Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Of Languor and Laos

Like every beautiful, alcoholic and verdant landlocked country, Laos is a strange and delightful place. All the more so since it’s still half-heartedly Communist while supplying every aspiring French café with bootleg, week-old editions of Le Figaro. In Southeast Asia one must take paradoxes (or merely oddities) with more than a dash of salt. Preferably an espresso or lukewarm beer – something to give another portly morning that extra oomph.

I came to Laos expecting (to see) what many foreigners do: a gaggle of lazy-eyed prostitutes fending off gap-year Brits with opium-laced rafters stitched to their pasty bottoms. Being low season, I was pleasantly surprised when this was not the case. Of course, a multitude of other stock-made images immediately come to mind: Tony Poe, Colonel Kurtz and a dashing Catherine Deneuve all trading horses amidst a backdrop of (now) scooter-donning Hmong chieftains. Again our hopes were dashed. Rather, we’d stumbled upon a disjointed, mountainous kingdom of fog, buttered corn on the cob, colonial nostalgia, fresh-baked croissants and creaking retrograde fans. A land where shivers of a selectively forgotten past stoke the embers of an uncertain future.   

Entering the country is not dissimilar to entering El Salvador from Guatemala – or so I’m guessing. After a rocky and sleepless 11-hour ride in which you’ve exhausted both Elliot Smith and Chopin, at sunrise you arrive at a roadside diner overlooking a mighty, murky, mirthless river to fill out immigration forms in order to cross to the other side.  As Apollo snorts into the haze, the elements bumble a jig somewhere between fog and drizzle, that curious state you reach on a humid hike at around 2,500 ft. anywhere north of the 50th parallel. Short squat men in faded camo sit around sipping Lipton, sporting arms of questionable efficacy and eyeing the cutish Belgian girl in the corner. A knockoff Red and two flaming cups of instant coffee later and the viscous air verges upon refreshing.

The river, of course, is the mighty Mekong, fabled giant of every colonial imagination from Burmese and Han to Frog, Yank and beyond. On the receding side, the delightfully placid, slow walking, curry-munching Thais, content to scream Tuk-Tuk at random intervals between bouts of staring at the sun. On the other side, mystical Laotians, mountain recluse and hilltop folk of Fabien fantasy, calm and welcoming, chipper and cherub-like – as evidenced in their currency if nothing else. Depending on the hour, they may subscribe to your creed or simply chuckle and light another Qionghua. As you may have surmised, they are by and large a delightful people.

Beyond the border our first port of entry was Vientiane, the country’s disproportionately underwhelming capital (a jaunt to Bangkok, Yangon or even Jefferson City will attest to this). While I wasn’t necessarily expecting expansive slums and Stalinist stadiums of post-1970s sultanic standards, the 2-3 mildly templish government blocks that line the main boulevard were hardly enough to conjure the feel of éminence bureaucratique, much less justify the 50-odd UNDP-plated SUVs permanently stationed out front – but that, I suppose, is a matter for the American taxpayer, not I.

A quick 10-minute walk around town reveals an odd combination of cheaply built but freshly painted temples, newly constructed if poorly designed guesthouses, crumbling souvenir shops and a generous smattering of chic French cafés. Indeed, Vientiane has a higher per capita of establishments pushing La vache qui rit than anywhere south of 14th street – or west of the English Channel for that matter. (Even the street carts stock it).

Though the mildly cosmopolitan bent is impressive, it is also bizarre; whereas in Hong Kong – or Tokyo, Peoria or Sacramento – we usually socially (self) segregate the profitable from the charitable, the civil servant from the banker, the preacher from the lawyer, the bougie expat from the moderately privileged backpacker/sex tourist/average-Joe-I’m-45-and-teach-in-a-Thai-village pervert – but we do not in Vientiane. Whether you’re there to irrigate rivers, convert the hill tribes, find gold or simply fool around with 15-year olds, chances are you’re having your pain au chocolat in the same establishment as the a) well-meaning NGO girl from Maine b) less well-meaning if not malicious lonely older drunk from Texas and c) aspiring Greco-French restaurateur Skype-dictating in the corner. Which I suppose says more about size than moral quality of a city, but still.

