When the Kengtung Hospital buildings were repaired, and the outpatient clinic and in-patient care began, we assembled nurses from all over Burma. The hospital and nursing school at Moulmein in southern Burma contributed our first nursing director, Peggy Smith (the only other American on the staff) and one recent nurse graduate, Hkam La, whose home was Kengtung. Dr.Gordon Seagrave, the “Burma Surgeon” of World War II fame, sent two graduate nurses from his hospital at Namhkam, 500 miles to the northwest, Lu Seng and Shwe Yin. Two two-year graduates came from the Karen hospital in the delta region west of Rangoon, Naw May Paw and Naw Htoo Paw.
Many Burmese think of Kengtung as a far distant frontier, akin to our own wild west in its early days. I think some parents considered their daughters gone forever when they came to work there. Central Burma had train service which ended at Taunggyi and Lashio, some 300 miles to the west, but the road from there took more than a week when travel was possible at all. The rising waters of the mighty Salween River closed the road entirely in the rainly season, when even the overhead ferry cable was deep under water.
Consequently, when a number of talented young men and women were thrown together in an enterprise like Kengtung Christian Hospital with many of them far from home, romance prospered.
David Hsam was the new headmaster of the school on the mission compound. In his late twenties, a college graduate with two years teaching experience at a high school in Rangoon, he was easily the best-educated Shan Christian in Kengtung. He arrived in May; he and the Lahu nurse Kham La quickly became interested in each other, and married six months later, the first of at least five hospital marriages in the next year.
These young people were relatively well-educated, and had a fascination for western-style weddings. They quickly learned that the American doctor and his wife were an easy touch for help and advice. Lois learned to make three-tiered wedding cakes, created with cake mixes mailed from back home, and decorated with yellow and white blossoms from the frangipani tree in our front yard. Our five-year-old eldest daughter, Susie, was sometimes co-opted by a bride as one of the flower girls, to give an exotic blonde tinge to the wedding party. And because the local community equated any foreign missionary with clergy, despite my purely medical training, I was assumed to be an authority on western wedding protocol, though a local pastor performed the ceremony. When the bride’s parents lived far away I even became surrogate father-of-the-bride, as was customary for a bride’s employer.
Kham La and David were in a complete fog during their wedding ceremony, an opinion I am sure the organist shared. (One of the school teachers at the Pangwai mission station seventeen miles up in the mountains had brought a portable pump organ down for the occasion.) The wedding procession headed to the right instead of straight ahead, and disappeared out a door. Mendelssohn died out, and the choir filled the gap with an unexpected song.
A few moments later the procession reappeared, like a train which has discovered itself to be on the wrong track, the two little flower girls marching first, throwing petals back over their heads directly into the faces of the bride and groom.
Sao Sai Long, the ruler of Kengtung, honored the wedding reception with his presence. Someone told the groom he should greet the Prince personally and accept his gift, because protocol forbade anyone leaving the celebration ahead of Royalty. David Hsam’s usually alert attention may have been elsewhere when he replied, “There’s no such custom.” Apparently there was, though. Finally the Prince came over and genially told the couple to take his present so he could go.
In all, it was a very happy occasion. Lois and I visited the couple’s new home in Kangna village a week later and wished that our own were more like it, near the center of the village, but with a lawn big enough for a badminton net.
A month later, Maung Pan, the hospital clerk, and Na Cho, a recent graduate of the high school were wed. The lab technician was best man and one of the nurse aides maid of honor, so we just closed the clinic for the afternoon. This time, the flower girls threw their wares with even more vigor than last month, causing the bride and groom to visibly wince as each handful struck them full in the face. Instead of flower petals or rice, this time the girls were flinging popcorn. Someone had added talcum powder, judging from the marks on the groom’s dark blue suit. I don’t know where they got that idea; it’s probably lucky the popcorn wasn’t buttered. The wedding party crunched out of church and proceeded to the wedding feast at the bride’s village just outside the city wall. The groom supplied a pig for the feast, as was customary, and moved into his in-laws’ house to live for a certain period specified by Lahu custom.
Just because wedding parties consulted the Americans didn’t always mean they accepted our advice. Abela, the young Kachin/Lahu man I was training as lab and X-ray tech, wooed and won Maran Lu Seng, the Kachin nurse from Dr. Seagrave’s hospital. Again my daughter Susie was invited to be a flower girl and I to be ceremony consultant.
There were quite a few spectators at the rehearsal, the day before the wedding. The bride practiced her march down the church aisle to her waiting groom; old Pastor U Sein gravely coached them through the vows and rings. The groom started to make his way back up the aisle, followed at some distance by his bride.
“Wait, Abay,” I said, “this is when you are man and wife. You go up the aisle side by side.” I demonstrated by placing Lu Seng’s arm on his.
Abela looked doubtful; they weren’t really married until tomorrow, he seemed to be thinking, but they reluctantly walked side by side, followed by the bridesmaid and best man. I matched the latter two side-by side in like manner.
Pandemonium broke loose. They weren’t getting married; why they hardly knew each other! I said I realized that, but they had asked for American custom, and that’s the way it is done. A shocked by-stander said he himself had been to America and had never heard of any such custom. The pastor, too, was doubtful of the propriety of a man and woman – strangers, almost, walking side by side, and touching each other at that. I finally surrendered.
It turned out just fine, the next day. One of my treasured album photos is of the wedding party, handsome turbaned groom, bride bedecked in all her black-and-silver Kachin bridal attire, flanked by an impossibly young American couple looking out of place in their American Sunday-best, standing outside the church at Kengtung.
Abela and I still correspond occasionally. Lu Seng died of of heart disease a few years later. Abela, now married to her sister, is a veterinary doctor.