Cultural Mishaps in Myanmar
Almost six months ago, I arrived in Yangon, Myanmar, to begin my mission assignment. During these past six months, so many things have happened to me, or have happened around me, that I haven’t always been able to understand. My lack of understanding is no doubt due to not being that familiar with the culture, language, and the way of life here in Myanmar. On a daily basis, I still learn new things about the culture and language. Most of these things I learn just come from daily happenings, as well as my own mistakes and misunderstandings. Here, I just want to share one of these experiences, to show how even a simple misunderstanding can be an opportunity to gain some cultural learning.
A couple of weeks after I came to Myanmar, I started Burmese language study. In the beginning, the easiest way to get to my classes was by using a taxi. After a few weeks, I had gained a little confidence and worked up the courage to try to take a bus, even though I could not speak and read Burmese properly. So, one day, I got on a bus to get back home from school. It was my first time ever taking a bus in this country. Getting on and off the bus wasn’t a problem, thankfully. The process was pretty simple and straight-forward. I continued taking the bus either going to school or getting back home. Even better, as I discovered, taking the bus seemed faster than taking a taxi; on top of that, the price of the bus is almost 15 times cheaper than the taxi!
However, this doesn’t mean that everything has always gone smoothly on the buses! I usually take a seat on the bus whenever possible. One day the bus was not particularly packed with people, so I took a seat. After a few more stops and several more people getting on, the bus slowly became a little bit crowded. Since I had a seat, I did not mind whether or not it was packed; I was comfortable enough. The only problem was that I got the seat right behind the driver, and soon discovered that a young Buddhist monk was standing right next to me. To be honest, I had no idea that the seat I was sitting in was reserved for the Buddhist monks. I saw that there was a small sign written in Burmese near the seat, but since my Burmese was very limited, I did not fully understand it at that time. Thus, I kept on sitting in my seat, reading and looking at my school handouts in Burmese.
All of a sudden, people on the bus started talking loudly to each other. I did not realize that they were talking to me. Finally, one man who was standing came to me and said something in Burmese. I did not understand what he was trying to say, but I got some sense that whatever he was saying didn’t seem too pleasant. I sensed that he was insinuating that I had to give up my seat for the young monk. Even though I had that sense, to be honest I did not feel like giving him my seat! I was presuming that even if I stood up, the young monk might not accept my offer, as he seemed too young to take someone’s seat. In addition, I was thinking that he might feel embarrassed if I gave up the seat for him! All of these thoughts came to me at once. So, I made up my mind to just remain in my seat. Unfortunately, this only seemed to outrage the passengers even more. One old lady was even yelling at me. So I spoke to her in my broken Burmese: “I am not Burmese, I do not understand what you are talking about. So please, speak slowly.” All the people were looking at me and became man who was sitting finally stood up and dragged the monk to his seat. As it happened it was just about the time that I had to get off the bus, anyway. So I did get off once we reached my stop. When I got off, it seems like all people on the bus were glaring at me with angry looks on their faces. I was a bit embarrassed when I headed out to school.
In my class, I talked to my teacher about what happened to me on the bus. My teacher was laughing and then explained this facet of Myanmar culture. She said that Buddhism is of deep importance all throughout Myanmar. It is common courtesy to show monks great respect. If you have a seat on a crowded bus, you must give it up to a monk should one board. And she added that women are never to touch monks and never sit next to monks in this country.
Listening to my teacher, I ended up feeling a little bit bad. I felt that what happened on the bus, perhaps, showed a sign of disrespect to the culture, and this was never my intention. And I have to admit that I also felt some anxiety thinking about what else I did not know about the culture. This led me to do some personal reflection on my own indifference and ignorance of this culture. I know there are always many different kinds of challenges no matter where in the world we are, and we are called to “face the music” wherever we are. Each place we go has its own people, culture, language, food, major religion. What is important to remember, however, is that all challenges ultimately come from within myself and my emotions…feelings like anxiety, isolation, indifference, ignorance, whatever…come not from the place I am, but from my own reactions to that place.
I hope to keep learning about Myanmar and expect to continue to make constant discoveries about the culture. These learnings might even come from making some more mistakes. But the fact is that I live in this culture now, and I am called to face the reality of what that means and demands of me. What’s important is for me to control myself and face these challenges that come ultimately from deep within my own self.
Columban Fr. Jehoon Augustine Lee lives and works in Myanmar.