“Have Fun in Burma” by Rosalie Metro (2018) is about the hazards of relating across the barriers between American and Burmese cultures. Though international scrutiny of Myanmar has mounted in recent months, cross-cultural misunderstandings are a constant and Metro’s book is worth a read for any Western expatriate working in the country. Some such misunderstandings—in retrospect—are amusing. Some are tragic. And others have policy and personal implications. If the 18-year-old American protagonist in “Have Fun in Burma” takes these values for granted, the same is more than true among seasoned Western aid bearers.
Metro incisively points out how misunderstandings will be frequent between wealthy and often naive Westerners immersed in ideas about individualism and equality. Wary Burmese nationalists are also interested in equality, but they are also concerned with foreign intervention, neocolonialism and the preservation of culture. Misunderstanding happens because of power discrepancies and cultural divides inherent to relationships between traveling Westerners and resident Burmese. Metro’s point is ultimately that there is not always a middle ground, nor should there be: sometimes the Westerner needs to just watch, wait and listen in order to gain deeper understanding.
The protagonist in “Fun in Burma” is Adela Frost, an 18-year-old American student. She is an idealistic voluntourist, assigned to teach English at the fictional Yadana monastery outside Yangon in 2012, shortly after the expulsion of the Rohingya (but before the expulsions in 2017). Adela picked Burma because, while in high school, she befriended a Burmese exile, Ka Oo, who worked in her school’s cafeteria. Ka Oo related to her the story of the 8.8.88 demonstrations, his own flight to join the students fighting in the forest and his eventual emigration to America. He tells her about the brutality of the Burmese military government, but also his longing for family and country. Adela begins following issues in Burma in the Western press and learns about the exclusion of the Muslim Rohingya, which the Western press describes as religious discrimination by Buddhists against Muslims. In this respect, her sources of knowledge on Myanmar are perhaps typical of idealistic Americans: a combination of personal interaction with exiles and a press focused on Buddhist-Muslim tensions.
As a voluntourist, Adela Frost in fact does better than most. She quickly learns phrases in Burmese, survives a strong bout of dysentery and undergoes a 10-day-long meditation retreat in which the non-religious Adela wrestles with the relationship between suffering and karma. She even starts applying these Buddhist concepts to her previous beliefs about individualism and ethno-religious equality, and asks good questions: Why should a woman dying in the hospital be ignored because she is Muslim and dark skinned? Why should women be pushed into arranged marriages, and from there into nunneries? Why was Cyclone Nargis so unjust in who it killed? Why are peaceful monks in her English class so nationalistic, asserting that Rohingya have no citizenship rights in Myanmar and should leave?
These questions are quickly sharpened by Adela’s experience in Myanmar. As a result, they make it into the blog she keeps, which is aimed at her friends and teachers in the United States. Her posts express empathy and confusion from an American viewpoint. Inevitably she questions Burmese views that focus on accepting the status quo with respect to gender and religious inequality.
In this context, Adela begins a relationship with the Buddhist nun Daw Pancavati, who selflessly nurses the 18 year-old through a bout of dysentery and adopts her as her daughter. The tender care she receives from the nun and their mother-daughter relationship touches her emotionally. She has not experienced such selflessness before. In the context of this close relationship, Daw Pancavati becomes an important source for Adela’s understanding of the status of women, arranged marriage and the tragedy of Cyclone Nargis, which took Daw Pancavati’s own young son. In this context, she also learns of the beauty of Buddhism.
Adela’s second source however is Thiha, a handsome kitchen worker who has been awarded a scholarship to study in Singapore. He too becomes Adela’s sounding board as she applies her American ideas about discrimination and inequality to what she sees around the temple compound. It is in this context that Adela wrestles with the epithet “kala,” a derogatory word for Muslims. Some monks seem to hate the “kala,” even while the monastery’s abbot seems quietly sympathetic. Adela learns that there are, after all, three Muslim children in her English class and that a Muslim man was hired by the abbot to clean the monastery compound. From her American perspective, Adela finds such tolerance admirable and she decides to tell the world about the complexity of Burmese Buddhist kindness, which coexists—inexplicably, to her mind—with overt hostility toward Muslim “kala.” She does this by doing the blogger thing: taking photos of the compound, the children and the sweeper, and posting them to her blog.
Adela’s downfall is her relationship with Thiha the kitchen worker, who she also sees in American terms. She encourages him to sneak into her room at night, and they begin a sexual relationship imbued with her American romanticism and an assumption that “no one will know.” She does this knowing that sexual activity is strictly forbidden on the temple grounds. In this context, Adela coerces Thiha into translating her English-language blog into Burmese. She hopes that Burmese people will see how tolerant the monastery is, in the same way her American audience would. Idealistically, she hopes that Yadana Monastery will become a model for Myanmar.
But Thiha’s translation proves to be Adela’s undoing. The blog goes viral not in America, but in Myanmar. The monastery’s Muslim children and the cleaner are quickly identified and the abbot becomes the focus of online criticism for harboring both Muslims and an American meddler. Adela’s blog itself becomes the target for vitriolic hate. The three Muslim children disappear from school, one girl apparently returning to trash picking, the sweeper is fired and Adela’s lover loses his kitchen job and scholarship to Singapore. Adela herself is summarily deported two days before her three-month contract expires.
Metro’s straightforward message is that even the best-intentioned Westerners can have things go wrong in places they do not yet understand, particularly since their wealth often protects them from critique. The message of the novel is that engagement with Burma requires foreigners to have patience and awareness of the consequences of their actions: what is written on your blog matters. If this is true for Adela, how much more true is it for UKAID, USAID, the World Bank and the Yangon Embassies that dispense aid in some of the most sensitive areas of Myanmar? Or for that matter, how true was it for the British colonialists that George Orwell and others wrote about?
American volunteers should of course read “Have Fun in Burma.” But more prominent dispensers of foreign aid should have “Have Fun in Burma” on their bookshelves too. Adela’s views about humanitarianism, equality and human rights are Western in origin and these values, perhaps necessarily, permeate foreign aid program design in Myanmar. This is why there are clauses in foreign aid contracts regarding discrimination on the basis of ethnicity, religion and gender—reflecting values favored by Adela as well. This is fine, but implicitly, Burmese concerns about neocolonialism and cultural preservation are left out. Perhaps there should also be clauses written into such contracts about appreciation of Burmese hospitality of the sort Daw Pancavati offers, including a request that not every person with a different view on religious and ethnic issues should be lectured at—and certainly a note about no sex in monasteries. In the same way Adela Frost saw her American concerns first, contracts and foreign-backed programs highlight the same Western human rights discourse. There is more to Myanmar than the drive for equality or ethno-religious discrimination, as “Have Fun in Burma” describes well.
Tony Waters is Director of the Institute of Religion, Culture and Peace at Payap University in Chiang Mai, Thailand. He works with Burmese, Karen and other students in the university’s PhD program in Peacebuilding. He is also a professor of Sociology at California State University, Chico, and author of academic books and articles. He can be reached at [email protected].
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