My first night in town I was accosted both to and from dinner. It was drizzling again so I swiped the collapsing green umbrella from the guesthouse and stole off toward the village center, a 5-7 minute walk from the crumbling corner mansion I was staying in north of town. Chancing upon the first boulevard, I hear the screeching of tires and a rapidly advancing jeer: “Ahhhhh! Meeeesta! You wann dees? I know you wann dees! Don’t play me fool!” An admittedly not unattractive – if still intimidating – creature of the night had pulled up alongside me in a souped-up scooter, wearing nothing but jean shorts and a black bra. Though creeping along at 5mph, she managed to rev the engine every 10 feet or so. It was 8:15pm and raining on a Tuesday night. “What you way-ding for?! Get on the bike, stoopid boy!” I nervously chuckled and ran across the street, dashing between a Tuk-Tuk and a 4x4 for cover. I turned back to see if she was still there, as Moses might the Egyptians (…I could think of no better analogy): there she was, circling in her scooter, screaming epithets and feigning anger.

When I left the restaurant 45 minutes later she was waiting around the corner. She kicked the engine into full gear as I made for the boulevard. I took the first alleyway and jogged toward my guesthouse. A number of other gangly adolescent girls now emerged from several doorways, stilettos and skirt to boot. The scooter dame lost interest when reached the doorway and made my way inside.

In the lobby I met a friendly older Texan with a very strong lisp. He was drunk and very affectionate toward his local companion, a short, squat maiden no more than a decade younger; it was refreshing to see a Westerner with someone more than half his age. Though he’d been negotiating the cost of what wasn’t meant to be a ‘love-chamber’ for several minutes, he was still of a cheery disposition (and still would have been without the spirits from what I could tell). Chancing upon him upstairs an hour later, I rhetorically asked him how he was doing. “Living the dream!” he beamed, without an ounce of irony. Whatever the circumstances, there was something simple and sweet about his candor.

Upstairs I grabbed a bottle of beer settled down to read Hobsbawn. The alcoholic Frenchmen I’d met earlier that day reemerged to ask the time. Or the year, I cannot recall. If he had reeked of booze at 3 in the afternoon, the odor had crystallized into a sad, hard stench by 9pm. Having given him the hour, he asked about the internet connection – or perhaps it was the baseball score; he was clearly keen on making a new companion at whatever the cost. Since he could barely muster a sentence in English, I poured him a glass of beer and asked about his curious ‘Vancouver’ accent, his acclaimed place of residency.

He too had now been wandering Thailand for the past ten years, living off the proceeds of a healthy inheritance and popping over to Laos when it suited him. In another life he’d been a polytechnicien tax attorney – or so the story goes – but had bought out the firm he worked for the moment the hereditament came in the post. After transferring to the firm’s PR wing for a few years – bright lights, big guts and boozy dinners – he threw in the towel and made for the East. A mostly friendly character, by this point he could barely put a sentence together in English or in French. When I asked if he wanted another cup of beer, he disappeared into his room and came back with a clear unmarked bottle of something much stronger.

We stayed up late smoking too many cigarettes. I should have escaped with my book, but I couldn’t resist the temptation to savor the cliché: the second floor veranda of a crumbling colonial mansion on a rainy night with a weather-beaten, washed-up frog from a storied French family; the prodigal son who at least appeared to have reached middle age – though in all likelihood couldn’t be older than 35. When I came back with another bottle of Laos beer, a creature of the night emerged from around the corner, smiled, and disappeared around the bend as quickly as she had appeared. Caught off guard, we each began to wonder if our hotel had more secrets than the ‘book’ – that dastardly Lonely Planet! – had advertised. My retired companion chuckled and began to reminisce about his own new momentary friend from the previous evening.  

Ten minutes later another whore came around the bend. This time we couldn’t contain our bemusement: just what was happening a matter of feet from our bedroom door? The old house, a labyrinth of sinking corridors and fading portraits, was clearly home to more than croissant- and café-seeking goons. I looked up and confusedly smiled as the second lady of the night sauntered past. She smiled, kissed her two fingers and pressed them to my forehead before disappearing, like the other, around the corner and into the night. 

