This is Burma

I’m nestled on a bench in the back of a truck between a young woman, her face swirled with golden thanaka, and an old man, his sarong-like longyi knotted at the waist, woven rice hat on his wrinkled brown head. Our conductor hangs off the back of the truck, his longyi, too, whipping in the draft, shouting at pedestrians, suggesting they might want to get on his truck, with an urgency typically reserved for wartime and natural disasters. Someone signals something, and the truck jolts to a halt; everyone falls on everyone else, and then springs back upright. Four teenage boys clamber to the roof of the truck, followed by two sacks of rice and a bicycle, and we lurch back into motion. Here in Burma, where cars drive and drivers sit on the right side, we make a daring swerve around a stopped truck overflowing with pineapples, and driver thankfully finds no oncoming traffic save a few motorbikes and an old woman with a basket on her head who obligingly dodge us, and we’re speeding onward.

Twante (Twantay? Thwan Te?) is a small town a few hours from Yangon notable primarily for a substantial pagoda that may or may not have three hairs from the Buddha’s own scalp buried deep within. We pulled into the town square, and I stumbled down the road toward the pagoda’s golden spire, jutting above the soot-gray cement-block buildings in the town center. The people of Twante looked on with perplexed amusement, and I smiled ingenuously back. I did not get far.

Kyaw Soe is a driver (motorbike) and tour guide (specializing in rare white people) in Twante. He is a devout Buddhist, taking every shrine and temple as an opportunity to explain that ‘my Buddha is very powerful.’ He takes a keen interest, also, in the miracles of ‘your Yesu’, who, he generously notes, is also very powerful. Twante, he explains, has Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims and Christians, but no fighting. He is justifiably proud. Kyaw Soe is small, but claims to be able to swim across the Twante canal and back again without taking a break. His friendly smile has one black tooth, and the rest are stained red from his occasional habit of chewing betel.

He took me around Twante on the back of his motorbike, showing me where the town’s potters crafted and fired their work, and taking me to a cotton-weaving house, where three adolescent girls sat at looms in a small nipa hut, their hands and feet pulling strings and levers on the bamboo contraptions in practiced rhythm, weaving shoulder bags to be sold in Yangon. The bags are strikingly beautiful, in bold colors, with designs drawn from the crafts of Burma’s ethnic minorities. They can each make four bags in one long, hot day.

Kyaw Soe has a wife and two children, and also supports his in-laws—both his parents died a few years ago, in their 40s. His father died from drinking too much whiskey. His mother died from walking to the fish market every day for 40 years, which, Kyaw Soe illustrates via gesticulation, caused her insides to fall apart. They are buried together in the town cemetery. Kyaw Soe is unsure if they gave enough money to the monastery to ensure a trip to the sky.

We went to the market, where Kyaw Soe seemed to be very popular among the fish ladies, who ribbed him and cackled at his jokes as they lopped off fish heads with machetes. One expansive woman, squatting behind piles of uncomfortable live ducks tied up at the feet, her midsection spilling out over the top of her loosely wrapped longyi, suggested to Kyaw Soe that he give me to her for the afternoon. I am not exactly sure what she wanted to do with me, but I’m glad I wasn’t turned over.

Kyaw Soe had no idea that America was on the other side of the earth from Burma, and was flabbergasted to learn that it was nighttime in New York when it was daytime in Yangon. He demonstrated that he can say ‘thank you’ in English, French, Spanish, Italian and German, and then asked how we say it in America. He thought it odd but fortunate for us both that we Americans choose to speak English. He asked whether America was near Italy and sought to confirm that New Zealand and Switzerland were neighbors. He is also a die-hard Manchester United fan, adores Wayne Rooney, and thinks David Beckham is a prettyboy. Premier League football: the common human experience, if there is one. (N.B.: Among the European football jerseys I saw walking around Burma, Arsenal kits easily outnumbered all others combined. We’ve got a beachhead, boys.)

