I smiled and waved. I was a star. Really, the only thing you need to do to be the most popular guy in any Burmese city is to simply be from somewhere else. I had the added advantage of having a passing resemblance to David Beckham, in that we are both Caucasian, with short, blond, fuzzy hair and devilishly good looking.
I was continually accosted by ‘fans’ just wanting to shoot the proverbial shit. However, limited feces can be discharged when you and your new acquaintance only share a handful of common words and phrases. For the entirety of my time in Myanmar, I had the following verbatim conversation about 137 times a day:
Local: “Where you come from?”
Local: “Ah! Very good country! Goodbye!”
The people who had a larger command of English nearly always inquired and then showed great concern upon hearing that I wasn’t married at my age. Usually the language barrier prevented me from explaining that I had already been to that particular ring of Hell and back and could only recently talk about it without my eye twitching, my jaw clenching and my wallet bursting into flames.
In many parts of Southeast Asia, being Caucasian comes with great responsibility. Whether you like it or not, you become the village English teacher, sideshow and change machine – the kind where you don’t necessarily have to stick in a note before expecting your change.
That last one becomes oppressive over time and I’ll admit that more than a few beggars felt my wrath while I was in Burma. My already feeble patience had been worn raw with incessant solicitations for handouts in Malaysia and Thailand, so I was primed for a few meltdowns. Though, overall, begging in Burma was unexpectedly light. Almost non-existent outside of Yangon. More often, people wanted to trade. Had I been prepared, this would have been brilliant.
Clothes are probably the biggest thing (basic pants and t-shirts are fine, but jeans and shirts with western sport teams, colleges, cities or band names written on them are optimum, even if they’ve been more than a little lovingly used). In rural areas I was beseeched for pens/pencils, shampoo, small flashlights, small fold-up knives, wrist watches and American coins. Additionally I have been told it’s a good idea to bring some lipstick, candy (the non-melting kind – Burma is hot) and considering the ban on western music, CDs would probably be a huge hit too. Don’t be a putz like me, bring stuff to trade. You’ll deeply regret it if you don’t.
- Read the previous post in this series: Burmese currency (I don’t give a FEC)
- Read the next post in this series: This ain’t Kansas
Leif Pettersen, originally from Minneapolis, Minnesota, contributed three stories to the upcoming anthology “To Myanmar (Burma) With Love: A Connoisseur’s Guide” published by Things Asian Press. His personal blog, Killing Batteries, and his staggeringly vast travelogue could fill a lifetime of unauthorized work breaks, if one were so inclined.