A Lesson from the Beautiful People of Myanmar

“When I grow up I want to be a tourist,” he said. I had not noticed his presence until he spoke. He must have quietly sat next to me while I stared at the sunrise that was now silhouetting the sprawling complex of ancient temples scattered across the landscape beneath us.

Our legs dangled off the highest terrace of Shwesandaw Pagoda, one of the most visited temples in the Bagan Archeological Zone. A bus ticket to Mandalay poked out of my shirt pocket. I looked at my iPod to check the time and try to relish every last moment on the ledge. “How long will it take me to get to the bus stop for Mandalay?” I asked him.

“You are strong,” he said, grabbing the hem of the traditional fabric I had cinched around my waist, Burmese style. “Wearing this longyi, it will take twenty minutes. You also need thanaka on your face,” he brought his fingers to his cheeks, where he had drawn white swirls using the cosmetic paste. “A little thanaka like this and you will really look like us… but more handsome, of course.”

I was used to flattery, it tends to be a salesman’s go-to tactic. Local touts usually complimented my “beautiful hair” and called me “rock star” right before demanding that I buy a trinket. I braced myself for the sales pitch. It never came. He simply stared at the sunrise in silence with me.

“How old are you?” I asked.

“Thirteen,” he said.

“Why aren’t you in school?”

“I know what you are going to say. You will not buy from me because buying from children makes us sell things instead of go to school. Don’t worry. Right now, I’m on holiday like you. No selling.”

“Your English is amazing,” I remarked. “Where did you learn?”

“With the monks and tourists. Now if I want to keep learning, I must pay. I need money for school and school to make money.” He sighed, put his hands behind his head and lay back to get a better view of the puffy clouds that had begun illuminating in hues of pink above us.

“Is that your cart down there?” I pointed at a small wagon with a pyramid of souvenirs piled high atop the wheels.

“Is there a donkey next to it?” He asked without bothering to sit up.

“No,” I answered.

“Then, yes. That one is mine.”

“It must weigh a ton!”

“I don’t pick it up,” he laughed. “It has wheels.”

“Oh, right. Why do you want to be a tourist?”

“Your people are strong, smart, beautiful…,” he paused to point at my iPod before adding, “and rich. My people are weak, dumb, poor, and ugly.”

“I disagree. Most of my people only speak one language. We don’t have the decency to wear thanaka. And I am pretty sure most of us would have a hard time pulling that cart even one meter. So, really, we can’t be that strong. As for wealth… I don’t think most of us are rich, but we do have a lot of access to unnecessary stuff.”

“Like Oreos?”

“Yeah. You like Oreos?”

“I love them. Tourists always have cookies.”

“Yeah, we like stuff that makes us fat.”

“Better than being skinny. Look at me, I can even see my bones!” He lifted his shirt and jabbed at his abdominal muscles with his finger.

“Those aren’t bones, buddy. That’s called a six-pack. You’re like Superman!”

He pulled his shirt back down and shook his head, assured now that I really wasn’t as smart as he originally thought. A loud commotion from behind us got our attention and we both stood up. “What’s that?” I asked.

“A tour bus just arrived. They are coming. Holiday is over.” He pulled out a stack of postcards from his back pocket. “Have a nice time in Mandalay.”

I watched as he approached an American couple. “Charles, don’t give him money,” the woman yelled at her husband as he reached for his wallet. “It encourages them to not be in school. There are Oreos in the backpack. Give him some cookies.”

He turned to me. Smiled. And accepted the Oreos.

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