Some thoughts over a cup of courtesy tea after living almost a year in Myanmar.
It has been nearly a year now since I first moved to Yangon, Myanmar with my family. Initially I wondered if I would hate, like, or even love my new home. It’s one of the few places in my life that I moved to without having had the opportunity to visit first. (The other two were Edinburgh, Scotland and Los Angeles, CA. respectively.)
So over ten months in I can say with profound certainty that it is indeed love. Yangon, Myanmar is the most happening city in all of Myanmar and yet it doesn’t suffer (yet) from choking smog or that boxed-in feeling you might get from Bangkok, Hong Kong, or New York City from an over abundance of giant skyscrapers blocking out the sun.
Of course you certainly can find too much traffic and crowded, teeming streets full of humanity. And while you might pass several beautiful towering golden pagodas or temples, you will also most certainly see moldy-looking buildings that are downright run-down with trash piling up in their back alleyways and spilling into the streets. For this reason, I have (I believe) invented a new word to help me describe my Yangon: Shabbical. (That’s part shabby, part magical.)
One thing that makes Yangon and Myanmar as a whole more magical than shabby however are the small details. Here you are more likely to get a heartfelt smile and a wave from a gang of teenagers on the street as opposed to the finger like in other parts of the world. I’ve heard a lot of Burmese rap on the radio and yet I can almost guarantee that 99% of Burmese rappers are probably more polite and genteel than your own grandma.
Myanmar, despite being one of the poorest countries in Asia also happens to be the world’s most generous country according to the CAF World Giving Index.
So all of this now brings me to a humble cup of courtesy tea I received yesterday.
The tea is actually extra humble as it came as a tiny offering on the side with my Caramelatte from Black Canyon Coffee at Myanmar Plaza in Yangon.
One thing I learned back in July when I was first trying out my shaky beginner’s Burmese in the local coffee shops, is that no matter what you order in Myanmar, you are almost always treated to a free (in my case, completely unexpected) cup of green tea. They call it “ye nwe gian” or “plain warm water,” and it’s similar to a weak Chinese green tea you might get in a restaurant.
At first I thought maybe I had ordered wrong, being an avid coffee drinker after all. Eventually, I became used to this little act of customary tea kindness. What made yesterday’s most recent tea offering so special however is that when I went to have a sip, I was delighted to find that instead of “ye nwe gian,” in fact it was actually a fragrant jasmine tea, my favorite kind.
Myanmar just happens to be full of small acts of kindness like heartfelt smiles, warm greetings, and unexpected surprises like this.
Yes, I know. I also am aware that Myanmar has been in the news with stories of human rights violations and religious intolerance, particularly up north in Rakhine State. It ‘s true the entire country suffers from a broken education system, poverty, and logistical challenges since having opened up to the world for the first time after six decades of military rule.
But as Myanmar moves forward on the path to modernization and hopefully prosperity for its citizens, I hope it can also hold onto the things that make it so special compared to other countries. So yes, like a bad high school yearbook quote from the USA, what I’m essentially saying is, “Stay cool Myanmar. Don’t change!”
Of course, let in all the good that the rest of the world has to offer. But please hang onto your kind sparkling eyes, warm smiles, and generous hearts. Hang onto your ability to be generous even when you yourself have little to give. Keep delighting locals and foreigners alike with your attention to small details and your ability to warm even the most jaded of hearts.
Yes, you have a lot you can learn from the rest of the world. But the rest of the world could learn so much from you. And if it does, we will all be so much better off.
Today I’ll forgo my usual cup of espresso and raise a tiny courtesy tea glass to you. Thank you for your hospitality and for allowing my family and I to call your country our adopted temporary home.
This post was part of a birthday gift to my husband Michael, a certified Tea Sommelier and is also a guest post on his blog, Man With a Mug. Come on over and visit!