"Hnin Hnin (they / them) is an energy weaver, poet, facilitator, and vegan cook born in Burma and raised in Brooklyn. They lived in Boston with their spouse Aaron Tanaka, their mother Khin Ma and their two furbabies Spring and Summer.
Hnin Wai Hnin will be remembered for their infectious laughter, courageous truth telling, tender heart, and incisive social critique. Hnin’s brave vulnerability allowed others to be their full selves, unashamed, while basking in Hnin’s love. Though for too short, we are forever grateful to be touched by Hnin’s light.
Hnin Hnin (they/them) was born in Rangoon, Burma on May 19, 1988 to Khin Yee Ma and Hain Kee Chang. At the age of 3, Hnin moved to New York City with their parents and older sister Lily.
Hnin’s mother, Khin, was the only in her family to graduate from college, earning a degree in chemistry from the Rangoon Arts & Science University. Hain, Hnin’s father, was a proud athlete, becoming a top boxer in Burma. From their first basement apartment in Brooklyn, Hnin’s parents worked tirelessly for decades to provide for their two children.
As a kid, Hnin was kind, imaginative and delighted by most things they touched. Hnin loved going to the park with their mom and sister, where they played, biked and danced with abandon. Hnin learned the Chinese flute from their mom and became an early proponent for family customs like Winter Solstice and Christmas at home.
Hnin also revealed their instincts as a humanitarian and a bossy advocate against injustice. Hnin’s mom recounts when Hnin learned that chicken in Burma was too expensive for their cousins to eat. As a sensitive child, Hnin insisted that they send their own chicken to Burma, pointing to the planes that crossed the Brooklyn skies overhead.
Once in grammar school, Hnin’s enormous intellect became more obvious. As evidence, Hnin’s mom collected a full bin of academic awards that Hnin casually earned as a child. As a young teen, Hnin tested into Stuyvesant, New York’s most competitive public high school. There, Hnin was involved in debate, science club, handball team, LGBT activism amongst other interests.
At this time, Hnin also met Mel, a neighbor, their oldest friend and soul sibling. They would spend their days writing and sharing poetry, biking along Caesar’s bay, and holding each other through the trials of teenagehood. They dreamed of big futures and schemed of ways to grow old together.
At age 17, Hnin faced and overcame their first life-threatening medical condition, Aplastic Anemia. To complete their treatment, Hnin was homeschooled for their senior year, but was able to graduate with their class. After recovering, Hnin used their “Make a Wish” gift to take their family to China to visit their ancestral home for the first time. This helped spark Hnin’s love of bringing their mom with them to see the world together.
After graduating, Hnin moved to Western Massachusetts to attend the historic Williams College on a full scholarship. As a Political Economy and International Studies major, Hnin was motivated to understand and tackle the injustices and inhumanities of the world. They loved Williams, making lifelong friends, running for hours in the wooded hills, and cultivating their voice as a poet and social critic.
Hnin’s junior year in college was spent abroad on the International Honors Program with a close knit group, experiencing the wonders and drama of traveling as young adults. Hnin studied in Tanzania, India, New Zealand and Mexico where their appreciation for diverse cultures grew along with their critique of global capitalism and colonialism.
After graduating, Hnin moved back home to NYC to begin their nonprofit career focused on transforming food and agricultural industries. Hnin excelled, drawing from their father’s experience as a restaurant worker, their own time in kitchens, their studies of economic and environmental systems, and a moral conviction in the sanctity of animals.
First at Slow Foods USA and then at Restaurant Opportunity Center, Hnin’s passion, brilliance and work ethic elevated them to management roles. By their mid-twenties, Hnin supervised teams of employees across multiple states and advised multiple national organizations, including SAAFON and the USDA.
It was during this time that Hnin and their former partner Sunny Ma became cat parents, adopting Spring and Summer. They spent many happy days living together in NYC and Houston, TX., where the kitties became sources of infinite joy and comfort for Hnin until their passing.
In their late twenties, Hnin served as the Executive Director of Cooperative Food Empowerment Directive (CoFED). In this role, Hnin cultivated a deep network of young queer and trans people of color who were birthing a racially just, regenerative food system in the US. Hnin was a visionary leader, known for speaking truth to power, moving entire rooms with their brilliance and charisma, and being generous with their heart and many abilities.
Through CoFED, Hnin traveled across the US to conferences and meetings for like minded activists. One such gathering was New Economy Coalition’s 2016 conference in Buffalo, NY, which brought Hnin and Aaron Tanaka together for the first time.
After several years of friendship and mutual admiration, Hnin and Aaron took a leap of faith and became a couple, quickly falling in love. They moved in together in Boston, traveled to Madagascar, met Aaron’s parents in Tokyo and began planning their lives together with Spring and Summer.
At the start of 2020, Hnin was diagnosed with Chronic Myelomonocytic Leukemia (CMML), an extremely rare blood cancer with a low probability of survival. Khin moved to Boston to live with Hnin and Aaron, and together, Hnin started their 28 month master class in love, living and dying.
Just weeks after diagnosis, Covid-19 came to the US, closing off much of the world to Hnin. But in their home, Hnin, Aaron and Khin created a life full of joy, wonderment and delicious food. Hnin and Aaron started playing tennis, took sunset walks with mom around the pond, cuddled the kitties while binging Youtube, and advised their friends in opening a new Chinese restaurant. They got married, they bought a house, they lived to make every day count.
Hnin learned to play the piano (a compilation of Christmas songs), knitted precious scarves and hats for loved ones, wrote deliriously heartbreaking poetry, painted portraits of their cats and talked for hours with their besties. For dinner, they often feasted on Hnin’s favorite childhood Burmese-Chinese dishes, which Khin recreated with enthusiasm.
But between these beautiful moments, the pandemic raged on, and Hnin survived enormous medical feats. Each of Hnin’s two attempted bone marrow transplants required chemo and radiation, 4 weeks in the hospital, and months of slow recovery. Hnin endured weekly clinic appointments, close to a dozen ER visits, severe pain, a disabling cough, nausea, maddening itchiness, bleeding, deep bone pain, and crushing tiredness.
And still, Hnin’s incredible strength and wisdom helped them keep their eyes on the light, even when darkness loomed close. Rather than becoming sour or self-centered, Hnin became even more generous, beautiful, funny and thoughtful. Hnin and Aaron weathered the dread together, cherishing their time and finding safety in the bare honesty of facing death together.
Hnin received a terminal diagnosis in January 2022 and also contracted (and recovered from) Covid-19. Cleared for travel, Hnin, Aaron and Khin embraced their time together by re-entering the outside world. In their last months, Hnin and Aaron gathered close family and friends for a beachside ceremony, ate the best sushi of their lives (Sushi Nakazawa) and saw their new favorite movie in a theater (Everything Everywhere). With support from their families and community, Hnin, Aaron and Khin traversed the globe, making delicious and breathtaking memories in Puerto Rico, Iceland, Italy, Spain, and Turks & Caicos.
Less than 48 hours before they passed, Hnin and Aaron kayaked on the crystal blue waters of the Caribbean, where Hnin - whose name conjures the foggy mist of a dreamy day - was most at home. Hnin lived fully and without regrets. On the morning of April 26, Hnin died peacefully at Mt. Sinai hospital in their beloved hometown of New York City. They were surrounded by family and loved ones.