A Block Party in Burma

Drawn by a squalling loudspeaker, scurrying children, and the colorful array of suspended lights parading down the alleyway, we peered into the narrow Yangon street.

“Does that mean he’s giving a speech?” Michael pointed to the life-size poster plastered on a metal stand featuring a bespectacled, robed monk. Our tour guide had explained this to us earlier in the day.

“Maybe it’s happening tonight,” I said, intrigued. “Let’s go check it out.”

When my husband suggested we travel to Myanmar, I had asked him, “Why?” Intrigued by their embrace of Buddhist beliefs, the plentitude of stunning pagodas, and a society Herbert Hoover had once described as “the only genuinely happy people in all of Asia,” Michael had wanted to see a place that was still unspoiled. Hearing this, and comprehending that Myanmar was emerging from decades of isolation, I was hooked.

Deposited from a taxi in Yangon’s Chinatown at the corner of Mahabandoola Road and Phone Gyee Street, we inched our way through the busy open-air food market that spilled off the sidewalk and onto the road. The sun had just set. It was six o’clock on a Monday eve, late December 2015.

Mounds of leafy bok choi, bumpy loofah, or bulbous dragonfruit were stacked in stray trays hemmed with red string. Pans of fried chicken, rice or egg noodles, and pre-skewered pork, chicken and shrimp heaped next to ready barbecues, tempting our choices for dinner. Passing too close to a wok of bubbling oil, fears of accidentally scalding my arm began to invade my brain. But when the next stall featured a sizzling griddle with browned pancakes sprinkled with kernels of corn, I leaned over the blistering heat to take a good look. Swallowing the just fried, tiny quail eggs cooked sunny-side-up, I was even glad to burn the tip of my tongue.

A quick-fingered vendor spread lime paste and chopped areca nuts onto a betel nut leaf before folding it into a parcel for chewing. Nearby, overlapping betel nut leaves lined a woven basket — a green shingled whirlpool of addiction. Slicing a cooked vegetable that looked like a round pink log into stringy, foot-long strands, a woman prepared bamboo shoot. Inhaling the smells scenting the evening air: pungent lilies, an odor of bad propane, fresh Asian basil, and the whiff of tasty cooking, I had to pinch myself, delighted that we were finally here.

But what piqued our curiosity most was the red and gold arch spanning the entrance to 18th Street, the inviting pink, green and white fluorescent lights, the placard announcing a spiritual leader’s appearance, and the promise of something celebratory that appeared to be happening in the darkness ahead.

As Michael and I advanced deeper into the lane, sounds from the well-lit avenue: rumbling buses, tooting cars, cell phone chatter, and vendors hawking their wares, dwindled into a hush. Vehicles on this street had been completely barred. We heard the gentle pattering of slippered feet and the buzzing of bulbs viewed through open storefronts illuminating the dingy interiors where people worked and lived. A pair of women compressed cardboard boxes. Visible next door, a rice cooker, electric griddle, faucet and sink sufficed as one dwelling’s kitchen. Out on the street, two men stood by a metal gong. One held a wooden mallet. Seated around a folding table, a group of men in ribbed sleeveless Ts bantered as they organized raffle tickets next to a display of plastic-wrapped Buddhas.

Growing up as a Chinese-American in New York City, I was brought up with only the vaguest understanding of Confucian and Mahayana Buddhist values. My parents never took me to worship at temples; the only custom we adhered to each year was when we visited my grandparents’ gravesite in Maspeth, Queens. Lighting joss sticks and thick, waxy red candles, we laid out roast pork and burnt fake paper money to feed their spirits in heaven. Not having met my grandparents, I felt no closer to them by doing this rite. This respectful tradition had sentiment, yes. But I never felt relieved, or lifted up, or transformed in any way by my actions.

Here in this deeply pious land where so many were venerated as lifelong nuns or monks, the Burmese practiced an older Theravada Buddhism. This belief had sustained them for two thousand years, through invasions by the Mongols, occupation by the British, and most recently, the military dictatorship of General Ne Win that had cut off Myanmar from all contact with the West.

