So This Is Myanmar

After living in Myanmar for half a decade I’ve become immune to a lot of the usual heartbreaking experiences that occur almost daily. Happy little children in tattered clothes begging cutely on walkover bridges undoubtedly controlled by a nearby adult; a physically wasted old man wearing sunglasses sitting on the sidewalk with a sign that says “AIDS”, in front of him boxes of his meds and a cloth for people to place money down for him; an extremely old woman in dirty brown cloths kneeling but really laying with her head far down while chanting, her hand precariously holding a tin cup above her head with money in it – I wonder if anyone ever takes from it.

These are just a few of dozens of scenes one will see within one-hundred yards from Trader’s Hotel near Sule Pagoda which is ground zero for the booming tourist trade. Now imagine what goes on unseen, away from the theatre of downtown, away from the ancient Sule Pagoda and the streets where in recent history protesters have been shot by government forces and where one can still find holes in the sidewalk big enough to swallow a small child to be lost in the bowels of a Yangon sewer.

Poor people and poverty exists in Yangon as if it were national pride. The horrid smells of raw sewage permeates the stifling hot air while one can see the beautiful flowering trees showing their pleasure amid the occasional scurrying rat hustling tidbits from the sidewalk food vendors. There are few secrets in Yangon. People ply their trades and habits in full view. Even men can be seen squatting on the edge of a sidewalk near a teashop day or night holding their longyi’s up near the knees so they can piss freely into the sewer or onto the sidewalk.

I fell in love with downtown Yangon a long time ago. Sitting on plastic baby sized stools drinking sweet strawberry yoghurt or lassi while avoiding wretched stinking water puddles at the curb underfoot is one of my fondest downtown memories. The fruit markets and shops, all bustling with the activity of buyers and sellers, many children often working alongside their parents, gives Yangon a sense of real life for me. I imagine that once in the United States, long before Wal Mart and corporations destroyed hundreds, if not thousands, of little communities, Americans and those hoping to be Americans also plied their trades and made money to survive and prosper enough to be able to send one of their children to school while the others were made to work and live doomed without formal education.

A walk around downtown Yangon long enough for the love of being alive, buying vegetables, fruit and fish, searching for a key maker, or just to enjoy images, smells and sounds of life, for better or worse, to me, is better than driving my car down to the Big Y, Publix, or Winn-Dixie supermarket after work to purchase tasteless genetically modified irradiated Franken-food. One sees lovers holding hands, a guy swiping his hand across her butt and she giving him a correcting nudge with her hip, a women running in the road with a limp baby across her arm, crying as she hollers for a car driver to stop and help her with a ride to a hospital, an old man on the ground most likely in his last moments, gasping for breath, darkened face with grey eyes unaware of what’s going on beyond several feet of him, a lady at a bust stop waiting for a customer, business men talking loudly and many, many people just sitting and also watching the life bustle around them.

But today I was taken aback by a young French woman, no doubt a very nice person caught up in scary moment, lost, out of place, she was amidst all of what I’ve just described, asking me for help. I immediately felt some responsibility for her as she was caught without much money, cell phone not working, in a cultural crossfire on a dirty smell street. Being surrounded by men in different Myanmar costumes, mainly Muslim and all trying to help her overwhelmed her, I think.

The good people of Myanmar are magnificent guests, and a young foreigner like her was being treated to their generosity and offer of help. It’s the Myanmar way. Downtown, when one stops to ask a local for directions a crowd will gather around to figure it out and tell you which way to go. But, no doubt the French woman was overwhelmed by their efforts.

Yangon has to be the safest city on the planet for tourists and westerners. Yet, she somehow had no idea of this.

Near to tears when I sauntered up to purchase a top-up card where I found her at my favorite phone shop not far from Bogyoke Aung San Market and Sule Pagoda, she said to me with a mild French accent, “Oh do you speak English well? Nobody here can understand me!” Usually I would be judgmental with a backpacker making such a comment but she was not one of the usually smelly hippy dippy dodgy kind one finds roaming freely drunk or drugged around Cambodia, Laos and on Ko Phagna for Full Moon parties in Thailand. For some reason I felt sorry for her — heard her fear and her desperation loud and clearly.

