Bagan, Myanmar: The Inner and Outer Realities of Place — By Jennifer Shipp
Asia Myanmar Southeast Asia

Bagan, Myanmar: The Inner and Outer Realities of Place — By Jennifer Shipp

When John and I were here in Bagan, Myanmar in January, before we knew that Lydian was going to fall in love and get married to Naing Naing, we loved it here. There was something about this place that was just really comfortable to us. It felt like a small town in Nebraska, but not a modern small town…a small town before there were color TV’s, Netflix, and a hundred plus channels in every home. A small town before computers and Walmart and Amazon. It felt like when we were kids and the carnival was in town or there was some “major” celebration going on down the street like a fireworks display on the fourth of July. 

The lifestyle here in Bagan is simple, but the cultural beliefs are complex. So many places in the world have lost their cultural richness as Brand Name This and That move in and replace customary ways of doing things in undeveloped nations. Brands become culture over time. And while a part of me revolts earnestly against brands taking the place of culture, I am trying to make peace with this process because it’s slowly creeping across the entire planet. It is what it is and there’s no way for me to stop it, though I believe (and hope) that it will someday peak and then regress. 

In the meantime, I feel very blessed to get to live in a place like Burma where the culture is still overwhelmingly rich and complex. 

I haven’t written down my thoughts for such a long time because there simply hasn’t been time to do all the Living of our Lives and to also write about it. The amount of uncertainty that we’ve been wrestling with over the past 8 months has left all my pages blank with nothing but a big question mark in the top left-hand corner of every journal entry. But here we are now…in Bagan, Myanmar. And we’re here for the long-haul because Lydian and Naing Naing are here for the long-haul. It’s an inconvenience but also an opportunity to spend 6 months or longer in a place like Bagan.

John and I are planning to return to Guanajuato in the spring to hopefully work with renovating the park there and push forward on our original plan to invite worldschoolers to the city, but we’ve had to adjust our offerings somewhat to accommodate for Lydian and Naing Naing’s needs. Naing Naing, after all, is Burmese and this is his homeland. So they need to spend some time here every year. John and I are therefore considering the prospect of going back and forth with them for part of the year. We love Bagan, after all, so why not? 

I mean, yes, it’s hot and sticky and… yes, sometimes it’s uncomfortable in our little house with the green tin roof, but we don’t mind buzzing around with everyone else on our ebike, the wind tickling our burnt shoulders, whipping the hair into our faces. Yesterday, I went and picked up my “new-ish” manual bike with hand brakes and an impressively gigantic kickstand which will partner nicely with the slightly rusted bicycle that’s parked in our backyard with weeds growing up through the spokes. Lydi and I will use these regular post World War II era bikes to get ourselves from home to the market and back each day. Our market days are guaranteed to be an adventure since most of the people there don’t speak a word of English. It’s one of those Asian outdoor, farm-to-stand jobbies that’s incredibly romantic to imagine, but that actually involves quite a lot of haggling (and thus opportunities to be scammed), the smell of dried fish (flies buzzing all around) in the suffocatingly hot air, and a closing time of noon. Since we’re tall, white, and women, Lydi and I might as well be wearing red flashing lights and sirens. And now we have bikes too. 

The bikes are a little scary. Like a blast from the very distant past. The brakes work so-so and the steering is pretty tight. In the afterglow of my purchase yesterday, I took my new red racer for a spin down a couple of blocks just outside our Bagan house and 1) it felt like a performance. Old and shriveled Burmese men in longyis, young girls wearing thanaka make-up on their cheeks, little boys with firecrackers, and women who were busy pinning the latest fabric options to dusty mannequins all came out to watch The Old White Chick Biffs It Bike Production. I was clumsy and awkward like I was just learning to ride…taking the virgin cruise without my training wheels. And 2) I felt seriously unsafe. Like I might end up in a medical evacuation scenario to Thailand if I wasn’t careful. So two blocks was good for me and then it was time to put both feet on solid ground…

…maybe I’ll ride two more blocks again tomorrow. Or maybe I’ll just walk the bike to and from home to the market every day for the next six months.

But I don’t mean to be cynical. I’m not a tourist. I’m not even a traveler here. The strangeness of everything will wear off and be replaced by culture-shock in a few weeks. And then the culture shock will fade and be replaced by a mundane daily routine. I’ll probably forget about my garbage disposal and reverse osmosis purification system back in Mexico in time. And I’ll get used to the rice cooker and the lack of chocolate.

But some things may be harder to adapt to than others. For example, Lydian doesn’t have glass in her windows. Rather, she has wood shutters and some wire mesh, which means that if she closes her windows, it’s both dark and hot inside her house. This week, there was a “quarter festival” in our neighborhood (we live just a few blocks away from Lydi and Naing Naing) and Lydi’s neighbors really got into it with the music and the merrymaking which added another layer of “fun” to their situation. Since her kitchen is basically outside and so is her bathroom, privacy has become a central focus for Lydian. Privacy for her, has developed into a myth, a sort of Holy Grail, over the past couple of months. A few days ago, a tuk tuk driver and his wife stopped by to visit Lydi and Naing Naing as a friendly gesture that made no sense whatsoever to Lydian, who was trying to finish a writing project of 3000 plus words about the Top 10 Best Turkey Fryers when they showed up. She accepted their presence graciously, but on the inside, she was screaming. 

