The Generosity of Community in Myanmar

Written by Bessie about Myanmar. Feelin' thoughtful
Bessie_thoughtful
If you're a visitor to Myanmar, you're sure to be charmed by shining golden temples on the hillside or the kind smiles of men and women wearing traditional dress. Despite the rough edges in Myanmar and hard realities people face, there's a beauty that goes much deeper than the surface here.

People Praying at Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon, Myanmar
Praying at Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon.

On a daily basis this beauty engulfs me. Every morning the municipal employees sweep and give me a little smile as I pass. The trishaw drivers wave hello to me. The staff at our favorite Shan restaurants greet me, the lady that sells me bananas, the man and his two sons that fix my umbrellas, the woman that sells me light bulbs, and, of course, the little shop where we like to buy  wine.


We Live in Mr Roger's Burmese Neighborhood.

And that's not the whole list of people I say hi to daily. I can't forget the lady selling betel nut who waves at me from 20 feet away smiling, calling me over to chat in broken English and Burmese. I've never bought anything from her, but she scolds me when I don't call her sister, and we tease each other about being love sick.

And the others I have to include are the 8-10 security guards that work at a bank I pass everyday. They stand to wave hello at me, sometimes even salute me or tip there hats. "Mingalaba!" they call out. Or "Good Morning." Or they ask me "where you go?" It's always the same, I point a little further down the road to my building and continue on my way.

Travelers near Hsipaw, Myanmar
Happy to see us. Travelers near Hsipaw in Shan State.

And I can't tell you the number of times we've been pulled into friends' and strangers' houses alike to get served a snack or meal and treated with overwhelming hospitality. I'd be omitting an important detail if I didn't tell you that it's moved me to tears a half a dozen times - people here are unbelievably generous towards me. It's so humbling and people visually have so little, and yet they can give so selflessly from the heart. We were once given a village and cave tour by a former monk and invited into his home in northern Shan State, and another time got fed birthday cake on a spoon by the hostess along with the 15 other guests in the room.

And Kyle and I were once ushered by a monk into a painter's simple home and served Coca Cola into wine glasses and served cookies, of course surrounded by family members squatting on the floor shyly around us, and in the background a simple kitchen with charcoal burning in their small claypot stove. How does that even happen? How can people be so kind?

When you least Expect it, you'll be invited in.

But perhaps being a visitor it's not easy to pick up a sense of community about a place. But if you're open for the opportunity, you'll get pulled in. It took me a while coming here to take down my barriers that all people being kind to me wanted to sell me things. Why would people just randomly say hello or wave to me without having an ulterior motive? In Myanmar it's just different. Somehow people have a huge supply or kindness to dole out. They're genuinely curious and want to know about each other and help one another.

But I'll also let you in on a secret. There's one way to spot the sense of community here. Keep an eye out for the communal water.

water container in Nyaungshwe, Myanmar
The cup and water are to be shared.

Neighbors, businesses, temples, churches, you name it, people buy water for everyone to drink. Sometimes in 20 liter bottles and other times in traditional clay pots to keep the water cool, there's always a plastic cup sitting on top. Anyone walking by can drink some. Anyone. Whether you're a stranger or a neighbor, you can drink the water. I've seen taxi drivers stop their cars for water. School kids walk by and stop for a drink. Monks. Nuns. Tea shop boys. Bank employees. Everyone's entitled.

Water Pots at a temple on Sagaing Hill, Myanmar
Clay water pots at a Buddhist temple in Sagaing Division.

Public water jugs, Yangon, Myanmar
Communal water with some pizazz. The writing on the shelf says: Drinking Water.

Myanmar's a hot sometimes very dry place, but I've been loads to loads of countries that are similarly hot and dry and I've never seen anything like this. I've just walked around thirsty or relied on plastic bottles. Not here though.

I spot the communal water everywhere, and it's a visual reminder on how people rely on one another here. There's a culture of giving in Myanmar.

Public Water, Yangon, Myanmar
Water hanging from a tree in downtown Yangon.


It's only recently that I've started picking up random cups in businesses or schools I frequent. That fact that dry season has started and it can take a toll on the body is one factor. Part of it was also a hygiene thing for me, but I see many people here that have perfected the no lips drinking from the cup. But my decision not to drink the water was more ideological than practical.

I felt like I hadn't given enough yet to drink from the community water or that I wasn't quite a part of the community yet to share the water. Or maybe even that I hadn't begun to feel comfortable enough to give so selflessly the way my community gives to me.

water pots at a temple in Bagan, Myanmar
Water in at a Buddhist temple in Bagan.The sign describes that a family donated money for the shelf in honor of a grandfather to have a good afterlife.
 
My community here is teaching me. It doesn't just take money to give. It takes openness and a willingness to accept something in return. I've always loved to give and been good at that, but accepting help and generosity, and accepting it graciously is another skill. Especially when I've gained so much from people that I thought might have little to give. But I think it's the opposite though. Having less frees you to give more, especially when you're community is there to give back to you.

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Don't be shy, tell us "hi"

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