November 11th, 2017, 7:15am, Changi Airport
I was seated outside the departure lounge along with a few other members of our church’s mission team. I spotted Joella, the youngest of us — she was 17 — walking over with her father, and I gave them a friendly wave, or at least my best impression of one. My phone began to buzz. There was a text from Agus, one of the leaders of the group — “Daniel’s visa has been rejected because he mistyped a single digit whilst entering his passport number during the application process. If this isn’t resolved in time, he might not be able to join us.”
Earlier in August, Daniel returned to Singapore after spending four years in Michigan studying film. We grew up in church together, and as best friends, the idea of co-working on a project has always been talked about, given that he specialises in film, and I in writing. Pastor Peter, his father, heads the missions ministry in church, and venturing into the field seemed like a good way to start. We agreed to be the media team for November’s trip to Yangon, Myanmar. To a slight extent, it was why I signed up in the first place; there would at least be someone I was extremely familiar with on the trip.
As we entered the lounge, Daniel texted me about the situation.
“Hey man, I don’t think I can make the trip.”
“Why don’t you wait for the embassy to issue you a new visa tomorrow?”
“It’s Saturday. The embassy is closed on weekends, Monday is a national holiday in Myanmar, and we return on Tuesday.”
“Well that sucks.”
As we walked towards the plane, Daniel went home.
10:00am, Yangon International Airport Terminal 1
Laval Yau, Business 4 Transformation’s (B4T) founder and our guide for the trip, was already waiting for us at the arrival hall, along with a member of our group who went there a day prior. B4T is an organisation that works with pastors from developing countries, as many of them do not draw a salary, owing to the general state of poverty in the respective communities they live in. They are connected to donors who provide loans to them to start their own businesses, and B4T assesses their competence to run them. Ideally, pastors who make the cut can then earn a reasonable income to repay the loan, as well as support both their families and churches. As least in Myanmar, we later learnt that this was not always the case.
For most of us in the group, it was our first visit to the country, and Laval summed up what laid ahead with a single sentence: “They (the Burmese authorities) named the newly built airport wing, ‘Terminal 1’, and the older wing, ‘Terminal 2’.” This, perhaps, cheekily hints at why Myanmar, despite its vast deposits of natural resources like oil and gas, precious stones, metals, and gems, remains one of the poorest nations in the world, with an average monthly income of US$150 (a figure more synonymous with the many rural townships outside downtown Yangon). Internal issues like corruption have been cited as key factors, but in a nutshell, because Myanmar does not know how to manage its wealth of natural resources, they are exported as raw materials to countries like China, who then refines them and sells them back at a much higher price. As more and more national problems, from infrastructure to education, were being listed out in the van en route to our first stop, I sat in silence trying to digest what I had just heard. “How are the Burmese taking it?” I thought.
Despite the unfavourable circumstances, the Burmese are a generally well-meaning people. “It is actually quite safe here in Yangon. I once saw two young Burmese men openly count their kyats (local currency) on the bonnet of their car and people walked past them without even batting an eyelid,” Laval reminisced.
Scattered honking jolted me out of my thoughts, although in truth, I should have gotten used to that. Traffic was chaotic from the moment we left the airport; the van rattled along poorly maintained roads and sputtered to a halt every few minutes. With a lack of proper automobile management, left and right-hand vehicles are permitted, doing little to alleviate the situation. Oddly enough, while traffic lights are ever-present, pedestrian crossings are not. Similar to navigating across the busy roads in Vietnam, Yangon too adopts a similar ‘create your own pedestrian crossing’ system, although we only experienced that firsthand during the last day of our stay.
There was little time to settle into our new surroundings. Our itinerary consisted of three full days of activities, with only some breathing room allotted near the end of the third day. Our first stop was at a church situated in Shwepyitha township, northwest of Yangon. It was difficult to recognise the transition from city to suburb but for stretches of road with hardly any buildings by their sides. Traffic gradually petered out, but remained slightly congested throughout. Roadside stalls eventually came into view as we approached what I assumed was the periphery of the township. A wide variety of items were being sold, from seasonal fruits like tangerines, avocados, and custard apples, to candies in colourful packaging, to pigeons. Some stalls, however, seemed out of place. Sporadic luxuries like gyms and shops selling the latest iPhones interjected the usual two-dollar wares that one would expect to see peddled. I later learnt that, however poor, the Burmese take pride in grooming themselves. Men complement their button-downs with traditional long skirts, a variation of the sarong, while women dress conservatively but elegantly. Hairdressers are a common sight, and I often noticed light pale spots on the faces of the Burmese, particularly amongst women. Resembling mud masks, thanaka is a popular cosmetic paste made from barks of certain types of trees. It is known to help with sunburn and acne.
The van slowed to a halt, and our driver rolled down his window to speak to a passerby. We were apparently lost; there were numerous small roads ahead of us, criss-crossing each other, leading into different neighbourhoods. There were no signs to differentiate one from another, which only added to the confusion. This went on for several minutes, spanning across different townsfolk to no avail, until we heard the universally affirmative “ahh“. Shortly after, the van started to move again, and we were on our way.
11:15am, Emmanuel Evangelical Church, Shwepyitha Township
We expected below average living conditions, pulling into the township, but having lived in sheltered Singapore all my life, what I saw took some getting used to. While I have seen images and videos of similar situations in newspapers and documentaries, to actually stand right in the heart of an impoverished community remains a culture shock. Shwepyitha comprises small wooden houses made with rusty zinc roofing and planks that are broken in places. The houses themselves are slightly raised, and below them were stagnant pools of water. Shwepyitha, like many other Burmese townships, lack proper drainage, which could be disastrous during the monsoon seasons. You can tell which areas are more affected just by looking at how high houses are raised.