Friday, June 21, 2013

The King and I

Often it’s hard to see the State in countries you don’t live or pay income taxes, much less to characterize it. From what I can tell, outside of Paris, New York and the poorer districts of major developed cities, beat cops are invisible. And unless you stray into ‘problematic’ zones of troubled countries – which you don’t – poll taxes, roadblocks and the like are largely unheard of. That’s not to suggest that behind closed doors some bureaucrat or state-run monopoly isn’t bleeding you in some way: let’s go on the assumption they are (India, China, Russia, yada, yada, yada).  

The State characterization of which I speak is one of visibility – whether hygienic (ex: health warnings), cultural/aesthetic (ex: grandeur) or punitive (ex: CCTV). From what I can gather, the vast majority of governments haven’t the time, energy or resources to give their presence a visual life of its own – that is – to dress power in a way that makes it seem cultural rather than political. Of course, the easiest way to do this is an excessive display of flags, though we know any two-bit warlord can string a spray-painted towel to a lamppost and call it sovereignty. What we’re interested in are the willing and outward trappings of an internal capitulation. Like when people in third-world beach towns buy knockoff t-shirts advertising Starbucks. Or girl scouts selling war bonds in a time of peace.

In much of Southeast Asia, however, this is not the case. The Singaporean government, as we’ve tried to stress, does a most splendid job of reminding people how to live. In this they exercise a crucial prerogative in ‘steering’ outward signs of culture to norms of public order. To the outsider it seems like people are on board, though I could be wrong. Like the late-night US Army commercials that creep between episodes of South Park and Robot Chicken, Singapore’s government makes hilarious attempts to take credit for people’s quotidian preferences. Take the metro, for example – that land of milk and honey for public indoctrination! – where 10-foot posters remind the city’s strapping young suits of their (obligatory) reserve duties by showing beautiful six-foot Singaporeans sipping beers on servant-laden terraces: friendship, solidarity and style await you in the barracks! Or as to say, “Civilian is the new martial” – it’s really quite ingenious.

The Burmese government, on the other hand, must take a different course. Given the military’s role in thwarting its people over the past six decades, the State seems to have fallen back on rampant displays of indigenous culture to do the trick. Rather than flaunt the State’s ties to modernity or prosperity (as they may well do in 20 or 30 years’ time), they’ve plastered the principle roads of Yangon and beyond with massive posters of hill-tribe women doing the samba, as though to say, “Don’t worry, we’re not going to raise your village just yet.” Or, “We publicly applaud your efforts to sing and dance!” It’s as though the IRS draped posters of family reunion barbecues along the I-95 to remind people in Prince George County they can buy all the Doritos and charcoal they want come April 16th.

However, the most hilarious display of Burmese state-sponsored ‘culture’ was on the long-haul buses. Of course, television is a marvelous way of promoting public culture (I should be taken to the gulag for such a truism), but Burma takes it one step further. For hours on end, the television in the bus would beam nothing but slow-motion films of traditionally dressed peasant women doing wonderfully placid dances – again, ostensibly to remind passengers of their gloriously temperate, balanced and timeless national ways. Not that we haven’t our equivalent – we do. The Americans among you will recall the halftime ads for the Big Ten Conference when Michigan plays Ohio State: it’s only natural – and fitting – to remind the audience who its Daddy is. And rightly so. Imagine, however, that every time you went to the movies – that perfect monopoly of the public’s attention! – you were reminded by public broadcast what a first-rate job the Fed was doing in keeping down inflation. Or how wonderful smores tasted. Or how we gave the Indians such a righteous licking. You get the point. It’s bad enough when Gillette and Revlon get their two cents when you’ve already paid for a ticket, though moderately more annoying when done so by the State.

Such is what happens after seamless decades of a siege mentality and a self-imposed permanent state of war. Governments get to air far more public infomercials than otherwise. We too were encouraged to buy Liberty bonds when every time we went to see Greta Garbo – but that was when the Blitzkrieg was making Shoreditch look like Martin Luther King Boulevard. Of course, I could be wrong. What I take to be government-imposed takes on the Burmese Bob Ross could be the hottest thing out of Mandalay-y-wood since the arrival of Velcro. I suppose I’ll never know.

