Reflection on my first months in Burma (2008)

Reflection on my first months in Burma (2008)

by Daniel Opacki
This post is from an older blog now closed.
The people of Burma love Americans. Everywhere I went, everyone
I met, people told me they love Americans. Burma hasn’t changed much over the past 40 years. Except for a few new homes or small buildings it’s difficult to notice any structural progress anywhere. One day on return from Amarapura to Mandalay my tiny baby blue Mazda taxi broke down – again. I had enough and walked back to Mandalay.
As I passed through villages I saw that most people sat in the shade of shops and under trees to escape the harsh afternoon sunlight. In one village a man darted over to greet me. I stopped to give him my full attention and he leaned in to whisper in my ear.
He asked, “Do you know Suu Kyi?”
“Yes, I know her.” I replied.
He then said, “Aung San Suu Kyi, I like. My government is very bad.”
I looked at him carefully to size him up. “I know all about it,” I said. “I understand everything.”
Then, the poor man, skinny and leathery skin, who wore dirty clothes, showed me an intense expression and with excitement in his eyes said,  “Look at us. We live like this because we have no guns.”
I looked around. I saw the ragged clothes people wore. I saw impoverished huts and homes. There was no running water. I knew Intermittent power outages occurred all of the time. They had few lights if any; the dirty food stalls displayed slim assortments of vegetables and a few packaged staples. there was refrigerated beverage or food and probably no schools for the children, no health care, nowhere to retreat to in monsoon season except high mounds or elevated roadways off in the distance. I saw a typical scene in and around Mandalay. It’s a region where farmers tilled fields by hand with antique tools if they had one. Their were skinny old oxen that looked about to die from exhaustion. Pigs, dogs, mangy cats, and all kinds of fowl roamed around with the children. Too many old women sat at the roadside selling only mangoes or only one type of item.
People ran up to me and held out finely preserved and washed clean old U.S. dollar bills. They asked me to change them for Myanmar Kyats. OF COURSE I gladly exchanged as many as I could. I looked at the man and agreed with a nod, “I see what you mean.” And then he told me, “You are American. I love America!”
We parted in the middle of the road. Children walked up to me and touched my arm. Many times all over Myanmar children touched the fur on my arms. Sometimes they giggled and I said, King Kong.” Their eyes were always smiled. They are endearing. I’m sure I was the first white person they saw up close. Often a grandmother or parent would pull or push their kids over to me and encouraged them to me a loud  “Hello”! as if to do so would enhance their English language skill. I obliged and returned the sound of an English sword with a big smile. I always gave back. Whatever it was that I represented to them I certainly wasn’t going to deny them a smile. I’ve met many westerners over my years in Burma who shunned interaction like I had, or others who acted as if they couldn’t be bothered by the barefoot children. I suppose they had their reasons.
For people who have next to nothing, hungry, who lived on less than a dollar a day, I saw them and 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 in a place and time does not occur by accident. We have to be aware. It is the human spirit we share. The oneness of humanity, the kindness, the generosity of giving and not wanting, the burst of pure joy and happiness that comes and goes with a smile, enriches the inner self forever – it is a reason to want to live forever in that moment.
Sometimes I felt like an ass because I got self-conscious when people gave me attention. I don’t like attention. But nowhere in Burma does a six-foot white man blend in so accepted their attention. Still, the people of Burma love Americans and America. I was never afraid. 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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