Asia Myanmar Southeast Asia

Amputations and Revelations

Last night and often, the neighbors fight. Not just the neighbors to the left, but the neighbors to the right. And the neighbors who live diagonally across the street from us fight too. Last night was a big fight. Or at least, everyone was involved. And, in a culture that values saving face above all other things, street brawls that involve the whole neighborhood (sans the white folks who live in the only cement structure for several blocks) are generally frowned upon and therefore indicative of serious problems. 

We turned up the TV to try to block it out, but alas, nothing helped. The tension on our street was raw and open, like a pus-filled wound. So we opened the windows to at least see something. A group of dark shadow people stood in the distance, their faces and bodies dark and inert except in intermittent bursts when someone on a scooter or ebike would ride by with their headlight on to illuminate their three dimensions, facial expressions, and the color of their clothing.

I could hear the woman who lives next door in the leaning thatched hut that’s just about ready to fall over. She was marching up and down the street yelling ma kho bu chin na deh! And, though I know very (very) few words in Burmese even after all this time here, I believe this means, “that’s so unkind”! And extrapolating from other words I’ve heard her say during her rants through the hole in our bathroom wall, I actually think she might be meaning to say, “You’re such an asshole!” The man who lives next door, comes and goes. And I get the feeling that he drinks or cheats or that he fails often in his breadwinning capacities. From time to time, as John stares out his tiny window into their “backyard” (a barren area of nothing but sand and trash) he sees the woman beating her young son into submission. Beatings are commonplace in this household and applied to get the young man to do things like get him to take a shower (which is done outside by the street at a hand-pump).

You might be inclined to blame this ranting woman for her bitchiness, but I feel sorry for her. There are four or five? Or maybe up to eight people who live in their leaning thatched hut that’s roughly the size of a small bedroom. It has no front door. The windows are wide open and have no glass. The shutters no longer close because the whole structure leans into weird angles.

I have only recently started pointing out some of these details to Naing Naing. I do it carefully, in measured doses. He doesn’t want to see it. It’s like lifting up the bandage on a part of his body that’s been badly mutilated and infected. He’d rather wait for it to heal a bit before confronting the reality of it all. But the blood and pus seeps through the bandage…

In my dreams, I see the wound as something mundane like a mug or a wall-hanging or some other item with the colors of bandaged gangrene – white, red, yellow, green, (with a brown/black border): the colors of the Myanmar flag.

When you travel to a new land as a foreigner, there’s always a honeymoon period where you see what you want to see. Your vision of perfection is cast out ahead of you like a moonlit glow and, unless the place you’ve traveled to happens to be some sort of utopia, the light dims slowly over a fairly short period of time. It takes about 8 weeks for culture shock to set in. At that point, things can feel pretty angry and desperate. At the moment, John, Lydi, and I are convulsing through that process here. We’ve been in the throes of it for several weeks now. And Bagan is a place where there’s nothing to quell the fits. 

There’s no movie theater.

No mall.

No musical venues. 

No art stores.

There is no park. No recreational facility except two large soccer fields where Burmese men stand on the sidelines watching every move we might make (should we rent the place for an hour) with rapt interest (because we are white).

Buying vegetables is traumatic.

Fruits are easier, but sometimes the fruit ladies chastise us if we walk by without buying anything. So we take alternate routes (they still yell to us from a distance in that case…Halllloooh! Hallooooh! while Lydi and I pretend to be deaf). Despite this, Lydi and I took medicine to our fruit lady after she was in a major scooter accident because all she could afford for her wounds was iodine. 

…it’s hard to find anything to eat here except curry…

…and we have to drive for thirty minutes to buy a loaf of bread.

Okay, I think I’ve lost the thread of specificity I started with and I’m moving into the generality of what I don’t like about Here.

