Reflection on my first months in Burma (2008)

Reflection on my first months in Burma (2008)

This is a blog post from an older blog now closed.
The people of Burma love Americans. Everywhere I went every
one I met; all of the people told me they love Americans. Burma hasn’t changed
much in many ways during the past 40 years. In fact, except for a few homes or
buildings it’s difficult to notice any kind of progress at all. One day,
returning to Mandalay from Amarapura, after visiting colonial remnants of homes
and estates and small villages near the Ayerwaddy River, my tiny Mazda taxi
broke down – again. I decided to walk back to Mandalay from that point knowing
that within 20 minutes someone on a moto would offer me a ride for a couple of
thousand Kyat’s, or about 2 dollars US.
On a crowded street as I passed some shops and homes, people
were milling about in the shade of shops and under trees to escape the brutal
sunlight. A man then walked too quickly up to me and I thought I was getting
hustled to buy something. I stopped to give him my full attention and he leaned
in to whisper in my ear. “Do you know Suu Kyi?” he said. “Yes, I know,” I said.
He said, “Aung San Suu Kyi, I like. My government is very bad.” I looked at him
closely to size him up. I wasn’t sure if he was setting me up, many people were
watching us. “I know all about it,” I said. “I understand everything.” Then,
this obviously impoverished man, who was skinny yet leathery strong looking,
with dirty clothes and skin, who had an intense look of excitement in his eyes
said in very good English, “Look at us. We live like this because we have no
guns.” I looked around closer at the ragged looking clothes people were
wearing; the impoverished huts and homes; no running water; intermittent power
outages; they had few lights, if any; the dirty food stalls with slim
assortments of vegetables and a few packaged staples; with no refrigerated
beverage or food in sight; probably no schools for the children, no healthcare,
no where to retreat to in floods except high mounds or roadways far off. This
was a typical scene out skirting Mandalay. It’s a region where farmers tilled
fields by hand with antique like tools, or if they had one, a skinny old ox
that looked about to die from exhaustion. Pigs, dogs, mangy cats, all kinds of
fowl roamed around with the children. Too many old women sat at the roadside selling
mangoes. People ran up to me holding out finely preserved and clean U.S. dollar
bills in their hands, asking me to change them for Myanmar Kyats, and I gladly
changed as many as I could. I looked at him and agreed with him by nodding,
adding, “I know.” And then he told me, “You are American. I love America!”
We parted in the middle of the road and I kept walking.
Children would walk up to me and touch me on the arm. I have hairy arms and
many times all over Myanmar children would touch them. Some times they would
giggle and say” King Kong.” Their eyes were always smiling. They are
endearingly innocent in so many ways. I’m sure for many children I was perhaps the
first white person they saw up close. All of them were gleeful and often a
grandmother or parent would rush their kids over to me and encourage the little
ones to give me a loud English “Hello”! I would always oblige and give them the
sound of an English speaking voice and a big smile. Raise my eyebrows or point
at my big nose. They always laughed.
For all of the people who gave me attention, for whatever
reason, I always gave back. Whatever it was I represented to them I certainly
wasn’t going to deny them from it. Even if it was just to smile and say hello. I’ve
met so many westerners over my years in Burma who shunned scenes like that or
who acted as if they couldn’t be bothered. I suppose they had their reasons.
For people who have next to nothing, bordering hunger,
living on less than a dollar a day, I am not the kind of person to leave them
worse off. Even if it was a smile that could do no more for them than to let
them know that they are not alone in this world. Or, maybe it was to let me
know I was not alone. It goes both ways. I enjoyed the attention. The
simplicity of a genuine smile born in kinship of place and time is not
something that occurs by accident. It is the human spirit we share. The oneness
of humanity, of kindness, the generosity of giving and not wanting, it is a
burst of pure joy and happiness that comes and goes but that enriches the inner
self forever.
I have a limitless supply of such moments in my life and
they live with me, and, they will die with me. That’s ok.
Encounters like this were such a common event around
Mandalay that I expected them whenever I went somewhere off the main streets.
The places I went were not in the Lonely Planet Guide. They were unknown or not
allowable to the few tourists with so little time on their hands. Sometimes
they were not permissible and occasionally I would be sent back by an
undercover policeman. But I just went, unafraid of anyone, of any impoverished
street, of any stare and look from all whom I passed. People were genuinely
glad to see me, to smile, to practice their one English word, belting it out
with a big grin or smile, “Hello!” I answered almost everyone with a genuine
grin or smile and a hearty “Hello.”
Sometimes I felt like an ass because I get self-conscious
when people give me attention. But nowhere in Burma does a six-foot white man
blend in. For most of my jaunts I got a guy on a moto to take me anywhere I
wanted to go for just a small amount of Kyat’s. I never got a suspicious
driver, and none ever asked for more than we bargained for, or a handout of any
kind. Yet the price I paid for a little tip over our bargained deal earned me
an eager driver. I bought lunch, beers and water, none ever asked me for
anything more than I offered. In fact, most of the drivers wanted to take me
home to treat me to dinner. Only once did I accept just because the driver took
me there as we were near his home. I caught him just as he was on his way home
to bring some small items for his wife and new baby. We had sweet Burmese tea and
a few cookies. People living around him came over to see the foreigner drink
tea. I think my driver earned a little notoriety, as he was happy to show me
off. It was all very quick yet also very pleasant.

The people of Burma really love Americans and America. But,
then again, not much has changed there in 40 years. What do they know of
America, really? What a conflicting place Burma will become if Aung San Suu Kyi
is set free to be elected president. How will people act when they no longer
have to cautiously whisper the name of a woman who gives them a reason to hope
for a better life? Time will tell.

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