Feb 3, 2014

Myanmar Welcome Wagon

On day 6 of living in this small Myanmar town, word got out that we are friendly or we’d passed some kind of test. And around here, that means Presents (one of the most commonly known English words in this country, which says a lot about the people).

It started innocently enough. A quick walk to check emails at the office in the relative cool of the morning. As I reached the “tea shop” next door, two office workers called me over and made me sit down for tea and some fresh fried bean buns. The young waiter with light brown “thanaka” paint on his cheeks smiled as I ate their local food, and looked just as surprised when it was my co-worker, not me, who pulled out the cash to pay. All I could give was a heartfelt “chezu ten bedai” (thank you) – a phrase I’d be repeating all day long.

The young waiter looked equally surprised when I showed up again for lunch, this time my co-worker John Bo insisting on treating since I’d failed to figure out the new pink rice cooker at home. At the same time, Sarah and the boys were wandering the market with an English-studies university student who is volunteering to teach us English, receiving free samples of sweets, digestive crumble and fruits that even our tutor could not translate.

Our zero-English house “helper” got into the action by inviting us to go play some games with the local kids. It started out to be a winding back-alley tour to the outdoor pool hall, where we gathered several “youth” (ages 18-30 – they grossly overestimate the age of my grossly-oversized boys) to walk over to the chinone field (a cross between volleyball and soccer). They were all there to oblige us, but in broken language we managed to agree to play later when it wasn’t 100 degrees.

At 4:00 some 14-year-old twins arrived at our house (not sure who arranged that) to take us to the soccer stadium, with several motorbikes and bikes and a dozen kids joining the parade. The energetic “football” game ended up with over 20 players and twice as many spectators. When we got tired, our volunteer Engligh tutor rode back to our house to fetch cold water for us.

Then at just the right angle of sun, they threw us back on motorbikes to return to the chinlone field, where atleast 50 people had gathered in anticipation of 3 white folk looking foolish at a sport we’re just learning. But it was fun for all, and we took turns playing or watching their highly-skilled game. Some woman handed a chocolate-icecream bar to Z, squeezing his cheek and saying “Beautiful baby” (he endures that alot, but not usually with the ice cream). Someone else brought a bottle of cold drinking water. As we announced finally that it was time to go, we were told we couldn’t because they were getting more food for us (3 more ice cream bars).

On the parade home, we stopped at one chinlone player’s house to see his chicken-egg operation, which of course resulted in the present of a dozen eggs, 5 ears of corn, and invitation to a future dinner. We said goodbye and Chezu Ten Badai to everyone at home, only to find another family waiting inside (for how long I don’t know). These folk live across the street and brought their 9- and 6-year-old children to play, which our boys joyfully accepted – it’s been tough always being paired with older kids. We visited with the parents for the customary half-hour, during which time they managed to gift us with some candy, a bottle of milk and a brand new “longi” (traditional skirt - see photo of mine) for Sarah.

We escaped upstairs for 10 minute when John Bo announced “your next guests.” Six of the lovely football boys /had come back for a visit, bringing this time two bags of street-food snacks – “Djo” (deepfried cucumber/chickpea/potato) and banana leaves with some sticky rice mystery stuff on it. We countered with grapes and tea for them, brought out the guitar and cameras, and had a good visit.

Miraculously we managed to squeeze in a 15-minute meal before the neighbour family returned with their niece, also an English-studies student who wanted to try speaking to foreigners for the first time ever. Exhausted but also impressed with her determination, we tried valliantly to keep a conversation going with this young woman whom Z later described as “dreary – I hope her visits are sparse.”

Oh, at some time in there the credit union manager brought over photos – in print and electronic form – that he had taken from my visit there a few days earlier. And there’s probably more that I’ve forgotten.

We struggle to remain open to receiving, not knowing how or what to give back. Or maybe being open is the best way to give back. It’s extremely rare, if ever, that a foreign family with children has lived here, tried a bit to learn the language, shop at the market, make friends, wear longi skirts, etc. They’ve seen us demonstrate that we want to be part of their world, if only for a short while, and this barrage of gifts and visits is their loving way of saying “Welcome.”


PS – I’m writing this in the office, where it’s taken 70 minutes to download 48 of 51 email messages. Even though it’s a hot hot Sunday afternoon, John Bo (left in photo, right is his dad who also lives with us, and the lady is my other coworker Thein Thein)insists on staying with me until I’m done. “You will be lonely and bored” he says. So many ways to give and receive care...

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