Back in February, while sitting down for lunch in Mandalay with Karen Connelly, I reminded the award-winning author of The Lizard Cage of something she had said while promoting her 2009 memoir, Burmese Lessons. Connelly had told an interviewer that, after finishing her epic novel, she thought she was “done with Burma”—meaning as a destination, as place to live, and as a subject for writing. However, having found that she had much more to say after excavating her life-changing romance with a Burmese dissident, she knew she was mistaken.
Five years after that interview, back in Burma to attend the second Irrawaddy LitFest, Connelly felt the pull of her muse once again. “I feel like I’m not done with Burma after a couple of days here,” she told me, while stirring a hot bowl of congee in the dimly-lit restaurant of the Mandalay Hill Resort Hotel.
“It’s interesting to go through another set of nostalgias.”
I know what she means. It’s been more than a month since I left the country after a first “visit” that lasted seven-and-a-half months, and the distance I feel from it in Vancouver seems almost galactic. Having chosen to resettle in Canada and report back to work after a year’s leave of absence, it feels like I’m moving on. And yet I, too, am far from “done with” a place where my life partner was born and raised, a place that haunted my imagination even before he and I met and, more recently, a place that inspired my first attempt at writing fiction. Although I have long considered Thailand a second home—it’s where hubby and I met, after all—its neighbour to the west has got a hold on me as well.
Now that I am out of the country, I will revert to calling it “Burma” more often than “Myanmar,” at least in conversation. Few people in North America have a clue where “Myanmar” is, and the nation has yet to live up to the promise of an open and free society that would justify respecting its leaders’ wishes to refer to it with a name chosen by a brutal military regime in 1989. While inside, I rarely heard a local person refer to the country as “Burma”; while outside, I’ve never heard any of its natives call it “Myanmar”. But the former are only saying what is socially acceptable; the latter are making a statement about political legitimacy.
Meanwhile, there are many memories, impressions, and lessons I can hold onto after seven-and-a-half months there.
Things I miss
Friends. One of the many advantages of having a Burmese husband while living in Yangon is meeting his Burmese friends. Lune has always had a good nose for people, and his friends were all wonderful, gracious folks who were smart, generous to a fault, and fun to party with. One in particular, with whom Lune was renewing a friendship that went back to their teens, went above and beyond the call of duty after Lune returned to Canada a couple of months before me: every week he would taxi across town bearing cooked meals and have his son clean the apartment. I, too, renewed a friendship while in Yangon, with someone I first met 25 years ago in Vancouver. We never really lost touch, but living in the same city in Asia was a unique opportunity for us to appreciate the lives we have led since 1989. I also made new friends with a bright, young gay couple from the Pacific Northwest whose open-heartedness and engagement with their surroundings, wherever they happen to be, has renewed my faith in the next generation.
Colleagues. The newspaper where I worked had its share of problems (the most important of which is the subject of an essay I hope to publish soon), but the friendliness and good humour of my co-workers was not one of them. With a few exceptions the translation team was comprised of young people working on their first or second job, as was the paper’s hotshot new business reporter. All were eager for feedback and willing to receive criticism of their work, and all were helpful to me in filling the gaps to make their stories complete. My one foreign colleague, a good-natured idealist in his late twenties, provided the companionship of solidarity on the issues that mattered most—as well as that most important role of drinking buddy.
Friendly locals. From the teenaged boys in their orange outfits who staffed the New Burger fast food joint on U Chit Maung Road (with their collective greeting of “Minga-la-baaaa!”, bowing in unison every time I walked into the place) to the cabbies who took me all over town, or the women who ran the cramped little photocopy shop near our apartment, every day in Yangon was filled with people whose smiles and general politeness made living there so much easier. I could understand a bit of local resentment for the sudden presence in their midst of so many foreigners, the lowliest of whom were filthy rich compared to themselves. But I never felt that kind of attitude while in Yangon, or anywhere else in Burma, really.
Traveling street vendors: Who needs an alarm clock when you’ve got the singing bean lady? Every morning at about six-thirty, the same woman walked down our street calling out her steamed beans for sale. I began to rely on her live, singsong self-advertisement, along with that of a woman selling baked goods a bit later, and those of two men—one collecting garbage in the morning and the other selling jasmine garlands at 11 p.m.—to find out the time. Each had a distinctive call which, apart from announcing their product and guaranteeing their livelihoods, functioned as a kind of timepiece: it told you, without fail, what hour of the day it was.
