by Dorothy Hom
Drawn by a squalling loudspeaker, scurrying children, and the life-size poster plastered on a metal stand featuring a bespectacled and smiling monk, we peered down the narrow Yangon street. A colorful array of suspended lights paraded down the alleyway,
“Does that mean he’s giving a speech?” Michael asked. Our tour guide had explained this to us earlier.
“Maybe it’s happening tonight,” I replied.
My husband and I stood on a busy Chinatown street in Yangon, Myanmar. Intrigued by their embrace of Buddhist beliefs, the plentitude of stunning pagodas, and a society Herbert Hoover had once described as “the only genuinely happy people in all of Asia,” Michael had wanted to visit a place that was still unspoiled. I was glad to accompany him, but was far more curious about how Myanmar was emerging from decades of isolation. Deposited from a taxi at the corner of Mahabandoola Road and Phone Gyee Street as evening fell, we had started inching our way through the open-air food market that spilled off the sidewalk and onto the road.
I had no preconceived ideas of what Burma was like or what I might discover here.
Bok choi, bumpy loofah, and dragonfruit stacked in stray trays hemmed with red string. Pans of fried chicken, rice or egg noodles, and pre-skewered pork, chicken and shrimp heaped next to ready barbecues, tempting our choices for dinner. Passing too close to a wok of bubbling oil, I feared accidentally scalding my arm. But when the next stall featured a sizzling griddle with browned pancakes sprinkled with kernels of corn, I leaned over the blistering heat to take a good look. Swallowing the just fried, tiny quail eggs cooked sunny-side-up, I was even glad to burn the tip of my tongue.
A quick-fingered vendor spread lime paste and chopped areca nuts onto a betel nut leaf then folded it into a parcel for chewing. Overlapping leaves thickly lined a basket nearby — a green, shingled whirlpool of addiction. Slicing a cooked vegetable that resembled a round pink log into stringy, foot-long strands, a woman prepared bamboo shoot. Inhaling pungent lilies, an odor of bad propane, and the fresh Asian basil scenting the evening air, I pinched myself, delighted that we were finally here. Yet what piqued our curiosity most of all was the red and gold arch spanning the entrance to 18th Street, the inviting pink, green and white fluorescent lights, the placard announcing a spiritual leader’s appearance, and the promise of something celebratory that appeared to be happening in the darkness ahead.
Michael and I advanced deeper. Sounds from the avenue: rumbling buses, tooting cars, cell phone chatter, and vendors hawking their wares, dwindled. Vehicles on this street had been completely barred. We heard the patter of slippered feet and the buzzing of bulbs viewed through open storefronts illuminating the dingy interiors where people worked and lived. A pair of women compressed cardboard boxes. A rice cooker, electric griddle, faucet and sink sufficed as one dwelling’s kitchen. Out on the street, two men stood by a metal gong. One held a wooden mallet. Seated around a folding table, a bantering group in ribbed sleeveless Ts organized raffle tickets next to a display of plastic-wrapped Buddhas.
Growing up as a Chinese-American in New York City, I was brought up with only the vaguest understanding of Confucian and Mahayana Buddhist values. My parents never took me to worship at temples; the only custom we adhered to each year was when we visited my grandparents’ gravesite in Maspeth, Queens. Lighting joss sticks and thick, waxy red candles, we laid out roast pork and burnt fake paper money to feed their spirits in heaven. Not having met my grandparents, I felt no closer to them when I performed this rite. This respectful tradition had sentiment, yes. But I never felt relieved, or lifted up, or transformed in any way by my actions.
Here in this deeply pious land where so many in the populace were venerated as lifelong nuns or monks, the Burmese practiced an older Theravada Buddhism. This belief had sustained them for two thousand years, through invasions by the Mongols, occupation by the British, and most recently, the military dictatorship of General Ne Win that had cut off Myanmar from all contact with the West.
Remembering this, I longed to reach through the plastic to rub a Buddha’s belly or pat his head for good luck.
“It’s like we stumbled onto a church fair,” I said. Michael nodded back.
A clumsy pile of woven mats sat. Further on, we saw more mats already unfurled. Laid edge to edge, from curb to curb, the floor cover extended hundreds of yards into the distance. Spotting the pairs of abandoned sandals, Michael and I began to take off our own. As in any Buddhist temple in Myanmar, we proceeded barefoot. The entire street had been converted into a holy place.
Sensing the hard ground beneath my bare soles, I felt connected to all of this.
We passed idle speakers and still projection screens. A dozen girls no older than ten crouched over pans of individually baked cakes and nimbly placed them in cellophane bags. Organizers spaced electric lanterns, glowing globes the size of small basketballs, on either side of a worn green carpet that unrolled down the center of the lane. All around us people chit-chatted: families, neighbors or friendly strangers. Men wore trousers or cotton longyis, the traditional Burmese skirt knotted at the waist. Women donned prettily patterned, tailored blouses with matching long skirts. The elderly settled in squeaky plastic chairs. Making eye contact with one older man, I said, “Ming-ga-la ba,” in greeting.