We went on to the docks, where the morning catch had already been brought in (and had their heads chopped off). Workers sprawled idly in the humidity, waiting for the afternoon boats and the break in the heat the day’s rains would bring. An ancient woman in a low bamboo hat smoked a green cheroot and cooked noodles over a coal fire, hurling threats and insults at the kids horsing around on the dock. Inside the fish house, a serious, mustachioed man sat counting money, piles of cash burying his desk. On the next dock, shirtless boys played soccer, the goal two wooden posts at the end of the pier. An errant shot—or a goal—meant a leap into the Twante canal, which connects the Yangon River to the Irrawaddy River, and is part of the network of waterways that reticulate Burma’s delta region.

The whole delta region was, until last year, quite closed to foreigners, and Twante would have been a tricky place for someone of my complexion to visit. The Burmese government had hoped to hide from foreign eyes the devastation and destruction left behind by Cyclone Nargis in 2008, but evidently redevelopment has progressed enough to reopen. This was just the last in a series of suspect policies following the cyclone. The first and most devastating was the junta’s initial refusal to accept any international assistance, which was followed by grotesque incompetence in the government’s own response. As a result of this proud posturing, about 140,000 people died before the junta decided they had better stop counting.

Devastated by the plight of their countrymen, many Burmese from Yangon and elsewhere rushed to the delta region to help in any way they could. But the government took affront to this, as well, and threw many of these would-be volunteers into prison. This fiasco came less than a year after the 2007 uprising, in which high gas prices led to popular discontent, which led to angry protests, which led to a crackdown wherein Buddhist monks in their saffron robes were shot in the street by scared teenagers in military uniforms under orders from their general and president. I met university students who were detained for aiding the victims of Nargis, and then convicted of participating in the uprising. They spent over three years in Insein Prison along with the bloggers, journalists and political leaders who had organized and publicized the Saffron Revolution; they were just recently released, and can now continue their studies, though hundreds of political prisoners remain locked up.

Kyaw Soe and I got on famously, and at the end of his standard tour, he offered to take me to a temple where, as I understood from his description, the Buddhists had been using the same latrine for 1,000 years. We rolled out of town, his motorbike coughing and hiccupping, and rolled past fish farms with rainbow netting and verdant rice paddies. After a brief stop to review the husbandry practices of Burmese fish farmers (evidently, to ensure production of sufficient eggs, the farmers net together one female fish with two males; Kyaw Soe gave a lurid laugh at what must be going on in the muddy water), we pulled into the walled garden of a rural monastery.

He led me up into an ancient teak building sitting on stilts beside the canal, and introduced me to an aged monk who sat shooting jets of crimson betel juice into a spittoon. At the front of the vast room were walls of glass, and behind that wall was a small glass case surrounded by plastic flowers and colorful blinking lights. Inside the case were two bronze Buddhas, no more than a foot tall, beautiful and roughly worn. My confusion was revealed: when digging a new latrine for the monastery, the monks had driven their shovels into these two Buddhas, which turned out to be over 1,000 years old. After admiring the Buddhas and sitting for a spell with the monk, I was escorted outside to take a look in the pit where the Buddhas had been found, preserved as a hole in the ground for years.

The afternoon grew dark, and a cool wind signaled the impending daily storm. Kyaw Soe offered to spare me a return trip in the tin can truck, and drove me back to Dala, where I could catch my ferry to Yangon. As we drove, the skies opened up, immense raindrops smacking us in the face. We swerved through a herd of buffaloes crossing the street, and dodged the jets of betel juice emitting from the windows of passing buses. When we arrived, soaked and dripping, Kyaw Soe suggested we dry off in the roadhouse and have a beer. So we sat, rain pounding the tin roof.
As we sat, I showed Kyaw Soe my driver’s license, which he interpreted as a sort of union card, and was thrilled that he and I shared the same profession. He eagerly asked how much money a driver like me earned in an average day, and then subtracted out my estimates of necessary living expenses in Washington Township: 30 dollars per day for a house, 20 dollars per day for food, and figured that I probably profited more than the four dollars he might bank on a good day. Then he asked how much money Wayne Rooney makes per day, and resolutely disbelieved my estimate. Then he asked how many townships America has. We went on and on.

