Maria C. Dieuzeide
L.L.M. Guest Columnist
Jordan R. Silversmith
'18 Guest Columnist
It was during one of those very hot days in August in Charlottesville when we first heard that we were among the eight students who had been accepted to the Human Rights Study Project of the University of Virginia School of Law. One email and the word “Myanmar” were sufficient to feel happy, if not also a bit of trepidation, and to start dreaming of and organizing what would turn out being one of the most amazing experiences of our lives.
Getting ready for the trip was no easy task. Vaccinations, malaria pills, visas, forms and more forms, almost twenty-seven hours in transit, layovers in basements with ominous signs that read “THE EXIT OF FLIGHT CANCELLATIONS,” many coffees (with milk!), and watching four movies on the plane were part of the preparations. Nor does that include the strange eleven-and-a-half-hour time difference that made the beginning of the trip full of sleepless nights, groggy afternoons, and a strange enduring hunger for Five Guys.
But everything was worth it. After we arrived in Yangon, we discovered that finding good food would not be a problem in a city with curries and noodles from the many different ethnic groups of Myanmar, along with exquisite teas. We also found out that this place has a special mysticism. It may sound a cliché to say that “life moves at a different pace here,” but that doesn’t make it any less true. Once you get used to the traffic (something similar to Hanoi with its thousand motorbikes, or Manhattan with only ten percent of its traffic lights, which makes that a two-and-a-half mile trip can take forty-five minutes) and to speaking a mix of English with a small quota of Burmese words and a great amount of body language and imagination, you start to understand some of the elements that make Yangon a distinctive place.
Indeed, the stark contrast between dilapidated British colonial buildings, the immense Shwedagon Pagoda and other Buddhist stupas, impromptu markets and stunning new hotels all piled on top of each other is something you can only find in Yangon. Among all of them, the markets best depict Yangon. Wherever you go, you will encounter huge markets that seem to appear out of nowhere, with hundreds of shops that offer a fascinating insight into the ethnic diversity of the city, the interaction of different cultures, their history, their traditions, their art and their patrimonies that vary from clothing, jewelry and handcrafts to vegetables, thanaka, and different sorts of meats. All this is surrounded by miles of railways and the Yangon Circle Line Train that several times a day circles around the city through the rural outskirts and gives you the chance to interact with local people and get a sense of their daily routines.
The picturesque organization of Yangon and its peculiarity cannot be completely understood without trying to describe the Burmese people. They are intense fans of international soccer and of the Myanmar National League, dress in longyis that vary in colors according to age, gender, and ethnic group, and cover their faces with swirls of thanaka to protect themselves from the bright sun. But what most surprised us were their broad smiles, their kindness and their generosity. No matter whether they are hanging out at 19th Street (the most popular night spot for locals), listening to music or playing the guitar next to Kandawgyi Lake, commuting back home by the Circle Train or studying at University of Dagon, local people always smile to visitors, are fascinated by learning from other cultures and do their best to make everyone feel at home. This scene is complemented by the presence of little novitiate monks everywhere with their pink robes, flooding the marketplace and streets with magic and charm.
Myanmar, like every country, contains contradictions and multitudes. Yet, what is distinct about Myanmar is how the country’s paradoxes are apparent, with such clarity, every moment of every day. A country of astounding ethnic diversity, Myanmar is home to at least 135 recognized ethnic groups. Its government has treated one ethnic group as its defining ethnic identity; it has a dominant religion, Therevada Buddhism, that is profoundly conservative yet whose votaries—the monks and nuns one may see in their flowing saffron robes at all hours and in all places—have no qualms about using their iPhones to take selfies in front of the skyline-defining Shwedagon Pagoda; a citizenry that, having endured in isolation more than half a century of the vicious whims and barbarism of a military junta, nevertheless manifests a profound curiosity about the world and such endearing kindness towards strangers, the homeless, foreigners, tourists and visitors; and, of course, a country whose name could be Myanmar, or Burma, or neither, or both, or something different altogether. While, the convention of whether to call the country “Burma” or “Myanmar” is a subject of contention, Roman transcriptions of those two names hide the fact that both “Burma” and “Myanmar” are pronounced almost identically in Burmese; what’s more, people there call themselves “Myanmar people,” so it seems wise to let a country’s population determine who they are. For a novice traveler, Myanmar can seem like a lot, even too much. But if you spend several weeks there, as we did with the Human Rights Study Project over winter break, you come to a new realization: there’s a reason every person greets you with a smile and says mingalabar. The word means “it’s a blessing,” or “we are blessed.” And that’s what it’s like to be in Myanmar: a blessing.