Adventures in Burmese — By Jennifer Shipp
Asia Myanmar Southeast Asia

Adventures in Burmese — By Jennifer Shipp

Naing Naing does a lot of the talking when things matter right now. He’s a registered tour guide in Bagan, so he also takes us around and educates us about tourist-related things when we have a weekend off.

Yesterday was a long day. We’d decided to try to get air conditioning installed in John’s and Naing Naing’s office space, a necessity in a country that hits over 90 degrees+ every day of the year. We’d put it off as long as we could because John and I needed a break from all the inconsistencies of our daily lives. We’d spent about a week dealing with the heat in order to avoid dealing with people. But we finally caved in two days ago…

The construction/electrician-guy showed up and proclaimed that the project would take half a day. John relayed this message to me with pessimism. We had experience with construction from in Mexico when we built a six story apartment complex. I would say that John and I still suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder from that experience, in fact and now, the mere idea of doing construction causes us to experience terrifying flashbacks, nightmares, depression, and anxiety. So we weren’t disillusioned about the air conditioning even though the construction-guy promised it would only take 4 hours. When the day ended and we still had nothing but a hole in our wall, we just sighed heavily, shut the door to that room and hoped the next day would bring an end to it all.

“It shouldn’t take more than a couple of hours to finish this.” John told me at the beginning of the next day. 

The construction worker spoke some English. When he showed up early the next day with his assistant and four “guests” who took their seats in our living room to enjoy the cool breeze of our swamp cooler blowing on them, we asked why there was a convention going on in our living room. He replied, “They have checked out of their hotel.” 

John blinked at him and furrowed his eyebrows and said, “Okay.”

Luckily, there are a few words that are very similar in Burmese and in English and “okay” is one of them. In Burmese, “ho’ kay” means “that’s right” which is similar enough to “okay” that everyone understands each other using this word. 

But things were not “ho’ kay” for us. It was just that we had no other words to use to explain that we work from home, our home space is sacred, and as Americans, we really prize our privacy, thank you very much. Of course, in English, a situation like this would be negotiated carefully and diplomatically through insinuations and interrogations designed to make the “guests” feel uncomfortable and as out-of-place as they actually were in our home. In Burmese, however, in Myanmar as Americans who had opened their home to the insidious challenge of construction work, we were completely powerless.

One of John’s super-powers is that he can do charades to mime just about anything you can imagine. Once, I had him go out in search of tampons in Nepal (they don’t exist, by the way, in Nepal–and menstruating women are considered “dirty” there so John was on his own with this mission since there were two females in the household). He successfully found sanitary napkins through a series of mimes that were thought-provoking, but still tasteful enough to not get him sent to jail. Nepali men understood his need and directed him to the proper place to obtain the required items. Overall, when it comes to language, John can negotiate the difficulties of finding just about anything, but things can go pretty far afield when prepositions and verbs get involved. This is where knowing a language, or even just bits and pieces of it become essential. For example, John tried to navigate a complicated laundry maneuver in Kathmandu that ended with clothes that went from dirty to toxic. It was an unfortunate miscommunication that started on the street and ended on a rooftop. Because pants, undergarments, and shirts can’t speak, we’ll never know exactly what happened to our clothes, but we know that it had something to do with the river, which was filled with toxic waste runoff from a nearby hospital and a few factories. And so it is, with language. A few verbs and prepositions can go a long, LOOOONNNNGG way toward clarifying a noun. 

In Burmese, I know how to say, “banana” (nge’ pyo: dhi:), but the word lights up in segments in my brain when I’m standing at the fruiterìa (Spanish), and as it slowly rises to the surface of my mind’s eye, I doubt it and hesitate. So I stand there for a long moment, pointing at the bananas in the distance, stuttering over that first syllable incredulously (is it really nge’, I say to myself) before I can finally spit it out of my mouth. And then, when I finally say the whole word, which Naing Naing has explained has the syllable for “bird” in it along with dhi:, which designates “fruit”, the woman at the fruit stand smiles and repeats it back to me a few times and instantly, I feel proud of myself and my Burmese word…until I say, “naam” which is Arabic for “yes”. 

Languages line up in my brain in the order in which I know and understand them. So Arabic, right now is vying for third position after Spanish and English. Unfortunately, the Burmese, in particular, the Burman ethnic group, aren’t terribly enamored with Muslims and Arabic-speakers though there are quite a lot of them who live here, especially in Mandalay and Yangon. So I try to keep Arabic to myself. Saying “yes” is a two-syllable word in Burmese (kho-deh) which simply doesn’t sit well in my brain. So, Naing Naing told me last night that I could say just “-ay” for “yes”. I tried it today and the results were mixed. I probably said it wrong. There are, after all, 14 vowels in this language. 

Naing Naing has been teaching us Burmese. He also teaches online Burmese classes to students via Skype and other video platforms. We have to have someone say the words to us because otherwise, it’s easy to say the wrong thing and either offend someone or just be categorically misunderstood. Tonight, Lydi and I are going to try a trial lesson with another online instructor to see if there’s anyone else other there who’s seriously teaching Burmese lessons on Skype. We need all the help we can get. To our English ears, Burmese is not second-nature.

While a lot of people here in Bagan speak English very well, they often have linguistic limitations that allows them to work within their industry. A lot of people say, “hello” just to get our attention, which works really well, actually, but gives a different meaning to the word. Little kids say “hello” to us excitedly and sometimes bashfully as their first efforts at English. But knowing some Burmese has been vital for staying here long-term. We need some language to communicate about pricing and numbers, location, and basic needs. 

For tourists or longer-term travelers who plan to stay in Bagan, Myanmar, there are few options in terms of learning Burmese online. There are several video programs that profess to teach Burmese, but I’ve tried these and when I repeated what I’d learned to Naing Naing, he looked at me with a cringe. He’d say, “Don’t say that.” And then I’d explain what I thought I was saying and he’d shake his head and teach me the correct way. These first efforts at learning the language were really frustrating. It felt like I’d wasted my time. 

So, now that we’re living in Bagan, Myanmar, I’m working on Burmese every day, trying to master the rudiments. People are really friendly about teaching me new words, but I still really need Naing Naing’s guidance to get things right. Lydian has an advantage over all of us, because she has him all to herself for several hours every day, although she says they speak mostly in English since Naing Naing is fluent in this language and he spends quite a bit of time teaching students Burmese online via Skype.

Today, we woke up and the air conditioner was installed, but the electricity was off. And it has remained off for the whole day. So John and I went and bought a generator, which didn’t work. John pulled on it for over an hour before he finally called Naing Naing to go with him back to the store and ask for help. The damn machine needed some oil and we finally got it running just a few hours before the electricity was scheduled to come back on. The whole ordeal has pivoted around language and not having enough of it because words are really powerful. I wish we had gotten more of a head-start on Burmese before we left Mexico, but there’s nothing we can do about that now. 

Needless to say, anyone who’s interested in online Burmese lessons via Skype can contact Naing Naing at If you’re planning to be in Myanmar for a month or longer, get a head-start on the Burmese language before you arrive. A little bit goes a long way because the people here are extremely friendly and excited when tourists try to learn the language. 

Meanwhile, John and I (and Lydian) are slowly chiseling away at Burmese, one word at a time. Today I said, “banana”, but who knows…maybe tomorrow I’ll be able to say, “apple”? (It could happen). One day, the words “yes” and “no” may become automatic and I won’t have to think about them before I speak. But alas, it could be awhile. At least I have something to work on in my free time now…

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