Yet when it comes to wanton displays of State-backed Public Culture, Thailand must surely take the cake. Those of us who pretend to stay abreast of world events will vaguely recall reading something about Thailand’s draconian lèse-majesté laws in the past year or two (or five or ten). French for 'your Mamma', they basically mean, 'Don't talk shit about the king or we will lock that ass up. Internet and shitty blogs included." (Your 'correspondent' may find himself in a pickle). And they certainly mean it. Just last week the son of the American ambassador was given 18 months for tweeting about His Majesty's virility. 

Not really, but similar instances crop up all the time. But why? From afar, we've all heard of the red- v yellow-shirt beef that spills into the streets every time the tide washes up a drunken Swede. To the ignorant observer, these lead one to assume the country is roughly split between the forces of republicanism on one hand and monarchy on the other. Indeed, that the institution of Thai monarchy (or at least some of its prerogatives) was openly challenged I had taken for granted. Yet to the naked eye, nothing could be further from the truth. You cannot go more than twenty meters in any Thai city, large or small, without crossing the bespectacled image of their beloved king, whether he's saluting the troops, reading the newspapers or taking a bubble bath. Indeed, the Thais make Joseph de Maistre seem like a card-carrying member of the Socialist Workers Party 

They say that keeping the House of Windsor afloat runs the average British taxpayer about a pound a year. (We'll leave the sunk cost of royal property holdings to the economists among you). It's a pittance compared to tourism and tabloid revenues it generates in turn. And yet persnickety public opinion polls persist: one year only 78% of Britons support the institution whereas the next it's back to 92%. The underlying assumption being that Princess Eugenie's take from gift store royalties relies upon the tacit and sober support of Joe Bloggs. When that dries up, the show is over. Nothing further from the case exists in Thailand. To not prostrate oneself at the mention of the king's new penchant for Bridge would lead to suspicions of the highest order, if not the gallows themselves. 

Throughout the entire expanse of the country - in town and country, slum and leafy suburb, dentist's office and back-alley brothel - there isn't a single establishment or place of public gathering that isn't decorated with the image of the king, usually accompanied by his stately wide, and rocking one of several iconically somber postures. In the classic portrait, he's donning traditional military garb and staring off into the bottom lefthand side of the picture frame, gazing at something stuck to my left shoe. He is slight of build and always clean shaven, with pouted lips and spectacles that often look more like pince-nez due to what looks like a mild revulsion he can scarcely contain. Oh it must be tiresome, putzing about with these plebeian photographers. 

In the second most popular rendition, the king is in classic civilian gear: a light-blue blazer worn comfortably over a sea-green button down and a pair of khakis. He is holding a 35mm camera and staring rather pensively at my left shoe. There are a great many variations of this portrait; sometimes the blazer's burgundy, at others the button down's a sweet, mellow magenta. In every one of them he exudes the poise and precision of a well-heeled, late 1970s Japanese tourist. The Russians may have been the first to orbit the Earth, but the Thai royal line has an eye for capturing decisive moments that make Cartier-Bresson look like a middle-schooler sexting on his smartphone. 

I could go on to list the 3rd, 4th and 5th most popular poses as you stumble upon when entering your neighborhood laundry-mat (rowing through the jungly swamps snapping pictures of alligators and local fauna, for example), but I fear I'd be trying my readers' patience. Suffice to say you cannot fart or eat a chicken leg without the king sneaking a peak at your left shoe from some corner of the room. Yet strangely, albeit somewhat morbidly, it's endearing.

One final example and I'll leave you be. Yesterday at a convenience store a friend of mine put a bottle of water on top a 50-baht note ($1.80 USD) to keep it from blowing away while he searched for spare change. (I'll let you clever people guess the image on all their currency). By the time he found his coin and looked up, several of the staff were staring at him as though he'd dipped a Koran in pigs fat and fedex-ed it to Karachi. Perhaps they forgot that for much of the day many of us are plopped rather comfortably upon the king's image, his pinched, bespectacled face somewhere between my right cheek and an expired Social Security card. 

Yet however easy it is to knock the Thai obsession with their sovereign, there is something moving about the entire spectacle. Though the effort seems feigned at times in the capital - where for instance 25-foot billboards of the royal couple playing scrabble are strung about the expressway - there does seem to be a genuine identification with the king and his person. And if that can transcend the advent of the camera, democracy, 711 and legions of horny old European men prowling the streets at night, then perhaps it's not such a bad thing after all. 

