A Prayer for Burma
Biography & Memoir
5 3/8 x 8 3/8
After living in the United States for over a decade, Kenneth Wong returns to his native Burma—a country fraught with political upheaval and laden with superstition—to face the cultural specters of his own past and the spirit of a land trapped in time.
Sealed off from the outside world, first by an oppressive military regime’s isolationism and then by economic sanctions, Burma lives on like a lingering ghost of its colonial past. A Prayer for Burma is a beautiful, stunning portrait of the country as seen and remembered by a homecoming native battling his conflicting national, cultural, ideological, ancestral, and ethnic identities.
In the tradition of Orwell, Maugam, and Theroux, Wong shows Burma as an exotic place that invites, frightens, teases, and haunts citizens and visitors alike with its unique mixture of ill-kept Edwardian structures, pockmarked English mansions, and glittering Buddhist temples. And as a former Burmese rediscovering Burma—an outsider who was once an insider—Wong reveals the courage, humor, and perseverance of the Burmese people and their endearing, yet mysterious way of life.
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The Foreigner and the Native
I used to attend lectures in the intolerable June heat with a hand-woven ceremonial sarong wrapped around my waist and a long-sleeved collar-less shirt buttoned to my neck. All the lecture halls in Rangoon University were nostalgically named after the legendary kingdoms of medieval Burma. I recall two in particular: Sagaing and Taungu. All of them, as if to evoke the memory of the fallen dynasties they were named after, emitted a stale smell similar to that of ancient dungeons, where condemned nobles and dethroned monarchs waiting to be hung or decapitated spent their final days. Lighting was minimal; the small windows did little to welcome the occasional breezes that fondled the tamarind trees outside.
Trapped in those grim chambers, the students combated the stifling heat using various ingenious methods: some unbuttoned their shirts as far down as it was permissible; others fanned themselves with their textbooks; and the girls, for whom unbuttoning was not an option because they were held to a higher standard of modesty, strategically positioned themselves near doorways, which not only admitted a vast amount of air but also permitted a quick retreat when threatened by suffocation or dehydration. It was not required, nor was it advisable, to dress as I did. But I was fastidiously concerned with the preservation of dignity so I willingly sacrificed comfort for the sake of decorum and stoically endured more than my fair share of this tropical torture.
Returning to Rangoon after living ten years in San Francisco, I confronted once again this familiar but forgotten Burmese heat—something I could no longer endure with the indifference of a native. The fog and the sea breezes of San Francisco had seeped into my limbs. The thermal resistance of my childhood had all but dissolved. Now, anything above room temperature made me uneasy. I had carefully planned to arrive during December, the coldest month of the year, for the expressed purpose of avoiding this heat.
But Burma was unwilling to abide by the seasonal laws; it operated, as it had always done, under a different and peculiar set of rules that were entirely its own. It greeted me with the malicious heat of a witch’s boiling cauldron when I stepped out of my room. But I remained as unyielding as I had always been in my obsession with dignity; and, having studied a number of Victorian novels, I was determined not just to cling to dignity but to wear it on my lapel like a conspicuous rose. So I put on a crisp linen shirt and an ostentatious silk tie, and went out to face the venomous heat of my motherland.
Burma, being my birthplace, is definitively and figuratively my motherland—not exactly a lullaby-humming, muffin-baking mother full of reassurances, but an unpredictable and eccentric mother, whose cradle ricocheted like a defective roller coaster more often than it swung like a steady pendulum. America, who embraced me with open arms when I left Burma at the age of twenty-one, may well be my foster father. But there is also old China, whose sepia-toned photo haunts me with his distant eyes whenever I open the family album, for I am ethnically Chinese although I was born in Burma. China is, in a way, the grandfather I can barely remember. My own biological parents are an odd pair of Asian archetypes—my father an armchair-bound Buddhist who accepts everyone, and my mother a headstrong pragmatist who challenges everything. It is not easy to grow up between a serene hermit and a hotheaded materialist. And it is even harder to be the product of a tri-cultural upbringing—with quirky Burma for a mother, liberal America for a foster father, and autocratic China for a grandfather.
My own identity, which is made up of tiny fragments of my national and cultural identities, resembles the vision inside a kaleidoscope—I see a different picture every time I look. I learned early on that a complete understanding of any kind was simply impossible with Burma. But, returning to my motherland, just as an estranged son would to the mother he had left behind, I had hoped to get at least a better understanding of this colorful cultural mandala that was my identity.
