Dec 28, 2013

Taking Care

We brought our children overseas to open their eyes. So they can see different ways and cultures, face poverty and need, learn tolerance and giving, and celebrate the goodness of life. And so they can see their own lives in perspective, maybe learn to separate “I need” from “I want”, put some weight into the good old “There are children starving in China so eat your food” platitudes.

But in learning about poverty, they also learn about privilege. In 2 weeks my boys have become used to having people scramble to open doors for them. To being able to afford whatever they want in the best restaurants, demand taxis, have people iron their underwear and slice their breakfast fruit into works of art.

Every time they complain of a lump in the mattress or tired legs after 20-minute walk, i wonder which message they are internalizing – the poverty or the privilege. After one of my useless “think about someone else” diatribes, my boy quietly said “You’re good that that dad – making us feel bad.”

Enter my Wise Wonderful Wife to the rescue. Instead of guilt or intellectual exhortations, she whipped up an experiential exercise. Each day one of us is taking the role of loving Caregiver. That person has on extra radar to read the rest of the family’s needs and find creative ways to serve. “I’ll go get the water”, “I’ll take the lumpy bed tonight”, “I’ll hand out the oranges and keep the smallest one for myself.”

In this way we are learning from and emulating our gracious Burmese hosts, who genuinely want to give and take care of us. They don’t do it from a place of servitude or caste, but from a place of love. They do it for each other – our taxi driver hit the brakes in the middle of a bridge to give money to a beggar – and especially for us since we are in much more of a place of need as strangers here.

By taking a step in their sandals, we are learning about Respect. The self-respect the Burmese people display when they give in such a healthy, loving way. And a healthy dose of respect for ourselves in this curious position of dependency we find ourselves in. We don’t speak the language, can’t read a menu or street signs, don’t recognize half the foods, have trouble buying a bus ticket, and can’t tell the difference between a restaurant, tea shop or bar.

So we still easily tell our driver to wait by the car for an hour while we go for ice cream, but it’s not ordering a servant. He’s the professional; we’re the ones who need him because we don’t know how to find places or cross 8 lanes of traffic, and would be terrified to drive these streets.

One day at a time, we integrate these learnings into our daily lives by caring for each other. And happily discover that we’re not so bad at it after all – we were already a family who watch out for each other and try to be good to others. We can hopefully come back from this brief exposure to the Burmese Buddhist culture with a bit more humility and greater awareness of how to lovingly serve others. To still want the softest bed, but maybe sometimes find a different comfort in giving that to another person who wants/needs it just as much or even more.

Dec 2, 2013

Myanmar after Midnight

Arriving in a new country after midnight is like watching children sleep - you learn some about their inner nature when the clutter of the day is stripped away. Myanmar at 2am is tranquil, clean and classic. The airport is empty and spacious, not the Ghanaian gauntlet of thousands of hands reaching to drag you to their taxi, nor the frantic hands reaching through cracks of Zaire glass hungry for mail. Just a deathly slow immigration officer hunting&pecking his way through your documents without once uttering a word. He takes your photo to remind you that this is still a military regime you're entering into, barely-active remnants of an all-too-recent time when your every move would be watched and recorded and suspected.

The taxi driver walks is a foot shorter than me and walks faster than me, polite but strong and not offering to take my bag. The old taped-together white Toyota with low busted seats is familiar, as is the lack of seatbelt, but his driving is not hurried, not honking, not weaving in and out even when there is an occasional other car on the road. This isn't the Egyptian nascar-wannabe terrifying my entry into Cairo; he's a hint of the active but collected, friendly but measured pace I expect will still be here by daylight tomorrow.

The road from the airport sports the usual brightly-lit car dealerships - the clientele who can afford to fly are the best target for selling new cars too. Big billboards advertise high-tech products, laundry soap and margarine. Skinny tall cement building each have a gate and a name, like an endless row of commercial city-states, each selling some product on the ground floor and housing multiple generations up above. Then out of nowhere the golden temple rises above all, shining gold with grandiose gates guarded by 100-foot-high lions in all 4 directions.

Unlike New York or Kinshasa, this is a city of 4 million people who do sleep. In a 40-minute drive I see only one roadside snack seller (ground nuts, bananas...), 2 long-legged & short-shorted sex trade workers, one group of young men sitting roadside with a guitar, and one homeless couple sprawled liberally in bright pink on the sidewalk corner. Not a single child the whole drive. Poverty most certainly is rampant in this city and country, but not along the cleaned-up streets that bring tourists and dignitaries past the golden temple and down to the hotel district.

At the hotel, no crowds of young men try to force the trunk open to "help" with the luggage. The night staff wake up quickly and cheerfully from the foyer couches and easily remember my reservation. The room is as clean and spacious as the website pictures, the AC noisy but functioning, the wireless internet works, and the streets are free from honking, fighting, laughing, trucking, in fact free from any noise. Only the king-size bed, covered only with a sheet, calls to me to enjoy a legs-stretched-out, horizontal, peaceful sleep after a 20-hour plane odyssey. I'm 13.5 time zones from home, but with just enough touches of the familiar to have a feel for what I'll wake up to - a welcoming, mature, steady and mysterious new place that will be my learning and sharing ground for the next 3 months.