Favourite hangouts. Friday night happy hour at the bar in The Strand Hotel, where Somerset Maugham liked to get drunk, was fabulous. Same goes for dinners at the teakwood House of Memories, where Burmese independence hero Aung San’s well-preserved office is something of a shrine; drinks at the rooftop Vista bar on Shwegondine Road, with its dramatic, low angle view of the Shwedagon Pagoda; late-night barbeque sessions at Nineteenth Street in Chinatown; and Tiger beer on tap at the Friendship Restaurant on Dhamma Zhedi Road. Nor will I forget the monsoon-drenched stroll that Lune and I took on the boardwalk at Kandawgyi Lake, or the bookstore browsing sessions downtown.
Getting out of Yangon. Hpa-an, the capital of Karen State, is a sentimental favourite because it’s Lune’s hometown. As a municipality it is unspectacular, but charming. It’s more the sense of continuity, and the natural beauty of its surroundings, that enthralls. From the hike on Mt. Zwegabin to the many caves and canoe-able waterways, it’s easy to feel in Hpa-an like one has gone back a century or two…..Of course, the ancient city of Bagan feels much older than that, and the sheer scale of the archaeological zone was amazing to behold. At Inle Lake in Shan State, where I spent my fiftieth birthday, the richness of traditional life seemed unspoiled by the tourist onslaught, from the unadvertised floating market to the community feast at the Shwe Inn Dein pagoda, where we just missed a procession of 800 monks down a staircase that seemed a mile long. There was also much to enjoy in Mandalay, Pin Oo Lwin, and Mount Popa.
Food and drink. I enjoyed lots of good curries and rice dishes, mohinga noodles, and a local version of the tomato salad I learned to prepare back home. As for drink, I sincerely hope that a junta crony does not own Myanmar Beer: if that is indeed the case, then I have shamefully supported his dubious dealings with the enthusiasm of my guzzling. (There’s no variety in the local beer offerings—Mandalay lager is rather tepid and Dagon is just so-so—but Myanmar Beer, the major sponsor of last December’s SEA Games, does the trick.)
Things I don’t miss
Burmese Buddhism. Yeah, I know: one mustn’t paint everyone with the same brush, and I met some very fine people who happened to be Buddhists and followed all the precepts like any “good” Buddhist would. On the other hand: whatever remnants of touchy-feely, New Age post card-romantic illusions I had about this religion before arriving in Burma—and there weren’t many—were completely extinguished once I got there. I already knew about the racism of Bamar Buddhist nationalism, and the extremist, monk-led “969” movement that promotes hatred against Rohingya Muslims. But the daily onslaught of anti-Muslim sentiment at the newspaper where I worked, the constant exposure to young men in the streets wearing “969” or swastika tattoos, and the images of monks at political protests bearing placards telling Muslims to “Get out!” not only left me cold; it diminished the great achievement of the monk-led, pro-democracy Saffron Revolution of 2007. I began to detest the parades of temple fundraisers, those colour-and-music filled processions of Buddhist worshippers that routinely made their way down main streets—and the dirt road in front of our apartment building—seeking donations to “make merit,” thus guaranteeing the donor a better next life. As if the impoverished residents of Yangon didn’t have better things to spend money on in this life.
Burmese politicians. Even the briefest exposure to the national political scene here quickly reveals how little has actually changed since the dictatorship. Yes, the country has opened up. But the army still controls everything, and the country’s Teflon-man leader, President Thein Sein, is doing its bidding as a former junta official himself. The dictatorship’s gift for newspeak is also alive and well in his spokesperson, Ye Htut, who can make the quasi-civilian government sound progressive even as it’s rounding up journalists. The one person who has changed—and for the worse—is the country’s Nobel laureate, National League for Democracy chairperson Aung San Suu Kyi. The former human rights icon is so focused on getting a constitutional amendment that will allow her to run for president next year that she hasn’t found time to groom the next generation of NLD activists, much less name a shadow cabinet. Meanwhile, her fear of alienating the country’s Buddhist majority of voters has caused her to drop the universality of human rights from her political agenda–thus failing to address the sectarian crisis in Rakhine State or speak out against anti-Rohingya hatred.
