In 2015, I spent a few weeks in a village called Sonywa in Yinmabin Township in the Sagaing Region of Myanmar. This was my first time returning to the village. It had been over four years since I had last seen everyone. I had stayed in a house with two sisters in their early thirties. Both sisters were unmarried and without children, but some of their nieces and nephews hung around the house. When I returned, one of the sisters had married and had a two year old son. Her husband was working in Malaysia when I visited. Her son was incredibly afraid of me at first, and it took a long time for him to warm up to me and eventually like me.
It was wonderful being able to reunite with these families that I spent such trying and wonderful times with. We reminisced about stories of harvesting chickpeas and peanuts, dancing in ah lous (celebrations), accidentally eating a handful of medicine, and many more hilarious, mundane, and eventful moments. I noticed that the people in the village remembered everything. They reminded me of some stories that I had forgotten, which they had clearly talked with each other about over and over the past few years. They asked me how the other people on my study abroad program were doing and wanted to let them know that they missed them.
People kept telling me that I was skinnier, more white, and prettier than before (a topic I discuss in a different post), but I was actually surprised at the lack of depth and common interests that we had to talk about. People clearly asked me if I was married and then wanted to know everything about my boyfriend when I said I was had one. They also wanted to see photos of my family and whether I ate rice in the United States. However, the topics of conversation did not extend beyond family, food, and farming. They never inquired about how I had been more generally over the last four years. How my school or work had been going. What I was up to over the last four years. Nothing.
While this initially surprised me, my Burmese comprehension started to improve and I started to pay more attention to people’s conversations. Most conversations between friends and family in the villages are about cooking, food, weather, farming, and the actions and words of other villagers. People did not discuss news, politics, pop culture, society, or any other major topic that people tend to find interest in in urban places. Many stories and questions were repeatedly told and asked to the point where it really improved my Burmese comprehension and speaking. There seemed to be a lack of true depth and emotion in the conversations that I partook in and overhead. This could be that my presence as a foreigner altered the conversations—very plausible—but also when I asked people what they liked to talk about, people usually said food, farming, family, etc.
It seems me that these conversation preferences arise from a very different outlook on life. I began to feel that many people in the villages are living fully self-sustaining lives. People grow their own food, cook their own food, build their own houses and items, and can continue sustaining themselves without the help of the government, NGO’s, or other organizations. Issues such as news, pop culture, etc., do not impact the daily lives of people in the villages and so people have little reason to become involved with such topics. They are simply not interesting. From this perspective, it was no longer surprising that people did not ask generally how I was or what I had been doing because these are not common talking points and would not be relevant topics of discussion for most people in the villages.
I must note that I cannot describe the amount of gratitude and warmth that I have and feel for the families I’ve encountered in Sonywa-and now Indaw. People have so readily and willingly welcomed me into their homes and cooked me amazing food and cared for me as one of their own. This kind of welcoming warmth I have experienced in unparalleled. While topics of conversation is something I found intellectually interesting, that discussion may diminish my overall feelings towards and relationships with people in Sonywa. I cannot wait to return, reminisce, and create new memories.