Yangon: A ‘real’ paradox

A look down 28th St from the top of the Bo Gyoke market.

To the people who have asked me how I’m doing here, how I’m adjusting:

It’s 5 a.m., and I think I just woke up Ralph.

Ralph is the lizard who lives in my bathroom — he’s camera shy, so I haven’t gotten a picture yet — and I feel bad for rousing him with my noisy piss. Ralph, if you’re reading… sorry mate.

I decided to name the lizard because it’s harder to fear a thing you can name, harder to fear the known than the unknown. I did not want to be afraid of the lizard who spies on me when I shower, so I named him, and now Ralph is just part of the décor.

Chairs like these, fit for children, regularly feature grown men crouching over tea and newspapers.

To be honest, it was easier to name Ralph than it is to identify my emotions as I adjust to life in Yangon. I have yet to come up with a name for the feeling I get when I walk down Myaung Gyi Street, dodging feral street dogs and open sewage and those unbelievably tiny little plastic chairs that pass as restaurant seating. I cannot name the feeling that I am alien and foolishly underprepared and almost 9,000 miles from the pristine, paved streets of Franklin, Tennessee.

The dog situation here is dire. They are not dogs you want to pet. They are dogs you want to avoid at all costs.

I have adopted, in the immortal words of Lil Wayne, “my new dance move.” I just don’t know what to call it.

Maybe some would say I’m “lost,” but that carries the connotation that one has unintentionally ended up in a situation, that one is without purpose. I chose this city; I may be lost several times a day (seriously, every single street looks the same) but I am here for a reason. I signed up for this, and no matter how turned around I get, I know how to find my way home: an address I can’t read, written in Burmese on a card inside my wallet. I know that I am here to work for the Myanmar Times, and more importantly, “to promote good will and understanding” through Princeton in Asia. I don’t have hot water, but I definitely have purpose.

You might say I’m feeling a little “lonely,” too — even though I’m in a city of 5.21 million people, surrounded at every turn by monks and street vendors, I don’t speak their language. I can hardly communicate beyond “Mingalaba!” and “Je su tim ba deh!” The few who do speak English know only a few words or phrases: America; your name?; do you want ____?; Angelina Jolie?

This little guy openly laughed as I tried to slurp the noodles off my spoon. Tip: drink the soup first, THEN eat the noodles.

But this feeling is not loneliness either, for how could I be lonely in a land where everyone smiles at me? The boy who served me mohinga from a street cart, and the man who pointed me down 47th street for good photographs, and the woman who giggled when I knocked over a box at the Ruby Mart… these strangers validate my existence. We connect.

That’s my apartment balcony on the second floor. The building next to us plays loud chants over the speakers several times a day, but the black dog sleeps through it all. I saw him attack another dog this morning.

It’s a little past 6 a.m. now, and the sun has risen over my little street in my little corner of the world; the city is groaning into life again, and I still can’t find a precise English word for the feeling I get when I walk down Myaung Gyi Street. This struggle of language is fitting, for Burmese has no precise words for Western concepts such as “democracy” or “privacy.” It should be no surprise to discover my own tongue has no exact name for a feeling I have only ever felt in Burma.

The poet Pablo Neruda knew the feeling I am trying to talk about. He served as a Chilean consul here in the 1920s, and he wrote about this feeling in 1927:

“The street became my religion. The Burmese street, the Chinese quarter with its open-air theatres and paper dragons and splendid lanterns. The Hindu street, the humblest of them, with its temples operated as a business by one caste, and the poor people prostrate in the mud outside. Markets where the betel leaves rose up in green pyramids like mountains of malachite. The stalls and pens where they sold wild animals and birds. The winding streets where supple Burmese women walked with long cheroots in their mouths. All this engrossed me and drew me gradually under the spell of real life.”

“Real life” — that’s the phrase he settled on to describe the streets here, the paradoxical emotions they stir. It’s a phrase which encapsulates the excitement, but not without the accompanying anxiety; the joy, but not without it’s twin, profound sadness. It’s a phrase which encompasses the way Rickshaw boys play Clash of Clans on their mobile phones as they deliver water to the apartments down the street, and Buddhist temples use stereo speakers to blast ancient prayers out the doors. Real life — where it’s cheaper to buy a SIM card than it is to buy a box of Lucky Charms.

So: the next time someone asks me how I’m doing, I think I’ll just take a page out of Neruda’s book.

I’m engrossed, and feeling myself drawn gradually under the spell of “real life.”

I feel quite real — and very, very alive.

NOTES:

  • My apartment is half-lovely. The living room and bedrooms have beautiful hardwood floors and air conditioners. My bed is comfy and my pillow, soft. The other half — the bathrooms and kitchen — are not unlike camping. That’s all I will say on that, for now. The presence of Ralph should give you a clue.
  • It is remarkably cheap here. A taxi costs approximately 1000–2000 kyat ($1–2 USD), and I haven’t paid more than 3,000 kyat ($3) for a meal. Unsurprisingly, the most expensive things I’ve seen are obvious Western comforts — sunscreen, chocolate and the aforementioned Lucky Charms.
  • I start work today at the Myanmar Times. I think I have a week of training before I really get my feet wet…
  • …Which is not to say that my feet haven’t been wet every day. Monsoon season is no joke; every afternoon, the heavens open up and the umbrellas come out and the streets flood. It’s great!
  • Here are a few shots of life on the streets: