I want to share a fun list of some cultural attributes of Myanmar. These things have become comfortable and enjoyable for us, but in returning for a visit to the U.S., I see again how these cultural folkways might seem surprising or amusing to some westerners. (What’s a folkway, you ask? Good question. Folkways are the customs and conventions of daily life. Folkways indicate the cultural ideas about what is rude and what is polite. Cultural norms, by contrast, tend to indicate the culture’s perspective on morality, and what is right and wrong.)
[Disclaimer: the inescapable part of our cultural experiences in Myanmar is that they are heavily defined by the fact that we are foreigners. So while most of the things I mention below are quite common for foreigners and locals alike, some of our perspective is undoubtedly influenced by the fact that we don’t share the same native language, social knowledge or social standing with most of the folks around us. Also, Myanmar is home to over 135 different people groups, so it goes without saying that throughout the nation there is a good deal of variation on some of these themes. While I can’t say that this is an authoritative guide to cultural norms throughout the whole country, it is safe to say that if you travel to Myanmar, you will encounter some of these norms.]
RIGHT VERSUS LEFT HAND
It is seen as polite behavior to only use the right hand in social transactions. When paying for things, offering a drink, handing someone a present, etc, Myanmar people always use their right hand, often resting their right forearm in their left palm as they present the object with their right hand. This social custom springs from the assumption that, when using the bathroom, everyone uses their “unclean” left hand.
One sly three-year-old expat, after learning of this custom, asked her father, “But how do they really know which hand I use?” Indeed, who knows? Regardless of which hand you use to wipe in the bathroom, the right hand is the way to show courtesy.
“COME” HAND GESTURES
The common North American, palm-up means of gesturing for someone to come is extremely rude in Myanmar. This is seen as a way you would call an animal, not a person. The Myanmar “come” gesture is a reverse of our North American hand gesture; palm down, rather than palm up.
ANSWERING THE PHONE
It is common courtesy to answer the phone whenever it rings, wherever the setting. If you are in a meeting or having tea with a friend, they will nearly always interrupt their time with you in order to receive a phone call, and if you chose to reject a phone call while in the presence of other Myanmar people, they would be mystified. It is seen as rude to reject phone calls. For a while, Jim would set his phone to “do not disturb” mode starting at 9 pm, but he eventually had to resort to putting it on airplane mode because friends were getting offended about their calls being ignored.
My personal theory for why answering the phone at all costs is seen as a courtesy: Up until a few years ago, SIM cards for cell phones cost about $2,000 each. Few people have ever had landlines in Myanmar. Instead, many people chose to make use of the more affordable roadside phone booths, where getting in touch with someone meant calling another roadside phone booth, having the person who answers run and retrieve the intended recipient of your call, and then calling back once your friend made it to the phone booth. These phone booths are still around, but they are becoming obsolete because of the affordability of cellular phones.
WALKING YOUR GUEST HOME
If you live within walking distance of a friend’s house, it is not unusual to be walked home after having a meal together. A few months ago, we had some friends come over for dinner. When it was time for them to leave, Jim walked them home (a 15-minute walk). Then, one of their group proceeded to walk Jim over half of the way back to our home! Hospitality gets hilariously confusing at times, because even if we host someone in our home, our friends still see us as guests in their culture, and are determined to treat us with special honor.
PAYING THE BILL
The same dynamic mentioned above (that of being a perpetual guest in the eyes of the local culture) makes it a struggle to pay the bill when we eat out with friends. People in Myanmar don’t split bills, and if they see us splitting a bill with our expat friends, they will say that we are doing “American Share.” All we have to do is say “American share” to our server to get a split check. Because of the hospitality of Myanmar culture, when we eat out with friends, they often want to pick up the bill, and though sometimes we can beat them to paying it, most of the time they are quite determined to show us hospitality by paying our way.
Last week we had dinner with some Chin-Burmese refugees who now reside in the U.S. As is the custom, they wanted to pay for the entire meal, and wouldn’t hear of having us contribute. Once we insisted that they were actually our guests in America, they relented and let us pay.
One of my favorite Twitter humorists moved to New York City, and shortly after settling in, tweeted: “I had no opinion about other people’s umbrellas until I moved to New York.” That about sums up my feelings about umbrellas in Yangon. In crowded places, we have to constantly be wary, lest we suffer an eyeball gouged by a passing umbrella. It is no one’s fault at all, it is simply one of the hazards that come with moving to a place where one is a head taller than most folks, and where umbrellas are wielded against all the elements (sun and rain), all year long. In the rainy season, our city receives 100+ inches of rain in 3 months, so umbrellas are essential. In the rest of the year, the umbrella offers a relief from the heat of the sun (also helps prevent “blackening” one’s skin in the sun). In malls, business, and hospitals, there is often a dedicated place near the doorway where umbrellas can be stored or hung while one does his business inside.
There are some superstitious beliefs about luck and women’s garments. Most of them are more common in rural areas, though on occasion we bump into city dwellers who also subscribe to the idea that women’s garments are unclean, and ought never to be hung or stored higher than men’s garments. Some will take pains to be sure that women’s garments are never hung to dry, much less stored in a way that places them higher than men’s garments, or above a man’s head.
Much of this belief stems from the worship of spirits, and a fear that improperly storing women’s clothes will beckon evil spirits into a home. While we strive to be culturally sensitive as much as possible, this is one of the cultural customs we have chosen not to adopt. A hideous view of women being unclean flies in the face of everything we know of Jesus and the Gospel, not to mention that we would never want to give people the idea that we are afraid of or subject to evil spirits.
