The Name Thing

I am ridiculously early for my flight back to Yangon after a neurotic miscalculation of the time it would take to get from my hotel by boat to Nyuang Shwe, and from Nyuang Shwe by car to the Heho airport, and some nagging worry that the driver would actually be there after I’d arbitrarily changed hotels and had no means of confirming. But it all went too smoothly.

Heho is a pocket-sized airport, if your pockets are lined with flies and betelnut spit stained floors.

The transfer woman helping me check in sticks the little air bagan sticker on my chest in tells me to sit on the bench and wait right there. The sticker system is how they know to grab the foreigners for the different flights when there are no electronic notices and random shouted announcements in myanmar.

The flight is 2.5 hours away and I have figured out that boarding is very last minute. So I take myself and my excessive gear outside the airport gates. I’d noticed a teahouse when my driver pulled in. So I sit for two hours outside on a tiny plastic stool, nursing a pot of chinese tea, the cheapest thing you can buy in
a teahouse. (In fact, they won’t let me pay at all).

Around me are clusters of men, mostly airport employees and police. They drink coffee or tea, eat fried things and smoke hard. They hork hard and often, clearing their lungs, and around me
in all directions shoot steady streams of red betelnut juice, thwacking wetly into the gravel. The flies are persistent. A baby wails.

I’ve always hated the sound of liquid hitting the ground. And sinus and phlegm noises. I’m the person who hands tissues to sniffling people. It’s such a cultural difference to expel snot out through the mouth rather than the nose. It’s one I can’t bridge.

Maybe I’m more irritated by the sounds and the flies because this flight marks the beginning of my journey home, with an overnight in Yangon. I’m feeling reflective, pondering what I’ve learned as I’ve explored. One discovery was simpler than others – the name
questions.

I’ve asked a lot of people here, Myanmar or Burma? The military junta
changed the name to Myanmar in 1989, saying that Burma was the colonial name. They changed the name of several cities at the same time – the most well known would be the change from Rangoon to Yangon. The UN acknowledges the name change.

Aung San Suu Kyi, the BBC and some others insist on continuing to use
Burma, saying that the name was changed without asking the people. My
friend Loretta, after reading The Lizard Cage, a novel about political
prisoners, said something like, “Myanmar is the name given by the evil
generals.” That is certainly true.

And yet, every person I’ve met says Myanmar for the country, Myanmar
people and Myanmar language. Several have said to me that Burmese people are one of eight ethnicities. Calling the country “Burma” is like referring to Canada as Quebec. I’ve asked whether they are aware of “the Lady’s” opinion, given that they all revere her so. Most
don’t comment.

Thu Rein, my trekking guide around Nyuang Shwe, had enough English
that we could have a real conversation. He reiterated the point about the eight ethnicities. I asked him about Aung San Suu Kyi and he looked at me and said, “well, she is Burmese.” The penny (or kyat) dropped.

I asked him if the word Myanmar means anything. He said no, it is just the name. But then he thought for a minute and said, the two pieces mean two things. Myan (or mya?) means fast, quickly. And Nmar (or mar?) means hard.

It’s like the generals got drunk at a curling match when they named the country.

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