Uncovering Burma: Parts 1 and 2

Author’s Note: We cycled through Burma for five weeks. The following 10 part series is our account of how recent political changes in this historically isolated country are affecting the lives of its everyday citizens. 

Part 1: The Anime Convention

Lone Lone, Pinky, and Russell did not go to the international food expo in Yangon to see the new whirling, non-stick Japanese rice cookers, or the cheddar cheese from the Australian food stand. They came to see the Cosplay Show.

The Cosplay show was hard to miss. Located at the far end of the convention hall, aside from the rows of booths with short-skirted attendants seducing Burmese wallets with their bizarre array of industrial water filters, gourmet pasta sauces, and instant coffee brands (complete with dancing mascots), the cosplay show was the main attraction of the week-long Japanese invasion. “Oh my god, here they come!” we heard a Burmese teenager exclaim.

We followed his eyes to the stage, where three doll-like figurines, dressed head to toe as human interpretations of animated Japanese anime characters, began a choreographed dance to techno music.  They wore 3 foot colored hair extensions, metallic makeup, and prop swords that whirled around the stage with them. The Burmese youth rushed to the edge of the platform and started fist-pumping like they were at a Metallica concert. Others walked over from the rice cookers and stood against the wall with baffled curiosity.

“Dude, that was awesomeeeee!” Lone Lone said afterwards. The long-haired, Burmese rock musician and graphic designer was the reason we were there; he invited us to event after we found him on couchsurfing.org and sent him a hangout request.

“Yeah man — that was bloody awesome” agreed Russell.

Despite the heat, Russell was dressed in zebra-print tights and a shiny leather jacket. He also spoke though a heavy British accent.

“Oh — did you learn your English in the United Kingdom?” we asked him.

“Nope,” he said. “I learned my English from Adele.”

We thought he was joking, but he wasn’t. The Burmese fashionista had acquired his British accent from listening to interviews with top 40 soul singer.

Pinky was the only girl in our group, but she seemed to know the most about the anime characters at the event. She kept running off to grab pictures with characters from her favorite shows. Her bubble gum dimples and dangling earrings matched with the exaggerated ‘peace signs’ she made in her poses.

We all took a “gangnam style” group photo in front of the convention center, and then decided to retreat to the shade of a nearby tea house, where – being only our second day in Myanmar — we were eager to ask our new Burmese friends about all the political changes we had been reading about in Western newspapers. “So what do you think about Thein Sein?” “What will happen with Suu Kyi?”

They looked at each other.

“Um. We don’t really talk about politics.” Lone Lone said.

We were surprised. It certainly didn’t sound like the democratic revolution we were expecting. So what did Lone Lone, Pinky, and Russell mean when they kept referring to the “changes” happening in Myanmar? After we heard them throw the clichéd term out a few more times, we pressed for an answer.

“More cars.”

“ATMS.”

“Faster Internet”

It clicked. At least for this group of 20 years olds in Yangon, “change” wasn’t necessarily new ways of thinking, “change” was opportunity. Change was something new to see, something to get excited about. “Change” meant a series of firsts. The first Cosplay shows. The first film festival. “and the first Jason Mraz concert!”

That change was already affecting how they lived their lives. At the end of our tea, we were surprised to learn that the Burmese had not known each other before the attending the Cosplay show. Just like us, they met at the event.

“That’s what’s so cool about these new events, they’re bringing people together.” Lone Lone said.

As we left, everyone exchanged phone numbers, facebook IDs, and email addresses. Then Lone Lone and his new friends went off to the mall to check out a brand new coffee shop.

Part 2: The Monk

Some of the monks under U Marnita Monywa's Purview

We were sitting in one of Yangon’s outdoor cafes, straddling its miniaturized plastic toddler seats and enjoying the endless tea thermos served at the table, when U Marnita approached us. “Hello!” he said brightly. “May I ask your nationality?”

U Marnita Monywa is a Buddhist monk, the traditional kind with red robes and shaved head and paper fan to protect his scalp from the sun. That morning he was making his usual rounds to local restaurants to solicit food donations for his monastery. He was a regular at our café; when the waitress saw him, she already had noodles and rice ready for him. She poured them into his metallic bowl, and then bowed towards him, placing her head to the ground. Helping feed monks is considered an auspicious practice in Myanmar.

“Now,” U Marnita said, turning back towards us, “would you guys like to see my monastery?”

We accepted in a second. The monk was excited to practice his English with us, but we were excited for a different reason: before arriving in Burma, we had half-joked about how cool it would be to talk life with a Burmese monk. Now was our chance! Were we about to learn some secrets to enlightenment!?

When we arrived at U Marnita’s monastery, our first greeting was the sounds of hammering, and pummeling, and scraping. There was a new, 5-story dormitory being built on the edge of premises, future home to over 100 monks when it’s completed. “And this” he said, “is my home.”

The monk led us to the second floor of an old building, where a number of other monks, most younger than 18, were gathered in different cloth-partitioned sections of the room, their living quarters. U Marnita’s was in the far corner. It was nothing at all like what we were expecting.

A large Manchester United poster was fashioned next to a bright, LED-accented idol of Buddha. “Wayne Rooney” U Marnita said, pointing admiringly towards the star soccer player on the poster. “I like to say ‘Rooney’ is my English name.”

Around the poster, cluttered all over his desks, were English language instruction books with generic titles like Common English Phrases, How to learn English, English in 5 months. Over the previous five years, U Marnita has made learning English a full time pursuit. His hope is to master the language well enough he can become head monk and teach children at the monastery in his native home, Theit Sein Village in Northern Myanmar.

What amazed us was just how he was doing it. “I love American movies.” U Marnita said, showing us his collection of pirated discs, including The Matrix Reloaded. He was also the only person on his floor with a desktop computer, and plugged in an external harddrive where he had hundreds of illegally downloaded movies and songs. He clicked open one of the movies, and fast-forwarded to a scene with Jennifer Love Hewitt rejecting some fireman with attitude. –“I’m just an all or nothing kind of girl,”– he quoted along with the actress. He paused the film. “Oh, I just love that line!” He giggled.

U Marnita’s other pride was his diaries. He had been writing in them every day since 2010, in English for practice. The entries were impeccably penned, in handwriting much neater than ours, and were a candid and straightforward look into his daily life — as simple as weather recordings and daily shopping lists, to his struggles to stop lusting for girls in his English class.

January 18, 2013: I must train myself to stop looking at such pretty girls, but no man is without mistakes.

It was fascinating; we ended up spending the entire morning at the monastery with U Marnita. When it finally came time to leave, the Monk glanced at the wall clock and became apologetic, “Oh! I’m so sorry to have taken up your time!”

“No No.” we said “you didn’t at all.” Rather than talk about the abstractions of enlightenment, we had received something much more real. We had discussed American Movies, Manchester United, and exchanged a few crude jokes. It made the exotic country that we had approached with such trepidation a place that seemed much friendlier and accessible.

A monk walks down the road to Kalewa, with a megaphone to broadcast his prayers.

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2 Responses to Uncovering Burma: Parts 1 and 2

  1. Cathy Helowicz says:

    Hi Morgan. I’m loving reading about your adventures. I’m friends with you Grandfather Ted here in Florida and he told me about your Christmas Challenge. I Can’t wait to read the book. Safe travels! Cathy

  2. John Volz says:

    Morgan and Chris … I don’t know when this odyssey is scheduled to conclude, but we must find a way to keep you on your journey. It has been such fun to ride along with you guys.

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