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People of Myanmar, Way of Life

cheroots, ngapi, betel leaf, oxcart, Dramatic music

Myanmar civilization is largely an outgrowth of Indian influences. For the majority of Myanmar’s population, Buddhism is the center of individual life and the monastery (pongyi kyaung) is the center of the community. This is especially true in the villages, where most of the population lives. Wisdom is believed to reside at the pongyi kyaung and refuge may be sought there. A rite of passage for every adolescent boy is the shinphyu, in which the boy briefly relives the princely life of Gautama, who became the Buddha, and enters into the life of the monastery as a novice monk. At any later time in life he may return to the monastic life for a longer or shorter period of time. If married, he should ask his wife’s permission to do this. The daily life of the village begins with the pongyis (monks) making their rounds in the morning with their begging bowls. By donating that day’s food, the villagers earn merit, and the monks, who are forbidden to work, are nourished. The annual cycle of life follows the seasons, with all hands put to work for rice planting when the summer monsoon brings the first rains. The time during the three months of the most intensive rain is the Buddhist lent, when such activities as marriage and hunting are put off, but nat festivals can be enjoyed. Harvest in the fall is again a busy time, followed by the cooler season when the traditional form of entertainment is the pwe, a type of folk opera. In the evenings during this season, a crowd gathers on the grounds of a temple to watch the pwe in which dancers retell tales of royal times in Myanmar or present such Indian epics as the Ramayana. Dramatic music and dance alternate with bawdy skits by clowns, who often include political satire in their acts. In the towns, movies, particularly foreign feature films, are popular.

The Myanmar orchestra that accompanies the theatrical performances in a pwe consists of a bamboo xylophone, tall bamboo clappers, many kinds of tuned gongs, a small pair of cymbals to keep time, and the hne, a six-reeded oboe that carries the theme. The hne mimics the sound of the human voice speaking in the tonal Burmese language. In cities and towns music is piped into the streets for the public’s benefit through loudspeakers located in tea shops, and video cassette recorders bring cosmopolitan musical culture to even the smallest settlements.

The core of the Myanmar diet is boiled rice, combined with a little spicy meat or fish and some vegetables. Also popular for breakfast is a hot noodle soup flavored with coconut. A favorite sauce is ngapi, which is made from fermented fish or prawns and gives off a pungent odor. Several varieties of bananas along with coconut are the main fruits, while a wide variety of more exotic fruits are also enjoyed, such as the mangosteen, the custard apple, and the durian. The common drink is weak green tea, which is taken tepid throughout the day in small cups.

A typical gesture of hospitality in Myanmar is to offer guests the materials and equipment for making a chew of betel. This chemical combination of a chopped areca nut with lime and spices, all wrapped in a betel leaf, cleans the mouth, sweetens the breath, and settles the stomach. Locally rolled cigars, called cheroots, are smoked by young and old, male and female.

In keeping with the hot climate, both men and women wear skirts, except for those in the military, who wear long trousers. The longyi is a wrap-around cylinder of cloth that is tucked in at the waist in one way by men and in another way by women. Male and female longyis also differ in the patterns printed or woven into them. On top men wear a light shirt, covered by a Chinese-style jacket on formal occasions. Women wear a long or short-sleeved blouse. On the head men may wear a gaunqbaung, which for a farmer can be a simple length of cloth twisted around the head like a turban, while a government official at a formal event will have one made of silk and stretched over a light wicker frame. Because of the hot weather and rains, sandals are worn rather than shoes. Umbrellas are carried throughout the year to keep off either sun or rain.

For much of Myanmar’s history, women played a stronger role than in traditional Western societies. From early on they could own property and were independent in economic activities. In religion, however, their place is secondary. Males can become monks and they can earn religious merit in a number of ways; the few women who become nuns and the many who offer gifts to monks usually hope at best to be born as a man in their next reincarnation. While some men in powerful social positions and others who are very poor may have multiple wives, the practice is much less common than in neighboring Thailand.

A popular form of recreation is traveling by bus or oxcart to visit a notable pagoda or attend a festival. Soccer is a prominent sport, even during heavy rains; kites are flown in season; and a frequent occurrence on any day is a local game of chinlon, in which a small circle of men keeps a ball of woven cane up in the air with gentle blows from the foot, knee, shoulder, or head. Golf is particularly favored among military leaders.



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