Myanmar Musings #3: The Chin Institute of Social Science

I recently traveled to Falam, Chin State (train to Mandalay then two days via motorbike) and recorded this podcast with Joe Decker, Academic Director at the Chin Institute of Social Science. It was an interesting trip for me and I laid a lot of the groundwork for carrying out research on their brewing cultures over the next couple of years, mostly thanks to Joe’s initial introductions.

This podcast covers the Institute’s founding, methods, teachers and students. Chin State is a unique place in the world that was closed to foreigners for decades until 2014.

Phuoc and the Ngoc Lam

This is the ninth in a series of posts running throughout 2015 and 2016 about living, teaching, traveling and studying in Southeast Asia during my twenties. This entry is about friendship.

This story begins on my very first day in Southeast Asia.

It was February 16, 2008 and I had spent the last six months studying for my undergraduate degree while working part-time in a newsagency, scrimping as much money together as I could for the imminent adventure. I was off to teach English at the Marketing University of Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, having never set foot in a non-English speaking country before.

I had read the Lonely Planet guide to Vietnam backwards twice in anticipation, as well as many Wikipedia entries, novels and history books. I also specialised in Vietnamese cinema studies in 2007, going deep into the U.S. war zeitgeist and the films of Tran Anh Hung in particular. I felt like I had done a thorough job of preparing myself – and in retrospect I guess I did.

The night before boarding the plane I went out on the town with two of my best friends, a couple of guys I’d known since I was 14 and had lived in sharehouses with. We got far, far too drunk; I ended up vomiting and being driven to the airport by my mother feeling downright seedy. Mum and the two mates waved me off, I boarded the plane, buckled in and tried to sleep.

When I arrived in Ho Chi Minh City I was immediately drawn in by the heat, the traffic, the smells – I loved it. Instant love. And this was even before I partook in the coffee, beer and food culture.

I caught a taxi from the airport to the Ngoc Lam Hotel on Ly Phuong Kiet and was met by a young porter named Phuoc. Slightly built and with a trendy haircut, I had to almost fight him off as he persisted in trying to carry my backpack. We struggled in the lobby.

“Really, it’s OK!” I implored.

“No Mr Luke, you must let me,” his implacable response resounded, hands darting around my pack, pinching my skin. Little did I know this was going to be the first of many awkward interactions I would have with Phuoc. After capitulating and taking me into my room he said, a little weirdly, and flanked by further pleasantries:

“If there’s anything I can help you with, anything, please, it’s OK. Anything.”

I’ve met my fair share of overzealous people but Phuoc was right up there.

As I settled into the city in the coming weeks I got to know him a bit better. He made constant requests to meet for coffee, and given I was fresh to the scene, I was happy to go along and learn about the city. He showed me some nice places like Nirvana (no longer around) and told me about his life and troubles. Although working at the hotel every day, Phuoc was actually a qualified hairdresser and dreamed of opening a salon overseas. He was also flamboyantly homosexual, which was not easy in Ho Chi Minh City.

Our friendship peaked after about two months when he decided to get to the point. He asked me if I could help him immigrate to Australia by pretending to be his homosexual spouse. We would need to take a lot of photographs, get statutory declarations etc. He had done his research and gave me a package of paperwork. In return, he would give me US $20,000. The offer had a real sense of gravity to it, like Phuoc had always been paving the way to this, that this was a culmination.

I said no.

But Phuoc was reluctant to take that as a final answer. I shielded him off from my other friends and had coffee with him a couple more times, but it got to the point where I had to stop responding to his phone calls and requests to meet. That nearly put an end to it. Nearly.

A month later I was dropping a visiting friend off at her hotel after drinks. It turned out that she was staying at the Ngoc Lam Hotel, where Phuoc worked. I figured that if I was stealthy, I may not see him – or he may not see me. But if we had to interact it shouldn’t be a big deal given the hotel was his workplace. He was hardly going to implore me to be his pretend spouse in the lobby of his employer.

In the end we said goodbye out the front and I rode off without a hitch. A large set off traffic lights are just north of the hotel on Ly Thuong Kiet, and as I was cutting across the city to my place in Tan Binh (through Little Korea town, the alley with the dog carcasses, the two canals that were blacker than black, and the …. Ah, now I miss Vietnam!) I had to go through them. So there I sat waiting in the throng of motorbikes, Honda Dreams and Future Neos and Super Dreams and Waves and all manner of aspirational two-wheeled revolutionaries, listening to the humming of the engines.

