I said no for a year. The only things I knew about Myanmar were that most people still called it Burma, it had been under an oppressive military junta and was a jungly country. I knew a bit about Aung San Suu Kyi, but didn’t keep track of SE Asian politics and frankly – I wasn’t interested. Getting involved in the “Free Burma” movement didn’t move me much. I was happy to stay in the United States, blissfully unaware.
My daughter’s father, who traveled upwards of 75% of the time rationalized that if we moved to Yangon, the capital of Burma, he’d be home each night for dinner and could tuck our daughter into bed. Watch her grow. The lure of a stronger familial bond eventually won the battle.
We had already moved 12 times in 10 years: four countries and three continents – so I knew the drill – but we had never moved overseas with a child and that changes everything. Although I knew to ask the standard questions like how much rent was, what sort of homes were available, what should we pack, I now had to ask new ones with a kid in tow. Were there any “good” schools? “Good” doctors? Dentists? Where would we go if there were a medical emergency? How large was the expat community? Was it a safe family posting? Were there many other children there? Were there things for kids to do? Could we buy peanut butter?
Armed with questions in my “Myanmar” notebook, I entered research mode. The problem was that Myanmar had been closed off for ages, so unless you wanted to read history or politics, not much of the information I needed was out there. I wanted to know if there were playgrounds and if I’d have to stockpile a year’s worth of tampons in my shipment. I wanted to know how, exactly, to pronounce Myanmar. (MY-an-MAR or MEE-an-MAR?) Or was I just supposed to call it Burma? It was then I that realized we were a special kind of crazy to move to a country we didn’t even know how to pronounce, let alone which of its two names to call it by.
My husband’s previous – and fairly recent – visits to Myanmar fell under the time when it was still necessary for locals to register any home visits from foreigners with their neighborhood police. He cautioned me about which books and magazines I could bring because of censorship – unfortunately, Cosmo got left behind. I was told to be mindful of what I said once in Myanmar, that we ought to never, ever saying anything negative about the country. “Will we have to speak very, very softly at home if we need to vent about living in a new place?” I whispered sarcastically with a smile.
This was going to be a problem for me. I’ve been known to be a little opinionated: I come from a long line of stubborn women. So, I devised a plan to help me stay quiet about all things Myanmar/Burma: DO NOT READ ANYTHING POLITICAL OR HISTORICAL ABOUT THE COUNTRY. STAY AWAY FROM AUNG SAN SUU KYI INFORMATION. The logic behind this – which was counter-intuitive for me – was that ignorance couldn’t possibly get me in trouble. If I didn’t know anything, I couldn’t form an opinion, so at a cocktail party held at the historic Strand Hotel swarming with well-dressed dignitaries, I wouldn’t let said formed opinion make a champagne-induced slip from my lips. Somehow my husband didn’t think it would bode well for us – mostly for him – if his mouthy American wife got all opiniony. I stayed ignorant. (For awhile.)
It was clear there was to be no political talk, but I still didn’t know if I could make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches or buy Ranch dressing and broccoli. And now I began to wonder if I’d need to stock-up on waterproof mascara along with those tampons; there was no way I was going to run around muggy, crowded pagodas with black muck around my eyes and I refused to spend a year without makeup.
Thankfully, a handful of expats in Myanmar helped answer many of the questions we had after joining a not-well known (at the time) new Yangon expat forum (Yangon Expat Connection) on Google.
The day we finally arrived, I was struck by Yangon’s verdant palms, lakes, and oppressive heat. The flame trees lining the wide roads echoed the red spit stains on the ground caused by the betel nut many people chew. Like Ethiopia, mornings rang with all sorts of calls: call to prayers and street vendors selling their wares; but Myanmar was different. Instead of Christian and Muslim prayers, our street filled with the voices of chanting Buddhist monks who arrived in procession each morning for rice offerings.
