After completing teaching at Myanmar Institute of Theology, I traveled north to Inle Lake in the southern Shan State. This is new territory for me, and I greatly enjoyed learning a bit of another culture in this land of contrasts.
Water people populate the region of Inle Lake, i.e., one only visits a neighboring village by boat. Unique villages are anchored in the lake: floating vegetable gardens; the habitats of fisherman; villages given to the craft of weaving the strands of the lotus plant that grows so abundantly in the lake; and, silversmith workshops. You go to market by boat; you farm by boat; you commute to work by boat; and, you sell your handicrafts by boat, paddling up to passing boats.
Everywhere we went, I witnessed a culture of helping. It is not possible to pull up to a dock, tie up, get your passengers out, and create space for the next vessel without the assistance of those at the destination. Little boys as young as 7 or 8 skillfully guided boats into port, kept them from banging into one another, and assisted passengers with their gear. Some would swim under the boats and help turn it around so it could navigate more easily. This was all done without pay; it is simply how people help one another.
We are living in a time in the US when helping seems to be a zero sum game, e.g., if we tend to the well being of others, we are somehow diminished and our economic security is compromised. The erosion of compassion leads to a spiritual death, and the ability to inure ourselves to the needs of others threatens the common good.
I am always acutely aware of white privilege when in Myanmar. Children and adults alike talk about pale skin as beautiful, when it is really the opposite. Their sun burnished skin glows with the vibrancy and distinctive ethnicities of the land, yet the colonial history of serving persons from the west lingers, and they portray a measure of subservience, which is uncomfortable for me. Yet, helping is endemic in the culture.
I have been called “Mum” and “Momma” a great deal on this trek to Inle and Bagan. Perhaps it is the silver hair, but more likely it is the honorific offered to the guest in the land and the great desire to please by smoothing the way at every turn. Opening doors, carrying luggage, ordering at restaurants, and accommodating special requests, drivers and guides put themselves at the disposal of their clients. This kind of service is seductive, and one needs to keep perspective about the joys and pitfalls of tourism for Myanmar.
Soon I will be heading back to Shawnee with a deepened appreciation for the gentle ways of the people of Myanmar. Though I appreciate the culture of helping, I will feel better when the disparity of privilege is narrowed and greater mutuality ensues.
Molly T. Marshall