Continue On: Yangon
I met Lao Li the first night I arrived in Myanmar. He was half-naked, lying in a lower berth at a hostel dorm room. I had just arrived off a turbulent flight, landed late, and was un-apologetically thrown from the seat into the depths of this city. I had just checked into the room and the hostel employee was sharing the WiFi password when this squat Asian man threw open his curtain and declared in broken English, “WIFI NO WORK!” Chuckling to himself, while the young Burmese hostel worker uncomfortably smiled. I mumbled that it was no problem and began to put my pack in the locker. I had encountered older men in hostels before, and despite the economic advantage of a youth hostel I felt that it was indeed a societal convention that anyone past the age of 30 should probably not qualify as a person of youth. The man introduced himself as Lao Li, and he asked where I was from. I told him I was American, and like so many other people in Asia that I had met he promptly jumped from “America!” to ”OBAMA!” and then began giggling in self-content. I tried to imagine an American person reacting the same way to meeting a foreigner, by spouting off the political leader of that person’s country, but reflected on the fact the many Americans would probably not be able to name the leader of a foreigner’s country. (Blessed be the ignorance afforded by such sweet sweet hegemony.) I asked Lao Li where he was from and he confirmed my guess that he was from China. I had been living in China for almost three years and by this point, my Chinese had gotten good enough that I could understand most conversations by general context; however, I would still misinterpret a lot, especially when sounds were changed or slurred depending on local accents. In the past year I had finally gotten used to the nuances of the local dialect from hearing conversations around my city. Switching to Chinese, I told Lao Li that I lived in Nanjing and I asked where in China he came from.
Looking surprised and relieved, Lao Li told me that his family was from Jiangsu, which so happened to be the same province I was living in. He asked if I was able to speak any of the Nanjing dialect. To Lao Li’s delight, I immediately began to mimic the few dirty phrases that are so particularly integrated in Nanjing conversations. Just the usual “Mother’s vagina this” and “Rotten dick that.” Lao Li was so overwhelmed with delight that he began to tell me about all the characteristics of Chinese people that I had come to know so well. I was all by myself in the hostel that night, as my friends were arriving the next day. Not wanting to waste a night cooped up in the hostel, I was anxious to get out and walk around Yangon. Lao Li and I kept talking, although I was honestly trying to figure out an exit strategy. Finally, when he began to talk about Chinese eating and drinking culture, I suggested we could go out together. Normally, I try to avoid talking with strangers, but Lao Li seemed pleasant enough. We walked out of the hostel and off into the night. The central focus of our conversation centered around how cheap everything in Myanmar was.
I was excited to see what this city had in store for me. I had been following the political situation of Myanmar over the past year, as free and democratic elections were held for the first time after years of control by an authoritarian military regime. With the result of the recent election allowing for the National Democratic Party to take power, it was decided this was the year for me to go.
As Lao Li and I walked through the streets of Yangon, we passed by street vendors hawking goods and wading through throngs of people. I was struck by the sounds and smells of such an amalgamated culture. I saw t-shirts for sale of the once imprisoned, now newly-elected democratic party leader, Aung San Suu Kyi. Lao Li guided me through busy streets and narrow alleyways pointing out each type of street food and telling me how much it cost, then promptly comparing it to how much it would cost in China. We sat together on stools outside a Hindu temple sipping tea while I ate rice and lentils.
Our conversation began to pick up and it became increasingly informal. As we became more familiar, he mentioned how much he enjoyed the local flavor of Myanmar. I agreed and told him how good the food was. He shook his head and giggled, “NO NO, not my MEANING!” he replied. This is when my previous suspicions become confirmed. Lao Li began to tell me all about the ladies he had been with for the past two weeks. I laughed awkwardly and he casually continued. The conversation was crude and dirty and rubbed me the wrong way ethically and morally, and yet there was something quite charming about Lao Li’s demeanor that drew me in. It was as if we had bonded simply because we were both strangers — removed from our home and pandering against feelings of loneliness. Lao Li mentioned that he was unmarried, and I did not ask why.
Torn as I contemplated the bleak situation of women in the Southeast Asian sex trade, while genuinely appreciating Lao Li’s company and unabashed honesty. He refused to allow me to pay for dinner, and we continued on with our walk together. We talked about different kinds of alcohol and tea in China, chatting away like old friends who hadn’t been together in a long time. Things were going great until at some point on our walk, Lao Li grabs my arm and drags me up a flight of dingy stairs in one of the crumbling buildings. The light in the stairwell is flickering in a way that’s reminiscent of a slasher film. At the top of the stairs he knocks against a pad-locked door. It is at this point where I am starting to question if I made a good decision to follow Lao Li. Now I remember why I shouldn’t talk to strangers and begin worrying for my own safety. The door opens and the metal cage door is unlocked by a surly looking guy about my own age. My blood is surging as we are ushered into a lounge area with lurid red lights that illuminate the dark room. To the left of the small lounge area there is a long dark hallway lined with doors. The hallway reminds me of a prison, and each of the doors has a sliding peephole in the top half of the door. Lao Li is grinning and pushes me into one of the rooms. I try to reassure myself that nothing will happen here if I don’t agree to it, but the thought of being beaten up by a gang of Burmese pimps does enter into the realm of possibility. My voice must have jumped an octave as I protest saying how I’m not interested and that I have a girlfriend. Lao Li must have sensed my discomfort and tells the surly looking pimp that we only want to look and will come back tomorrow. I begin to breathe again.
