BECOMING PART OF THE FAMILY IN YANGON, MYANMAR
Something truly magical is happening. I started playing badminton with a boy in my neighborhood last weekend. Now nearly a dozen children have joined us, and I’ve met several of my neighbors as a result. My community really seems to be opening up to the idea of having a few foreigners as part of the family.
Moving into a neighborhood in Yangon, Myanmar, is like moving into a family. Everyone lives so close. Everyone seems to know each other. Everyone looks out for one another. And just like a family with quarks and quacks, characters of my neighborhood are coming out of the woodwork.
What impressed me about Soe Min Oo was he didn’t seem afraid to interact with me. He actually wanted to talk to me. He came up to me a few weeks ago, tugged on my shirt, and tried to communicate. I’ve sought him ever since. I’ve looked for opportunities to communicate with him, and what better way to cross-culturally relate than to play?
I ran into Soe Min Oo on my way home from school the other day. I could tell by his gestures he wanted to play. I fanned myself to show it was still too hot.
“At 7,” I said, pointing to my wrist as if there were a watch on it, “7 o’clock. 7PM.”
It didn’t seem like he understood. But, he smiled anyway, and we parted ways.
I dillydallied around my apartment for a few hours. Planning lessons. Studying Korean. Looking through photos. Trying to fix the kitchen light that suddenly stopped working.
There was a tiny knock at the door. I barely heard it from the kitchen. Could it be the boy? Soe Min Oo? Was it 7 o’clock? Did he understand what I meant?
Sure enough, I opened the door to find Soe Min Oo standing in the dark, dingy stairwell. Without saying a word, he showed me his watch, a digital clock that wasn’t there when I saw him earlier. It said 6:59. He was on time.
I told him to wait outside for me. I had to change clothes, and grab the racquets and shuttlecock.
Before meeting Soe Min Oo, the other children who live on my street kept their distance. They’ve always been very friendly and curious, but would only wave as I passed. Or, shout about every English expression they knew until I was out of sight. That’s changed now.
The neighborhood is opening up. People are talking to me. Babies aren’t crying when they see me.
Those passing us playing on the street crack jokes about the children being “gypsies”, or that it looks like I want to be a kid. Passengers in taxis and trishaws smile as they go by. Friends of friends throw little pebbles and point laser lights at us from their fourth, fifth, or even sixth-floor balconies. Watching us. Laughing at us. Wanting to play with us, too.
People who speak English have been approaching me, asking where I’m from and what I’m doing here.
The local drunkards and “crazies” have also made themselves known. On more than one occasion, I’ve had to take a badminton racquet away from one of the seemingly intoxicated men who wants to get in on the action as well.
More little kids, mostly boys, keep showing up every night. All because of Soe Min Oo. We can’t even play badminton anymore. There are too many children.
It's amazing how well the children can communicate in English, even though most of them didn't even know how to answer, "How are you?" a few days ago. They're such quick learners, and so full of life. I know I'm going to end up learning a lot from them. They’ve already taught me how to play a few of their favorite games.
A key to integration is playing. Simply playing with kids is all you have to do to become a trusted part of a community, a welcomed new member of a family. Getting to know my neighbors by hiding in their plants, or behind a parked car in front of their apartment while playing a version of hide-and-seek has been a great way to break the ice.
In a place like Yangon, family takes on a whole new meaning.
“We love you like a brother,” one of the little boys said while we were huddled in a circle the other night.
I’m part of the family now. I’m like a big brother to the neighborhood kids, not just the creepy stranger who hides in bushes and gives candy to children at night.