People of the Golden Land

Burmese character and customs

At the full moon of Kason (in early May) we remember the enlightenment of the Buddha beneath

a bo tree in the Ganges plain by going to pour water on our own bos, some of which are seedlings brought by Prime Minister U Nu from Gaya itself. In the afternoon of this day, in my own town of Taunggyi, offerings of uncooked rice, firewood, oil, and fruits are carried in procession to the monasteries, with a great flourish of gongs and cymbals.

Soon after Kason the monsoon breaks and the rains come. The hard-baked earth is stirred; jasmines and gardenias, thanakha, swedaw and other shrubs are in flower. All during Wa, the Buddhist Lent, for three months, it rains. The heavy, steady downpour never seems to stop, but the people take heart in it; “The rain is good,” they say, as they think of the rice paddy over millions of acres growing green and tall. Even in the wet weather there will be gift-bearing throngs on the roads to the monasteries on full-moon days, new-moon eves and the quarter days.

In October the rains peter out. Comes the full moon of Thadingyut and another festival, with lighting of houses this time, pandals for feasting and dancing, and pwè troupes putting on shows for the crowd at central points in the town. This is our springtime. There is a rush of weddings, which were banned during Lent; and a greater rush to make gifts to the monks, for this is the one month when their saffron robes may be presented. The rich hold their own robe-giving ceremonies, the poor subscribe to a neighborhood pool, but anyone may attend and enjoy all of them.

Our next full moon, Tazaungmon (in November), is perhaps the finest of the year; cool air, clear skies, the moon shining bright and big. Then smoke balloons in the shape of huge animals are sent aloft, and the neighborhood processions vie with each other in having the most beautiful padaythabin, a fabulous, mythical tree hung with gifts of all kinds for the monasteries.

And so through the Christian Nativity which passes unrecognized for itself but now takes color from our new Independence celebrations on January 4. Then in March it is Tabaung, and the mad winds are scattering the roads with flaming butea blossoms, scarlet cotton-tree flowers, the fragrant ingyin and the white bauhinia. This is our harvest season, when for long ages our most renowned pagodas have held their annual fairs to which the country people flock, on foot or by oxcart, from miles around. After this, while the frangipani and the oleanders flower, the heat rises again and people sweat and grumble for another month till the miraculous “mango showers” of mid-April announce another New Year.

Have I made Burmese life sound like one grand joyous song? Let me assure you that I have not really exaggerated its good will and fraternity; its spirit of helpfulness, its generosity, warmth, and contentment. Fortunately—or unfortunately—it is all too true.

Burmese society is happy, I think, partly because its different elements are so well adjusted to each other. There is room in it for all ages. The old feel neither unwanted nor an urge to behave like the young when there is a definite function for them in every festivity and a role in the home routine which the younger members are only too glad to have discharged. So it is with other associations: for example, the relationship between men and women.

There is no “battle of the sexes” in Burma. Burmese women feel the spiritual superiority in a man. How deny this natural instinct that we have, this fact which seems to us all too apparent? It is simply a part of good manners, of what is pleasurable and seemly, to respect the person of a male, to give precedence to his manhood on all social occasions, and to attend to his wants. But in the all-important matters of money, of divorce, of inheritance, of freedom of movement, the right of giving advice, of transacting business or of putting one’s own name alongside a husband’s on the shop front, women admit no inferiority. Thus they serve without shackles, and are equal without impairing the pride of masculinity.

Or consider the relation of children to grown-ups. Though children are indulged to an extreme degree in some things, the basis of the love they are shown is their completely subordinate status to adults. No stormy period of adolescent rebelliousness against elders is anticipated (except, perhaps, when a boy is first stirred toward sex). The doctrine of respect is something the growing child repeats incessantly: to the Buddha, his doctrine, his order, to parents and to teachers respect is due—a respect described as compounded of fear and love. The term “teacher” is not confined to the schoolroom. In the broad sense of “guide and friend,” it is extended to any loved benefactor, no matter what his walk in life.

In Burma you will find a minimum of friction between the rich and the poor. Where little importance is attached to the amassing of material possessions there is little difference in the clothing, food, or housing of a man and his poorer or richer neighbor. Class distinctions hardly operate. The true mark of a refined man being his correct bearing toward all ages, his mastery of religious teachings and sacred literature, and his observance of the precepts of normal living, a poor man could win a lottery and move with ease among the wealthiest.

Rarely does a Burmese feel frustrated. No impetus of high ambition drives him to work hard or leaves him disappointed when he fails. Few things cut deep. The less pleasant aspects of British colonialism, for example, left scars only on those who actually came to grips with it in political struggle, the majority having forgotten their rancor if they ever harbored any. Because we take things so lightly, faults are easily condoned. If a man falls below the standards set by society, his shortcomings will be debated and decried, but if he has not been guilty of inhumanity or sacrilege, he is accepted quite soon again. The same holds for a woman: there is no long slur; with us nothing is irreparable.

There is little feeling of insecurity among us; the “age of anxiety” has not yet reached Burma. A man may lose his livelihood, but his wants are few: some articles of light clothing, a mat and pillow in part of a room, a share in the rice pot for himself and his family without great damage to his prestige in the house of one relative or another. And there are few lonely spinsters and hardly any bachelors. Neighbors and friends, adept at matchmaking, will quickly put an end to such unnatural states.

Friends from abroad often say to me: “It’s wonderful how happy you Burmese all seem to be, but is your social system, fine as it is for the individual, really good for the country?” Alas! I must confess that in terms of orderly urban communities, of unremitting hard work and nation-building, of developing our resources to give an increasing population more elaborate modern living standards our qualities, our very contentment, betray us.

The great gregariousness and love of festivity leave little time for sustained application to a career. The happy social system that guarantees freedom from want and loneliness for the great majority spares little of a man’s income for other uses. When he contributes toward every funeral, wedding, or religious celebration in his community, he is naturally content to own few household goods, but he has little left, either, to subscribe to public charities—the care of the blind, the leprous, the crippled, the uneducated. Our philanthropy is personal and religious, rather than broadly social. The ease of dependence on an elder, or a patron, also saps initiative. It is a compliment often paid the fortunate to say that a person “shelters in their strength.” And then there is the tenderness of this Burmese “strength.” It is apt to be hurt if embarrassment or constraint of any sort is caused to another by it. This fear of abusing our strength also prevents us, in professional life, from pointing out mistakes or shortcomings for fear of humiliating, or assuming uncourteous authority over others. It is no wonder that efficiency in business or civil administration still eludes us. And our easygoing readiness to condone, to forgive, does not create the kind of public opinion needed to mold reliable workers dedicated to their professions, or even to keep our settlements trim and sanitary.

Add to this our proud history. The spirit of our ancestors who marched victorious on bare feet from Assam in the west to Cambodia in the east is still with its. The pride in an isolated inland culture that saw no real superiority in anything from the outside world for many centuries is hard to eradicate. Inherited by a people who are naturally clever and animated, who are endowed with artistic talents and with physical beauty, who live in a social system that allows a sense of both spiritual and worldly fulfillment by its own standards, it has produced an irrepressible élan and a charming insouciance, but also a slapdash confidence about things in general, a fatal lack of humility in approaching any task, and, since we have a sense of humor, sufficient amusement at our own national shortcomings to take the edge off our present hardships—without, however, any conviction of inferiority to any other race of people.

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