Kandawgyi, the great lake at the center of Rangoon, was within walking distance from Bagan Inn, my temporary residence. In fact, the lake was the primary reason I had selected this particular establishment. I knew Kandawgyi was one of the few places in the city where fresh air was still available; the air was filled with fumes everywhere else, coughed up by dilapidated trucks and buses (some of which traveled so sluggishly that they were frequently outrun by the pedestrians chasing after them). The sky above Rangoon had turned ashen gray with a thick veil of smog. Pollution seemed to have worsened ten fold within the last ten years. I knew many young Burmese who routinely visited one tea shop after another, smoking cheroots—homemade Burmese cigars—at each because they had little else to do. I thought of urging them to quit, but it seemed silly since the air they were breathing could cause just as much damage to their lungs.
The sun had not yet risen when I came out of the inn. I found the receptionist—a thin man with a melancholy grin—sound asleep in the tiny closet-like room behind the polished teak counter. I woke him up and asked him for directions to Kandawgyi. His speech was incoherent. When I looked confused, he communicated with me in a body language that was entirely of his own—gesturing with his arms and elbows, and pointing with his chin, he showed me how to get there from the inn. I made a mental note of his anatomical directions. I asked him if it was safe to take a walk in the neighborhood at such an early hour. Eyeballing the wallet spilling out of my khaki pants, he reluctantly said, “Yes.”
I paused at the intersection, trying to remember the exact angle of the receptionist’s elbow. But I was now at different coordinates, facing a different direction. If I were to continue according his anatomical directions (which had begun to fade from my memory), I would need to reconstruct all his bodily gestures from a different perspective. This was too much mental effort for my first morning back. I was on vacation and so was my brain; I wasn’t in the mood to solve a complex geometric puzzle. The way I saw it, I could treat the puzzle as a multiple-choice question: (A) Turn left (B) Turn right. So I did what I used to do in high school when I found myself in a similar predicament—I took a guess.
I turned right, which was not the way to Kandawgyi. Actually, it was the way to Kandawgyi; it just wasn’t the best way. There are many mysterious townships in Rangoon where no matter which way one turns, one eventually ends up at one’s destination—the only difference is the time it takes. And, for many Burmese, time is something they have in abundance. For some, it is the only thing they have in abundance.
I sauntered through the quiet township of Tamwe, which was for the most part still asleep. There were a few exceptions to the sprawling landscape of stillness—a produce merchant setting up shop, a cab driver washing his car, and a team of Buddhist monks collecting alms. The monks walked in single file, led by two stout men shouldering a heavy pole from which hung a regal gong. The novices trotted along at the end of the line, shuffling their saffron robes and bouncing their lacquer bowls. Every once in a while, the two forerunners struck the gong with a short stick, producing a brassy G flat that drove potential benefactors out of their comfortable beds and onto the street. While the gong’s shrill sound lingered, a few patrons appeared, still disheveled and red-eyed. Alternately yawning and muttering incoherent prayers, they dropped rice packages into the monks’ bowls.
But the gong evidently served another purpose as well. I had read somewhere, or heard someone say, that Napoleon Bonaparte could sleep with his eyes open while riding a horse. It was, perhaps, a form of sleepwalking. In other words, he could sleep-ride. And now I saw with my own eyes Buddhist monks who were sleep-marching; they moved along in synchronized steps with the wakeful ones, but their heads were tilted to the side, and their eyes closed, each in an expression of serenity that could have only come from an inactive mind. It was also for these sleep-marchers’ benefit that the gong sang; I saw them jerked back into consciousness each time the venerable instrument was struck. The music of the gong was Buddha’s calling, to which both his benefactors and disciples must answer.
In some parts of the neighborhood, I saw newly erected apartment complexes sharing the sidewalks with clusters of hovels and huts. Like over-grown bullies among malnourished youths, the wide-shouldered brick buildings intimidated their tiny, misshapen neighbors. But before each home—be it a spacious teak mansion encircled with fragrant rosebushes or a collapsing bamboo structure with a crude, thatched roof—was a ditch filled with foul, dark liquid. Partially covered with broken concrete plates, some of these ditches resembled gaping mouths with broken teeth. Those that were simply left exposed, on the other hand, looked like moats, whose sole purpose was to drown an invading army.
These ditches, in actuality, are part of the city’s sewage system; whereas San Francisco and New York choose to confine their drainage, for the most part, to underground tunnels and channels, Rangoon, with unabashed candor, reveals its intestinal functions to curious onlookers, just as a master clockmaker might, out of professional pride, showcase the intricate mechanism of his latest creation. During monsoon months, when streams and creeks overflow, fishes and shrimps can be seen jumping in and out of Rangoon’s sewers; it is not uncommon to see an urban angler (usually a boy in a plastic raincoat with a broken branch, a line, and a wiggling worm impaled on a safety pin) poised above a sewer, ready to reel in his dinner.
