A Late Postcard from Mandalay (blame the Myanmar postal service?)

Editor’s (okay, Bayley’s) note: This post and the next are a quick look back at the final segment of our (okay, Nick’s) winter travels: from Chiang Mai to Mandalay and along the Burma Road back into Yunnan.

SaigangNick here: Well, I’ll start this off by saying there’s certainly not much I can add to all the hype about Myanmar that already exists out there. Western backpacker blogs already wax endlessly poetic about how they beat a path to get off the beaten path to travel there “before everything changes.” All the politicians have now long since exalted the country’s Hope and Change and the fact that they got to hug and kiss, repeatedly, Aung San Suu Kyi. The geo-strategists of the interwebs have probably already written all there is to write (and more) about all the very serious and momentous geopolitical possibilities now on the horizon. And now in the past few months the human rights skeptics have already gotten to chime in with their I-told-you-so’s and not-so-fast’s. What’s left to say?

Okay, lots, of course–but not here, not on this lousy blog. Instead I’ll just offer two quick little stories from my wanderings around Mandalay back in February. I spent just a couple days there between coming up the Irrawaddy on a boat from the south and jumping on a train up to Hsipaw and Lashio. If there’s anything mildly Big and Important connecting these two stories, though, it’s that yes, Myanmar is still a country with lots of problems, and yes, a little engagement by the US can be helpful–but we shouldn’t overestimate our influence.

Scene 1: The Mandalay Jade Market

I would normally have no desire to visit a jade market anywhere, but since I’d heard Mandalay’s jade trade is dominated by the city’s ethnic Chinese, I was hopeful I could go there and find a Mandarin speaker.  I still didn’t intend to buy anything–and actually it’s illegal in the US to import jade or rubies from Myanmar. But as someone who lives in and studies China, I was interested in finding some Chinese to tell me about their lives here.

As it turned out, most of the shop owners I met in the jade trade district were second- or third-generation descendents of Yunnanese migrants who arrived in the 1920s and 1930s. (At the front counters of these shops, which cater to businessmen from China, there were also many young and made-up female members of the fourth generation.) Fortunately, despite their Yunnanese origins, the demands of the jade business here in Asia meant that they all spoke Mandarin. Business was slow. One reason was the Chinese New Year, and another was continuing weakness in the luxury goods sector of the Chinese economy.

But as the shop owners told me, the real threat to their business at the time was the unresolved, now-reopened civil war being fought between the Myanma Army and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) up near Laiza on the Chinese border. Myanmar’s jade, supposedly some of the best in the world, comes from mines with deplorable conditions run by either the KIA or the military, with the latter strongly suspected of using prison labor to keep production up and costs down. Once excavated, the jadeite winds its way into the military government’s hands before being sold to the jade cutters in Mandalay, the guys with whom I was speaking. They’re the ones who speculate on which rocks contain the best green stuff within, break open their investments, and find out whether they just wasted a ton of money on a dud. In any case, they then chisel and polish the final products for sale to the Chinese market, sometimes employing various tricks to make bad jade look good. Produced en masse and always in-demand are the solid jade bracelets. That’s because Chinese superstition, er, I mean, medicine, holds that wearing jade against the skin has many health benefits, and wearing jade on your arm, where everyone can see it, probably has additional social benefits. But while sales of the bracelets were continuing, purchases of the bigger stuff were way down, and now the shop owners were running out of jade altogether.

That’s because, due to the fighting, the jadeite trade between the KIO and the army had been suspended. Now the only rocks for the shop owners to purchase were coming from illicit independent sources, and the quality was terrible. I asked one shopowner which side needs the jade trade more–the army or the Kachin? He shrugged. “Well, everybody’s greedy.”

Conversation turned towards life in Mandalay. Asking how he and his children learned Mandarin, I learned that the amount of public education available to most Burmans is no more than five years–six if you count the year of monastery training that many of them attend at adolescence. So in the Chinese community, people save money so their children can extend their education past the basic level, and they pitch-in money for after-school programs that teach their kids Mandarin. The lucky ones then might get a chance to attend college across the border in Yunnan, where they can also make contacts and get a start on their career, which of course means continuing the family jade business.

I would have liked to chat more, but it was getting near dinner time, and it was clear I wasn’t buying anything. As I stepped out into the street, I saw a bunch of men crowded around something. It was a rock the size of my torso. A little chip had been chiselled off the top, and one man was shining a flashlight into the green stuff within. I wondered where it had come from, and if it was a good rock or not. Apparently, so were they.

Scene 2: Hitching a Ride

While along a road back to downtown Mandalay, we kept our arms out to the road side, hoping to catch one of the occasional passing taxis. Just when we were certain that nobody was going to be stopping for us out here, a beat-up little car that was obviously designed without North Americans in mind pulled up and stopped. An elderly Bamar man, with a wrinkled face and hands and a dirty shirt, leaned out the window. “Where are you going?” He asked, in un-accented English.  Uh, back downtown? “I will give you a ride!”

We squeezed in. After some serious hesitation, the car started moving again. We introduced ourselves. Then the old man found out we were from the United States.

“I’ve been to America!” He said.

“Really? Where?”

“Honolulu… Los Angeles… San Francisco… Chicago… Detroit… Boston… New York… Washington, D.C…. New Orleans…”

“What? That’s more cities than I’ve been to!” I said. “What were you doing? When was this? What do you do here?”

“A long, long time ago–in the 1960s! Thanks to your President Kennedy. I was an East-West Scholar. That is why I love America. I lived in Hawaii for two years. Then, at the end, I got to see many cities. Such great cities. I got to fly in airplane to all of them. And I visited the White House! This was a long time ago.”

“An East-West Scholar! So then you came back to Myanmar?”

“Yes. I was a professor. Until 1988. Then I retired. It was not good to be a professor after then. You know?”

Only very, very vaguely. I imagined the contrasts this man had experienced. “Is Myanmar changing now?”

“There is talk, but so far, look–there is no real change. But the talking is a change. Probably now there is no going back. More going forward–I do not know. Maybe slowly now. Or not at all. But there is no going back.”



Filed under Foreign-er Travel, South of the Clouds

3 responses to “A Late Postcard from Mandalay (blame the Myanmar postal service?)

  1. Aunt Robin

    nick thank you for sharing all of this with the rest of us accross the world. you are a man with many great talents, great with languages, a great writer. and such great photography too. I enjoyed reading every one of your blogs from half way accross the world over the last 2 years. Aunt Robin

  2. Great writing! We are tentatively planning our own trip there over Spring Festival! Should be interesting…

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