Travellers Understanding Myanmar

Bertie Alexander Lawson considers how travellers struggle to understand Myanmar, through the lens of novels and travelogues.

The term “ugly American” is used today to refer to Americans behaving badly abroad. Insensitive, ignorant and loud, the depiction of these tourists in cinema adorns them with cowboy hats and “I LOVE AMERICA” t-shirts. Brazen and brash, they have thundering footsteps and are almost always overweight.

The term comes from the 1958 political novel The Ugly American by Eugene Burdick & William Lederer. Set in the fictional country of Sarkhan, believed to represent Burma, the novel attacks the ineptitude and arrogance of the US diplomatic corps in Southeast Asia. Tucked away in their bubbles of ice coolers and garden parties, the diplomats do not learn the Sarkhanese language and they are insensitive to the country’s customs. They fail at both achieving their own political aims and addressing the needs of the Sarkhanese people.

The ugly American of the title actually refers to the hero of the novel: the plain Homer Atkins, an engineer who cannot look at his calloused and grease-blackened hands without being reminded of his own physical ugliness. Homer embeds himself with the local community, interacting with sensitivity instead of condescension. In contrast to the failed attempts to spoon-feed democracy to Sarkhan, Homer’s small-scale projects, such as his initiation of a simple bicycle-powered water pump, are successful.

Burdick & Lederer’s book is a response to Graham Greene’s The Quiet American (1955). While the Burdick book was enthusiastically received in the States – JFK sent copies to all members of Congress and it is thought to have led to the founding of the Peace Corps – Greene’s book provoked indignation. Burdick & Lederer advocate a more integrated, grass-roots approach for American diplomats in Southeast Asia. Greene, on the other hand, suggests they should stop interfering altogether.  

Set in Saigon in the closing months of French rule, Greene’s quiet American is Alden Pyle. Pyle is not brash, nor coarse, nor uninterested. But he is ignorant and naïve, determined to shoe-horn Vietnam into the theories he has read in books, “to do good, not to any individual person but to a country, a continent, a world.” He is described by Greene’s narrator, the jaded British journalist Fowler, as “a dumb leper who has lost his bell”, blithely unaware of the harm he is causing, “impregnably armoured by his good intentions and his ignorance.”

But Fowler is also short-sighted, blinded by his own prejudice and self-interest. Like Pyle he is unable to understand Phuong, the beautiful Vietnamese woman that the two men fight over. In the absence of understanding he too constructs a character for her that suits his own purposes.

A measure of self-awareness is at least attained by Fowler. Before the end, he is forced to recognise how easy it is to cause harm with the best intentions and asks himself, “Must I too have my foot thrust in the mess of life before I saw the pain?”

A Voluntourist in Yangon

Half a century later, in Rosalie Metro’s novel Have Fun in Burma (2018) and James Fable’s travelogue In Search of Myanmar (2018), the questions posed by Burdick & Lederer and Greene are still being grappled with. Specifically, how should privileged foreign visitors attempt to understand countries in Southeast Asia? What to do with any understanding that is gained? Finally, what to make of the relationship between the visitor and the host country when that understanding is found wanting?

Adela Frost, the protagonist of Have Fun in Burma,is an eager and idealistic 18-year-old from New England. After meeting a Burmese émigré working in her school cafetorium, Adela is inspired to travel to Myanmar. Partly to “make a difference”, partly to impress her sardonic ex-boyfriend, already at college and meeting other girls.

Adela signs up with the fictional Myanmar Volunteers United to teach English in a Yangon monastery for three months. By having Adela choose a version of voluntourism, Metro has in her sights both aid-workers and tourists. Upon arrival in Yangon, Adela feels that she is exactly where she is supposed to be. A voice coos in her bosom: “Stay … Stay …”.

In spite of some initial jolts, Adela’s enthusiasm for Myanmar prevails. She is flattered by the respect she receives from the monks in her classroom, builds up a friendly relationship with the motherly nun Daw Pancavati, and is buoyed by her response to a few days of intense meditation.

However, rumbling in the wings is the violence in Rakhine State. Adela comes across pictures of burnt and mutilated Muslims online and is distressed by not only the Islamophobic vitriol spouted in the comments sections but also the muted response which the pictures provoke from the monks in the monastery. Her attempts to bring the Buddhists and Muslims of Myanmar together, as well as an ill-advised love affair with the temple-helper Thiha, culminate in a devastating end to her stint in the country. 

