Thursday, July 24, 2008

The Burmese Dinner

Caroline let me tag along on one of her community outreaches this afternoon. She organizes informal small-group meetings where she and a few health volunteers she has trained lead discussions about family planning, condoms, dengue fever and STIs. Most of the people who attended were migrant women, although there were a few men.

After the session she took me into one of the housing communities where Burmese migrants live. She introduced me to a bunch of guys playing takraw, that popular kickball-volleyball game played with a bamboo ball. Some other people were loitering around and started getting interested in me after they noticed me fumbling with the one Burmese greeting I know. There was the usual confusion about where I come from and why I look Burmese. I’m pretty convinced that people in Southeast Asia can’t tell their own people apart from any other ethnic group.

A couple of the guys who were watching the takraw game started getting chatty. Through Caroline, they fired questions about where I come from, what I do, if I’m going to give them money, if I can take them back to America, and if I’ll marry one of them. The conversation alternated between tiresome and engaging.

Lad, Mr. Super Chatty, invited us to have a look inside his house because Caroline had explained that I’m a total dumbass and have no idea how Burmese migrants live. I felt like I was intruding on them, but they all seemed eager to share their world with me. Lad was actually complaining that I hadn’t brought my camera.

The housing block is a bunch of small rooms in a row much like the one we went to for the mobile clinic. Each room serves as the place where a family eats, sleeps and cooks.

We went inside Lad’s house and he and his sidekick, Bot, started pulling out food for us to eat. It was odd that they had all this food already prepared for us, but it turned out that everyone had already eaten, so these were leftovers.

We sat on the ground, barefoot of course, and suddenly a grand spread materialized in front of us. Fried fish, fried "cockroach shrimp" pancakes, raw vegetables, various chili sauces, rice, lily flower fish soup, steamed cockles…mm mm.

The extended family and neighbors gathered at the door to see if I could eat Burmese food, which reminded me of the slack jaws and zoo-animal prodding from my first day in the village in Kenya. (“You know how to use flip flop? Then show us.”)

I was a little thrown off because I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to eat with my hands or not. (The answer: No hands. Spoons and forks.) They brought a basin of water for us to wash our hands in, which we shared and which was subsequently used to rinse off spoons before we ate. I see a health education session right there.

While Caroline and I ate, Lad, Bot and the Peanut Gallery neighbors peppered me with questions. How old am I? Am I married? What kind of work do I do? Do I have siblings? My stomach is still on fire a bit from the chili fish paste sauce.

Most migrants in Mahachai live in pretty basic quarters like Lad and his family. But they also have a lot of modern amenities. Lad’s house had electricity, a large TV, a pretty fancy stereo system with big speakers, and a fridge. He and his family have been in Thailand for more than ten years, so they’ve had some time to save a little money.

By the end of the meal, Lad and his wife were inviting me to stay the night. Their room was a bit small for guests, and even though Lad speaks Thai, I don’t. Plus, Bot had been much too interested in my marital status for my taste. Caroline had to catch a bus back to Bangkok so we made a hasty getaway, but not until Lad had put me on the spot and taken my phone number. It will be interesting to see what the Burmese version of phone stalking looks like. Stay tuned.


Ebony said...

um, could you maybe explain fried "cockroach shrimp" pancakes?

Justina said...

Hahahaha! Sorry. That's the name I've given these little tiny shrimp that are battered, dropped on a griddle like pancakes and fried up with the heads still on. So they still have the long antennae things and to me they look like little cockroaches. But delicious in pancake form.

Ebony said...

ok, i'm glad to hear this :)