Finally we reached a large stage and backdrop. Hollering attendants moved power lines and equipment. We couldn’t tell how many minutes or hours away the show was meant to go on. Glancing at the Colonial-era tenements, I saw flimsy wood shutters, weeds sprouting through brick, and cracks in the spalling cement. Cables and wiring snaked up the facades like bloom-less bougainvillea. A curious resident glimpsed through his metal grilled window to gaze on the proceedings below. Briefly, I thought of our tour guide, Myo, an affable man in his early thirties with a thick head of hair.
Myo had told us about receiving a Bachelors of Science in Chemistry from the University in Yangon a decade ago. Unfortunately, there were no research labs or pharmaceuticals to apply to in this poverty-stricken country. Frozen in economic amber since General Ne Win’s rise in 1962, and host to a succession of student and monk-led protests violently suppressed in 1988 and 2007, the Republic of the Union of Myanmar offered scant opportunities for Burmese who received a higher education. Growing up in a community such as this on 18th Street, anyone with talent likely emigrated to find employment, as Myo did, moving to Dubai to work for an airline.
Following the 2010 Myanmar general elections, the military junta succumbed to global sanctions, internal pressure, and the unstoppable tide of reform espoused by the winning party, the National League for Democracy led by the Nobel Prize winning activist, Aung San Suu Kyi. A nominally elected civilian government was introduced. In 2011, Suu Kyi was released from house arrest. Just recently, in November 2015, another general election was held. The NLD once again won a landslide victory.
Myo proudly showed us his pinky nail. On it was a crescent of ink, the mark of his vote.
“The Lady said she did not want revenge,” Myo told us, addressing Suu Kyi by her popular name. “She said to the generals, ‘I forgive you. We must forget the past and work together to re-build our country.’ Did you know the leader of our government calls Suu Kyi the name A May Suu or Mother Suu? Very respectful.” Myo was refering to the former military commander, President Thein Sein.
Something giggling brushed past my legs, a small boy two years old. Tottering from one lantern onto the next, he hugged them like a miniature rugby player who finds out his ball is as big as his chest. Wordlessly, I glanced at Michael. He responded, a like twinkle in his eye. We followed the toddler back up the lane, mesmerized by his unbridled glee and his Pied Piper way of threading his mother, auntie, brother and us in and around the floor standing lights. Bouncy music blared from the speakers. Not-quite-Bollywood, not sung in English, this infectious tune soon had parents bouncing infants off of their hips. Children zig-zagged across the mats. Breathless, they stopped in hairpin turns and ducked and dodged to slip their pursuers. A few lay down oblivious to passersby to somersault and roll around.
Listening to the whoops of delight, my head started dipping to the peppy beat. Something warm and pleasant swelled me up inside. Standing here in this block party in Burma, I felt so lucky, so incredibly privileged to witness such unsullied joy. I looked all around to catch all the smiles. My own lips stretched wide helplessly. I did not want this moment to end.
As we retreated toward the start of the lane, we passed the old man I had seen earlier. He motioned to me from where he sat with his two elderly friends.
“I think he wants us to join him,” I whispered.
“It would be rude not to,” my husband agreed. We strolled over hesitantly.
One of the man’s companions jumped up to grab some more chairs. Sitting, we knocked our knees against the low table. On it was a teapot, cups and a platter of yellow sponge cake I recognized from my childhood; my mother would pour the batter into a pan then steam it in a covered wok. The companion returned with two empty cups. A third man poured us some tea. Our host with crinkling eyes extended the platter. Daintily, we bit into our cake. Michael and I raised our cups in thanks, but beyond the awkward, well-meaning smiles, nobody said a word.
I took out my iPhone to show them an image of our two teenage girls, Sophie and Chloe, who were lounging back at our hotel. Squinting at the screen and then at me, the third man began to speak. His language mimicked the sing-song Burmese we had heard, yet introduced words that sounded familiar. Pointing to me, he said something I knew. Zhong-guo. China.
“Yes,” I replied. “Wo shi mei-guo, zhong-guo ren.” I am an American Chinese.
Delighted, the man rambled on. I couldn’t understand any more that he said. Though they had asked us to join their street fair, I couldn’t help feeling intrusive. Part of me wanted to flee. Another part wanted time to stand still, to savor this special connection made halfway around the world from where I was born. Instead, time dissolved like tamarind flakes, the thin flat discs of flattened fruit mixed with sugar that melted like a communion wafer. Earlier in the day, while Michael was bargaining in an antique shop, an assistant had offered these flakes to our children. This was yet another coincidence. I had last eaten these treats as a kid and had not known their name in English. By journeying all the way to Myanmar, part of me had found home.
“Michael, do you have a piece of paper on you? Anything?” I asked.
My husband rummaged inside his bag and pulled out an old New Yorker. Ripping the page out carefully, the endpaper with the caption-less cartoon readers were invited to annotate, I folded a corner against the opposite edge. I was trying to craft an origami bird to give our host as a gift. After a few fumbling folds, I laughed aloud in dismay.