The van stopped right outside Emmanuel Evangelical Church, and we got out. A small path led to a house that was slightly larger than the others. Pairs of footwear laid scattered by the entrance — there was no door — as one of the church’s deacons stood by it to welcome and usher us in. While handshakes aren’t the cultural norm in Myanmar, urban, non-Buddhist residents still give them, albeit with a slight difference — left hand cupping the right elbow. We followed suit, before chirping, “Mingalaba!” (good morning), something we found ourselves saying very often throughout our trip.
The church was packed, except for a row of plastic chairs reserved for us. We were bombarded with curious stares the moment we stepped inside. Later, we realised that many of them had never seen an outsider. Shewpyitha is an extremely ordinary township whose residents straddle the poverty line, and the only foreigners who had visited the vicinity were well-meaning social workers on a mission trip, like us. We sat adjacent to the congregation, so they had plenty of time to study our features, a mutual activity that we spent a few moments doing. They, like most Burmese, were well dressed — men in shirts and pants; women in blouses and long skirts. It almost seemed out of place, not only due to their surroundings, but also, the punishing heat that was amplified from a lack of efficient ventilation. None of them seemed to mind, while we were starting to sweat in our casual attire; I was wearing a T-shirt and sweatpants. Then, to our puzzlement, some of them started to chuckle.
“You guys look different from what they had imagined. They thought you’d have large noses,” Pastor Robert Rabie translated for us. Pastor Robert was who we were primarily there to see, as we wanted to assess him as a candidate for our church’s business loan initiative, similar to B4T’s.
Class was over by the time we arrived, and after briefly introducing ourselves to the congregation, we proceeded to distribute the donated items that we had brought along with us — from clothes to bags. One by one, the worshippers gleefully went to the front, thrusting their bounties in the air to cheers of “Hallelujah”. After the fanfare, it was time for lunch. Like clockwork, they — some as young as 13 — arranged tables and chairs with great speed and efficiency, taking care not to trouble us with any sort of work, no matter how much we insisted. It was the first of many instances of Burmese hospitality that has stuck with me.
Together with some members of the congregation and about five church leaders, including Pastor Robert’s father, himself an ex-missionary who had travelled close to two days by bus from his home in Chin State, we sat around two long tables that were already set with plates of food awaiting us — handmade sushi, lots of them, meticulously rolled and sliced, packed with fresh seasonal vegetables and the sushi-iconic tamago. They were complemented by generous helpings of seasonal vegetables and soup. Just before we could tuck in, Pastor Robert’s father stood up to pray, and whilst doing so, suddenly began to weep. Agus (perhaps on our behalf) asked Pastor Robert why.
“He is so happy to see you, he can’t contain his joy.” he replied.
Throughout lunch, members of the congregation never stopped serving us. They were always moving around, either clearing plates or handing out plastic cans of energy drink. We were treated like royalty, and some of us started to feel uncomfortable and unworthy. It was sobering to see a community of folks with very little to their name give so much to us when the roles should have been reversed.
2:30pm, Pastor Robert’s Home, Shwepyitha Township
Pastor Robert’s two-storey home was a 10-minute walk from the church. The neighbourhood showed signs of development; bags of sand and cement were stacked against walls of street corners. We took a concrete path that eventually led us to the house. Tarmac gave way to dirt as we made our way through the gate, where numerous plants in plastic bags dotted its perimeter. For Pastor Robert, his wife, and their five children, it has been their home for the past seven years, and although his rent is heavily subsidised (US$150), being a full-time pastor does not afford him the time to get a job that actually pays. Instead, he collects seedlings from local markets, before growing and selling them at a profit of 300ky (US$0.23) per seedling.
The house was smaller than I had expected it to be. We sat around the living room, which had a small table, and on it were a table fan and a TV. There was a basin on the floor, filled with what would be Pastor Robert’s business proposal — elephant foot yam (EFY).
Despite its odd name, EFY is more closely related to us than we think — for instance, it is part of the konjac (konnyaku) family. However, while the latter is commonly used to make jelly, EFY is a savoury ingredient. Getting the yam to its end product requires patience; patience to grow, harvest, and dry. This process takes several months. Pastor Robert’s initial idea was to grow the yam himself with the land that he owns, or rather, claim to own. Land ownership is not officially registered in government databases; most transactions are only recorded on paper between the land’s buyer and seller. In any case, the weather in Yangon is unconducive for the cultivation of EFY, so Plan B involves him being the middleman. He would source organically grown elephant foot yam from mostly Christian farmers in his native Chin state, dry them, and sell them to all manner of buyers, from local wholesalers to regional traders.
With the business aspect of the proposal eventually taken care of, we then sampled pieces of EFY.
They resembled round cuttlefish crackers, a popular snack back in Singapore, but they had neither its taste nor crunchiness. To my knowledge, not one of us was sold by the product. That puzzled me further — how was anyone going to enjoy eating those? Pastor Robert explained that while EFY might not be appealing on its own, it would complement many dishes well, as it soaks up flavours like a sponge. Additionally, EFY is rich in protein, filling, and low in carbohydrates — characteristics synonymous with the sort of health products that is fast gaining popularity with modern society, particularly amongst Chinese and Japanese consumers.
With our discussion done for the day, we got into the van and headed off. I was grateful; a combination of the afternoon sun and a full stomach threatened to lull me to sleep. The day, however, was far from over.
This reflection continues in Part 2.