Since arriving in Myanmar I have been feeling conspicuous. It is not hard to understand why. There are such a small number of westerners here. My cohort is a pretty interesting group, visually speaking. My roommate Bonnie and I, both about 5’6”, are taller than every woman here and most of the men. Nate has red hair and beard. Jose’ has the presence of a military man, even when his is “incognito.” Burusu is very tall and African. Even Ron, who was born here, carries himself a little differently. The unfailingly polite staging folks steal glances at us wherever we go.
Of course, appearance is only the beginning. I find myself wondering what the people here are thinking when they look at us. Do they wonder about our lives, as we do about theirs? No doubt they have stereotypes about us, like the ones about them that we inevitably brought with us. Do they find our presence an intrusion? How do they feel when we take our photos? Do they resent us, our wealth and privilege? If they did, it would be easy to understand.
The word “conspicuous” often goes with another word: “consumption.” Consumerism is getting a strong foothold here, but as Americans we are practically defined by it. I am acutely aware as we move about Yangon that I probably consume more in a day than most of these folks do in a month, or maybe a year. I try to be mindful, but I am painfully aware of the trail of waste I leave behind me, even here.
The position of privilege can be an uncomfortable one to occupy. How hard it is to communicate that you care, without patronizing. In the end, it is the little stuff that does it.
Yesterday, we visited the children’s program at Ywarma Baptist Church (more on that later). While we were there, Ron brought out the sandalwood which most people here use on their faces. Bark is ground and mixed with water to create a yellowish white cream, which is rubbed on the face as a sunscreen and beauty mark. We all tried it out, and spent the rest of the day with this “mark” on our faces.
The sandalwood gave us a new kind of conspicuousness. The people we met as we moved around town noticed, and it became a small connection. They pointed to their faces, and to ours, and smiled. There were nods and comments in Burmese or even bit of English. The marks on our faces created a small point of human connection, and I was grateful.
I am asking God for the grace to make more of those small connections, to be conspicuous in the ways that really matter.
Mary Miller, D.Min. Cohort