Sweaty streets and Chinese imperialism in Mandalay, Myanmar
I was in a bad way when I got to Myanmar, two years ago. Mental, emotional, spiritual, I was a wreck at every level of the human totem pole. In Mandalay I walked because I didn’t know what else to do, around the palace island where banners bragged that the military would never betray the people, up Mandalay Hill where the eyes of Buddha’s shrines told me nothing I was able to hear, and through the city, blasted by 100 degree heat and viscous humidity, a debilitated bustle in the baking streets. I relaxed into an intangible flow, accepting the nudges of imperceptible perceptions to choose my path.
It was a surprise when an inattentive right turn carried me away from buzzing motorbikes, coughing Mahindra trucks, and the haphazard community of people living and eating in the street. Here there were no clusters of low tables or blankets spread with knock-off manufacturing, no whir of chaotic movement and chattering voices.
Instead, spotless apartments rose in cemeterial silence around an inner courtyard created when they built a solid city block into an inward-looking fortress with only one entrance, gated of course, but the guard must have wandered off. And the heap of golden spires and red arches in the center could only be a temple, while behind me a fat padlock sealed the door to a classroom, rows of desks watched over by posters of Confucius.
Some sort of Chinese enclave. Where was everyone? At work? Not yet here? Vampires waiting for sundown? But then I realized I wasn’t actually alone. Two mothers were on duty in the quiet heat. The first woman followed an imperious little boy riding a small bicycle with training wheels, bubble wrap still sheathing the bars of the frame. The second trailed a motorized car moving at a speed so slow it couldn’t scare the pigeons, who eventually moved aside with desultory head wags, ambivalently monitored by the two egglike children placed in the seat. The buzz of the small motor only accentuated the breathless stillness of the place, the honks and hum of vivacious Mandalay kept away by concrete.
They ignored me and I stared at them. Not symbiosis, but not parasitism either. They were visitors here, as was I, and we were all filling a languid afternoon as best we could. And here, in the inherent intimacy of living quarters, they’d given me a glimpse of their present, as well as Myanmar’s.
Myanmar falls deeply under the umbrella of Chinese investment, with its geographic position, resources, and vulnerability. The country was changing, fast, with Mandalay on the forefront, the largest, closest city to the border, and I had stumbled into the bones of it. My tiny life might be in chaos, but the world at large was a semi-coordinated process, movement and progression, and that was a nice reminder, a nice distraction, a nice contrast.
I put my bag back on my sweaty shoulder and went looking for whatever I’d find next.