When I first saw that there was a cheap, direct flight from Vietnam to Myanmar, I had to look up where Myanmar was on a map and confirm that it was indeed a country. The next day, I was in Yangon, the capital. It was Christmas Day, but, knowing nothing about Myanmar, I assumed that, like in the rest of Asia, Christmas is not a big deal. In Vietnam, you would have barely known it was Christmas at all. I was wrong.
Walking around the city, two things struck me. First, I really like the way the men there dress. On top, they dress much like Western men, wearing tucked-in button down shirts. But the shirts are not tucked into pants, but instead into a long, cloth, skirt-like garment that is tied at the front (a longyi). Also, everyone in Myanmar wears sandals at all times, which is risky considering the cleanliness of the streets. It is a cool combination of western and traditional clothing.
The second thing that jumped out at me in Myanmar was the amount of stray dogs wandering the streets. They were everywhere and looked like they hadn’t eaten in days. The feeling that I may at one point be eaten by dogs followed me throughout my time there, much like the dogs themselves did.
Unsurprisingly, I did not run into many people who spoke English. Eventually, however, I met a woman who spoke some English, so I latched onto her and her five year-old son, hoping I would be shown the city. They showed me Yangon and took me to a huge Christmas concert in a giant pavilion surrounded by beautiful monuments. There were thousands of people there of all ethnicities. Although Myanmar is one of the most ethnically diverse countries in the world, not many westerners make it there. Throughout the course of the night, I saw only two other white people.
There were so few white people in Myanmar that I saw one white western person twice, at different locations, and on different days, and immediately recognized her.
At first, the musicians played Christmas music, some of which I knew and was in (heavily accented) English, some of which I didn't and was in, I assume, Burmese. But by the end of the night, it had morphed into a giant rock concert, with bands playing Burmese rock songs and doing long guitar solos, none of which I was expecting in the most Buddhist country on earth.
Because the woman I met spoke only limited English, I spent much of the night playing with her son. He couldn’t speak English at all, but, as an English teacher in Japan, playing with kids who can’t speak English is exactly my job. While the boy was originally reticent, he was intrigued by being up close with a white-skinned person. Repeatedly, he rubbed the hair on my arms and face and laughed, or stared at my eyes and nose and then laughed. He then talked to his mother and laughed. I couldn’t understand what he was saying, but I could tell he was talking about me because he pointed at me incessantly as he spoke.
When I asked his mother what he was saying, she would not tell me. But I persisted and eventually she relented.
“He asked what kind of animal you are.” Looking sheepish, she continued, “I told him you are a person, but he said you look like a bear.”
I had a similar experience the next day at the zoo. There were tigers, lions, hippos, giraffes, and camels, but the one animal the kids seemed most interested in was the white “bear” walking around outside the cages. They might be fascinated by a tiger in its cage, but when I walked by, they turned around and stared, having completely forgotten the tiger. “I’ve seen a tiger before,” they seemed to think, “but this animal is walking around untethered.”
As the night progressed I ran out of things to say to the mother and I spent most of the time with the son. If you ever find yourself needing to entertain a small child, especially one you can’t communicate with, do the same things you would do with a dog. This is probably not politically correct, but in my experience dogs and small children are basically the same. Find some object that interests them and keep it slightly out of their reach, whether it’s hidden or too high, then allow them to try to grab it. Once they do, wrestle them for it and eventually let them win. They will be happy they beat you and eventually they will get worn out.
We became fast friends. He was happy to have someone to play with and his mother seemed happy to be able to relax while someone else cared for her child. After a while, the mother was comfortable enough to leave the two of us for short intervals to go to the bathroom or get something to drink. I thought it unwise of her to leave her child unattended with a strange man she had just met, but I was happy that she trusted me. By the end of the night, the three of us were leaving the concert, hand-in-hand, walking the streets of Yangon.
At this point, I noticed a lot of strange stares in my direction. I had been getting stared at all night, but these stares were different. These were not curious looks, but perplexed ones. I realized that it looked like the three of us were a family. People were surprised to see a Burmese-American interracial couple and wondered if I could be the father of this boy that looked so different from me.
I kept walking along, hand in hand with my pretend wife and son, wondering what it would be like if we were indeed a family living in Myanmar.
The fantasy of my life and family in Myanmar did not last long. It was nearly midnight and my son needed to sleep. We unlocked hands and went our separate ways. I never saw them again. But I’ll never forget my family in Myanmar.