BEN OF BURMA
Or one man’s pathetic attempt to ingratiate himself with a nation
By Ben McGrath
Clive of India. Lawrence of Arabia. Guardians of the Galaxy…
Many have been honored by having their names linked with the places they have influenced.
McGrath of Myanmar? Probably not.
But this is a country of great opportunity. It’s growing and evolving daily. It’s possible to make a big impact in the Land of a Thousand Pagodas.
To begin with, folks here are so welcoming. They want nothing more than for you to be like them.* Show just the slightest interest in their language, food, cinema, literature, music or simply going to Shwedagon Pagoda and Myanmese people will line up to teach you, treat you to lunch, translate for you or take you someplace special.
It seems almost rude not to be fluent in Myanmar zagar (spoken Myanmese). Sadly, my brain absorbs language at the same pace that plants turn into petrochemicals. I toiled for over eight years in French classes at school and I can’t tell my derriere from my ass. I recently spent a morning warmly greeting everyone in my best Burmese only to be told that I was saying, “How much does it cost?”
For men, next comes the longyi (traditional dress: a sheet of cloth that wraps around the waist) question which is: Will I be making a valid and valuable cultural statement by wearing one or will I look like a total dick? Please don’t think I’m insulting longyis. I’m not; they’re cool. I’m making fun of the foreign tourists who waddle around in them as if they dress in one every day.
EARN IT BEFORE YOU WEAR IT! is my humble opinion. As with a Marine’s blues or a Boy Scout’s woggle, you can’t just don a longyi because you like the look of it. Talk the talk if you want to walk the walk. Either speak Burmese or stick to the shorts, dude! Just saying.
And Myanmese food? Here’s another pitiful confession. I’ve spent 25+ years in gourmet paradises like Shanghai, Bangkok and Saigon and have dined at KFC for most of that time. I’m food phobic, terrified of somebody asking me if I enjoyed eating the iguana penis or telling me that I’m going to love the taste of snail entrails.
Would you like fries with that?
However, I do enjoy a few local delicacies including tea leaf salad, mutton curry and the Big Bastard Double Burger at Lotteria. (FYI, I know that Lotteria is Korean but I first experienced it in Yangon. No emails please.)
Immersing myself totally in the culture, I’ve watched a total of one Burmese movie and can recognize a single local track. The music part is easy: it’s the same tune as Elvis Presley’s ‘Don’t Be Cruel’ and is about gold. A lot of Myanmese songs mess with my head in this way as they sound like, say, a familiar love song but it then turns out that the lyrics deal with plumbing or animal husbandry.
As for films, I wept uncontrollably with the rest of the Yangon Creative Solutions team during a screening of ‘From Bangkok to Mandalay’. It deals with a Thai woman’s journey through Myanmar as she revisits the scenes of her grandmother’s romantic past accompanied by a young and handsome musician. The latter is played by Sai Sai, a local legend who appears in every single advertisement in the country. Luckily, most of the soundtrack was in English.
So, my efforts to become Burmese (approximately, rounding up and adjusting for inflation) add up to a big fat zero. But I’m still fitting in and making a difference. Because, I repeat, the Myanmese are so welcoming. While they would like you to be like them, they accept the fact that you’re a lazy slob who can’t learn new things and doesn’t really belong anywhere. Then they get on with life.
As for my desire to be honored with a name defined by location, I am now known and revered amongst the community as ‘The Crazy Old Foreign Twat Living Above Usupso’.
It doesn’t get better than that.
*Well, maybe. This line is meant to come from an extremely well-known book about Myanmar by a very famous author. So well-known that nobody (including Google) knows anything about it. If you can shed light on this mystery, you could win a night out with the Yangon Creative Solutions team at a convenience store of your choosing!
Ben McGrath is Managing Director of Yangon Creative Solutions and works evenings in a supermarket