Growing up, I saw a wide variety of sewers, but I couldn’t recall seeing any as deep and as menacing as those in Tamwe. The only good thing I can say about them is that they are too big to miss, and since the dark matters underneath the water emit a kind of phosphorescent glow, they are impossible to miss—and that makes them safe. But danger came with a sudden power outage, and all the street lamps died instantly, leaving me with the dreadful knowledge that I was surrounded by sewers, each of which could easily devour a small army.
I had heard the incredible story—an urban legend of sorts—of a local man who went out for a walk with his wife one morning and didn’t realize she had fallen into a ditch until he got home. There were several versions of the story but in all the versions I had heard, the wife was eventually found dead. I imagined myself at the bottom of a sewer, unrecognizable except for my yellow-and-maroon tie. The produce merchant would testify: “That was the foreigner I saw going to the market earlier.” The cab driver would corroborate: “Yes, that’s him.” The older monks would say a few prayers for my soul. The younger ones, for whom the only lesson was that it looked extremely ridiculous to lie at the bottom of a sewer with a tie, would laugh hysterically and move on. I would never get to see Kandawgyi. Farewell Rangoon!
Power outages are an accepted part of life in Burma. I remember them occurring with the regularity of lunar cycles when I was growing up. My mother knew exactly when to bring out the candles, and I knew exactly when I would get to play with melting wax. If our section of the street was without electricity this Thursday, then next Thursday would be our next-door neighbors’ turn. That was how the government conserved electricity. However, this equilibrium of light and dark was sometimes thrown into disarray by the terrorist attacks of tribal rebels struggling for autonomy and independence from the oppressive military regime. Once in a while, these rebel factions bombed power plants to make a political statement. When this happened, the entire city could be in the dark for weeks.
I did get to see Kandawgyi later. It seemed Tamwe was fully prepared for the power outage; as soon as the street lamps went out, candles and gas lamps began to illuminate the entire neighborhood. I found Bagan Inn, my temporary residence, fully lit when I returned. Evidently the prudent owner of the establishment had invested in a power generator. “We were sort of expecting this,” said the receptionist. Was he informed in advance that there would be a power outage? “No, we know it’s our turn this week because that section over there lost power last week.” Apparently, the same energy conservation plan was still in place.
The power returned a few hours later. By then, sunlight was pouring in through the bamboo screens of my windows. Having survived the power outage and the sewers unscathed, I felt invincible. So I went out, for the second time, to look for Kandawgyi. This time, I didn’t bother asking for directions. There were only two possible turns and I had already taken the wrong one earlier. Therefore, I reasoned, the one I had failed to take previously had to be the right one. When I reached the same intersection, without any hesitation whatsoever, I turned left. Eventually, I found Kandawgyi.
When I walked past a family of four, the two children—a boy and a girl in matching outfits—said, “Look, a foreigner!” I had always had unusually pale skin. The harsh Asian sun failed to bronze me properly during the years in my childhood. The mild northern Californian sun did little to my skin tone. I had distinct Chinese features, framed within a mustache and a beard I had grown to hide my boyishness. But most importantly, I had a necktie—the unmistakable trademark of a foreigner.
“Don’t stare,” said the father, who was flapping his arms as if he were a plane getting ready to take off. “It’s impolite.” His—as incredible as it was—was not the most unique form of exercise; there were many others who, facing the magnificent Shwe Dagon pagoda, rotated their limbs in such unnatural fashions that I was tempted to conclude they were either testing the durability of their joints or practicing to become contortionists. I too used to jog around Kandawgyi. My motivation, however, was not personal fitness but vanity.
When I was sixteen, I received a pair of Nike shoes—something not many adolescent boys in Burma could afford. It was a present from a relative who had migrated to Canada. It arrived, like a sacred object from heaven, in a shiny cardboard box with a curved arrow on the lid. The unveiling ceremony was attended by many of my playfellows. When the crumpled tissues were removed and the shoes brought out, everyone had something to say about them. Look at the size of it! Have you ever seen anything that big? I have seen a pair exactly like this, worn by such and such actor in such and such movie. Yes, but did you see a similar pair worn by such and such singer during his concert tour? How much do you think it’ll cost in Bogyoke Market?