We sat for hours, drinking Mandalay beer, snacking on fried prawns and peanuts. The Olympics came on—it was morning in London—and the whole bar turned to watch, in live HD, the first heats of the two-man rowing competition. The bar hooted at the failings of the Americans, rooted tepidly for the Chinese (not out of any particular fondness for Burma’s sometimes imperial patron to the north, but more out of Asian solidarity), and watched with indifference as brawny European men won race after race. Eventually, I bid Kyaw Soe farewell (and paid him for his services), and boarded the ferry back to Yangon, where a freshly tidied room waited for me with clean sheets on a king-sized bed.

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Rising Sun

From the window of my hotel room I can look down on a baseball diamond, glowing under the lights at night. I think I’m the only spectator, and I think they might be 12 years old. Their game just ended, and the two teams lined up at the center of the field– not to shake hands, as it turned out; instead, the two lines faced each other, and, in unison, bowed deeply. Then both sides posed together for a photo on the pitcher’s mound, and now they’re combing the infield with rakes like a sand garden.

I’m in Japan to help a group of civil society leaders from Southeast Asia engage at the Asia Pacific Regional Internet Governance Forum (APrIGF, if you happen to have an interest in bad acronyms), and the proceedings, covering such issues as the transition to IPv6 and the recent sale of new gTLDs are likely of as little interest to you, dear reader, as they are to some of my compatriots. (Excepting, of course, my own contribution… flatteringly mislabeled at around 27:30 and 1:25:00.)

The group, however, is an interesting one. Take my new Cambodian friend, Nana, who introduces herself as the accountant and assistant at a foundation in Phnom Penh, only later mentioning that she actually has two other part time jobs. And is a grad student in the evening. And that she writes short books to help poor people learn English, but noticed that shops marked up her prices by 150%, so opened her own shop to sell the books, subsidizing the rent by also selling shoes and handbags. And that at night, she hosts a call-in radio program that reaches… a million people, seeking her advice. Also she’s 25. I’ll eat my hat if she’s not president in 15 years.

I’ve hardly had a moment to see the city, but I have had the distinct pleasure of eating three meals each day, and the gastronomic tourism has been worth the trip in itself: raw fish, broiled fish, pickled vegetables, fried squid… At the conference, they give us lunch tickets, and we’re supposed to check off which of the half-dozen options we’d prefer. Confusion reigns, however, because “Pasta with Meat Sauce” was mistranslated as “Octopus with Meat Sauce,” “Eggplant” was confused with “Beef,” and the vegetarian option was somehow labelled “Stir-Fried Liver and Vegetables.” All pretty tasty, though, for the unpicky eater.

Saturday evening, I hopped off the Tokyo subway at an arbitrary stop, the better to know the Japanese people. Fast walkers. Obedient at crosswalks. Ineffably polite. I grew peckish and sought refreshment: “Bubble Bar, 8th Floor” read the sign outside one building. Everything in Tokyo is stacked at least five high.

I took the elevator and stepped out into a wood-paneled room, whiskey bottles lining the wall, a row of middle-aged Japanese, mostly men, at the bar, and others clustered in counsel around tables. As I emerged, the room, as though drawing on cliché, fell instantly, totally silent, and twenty blank faces turned my direction. Someone coughed, I grinned weakly, and a young woman scurried over from behind the bar. She bowed briskly, and posed a smiling question in Japanese. I continued grinning weakly. “Beer?”

“First time?” She asked, taking the hint, and I nodded. She began chattering with the patrons, pointing directorially, and they shuffled themselves to make a seat for me at the end of the bar. I sat, looked down the line, and ten heads, craning around each other, looked back, expressions now ranging from confusion, to disgust, to flabbergasted pleasure. I gave my toothiest “I’m just a big stupid white guy trying not to offend anyone” smile, and about half of them returned it. Generous, I’d say.

