In the wee hours of March 24th I stepped off the last plane ride of an amazing journey to and from Myanmar. The next few days would offer me the chance to recover from the worst case of jetlag I have encountered and reflect on a land and people on the opposite side of the world.
In Myanmar I met students, staff, faculty, administrators, taxi drivers, restaurant personnel, shopkeepers, pastors, denominational leaders, Buddhist monks, grade school children, one Catholic nun, homeless persons, and displaced people. While some encounters provided more depth than others, I found people as varied in ethnicity, religious/theological beliefs, political views, and personalities as one would discover in the United States.
When people are at a distance, whether relationally or geographically, it can be easy to create larger group sets in which to organize those people. When the relational and geographic gap is dramatically closed, as in the journey to Myanmar, those group sets are invalidated quickly. Having traveled before in South America, Europe, and other parts of North America, I have experienced this realization previously, but each new journey seems to make it a fresh discovery.
Myanmar offers a myriad of places to go and sites to see, and our group was able to catch a glimpse of the nation in and around the city of Yangon. We saw holy sites, monasteries, churches, centers of social service, markets, restaurants, and much more. Where we went was defined by the people who own or operate each place. They worked hard to accommodate us, make us feel welcome. Tourism is picking up steam in Myanmar, and the message to display warmth and welcome is clear.
On one afternoon while students were busy in class, I asked David, one of the MIT students done with coursework, to accompany me back into Yangon. Without hesitation, he agreed to be my guide. Though I offered to pay for each step of our afternoon’s journey, he would not allow me to do so. Guests are guests. His graciousness was moving. At one point, he said he was concerned about my diet and insisted we stop at a restaurant with American fare. After a steady diet of rice and various curries, how could I refuse such an offer? We found a place with smoothies and a very satisfying plate of French fries.
For those 30 or so minutes, David and I had a chance to talk about many different topics. With candor and good cheer, we shared about life in our homelands, pictures of our daughters, cultural mythology, and many other things. In that time, David, MIT D.Min. student from the Chin State of Myanmar, just became David. The opportunity to learn more about his uniqueness slowly separated him from the larger group sets and generalizations that can provide an easy alternative to actually getting to know someone.
This struggle to get to know a person, rather than a people, is exacerbated by time and space for most of us every day. Opportunities to close those time and space gaps, whether gifted or seized, should be treasured. I am thankful that I was gifted the opportunity to visit Myanmar. Even more than that, I am thankful that I was gifted the opportunity to spend time with individuals, like David. They are the treasures that I brought back home. God bless them and keep them.
Steve Guinn, Assistant to the Dean