Monday, June 17, 2013

Notes on Burma

In describing the allure of Myanmar, I could harp on and on about its crumbling, myopic and masochistically beautiful former capital, Yangon; the extraordinarily diverse human pageantry that swarms its fetid streets; the boundless curiosity of its populace, or the spectacular – if almost obscene – religious bent of anything public it undertakes. (If the CIA factbook is to be believed, every time a senior military figure makes poo-poo, a pagoda’s erected in his excreta’s honor. Politico-spiritually, Myanmar makes 16th century Spain look like 19th century Liverpool). But I won’t. You can read the papers, peruse the Internet or, dare I suggest, visit your local library if you want an actually informed report on past and present developments. I, for my part, was too busy feigning to finish War and Peace and hugging the toilet to chat with locals.

In all seriousness, though. Myanmar is a delightful country, one that challenges the outsider’s mental geography no less than learning the contours of the Earth in French (in which you’re taught there are 5.5 continents rather than seven – Ile de France getting ‘half’ status whilst the Americas count for only one, etc.). Even if you haven’t read Orwell’s Shooting an Elephant or Burmese Days, when thinking of Myanmar one’s imagination immediately goes to, well, elephants and dusty jungle paths, rickety old rifles that refuse to fire, sweltering summer heat and silly hats. Combined with contemporary reports of communal violence, ethnic cleansing and anti-Muslim rioting, one imagines the tropical fringes of a Southeast Asian Serbia, poised against modernity and doggedly determined to fight ‘til the very bitter end. Which of course is not true. Not the restricted, photogenic bits they let us foreigners see, in any case.

Rather, behind the stale and crusty historical baggage of colonialism, dictatorship and ethnic strife lies a cream-filled center of sweet and rustic sociability, a temperate, placid people whose only concerns are those of you and me: “work hard and party harder” and “watch the US Open on the plasma screen”, which in Burmese translates roughly to “sip this warm brew with my unemployed boys in the midway sun” and “eventually unload those tomatoes from the crate into the shop.” At the risk of issuing another truism, I cannot stress enough how similar many Burmese and (Midwestern) Americans actually are. Folksy, unassuming, a good sense of humor, quite friendly, relatively hard working and poorly dressed to a T (when they trouble to dress at all; under strain of excessive rain and shine, the men often just opt for loincloth). I’m sure an influx of Foreign Capital will alter some of these social achievements, but until then we should be toasting our common postcolonial heritage with awkward grins and lukewarm suds to boot.

Then again, let’s not kid ourselves. The Burmese are far too poor, oppressed, ill informed and under-represented to benefit from the aftershock of a civilization that’s long since faded to nothing. How dare they display the good-natured gait of economic security, the contented indifference that makes us moderns our swag? To bastardize a depressing Americanism, Myanmar is the Cuba of Southeast Asia, an island of washed-up sea creatures who haven’t danced a wetted waltz in sixty years. No AC, no cinema, no 711, no chains, no real coffee to be had in the entire country, not a deity-damning loaf of bread for 500 miles. What do they eat or do with their days?  

Obviously, your correspondent has spent far too much time moping about in ‘rich’ Asia, reading the Economist, and grown extraordinarily complacent as a result. But that’s the extraordinary thing about Myanmar, poised as the interested cheerleaders say it is to become the next ‘jungly Brunei’, a land of milk and honey dripping with oil and sweat. As it stands, Myanmar lacks every modern nicety the rest of developed Asia has in overabundance, namely comfort, food and entertainment of at least mid-to-late-20th century standards (Chicagoland not Appalachia, mind you).