Miwa, my colleague and Japanese interlocutor, later explained that I had wandered into a sort of Japanese speakeasy: a place where the same group likely gathered, night after night, year after year. “First time?” was probably not an honest question. As I sat, the Bubble Bar proprietor sauntered over, dishrag on his shoulder, and explained “his system,” which included an extravagant cover charge. Not wanting to create further disturbance, I meekly handed over 25 bucks for my miserable Suntory Lager.

As I sipped, a stocky, middle aged man, his sunken eyes darkly circled, racoonlike, stood, and began reading from a document. Every few sentences, the crowd would cheer and applaud, and he would place a medal around someone’s neck. And it was a gallery of rogues: One man, his face puffy and droopy, eyes invisible, with a bouffant of thinning dyed red hair on his head. Another with the face of Kim Jong Il and the staccato laugh of Porky the Pig. Ultimately, the sunken-eyed man appeared to award the grand prize to himself. I was mercifully ignored, and made my escape as discreetly as possible, though I was noticed by one woman who, her face beaming with excited delight, waved frantically as I stepped back into the elevator.


Looking down at my ballfield, the outfield lights are off now, and with his shadow long behind second base, a lone ballplayer is still circling the infield, straw broom in hand, meticulously sweeping dirt off the outfield grass, back to where it belongs.

For God and Country: Notes on Filipino Nationalism

Despite my apparent popularity as I walk any street on the isle of Cebu– “hello!” “good morning!” “how are you!”– the white man a has a checkered history in this part of the world. Magellan was the first to arrive in 1521; he was promptly beheaded by Chief Lapu-Lapu, and his crew excused themselves in short order. The next Spaniards arrived some decades later, and had what must have been the surprise of their lives when the native Cebuanos whipped out a figurine of the Santo Niño that Magellan’s crew had left behind in their haste.

Taking it as a sign, apparently, the Spaniards set about their missionary business with diligence, and had a terrific run over the subsequent 300-odd years until William McKinley took the restive Philippines off their hands. Washington was planning to liberate the country until a bevy of Republican Senators intervened and, well, actually maybe we’d better hang on to those islands after all. Following further decades of colonial oppression and attendant rebellion, MacArthur fled before the Japanese, who got their wartime use out of the Philippines most notably as a death-march locale and a favored source for “comfort women.” Then the Americans came back and finally made good on their promise: Filipinos walked free in 1946.

∞  –  ∞  –  ∞  –  ∞  –  ∞

Hanging out the second story window of a professional development center in Cebu City a banner congratulates “our students who will be leaving to work in the UK and Canada!” It’s a commonly felt sentiment here. “Honestly, there’s nobody in this country who doesn’t look at that and feel some envy,” said my friend Steve (a Filipino). In the Philippines, it seems, there is no higher mark of achievement than to leave the Philippines. The government actively promotes it, urging people to move abroad if they can, and don’t forget to write– overseas Filipinos send home billions of dollars annually, making up a full 10% of the national GDP. Even the Pope has chimed in, discouraging birth control in the Philippines because human bodies are the country’s biggest export. (This in an increasingly overpopulated country: one of the only net rice importers in Asia.) Continue reading “For God and Country: Notes on Filipino Nationalism”

Reform in Burma: Opening for the U.S.

Cebu City, Philippines – In October I wrote about the halting, confusing, but encouraging political reforms in Burma (Myanmar) over the past year. It’s been an exciting few weeks since then. At the ASEAN summit in Bali last month, President Obama announced that Secretary of State Clinton would go to Burma– the first visit of a Secretary of State since John Foster Dulles went to Yangon in 1955. The decision to visit, advertised as a test of Burma’s commitment to democratic reform, was understood widely as a small carrot to encourage further progress. Many, however, have criticized the Obama administration for rushing to reward one of the world’s most despotic regimes for what have been mostly cosmetic, reversible changes.