Unlike Greene’s quiet American, Adela recognizes her ignorance upon arrival in Yangon. She admits, for instance, that she hadn’t realised there were Muslims in Myanmar, and quickly sets out to expand her knowledge. Alongside Orwell’s Burmese Days – found in the hand luggage of most travellers in Myanmar – Adela immerses herself in weightier, academic books. She makes a serious attempt to learn the language and is a diligent – if at times truculent – student of Buddhism.

Adela’s principal fault lies not in her attempts to understand Myanmar but in her belief that it is there for her understanding, “an experiment in human nature carried out to foster her insight and growth.” She encourages herself in the creation of her own vocation:

She would finish the retreat. She would use her new understanding of Buddhism to help Buddhists realize that persecuting Muslims was wrong. And she would make Thiha fall in love with her.”

Her pursuit of Thiha runs in step with her broader mission in Myanmar. She orchestrates meetings with him and, when successful, follows up with post-coital mines for information: “listening, memorizing, making the details her own.” In her relations with both Myanmar and Thiha, Metro depicts Adela as a rapacious glutton. She gobbles down stories as she does her food and escapes the abstinence of the monastery to find more of both. The head monk U Bhante gently likens her to an arrogant and clumsy giant from a Burmese fable. She brushes this aside and blunders on, truffle-hunting for secrets and solutions and spouting what she finds on her blog.

Despite her good intentions, there is much ugliness in Adela’s actions.It is not until she is standing in the midst of the wreckage that she sees how little she has understood of Myanmar. At this point, upon hearing Thiha’s real name for the first time, she reflects: “She hadn’t known Ngwe Htun Lin at all.”

Travelling Off-Piste

James Fable also has a mission.

He arrived in Myanmar in 2016 and after a year teaching in Yangon he is left cold. Unlike Adela, whose first experiences of the country echo her highest expectations, Fable is unimpressed. 

Everyone had told me that I would have an incredible cultural experience, but I had spent most of my year walking past Insein Road’s countless mobile phone shops, staring at adverts reading “perfect selfie”, “selfie king” or “selfie master” […] and teaching phonics to elite Myanmar toddlers”

Fable is however certain that the Myanmar he has been promised is out there and is determined to find it. Snatching a job as a travel writer for a local magazine, he begins plotting an expedition around the country, resolved to meet people from all walks of life, “hungry for knowledge and experience”.

Whereas Adela doesn’t even make it inside Shwedagon Pagoda, Myanmar’s most sacred Buddhist site and honeypot for tourists, Fable travels almost everywhere it is possible for a traveller to reach. “There was a good chance,” he proudly notes upon journeying to Nagaland, “I would be one of the first independent foreign travellers ever to visit Lahe.”

One of the first things that Fable makes clear is his distaste for tourists. He broods over a copy of Alex Garland’s The Beach – “a scathing critique of backpacker culture” – and after commiserating with his friend TJ, a Shan trekking guide bereft of clients, warns forcefully against the “backpacker crap” that threatens the country’s charm. 

When travelling in regions of the country favoured by tourists, the stream of the ‘banana pancake trail’ brings Fable up against lone travellers who fit the mould of “ugly American”. Always talkative, always obtuse, they gush about Myanmar or bitch about Myanmar, telling a silently fuming Fable that he has “got life by the bum”. These are the most amusing scenes in the book.

Fable’s own sense of mission, such as when he attempts to enter an IDP camp in Kachin State, can be uncomfortable, and in spite of his desire to hear the stories of the Myanmar people, he can come across as sanctimonious when the conversation turns to politics: sighing, remonstrating, eventually satisfied with the belief that he has “got them thinking.” 

But Fable is a generous writer and a bold traveller. He colourfully paints vignettes familiar to anyone who has spent time in Myanmar. His conversational Burmese and spirited enthusiasm leads him to people and places less familiar. The austere immigration officer who marches him to the best place for pennywort salad in Gyobingauk is just one of the incidents when Fable artfully sketches the line between farce and disaster in Myanmar. It is a theme to which he returns. The long arm of the Burmese military, which regularly looms over his travels, is in equal parts sinister and absurd.