With that, of course, certain expectations and attitudes naturally follow. (An example: rich Asia – by which of course I mean middle class Asians, by global standards at least – is obsessed with food. I cannot stress this enough. Writing of the Algerian War, Camus once said that given the choice between justice and his mother, he would choose his mother. Were newly minted Asians given the choice between preventing genocide and gorging a spicy pork hot pot, they would opt for the latter quicker than you can say “Truth and Reconciliation Commission.” Yet eating the food is only the half of it; the other half – cleverly drawn into the future as it is – is to document the eating experience: photos, t-shirts, home-movies, hundred-page family albums of father, son, pork and chicken – relegating snaps of the Eiffel Tower and the Spanish Steps to the very back of the footnotes. Indeed, I once saw a portly fellow with a set of spare-ribs tattooed across his forearm. Given a choice between a spot of Korean barbeque and a trip to the Moon, they would deny the existence of the solar system before you could set the table. Bear with me…

Go anywhere in Hong Kong, Singapore, Taipei, Jakarta, Bangkok or Kuala Lumpur and the epicenter of Human Life and Civilization is the food-court at the mall. For Americans not accustomed to equating Sbarro’s with haute cuisine or culture, this may come as a surprise. Not in wealthy Asia. Here there is arguably no chicer place to be (or be seen). And for good reason: the food is spectacular and the air is conditioned. A tad dearer than what you can get on the street, of course, but what better investment to make than in your stomach? They say the gut’s got more nerve endings than the brain. The point I am crassly –and I fear unsuccessfully – trying to make is this: to the extent that white people in in the 1950s needed tanned skins to prove their ascendant social status, so too must Asians today by proving they eat well. Socially speaking, this is arguably more important than the clothes on your back).

The point of this rant? None of these tendencies yet exist in Myanmar. The adorable complacency and love of comfort; the sweet, sequestered conformity with whatever’s on the shelf or strung about the billboards; the delightfully silly sense of fashion that verges on the absurd (Hello Kitty being but the hors d’oeuvre!). Within Newly Minted Asia, the tables are turning quicker than you can say “Crass Civilization of Consumption” – but by and large for the better from what I can gather. There being less ethnic, religious or even philosophical dimension to Fostering the Tide that Lifts all Boats than there was, say, in the US or the Russian Empire at the turn of the 20th century, Newly Minted Asia can focus its efforts entirely upon putting every young man into an office with a starched white shirt by 2020. (State-sponsored) Buddhism, Confucianism and Shintoism seem strangely more adept in this regard than Christianity, Islam or even Calvinism ever were. But I’ve digressed.

Back to Myanmar and its lack of food courts. Or minivans. Or chain stores or international products of any kind. Who amongst us has been to a land with neither Snickers nor _____. And Snapple, my friend, is decades down the line. As you can see, the glue that holds us all together is products, not ideas, universalized sensations rather than convictions. (Fukuyama tells us that no two countries whose military high command has tried Pop Rocks have ever gone to war). Half my students in Hong Kong were Christians and yet none had ever heard of Paul (though granted, if services were in Chinese it’s doubtful the apostles were Anglicized. But still…). Yet we were the best of friends when one of us had Skittles.

So what is Myanmar to go on? The food is awful – or a borrowed, bastardized version of Indian and Thai cuisine – and transport and entertainment are virtually non-existent. What to do? Where to go? What to consume? Whom to cavort with? Assuming you’re not a monk (or merely depending upon how orthodox you are), namely five things: betel juice, soccer, little green cigars, deliciously sweet tea and singing. (I know these are predominantly male pursuits, though I only had an eye to the street, not the home). Given the choice between air-conditioned food courts and these pursuits, I am torn…

Take the first, betel juice, a mild stimulant, or so I’m guessing. 68% of Burmese men have long since given up on kissing, smiling, modeling or meeting the in-laws to suck at the tit of this little red bean, the gift that obviously keeps on giving. At virtually no point, in city or countryside alike, is anyone over the age of 21 not hawking a sluice of beet-red slaver into the curb or onto the sidewalk, though usually just as you pass by. No stranger to (relatively harmless) addiction, even I was impressed by their persistence in chewing the stuff. Anyone willing to forgo being able to ever respectfully open their mouth again for the sake of a mild buzz is obviously onto something good.

