Defining Identity in a Cultural Mosaic
The pig was dead and half-shaved by the time we arrived. Blood dripped through the bamboo slats on which the butchery took place, mixing with bettle-spit on the cracked pavement below.
“This is not a Buddhist tradition?” I asked Johnathon, who
sat with me as we watched his neighbors prepare the offering.
“No.” He replied. His smile kicked off the golden glow of sunset. “This is traditional Shan. In Buddhism there are no gods.”
A silver cross hung around his neck and rose and fell as he inhaled the acrid smoke of a cheroot cigar, two fingers thick. John was Christian in name and faith but like most in a country with 135 legally recognized ethnicities his background was a jigsaw of cultures and beliefs. John was the first person I’d met in Kalaw—a township nestled in the Shan hills which crown Myanmar’s eastern state—that recognized my accent: Northwestern Canadian. He held two passports although the American one was no longer valid. He’d been adopted by missionaries after losing both parents to civil war.
Checked longyis hiked above the knees, the family worked fast. Tattoos traced the eldest son’s tightly-muscled torso: a stylized shaman ran from his naval to his collar-bone, its face obscured by two pieces of carbon that hung from his neck. A sun-aged woman disassembled the bamboo structure used to keep the pig from touching the ground. The family would now pray in the privacy of their home. In two hours we could return for the feast.
Next door, John slopped hazy sugarcane juice into mugs half-filled with clear liquor. The pulpy nectar did little to neutralize the caustic burn of fermented rice. During John’s first year in Seattle two buildings were leveled by planes on the other side of the country, killing 2,750. In his final year, cyclone Nargis rose out of the Indian Ocean and crashed down on Myanmar like a breaching whale. According to the Burmese government, the death toll was over 138,000 but like all statistics released during the country’s military rule, its accuracy is questionable. Five days later, John boarded his final plane between the U.S. and Mynamar, one year shy of a bachelor’s degree at the University of Washington. He spent the next months volunteering in disaster relief.
I wanted to ask John why he never returned to the states. Why he said goodbye to a degree and family—all for a country he hadn’t seen his early teens. But before I could, John rose to his feet and answered my question.
“So,” he said. “How do you like my home?”