“Brain freeze,” I said, chagrinned. “I completely forgot the next step.” I was also completely relaxed. All my functions had become pleasantly numb. Retreating to my other fallback creation, I fashioned an origami basket. Presenting this, I said, “Kyei zu ba,” or “Thank you.”
Our host turned my gift over between his gnarled fingers. His friends peered in puzzled amazement. Michael and I stood to leave and grinning, shook hands all around.
Walking slowly toward the start of the lane, we paused to slip on our shoes. The man with the mallet started to bang the gong. The monk still hadn’t arrived. No matter what awaited the residents of 18th Street tomorrow, tonight they were celebrating. Briefly, we had been invited to be a part of their community.
The next afternoon just before sunset, after the heat had dropped and the humidity subsided, Myo escorted my family and I through the entrance of the Shwedagon Pagoda. I had already glimpsed this remarkable, gleaming spire from everywhere in Yangon. What struck me was how enormous the place was. The grounds were as large as four of New York’s Union Square, or of London’s Trafalgar Square, combined. In the center, climbing 326 feet in the air was a great golden stupe, a solid structure of concentric rising bands that resembled an upturned bowl. Topping this was a slender tower called a banana bud. An ornate, belled umbrella crowned the whole. A jeweled weather vane sat at top.
In 588 BC, two merchants traveling from southern Burma encountered the Gautama Buddha who had recently attained Enlightenment. They offered him their food as alms. In return, the Buddha plucked eight strands from his head and granted this as a blessing. Upon their return, King Okkalapa erected a shrine to incorporate the Buddha’s hairs along with relics of the three other Buddhas who had come before: a nether-robe of the Kassapa Buddha, the water filter of the Kawnagamana Buddha and the staff of the Kakusanda Buddha. Shwedagon means The Reliquary of the Four.
Surrounding the Shwedagon’s base was a series of Buddhas, one for each day of the week (or occasionally two, split into ‘morning’ and ‘afternoon’) accompanied by an animal statue. Devotees approached the shrine of the day of their birth to pour water onto the head of the Buddha, then onto their animal. My family surrounded Myo. They craned over his shoulder to check out the app that confirmed what day of the week they were born. Michael and Chloe were Tuesday babes. Sophie was a Thursday child. Approaching the two different options for Wednesday, having no idea, I tossed an internal coin and selected the morning shrine.
As I picked up the empty metal cup to perform this observance for the first time, I was unsure of what to feel. So much religion revolved around protocol. There were dos and don’ts, There was heaven or hell. There were all-mighty, omniscient gods whose edicts over the centuries were inflexibly, tragically followed. In accepting a ritual I knew nothing about, I emptied myself of all expectation, or recrimination, to focus on one simple act.
Pouring water over the Buddha’s head then over my elephant, as children are baptized the world over––I celebrated the day of my birth.
During the September 2007 protests known as the Saffron Revolution, armored tanks encircled the Schwedagon Pagoda, the assembly place for monks to convene and lead the demonstrations. On the same ground where I stood in bare feet––the black marble tiles still radiating heat while the white tiles already were cool––civilians surrounded the monks as a human shield. During the bloody reprisals that followed, protesters throughout Myanmar were arrested or shot. Monks in the Ngwe Kyar Yan monastery in Yangon reputedly had their bare heads smashed against a brick wall. A high-ranking colonel attempted to defect, aghast that the junta had commanded him to raid monasteries, kill monks, and dump their bodies in the jungle.
The transition of power from the current government to the National League for Democracy was scheduled for early 2016. However positive Myo’s outlook was for things in Myanmar to improve, I suspected reality would be time-consuming and messy. Nonetheless, I believed Burma would succeed. For two and a half millennia, the faithful have worshipped here at the Shwedagon Pagoda. Their continuing faith in Buddha has helped them persevere.
I stepped away from the Wednesday shrine to gaze at the milling throng. Thousands had come tonight to celebrate the full moon. Supplicants laid flowers at their birthday shrines, lit joss stocks in sand-filled urns, or sat on the plaza — knees bent or cross-legged so as not to point their feet at the Buddha — and bowed their heads in prayer. Visitors wandered the many pavilions housing more Buddhas that dotted the grounds. Even those who did not come here to pray looked awed, as if disbelieving that so many people could gather together in peace.
Tourists took snapshots. Children ran freely about.
“Are you okay?” Michael asked.
“I’m fine,” I replied. “I’ve never felt better in my life.”
Back home, I was usually ridden with anxiety. Concealed beneath my competent demeanor were constant tremors of second-guessing and ever shifting sands of confidence. Here without a pocketbook or an electronic device, I felt honest and cleansed. I held only a taper, invited by Myo to light the candles encircling the Shwedagon’s base. I was reminded of something someone had said, “People are too busy doing. We are human beings. We should spend our time being.”
I stared at the flickering flame in my hand. It sparked of promise yet to unfold.