Tanner on Ice

Page 16

“Very much, but-”

“Or there is Indian. Or other cuisines.” He smiled broadly. “But there is not a single restaurant on this unimportant little street.”

The trick, I could see, was to keep me out without quite saying so. I had read about this particular ethnic tic, and the Burmese even had a word for it. An-ah-deh, they called it, and it means never giving no for an answer by convincing you that what you want – and can’t have – isn’t worth having in the first place, and that you don’t really want it. I’m not sure whether they do it to avoid losing face or to keep you from losing face, but this fellow was certainly doing it, and trying to win the argument with him was beginning to seem a lot like trying to blow out a lightbulb.

“I was told,” I said, “that a certain woman lives on this street.”

“If you would like to have a woman,” he said, “this is not the street for it. You would not find a woman on a street like this, and if you did you would not care for her. She would not be clean.” He leaned forward, lowered his voice. “I know where you can find a woman. Very young, very pretty, very exclusive.”

“I don’t want a woman. I-”

“You prefer a boy? I don’t blame you. Of course there is no homosexuality in Myanmar, but for a man of refinement such as yourself, certain arrangements can be made. But you could never find a boy on this poor street.”

“I don’t want a boy.”

“Then you are a normal man! I am delighted to hear it.”

“I believe Aung San Suu Kyi lives on this street.”

“Ah,” he said. He looked disappointed in me.

“And I would like to see where she lives,” I said.

“There is nothing to see,” he said. “She is all the time inside her house. Before, she would come to the front door and talk to people, but she no longer does this.”

Because SLORC wouldn’t let her, I knew.

“Because it is not safe for her,” he said. “So many patriotic citizens of Myanmar wish to do her harm!”

“Why would they want to harm her? Her father-”

“A great hero,” he said solemnly. “But she left Myanmar, you see. She brought back ideas that are not what the people of Myanmar wish. Thus she stays inside for her own protection.”

“It would be interesting,” I said, “just to walk by and look at the house.”

“But it is not interesting,” he said. “I have seen it, and it is a most uninteresting house. Here in Yangon, where there is so much of genuine architectural interest…”

Well, you get the picture, and so did I. The street was closed to traffic, and this fellow was on hand, a holstered automatic on his hip, to deny access to pedestrians. He seemed capable of inventing endless ways to say no without saying no, but I didn’t want to test his commitment to an-ah-deh to the limit. Sooner or later he would run out of patience. Sooner or later he would haul out his gun and shoot me.

Years ago, before the big wave of federal civil rights legislation, before the sit-ins and the protest marches and the Mississippi summer, states in the American South had a variety of ingenious ways to deny the vote to black citizens. The literacy test was a popular one, and in one Georgia county, so the story goes, a black man, recently graduated from a prestigious Northern university, presented himself to register to vote. “All you have to do,” the local official explained, “is read a paragraph or two of this here newspaper and tell us what it means.”

And he handed him a Chinese newspaper.

The prospective voter looked it over. “Well,” he said, “I can make out what it says, all right. It says no nigger’s gonna be voting in Georgia this year.”

The story ran through my mind as I smiled at the officer. “It sounds,” I said, “like a very boring street with nothing to recommend it.”

“It is precisely that,” he said.

“I thank you,” I said, “for saving me from a pointless and unpleasant walk. I can much better spend my time visiting a pagoda.”

“An excellent idea,” he said. “It is said that there are three things a man must do before he has fulfilled his purpose in life.”

He paused, and I obligingly asked what they were.

“He ought to take a wife,” he said, “and father a son. And then he must build a pagoda.” He smiled and bowed. “Visit as many pagodas as you can,” he said. “But remember – no shoes!”

There was another way around to Suu Kyi’s house, but I didn’t even bother to check it out. They wouldn’t seal off the street at one end and leave it open at the other. And, if by some miracle I did get through, how would I explain myself if I happened to run into my little an-ah-deh master? He would not be happy, not after all he’d gone through to save face for both of us, and I could see how I’d be hard put to explain myself.

I walked for a while, and wound up on Maka Bandoola Street, past Sule Pagoda (which really was at the heart of the city) and the city hall. A block or so beyond it I gave up waving away the moneychangers and let one of them lead me into a tea shop, where I drank tea and changed a hundred dollars’ worth of FEC into kyat. (They make you change three hundred dollars a person on arrival at the airport, but the official exchange rate is robbery. However, you can take dollar-value Foreign Exchange Certificates instead, and later on you can change those quite openly on the black market, which is what I was doing.)