Later that night, Lao Li asks me about my girlfriend and seems taken with the fact that she is from Nanjing. We come to a street-side bar and have a few beers. Lao Li starts asking if we will get married, and I reply that we had only been dating for less than a year. This does not seem to phase him as he continues to push for me to get married and begins extolling how happy I will be. At this point, I am so perplexed to hear about how special marriage can be, when just a moment ago the very same man was prodding me to solicit sex. He asks to see a picture of my girlfriend and when I pull out my cellphone he tells me that he can do physiognomy to tell about a person based on the dimensions of their face. He says nice things about my girlfriend and then begins to read my face. He tells me that if I don’t get married soon, I will be forever lonely. He recognizes that I have the ability to accomplish many great things, but will not be able to without a wife’s support. I look at his face and see a lonely guy who is happy to have a friend. I forgive Lao Li’s digressions and hope that he too can find someone to mend whatever is broken.
As we continue walking, our path is crossed by a Hindu procession of decorated carts, pulled by pairs of oxen through the streets. A young street kid begins to talk with Lao Li while he is blocking the procession to take pictures of the spectacle. The flash from his cell phone camera startles the yoked oxen who shuffle nervously in place. Lao Li tells the boy he wants to find a lady, and the kid says he knows some of very good quality. I’m already in too deep, so I follow along. We get into a taxi and the boy introduces the driver. As we barrel through narrow streets the driver is talking on his cell phone. The boy explains that many Japanese business men come to Burma, and his taxi driver friend helps them find women. He says the driver can speak Japanese, but to me it sounds heavily-accented and indiscernible. As we drive, the boy tells us that he has no parents and was raised by monks at a temple. He states that he doesn’t drink or smoke, and takes care of the elderly monks during the day. He invites us to come to visit his temple. I say that I would really like that experience, but Lao Li says he, ”JUST WANTS LADY.” We pull over in a residential neighborhood, and Lao Li gets out to pee. I’m sitting in the back of the car, when suddenly three young women all pile into the backseat next to me. I don’t understand what’s going on. The women are all dressed up, and finally it clicks for me. I awkwardly exchange glances and I, like an idiot, wave hello. It becomes unbearably uncomfortable, so I get out and as I stand up, Lao Li says, “Don’t want! Too UGLY!” I pay the taxi driver and they drive away, leaving Lao Li and I in the night. Lao Li and I are now very far from where we began the evening.
As we walk back through residential neighborhoods, Lao Li asks me about English words on street signs. “Copy King.” “Air-Con.” He hails a pedi-cab and in his broken English, asks if the driver will peddle our fat-asses all the way back to the center of town. The driver is hesitant, but Lao Li jumps into the bicycle side car and says, “QUICK! QUICK! GO! GO!” I sit on the back and the driver reluctantly takes off, still not sure if we are serious and struggling to gain momentum.
From the back, I watch passing buildings slowly fade to black and awkwardly wave as the residents watch the strange spectacle of two large man, one white and one Chinese, being peddled around by a skinny, struggling driver. Once the driver stops, I get off; however, Lao Li wants to keep going, but instead I pull Lao Li off too. I thank the driver while Lao Li insists that he can take us. I hail a cab and we head back to our hostel. As we tumble through the hostel door, I realize the gravity of my first night in Myanmar. I shower and stumble my way into the top berth, feeling strangely content for having met Lao Li. While I doze off, he stays awake and stares into the dark.
Lao Li wakes me the next morning for breakfast, and we spend the morning teaching each other English and Chinese words, which we exchange via text message. We share our jokes, favorite swear words, and dirty phrases. We have discussions on Chinese culture, history, politics, and women, and no one else around us has any clue what we are talking about. Lao Li and I are no longer strangers.
We go out for lunch and Lao Li refuses to let me pay for anything. We walk around until I get a message that my friends have arrived, so we head back to meet them at the hostel. On the way I send them a text saying, “Just a heads up, I’ve met a really great guy who dragged me around to see prostitutes all night.” My friends replies are scornful. When we arrive back at the hostel, Lao Li checks out as I go to greet my friends. I catch him before he leaves, and he tells me that he’s checking into a different hostel. I feel bad he’s leaving, but he tells me not to worry because he has an afternoon appointment. I shake his hand and wish him well, and he tells me that I should let him know if I get married this year. That afternoon he sends me pictures from inside the brothel. Nothing graphic, but sketchy nonetheless. I tell my friends about my night, and they question my decision making abilities. I ask them if they want to meet Lao Li and they firmly decline. Since I wasn’t lonely anymore, we walk around and I show point out some of the places Lao Li had shown me the night before.
Yangon looks like a totally different city in the light of day. The city moves and we move with it under the noon-day sun. There are children playing while their mothers look on, monks strolling stoically, and goods from storefronts spilling out into the stinking streets. Dilapidated, Neo-Classical skeletons from the British Empire crumble as buses and cars clatter by. Inequalities mix with the tides of change, as the clash of past and future become part of one story. Yangon is a poor, dirty, hard-scrabble city, yet buried deep down, Yangon has a sense of royalty that waits to emerge, whilst everyone who experiences it knows it’s there.