Remembering this, I longed to reach through the plastic to rub a Buddha’s belly or pat his head, simply for good luck.

“It’s like we stumbled onto a church fair,” I said. Michael nodded back.

A clumsy pile of woven mats sat to the side, unused. Further on, we saw more mats already unfurled. Laid edge to edge, from curb to curb, the floor cover extended hundreds of yards into the distance. Spotting the pairs of abandoned sandals, Michael and I recognized what to do next; we began to take off our own. As in any Buddhist temple in Myanmar, we proceeded barefoot. The entire street had been converted into a holy place.

I felt the hard ground beneath my bare soles. I was connecting to all of this.

We passed idle speakers and still projection screens staged every twenty yards apart. A dozen girls no older than ten crouched over pans of individually baked cakes and nimbly placed them in cellophane bags. Organizers busied themselves spacing a row of electric lanterns, glowing globes the size of small basketballs, on either side of a worn green carpet that unrolled down the center of the lane. All around us, people stopped to chit-chat: families, neighbors or friendly strangers. Men wore trousers or cotton longyis, the traditional Burmese skirt knotted at the waist. Women donned prettily patterned, tailored blouses with matching long skirts. The elderly settled in squeaky plastic chairs. Making eye contact with one older man, I said, “Ming-ga-la ba,” in greeting.

Finally, we reached a large stage and backdrop. Hollering attendants moved power lines and equipment. We couldn’t tell how many minutes or hours away the show was meant to go on. Glancing at the Colonial-era tenements on either side, I saw flimsy wood shutters and weeds sprouting through brick or from cracks in the spalling cement. Cables and wiring snaked up the facades like bloom-less bougainvillea. A curious resident, I couldn’t tell how old he or she was, glimpsed through the metal grilles of an upper story window to gaze on the proceedings below. Briefly, I thought of our tour guide, Myo, an affable man in his early thirties with a thick head of hair. He had been dressed in a modest longyi and a cleanly pressed, long-sleeved white shirt.

Myo had told us about receiving a Bachelors of Science in Chemistry from the University in Yangon a decade ago. Unfortunately, there were no research labs or pharmaceutical companies in this poverty-stricken country formerly known as Burma. Frozen in economic amber since General Ne Win’s rise in 1962, and host to a succession of student and monk-led protests violently suppressed in 1988 and 2007, the Republic of the Union of Myanmar offered scant opportunities for Burmese who received a higher education. Growing up in a modest community such as this, on 18th Street, anyone with talent likely emigrated to find employment, as Myo did. He moved to Dubai to work for an airline.

Following the 2010 Myanmar general elections, the military junta in charge succumbed to global sanctions, internal pressure, and the unstoppable tide of reform espoused by the winning party, the National League for Democracy led by the Nobel Prize winning activist, Aung San Suu Kyi. A nominally elected civilian government was introduced. In 2011, Suu Kyi was released from house arrest. On November 8, 2015, another general election was held. The NLD once again won a landslide victory.

Myo had proudly showed us his pinky nail. On it was a small crescent of ink, the mark of his vote.

“The Lady said she did not want revenge,” Myo had told us, addressing Suu Kyi by her popular name. “She said to the generals, ‘I forgive you. We must forget the past and work together to re-build our country.’ Did you know the leader of our government calls Suu Kyi the name A May Suu or Mother Suu? Very respectful.” I presumed he was referring to the formerly military commander, President Thein Sein.

Something giggling brushed past my legs, a small boy less than two years old. Tottering from one lantern onto the next, he hugged them like a miniature rugby player who discovers his ball is as big as his chest. Wordlessly, I glanced at Michael. He glanced back with a twinkle in his eye. We followed the toddler back up the lane, mesmerized by his hollers, his unbridled glee and his Pied Piper way of threading his mother, auntie, brother and us, in and around the floor standing lights. Bouncy music blared from the speakers. Not-quite-Bollywood, not sung in English, this infectious tune soon had parents bouncing infants off of their hips. Children danced or zig-zagged across the mats. Breathless, they stopped in hairpin turns and ducked and dodged to slip their pursuers. A few of them laid down oblivious to passersby to somersault and roll around.