Then something else.

“Luke! Luke!” I clearly heard my name above the road noise, coming from behind me, not too far away. I turned my head slowly. There, less than five metres behind me, dressed in his gaudy hotel uniform, helmetless and grinning, was Phuoc. But as anyone familiar with Saigon traffic can attest, five metres is a long way when you’re crunched in the middle of motorcycles. He couldn’t reach me, nor I him.

I had two choices. I could have been the better human, smiled, pulled over and reasoned with Phuoc. Perhaps he was going to apologise, let bygones be bygones, say he would never mention the marriage plan ever again. If I had of been a little older, a little more patient, I think I would have done this. Instead, when the traffic light changed I rode off – and fast.

This is how I came to be involved in my first real motorcycle chase. A chase with stakes, imagined or otherwise. He pursued me. I ran from him. Through Little Korea, countless alleys, across bridges, around corners, along footpaths I chugged my little scooter away from the figment of desperation. I only heard his voice once more, at another intersection, when he must have gotten close. It was an absurd situation.

When I had left Phuoc behind a corner at one point I turned into a street that had a large dumpster in it and took a risk out of the movies. I stopped behind the dumpster, in a very tight wedge, and waited. Phuoc rode past, his eyes forward. It was hard to tell, but I don’t think he was smiling. I remember a face of intense concentration. An antagonist.

I wheeled my bike out, rode off in the opposite direction and took a long, complicated route home.

As an emblem of privilege in developing countries I have been approached many, many times to facilitate immigration, but never has it been so drawn out nor so dramatic as that first time. Phuoc prepared me well. And I remain more than a little ashamed, but I was learning.

The Session and the Pub and the People

The Session is a periodic series of blog posts by bloggers interested in beer.  For the 113th edition, beer bloggers Boak and Bailey have issued a call out for simple, descriptive evaluations of public houses in the style of The Pub and the People, the 1943 book that was the eleventh in the Mass Observation series focusing on the “anthropology of ourselves”; the everyday life of British people.  I don’t often contribute to The Session though I follow it closely – this month I have the time and capability and I am quite keen to insert a non-Western venue into the mix.

The pub I am sitting in is called “Suzuki Drink” and is on Bogalayzay Rd in downtown Yangon, Myanmar.  It’s 3PM on a Tuesday in the middle of the rainy season.  The pub sits on a fairly narrow road, made narrower by bumper-to-bumper parked cars.  It is on the ground floor and opens directly onto the street, with no door or barrier to speak of and eight large pot plants dominating the pavement.  An air conditioner blares away in one corner and tasteful realist paintings adorn the southern wall.  There is a musical theme with the subjects of most paintings being Burmese women seated or kneeling over various musical instruments, their likeness captured from the rear.  A violin itself is also fixed in the centre of the southern wall.

An almost requisite stylised image of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi hangs close to the single television and in a large wall niche a collection of pottery, gourds, traditional instruments and tortoise shells draw the eye.  There are chairs for forty pax and the tables are tacky MDF.  A substantial bar sits in the northwestern corner with a single tap dispensing Regal Seven, a Heineken brand exclusively brewed in Myanmar.  It is surrounded by nice-looking glassware, Regal Seven-branded beer towers and a Conti espresso machine.  Further along the wall is a one-metre-tall illuminated advertisement for Regal Seven, claiming the beer is “Refreshingly Smooth” and has “Extra Cold Filtration”.

Only one other patron is drinking when I arrive, a middle-aged man, but he leaves before I can power up my laptop to write this post.  There are seven staff going about various chores; in their downtime they watch Myanmar Idol, a domestic talent show in the familiar Idol format on the single television.  Some of the chores include manual bookkeeping, buying ingredients from the local market for the kitchen, cleaning glasses and fiddling with the Wifi for their comparatively white, tall customer.

Just before I leave two young Burmese men arrive and order fried noodles and Myanmar beer.  They don’t talk and seem happy to watch Myanmar Idol.

Suzuki Drink sits in the middle ground of pubs in Yangon.  It is slightly more upscale than neighbourhood beer stations, which serve glasses of beer at about half the price, but not in the territory of the many fancy rooftop bars that are currently mushrooming across the city.  The beers on offer are Regal Seven, the aforementioned Heineken rice lager, Myanmar Beer, a slightly more bitter rice lager brewed by the Kirin-UMEHL conglomerate and Tiger and ABC Stout, both also Heineken beers.  A long cocktail list is also available, from simple Screwdrivers to the complex “AK 47”.  The food menu is substantial and inspired by cuisine from Thailand.

