A Lesson in Communication in Kayah State, Burma

I walk through the town, watching people, watching me. Loikaw, Kayah State, is still one of the places in Burma that it is not clear whether foreigners can go. We checked the restrictions many times before I came to visit my friend. Yet even at the airport, I expect the soldiers and immigration officials to shake their head, send me back to Yangon.

The people are shy, they say nothing, but they are curious. They let me walk the streets, without saying a word about my obvious difference.

I walk around town, looking for breakfast.

“What is there to eat?” I ask. Food is one of the topics I know in Burmese.

The woman shakes her head, bows down, steps away.

I repeat. She shakes her head faster. Turns up her lip, becomes defensive.

‘I am speaking Burmese’ I tell her and she stares again at my strange face, as if my lips could never say words, that she will understand.

I try again, another place. I struggle through, repeat the order four times, until finally they show me the options, in a dark kitchen, a heavily smoking fire, tea pots boiling, condensed milk tins open on a granite counter, the boy grinning at plain white bread, toasting on open flames. I point.

Girl Kayah

Later in the day, the same words, take me into a long conversation with a woman market stall holder, who invites me to sit at her stall, to drink her tea, to eat salad, to present myself to the other stall holders, who all are amazed that I can say words in their language. They ask me all the questions, they dreamed of asking other foreigners. Like where do I come from? What work a I doing here? Where are my family?

As I walk away from the stall, I think, learning a language is no guarantee to connection. I must just accept words as they come, reach out into the open as I can.

It is more than words that join us.

I think, if others close doors, it is too easy to be defensive. I can choose to stay open. So, when we pass  each other, if someone wants to join with me, I can be welcome.


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