| August 27, 2011 | Comments (0)


 Many years ago when I lived in Southeast Asia, I became obsessed with ” fitting in” . It was my fondest desire to BE  Thai when I lived in Thailand, to become Javanese when I was an inhabitant of Indonesia, to somehow melt into local society during my years in what was then called Burma.

The impetus for what gradually became an obsession was, I suppose, motived by  a strong desire for acceptance which  I had yearned for since childhood, and my passionate attraction for everything  I seemed to encounter in Southeast Asia – the food, the languages, so melodic and evocative, expressed in curling, exotic alphabets,  the strikingly handsome inhabitants and a climate, both literal and figurative, that left me in a limp, floating dream world. I can only describe my 30 years in Southeast Asia as an opiumlike revery where reality seldom intruded on my days, as I moved almost deliriously happy, through the  months and years, doing whatever it was I was engaged in.

 I remember the time I spent in Vietnam where there were,  in the 1960s, three distinct cultures to be dealt with, or avoided, as the case may have been. There was, ofcourse, the ancient culture of Vietnam followed by the old, entrenched but rapidly ebbing french colonial veneer and most recent and imposing as the war escalated, the brash, powerful and destructive American colossus. I straddled these three worlds in a confused and fascinated way.

One of my French acquaintances was a tough old rubber planter who had been working the  Terres Rouges plantation north of Saigon for nearly 40 years. He took great pride, he told me, in only having learned  two words of the Vietnamese language  during his lengthy sojourn in country- ” Stop” and ” Go.” As we careened down a dusty, red road in his Citroen he demonstrated the utility of this language skill by tapping on the shoulder of his driver, shouting “Stop !” in Vietnamese. The car came to screeching halt and he looked at me with pleased satisfaction on his face. ” You see!”, he said to me in his thick,  Marseilles-accented French,   ” that’s all the Vietnamese I need to know ! And, ofcourse, obviously I need ‘Go!’  when I want to start again”, whereupon another shout and tap were given to the obedient driver as we lurched down the Vietcong-plagued highway on our journey. 

By eery coincidence, I found myself several years later in Laos in a similar situation, riding with an old CIA agent who had been in the country for decades. Chatting  with him in the back seat of his sedan as we drove the wide, French-inspired boulevards of Vientiane, I asked how he found the Lao language. Was it difficult to learn ? Had he mastered the writing system ? How similar was it to neighboring Thai? Cackling loudly as he puffed on his pipe, he allowed as how he had only learned ONE word of Lao in his many years there – “Yut ! is the only word I need !” he bellowed to me. As he uttered the word, the car came to an abrupt halt. Realizing what the word meant because of the vehicle’s ceasing to move, I let my friend have the satisfaction of explaining to me that “Yut !” meant stop. I lapsed into thoughtful silence for the rest of the ride, contemplating the reduction in vocabulary that had occurred from the two words of my french planter friend to the single word of the old spook. Progress is all about simplying, they say.

In any case, I was determined not to follow in the footsteps of these stalwarts, as contented and successful as they seemed to have been in their respective professions. In each country where I lived – Burma, Indonesia, Thailand  to name several – I launched into the study of the local languages with a fierce tenacity that did yield results bordering on  a respectable grasp of  these tongues. I never approached my father’s level of foreign language fluency, however. He was famous in Japan for having mastered the arcane art of being able to recite an endless reperatoire of  off-color spoonerisms in Japanese.

In Burma, my thirst for proficiency in  things local went beyond language. I became entranced with Burmese dance. Unlike Thai or Indian dancing which to me were, respectively, slow and boring or hyper-active and unsettling with manically-darting eyes, Burmese choreography combined the best of South and Southeast Asia – vitality and serenity. I was determined to learn to become a Burmese dancer. My motives were less than totally honorable in the sense that I had become enamored of a  young, handsome Burmese dancer. I thought that by learning his craft, I could…….

After our first lesson, I felt  aches and pains that I had never experienced before. The motions and positions in Burmese dance, I came to realize, required an agile flexbility that could not be learned after puberty. Adult bones simply could not learn to  bend and twist to accomodate Burmese dance motions. At the dancing school, I saw that all of the debutantes – beginners – were under ten years old. What a risible sight it must have been – ten year olds gracefully  bending and swaying and one  white 40 year-old groaning with each twist of the elbow and movement of the hips.

My dance lessons were short-lived, but miraculously  my life as a Burmese dancer continued, achieving a strange renown that lives with me to this day.

Not long after I arrived in Burma, I became smittened with  Burmese mangoes. I ate great quantities of this sublime fruit ignoring the advice of Burmese friends not to eat mangoes after the rainy season had begun. My addiction was such that any advice fell on deaf ears. As the monsoon rains poured down, I continued to devour this fruit of the gods.

Then one day, I began to develop boils in various parts of my body. I had carbuncles on my arms, legs and stomach,  but the largest, most prominent eruptions  appeared in my armpits. Some of the boils, after growing for a few days, erupted, spending their vile contents and then subsiding. But the swelling in my armpits grew and grew. When I consulted a Burmese friend he said, matter-of-factly, that I had Burmese Dancer’s Disease, ” Kinaree Yoga”. Indeed, the label he gave my malady perfectly described my condition –  arms raised at the elbow to alleviate painful  pressure on the armpits with hands dangling free.  I had become a Burmese dancer  after all !

In time, my Burmese Dancer boils subsided and I no longer  raised my arms in  majestic, artistic,  painful attitudes. But  as a result of my Burmese Dancer’s Disease, I had developed a rather unique and totally unexpected talent with musical side-effects. Two or three of my lesser boils had healed in such an unusual  way that small sub-surface holes were created in my legs. Playing with my Burmese friend’s children, I became the object of their experimentation. By squeezing and rapidly releasing the skin around the boil’s cavities,  a high-pitched whistling sound was produced. My friend’s children would pull and jerk on my leg in such a way that  a squeaky melody emerged. I became an object of entertainment in my friend’s household. A Caucasian freak show, if you will. Neighbors were called over to witness the wonder of the whistling boils. Like so many little harpists, my friend’s children worked the  melodious bumps  while I sat impassively, with what I  hoped was an appropriately serene, Buddha-like half-smile  on my face. 

My quest to merge completely with the local society may not have succeeded, but I certainly did become its object of curiousity. There are multiple routes to acceptance, some more painful than others.

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