Secondly, their second great love, soccer – or rather standing in a circle with your neighborhood buddies and juggling in the rain. (I only mention the weather because it was never not pouring in Yangon). Of course, suburban white boys love hacky-sack – at least in summer camp or on the quad in the autumn – but the Burmese bring the genre to an entirely new level. First things first, it’s not actually a soccer ball. Like the late 19th century Lower East Side alleycats who played stickball with an actual stick, our Burmese juggle with a circular object, somewhat smaller than a size 4 soccer ball and sewn craftily together of dried bamboo sheathes (if such a thing exists. The point is that it’s homemade, meaning they haven’t even access to soccer balls, something my PoMo-lumpenproletarian eyes could scarcely conceive). And this was true of every band of jugglers I encountered throughout the country – not a one had an actual ball. Not that it mattered. Hard as it is to remember the things we enjoyed in life before sex, drugs and rock-n-roll took over – or its post-adolescent variant of coffee, tobacco and literature – there is nothing more enjoyable – I reiterate nothing – than playing catch (roughly its American equivalent).

Perhaps I exaggerate when I speak on behalf of all (urbanized) men, but dressing up, making money, watching sports, chasing girls, exercising power, eating fajitas and even – dare I say! – sipping beers all simply pale in comparison to playing catch. If that weren’t the case, governments and film industries simply wouldn’t exist to convince us otherwise. We would merely eat, shit, play catch and gabble before going back to sleep. (Far more often than not, even ______ for ______’s sake isn’t worth the trouble). Though they mightn’t have been exposed to the aforementioned alternatives to juggling a soccer ball in a way we ‘developed’ types have, Burmans seem to have clung to this forgotten truth.   

Of course, it’s an old truism of mediocre (middle class) minds to claim the poor are somehow happier, or have ‘figured’ out the timeless essentials of enjoying life. That is not my argument. Stuck in a hell of vomitous food, rampant malaria, perpetual flooding and intermittent electricity, I do not envy the wretched of the Earth for one moment. That being said, I do rather wish we’d play more catch.

On to their third pastime, little green cigars. I haven’t much to add to the joys of smoking – a pleasure the rich and poor alike indulge in at the risk of life and limb (from what the public admonishments would have us believe at any rate) – apart from the fact that they’re green and little and smoked by men and women alike. Anyone who’s been to India can tell you a woman is better off caught cheating on her husband than seen smoking in public. In Myanmar, such is not the case. Better yet, half the postcards sold in shops are of tiny, old emaciated peasant women, puffing away on a little green cigars (though often for effect very large ones in the picture), an image that makes me far happier than I should care to admit. Like videos of monkeys riding bicycles, some things never get old.

On to their fourth great pleasure, sipping strong, sweet tea. Prone to adopt the ‘best’ and ‘worst’ of both worlds, Americans are very loath to overlook any calorific indulgence (we’ve invented half in circulation!) – though one in particular stands out: sweet and condensed milk. When God made man a slave to his stomach and loin, he threw sweet and condensed milk into the bargain as recompense. To my knowledge ignored in Europe and North America, this was not lost on Southeast Asia. From Hong Kong down to Singapore and up to Yangon, sweet and condensed milk with a touch of strong Chinese tea is the order of the day. Perhaps we’ve the British to thank – I do not know. What I do know is that it’s the most delightful (soft) drink of the century, and one we are foolish not to import. Again, the Burmese know this, and half their male population sits around sipping it, rain or shine, job or dole, woman or no woman alike. So ubiquitous is the product in Myanmar that in the old part of Bagan, the most ‘historic’, scenic and utterly eye-opening part of the country, a land of 4000 ancient (and modern) temples scattered about a wind-swept plain, the only advertisement for miles is that of ______ sweet and condensed milk company, draped from every intermittent light-post.   

On to their final pastime, singing. Burmans sing more than Cubans and crackheads put together. It is really quite astonishing. Not that they are untalented: on the contrary. Scarcely could you go five minutes at any guesthouse without one of the boys beyond the bar breaking into song. Oh yes, I should like to think you can trust a people that at any given moment is only seconds away from capitulating to that tune buzzing away in their head. This is not an exaggeration – unless, of course, they’re doing it to take the piss (which is strongly possible).

Now that I think about it, my very first encounter in the country was sprinkled with melody. Arriving at customs, it took me a moment to dig about for my passport. In the eleven seconds it took to locate, the young and not unattractive woman in uniform before me began to hum a little ditty. By the time I’d retrieved it, she was openly singing the words. But why, dear reader, do they croon as such? And what can it possibly have to do with their ‘national character’ (if we can be so bold as use that oft-erroneous term)?

