What people go through to live their lives — war and terror, disease and pain, poverty and hunger, long journeys across continents and oceans, loss and heartbreak — always leaves me awed and humbled. You hear a story, like the one I'm offering this Christmas, and you want to raise a glass to that thing we call human spirit.
Milla Dawt Hniang, who travels with crutches and guitar, has it in bunches. It has taken her 20 years past the age when her parents thought she would die.
She's a Burmese-born singer-songwriter about to release her first CD and send more music of the American country-pop variety — think Taylor Swift — into the world. Milla sang in a coffee house in Columbia the other night, and, considering her life's journey, that's no small achievement.
The youngest of four children, she was born in the Chin province of western Burma (Myanmar), a mountainous region still considered one of the least developed areas of the country.
"I was born a healthy baby and even started walking at 10 months," Milla says. "It was only a few days before my first birthday when my mother noticed I could not stand straight. I could no longer move my left leg."
Polio, virtually eradicated in the western hemisphere after the development of the vaccine, persisted in other places around the world, including Southeast Asia. A global effort to immunize children started in the 1980s. The effort did not reach Chin in time to spare Milla Hniang.
At the local clinic, a doctor told her parents there was nothing he could do and sent them home. "When everyone heard the news, not one person expected me to live," Milla says. "My mother kept me in her arms and cried all night long. After midnight, my health worsened with seizures. … My mother became hopeless, crying and praying, 'God, please don't take my child's life.'"
Her parents — Chan Tlung and Ngun Zi Hniang — didn't give up on their baby. The next day, they hitched a ride on a truck and traveled 40 miles — a trip that took eight hours — to a town called Falam and the hospital there.
"The nurses told my parents the doctor would only come in the next day," Milla says. "That night, my health worsened even more. After midnight, my parents thought that there was no way that I would survive. … It is in our culture to not let a loved one die at a hospital. Early in the morning, a nurse found out that my parents planned on taking me home and told my dad, 'This child's life is not in your hands, but in God's, so you should at least wait until the doctor gets here.'
"My dad decided to stay. After the doctor finally examined me, he told my parents, 'You guys arrived just in time.'"
The doctor, Milla was told, gave her medication that relieved the temporary paralysis that had started to advance through her body.
Back in Chin, she struggled. "I could not walk at all," she recalls. "I crawled around the house until I was 5 years old."
That's when her family took Milla to Rangoon with the hope that surgery there might improve her left leg. She was in the hospital so long that her parents relocated the rest of their family.
"I remember looking out the window from my bed and seeing other kids running and playing and I would wonder 'Why can't I?' … My parents sacrificed all of the family's money for my countless surgeries," Milla says. "They had to pay cash. Because of me, my father was unable to travel and make money for our family. When we moved to Rangoon, my family had no choice but to start from scratch. After living that way for a few years, my father wanted to give his family, especially me, a much better life."
First her father, then the rest of Milla's family moved to the United States and settled in Battle Creek, Mich. That was around 2000.
"I never experienced attending school with other kids my age in Burma because I was not allowed," she says. "But on my first day of school here in America, I felt like I was finally 'normal.' I loved learning and I loved school. I made three friends on my first day. The only English I knew were 'hello,' 'hi,' and 'bye.' I somehow manage to get by. It took me maybe two years to finally speak fluently."
Music is what got Milla through all this.
"Music was the only way I knew how to make myself happy at a very young age," she says. "I first started performing in front of people back in Burma. My family didn't own a TV, but my neighbors did. So I would sing for my neighbors and in return they would invite me to watch TV. It was then I discovered my passion for music."
She listened to Shania Twain, Dixie Chicks, Alan Jackson, Keith Urban, Faith Hill and SHeDAISY. She picked up the guitar at 16. By then, her family had moved to Maryland, and Milla attended Long Reach High School in Howard County. She performed at weddings and church events. In 2007 she started uploading cover songs and videos to YouTube. Soon she was writing songs "about boys who I had a crush on, boys who liked me, and high school relationships."
Last winter, she signed a contract with Tate Music Group in Oklahoma and produced a CD of eight songs. Milla has a sweet and pleasing voice. "My dream is to inspire people to chase their dreams no matter what condition they are in," she says. "I feel it deep in my heart that God put me on this earth for a purpose — to inspire people with my life story and with the talent God gave me."
To that end, I'd say Milla Hniang is on her way.