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On the journey back home

Two Decembers ago, I returned to Burma for the third time, en route from neighboring Thailand, where my family had spent the bulk of our Christmas holiday.

To be honest, I struggle with writing about Burma. In some ways, I’ve been both blessed and burdened by my upbringing as an American of mixed Burmese and Chinese heritage. (My family is part of the overseas Chinese diaspora, with deep roots in Burma.)

A typical house in small town Burma

Growing up, it was confusing to navigate a world fixated on black and white, instead of shades of gray. I straddled two antithetical identities, both rooted in cultural psyches that are at odds with one another, whether it be family expectations, finances, and even food. For instance, the Burmese propensity for generosity versus the Chinese inclination for thrift, or the Burmese disposition to live for today, versus the Chinese outlook of preparing for tomorrow. Yet, every time I return to Burma, I find myself better understanding the circumstances that have shaped my own identity.

An order of Kon Htet's famous roasted chicken rice (ကြက်ဆီထမင်း).
Kyet hsi htamin (ကြက်ဆီထမင်း), as the dish is known in Burma, is the local take on a Southeast Asian favorite, Hainanese chicken rice.

Literally hours after landing in Rangoon, we pre-ordered 200 servings of ‘chicken oil rice’ from Kon Htet (ကုံးထက်), a well-known chain in Rangoon, because my dad was intent on holding an ahlu, a time-honored charity feast that probably best exemplifies the traditional Burmese spirit of generosity and is the epicenter of traditional community life in Burma. (According to the 2015 World Giving Index, Burma was ranked the world’s most charitable nation.)

Market road

Before the crack of dawn the next day, we loaded my uncle’s taxi with 200+ parcels of chicken rice and proceeded to travel back to Pyuntaza, a small dusty railroad town in Pegu Region, a four hour drive from the commercial capital of Rangoon.

The main market road

The drive is uncomfortable to say the least, a narrow two lane highway dotted with potholes, poorly paved and tarred roads, and brimming with all sorts of vehicles that drive with reckless abandon: big rigs, bikes, mopeds, and the carts manned by cattle. Add to that, Burma’s infamously dangerous road system, whereby British-style (right-hand drive) cars are forced to drive on American-style (left-hand drive) roads, the vestige of capricious decisions made an authoritarian dictator in 1970.

Market road

Around 10 am, we finally spotted a signpost welcoming us to my father’s hometown. Immediately, we sought out U Kyu, my grandfather’s former right- hand man, to help us locate a venue for the ahlu. Guided only by my father’s memory, we scoured the main market road to locate U Kyu’s family shop.

The monastery's ordination hall

Asking the monk's son to deliver food

Miraculously, we found one of his daughters, who told us he had recently entered the Buddhist monkhood, not unusual when one understands that Burmese men will temporarily ordain as a means of spiritual retreat. She tasked her brother with leading us, by bike, to U Kyu’s new abode at the local monastery.

When we arrived, my family was completely astonished by the sheer number of kids studying at the monastery, all draped in maroon robes, and sporting cleanly shaven heads. In the absence of a strong social safety net, many Burmese families mired in poverty send their young sons to the monkhood, their best opportunity to obtain a free education, housing and nourishment. We quickly secured the abbot’s approval to donate the mid-day hsun (နေ့လည်ဆွမ်း) or meal offering, since Buddhist monks rely on the community’s generosity for sustenance.

In Theravada Buddhist tradition, monks are forbidden to eat after noon. As we were quickly approaching mid-day, my family swiftly began setting up for this improvised ahlu.

In the back kitchen, monastery volunteers worked to distribute individual portions of Burmese sweetmeats we had bought from Shwe Pu Zun (www.shwepuzuncake.com).

When all was ready, a lay attendant symbolically struck a long wooden pole, announcing that lunch was now ready.

By seniority, the monastics began lining up, each carrying an alms bowl to receive the meal. Behind the adult monks were about 100 novice monks, kids really, patiently awaiting their last meal of the day. In assembly line fashion, my sister and I doled out the individual meal parcels, complete with sprigs of cilantro, cucumber slices, and the sauces.

The monastery's dining hall

After everyone diffused into the dining hall, there was a brief but deafening silence in the room. Before long, the entire room abruptly broke into collective chant, reciting Buddhist verses in Pali, an ancient Indian language whose role is analogous to Latin’s in Roman Catholicism.

My family, prostrating before the monastery’s abbot, then proceeded to formally offer the alms. In true Burmese custom, we lifted the dining table, to symbolically ‘offer’ the entire table as a giant plate of food, so to speak. After concluding these rituals, the monks began eating in contemplative silence. No remarks about how good the food tasted. No requests for additional helpings. It was simply a reflection of the austere lives that Buddhist monks live, to avoid fixating on the fleeting, transient pleasures of life.

A typical Burmese meal: blanched vegetables, protein in the form of diluted fermented fish paste, a sour soup and white rice.

I also saw a glimpse of what the monks would have otherwise eaten, a spartan meal consisting of plain boiled rice served with blanched vegetables, protein in the form of runny fermented fish paste and some boiled lentils.

After the meal, my family gathered in the main hall to perform a water libation ceremony, to consecrate and conclude the ahlu. We recited a number of Buddhist prayers, before sharing our meritorious deeds and loving-kindness with all other living beings in all four cardinal directions. As we chanted “ahmya ahmya ahmya yudaw mu gya ba gon law” (“may all beings receive the benefits of our meritorious deeds”), we gently allowed water, drop by drop, slowly percolate into our silver bowls.

The experience felt so surreal. Although I had grown up partaking in these rituals all my life, the context itself was radically different. It was my first time stepping foot in a rural monastery in the middle of Burma, in a cloistered world circumscribed by longstanding traditions and practices. A world far removed from both the conveniences and excesses of modern-day life, a world of immense poverty, but also a world imbued with a strong sense of dignity.

A local villager pays respect to U Kyu.

Yet, strangely enough, I was in my element. I felt at ease, like a fish in water. Although I grew up in a predominantly immigrant community, I always felt uneasy that I couldn’t easily or fluently assume any recognizable cultural label, because my childhood experiences rarely aligned with those of my friends, and because I had practically no Burmese friends to speak of. In fact, it reminds me of what Eddie Huang (whose memoir, Fresh off the Boat, is the inspiration for a comedy of the same name) once said during an interview with Time:

“…I identify more with my parents’ generation and our generation of overseas Chinese than anything else, because we have no home. We are literally ‘fresh off the boat’.”

But then I looked to my father. There he was, basking in the glow of blissful contentment, back in the place he had spent his formative years, where he had been schooled in the three R’s, reading, writing, and arithmetic. He was back home. And for a moment, so was I.

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