I cried when I left Burma. I didn’t realize the country had such a profound effect on me until the pilot said, “Prepare for take-off”. The wheels left the tarmac and retracted into the belly of the plane and the tears came unexpectedly. Sure, the nine weeks I had spent living and working in Burma had been an amazing and emotional experience, but as my last day in the country approached, I began to feel excited about my departure and return to the life I had left in Cambodia. I was sad to leave Burma, but I had always known my time there would be short; that I wouldn’t stay longer than the 9 week teaching contract I had signed. I just did not realize that in those short 9 weeks my attachment to Burma ran so deep that it would produce tears in my final moments there.
Where were these tears coming from and why did it only take mere seconds for nostalgia to set in? Living in a country for an extended period of time, even just nine weeks, leaves a lasting impression that can make leaving quite emotional. It’s difficult to leave behind the pieces of a culture that have been a part of your life every minute of every day. I have no one to greet with “Ming-a-la-ba”, no where to wear my longyi(a traditional sarong worn by both men and women), and I have left behind the smiling faces of the Burmese people I saw everyday; the housekeeper at the apartment that was always made sure I had eaten, the woman selling bananas who poked fun at the amount of bananas I would buy and the grinning security guard at the school who would always, without fail, wave and say jovially, “Goodmorning, Teacher!”.
It feels funny for me to say that I was emotional after leaving Burma after nine weeks since after living in Thailand for one year, I didn’t shed any tears as I crossed the border into Cambodia, my new home of choice. But, I suppose that is because I never felt like I was leaving Thailand for good; it’s just an 8 hour bus ride away and I’m continually saying “mai pben rai” to the point that it didn’t feel like I was saying “Goodbye” to Thailand, just “See you later”. As the plane leaving Burma climbed higher into the air, I realized my tears were coming from a place deep inside that realized I wouldn’t be returning to Burma anytime soon and I would miss it. My time here was through and all I had left to remind me of it were a few Burmese words, a longyi, pictures on my computer and memories .
I had spent my weeks living and working in Yangon, the former capital and largest city. I was fortunate enough to be offered a short-term teaching contract at an International School. I was eager for the opportunity to spend long period of time in a country that seemed so mysterious compared to it’s other Southeast Asian counterparts. I didn’t know what to expect from a country ruled by an authoritative regime and violent regime that was juxtaposed with stories’ from travelers waxing poetically about the kindness and hospitality of the Burmese people. When I finally got there myself, I was struck by how normal everything was. Everyone went about their daily business; the buses were still running, the vendors were still hawking their goods in the market and people everywhere, from the city to the countryside, were smiling. Portraits of Aung San Suu Kyi, the pro-democracy leader who was kept under house arrest until recently, hung proudly in shops(formerly outlawed by the government) and National League For Democracy, her party, flags waved gallantly in the wind as the taxis they were adorned to drove sped down the roads as they do everyday. As a Westerner from a democratic country, I was shocked by this normalcy and how everyday life could continue when basic rights like freedom of speech and press were non-existent. I was humbled too. The Burmese bore their burden gracefully; they weren’t being complacent, but rather actively choosing to still find the joy in everyday life.
Burma is mesmerizing. It is a place where men have modern cell-phones clipped to their traditional longyis(a sarong tied at the waist) and women go to their office jobs wearing thanaka on their faces(a beige paste made from tree bark). It is a place where someone across the street waves you down and offers you their umbrella to use in the pouring rain. If you go on a bus, you’ll be amazed at how gracefully everyone accepts that they crammed like sardines on a rickety metal box in the blazing heat. If you walk down the street, you’ll be amazed at how so many people are excited to see you and ask to have their picture taken, even though they will never see that picture again. Burma is the place where you meet a family who speaks barely any English, but is so thrilled to have you in their home and to practice what little English that they know, that they take you on a sunset boat ride along the river and then in return, simply ask for a photo of yourself that they can remember you by.
People want to be remembered and they want to remember you; it’s a feeling that we can all relate to. Nobody likes to be forgotten, nobody likes to be from the outside looking in, or in the case of Burma, from the inside looking out. The Burmese people don’t want to lose that thread that has given them a connection to the outside world, a world largely unknown to them save for the movies and TV shows which make it through the satellites, albeit heavily edited. I used to hear a lot of Burmese cover songs of popular Western songs back home, and I would wonder if Burmese people even realized that these were covers. Did they know the songs were translated versions of songs originally in English and from another country? I don’t know for sure, but the question was worth asking in a country that is devoid of the things typically associated with the West. There are no fast-food franchises, no McDonalds and KFC(Thank God!). There are no ATMs and no flashy billboards advertising overly priced material goods that many equate with Western materialism. English-language songs are only given a brief period of airtime, per orders of the government, hence the mass production of covered songs. It was refreshing as a Westerner trying to escape the pervasive shadow of the West in other SE Asian countries, but is it really fair to the Burmese people that there only connection to the outside world is a photograph a passing tourist took of them? Burma has largely been spared from the trappings of Western lifestyles, but have they been denied the right to decide if they want to fall into that trap themselves?
I want to remember Burma through more than just photographs. I want to remember the giddy excitement I witnessed as a fellow Burmese teacher got a cell phone for the first time; something a Westerner wouldn’t bat an eyelash about, but was a monumental experience for her because she lives in a country where the government makes it nearly impossible to get a SIM card for cell phones. I want to remember the smiling faces of children, painted with swirls of thanaka, peering curiously at me through the windows of taxis or buses. I especially want to remember the sheer craziness of Thginyan, the Burmese water festival, when for 4 days whole cities and towns shut down and everybody throws water and there is not a single dry person on the streets to be found. I don’t want to forget the streets of Yangon that I walked down every single day, because even with the open sewers emitting foul stenches and the uneven sidewalks that I inevitably tripped on, those streets hold the ghosts of my footsteps in a place that I called home.
I miss Burma. I miss it’s uniqueness and specialness. I miss the smiling faces of the vendors as they hand me my favorite dessert, ‘shwe kyi’. I miss the ramshackle taxis, some with missing doors or no floor, that would take me for a spin of a lifetime through the streets of Yangon. I miss looking up at Shwedagon Pagoda at sunset and marveling at where I am at that very moment. I will remember my time those 9 weeks fondly. I will savor those memories that epitomize Burma for me and I will keep them close to my heart. When the memories resurface and my heart years for those days in Burma, I will lovingly wrap myself in my longyi, or dig up a Burmese phrase to teach someone or I will simply just close my eyes and remember the sights, sounds and smells of this mesmerizing culture. George Orwell once said, “This is Burma…it is quite unlike any other place you have been.”. Truer words have never been spoken.