Oh my beloved tea salad,
for which I pen this poetaster’s paean,
had I ne’er tasted your myriad charms,
this trip might’ve proved European…
Five shockingly short years ago, at the tail end of a 6-week stint in Southeast Asia, I happened to touch down in Yangon, erstwhile Rangoon, then capital of Myanmar, erstwhile Burma. I hadn’t had time to do much research, and I didn’t know what to expect. I knew that in 1988 there had been an election, but then the military had stepped in and said nah and took over themselves. I knew they changed the name of the country and capital (and ultimately built a new city in the jungle and moved the seat of power there). I knew their borders had been closed to tourists until soon before, that most of the country was strictly off-limits (and still is), that you were required to exchange a certain amount of money per day, and that most of that money went to the military, thus putting Myanmar on most people’s Scheiss list.
But there I was — and wow how it proved to be awesome. As I recount earlier on this blog (thanks, Squarespace for such easy navigation...), I happened to meet a Burmese guy who ran a English-language school, volunteered to speak to his students — mostly monks — and found the people (and later the food) utterly irresistible. i resolved that the next time I could take a trip, I’d come back and spend significant time.
In my travels I had already found that the easiest way to get local people to trust you was to sit down and eat street food (or drink homemade liquor with them or smoke really skanky tobacco…), but nowhere did my approach have more impact than here, and nowhere did learning 20 words of the language create more happiness.
And the best was “luh-peh tho’” (tea salad). I had had it in NY — and loved it — and one of the monks told me how to say the name, so I would stop every time I saw it on the street, then sit in a kindergarten-sized plastic chair and wolf it down (while drinking 6-12 cups of hot tea in the 90-degree heat).
Those were the most precious hours; the interactions with the vendors, their families, the passersby, the other patrons were all so joyful and comedic. There was still very little tourism at that point, so I was quite an oddity anyway, but plunked down on the sidewalk, smiling, saying “luh-peh tho’” and giving the thumbs up as people walked by me, I might as well have been a giant clown juggling tilapia. But I also believe (and of course I might be imagining) that the people felt that I was showing marked appreciation of their country — an appreciation they weren’t getting from pretty much anywhere in the world at that time. I’ve since been told how cut off Burmese people felt from the rest of the world, how isolated. So eating a uniquely Burmese dish in full view was probably as good a thing as a non-speaker could possibly do.
And so I’m back, and I eat luh-peh tho’ almost every day. Now I know how to pronounce it properly, how to say “I’m American, but, yes, I love Burmese food and people. Tea salad is my favorite! I was here five years ago and wanted to come back, and I’m so happy now that I’m here,” and it clearly has an impact. But as delightful as it is now, it still pales a little compared to how it was then.
At that point, I think it was critical. And somehow in my standard bumbling fashion, I had lucked into the easiest and most delicious way to say “I adore you” to a people that hadn’t been hearing that anywhere near enough.