Allen Aung sticks a thin white ticket to the fridge in his restaurant’s tiny kitchen. He barely gives it a glance before pulling out a container filled with a light purple mixture, scooping out a handful and molding it into patties in his hands.
Allen, the only cook at Burma Garden, inhabits this kitchen with one helper six days a week. In his Adidas pants and pullover, he’s as much at home here as the pots and pans.
He is 48, with graying black hair and a small bald spot. He cooks dishes on autopilot and rings a bell when he finishes. Allen’s life is dictated by routine.
Among Burmese artwork in the Fourth Street restaurant Allen and his wife run rests a student’s framed article.
“Couple’s American dream comes true,” the headline claims.
Except Allen doesn’t enjoy cooking, and this is not his dream.
Allen immigrated to New York with his family as a teenager. Back then, leaving the repressive military dictatorship was fundamental to a better life. By the time of a student uprising in 1988, not long after Allen left, Burma was one of the poorest countries in the world.
Burma, renamed Myanmar in 1989, is now known for the mass killings of minority Rohingya Muslims, actions described by the United Nations as genocide.
While Allen left the country before this violence began in 2017, even in America he was subject to the effects of a regime hostile to free expression.
Allen loves music. He graduated from the Institute of Audio Research in New York City and has an audio studio in his Bloomington home.
“It’s in my blood,” he said.
He grew up listening to Led Zeppelin and Metallica. In the early 1990s, Allen recorded a Burmese album with his band “Perfect Sin.” It made sense to market the songs in Burma, but the group shortened its name to “PS” to avoid censorship from the military dictatorship.
Just one person asked Allen’s producer what the name stood for. Allen remembers him saying something like “Public Service.”
Allen no longer plays music regularly. He doesn’t have a band close by, and managing the restaurant, cooking for customers and caring for his two kids keeps him tied to a strict schedule.
Sometimes he hears Pink Floyd or John Mayer and picks up his guitar. Music, some of which he worked on, plays in the restaurant. Even though he wakes up at 7 a.m. on weekdays and leaves the restaurant around 10:30 p.m. most nights, he’ll stay up until 3 or 4 a.m. mixing and mastering music.
These side jobs can take Allen three or four months, much longer than a typical music mastering. Allen works at his own pace. The restaurant and family come first.
When Allen’s wife Marla is not taking their kids to or from school or ballet or gymnastics or piano, she is also in the restaurant. Her purse and jacket are often strewn over the back booth while she answers phone calls, serves customers, cleans tables and jokes around with one or two waitresses.
She routinely withstands angry customers when she serves tea leaf salad, a popular traditional dish. The sweet and crunchy mound contains pickled green tea leaves, cabbage, cherry tomatoes, sesame seeds and nuts, topped with fried garlic and fresh lime and served with a yellow teapot and an egg-shaped cup.
The Americanized version trades cabbage for a green more commonly associated with salad in the United States: romainelettuce.
Some customers, especially those from California, where there are more Americanized Burmese offerings, are outraged when Marla serves it with cabbage.
“That’s not a salad,” they say.
Marla rolls her eyes.
“That’s a salad,” she says, shaking her head vigorously. “In my country, that’s a salad.”
Marla orders curry spices that can take a month to arrive from Burma. The sour taste of her imported Burmese chocolate made with plum sugar does not resemble Hershey’s.
A gold-framed portrait of Myanmar’s civilian leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, hangs near the back of Burma Garden. Suu Kyi transformed the country from dictatorship to democracy but is now condemned by the international community for inaction against military violence.
Allen, a Buddhist, admires Suu Kyi. He sees her as a leader who fought relentlessly for democracy and the interest of her people.
Suu Kyi sacrificed parts of her life and her family to do what was best for her country, Allen recalled. He gazes at her portrait with profound respect.
More than 25,000 Burmese people live in Indiana, according to the Indianapolis-based Burmese American Community Institute. Allen knows of just two or three Burmese families in Bloomington.
Allen is glad his kids are growing up here. He likes the educational opportunities and the community’s safety.
Brendan, a junior in high school, has only been to Burma once and was too young to remember anything from the trip. All he knows of Burma came from a middle school lesson about an activist. Mindy, a sixth-grader, visited with her mom a few years ago. The sweltering temperatures were her strongest takeaway.
They don’t always favor Burmese cooking.
“They’re, like, mac-and-cheese kind of people,” Allen said.
They aren’t interested in coming to the restaurant, and Allen doesn’t feel he can force them.
Sitting at his desk in the restaurant’s back office, scrolling through a Facebook page dinging with “good morning” messages from Burmese friends waking up across the world, he reflected on the title of the framed article out front.
He wouldn’t call his life the American Dream.
Allen may not live the dream he envisioned as a teenager, he might never play guitar for thousands of screaming fans, but he has the freedom to find a different path. He decides which sacrifices to make.
Allen and Marla opened Burma Garden so they could earn a more sustainable living for their family. The restaurant closes from 2:30 p.m. to 5 p.m. so they can spend time together. It may not be glamorous, but for Allen, it’s worth it.
On a rare afternoon in the restaurant, Mindy and Brendan sat in opposite booths hyper-focused on papers in front of them, pencils in hand.
Brendan draws every day. He doesn’t talk much, perfecting each stroke and evaluating every proportion. He wants to include art in his career, but Allen prefers he pursue a more reliable profession. Maybe architecture.
Allen emerged from his usual position in the kitchen. He handed Mindy a fish cake with rice and a little soup.
“You sure you don’t want anything?” he asked Brendan.
“Yeah,” Brendan nodded and continued brushing his mechanical pencil across the page.
About three seconds later, Allen reappeared holding a black bowl with red lining. Tater tots.
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