What does it mean when you’re in Burma and the tuk tuk driver from the night before pops in to say hello with his wife? What does it mean when the guy on the green and blue bench asks you over for dinner using only hand gestures because neither of you speaks a word of the same language? What kinds of misunderstandings can happen in the dim light of charades and a culture divide the size of the Atlantic Ocean and half of China? 

Like John, Naing Naing digs guests and house-calls, but Lydian and I know that our men like to wander out into haunted social forests without the lantern of language and/or a firm grasp of balanced transactions as women see it (which is culturally prescribed and even neighborhood-specific within any given culture). You see, men can gather amicably in large groups around nothing more than a ball, but women are so much more complex. If there’s food involved or even tea, seemingly harmless meetings can quickly turn into complex technologies with heavy moving parts, digital circuitry, and virtual realities that our men fail to premeditate. The common man all over the world works (or at least hopes to work) for a living, but women’s roles in society are subject to special rules that vary in complicated, but excruciatingly subtle ways from one place to another. And women judge each other carefully, telescopically and with great detail from a distance. Points are awarded and subtracted via sideways glances, narrowing eyelids, subtle gestures, and the awesome power of sex and linguistics as our most forceful tools. How does she do her laundry? Does she work outside of the home? Look at her clothes! etc. etc. Hexes are transmitted via gossip circles. Among women, sometimes education is a downfall…points are occasionally and whimsically subtracted from your tally if you have a degree or if you’ve achieved some level of success in your field as a woman. Darts are thrown using words that are sent through supernatural channels. It is incomprehensible to men that having tea or yucking it up over lunch could be a social death blow to a woman who is not culturally in-the-know.

Lydian has tried to explain this to Naing Naing, but alas, he’s young. And there’s a lot to learn. Marriage brings men from Men’s Worlds to the fringes of Women’s Worlds. They journey to the edge of Women’s Worlds reluctantly with great coaxing and there they gape into the dark abyss. Their knees tremble to behold the vastness of it. Our realities are always much darker and more impenetrable than men could’ve ever imagined… 

Ball sports are easier…

As I write this, though my own front door is wide open to let in some light and to allow the air to pass through our house. I like fact that my life and world intersects with the outdoors right now. I bought a four panel wall screen though so that people can’t come to the gate and ask for our attention because, after all, we work from home. We need to be left alone for portions of the day to make a living. Again, though, I don’t mean to be cynical. And I also don’t mean to romanticize our lives. I’m very glad to be here, but sometimes, I wish for the cool breezes that blow down the mountains into our apartment in Guanajuato. I wish for privacy…utter and complete.

I do. 

A cool breeze on a hot day is a sweet, decadent dessert for the soul after a long, awful day. And privacy is sacred. Comfort and climate can transform my moods in subtle ways, but my moods also color the world. I cast them out onto whatever I see–whatever I touch. From Myanmar to Mexico, I’m still me, though strange new animals may take up residence in the Sahara Desert of my Inner Reality. They may only come out during the sandstorms and I discover them through my dreams or in moments of quiet contemplation. Hurricanes may blow down the palm trees on my coastal plains, tornados may rip through my ripened fields right before the harvest, and new rivers may course with abrupt violence through the canyons of my darkest fears when confronted by things like learning the Burmese language, having dinner with total strangers from a closed Asian culture in an undeveloped country, or driving an ebike through a mud puddle on the busiest street in Bagan, but I still remain basically me. The external experience of the world shapes who I am, but the inner reality of who I am also shapes the world too with gender as a major feature of my existence. It is only with great effort that a river can be made to change course, or a mountain can be moved, after all. I tinker with the idea that the whole point of my existence is to move the Inner Mountains and change the course of Inner Rivers. If I aim everything that happens in the Outer World inward, a new paradigm may take shape. Life, after all, keeps asking me to abandon everything in favor of certain things. And to consider importance so that I can rank What’s Important carefully, always with my heart on the scales.

And I have no regrets about any of it. And there’s nothing to do about my life except observe it. And maybe present it in bits to other people. I might miss Guanajuato or the United States or any scene or theme from my past, but the future requires that I destroy and release whatever doesn’t serve me anymore. And this is not as easy as it seems like it should be.

Like big name brands that have slowly pushed real culture out of every corner of the globe, I have to make room for the next wave of whatever and allow myself to change. It’s a process of acceptance as well as innovation. Things could get messy.

… but ya know, it’s enchanting to ride on the back of the ebike with John between Old Bagan and New Bagan with the dark silhouettes of pagodas dotting the landscape under the half moon, the subtle dance of other scooters and ebikes weaving in and out along the narrow road, and chanting monks piercing the silence of the night with their staccato words amplified from some far-off temple. It’s an incredible thing to get to have these experiences with the people I love.

This is Naing Naing’s home, after all. It’s the place that shaped who he is and how he thinks. My son-in-law (I’m so proud of him!) And what an amazing gift to get to see a glimpse of the Inner Reality of this person we all love. To sit with him and with Lydian and just listen to the two of them and learn how Naing Naing thinks and what he thinks and to watch him and Lydian figure out how they think as a couple. He was initially a stranger and a foreigner to us but now he’s family. And to also get to learn the rote minutiae of Naing Naing’s Outer Reality…the major and minor details that shaped him into an adult. It’s a strange landscape…its own planet with spectacular sunsets, acacia trees, and a special emphasis on the moon. 

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Bagan, Myanmar: The Inner and Outer Realities of Place

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