The Mass Observations books are tremendous for their empirical data, coloured though it is.  The Pub and the People in particular has been used well by gender studies scholars to point out that the public house in England was a firmly patriarchal institution that existed to reinforce the subordination of women.  In this way we see the value of abstracted empiricism, difficult though it can be to justify at the time.  In my many forays into (much busier than Suzuki) public houses in Myanmar I see similar gender dynamics at play and will be presenting on this at the Burma Studies Conference in DeKalb, Illinois this October.

Entrance to the Field

This is the story of my fortuitous “entrance to the field” as an anthropologist-in-training.  The trope of the social scientist intent on long-term, embedded fieldwork navigating myriad practical and cultural challenges is long-established in discipline folklore.  Nearly all pre-fieldwork seminars held by PhD students undertaking traditional ethnographic research at my university feature discussion, sometimes cursory, sometimes at length, of “settling into” the field for a few weeks or months at commencement of research.  During this time the student finds somewhere to live, gains access to initial informants and learns the lay of the land.

Urban field sites can present different challenges to rural ones.  In my first field site, suburban Yangon, finding cheap accommodation is a challenge, as is trying to co-reside with local residents who do not speak English.  Clearly differentiated international visitors are rapidly funnelled into the Facebookverse of expat apartments, copiously high rents and cosmopolitan boat parties.  Due to the hundred-year old yet still current Household Registration law, residing with a local family is illegal under a tourist VISA and requires approval from local authorities in other circumstances.

This blog post tells of how I managed to obviate most of these challenges: it is a tale of good luck, of fortuitousness and friendliness.  It is a story of how, twenty-four hours after arriving in-country, I had a place to live, people to talk to and anthropological opportunities right at, indeed within, my doorstep.  I write it to encourage other anthropology students preparing for fieldwork in urban centres unknown: serendipity still exists if you are open to it.

I arrived at Yangon Airport in February 2016 at 11:00PM.  Tired, weak and hungry, I hailed a taxi at the airport with an Italian traveller I knew from the plane and headed downtown.  After dropping off my companion, I climbed the stairs to my chosen hotel close to Sule Pagoda, approached the front desk, heartbeat fortified from the ascent, mind relieved at the prospect of a good night’s sleep—  only to be told there were no vacancies.  This story repeated itself for the next two hotels I checked, until finally, past midnight, I found a vacant dormitory bed at the Okinawa II guesthouse.

Curling up and falling asleep, I was pathetically woken a mere two hours later by a cacophony of drunken snoring.  Even with earplugs the noise was so pervasive, so searing, that I simply couldn’t drift off.  Eventually, after failing to encourage my sleep impulse to triumph over the aural wall of backpacker spit, I capitulated and wandered downstairs to check my email.  Mosquitos attacked my bare legs and arms and rats darted across the floor in the gloom.

With the first rays of sunlight, I packed my Burmese textbook, notepad and pen and headed out into the city.  I would not let this rather ignominious first evening upset my mojo.

Wandering directionless through the sunrise happenings of downtown Yangon; deliveries, emboldened stray dogs, enterprising tea shops and ravens, pigeons, more rodents, my stomach rumbled and I cast about for food.  I saw through a glass window what appeared to be a tea shop or restaurant doing brisk business.  At first I walked past, not really considering it; I wanted to get some street-side fare.  But for some reason I turned back, walked in and sat down.

Maybe it was the pizza slices I could see resting peacefully inside a cabinet, alluring even at 6AM.  For a Gen-Y Australian, pizza has real, if strange, power.

I sat in the tea shop practising my Burmese and observing my fellow patrons.  A motley variety of customers were passing through, ordering pizza, rice, noodles, parata, pudding and other eclectic fare.  Then I felt a hand on my shoulder.

“Your Burmese is very good,” a voice said in my ear.

I turned around awkwardly and saw a small Burmese man dressed in sports gear – including sneakers, sweat bands and a tennis bag – smiling widely at me, eyes glinting.

“Oh, it’s not that good,” I replied.

“No, it is,” the man continued, sitting down beside me.  “How long have you been in Myanmar?”

“Just a few hours, actually.”

The man introduced himself as Zaw Oo and explained that he was a tennis coach meeting some contractors on business at the tea shop.  After talking about my ignominious evening at the hotel and some introductory pleasantries, he asked me pointedly if I enjoyed tennis.

“Sure, it’s fun,” I replied.  He nodded slowly.