Listening to their whoops of delight, my head began dipping to the peppy beat. An odd sensation, warm and pleasant, swelled me up inside. Standing here in this block party in Burma, I felt so lucky, so incredibly privileged to witness such unsullied joy. I looked all around to catch all the smiles from people both young and old. My own lips stretched wide helplessly. I did not want this moment to end.

As we retreated toward the start of the lane, we passed the old man I had seen earlier. He motioned to me from where he sat with his two elderly friends.

“Michael,” I whispered. “I think he wants us to join him.”

“It would be rude not to,” my husband agreed. We strolled over hesitantly.

One of the man’s companions jumped up in order to grab more chairs. Sitting down, we knocked our knees against the low table. On it was a teapot, cups and a platter of cake. I recognized the yellow sponge cake from childhood; my mother would pour the batter into a pan then steam it in a covered wok. The companion returned with two empty cups. The third man poured us some tea. Our host with the crinkling eyes extended the platter. Daintily, we bit into our cake. Michael and I raised our cups in thanks, but beyond the awkward, well-meaning smiles, nobody said a word.

I took out my iPhone to show them an image of our two teenage girls, Sophie and Chloe (who passed up our excursion, preferring to remain and lounge back at our hotel.) Squinting at the screen and then at me, the third man began to speak. His language mimicked the sing-song Burmese we had heard, but introduced words that sounded familiar. Pointing to me, he said something I knew.­­­­­­ Zhong-guo. China.

“Yes,” I replied. “Wo shi mei-guo, zhong-guo ren.” I am an American Chinese.

Delighted, the man rambled on, but I couldn’t understand any more that he said. Though they had asked us to join their street fair, I couldn’t help feeling intrusive. Part of me wanted to get up and flee. Another part wanted time to stand still, to savor this special connection made halfway around the world from where I was born. Instead, time dissolved like tamarind flakes, the thin flat discs of flattened fruit mixed with sugar that melted in one’s mouth like a communion wafer. Earlier in the day, when Michael was bargaining with someone in an antique shop, an assistant had offered these flakes to our children. This was yet another coincidence. I had last eaten these treats as a kid and had never known their name in English.

By journeying all the way to Myanmar, part of me had found home.

“Michael, do you have a piece of paper on you? Anything?” I asked.

My husband rummaged inside his bag and pulled out an old New Yorker. Ripping the endpaper out carefully, the page with the caption-less cartoon which readers were invited to annotate, I folded a corner against the opposite edge. Having made a square, I folded and tore off the excess rectangle. I was trying to craft an origami bird to give our host as a gift. After a few fumbling folds, I laughed aloud in dismay.

“Brain freeze,” I said, chagrinned. “I completely forgot the next step.”

Retreating to my other fallback creation, I used the rectangle to make a handle and fashioned an origami basket. Presenting this, I said, “Kyei zu ba,” or “Thank you.”

Our host turned my gift over between his gnarled fingers. His friends leaned over in puzzled amazement. All three looked at me and grinned.

Michael and I stood up to leave. We shook hands all around. Walking slowly toward the start of the lane, we paused to slip on our shoes. The man with the mallet started banging the gong. We arrived where we had begun. Exiting, I gazed at the poster wistfully. The monk still hadn’t arrived. No matter what awaited the residents of 18th Street tomorrow, tonight they were celebrating. Briefly, we had been invited to be a part of their community.

The next afternoon just before sunset, after the heat had dropped and the humidity had subsided, Myo escorted my family and I through the entrance of the Shwedagon Pagoda. What struck me was how enormous this place was. The grounds were as large as four of New York City’s Union Square, or of London’s Trafalgar Square, combined. In the center, climbing 326 feet in the air was a great golden stupe, a solid structure of concentric rising bands that resembled an upturned bowl. Topping this was a slender tower called a banana bud. An ornate, belled umbrella crowned the whole, with a jeweled weather vane at the top.

