In February five years ago, I flew to Myanmar for the first time. I had never been to a developing country before. I had considered and sworn off the idea of cross cultural work back in college, my business studies leaving me certain that westerners overseas did more harm than good.
But I came to Myanmar, planning to see Yangon and Rakhine state, and experience the place my fiancé had called his home for the past seven years. It was to be a three-week visit, and for two of those three weeks, I wanted to be anywhere but Myanmar.
I walked out of the airport terminal into a wall of hot, sticky air, and caught my breath at the sight of a uniformed man on the sidewalk, swinging an automatic weapon about with as much decorum as if it were a water gun. Democracy was supposed to be in the works, but I suppose the powers that be wanted to leave an impression on tourists.
During my visit, I traveled to northern Rakhine state, where Jim had lived since 2006, and where communal violence a few months prior had destroyed the community and displaced the Rohingya Muslim population. Hours after meeting some of Jim’s Rohingya friends in the ghetto, I happened upon a monk-led community protest against the Rohingya. The hate was palpable. A few angry Rakhine guys, thinking I was with an aid group (aid groups weren’t beloved, mostly because of the perception that they were exclusively helping Muslims), tried to run me off the road shortly after the protest. All of this was a world that was completely new to me.
Jim’s neighborhood and house had been destroyed by fire during the communal violence, and all that was left of his old quarter were jungle plants slowly reclaiming the charred remains of thousands of homes. I stayed in a place called The Prince Guesthouse (though some had aptly nicknamed it “The Rat Palace”). I didn’t mind the cockroaches, but I was disconcerted by the large rat in my room every night (Jim pointed out that, from the rat’s perspective, I was the intruder), and I was equally disconcerted by the awful sounds I could hear from the other guest’s rooms each morning. (It wasn’t till we moved here permanently that I finally realized that I hadn’t been hearing the sounds of several people dying slow deaths: it is simply the morning ritual for some folks to loudly clear and expel phlegm from all of their nasal passages.) After a week in The Prince I told Jim, “I am willing live in this town if we move here together, but I will absolutely not take up residence in this guesthouse.”
I know I would have had a great time and ignored all of the inconveniences if the purpose of my trip was simply to be a tourist. I tend to assess the world around me with great intensity, and Myanmar for its part is an intense place; everything about it overwhelmed my senses and my personal hopes for the future.
For most of my visit, I was holding back tears every time I stepped out the door, and nearly every time I came back inside I would break down. (I tried to hide my emotions from Jim’s local friends, but I am quite certain that I failed, because I’ve since learned that people here notice everything.) I was overwhelmed by the garbage, the poor infrastructure, the poverty and the constant attention I received. I didn’t want to live in Myanmar, and I felt terrible for wanting a more comfortable life. I didn’t want the struggle of being a woman in a place where it was hard work to be a woman. I disliked all the permission-getting and inefficiency that were bound up in the broken bureaucracy of the country. I didn’t want the constant tension of being a foreigner and learning to relate to the surrounding culture, and all the continual soul searching that it would entail. I also didn’t want to be constantly sweating.
I was afraid Jim would be distressed that I didn’t love this place. But he wasn’t. I remember crying and blowing my nose in the only thing that was handy—a clean pair of his underwear—and asking him, “what percentage of the time do you dislike living here? How many days a week is it really hard for you?”
“Ehhhhh, maybe thirty percent of the time?” he said, following up by reminding me again that there was no obligation to commit to life in Myanmar—I was just marrying him, not the place. I knew this, but it didn’t hurt to hear it again.
I eventually got to the root of my issues with Myanmar (spoiler: it turns out Myanmar wasn’t actually the issue), but I wrote about that a while ago already.
And now, it is 2018 and I have been living here for three years already. Living here in Myanmar is the most challenging and exhausting work I have ever done, but it is also one of the greatest joys of my life (kinda like having kids).
I wish I could tell you how I got from there to here, from hating Myanmar so much to loving it to bits, but I don’t quite know myself. I can guarantee that the next time I fly out from Yangon my heart will catch in my throat when I see the rooftops of my neighborhood, and I’ll hear Louis Armstrong croning, “every time we say goodbye.” I can tell you that my heart swells a size or two when I get close to my neighborhood, that my favorite part of the day is opening the door each morning and letting the chatter from the street waft into our home.
When I consider the orbit of my heart and life over the past five years, I can’t help but thank God for the intense way he introduced me to this place. He pushed aside all the potential charms that a life abroad will at times proffer (wanderlust fulfilled, people “saved”, exciting stories, foods, textures etc.). He showed me the painful and abrasive side of things and said to me: I love this. Will you?
And I’ve not been at this for very long yet, but I will say this: when you seek to love the things God loves, you’ll end up bruised and wounded in the ways you least expect, and you’ll be continually reminded of how much you have yet to learn about love. And if you’re doing it right, you won’t be very far along before you realize that when God asks you to love the things he loves, it’s not because your love will save the world (it won’t); he asks it because there is no other way to learn the language of his unfailing love for the world, and for you.
In five years’ time, I’ve learned that God loves the world even more than I imagined, and I’ve discovered that God’s love for the world colors everything more beautifully than I could have thought possible. Here’s to learning the language of God’s love and seeing its color more clearly in the years to come. And here’s to Myanmar, my beloved home for the time being.
P.S. Here are a few snaps from 2013.
We look so young and well-rested. Man, those were the days!
downtown Sittwe, Rakhine state