I don’t know if there will ever be a part two, but as much of an experience as this is each week, it feels inevitable. About a month in, here are some observations.
We take our weekly trips to the tea shop with three people: Chit Mhwe is 13 going on 20, Nyein Nyein is 19, and Kyaw Htet is 20.
Chit Mhwe is the matriarch of her household at 13. Along with school, she is responsible for her four-year-old nephew and all cooking in the household. This includes providing meals for Aung Moo, the man still recovering from cortical blindness.
Nyein Nyein has just one brother in Mae Sot, but lives with her boyfriend, Kyaw Htet. They are both hard workers and have been fun to get to get to know.
And so we go off to the tea shop once each week, where there is just so much to learn. I’ll give you the setting: a dark, relatively smoky room. Four tables are of a more Western style & height–imagine a poorly made card table with four plastic stools that may or may not hold you. The remaining ten or so tables are low to the ground, about a eighteen inches high. They each have four wooden stools that are more sturdy, but small. And by small, I mean tiny. The top is maybe 10″ by 10″; it sits about 12″ off the ground. I personally think its much harder to sit on than the floor itself.
We squeeze five around a table each week. I made the mistake of wearing a skirt once, which left me a very dead leg as I was forced to sit in an awkward side-saddle way on a tiny piece of wood.
From the ceiling hang long strings with cigarette lighters attached at the end. We hear that lighters are quite expensive in Burma, so this is a common practice to provide them for customers without having them stolen. The waiters run into them all the time, and they swing back and forth constantly.
There is a bitter plain tea on each table in a pitcher. Beside it is a plastic bowl with water in it and maybe four of the tiniest glasses you’ll ever see–smaller than a shot glass–turned upside down in the water. If you choose to drink this tea, you pull out a glass, use it, and return it to the water for some sort of cleaning system. How many people have used it before you? You never know. Is it cleaned once a day or twice? Once a week? I have absolutely no idea.
And then we each order a dish and a drink. Stephen and I are faithful Burmese tea drinkers because it is delicious. Nyein Nyein orders off-brand Sprite every week.
Kyaw Htet ordered warm milk one week. I just don’t see any 2o-year-old male from the West ordering warm milk as he sits around with his friends.
They have staple dishes they like, but Stephen and I still looking for something worth ordering every week. We try something new each time. It’s also odd because we go at breakfast time, and we Westerners have a different palette for breakfast foods, which doesn’t really exist on the menu. Would you like fried chicken or noodles or rice or a salad for breakfast? With your tea? It just takes some getting used to.
When you order to the worker standing at your table, he turns and shouts it to the kitchen. And by shout, I mean shout. So when I ordered stir-fried vegetables this week, he shouted it. And I got some turned heads, looking to see who would order that. I’m not sure I have the guts to order that again.
It is funny how much utensils change through cultures. We think of chopsticks as being something unique, but otherwise we all use forks, spoons, and knives, right? Not so much.
Spoons are the main utensil here. You might get a spoon and a fork, or a spoon and chopsticks. You might just get a spoon. But the spoon is main attraction. I love this and adapt well to it. I’d choose just a spoon any day, and the fork or chopsticks are just an aid.
In America, it’s usually spoon & fork; a knife if you need. So I utilize the spoon. In Stephen’s home specifically, it’s a fork; I’m generally lost until I just go find a spoon. In England, it was a fork and knife, and I was just lost.
I know you are wondering about now why we think about such things. I’m telling you, you think about these things when you suddenly find yourself unable to smoothly get the food into your mouth at an age when you should be able to. I distinctly remember our first Christmas visiting our families, trying to have a conversation while I just couldn’t get my food on a fork. What happened to me? What happened to this ever-so-basic skill? You also think about these things when, as you will see, you are openly mocked for your lack of culinary skills in a tea shop where you are sitting just inches from the floor and drinking from a wet, tiny glass.
Stephen loves just a fork, due to his home standard, and often utilizes the spoon to aid the fork. And when he did just that–using the spoon to push food onto his fork–he was laughed at. Openly laughed at and pointed at by all three guests. Apparently this is not appropriate tea shop etiquette.
But feel free to get hit in the head with a lighter, drink from someone else’s glass, and shout!
Culture is a funny thing. It runs so deep and so shallow, all at the same time. I amazed at some of the things we have adapted to; things that have become normal. Sometimes I feel like I am looking at myself wondering why I am not panicking or awkward or shocked in a certain situation.
Other things I just can’t seem to lose. I can’t seem to shake this deep Western part of me, for better or for worse. I can’t seem to find certain Burmese norms normal.
One of them is the kissing. While public displays of affection are nearly non-existent (and only say nearly because it seems too extreme to say non-existent; I can’t think of one since we’ve arrived), the common practice for getting someone’s attention is a kissing sound. The same way we would kiss at a dog or I kiss for Kayak to come for food, that is the accepted way to call a waiter to your table. That is a perfectible acceptable way to tell someone they are in your way as you are walking or to catch someone’s attention in the market.
I just can’t shake the chills that go down my spine. It feels so wrong and so degrading, so deep within me. I wonder how many years it will take to adjust to that, if ever.
It might take a few more tea shop visits.