“Research” in Myanmar

The traffic into Yangon is abysmal, and it doesn’t help that the taxi driver won’t stop trash-talking the city; the only solace from his ranting comes when hawkers come to sell fruit and music CDs. We pass pagodas, where women young and old clasp their hands, repeating prayers, their mouths moving quick like film. The men meditate like the male Buddhas who the women pray to.

Shwedagon Pagoda
Shwedagon Pagoda

Luckily, on my first night in Yangon I meet a fellow scholar from NYU who works for an LGBT NGO run by locals (but supplied by foreigners). I meet many within the research community, which is populated almost entirely by anthropologists who seem to still be reaching for the “undiscovered tribe” and/or the “transitioning tribe” who will soon lose their authentic values to be further integrated into global capitalist markets. While these academics are welcoming, they grow offended by my entire field of study, as both a literature person and as someone seeking to compare the postcolonial anglophone literature of Burma with India, Singapore and Malaysia. Of these later three countries, these academics seem to know very little (many do not even know that Malaysia was colonized by Britain). In that wider regional ignorance, they seem to read only ignorance in me. At any rate, like good expat migrants we drink and try to outdo each other over how many places we’ve been.

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We venture later to an art gallery, which I will have to leave unnamed as it was really a cover for an unofficial set of historical archives that the Myanmar government has censored. The archives, run by painters, poets and journalists, has boxes full of British colonial documents, and many on the state of prisons and the ethnic-run areas where the British were afraid to go. I stay with these archives for days, where I take over a hundred pictures of information, and send many of the Chinese-language newspapers to my two helpful research assistants in Nanjing.

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During my research process in the archives I habituate myself to certain cafes and diners where journalists and English-literate locals hang out. It seems Burma is often the last explored place in Asia, a gnawing unchecked box on a long list of Asian countries. There are no new travelers here, it is the anti-Thailand – not sexy, not easy, and mostly riddled with complaints about the food rather than compliments.

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I meet a journalist who is so adept at the language and knowledge of local politics that I feel embarrassed to tell him what I do (literature), and embarrassed further to admit that I write fiction about travelers in Asia. He gives me the third degree, and, satisfied that I’ve at least read enough journalist accounts of Myanmar, he takes me gallivanting from one journalist-packed expat pub to another, telling stories of all the things that fascinate him about this region. At one pub I meet three Chinese-Burmese people, none of which have official documents (they could flee and be refugees but choose not to be). These connections inform me of Myanmar’s political climate in the past twenty-years and the effects it has had on “unofficial minorities,” where Chinese-Burmese are not recognized and therefore cannot be citizens.

Girl making Beetlenut
Girl making Beetlenut

The next week I travel throughout Myanmar, to Mandalay and Bagan, and with some “wanderlust”-based inspiration I begin to write again.

Bagan Temples
Bagan Temples

After this research excursion, I spend another couple of weeks in Hong Kong thinking through the experiences and archives I had encountered in Yangon. For a country with similar colonial histories as Malaysia, India and Singapore, the lack of literature in English is a testament to its recent postcolonial history (see Ne Win). While the anthropologists I meet may not seem to care for the wider regional history, I find that Burmese really do — they see the People Power movement of the Philippines as inspiring their many student-led movements, they constantly keep up with Lee Kuan Yew’s government to look for similarities and methods towards gaining traction, many follow Indian politics like it’s a soap opera. And of course, their gaze is laser-beamed onto China, the historical actor who has been both “big brother” and “abusive step-father.”

Mustache Brothers in Mandalay
Mustache Brothers in Mandalay

Most of the work in English I studied was in local cookbooks, translations of Burmese myths, journalistic accounts (Like Empire of Jade) and testimonials/auto-biographies written by political leaders and diasporic refugees. But nothing seemed to exist that cultivated literature in English on a local level. Perhaps because the authoritarian government has massacred students on the steps of past English-language institutions. But this does not mean that Burmese Anglophone literature does not exist. To be able to access it means shifting the definitions of anglophone literature itself to merge the postcolonial/colonial field with that of ethnic literature and diaspora, otherwise we lose the meaning of these stories under nationalist understandings of canon making and ways of reading.

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