When you go to Bahia, the first thing they tell you are the guerilla roots of Capoeira – how the northern Brazilian dance to-seduce-women-from-Winnetonka was first developed amongst slaves as a means of practicing self-defense without arousing the suspicions of slave-driving Joao da Silva. Which makes one think of song in Myanmar in similar ‘sociological’ fashion. The ‘social roots’ of jazz are no mystery (see Norman Mailer’s iconic essay, “The White Negro,” 1957). The same, I began to wonder, may well be true of Myanmar. Violently bereft of free speech for more than half a century, perhaps they took to singing to voice their discontent, anger, hopes and fears. Like ‘urban poets taking to rap music’, as the pale and lanky preacher’s son from the hood once explained to me, music was a means of venting their grief and joy alike. (Now whether they were crooning Trotskyite or anti-Muslim jingles I’ll never know…)

Back in Bagan, this notion was seconded. One evening over a balcony nightcap with the adorable young college kids from Colorado (forgive me, Mark!), a group of troubadours appeared on the street below. There must have been seven of them in total, of whom five would croon in unison to the hum of one of their guitars. Naturally I’ve no idea what they were singing about, only that is was oh-so-very spirited. Lost love? Lost youth? Lost war? Whatever the theme, it was involved – much more so than your average mariachi – and before long we had little choice but to join them on the curb. Of course, they may have been government-coined melodies extolling the results of ancient five-year plans – though this I highly doubt.

Minutes later, when the subject of body art came up, every one among them lifted their shirts to reveal a torso covered in ink – another countrywide phenomenon that deeply marked me. Indeed, one cannot help but notice a very large, countrywide percentage of young to middle aged men with visible tattoos. Perhaps this is not an extension of the ‘prison culture’ that has permeated a great many aspects of American society (and to a much lesser extent, European and Australian), though it is tempting to think so. In any case, after a long hour of singing and drinking penny-rum in such a fashion, the 31-year old leader of the pack said it was time to retire. “If ever the police drive by at this hour, I’m done for.” As he disappeared on down the road, the younger ones belted out as loudly as ever.

To conclude. The general theme of these ravings – as I have no doubt miserably failed to convey – is that the Burmese are no different from ourselves. They like to eat, drink, smoke, pray, sing and (I should imagine) make hanky-panky as much as the next in line at the Pearly Gates. Though much poorer and at least visibly far more pious, they were as happy as anyone I’ve met on my travels, Indonesians aside. Of course, there is a mustard-brown lining to all of this. Behind the songs and gestures, grins and singsong legerdemain of every local’s smile, there did fester a quiet despair. Like a positive pregnancy test in a middle school trashcan, it haunts its victims even after they’re back to their desk, only in this case the desperation of “I still have to go home after school” replaced by “I still have to go home after work.”   


At sunset in Bagan there is one temple in particular that tourists flock to. Mountable and centrally located, if offers surreal views of breathtaking horizons in every direction, as far as the eye can see. Naturally, there a number of hawkers humming about at the bottom, most of whom peddle cutesy trinkets, mostly unsuccessfully. Climbing back down, I encountered one of them.

“Where are you from?”


“Ahh! Yes!” The Burmese are extraordinarily pro-American – second only to the Indonesians in their reverence for the US. “What city?”

“St. Louis.”  

“What rappers do you have?”

“Heard of Nelly?




I decide to go out on the usual limb. “T.S. Eliot? Jonathan Franzen? Tennessee Williams? You know – the latter went to my….”

“Enough! These days I only listen to The Game,” he declared with barely concealed pride and a practically flawless American accent. “And from watching (blank) show I know he recently bought a new (­­­blank) bedroom house in (blank) city for (­­­blank) million dollars. Now what do you think of that?” He gave me a cheeky look, hinting that he was sleeping on The Game's couch, rent-free. I looked down at the scraggly set of miniature wooden elephants he wasn’t even pretending to peddle and back at his self-assured grin, trying to make sense of the beautiful irony of it all. Fighting back a tear of joy, I bit my lip, grabbed my rickety bicycle and sauntered back to the road.