Many foreigners who spend an extended time in Myanmar find it convenient to gently push out of sight the violence between the Rakhine Buddhists and the Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine State. Fable doesn’t do this. He first visits the state capital Sittwe which he describes as “an abomination of stinking streets, dilapidated buildings and suspicious glares”. Later he travels to Kyauk Phyu, tiptoeing about a derelict mosque used as a rubbish tip. In both places, as if needling at a painful loose tooth, he speaks to people about the violence. 

Even when not in Rakhine State, the horrors of the Rohingya plight are studded throughout Fable’s narrative: in the news, in the monastery, in the air as he chats with his Burmese girlfriend, and, of course, all over his Facebook feed. Fable is pained that a people so charming and welcoming to him are also capable of such casual and crude Islamophobia. When Adela unwittingly enters the fray on Facebook she suffers a “screed of ungrammatical fury”. Fable sifts through the same. But these are not only strangers. They are also friends and colleagues. Fable battles the intolerance and prejudice when confronted by it but this resilient hatefulness infects his perception of the country and in the final few legs of his journey the landscape on the other side of the coach window appears “hopeless and unchanging.”

Departures

By the end of his journey, Fable’s map of Myanmar is crisscrossed with his routes from coast to coast, destinations off-piste, sometimes off-limits. The result is a narrative of multitudes. His travels have shown him a country complex and fragmented and he is compelled to jettison the terminology he had before liberally used to describe Myanmar. His account of the country, he recognises, is incomplete and constrained by his own prejudices. In his attempt to understand Myanmar, like Adela, Fable comes to realise that the only thing to be sure about is the folly of idealising one position over another. 

More than a political novel, Have Fun in Burma is a coming-of-age narrative. The trajectory is made clear with hefty signposts in the very first chapter. The reader is offered snapshots of the horrors to come: the racial slur kalar being spat; the white fear in Thiha’s face; U Bhante waving goodbye to Adela “his robes hanging on his body like a curtain of dried blood.” While Adela sits satisfied and virtuous, this sense of impending doom encourages the reader to identify and take note of the missteps and miscalculations that give rise to the “tentacles of disaster”.

Metro’s novel ends with reflections from Adela in the first person. On initial reading, this appears to be Adela’s own post-mortem of the starry-eyed idealist she used to be – and a guide to future travellers to Myanmar. We are encouraged to see Adela’s growth from the girl she was to something more akin to Sarah, the cold, dry and thoroughly unlikeable founder of Myanmar Volunteers United. Sarah, who speaks with neither apology nor spite, recognises her limited role in Myanmar and strives – not with ardour, but with diligence – to understand those things that are most unpalatable.

In answer to the first two questions identified earlier – how to go about understanding a foreign country and what to do with any understanding gained – Sarah is offered as an exemplar. And yet, in response to the third question – what to make of the relationship between the foreign visitor and the host country – Metro is deliciously elusive.

In the final chapter, the voice commanding Adela to Stay… Stay… is rejected as a manifestation of her own sense of purpose and self-importance. And yet some kind of nebulous relationship between Adela and Myanmar is left intact. On her relationship with Thiha, Adela concludes that they “were meant to know each other. Just not that way, not at that time.” More curious still, Metro again makes reference to the unresolved mystery, heavy with portent, that shrouds the young lovers’ first meeting. And what to make of the amulet? That trinket that first led Adela to Myanmar, a gift that was “no accident”? In spite of the majority of the book being so firmly anchored in time and place and deftly charting a course through Myanmar politics, Metro’s final word appears to ratify something more numinous.

It is not a surprise that even after extensive work and travel in Myanmar, neither Metro nor Fable claim to understand the country. And yet while both hold up clear signs on how not to behave – don’t be brazen and don’t be brash, don’t be insensitive nor ignorant – they stop short of suggesting how a traveller should go about attempting to understand the country. The cultural divides, power discrepancies and miscommunication that Greene’s quiet American stumbled over in the 1950s remain firmly in place, even if hidden in the long grass. After all these years, visitors continue to struggle to speak good Sarkhanese. 

(Featured image courtesy of Aung Myint Thu | Sampan Travel)

Bertie Alexander Lawson lives in Yangon. He is the Managing Director of Sampan Travel.