When you live in another country, and connect with the local people you get a unique glimpse into their lives. Not everyone in the world lives quite the same way as you. Of course money, language, social rules, food and many more things are all different. These outward differences, are in themselves very fascinating and worthy of observation, but that will not be the focus of this blog.
Exploring Heart and Soul
I will explore the deeper differences within Myanmar culture and society. The differences that lie under the language, the clothes, the food and the social norms. I’m most interested in the underlying differences that exist within the hearts of souls of the people I live among.
As our world becomes a smaller place and people from different countries expand their reach and big corporations imprint their brand throughout the world at an ever increasing rate… outward differences become fewer between countries. Franchises would be an example of how western consumer values muscle their way into other countries.
Outward appearances change easily and might include clothes, hair styles, pop culture. What is harder and slower to change is the fabric of what keeps that society together. What drives them to work or not? What are their core beliefs?
In the western world including Canada, American, Australia and Europe we all work from the same paradigm. We can’t help but compare other countries and cultures, to our own. We can’t help but view things egocentrically. But when you embrace and live in a foreign country you see the more subtle and hidden inward differences between your culture and theirs.
When I moved to Myanmar 3 months ago I knew I’d be immersed in a whole new culture with vastly different outward differences. This alone is enough to shock many people and many things have shocked me, however, it is the underlying cultural differences that I want to explore. Those differences that get to the core of who the Myanmar people really are.
As I already said, I have only been here 3 months, so I am no expert but I love to share with you the incredible and beautiful differences I see so far in this beautiful country.
Myanmar Culture and Society
People of Myanmar are a very loving, calm and tolerant people. The vast majority of them are practicing Buddhists.
They share everything with everyone and anyone. When you eat in a restaurant the waiter will place the food ordered in the middle of the table. They don’t give it to the person who ordered it. Here people at the same table eat together from all plates of food.
Charity among Myanmar people is rampant. A beautiful silver pot is placed in a central location on a busy road in a neighbourhood or district to collect donations every month. You see monks doing the same thing walking the streets with their bowls collecting food and anything else people can offer. Money and food, is then distributed to the people who need it most. The people collecting this money and food give their time freely to collect it and they take nothing extra for themselves to do this service.
It is based on ‘the most needy’ first.
So unlike our charities in the west that take a great percentage of funds collected to run their offices and pay their staff and then what is left is given to the people who actually need it. Rich charities keep getting richer. That means you money isn’t doing as much good as it could.
It is based on ‘me’ first, then you… (if there is any left).
No Beggars Here
Amazingly, there are no beggars in the streets of Yangon. I saw a woman at the train station with two young children who was clearly poor, but she was not there to beg. I was told by my guide that someone would be taking care of her, giving her food and offering her a place to sleep.
All over Yangon I have yet to see anyone beg for food or money. I even offered one young girl some money but she refused. The taxi driver informed me that she will not accept money like that. It is better to buy what she is selling if I want to help her. She was selling Kleenex to people in cars at a street light. So I did, I bought the tissue box she was selling and she happily accepted that.
Myanmar people have a deep sense of personal pride and integrity that even very young children exemplify. Again I was shocked.
Furthermore, Myanmar people are incredibly friendly for no other reason other than to get to know you, even briefly. An entire family out on an a picnic came and took a picture of me with them all around. They did not do this for themselves, they used MY camera to take a picture FOR me! I was stunned. Every time I look at that photo I am reminded of their selfless generosity.
Street dogs are everywhere here and many do look half starved. However, in each neighbourhood there are people who leave pots of rice and other food out on the street for the dogs. and cats. Some people are more generous than others towards these dogs, but many are fed in a community based, communal way. Even the birds are not forgotten.
Having Enough and Sharing the Rest
No one will go hungry in Myanmar, so it seems. People share what they have with others. This creates a sort of ease and tranquility among the people. If you are very poor, someone who has more will share with you what they have. It is just understood to be that way here.
More well off people live among less fortunate people. This appears to work peacefully because of the charity system which spreads funds out to those who need it most in a community. Schools and universities are basically free here. Families pool resources together to make things work.
Entrepreneurship in the Streets
The people are given freedom to set up small shops and cart type businesses in the streets. It could be a BBQ cart, snacks and drinks, or the tricycle man who transports people up and down the streets. For the budding entrepreneur there are opportunities to make a bit of money. What little they make is theirs and a little is all you need here.
The local farmers are also supported here. The money that people make selling food in the markets largely goes back to the source. Local people prefer to shop this way, in the markets on the streets because this food is their food, grown from their soil and chemical free. They all adamantly support that.
Although this is a third world country, and classified as poor by our standards, the people all make things work by sharing and working together. Their are no airs and graces here to make things look good. They really support each other at every level. It is like a code of conduct that is practiced among adults and it is taught to their children.
What Myanmar people have, that we lack in the west, is connection with each other, especially for those who have less. In the West we almost despise people who have less than us. We turn our heads, or ignore the poverty in our own streets. We pay high taxes which should help those less fortunate but that money is often mismanaged.
With more and more people getting squeezed financially in the west, the ‘me, me’ culture makes everyone edgy, resentful and competitive.
In the west, even though we have a welfare system for people, some people don’t really need it. It is abused and the other half of those people who really need it, don’t get enough to survive. Old age people and even young people live in tents in parks illegally, on the streets or in old cars. Our social system is strained and underfunded even though we all pay into it through our taxes.
In the west our culture celebrates the me, me, me.
Here in Myanmar they celebrate the us, us, us.
Deep Gratitude and Happiness
People in Myanmar are happy, really they are happy and they have so little compared to people from the west. Truly less is more here. These people are beautiful and they are so thankful for what they have.
In western countries it is all about what you can get.
In Myanmar it is about what you can give.
Giving of themselves keeps them safe; keeps them together in a way that exceeds anything we could ever do in the west, unless we change our focus and our underlying beliefs from ‘me’ to ‘we’.
Can we do that? Can you do that?
Myanmar culture has a lot to teach me. I think that is why I am here. They say our greatest lessons in life are not lessons we seek to learn but lessons that come to us in the most unsuspecting ways.
Please leave a comment if you have experienced any of these things in the countries you have travelled or lived in. If you think this blog would interest someone else please share it.