Soe Soe walked up to me and just started chatting, idling alongside me on his tri-shaw, the Burmese bicycle rickshaws. His English was good and he seemed amiable, so I hired his services for the day. I wanted to cover more distance than I could by walking, but without whizzing past everything by motorbike and not appreciating Mandalay’s busy streets.
He turned out to be the perfect guide to the city, having dabbled in and experienced many of the defining moments of changes in the country. He had returned to Myanmar from Thailand just a three months ago, having fled because of problems with his military service.
As a teenager, he had worked in the city’s jade market—where he insisted on taking me—buying rocks of the unpolished gems, and then with a friend, selling them in China where the buying prices were higher.
As we walked around the market, boys stuffed jade into sections of bamboo, grinding them on grind-stones, and then polishing them on bamboo. The rock and the wood seemed intertwined.
“One day”, he told me, “my friend didn’t come back from China”. He had disappeared over the border with Soe-Soe’s share of the profits, and left him without the money to buy more jade.
So he became a broker in the market, putting sellers in touch with buyers, and earning a small commission. But newly married, he needed a more regular income, so took to peddling a tri-shaw.
“At first, I didn’t understand why some people earned a lot of money” he tells me, observing other drivers who earned several times what he did. “And then I realised why.” Smiling, he revealed the secret: “because they spoke English”.
The Colonial language used to be well spoken in Burma, but banned by the military junta, the youth did not learn it in school. Soe-Soe picked up enough to begin with, and then, with increasing numbers of foreign customers—English being the regional lingua franca—he practiced and improved. His desire to learn was putting him ahead of many native speakers I know. “Could you explain to me the difference between ‘to borrow’ and ‘to lend’?” he asked me as we cycled along.
Whilst in Thailand, Soe Soe had worked as a porter, a waiter, a teacher, and a library manager, working his way up the employment ladder.
“Why did you come back?” I asked. “It’s my home. Three months ago I heard that things had improved, so I came back to see”. His family are still in Thailand, “to see what happens” he says, adding stoically that if something happened to him, his wife could still take care of their children.
He holds out hope for the upcoming elections, saying many people believe in them. “Three years ago, it was a vote by the bullet”. “We all want Aung San Suu Kyi” and feels confident that she will win.
As we walk around, he tells me another story. It wasn’t until the end that I realised that it was a joke, his dead-pan humour evident when delivering the punch-line with a huge grin.
A Thai friend asked me one day “why is the first thing you Burmese do in Thailand is find a dentist?”, so I told him: “to get our teeth fixed.”
“Don’t you have dentists in Myanmar?”, he continued.
“Sure we have dentists, lots of them”
“So are they no good?” he asked, searching for the reason.
“No, we have very good dentists in Myanmar.”
“So are they very expensive?” he persisted.
“No, not at all. They are cheaper than here” I told him.
“So why do you wait until you come to Thailand to get your teeth fixed?” he asked, very confused.
“Because in Myanmar, we cannot open our mouths freely!”