There’s not even the smallest shred of entertainment beyond the raw difficulty of being here to draw us out of our funk. Even as I write this, I keep repeating the same song over and over again because it’s got just the right tonality to drone out the sound of a dog outside our window that’s dying a painful death. I haven’t seen the dog yet, but I’ve been hearing it’s cries since the middle of the night. I imagine that its rabid or maybe it has scabies or an injury like a broken bone or an infection or… I would go out and look for it, but there would be nothing I could do for it. There is no one I can call to help it. No one else who could do anything for it either. There are no organizations in this country to “help” even the fruit lady. So why would there be something in place for a dog? So, we just have to wait for the dog to die.

(John is in another room wearing his heavy-duty earphones on full-blast.)

And while I feel sorry for us, I also realize how utterly blessed we are to have luxuries like headphones. 

Coming here as a tourist last year was novel. We were here for four days and we went around to temples and tinkered around through the markets for a day. We watched the sunset. And that was all cool. We climbed Mount Popa barefoot and we ate so much tea leaf salad that our gut flora was forever modified. But now, after four months here with all of this “novelty”, I’m jonesing for things like public buses and department stores. I want so badly to rest my mind on a language I can understand. And to work with cultural norms that are familiar. I’m tired of being told “no” when people really mean “yes”. And I’m weary of being awakened at 3 AM by the Pali chants coming from various locations throughout the city.

The sense of being blessed melts away when Burmese people stare at me as I walk by on the street. They stare a lot and because none of them have privacy and they expect for our privacy needs to be low or non-existent as well. And we are white and therefore very noticeable particularly since the tourist season ended in the wake of the Coronavirus scare.

When the roads we walk each day are so clouded with smoke or dust that it’s hard to breathe, I have a hard time appreciating my blessings. A coughing fit that lasts for three days will do that to a person. But I have to remember that the people around me are having a coughing fit that lasts a lifetime. I can hear them coughing through the thin walls that separate us from them, after all. 

And I wish I could help. But I know that help and generosity are dangerous things. People ask for help when they’re ready to receive it and prior to that moment of asking, gestures of help and generosity can actually be disabling, like an amputation right as a person is going through the pain of growing a longer arm. Personally, I’ve never cared much for being in situations involving desperation, but often, desperation causes me and other people to reach farther out of their Little Box into the Great Unknown to plead with the Powers That Be or the Loving Kindness of Others for help. And it is this fact of our human nature…that desperation is often required to tempt us to grow into new territory that needs to be explored…that has the capacity to make us into amazing creatures who could literally do anything we can imagine.

Though desperation is not always required, desperation can move mountains. Longer arms are useful, after all. And if you relieve a person’s desperation too quickly before the begging and the feeling like there’s no hope, you kill the possibilities, because we’re capable of so much more than what we think we’re capable of…and desperation teaches us that. 

So, I want everyone to know that Myanmar has not been fun for us. I’m going to admit that right here and now. Okay? I mean, c’mon…we’re here with our 19 year old daughter and her birthday-less Burmese husband of unknown age (probably 21 or 22, bless-his-heart), not because this is a cake-walk-of-a-place to be and the party was just too spectacular to miss, but because Lydi and Naing Naing are working on some challenging things in this super-challenging place. This is a hard gig they’ve got going right now and John and I take every moment we can to close our eyes and go to the metaphorical lake in the high mountains of our Upper World (The High Road where all our guides and helpful ancestors live). And we stand there with our feet on both land and in the water with nothing but two pitchers full of Intuition that we pour back and forth and back and forth. And then we open our eyes and look out at the real world through rough-hewn wood windows covered with dust. There’s nothing to see. The dog yelps. So then we turn inward again to beg our guides for help. And they say, “Stay” and so we stay. And they say, “Balance” and so we balance. And then we breathe. Sometimes I wake up at night terrified and I don’t know why. I sit up in bed and look around, trying to decide if there’s a reason to be terrified. 

Lydi and Naing Naing are terrified too.

But while the two of them have a difficult situation right now, with their differing origins, he loves her. And she loves him. And they want to be with each other, but it’s both simple and not so simple to do that. The simple parts are in the Real World. But the parts that aren’t so simple are in another world with the mind and the spirit. The complexities are phantoms…they’re all the expectations, both positive and negative, that the two of them brought with them from their childhoods and their different cultures into their marriage.