In the year 588 BC, two merchants traveling from southern Burma encountered the Gautama Buddha who had recently attained Enlightenment. They offered him their food as alms. In return, the Buddha plucked eight strands from his head and granted this as a blessing. Upon their return, King Okkalapa erected a shrine to incorporate the Buddha’s hairs along with relics of the three other Buddhas who had come before: a nether-robe of the Kassapa Buddha, the water filter of the Kawnagamana Buddha and the staff of the Kakusanda Buddha. Shwedagon means The Reliquary of the Four.

Surrounding the Shwedagon’s base was a series of Buddhas, one for each day of the week (or occasionally two, split into ‘morning’ and ‘afternoon’) accompanied by an animal statue. Devotees approached the shrine of the day of their birth to pour water onto the head of the Buddha, then onto their animal. Michael, Sophie and Chloe surrounded our tour guide, craning over Myo’s shoulder to check out his app which corroborated what day of the week they were born. Michael and Chloe were Tuesday babes. Sophie was a Thursday child. Approaching the two different options for Wednesday, having no idea when I was actually born, I tossed an internal coin and selected the morning shrine. Performing this observance for the very first time, I was unsure what to feel. So much religion revolved protocol. There were dos and don’ts. There was heaven or hell. There were all-mighty, omniscient gods whose edicts over the centuries were inflexibly and tragically followed.

In accepting a ritual I knew nothing about, I emptied myself of all expectation, or recrimination, to focus on this one simple act. I poured a cup of water over the Buddha’s head then over my animal’s, an elephant, as children are baptized the world over.

I was celebrating the day of my birth.

During the September 2007 protests known as the Saffron Revolution, armored tanks encircled the Schwedagon Pagoda, the assembly place for monks who convened to lead the demonstrations. On the same ground where I stood in bare feet, the black marble tiles still radiating heat while the white tiles already were cool, civilians surrounded the monks to guard them as a human shield. During the bloody reprisals that followed throughout all of Myanmar, protesters were arrested or shot. Monks in the Ngwe Kyar Yan monastery in northwest Yangon were reputedly disrobed and their bare heads smashed against the brick wall. A high-ranking colonel attempted to defect to Norway, aghast that the military junta had commanded him to raid two monasteries, kill the monks, and dump their bodies in the jungle.

The transition of power from the current government to the National League for Democracy was scheduled for early 2016. However positive Myo’s outlook was for life in Myanmar to improve, I suspected reality would be time-consuming and messy. Nonetheless, I believed the Burmese would succeed. For two and a half millennia, the faithful have come to worship here at the Shwedagon Pagoda. Their continuing faith in Buddha has helped them persevere.

Having doused my Buddha and sacred animal, I stepped away from the Wednesday morning shrine to gaze at the milling throng. There was a full moon tonight; thousands had arrived to celebrate. Supplicants set flowers upon their birthday shrines, lit joss sticks to place in sand-filled urns, or sat on the plaza — their knees bent back or cross-legged so as not to point their feet at the Buddha — and bowed their heads in prayer. Visitors wandered throughout the many pavilions housing more Buddhas that dotted the grounds. Even those who did not come here to pray looked around in awe, as if they could not believe that so many people could gather together in peace. Tourists took snapshots. Young children ran freely about. They always did.

“Are you okay?” my husband asked. “You seem pretty relaxed.”

“I’m fine,” I replied. “I’ve never felt better in my life.”

Back home, I was usually ridden with anxiety. Concealed beneath my outwardly competent demeanor were constant tremors of second-guessing and ever shifting sands of confidence. Here I was, without a pocketbook or an electronic device. Honestly, I felt cleansed. I held only a taper, invited by Myo to light the candles encircling the Shwedagon’s base. I was reminded of something someone had said, “People are always too busy doing. We are human beings. We should spend our time being.”

I stared at the flickering flame in my hand.

It sparked of promise yet to unfold.

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