At the time, in Bogyoke Market, a pair of Nike shoes was sold for three or four times the salary of a low-level government official. It was not just a pair of running shoes—it was a piece of the Free West—the opulent land of Dallas and Dynasty, accessible to most Burmese only through television sets and movie screens. My new Nikes, upon closer examination, revealed the label “Made in Taiwan,” but because it was Nike, it was still a symbolic representation of the West, just as Marlboro and Ray-Ban had always been, regardless of where they were actually manufactured. Being the proud owner, I had to find an excuse to showcase my new shoes; I began waking up at five—a thing I had never done in the past—to jog around Kandawgyi. When I stretched, to let everyone know I was wearing Nike shoes, I kicked the air with impunity (something nearly impossible to execute with finesse wearing traditional Burmese thongs). The curved arrows on my shoes shone in the sun like thunderbolts from the Olympian goddess of victory.
Shwe Dagon, the legendary pagoda, stood at a distance like a golden lotus rising to meet the sky. Karaweik Hotel, which was built in the style of a royal barge, serenely rested on the water. The two mythical birds shouldering the hotel threw the massive shadows of their beaks across the water. The hotel was anchored, but the water was flowing. It gave the illusion that the hotel was moving too. With fancy hotels rising from the ground every day and flashy cars whizzing by every second, the Rangoon that I saw on my return also appeared to be moving in fast forward. But that too was an illusion. Eventually, I found out that a decent sarong cost half the salary of an average government clerk, a bag of rice the entire salary of the clerk, and a pair of imported sneakers still four times the salary of the clerk’s boss. The city had hardly moved in the past ten years.
When the father realized that his children were still staring at me, he slapped the back of their heads with considerable force. Then, he and his wife began staring at me. “Looks like a Malaysian,” he remarked. “Could be a Japanese,” she observed. And the two proceeded to discuss my attire. Look at that flashy tie! Do you see that tie? Who wears a tie that early in the morning on such a hot day? Silly, isn’t it? But it’s a good tie though. I might wear it, but only if I were going to wedding or a dinner party. And the shoes! Look at those shoes!
I read voraciously when I was growing up. Years of living abroad might have dulled my Burmese grammar and spelling, but I could still efficiently speak my native language. So I understood everything they were saying. But I pretended not to. I had pledged allegiance to the American flag. I was carrying an American passport. I was—legally—an American, a foreigner. It was their right to treat me as one.
And it was also my right to act like one. I used to look at foreigners the way they did—with a mixture of contempt and jealousy. My parents used to take me to Maha Bandoola Park, which was a couple of blocks away from the Strand Hotel, an establishment well-known for its colonial charm and a favorite among British tourists. Seen against the backdrop of discolored, gray buildings, the whitewashed hotel from the 1900s, with uniformed attendants beneath its brightly lit colonnade, was an enviable sight. I observed the foreigners coming and going. I marveled at the ease with which they climbed in and out of the moving iron-box (the elevator). These pink-skinned, sandy-haired creatures, whose body scent was not of sweat and shame like mine, but of powder and brandy, intimidated me with their self-assured, self-possessed demeanors. They roared; we whimpered. They strode in pride; we cowered in fear. Watching them from the opposite sidewalk, I felt a great despair, for I knew they had seen and done things I could only dream of. And I had prayed fervently to become a foreigner some day.
Being a foreigner in my own native country added yet another dimension to the kaleidoscopic vision that was my self. The necktie I had chosen to wear that morning was both ennobling and stifling. I insisted on wearing it because I recognized the prestige it suggested. I was a foreigner and, at the same time, a native coming home. One identity offered me a sense of belonging and the other alienation. Ironically, it was my foreigner identity, which came with a tourist’s remorselessness, that made me feel as if I belonged in Burma as much as I did anywhere else, and it was my identity as a homecoming native, which implied that I had at one point chosen to forsake my motherland, that made me feel alienated. So I behaved like a foreigner, while wishing everyone I met would somehow recognize me as a returning native. But that was ridiculous as I was doing everything I could to make the locals think that I was a foreigner and nothing to reveal that I was once a native.
Preoccupied, I detoured through another neighborhood on my way back to the inn. I went through a labyrinth of short lanes with multiple exits, and when I came out on the other side, I was on an unfamiliar road. There was a sidewalk tea shop, operating underneath a tarpaulin sheet stretched and mounted on four bamboo poles. There were a few side-cars (tricycles with passenger seats attached on the side) parked outside. The side-car sayas (side-car operators) temporarily deserted a tic-tac-toe match in progress, where the two players used broken branches to draw their Xs and Os in the sand, to observe what I—the lost foreigner—would do next. Those in the tea shop also began to turn around, one by one, to observe me. One of the side-car sayas cried, “Sir, where you want to go?” A sensible foreigner would have ridden the side-car back to the inn for an agreeable fee. But I was leaden with guilt and shame, and I felt embarrassed to admit to them, and to myself, that I was lost. I had no excuse to be lost—I was a homecoming native. I walked a few blocks away from the tea shop and approached instead a young girl selling flowers at an intersection.