USING LIKE AND LOVE
Myanmar language differentiates between “liking” and “loving,” which is really helpful for expressing strong feelings when necessary. You might say, “I love my daughter,” but you would never say, “I love my car.” Inanimate objects are not meant to be recipients of love, unless one is making an extremely dramatic joke.
FEET AND SHOES
When visiting a home or a small shop, everyone removes their shoes outside the door. When we are visiting expat friends for the first time, we often can locate their apartment by looking for the door with larger-sized shoes sitting outside. In Myanmar, it is important to be polite with one’s feet. It is considered uncouth to point at something with your feet, to step over someone, or to sit so that your feet point toward another person (sitting cross legged is ideal in terms of politeness).
In Yangon, it is difficult to find a street that doesn’t house one, if not several of these water pots (see photo). Year round, homeowners put pots or dispensers of drinking water outside their gate for thirsty passersby. They are placed in little covered shelters, and a cup is tied to the container. It is never a guarantee that the water is safe or clean, so we have yet to actually avail ourselves of this kindness. Regardless, the waterpots are another representation of the warm hospitality that is so common in Myanmar.
Privacy isn’t a big deal where we live. Homes are so close that you can smell what the lady next door is making for dinner, or hear the neighbor’s arguments and their favorite TV shows. Most people in our city don’t have yards, and if they do, they are typically a concrete enclosure. So the streets and driveways are public to everyone. Kids hang out in other people’s driveways all the time; in our last house we had to keep our gate locked to prevent some children from coming in uninvited. If there is a shady spot outside your home, you can be pretty sure that a sidecar driver (bicycle taxi) or some passerby will sit there to rest during the heat of the day. Lots of homes, even tiny bamboo homes, will have concrete benches installed outside the gate, and in the cool time of day, the residents of said home will sit and watch the comings and goings on the street. People freely watch one another and talk about one another, and as soon as something about your personal life is uttered to a friend or neighbor, it becomes public domain. If there is something you don’t want the neighborhood to know, just don’t tell anyone.
Here is a story demonstrating the idea of private/public space:
When Jim lived in Rakhine state, he was able to rent a house where he and his friends could live during the daytime. Government rules forbid him from sleeping there at night, but his local friend, Than Nai, lived there full time to watch the place. For weeks, a stranger came and took a nap on the veranda of the house every afternoon. After a while, Jim decided to ask his friend about the anonymous napping visitor.
“I don’t really know who he is,” Than Nai said, “I think he might be my wife’s cousin.”
The city may be crowded, and private space may not be a big deal to people, but folks still give each other space. In a crowded street or bus, people still avoid touching each other, if possible. I did notice that the space bubble goes down to nearly nothing with a baby. Breastfeeding is common and looked upon favorably. No one uses a nursing cover—it is cumbersome and far too hot for mom and baby. People look at me while I nurse, but it is not in a leering, shameful way; the main reason they stare is because they are intrigued by white babies. Once when I was breastfeeding Lena at a train station, a man came by and kissed the top of her head while I nursed. Another woman cupped her face in her hands and sniffed her (sniffing is the Burmese style for kissing a child) while I was switching sides.
(chilling outside the neighbor’s house)
Toothpicks are available on every table at most restaurants. It is not seen as rude to take big bites, slurp some soup, or even talk with food in one’s mouth, but it is rare to see a Myanmar person who does not cover their mouth while they use a toothpick.
In Myanmar, these are typical conversations you might have in the beginning of a relationship, or even with random folks you meet on the street. There is little if any age limit on these questions; 15 year olds, 80 year olds and everyone in between has asked us these questions from time to time.
“How old are you? How old are your parents? How does your father stay so slim?”
“What do you pay in rent?”
“How much do you earn? How much do you have in the bank?”
“This one is the prettiest” (seeing a family photo, some folks will point out who they think is the most attractive relative).
“He/she is better at Burmese than you.” (Comparisons between other expats are common. We don’t mind—we are accustomed to this.)
“You are looking fat!” (Translation: “You look well!” Fat is a sign of health and also prosperity to some in Myanmar.)
“The sun is hot!” (Translation: “Why aren’t you carrying an umbrella?”, “Why are you outside right now?”, or, “put a hat on your baby!”)
While noise is something the Yangon authorities are threatening to penalize, it is still a part of neighborhood life, and is the norm rather than the exception. Most commonly, the noise is from pagodas playing the daily sermon or songs. Often, people will set up a tent and rent speakers to play sermons from their front gate. This is typically a loud affair and can start as early as 4 a.m. and go until evening. During the water festival, neighbors played hours of dance music, so loud that our windows rattled. A monk who visited America on a Buddhist mission trip once told Jim, “I went to America and played sermons for everyone, but the neighbors called the police and they shut it down!” He was somewhat miffed that people would find the noise to be a nuisance.
HELPFULNESS: SAVING MONEY
Our friends and acquaintances in Myanmar are very helpful, in part because we are foreigners and they want to help us find our way about. Some folks also will go out of their way to try and save us some money.
Here is a great anecdote to illustrate:
Jim went to the local hardware shop to pick up some drain pipe for a new sink. While he was there, he inquired about pipe glue.
“I have it. What do you need it for?” the shopkeeper asked. Jim explained that he wanted to seal the new drain pipes he was installing.
“Oh, don’t buy pipe glue! You can just use tape for that!” the shopkeeper responded. Jim stated that he would rather use the glue, and would like to buy some. The shopkeeper, though he had it and would have profited by the transaction, refused to sell Jim the glue, insisting that he could save money by using tape to fuse the pipes instead. Even though he wanted to give the shopkeeper some business, the man was resolute, and in the end, Jim had to go to a different shop to get the glue. Though this sort of thing can be slightly frustrating to a task-oriented person, the gesture was one of kindness, and it was touching.