This post was contributed by Parker Pflaum, coordinator for faculty-led programs, about his time in Myanmar as a program/trip leader who taught material for the student participants. This is the first post in a two-part series. Read Part II.
U Chit Phay is 78 years old. He is of the Danu ethnicity. He’s been a small man his whole life, but age and recent sickness have shrunken him even further. He appears wizened. He wears the traditional Danu turban rolled up and wrapped around his head as well as a simple longyi, a Burmese sarong tied in the middle.
U Chit Phay is an important patriarch in the village of Sin Leh, located in Shan State, in Myanmar’s east, bordering China, Laos, and Thailand. He has eleven living children, many grandchildren and even some great grandchildren. The culmination of Buddhist lent is coming up in a few days—on the Harvest Moon—so many relatives of U Chit Phay are traveling from near and far to pay him respect.
Each day, about twenty visitors come to visit U Chit Phay. The guests eat and talk, then give him gifts. The visit culminates with U Chit Phay sitting cross-legged on the ground in front of the family’s Buddhist shrine with his guests sitting facing him. U Chit Phay recites a blessing. Then the guests bend, bow, and pray three times towards him and the Buddha. They then stand up, say their goodbyes and make their way through the rain and mud back to their homes.
Four days ago, we set off in the morning from Kalaw with our trekking guide, Ko Harri, an Indian Sikh whose ancestors have lived in Burma (now called Myanmar) for four generations. We hike into the verdant hills and valleys of this part of western Shan State, the largest state in Myanmar. Shan State is part of the ethnically diverse upside-down horseshoe that surrounds the Burmese heartland of central Myanmar: Naypyidaw, the newly built capital; Mandalay, the ancient capital; and Yangon, the British colonial capital. In this part of Shan State, there are the majority Shan—who are related to the Thai, Lao, and the Dai peoples of Southeast Asia—as well as the Pa’o, Danu and Pa-Laung people.
In the afternoon we crest a hill and see the first glimpse of the valley that will be our home for the next twelve days. Golden hti umbrellas top the many Theravada Buddhist pagodas in the valley, shimmering and sparkling against the backdrop of emerald rice fields and the mud and clay of the valley. Thunderstorms move across the sky, and the streams, pool, and puddles left by the departing monsoons make the sun play hide-and-go-seek. The pagodas shimmer in playful mimicry.
U Chit Phay welcomes us into his home and serves us tea and snacks. He smokes and sometimes chews beetle nut (paan), so he doesn’t have many teeth left. He is subtle and subdued, like the other villagers living here. It is rare to see a big smile or belly laugh here, or outward showing of any strong emotions. Nor are there many big personalities or characters or chatterboxes or rapscallions. You need to watch closely, or you’ll miss the understated gestures that are the only clues to a person’s personality and mood.
Myanmar is a poor country, and Sin Leh is a poor village. The house we live in is made of wood, bamboo slats and a few structural concrete blocks. It has three rooms, with two additional closet-sized living spaces subdivide off of the main room. We four instructors sleep in the main room, underneath the Buddhist shrine which, along with the kitchen, is the heart and soul of family life. Every night, after U Chit Phay lights a candle and prays to the Lord Buddha, we make our beds on the floor, and at the start of each day when the rooster living beneath the floorboards under the house starts to crow, we roll our beds up and put them away to the side of the room.
The room becomes even smaller in consideration of the taboos in regard to the shrine. You can’t point your feet toward the shrine. Nor can you lean against it. And with about 20 people coming in and out of the small ten-foot-by-ten-foot space that we occupy, we must keep all our things packed in our bags stashed in a corner of the room.
Recently the village higher up the hill installed a hydroelectric generator in a small stream, and with a smattering of small solar panels, the village can have two or three fifteen-watt lights on per home. There are about seventy families in Sin Leh. It gets quite dark at night and people go to bed early, usually by seven or eight.
Each night, after praying to Lord Buddha, U Chit Phay sits with us on the floor underneath the shrine. He smokes beedis (called cheroots in Myanmar) and drinks tea. One night, as I’m reading, he communicates through my Myanmar co-instructor that he is worried I’m bored. I assure him that I’m not; that I’m enjoying the break that homestays give us instructors on a full-on three-month study abroad program. He continues to be worried that I’m bored. So I put my book away, and we talk.
I ask him which of his eleven children he likes the best. He demurs and says he can’t pick favorites because it would make the others jealous. I ask him what wisdom he would like to pass down after seventy-eight years on this planet, and he tells me to do good things, have kind thoughts and live correctly. I ask him what young people today are doing wrong. He responds that they are doing nothing wrong.
I think I’m looking for some complex truth to life. Some ancient, wisdom handed down from generations past. But U Chit Phay isn’t playing ball.
I ask him why he isn’t the chief of the village.
“Too much work,” he says.
“Really?” I ask.
“Yes. You have to have a motorcycle to be chief.”
“Because you have to go to the monthly chiefs’ meeting in Kalaw. And you have to go out and visit homes to mediate problems. Too much work.”
Most people in the village want U Chit Phay to be chief, but he won’t do it. So the current chief brings all the issues to U Chit Phay’s house to discuss. That way U Chit Phay’s voice is present and heard. It’s a compromise. And it seems to work.