The Case of the Missing Grandma and How Facebook Saved Us

A story about love, community and the power of Facebook in an emerging economy.

20 hours ago, I received a text message from my younger sister in Yangon, Myanmar. She wrote, “Duuuudeee, Grandma dissappeared.” What? It was 9am in Myanmar, and it did not make any sense. I was in San Francisco, California, eating mushroom pasta and clam chowder at 7:47pm. It was the most confusing text message ever.

My grandma, Mikiko Ueda, is a Japanese 85-year-old woman with a restless spirit, living with us in Myanmar since her husband’s passing. We call her Obaachan, which means grandma in Japanese. She would usually go to our garden every morning and pull out the weeds for 5 hours, take a lunch break, and go back into the garden for a succeeding 5 hours before being called into the house to take a rest and understand the limits of her body. Needless to say, her restless spirit took her far last night.

An initial phone call with my older sister — also in Yangon — revealed that she was first spotted passing by Fish & Co at 2am, a restaurant 5 minutes from our house. She was seen walking towards Pyay Road, the main road tying downtown and north of Yangon together. After submitting a police report to their neighborhood station, my parents began their search immediately around 8 miles, where we live.

For those who aren’t familiar with Yangon, here is a brief intro about how the city works. Sule Pagoda is a Buddhist stupa downtown, and marks the starting point for the city’s mile-based mapping. Every area north from Sule Pagoda is described as 1 mile, 2 miles, 3 miles and goes all the way up to 10 miles. My family and I live between 7 and 8 miles. Additionally, Yangon does not have a technologically-backed information system — meaning that everything has to be done manually, physically and meticulously. In a city of 6 million people, that meant we would have to search every coffee shop, every store, every road if we ever wanted to find my grandma. Considering that she would’ve been gone for 14+ hours, the search would have taken forever and who knows where she could have gone to.

My parents posted flyers of our missing grandma all over the area, as one does when they lose their cat. However, there were no leads from the posters.

Four hours into the search (1pm by that time), we had another lead. A betel nut shopkeeper in 8 mile had been spoken to by my grandma around 4am; but since she was talking in Japanese, he shooed her away. While this news came greatly appreciated, it was daunting to realize that she had been missing for a total of 13 hours and that could have taken her anywhere. A quick google map experiment revealed that she could be 50 kilometers north if she really just walked all night long. That said, we debated whether she could’ve walked that far, and that she may have just taken a rest somewhere in the area waiting for my mom to pick her up.

We were very much in the dark and unsure about what to do. The police could only do so much. We could only do so much. 
Oh. And it was pouring rain.
And she probably was in light clothing.
Without an umbrella.
Great.

At that point, our search was failing and we couldn’t find our Obaachan anywhere. We decided that a facebook post could increase the visibility of our search and help us find her.

Tons of shares

And it took off. Like wildfire. Fast forward to 6 hours later, a total of 1.8k shares, friends helping us search and write in Burmese, and calls from all over Yangon, Shan State and even the Myanmar Society in Japan (they had been following our story), one guy sent a message with a photo of Obaachan sleeping in a chair.

“Is that your grandma?” He asked.
“YES! YES! THAT’S HER!” My sister and mom exclaimed.
Found grandma on facebook! With a mystery umbrella, 8 hours walk away from us.

The location? Hmawbi. A rural, industrial zone 47 kilometers north of Yangon. Our Google Map Experiment was indeed accurate. She probably walked for 10 hours or more all the way to Hmawbi. Or perhaps she received a lift from someone or took the bus. How she got there remains a mystery to us.

However, we didn’t know the exact location of where she was. Luckily, our local police station called the Hmawbi police, who then used that same facebook post to figure out where she was. My family drove for two hours towards Hmawbi, where my mom embraced my grandmother with a giant sob and all was well again.

Grandma being helped by the people of Hmawbi (way before we found her). Look at that smile!
Reunited!

If we had lived in a time where facebook or mobile internet did not exist in Myanmar, we probably would not have found her at the rate we did. We may have found her many hours later, with potentially devastating consequences. The wonders of facebook and the internet in Myanmar is that it allows people to communicate and BE the information system. Even the policemen were using facebook.

When I spoke with my mom, after Obaachan was brought home from her adventure, she told me she couldn’t imagine how we would have found her if it wasn’t for facebook. She said that I had to go to Mark Zuckerberg immediately to tell him this story and how it saved our lives.

“He’s a very busy man, you know.” I said. Nevertheless, this story is so much more than about a lost grandma. It means that facebook has rocketed to become an alternative news source and platform for unprecedented communication in Myanmar, connecting places and localities that were never united before. Facebook is THE internet.

I chatted briefly with a friend about this, and she said that the same thing happened with her dog. Thankfully for facebook, her dog was found. The case of the missing grandma and the lost dog galvanized the Myanmar community beyond Yangon, in real time. Faster than TV news or posters, faster than public announcements. While these two incidents aren’t the only times facebook has been used for it, they are representative of how the internet can bring out power of the people.

Before the country opened up in 2012, before SIM cards were 1$, before cellular data; when my family still had dial-up, when SIM cards were 300$, when word-of-mouth was the best channel of communication, it would’ve been a miracle finding Obaachan. Thanks to the rapidly rising telecom industry, cheap smartphones and preloaded facebook — the app, people in Hmawbi can afford to have smartphones and post things on the internet. They might not know how to use email, but they sure know about facebook.

At the end of the day, we are happy knowing that Obaachan is back home from her journey, albeit with achy knees. She is a trooper, that woman, and we can only hope to prevail like her while keeping a lovely smile on our faces.

Thank you to everyone that helped us. All of your support means a lot and we couldn’t have found her if it wasn’t for all of you and the internet. Lots of love from the Iwasaki family, and a good night to Yangon.

I know of one grandma who’ll sleep very well tonight.