Third Word conditions. Part of being a good expat in Yangon means learning how to be a good sport about all the limitations that make Yangon what it is. You know, things like suffocating heat and a lack of good air conditioning. I was okay with the heat (we used fans and a mosquito net in our apartment), but there were other things that reminded me I wasn’t in Bangkok, which is First World by comparison: the lack of decent Internet bandwidth, without which it’s impossible to get anything done quickly that involves e-mail or web browsing; frequent power failures, which could last anywhere from half an hour to all night long; the fact we lived on the sixth floor of a building with an unlit staircase and no elevator; having to remember to turn on a switch to fill the water tank so that we could shower, flush the toilet, and use the kitchen sink; bad hygiene, from the stench of poor plumbing in public washrooms to the spitting of betel nut juice in said stairwell; the lack of computers in the township office, which meant that everything was in paper and residents had to dig up their own files (and the requirement to pay more “tea money” or bribes, to get your file processed in a timely fashion); and the need to keep large wads of cash on hand in order to avoid using an ATM, let one risk one’s life savings.
Noise. I don’t know why the cabbies of Yangon think that startling people by honking at them from behind will make them want to take their taxi. There is enough noise in Yangon already, but everybody honks—not that it will get them through the city’s horrendous traffic any faster. Then there’s the scourge of full-volume soap operas on all-night bus rides. As if enduring eight hours of bumpy roads and intermittent helium blasts from giant trailer trucks isn’t bad enough, passengers are kept awake by the blaring of Burmese soap operas on the in-bus television. These trashy programmes invariably feature screaming, weeping, or otherwise helpless pre-feminist women in various states of distress.
Other Canadians. Considering how well I got along with most people while in Burma, my encounters with fellow Canadian expats in Yangon were—with the exception of my old pal from Vancouver, his friend from Quebec, and a foreign correspondent I met only once—surprisingly disappointing: marked by mis- or non-communication, needless territorialism, or downright rudeness.
One “consultant,” whose name and e-mail address I received from the ambassador, runs a list serve for Canadian expats in Yangon. When I wrote to him asking to be included on it, I received a chatty reply and then…nothing. Oops! I didn’t realize the list serve was only for those deemed worthy of an invite to his parties. From what I learned of him, he sounded like the classic neo-colonial in Southeast Asia: someone who is there mainly to make money, who frequents only air-conditioned establishments, and who prefers the company of people who share his tastes and opinions. (I suspect that, while screening me for his little club, he saw my blog, gagged at my politics, and avoided me like the plague.)
I also learned about a woman from B.C. who had been in Burma since 1999, spoke the language fluently, and ran a downtown art gallery. When Lune and I dropped by one weekend afternoon, I was hoping to browse through her collection. But I never got the chance: within moments of our arrival, she drew me into a conversation that sucked the air out of the room. When I told her which newspaper I worked for, she lay into me with a lecture about Burmese history and the role of the media. When I offered my own observations—if only to tip her off that she wasn’t talking to a “newbie” on Burma—she dismissed them without listening. When I asked if other writers had visited her gallery, she sighed, “I wouldn’t know—they don’t usually announce it.” She was also snappy and condescending with her Burmese staff. We never returned.
Then there was someone I’d met four years ago in Vancouver through a Burma issues activist group. Back then, he was a student whose interest in Burmese politics seemed earnest and progressive. When I met him in Yangon, he had been in Burma for about a year and had transformed into a chest-thumping freelance journalist: namedropping left and right, proud of the contacts he was making, full of swagger about the expat life. Charming and respectful in person, he had the oddly millennial tic of failing to respond to e-mails. I forgave him the first time, when I was writing from Canada. But when he did it again after the last time we met in Yangon—failing to answer an inquiry or reply to a courtesy I had extended—I was left scratching my head. Although we knew many of the same people, I never heard from or saw him again before leaving the country.
Finally, there was the long-term expat I had known in Bangkok a decade earlier. This man, who spent a lot of time in bars and whose sexual voraciousness made the narrator of The Rice Queen Diaries seem celibate, was what you might call “difficult”: a contrarian who enjoyed shocking others with unconventional opinions, a flake known for disappearing for weeks on end without returning calls or e-mails, and a professional diva who burned bridges everywhere but kept finding work because he was good at what he did. During my final two days in Burma, this man ended our rather one-sided friendship in a hissy fit of moral outrage because I had gotten a little too friendly with someone he had been involved with. Despite knowing nothing of what had actually occurred, he “un-friended” and blocked both of us on Facebook, instructing me never to contact him again. (This after I had recently gone some distance to convince a former employer to hire him again—a job for which he failed to report after dumping me.)
Yes, I have decided, I mostly prefer Canadians who live in Canada. Myself included.
–Photos by Daniel Gawthrop and Aung Htwe Nyunt Saw