The Face of Burma, Jan 2003
by Gregg

In Burma, the people are generally sincere when they approach a foreigner expressing the desire to practice their English. When the individual is a smiling 16 year old girl, the likelihood of an ulterior motive is approximately none.

I had fallen in love with Burma 16 years prior during my first visit—just prior to the student uprising and subsequent massacre. Since then I had yearned to see for myself what it was like in this troubled country. We read of the tyranny of the government; of the greatness of Aung San Suu Kyi; but seldom do we read about everyday life and the condition of the people.

But I stayed away, concerned that a visit would benefit the tyrannical regime more than the people. The government was saying "come" (they could use our dollars) but others, most notably Aung San Suu Kyi, were calling for a tourism boycott.

More recently however, government controls had been relaxed and I started thinking that the balance had shifted. I would go; I would try, as much as possible, to spend my money with the people, with private enterprise, and more importantly, I would try to make connections. Living in such a closed, controlled country I was sure the people's desire for contact beyond their borders would be great.

I met Hay Mar Soe in Mandalay, on the banks of the mighty Irrawady River. She welcomed me to her country and engaged me in conversation; then, still smiling and without a hint of shame, pointed out her home—a woven mat on the dirt of the riverbank; next to it a kitchen of sorts, improvised around a kerosene burner. Just beyond, a second woven mat propped up on sticks forming a cavity just large enough for one or two people to crawl inside. "Come", she said turning back towards the river, "I'll show you the boats."

I followed her across a narrow plank onto a cluster of wooden boats tied together side—by—side. Ducking below low ceilings we made our way from boat to boat passing grime covered men handling the boats' cargo—big drums of kerosene. "My mother's work", said Hay Mar Soe. Her father had abandoned the family and taken up with another woman. So now Hay Mar Soe's mother did "man's work". Later, when I met her she too was covered in grime; but smiling sweetly. My age, 40, she looked older than my own mom.

Back off the boats Hay Mar Soe invited me to eat at their home. I declined the offer saying I'd already eaten. "Okay then, I'll buy you a coffee", she said. By the time we reached her aunt's tea stall I'd convinced her it would be my treat.

We sat on benches, still on the riverbank. I was introduced around—to her aunt, an uncle. Other curious folks came around. Two men engrossed in a game of chess never looked up. We sipped our "coffee mix"—the ubiquitous instant coffee, powdered milk and sugar in one convenient packet.

That night, back in the heart of the city, I met a charming 19 year old trishaw driver. He waited patiently out in front of a restaurant while I ate with my Slovenian friend. Then he and his friend took us in search of a pwe (Burmese carnival).

I asked the young trishaw driver his name—"Harry Potter", he said. I laughed, "Have you seen the movie? Read the books?" "No, the movie hasn't come here and even if the books had, I can't read English—but I've heard about Harry Potter from an American I met. He helped me with my English." His real name was Ko Ore.

I had tentatively arranged a car for the following day to take me outside of Mandalay to see the "ancient cities". I liked Ko Ore so when he proposed to make arrangements for me I decided I'd go instead with him. He'd arrange the car and driver and would come along in order to help me out and to practice his English. "A friend of mine will accompany us as well", I told him referring to Hay Mar Soe. "We'll pick her up at the river." Ko Ore was intrigued—"Your friend is Burmese?"

Although she'd lived her whole life in Mandalay, Hay Mar Soe had never been to the ancient cities situated just a few miles down the river. The remnants of the ancient capitals of Amapura, Sagaing and Inwa are pretty much a must—see for tourists. She was thrilled when I invited her along.

Hay Mar Soe rarely, if ever, got the opportunity to do anything so extravagant. Even the basics of life were out of reach for her and her family. Rent for a legitimate home of some sort is just US$1 per month. But you have to come up with a US$10 deposit—something Hay Mar Soe's family couldn't do. So they squatted on the riverbank, along with many other families.

They had erected a shack there but shortly before my arrival government authorities had made a sweep through and destroyed all the homes. Since then the families were obliged to keep a low profile—not to erect anything that would make it look as if they lived there.

Ko Ore too, lived with his family in an improvised home on the riverbank. His mother died before he reached his teenage years and being the oldest child, he was obliged to drop out of school and start working.

