Everyone asks me why I’m here, why I’m learning Burmese, why I’m studying so hard. If I just say that a young couple on the train smiled at me and then brought me a boiled egg, does that explain? Or that after chatting in Burmaglish with my cab driver for a half an hour he insisted that I take home his dinner that he had in a bag next to him?
That’s not all — by far. There’s a Christian family moving to America in December, and I’m helping their daughters prep for the SAT essay. The father always calls me a blessing sent by God, and they serve me beautiful food until I’m in so full I have to go rest.
Last night I walked past the big mosque in search of new foods. I ended up eating a dhosa with a Muslim man who was concerned about my blood pressure because I have no wife. Then I had chapati and potato curry with Hindu boys, sitting at the entrance to a gutted building to be out of the rain.
My Burmese conversation partner brought me shirts made in her village. She got the biggest size, and they stretch across me tautly but fit just so. One is a lovely check; the other almost a bowling shirt with very heavy embroidering. The aesthetic is markedly alien, but I suspect it is very fancy. I have been invited to her village and will go when my Burmese is better. It is the hottest place in Myanmar — hell’s very hubs — but the shirts are proof against the heat, I am told.
Walking down the street, i get thumbs up and hoots of approval from men of all ages. They love my longyis. Women smile covertly, so I speak to them and make them blush. I stop to get a kon-ya (betel nut wrapped with aromatics in a leaf, what the Hindus call paan), and, again, the vendor won’t charge me. He probably makes $3/day.
The tea vendor near the train station won’t charge me either. I sit and chat with the monks and the old men, sweating through all of my clothes. I keep trying, but he won’t take my money. I’m going to bring back chocolate for him and his family.
There are boatmen on the river in little skiffs that will take me and my bike to the other side. On the way, we’ll dodge barges and loaded container-tankers, 100-feet high. There are villages past the far shore and industrial complexes amid the palm trees. None of it makes it onto the big map of the city, nor, of course, is it mentioned in the guide books. It will be another world.
And next year, assuming I can converse with some amount of ease, I will go far afield. Leave behind all English, all hotels, all maps. Leave electricity, running water, meat. Abandon any hope of a bed, a spoon, or any sense of aptitude. Forget familiarity.
To have and have not — the life you’ve known and its teeming opposite, each putting the other in starkest relief — it’s a recipe for gratitude. Why would I not learn Burmese?