Monday, 25 August 2014

From the Land of Green Ghosts - #53

Image sourced from here
Growing up, I knew of the country Burma. I knew of Aung San Suu Kyi and that it was terrible she was locked up in her house. I knew Burma was a dictatorship, and depending who you talked to, the word "communist" was thrown around now and then. And... that's about it.

So after my fail of a read for Burma earlier in the tour, I really wanted to make sure I read a book that taught me something about the country. So when someone in our Around the World group suggested a book written by a member of the Padaung tribe, widely known as the tribe where some women have brass rings lengthening their necks, I had to read it.

What we get is a beautiful, slightly poetical, incredibly South East Asian account of Pascal's life. We start with his life in the tribal hills with the Padaung, looking at the beautiful mix of missionary Catholicism with animist, Buddhist and tribal beliefs. Then his transition to seminary school in the city, to University student in Mandalay. You get a wonderful insight of the incredibly remote village boy changing to a city dweller.

This is where the story starts to change a bit from the usual coming of age story we are used to. While in university in the 1980s, Pascal is involved in the student uprising and demonstrations against the dictatorship. In the first third of the book, we had been given insights what it was like living under the regime, their propaganda and their whims and how this affected the Burmese. In the 80s, some students and monks protested against the regime and some people were shot. Then more protested, and more were shot, and so on and so forth. Then we have Aung San Suu Kyi enter on this wave of unrest and talk about democracy, and provided a united front to the people.

Pascal takes a while to come around to the movement and cause, but ends up being pursued by the regime. He ends up as a fugitive in the jungle, with other rebels who have been fighting the government for years with different causes, living on the Thai border. Eventually, after all of this, he gets rescued by a Don of English from a Cambridge college whom he met briefly in Mandalay before the trouble, and granted permission to travel to the UK and study English at Cambridge.

It's a book of contrasts in a way. Tribal verses city. Fugitive verses complying citizen. Seminary student verses other ways of life. Burmese verses UK. I must say it's the last contrast that does make me feel a bit ill. He talks about the way of living after he is rescued and it makes me sick with the extravagance compared to the poverty not only in the next country, but within Thailand. Having been there in the last year or so, it's apparent how much we have compared to every day Thais, let alone people who's entire country and economic status has be completely destroyed and devalued in the nation next door.

But this astonishment and even understandable bitterness is not displayed at all, if it is there, even when he talks about times of despair and depression. The book has this air of gratitude about it. Gratitude for being alive at all. For surviving childhood. For getting a chance at education. For being rescued. For having a chance a handful of his fellow countrymen have ever been offered in a foreign country. And I think that is the takeaway from this book. You should read it and understand the story of this country we all know little about, and the diverse cultures and traditions within it. Read it and be grateful that you are in a place where you can read these stories, that you are healthy, have means and education, and overall are safe. We are so very lucky for that.

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