The move was made possible largely thanks to the generous political cover of Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma’s foremost opposition leader and President Obama’s fellow Nobel Peace Prize winner. Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy, which sat out last year’s elections in protest, has decided to contest an upcoming election. Aung San Suu Kyi will herself run in the election, and is all but certain to be filling a seat in parliament. Though she has spent the better part of the past two decades under house arrest and has as good reason as anyone to suspect the motives of President Thein Sein’s incipient reforms, Aung San Suu Kyi has been upfront in her readiness to meet the government’s reforms in good faith.

Secretary Clinton sat down with Aung San Suu Kyi– it was their first face-to-face meeting after much previous correspondence– and met with President Thein Sein, addressing a number of issues that have kept the U.S. and Burma apart. Atop the agenda was Burma’s collusion with North Korea on missile and (possibly) nuclear technology. Secretary Clinton also pushed Thein Sein to continue internal reforms by freeing political prisoners and resolving ongoing conflicts with ethnic minority groups.

Coming out of the visit, Secretary Clinton announced that the U.S. would relax some restrictions on economic development aid, allowing the World Bank and International Monetary Fund to work in Burma, and promising $1.2 million in health, education and humanitarian projects to be administered by the United Nations. She and Thein Sein also discussed the possibility of upgrading diplomatic relations and exchanging ambassadors– a move that Aung San Suu Kyi has also advocated.

Continue reading “Reform in Burma: Opening for the U.S.”

Hot : The Sun :: Spicy : _____

The Oxford English Dictionary offers a helpful note differentiating “hot” from “spicy.” Fire is hot, as are bunsen burners, the surfaces of stars and the gates of hell. Spicy on the other hand, says Noah Webster, more aptly refers to “Thai food.” He’s not wrong. The Thais take their spice seriously: no dish is complete without a few peppers chopped, mashed, or minced, and no table is properly set without a dish of pepper flakes for added heat. When Thais go out for Japanese food, wasabi is not stirred into the soy sauce; rather, a dash of soy sauce is stirred into the wasabi.

As painfully conscientious and accommodating hosts, the Thais are acutely aware that the Western palate can’t typically keep up; more than once I’ve been regretfully informed that there’s nothing on the menu weak enough for me. I of course insist, and sometimes have to do battle– all but sign a waiver– just to get my dishes normally spiced. Because, damn, it’s delicious.

Now, I’m not particularly passionate about spicy food.  Hot sauces give me more pain than pleasure, and I was never the kid munching on Hot Fries just to prove he could. Ordering wings? Great, I’ll have the mild, double blue cheese, double ranch. Call it cowardice, call it what you will, it just ain’t my jam.

Thai spice is different. It still hurts– it definitely still hurts, and makes your nose run and your eyes water– but it’s used so artfully, and the spice is so much more flavorful than vinegary Tabasco… it’s kind of worth it. Every bite of a cashew chicken stir fry scorched my face off recently, but I couldn’t stop eating it, and when I came out the other side, I emerged not just stronger but fat and happy, too. Over the past six months, I’ve adjusted to it somewhat, and it was with a degree of satisfaction that I recently watched a visiting American colleague cry into his papaya salad while I munched happily away.

Now and then, though, things get a little intense for even the Thais themselves. At lunch, I watched my friendly coworker Sai frantically wave her hands, trying to get a breeze going in her mouth after a too-aggressive bite of a five-alarm green bean and shrimp paste salad. Another time at dinner, a more stalwart friend swallowed a bite of spiced crab, shot a wide-eyed look of betrayal at the waiter, and then conversation fell silent for a few minutes as he gazed off somewhere in the middle distance, a look on his face as though recalling a cruel memory, tears streaming down his face.