So we can’t leave yet. Because there’s still a bit more for us to do here. 

I’m so grateful to Karolina, the curandera, and our decision to do Ayahuasca with her before we left Mexico because there are so many blind corners and dark alleys on that Other Level and it would be so hard to see and understand without that pinpoint of light we were given through this supernatural medium. And sometimes, I recognize that without my own desperation that I wouldn’t have ever wandered into This Upper World with John where we balance wearily day-by-day. I wonder if the balancing and the water-pouring will ever end. And how will I know when to end it? But we work hard each day on the stance and we hold it as long as we can before our legs start to shake and our knees start to collapse. 

The general discomfort and difficulty of here flows into this shitty house where we’re living. It comes in through the rickety windows and spreads itself out onto the barren cement floors in our kitchen and everything gets slippery with all the yuck. And I don’t want to clean it up, but I get an old rag and I try. John tries. And we get covered head to toe in all the gooey difficulty/discomfort and then we look at each other in desperation and close our eyes… and take a deep breath and…when we open them, it’s like an episode of Bewitched. The Yuck is gone. And there we are with the rags in our hands and a feeling of total disorientation and confusion. But everything is okay. The yuck is gone. And these are our lessons…the lessons John and I are learning as Lydi and Naing Naing work on their “stuff”. 

It’s a very Wax-On, Wax-Off sort of situation where I don’t fully understand what I’m learning until I’ve learned it. Often, I’ve felt angry with Mr. Miyagi about it. 

At times, I feel terrified about how I can clean up a mess with only my mind. Wait. I don’t think it’s me. John and I speculate about whether the mess ever existed in the real world. And I think the mess and the clean-up is part of something bigger than just me and it. Did we only imagine it? Is that why we can imagine it to be gone and it goes? But it seemed so real. And then, a new mess moves in…and we start over again. It’s like a new kind of gravity and relativity or an overlay of the Universe. 

Maybe this is just what it’s like to be The Parents of Adult Children.

Meanwhile, Lydi and Naing Naing battle passionately and then make truces. They yell and they cry. They do a tug of war, back and forth, back and forth. And then there’s peace. It’s all very dramatic and at times, traumatic. 

It reminds me of how John and I used to fight…like the time the cops came because we were fighting in the street.

Yep, those were the days…

…What does the princess do when the knight in shining armor reveals that he has no way to make a living after he gets off the horse? What do her parents do? If he honestly wishes to know how to support the princess in a princess-ly way, the process moves forward in awkward fits and starts. And though the knight may be a grand warrior, he might be a crass and embarrassing prince (at least at first). Though his heart may be as warm as melted butter, his sword is still sharp and bloody. But all princesses require a knight. It’s the princess who reforms the knight into a prince. He rules over her kingdom. While he hopes to not be banished from it, she just hopes he’ll take out the trash and put it at the kingdom gate on Tuesdays.   

And sometimes, the father-in-law, the reigning king, offers him a job. 

So the knight has to learn a new trade.

But while the knight might be brave at war, he might dither on the sales-field. And he might be terrified of learning something new by watching YouTube videos or reading pdf’s. If you were to imagine a 20 year old Knight of the Round Table being asked to open a computer (having never laid eyes on one before) to learn Ionic or PHP, you’d be pretty impressed if he did it for your princess (which is roughly equivalent to a Burmese citizen in a tiny rural village learning how to do web development in less than a year). But you’d also be frustrated each time he took off on his horse in total self-doubt about computers and code to ride into the sunset and go do the things that he’s known since he was a toddler. You’d be like…what the hell is going on? (…the king always forgets that he was once just like that when he was a new knight turned prince).

It would take a little time for the knight to lay down the sword and get brave enough to send out a cover letter on Upwork and start doing Skype interviews. That’s a totally different battlefield, after all.

Meanwhile, the dog outside dies slowly…one painful scream at a time.

And the neighbors start to fight in a slow crescendo. 

We Stay.

We Balance.

And I turn my music up full-blast and go back to the Intuition pitchers.

Sometimes writing helps. Sometimes it doesn’t. 

And that’s the story of us…

For now.

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