In casual conversations, the Burmese tend to address strangers as if they are relations; when I was growing up, both my upstairs neighbor and my next-door neighbor (the former an unmarried Indian doctor, and the latter a monkish Burmese bachelor) called me thar (son). I did some rough calculations in my head, and concluded that, if I were married, my daughter would be the same age as this flower girl. So I decided to call her thami (daughter).
“Thami,” I asked, “how do I get back to Bagan Inn on Po Sein Street?” She looked at me in astonishment. I was in appearance a foreigner through and through, yet I was speaking to her in unaccented Burmese; that was something new to her. I could imagine the dinner-table conversation at her house that night: Mom, Dad, let me tell you about this Singaporean man that I met this morning—he spoke to me in Burmese! My second “thami” didn’t accomplish anything, but my third “thami,” reinforced by a light tap on her shoulder, finally brought her out of her stupefied state.
“Would you like to buy some flowers?” asked my enterprising thami, handing me a string of gardenias whose petals were already turning brown from exposure to heat and dust. I gave her 100 kyats and told her to keep the change. The prevailing exchange rate at the time was 340 kyats for a dollar; the amount I gave her was less than 30 cents. But what I gave her was probably more than what she normally made in her entire day.
“You can take a shortcut through that hospital over there,” she said, pointing at a mossy structure behind an iron gate. The sign above the gate read “Workers’ Hospital.” “Go through the hospital compound. Take the passage on the side and go through the khwe-toe-bouk.” The term means “dog hole.” The road to the inn, I was assured by my thami, was on the other side of this dog hole.
I entered, following a group of uniformed nurses coming to work. I followed closely behind them as they entered from the main entrance. They were giggling and teasing one another at first, but when they saw me head for the dog hole, they all became alarmed. I overheard their whispers. A lost tourist, I think. Does he know where he’s going? Doesn’t look like it. Shall we stop him? Quick, someone go talk to him! You go! No, you go! I was drenched in sweat and I was hungry. I wanted, more than anything, to be back in my air-conditioned room, having breakfast. So I dismissed their whispers and kept walking. The path stretched behind a series of one-story structures with rustic plumbing. At the end of the path, I found half a dozen starving street dogs, nosing through the putrid content of a dumping ground in search of breakfast, their ribcages visibly trembling underneath their brown skins. Beyond them, I saw a large gate that was closed, and a side door that was open. The door—if it was to be regarded as such—was a metal plate attached to a rustic frame about the size of a small stove. And I became certain I had found the shortcut I was looking for when I saw one of the street dogs squeeze itself through the tiny gap underneath the frame—this was the khwe-toe-bouk my thami had directed me to.
I am not a big man by any means; I stand only five feet six inches, and I have what could be categorized as a medium build. But I was not going to be able to walk through this dog hole with my head held high. In order to go through it, I would need to adopt an involuntary posture of humility, bend down, and crawl through it, right behind the other dogs. This was a devastating blow to my dignity, but I had no choice: I had a few minutes to get back to the inn before breakfast was served, so I began my laborious exit. And that was when I noticed a series of blocky Burmese characters painted on the wall. Warning: Morgue—Corpses Kept Here. I suddenly understood why there was no one around and why the nurses looked alarmed earlier.
I had a superstitious friend who was terrified of black cats. “The ones that have some colored patches here and there—they’re all right,” he once stated his theory, “but the ones that are completely black—they are evil. You’d better stay away from them.” He refused to walk along the path such a black cat had walked across. To him, they were signs of impending doom. If he had learned that within the first few hours of my arrival, I had had a vision of myself at the bottom of a sewer and I had literally walked through a khwe-toe-bouk behind a morgue, he would probably say, “These are signs—they’re trying to tell you something.” But what were they telling me?
They were probably mother Burma’s way of saying, “You are no longer in the safe bosom of your foster father.” They were her gentle, and not so gentle, reminders that I was back in her house, where darkness, disillusion, and death were all parts of daily life. In the hours following breakfast, I sat on my bed in my room and listened to the voices of the city—the muddled incantations of drowsy monks returning to the monastery, their despondent gong, the gut-wrenching squeal (“Pe byuuoooooke!”) of a pavement-treading baked-bean seller with a heavy wicker basket on her head. They all sounded reproachful and rapturous—a curious mixture of euphoria and despair—like the choking words of an ambivalent mother who was still unsure whether she should kiss or slap her homecoming son.
© 2003 Kenneth Wong