“I tell you what,” Zaw Oo said, “you stay here for one hour, and then I will come back and show you an apartment I am renovating.”

Before I could think and signal my intentions either way, Zaw Oo’s business partners arrived and he left with them to settle deals unknown.  Was this a good idea, I wondered?  I could get up and walk away now – and not be murdered.  But really, to do so would betray such a dismal mistrust of strangers that I would forever be ashamed.

No, I would stay.  An hour of Burmese vocabulary passed.

“Luke!” Zaw Oo shouted when he returned to the teashop.  “Come on, let’s go.”

And so off we went, zigzagging across the streets; me trying to keep pace as the sprightly old man with sinewy tennis calves regaled me with his life story above the traffic.

Zaw Oo was born in 1949 and lived in downtown Yangon until 1967.  He was the eldest of ten in a wealthy family, but after socialist policies were adopted in 1962, their business slowly diminished year after a year.  Zaw Oo’s reference points for these five years all come from the tennis world: what brands were available, then unavailable, the inflating prices of strings, racquets and balls.

When Zaw Oo turned eighteen he decided not to be a burden on his family any longer and strike out on his own.  He set his targets on Bangkok, made his way to the border, crossed and started a new life. He hasn’t lived in Myanmar since.

He was back in Yangon at this time organising the renovation of his family’s old properties, of which there are several, and staying at the largest one near Kandawgyi Lake.  He explained the situation as we walked there.

“I didn’t know what to do with this property, it is on the rooftop.  I do not need the money, I am retired.  I want to do something good.  Then my friend suggested; why don’t you open a hostel for women?  I offer girls who are alone cheap prices to stay and do some good deeds.”

When we arrived Zaw Oo showed me around and the tenants stared at me incredulously.  I learned their names and occupations: a seamstress, teacher, nurse, market sellers and a maid.  After these awkward introductions, we went into a very large, empty room on one side of the building.  Zaw Oo raised his eyebrows and pointed through a large glass door.  From the balcony there was a perfect view of the Shwedagon pagoda across the tree tops, glimpses of Kandawgyi Lake between flowering tree branches and flights of circling birds moving from tree to tree.

Zaw Oo pulled up a table on the balcony and invited me to sit down and eat.

“I think there is a reason we met in the teashop today,” said Zaw Oo.  “Your handwriting is very good.  You are researching Burma.  You may have been Burmese in a past life.  And I think we made merit together at that time.”

The conversation continued at length on Buddhist philosophy, the history of Burma and general cultural differences between Asia and the West.  Zaw Oo had seen a lot of the world and had many stories and connections in the country.  It was all very interesting.  Then, as the afternoon turned to evening and we dined on post-curry mango, Zaw Oo made an offer.

“I am going back to Bangkok in five days.  So, you can stay here if you like, for as long as you want,” he said simply.

“How much would the rent be?” I asked.

“Let’s not talk about money,” he replied.

“Well … okay then.”

I had my bags delivered from the guesthouse and watched the twilight sky redden then fade behind the Shwedagon.  Zaw Oo told me stories of working at the Bangkok Post, with the United States’ DEA during the 1980s and about his obsession with aviation modelling.  With the sun’s departure however, given I was surviving on very little sleep, I decided to turn in.

“Sorry, but I’m very tired,” I said.  “So, um, where should I sleep?”

“Well, there’s only one bed, so you’ll need to sleep with me,” replied Zaw Oo.

How on earth did I find myself in this situation? There was nothing for it, so I snuggled down under the mosquito net.  Thankfully Zaw Oo didn’t snore; nor were his motives ignoble.  I woke to naan bread and beans, stories of 1960s Rangoon and a bout of tennis at the courts across the road.  We immediately organised a new bed for me, I decorated my room with Burmese language posters (“Vegetables,” “Office Equipment”), stood back and exhaled.

This whole fieldwork thing was going to turn out alright after all.

And that is the story of how I came to share an apartment in Yangon with six Burmese women less than twenty-four hours after arriving in the country.  Four months on I continue to rent the rooftop, speaking Burmese and undertaking fieldwork in the surrounding area.  I often come home and startle a housemate furtively using my shower; they run out of my room dripping wet with awkward smiles. I am getting to know their stories, troubles and pleasures.  Zaw Oo visits every eight weeks or so.

Some entrances to the field are easier than others, and whether I was Burmese or made merit with him in a past life or not, I am deeply thankful to Zaw Oo for his kindness and generosity.