07 April 2004

Burmese Views of the Mysterious West

To me [now starting college], Mandalay (a place which, as I later learned, foreign visitors enjoyed as a sleepy backwater that time forgot) was an amazing metropolis, a town of astounding variety and sophistication, a city that never slept. In Mandalay I learned how to use the telephone and the electric kettle....

My first introduction to foreign gadgetry went with the first stories I began to hear about the wonders of the West. I was told that people in the West could cook their meals without pots and pans and stoves. I was puzzled how this could be possible. The few Burmese magazines that were not government-controlled regaled their readers with these strange stories which they gleaned -- in embellished form -- from the British tabloid the Sun, from Newsweek, and from the novels of Jeffrey Archer, one of the few living English writers allowed to be published in Burma.

The beliefs we absorbed about the West strangely resembled the fantastic stories early Western travellers sent back about the Mysterious East. One teacher at school had told us that in the West things were so advanced that pigs could be grown on trees, and that a type of furniture had been developed that could be eaten if ever food supplies ran low. He also explained to us that the West got so cold in winter that if you peed outdoors the urine would instantly freeze so that you had to snap it like a stick. We had a pretty good sense that these were tall tales -- but they made better listening than the equally tall tales of the regime. When we learned that the Americans got to the moon, for instance, we had solemnly been informed by a fanatical socialist-nationalist teacher: 'Our ancestors got there centuries ago on the astounding flying machines that the genius of the Burmese had perfected -- secrets alas now lost.' We learned something important from all this: that the Burmese, after nearly thirty years of isolation from the rest of the world, constantly subject to official propaganda urging them to detest and despise the West, were in fact fascinated by the Western way of life and ignorantly credulous about it.
SOURCE: From the Land of Green Ghosts: A Burmese Odyssey, by Pascal Khoo Thwe (HarperCollins, 2002), pp. 120-121

This reminds me of a conversation I had with an older man in Papua New Guinea in 1976 who had heard something about a conflict in Berlin a decade and a half earlier, and wanted to know how things had finally turned out and who our current Kennedy was. I can't remember if the conversation took place before or after Carter was elected to be our next Kennedy.

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