I knew I’d get a better rate with less chance of getting ripped off if I changed my FEC at any of the large hotels, but I had another reason for doing business with a street-level entrepreneur. I could ask him questions I couldn’t try on a hotel clerk.

His English was serviceable. He had a limited vocabulary, and a sometimes challenging accent, so he was not in the same league conversationally as the fellow with the gun on his hip. On the plus side, he didn’t have a gun on his hip. And he wanted to do a deal with me, not stop me in my tracks and shine me on.

We did our business, a process that was not made any easier by the curious denominations that kyat come in. In addition to the bills you expect them to have, they’ve also got a forty-five-kyat and a ninety-kyat note. This stems not from a disdain for the decimal system but because one of their Gallant Leaders believes forty-five or ninety (I forget which) to be his lucky number. So he had the treasury print currency accordingly.

I’ll tell you, I kind of liked knowing that. It was the one thing I knew about any of the SLORC-heads that sounded even halfway human. I could picture the guy sitting around the house, playing a stack of 45’s and knocking back shots of ninety-proof sour-mash whiskey. Just a regular fellow, I thought, with a regular fellow’s quirks.

When I had all the kyat my friend was going to give me, I sat back and smiled, then motioned to the waitress for a fresh pot of tea. “ Yangon is a beautiful city,” I told my new friend.

“Ah, Rangoon,” he said. “Beautiful.”

Was he making a subtle political statement by using the city’s pre-SLORC name? Or was it just his accent making his pronunciation an imperfect echo of mine?

Hard to say. I told him that I was from New York, and that it too was a beautiful city, and very large.

He knew about New York; he’d seen movies that took place there. “Buildings ver’ tall,” he said. “Much bright lights.”

“That’s New York, all right.”

“Wor’ Trade Center. Liberty statue. Empi – Empi-”

“ Empire State Building,” I supplied.

“Empi Stableding,” he agreed. “Big, ver’ big.”

He was from the Shan state himself, he told me, from a small village near the hill-station town of Kalaw. It was up in the mountains, with a pleasing climate. “Not so much hot,” he said.

I told him it sounded lovely.

“You travel Shan state?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “It’s possible.”

“Sometimes possible. Sometimes they say no.”

“The government?”

“Gov’ment,” he said, and looked sidelong at me, as if to assess my feelings about the government.

“You are very fortunate,” I said evenly, “to have such a strong government to care for your country.” And I leaned over and spat on the floor.

His eyes lit up. “For’nate,” he said, and spat. “Gov’ment ver’ strong. Care for Shan people.” And he hawked and spat again.

“The generals must be great men,” I said. And spat.

“Great men,” he agreed. And spat.

We looked at each other and smiled.

“I wonder,” I said. “Is Shan food as good as Burmese food?”

“Ha,” he said. “Is better!”

“Where would I get some true Shan food in Rangoon? Is there such a place?”

Grinning, he leaned over and clapped me on the shoulder. “You come,” he said. “You come. We eat good.”

There was a Shan noodle shop just a few blocks away. I couldn’t have said if what I had was better than Burmese food, since I hadn’t had any Burmese food yet, but it was very good indeed. The main dish was a bowl of chicken soup with rice noodles, and it was accompanied by a dish of sour rice salad, the rice colored a deep orange-yellow with turmeric.

The local beer was Mandalay, but Ku Min wouldn’t let me order it.

“Costs more,” he said. “Tastes like water.” It sounded like a Miller Lite commercial to me, with one contingent of ex-jocks shouting “Costs more!” while the others countered with “Tastes like water!” He ordered us bottles of San Miguel, which had come all the way from Mexico and still cost less than a dollar a bottle.

Our second round was Tiger beer, which I’d seen in the States, and our third was Bintang, which I hadn’t. We were doing quite well in the male-bonding department, Ku Min and I, and hadn’t found it necessary to say anything further about the government, and consequently had had no need to spit on the floor.

“This woman,” I said. I leaned forward, lowered my voice. “Aung San Suu Kyi. We hear much about her in America.”

“Ah,” he said.

“You think she is good?”

He took his time answering. “For Burmese she is good,” he said at length.

“And for Shan?”

“Shan supposed to have independent state. Supposed to have own government.”

“The deal they signed with the British in 1947,” I said. “The Panglong Agreement.”

“You know about Panglong?”

I knew that the Shan leaders had signed away their hereditary rights and never felt they got the autonomy they bargained for. They’d been in a state of intermittent rebellion ever since. These days SLORC had the lid back on the kettle, but that didn’t mean they’d stopped simmering.

Aung San Suu Kyi was all right, Ku Min allowed. She was a good person, and if she ran things the Shan would probably have more autonomy, if not the outright independence they’d bargained for.

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