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. 

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