He'd had his current job, that of trishaw driver, for a little over two years. Most of the money he took in went to pay the daily rental fee of the trishaw. He operates without a license and so occasionally must pay off the police. One time he refused to pay the bribe (or couldn't) and spent a dreadful month in jail.

But driving a trishaw gave Ko Ore access to foreigners—and thus access to the second tier of Burma's dual economy. He was clever and had learned well from his upbringing on the streets. His English was excellent—despite having had no formal education—but he couldn't read or write.

The next morning, bright and early, I met Ko Ore at the designated spot. We had tea with the driver and then headed out to the river to fetch Hay Mar Soe. She'd dressed up a bit and on her cheeks had the big circles of smeared sandalwood typical of Burmese women. She introduced her "sister—cousin" - San San Myint - who would also join us.

I introduced Ko Ore. When I'd first told him about Hay Mar Soe, he didn't recognize the name but said "maybe I know her". Upon meeting however they weren't familiar to each other and both seemed a bit shy being introduced by a foreigner.

"How did you sleep?", I asked Hay Mar Soe. "Well..." The police had come in the middle of the night. Everyone had to scramble. People who were caught sleeping on the riverbank at night had been known to "disappear".

We said goodbye to Hay Mar Soe's mom—who was all smiles—and piled into the back of the miniature—sized blue Mazda line truck—women on one side, men on the other. First stop was Mahamuni Paya at the southern edge of Mandalay; from there on to the ancient cities.

We were together visiting all the sites until reaching the final destination. At Inwa it would be problematic for them to be with me. Here, a local with a foreigner would be expected to have a guide's license. I would take the boat across the river to Inwa without them and spend a couple hours touring the sites there by horse cart. But first, lunch.

We ate outside in the shade at a small restaurant near the river crossing and talked. One-on-one English lessons cost US$10 for two months of daily classes. Hay Mar Soe made it through one month and then the money ran out. Her lessons included verbal skills as well as reading and writing. She was clearly a fast learner but having had only one month of lessons, her vocabulary was extremely limited.

She had heard the word "shower" and asked me what it meant. When I described its meaning she said oh, like "I take a shower in the river". Not exactly, but when I tried to differentiate "shower" from "bath" it dawned on me that she had never experienced a "shower" (it didn't occur to me at the time to mention a rain shower).

Ko Ore had been learning English from foreigners for a couple years. His vocabulary was excellent but he couldn't read or write. "You should teach each other", I told them, and off I went.

I was gone more than two hours. When I returned they were sitting where I'd left them—outside at the restaurant table—engaged in mutual English lessons. They showed me a notebook that Hay Mar Soe had gifted to Ko Ore, and which they had started to fill with English phrases and Burmese translations. I was thrilled.

The sun was setting behind the pagodas of Sagaing as we headed back to Mandalay—beautiful! Back at the riverbank we sat in the darkness—the four of us, Hay Mar Soe's mom, San San Myint's mom and the mosquitoes. We munched on delicious deep fried vegetables and talked. I slipped Hay Mar Soe a US$20 bill. She had never before seen, much less possessed, a US note. She hadn't a clue what it was worth. I wrote the amount in the local currency on a page in my notebook—20,000 kyats. She could hardly believe it.

I felt truly fortunate to have had my life touched by our meeting. And I felt that they appreciated this too. I realized in an instant that coming to Burma had been the right decision.

The following morning, early, I was moving on. So I said my goodbyes that night wondering if I'd ever see these great kids again. A week later when I reached Rangoon, I called Hay Mar Soe. She had an aunt and uncle who lived nearby and who had a telephone. I waited as someone went to fetch her.

Our conversation was short—her English skills fell apart over the telephone. Apparently she needed to see one's face in order to understand. As I prepared to leave the country I felt like I had gotten a glimpse of the true face of Burma; and I was starting to understand.

Read more about Burma at
Burma's Iron Lady.

copyright ©2003 - Gregg Butensky

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Hay Mar Soe

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Hay Mar Soe

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Ko Ore, San San Myint, Hay Mar Soe

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Hay Mar Soe's mom, Hay Mar Soe, San San Myint's mom, San San Myint, Ko Ore