Of course, it’s not all flame and fireworks. If, sometime after next week, you ask me, “So, Sam, gosh, I’m sure a million people have already asked you this, but, shoot, how was Thailand?” I will almost certainly blurt out something weirdly desperate-sounding about craving the 90 cent bowls of chicken soup, or the duck noodles, or the minced pork, fried pork, grilled pork, delicious pork. The Thais take their food seriously, and for that, I am thankful:

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The Arkansas of Thailand

On Friday I was invited out for food and drinks by my colleague, who, helpfully, goes by the English name “Sandwich.” Sandwich goes out on Fridays with his buddies, and he invited me along, deep and wide language barrier notwithstanding. Fortunately for me, one of his pals, a guy named Gai, had spent some time in the U.S., and spoke a bit of English. “What did you do in America,” I asked?

Gai lived in Springdale, Arkansas, working as an ice cream truck driver. He’s in the desserts business here in Kamphaeng Phet, running the black grass jelly factory (Made from twigs! Tastes… like twigs!) he inherited from his father, so peddling Chaco Tacos could perhaps be construed as relevant work experience. He and four other drivers covered the whole tri-state area (that would be northwest Arkansas, southwest Missouri and eastern Oklahoma) and Gai learned two great truths about America during his time. The first, and more enduring, is that the jingle of the ice cream truck is effective at luring nubile teenage girls from poolside to sidewalk wearing naught but their bikinis and the glimmering sheen of perspiration. This was something of a revelation for Gai, and a while a great boost to his enthusiasm for the work, caused major interference with his focus on the bottom line, and led to declining sales as he cruised through certain particularly fruitful neighborhoods hour after hour, day after day, his ice cream truck jingle turned up to eleven.

The second revelation he put to me this way:

“Sam, have you ever peed in a bottle?”

“No, Gai, I don’t believe I have.”

“I think all Americans pee in bottles because stopping at the gas station is a waste of time.”

And now we all know something more about what goes on inside ice cream trucks.

He worked at this job for four months. Then he spent three days in New York, two days in Las Vegas, and then he came home to Kamphaeng Phet.

Returning the quizzical look I had given him, Gai asked: “What are YOU doing in Kamphaeng Phet?” Not selling SnoCones, no, but my six month interlude in the one of Thailand’s flyover states is perhaps no more absurd than Gai’s adventure. If you sat down to match up the Thai states with their U.S. analogues– Phuket is the Florida of Thailand, Mae Hong Son is surely the Alaska, maybe Ayutthaya is Massachusetts– Kamphaeng Phet would be lucky to be paired up with Arkansas. More likely, it would be left off the list, among the 26 leftover Thai provinces after the fifty slots were filled.

To the tourist, this town is notable only for its location alongside Highway 1, exactly halfway between Bangkok and Chiang Mai. A convenient stopover, says Lonely Planet, which halfheartedly describes Kamphaeng Phet as “one of the more pleasant provincial capitals,” makes brief mention of this city’s ancient ruins, and leaves it, more or less, at that. A hundred kilometers to the east is Sukhothai, also about halfway between Thailand’s two big tourist destinations, and home to the spectacular ruins of Thailand’s ancient capital. That, needless to say, is where the tourists stop over on their north-south journeys. Visit the ancient temples in the Kamphaeng Phet Historical Park any weekday, and you’re liable to have the entire park (“A UNESCO World Heritage Site!,” screams every government billboard in the province.) entirely to yourself.

If you’re Thai, though, those ruins actually mean something. Kamphaeng Phet, which means “Diamond Wall,” was installed on the banks of the River Ping sometime in the 15th century as the northeastern outpost of the Sukhothai Kingdom. This diamond wall was built to keep out the Burmese, and with only a few lapses (e.g. the 1767 sacking of Ayutthaya– oops), Kamphaeng Phet got the job done. So I feel stirrings of pride when I board the bus in Bangkok and tell my fellow travelers that, no, I’m not headed to Chiang Mai, I’ll be getting off in Kamphaeng Phet.  “Ah, Kamphaeng,” they say, with the same steely nostalgia of a Civil War buff recalling Pickett’s Charge. “The wall.”