Aaah ! Those Burmese Days

| January 14, 2011 | Comments (1)

Amae Gyi's Shrine

When I lived in Rangoon, Burma years ago,  I was skinny. Really quite skinny. I was told – and I read – that white men in the tropics eventually wasted away.  George Orwell described it so well in “Burmese Days” – gin in the morning, the self-hate, the feeling of belonging nowhere, a stranger in an alien land who could never go back to the Mother Country.

I am no longer skinny as I sit here decades later, old and bordering on being pudgy in New York City.  But Rangoon, Burma has changed too. It is now called Yangon, Myanmar. As  Lord Buddha said, “Nothing stays the same.”

When I was skinny in Rangoon, I used to spend lots of time at my friend Ko Aye Gyi’s house in the old section of the city. It was a place that was as close to being middle-class as you could get in Burma, a society like the rest of Southeast Asia, that only knew upper and lower-classes. Ko Ayi Gyi’s block was inhabited by teachers and shop-keepers. There was even the occasional car parked in front of the modest dwellings.

One of the cars was Ko Aye Gyi’s.  It was a Trabunt, one of those tiny East German automobiles that looked and ran like a plastic toy. When the engine revved up, it sounded like my Grandmother’s  Singer sewing machine when she was stitching an apron in a hurry. 

Ko Aye Gyi was an engineer who had studied in East Germany in the 1960’s and ended up staying there for nearly 20 years. He spoke English with a thick German accent, and at the insistence of his aging, diminutive Mother, finally returned to Burma in 1980 with his Trabunt, an East German washing machine and an East German wife. 

The washing machine broke down and was irreparable after a short time – those East German products were never famous for their quality – and soon thereafter Aye Gyi’s East German bride felt the call of the Fatherland and left him for Berlin. 

That left Ko Aye with his trusty Trabunt, but since gasoline was rationed and expensive, the little machine just sat in front of his house, a reminder of a chapter in his life he told me he would rather forget. 

Ko Aye Gyi’s Mother, Amae Gyi, was a formidable lady. She stood about 4’10” high and had a deep voice, mellow and gravelly at the same time after years of smoking Burmese cheroots. Her voice was so low and big, she made Bea Arthur sound like a castrati choir boy. 

I often visited Ko Aye Gyi and his Mother. I loved to bring flowers and offerings to their Buddhist shrine. My devotion to the Buddha gave Amae Gyi great pleasure and she confided in her son that I was the first  “Bo” (foreigner) she had ever liked. There was no furniture in Amae Gyi’s parlor. Just reed mats. One sat on them and drank tea and smoked cheroots. The mats were specked with little holes from the cheroots’  flying sparks. There were often fires in the neighborhood. People blamed the cheroots, but Amae Gyi said it was arsonists. 

Once Amae Gyi came to my house. I was honored  she would visit me; she insisted on sitting on the floor even though my living room was well-furnished with comfortable chairs. 

Sometimes I would go to Aye Gyi’s house with my girl friend, Dr. Ma Cho. (She’s the lady in the orange blouse.) She had a formidable Mother too who lived in Chinatown San Francisco. But that’s another story I’ll save for another time. 

Being skinny in Rangoon seems so long ago.

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  1. jim arrigan says:

    Dear Sam, Thanks for sharing all your wonderful memories with us.

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