After a few minutes I explained to her what the men in in her midst were trying to tell her, that her phone would not work in Myanmar. She decided the best thing to do would be to buy a cheap phone and a 30-day SIM card for a total of about 60 U.S. dollars. She picked out a phone and while she was complaining that she had no Myanmar money, the vendor told her he couldn’t take dollars. At this point she lost herself and the shop owner had broken open a SIM card on her say so. Then, she said she couldn’t afford to buy it. But, it was too late; she was obligated to buy it. When I told her so, she was shaking and frightened, said she’d not buy it and began to turn to walk away. Many people were watching the whole scene and I was familiar to some because I’ve been buying phone cards from that shop for over three years. I told her softly, not trying to scare her but just to tell her the truth, “Don’t walk away or he will call the police and you’ll be made to pay. It’s better for you to just buy the SIM.” With that said, her face went into a horrified contortion, knees shaking and buckling, she collapsed onto the ground, taken down to the filthy sidewalk by the extreme weight of all of her bags. She had way too many bags attached to her body. People were staring at her.

So, this is Myanmar. It’s existed this way for so long, the local people surviving the best way they can, trying to help, to be kind to foreigners, and instead they wind up being misunderstood and abused by outsiders. Not that the young French woman was intent on abusing the vendor, she wasn’t. But she was out of her element culturally, alone, afraid, unwilling to try to understand THEM while fully expecting THEM to understand her. She didn’t recognize THEM for trying to help her, and instead she mistrusted the men trying to help her.

This is a typical western reaction I’ve witnessed over and over again in Myanmar. Partly it’s because Myanmar people have no sense of the invisible personal space westerners crave and partly it’s because westerners can’t believe that so many people can be so kind and helpful – no doubt many of them wanting to engage a westerner in English conversation.

Was this French woman’s case an example of the westerner’s sense of entitlement, of exceptionalism? Maybe it’s a metaphor for the current times in Myanmar. Westerners come here for all reasons lately. The worst of them are opportunists trying to capitalize on some selfish fame by doing print or NPR radio stories on ex-political prisoners or by using children in refugee camps with the guise of photography and art at the hands of children as a cover for how they make their grant money from OSI or Amnesty International. NGO workers of course are the unkindest sorts in their gratuitous and demanding appetite for dominance over impoverished people. Then, naturally, the corporations coming here to squeeze the land and oceans dry of resources have Myanmar’s cronies (former and current Generals) in a tizzy over how much cash they will make before they’re prosecuted by tribunals, or most likely, before they attempt another coup and turn off the gold rush after all of their money is walled up in Singaporean banks.

Something about the episode with the French woman struck me deeply with pity for her. The truth is that I haven’t been able to feel sorry for a white person for a long, long time. Not after living amidst the economic poverty and cultural richness that exists in Myanmar.

In all honesty, Myanmar is a tough place to travel on the cheap. It’s not yet touristy friendly and full of backpackers swinging fire sticks under the full moon – thankfully. But the future is unknown. Probably, there’s no turning back but moving forward with civil wars raging and religious and ethnic conflicts now spreading to Yangon is not comforting to the people with a middle class identity. As for most of the Myanmar people, poverty is their way of life and no matter what; they will survive as they’ve been doing for the unforeseeable time ahead.

And that’s what poverty is, living in the moment. For white people weighted down with too many possessions packed onto them, more like a pack mule than an adventurer, finding oneself on holiday has its pitfalls in Myanmar. Such a person discovers internally a different kind of poverty, or richness. Being unable to live in a simple moment on a sidewalk in Yangon, collapsing to the ground in sobbing desperation with more money in the pockets than most people in Myanmar make in a month is strange to me. Myanmar is not a place to come and meet the end of your road. It’s swim or sink here, there’s no life raft.

Ko Tha Dja has worked for over five years in both Thailand and Burma on issues of education and refugee resettlement. Read other articles by Ko Tha Dja.