Myanmar wasn’t half as closed-off as people made it seem. I also quickly learned that we could get almost anything we needed. Sometimes you had to search a bit, but that became part of the adventure, like the day I had desperately missed Crystal Light then found a fluorescent sugar-free drink mix available only at one particular branch of one particular shop. There were not many playgrounds and no Ranch dressing, but we could buy peanut butter (usually), foie gras (not that I ever did), and the schools were fantastic.
It takes time to adjust to any new place and Myanmar seemed especially foreign with the Monsoons, the language, Buddhism, and the left hand cars driving in the right hand lane. The pace was slow and somewhat removed, but the country began changing rapidly.
Within less than a year, all the books my husband told me not to pack could be seen on the shelves of the local English bookstore after censorship was lifted … even books by Aung San Suu Kyi. She got elected to parliament. President Obama visited the country. ATMs sprouted the following week. Suddenly, owning a car was affordable, the traffic increased to monster-mode, and the passive drivers became reckless and impatient. SIM cards were no longer $500 – but half that. Monks, shaved heads bent with intent, strolled peacefully in the parks, the sacred Buddhist Shwedgaon Pagoda in the background, texting on their iPhones.
Soon, we couldn’t keep up with the onslaught of new businesses; trendy clothing stores and chic coffee shops serving killer sandwiches from the new local bakery and restaurants with exposed brick offering European fare took over old office spaces downtown. Websites listing the monthly happenings in Yangon grew overnight, but the telecoms remained dismal – especially the patchy internet connections.
Myanmar remained elusive, so as a way to stay connected and share my experiences with loved ones abroad, I began a blog, Becky in Burma. Unexpectedly, the blog became a source of information for the sudden influx of people wanting to move to Myanmar. As my inbox filled with people asking questions about daily life in Yangon, I knew I needed to do more; so, I wrote a guidebook to provide in-depth information for ex-pats.
My initial “Keep Ignorant” plan no longer served; indeed, it kept me at a distance and stopped me from having a better understanding of this beautiful, complex country – a country I learned you can’t truly define. The ignorance, however, also kept me humble: In Myanmar, it’s a gentle balancing act between learning, devouring as much as you can about the country, and then throwing out every bit of information and starting from scratch so you can keep your eyes and heart open to all experiences. You must learn to accept that the moment you think you’ve begun to grasp the intricacies of Myanmar culture and society, you’ll realize you haven’t; like when your kind and shy housekeeper grabs you fast and hard in her arms, tears streaming down her face, rocking you like a mother would, asking you to stay, when you tell her you’re getting divorced and moving back to America. That’s humility.
Myanmar is a myriad of contradictions. It’s oppressive and not. The days are over where foreigners are officially watched, but neighbors will pay attention. You learn to keep your mouth closed and your ears open. There’s nothing wrong with this until there is. Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, and animism exist. It’s distinctly diverse and alluring: You can be swept back in time visiting ancient pagodas in Bagan, gently rocked along Inle Lake where traditional floating villages exist, or spend an upscale evening at a French restaurant with a Michelin star chef in Yangon. The heavy heat slows you down – you’re forced to walk slow and move with the current of the day, sweat dripping down your back. The Monsoons can make you stop – flash floods appear before your eyes. You learn that most of the time, all you have to do is smile at someone and you’ll be rewarded with a generous grin.
Though my daughter and I have returned to the United States, we miss Yangon. Myanmar changed us: We take our shoes off at the front door; I wince each time I reach out to give or take something with my left hand; my daughter is scolded if her feet are up in the air; and we usually point with our whole hand, not our finger. She misses her teacher and school. We miss our friends, Shan noodles, chanting, and the monks on our street …although we are happy to be reunited with a regular supply of peanut butter, mascara and tampons.
I’m grateful I said yes to Myanmar. We were fortunate to be there when we were, to witness part of its history. And on those days when Myanmar calls to us, we remember the majestic golden stupa (steeple) of the famous Shwedagon Pagoda rising above Yangon, and smile.