problems.

The biggest problem we had was getting off at the correct location. Usually the station was not announced so you would need to know approximately what time you should be arriving. At one city we asked everyone around us if we were pulling up into the city we wanted. "Yes, yes, yes this is the city"…and it was, except the station we got off at was not the main station. Instead it was a small minor station just outside the city with a single street lamp in the middle of the night. Luckily there was a working payphone and we were quickly picked up by our guesthouse. 

 

Elderly man at Hawa Mahal 

Visiting Rajasthan? Check out hotels on TripAdvisor!

I was nervous about telling people that we met about my family connection to India. My family had been part of the colonies and I wasn’t sure how the people we met in India would react. I felt rather guilty. For the beginning part of the trip I tried to keep it secret just in case but slowly I started to tell people. Eventually a man I spoke to told me not to be worried. He said that the railroad was a very positive contribution to India from the time of the British colonies as it helped to connect the country. I shared more openly my connection to the country from that point on. Some people were really interested. Others couldn’t have cared less but no one was angry or upset. It was an amazing trip but I would later find out that though my family was involved in building the railroad in British India, it was not in fact India where they worked.

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