Reflection on my first months in Burma (2008)

Reflection on my first months in Burma (2008)

This post is from an older blog now closed.
The people of Burma love Americans. Everywhere I went, everyone
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 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 the 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 harsh
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 carefully 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 apparently poor man, who was skinny yet leathery sharp looking, with dirty clothes and skin, who had an intense look of excitement in his eyes said in excellent English, “Look at us. We live like this because we have no guns.” I looked around. I looked closer at the ragged looking clothes people were wearing. I saw the impoverished huts and homes. There was no running water. Intermittent power outages occurred all of the time. 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 health care, nowhere to retreat to in floods except high mounds or roadways far off. I saw 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 exchanged 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. Sometimes 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 loudly English “Hello”! I would always oblige and return to 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 a smile from a stranger.  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 a 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, or of any staring 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 wherever I wanted to go for just a small amount of Kyats. I never got a suspicious driver, and none ever asked for more than we bargained for or a handout of any kind. The price I paid for a little tip over our negotiated 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 charming.

 

The people of Burma love Americans and America. But, then again, not much has changed there in 40 years. What do they know of America? What a different 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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