Alright, last one.For a sort-of explanation, see this.
For the previous article, see this.
Talking about the entirety of Burman culture is a bit too ambitious for me. I've neither the time, knowledge nor inclination to investigate and exposit about every aspect of their culture--I know enough about it to know that there's a lot to know about it. It does, after all, stem from three or four different major Asian countries and then fell under European cultural dominance for a century or so. In any case, I'm going to touch on the aspects I found interesting and had extensive contact with.
I was continually fascinated by the peoples' reactions to us. Caucasians hadn't exactly been common there since the British had withdrawn from the country. While tourism has been picking up in recent years (up to 715,000 foreign visitors in 2007, as opposed to 200,000 in 2002) it's still an unusual event to see a white person on the streets. Consequently, our visits to the outlying areas caused quite a stir in the local population. I was usually swamped by the kids, who, despite being my age, barely came up to my shoulders.
It was a fascinating experience, really, because we were always hailed as these incredibly important people. Granted, some of our group was important--we were travelling with a bishop and the national director of the Church's Mission to the Jewish People (CMJ)--which meant all of us were important. We were all swarmed with people whenever we were welcomed to a complex, our hands shaken by dozens of smiling people.
During our time in Toungoo, we toured some of the neighboring villages. Each of the villages we visited had a boarding house filled with students.
The Burmese school system is not as widespread as their American counterparts. Where in the States schools are distributed to have districts covering every inhabited region, Burman schools are more haphazard. Originally run by the major curches in the area (later taken over by the State), the schools are centered around the larger church areas. This means that the districts don't cover all the children in a region. In order to go to a school, a student has to move to the local area.
Many churches near schools have boarding houses within their compounds--Essentially barn-like from the outside, with two floors, the bottom being a classroom and the upper being nothing but an open floor: the dormitory.
Each boarding house was filled with students, usually aged between ten and sixteen, though none of them looked as old as they should. We were welcomed with ceremonial song each time, which was a stunning experience. The Burmese language is naturally beautiful, and when it's applied to song with a group of children who could outmatch any high-school choir I've seen in the states, the results are spectacular.Watch this video and/or this video to see what I'm talking about.
In general, ceremony is a large part of Burmese life. Even just the visits we did to people's houses were 'major events' by their standards. Guests are always welcomed with some amount of formality, especially when it's to a large family. Food is always brought out, even if the guests had already eaten and nobody was hungry. Everyone would sit around a table and drink tea and hold conversation for as long as awkwardness could stand, and then the guests would proceed on their way.
We spent one of the last days in Burma wandering along the street markets. We'd been curious about them ever since we first saw them when we were being driven around town. While there were American-style grocery stores here and there, there were many people who simply couldn't afford them. There was also a certain character to the street markets that simply couldn't be matched by a simple grocery store.
The markets were always crowded with people going out to get the food for the day. Though technology has greatly advanced since the markets first began, many people still didn't have refrigeration or any other method of storing food for long periods of time. Everything was available there, from bamboo to fish to watermelon, and everything was entirely fresh.
The more material-centered markets were usually indoors, either in a large warehouse that seemed to be crammed to the brim with jewelry stores and clothing outlets that all sold exactly the same things, or open to the streets with flocks of employees flitting about the displays. They were absolute hives of activity, with people swarming from one store to the next, looking for differences that I simply couldn't see.
Of course, as with any other high-traffic area, there were also little tea shops that somehow managed to serve the never-ending flood of people. There was a 'clearing' of sorts in one of the back streets of the market district that was absolutely flooded with people sitting at little tables drinking tea and otherwise enjoying a nice little afternoon snack.
I've never seen so much human life in one place. The display of life and energy was absolutely incredible, and will stay with me for a long time.