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A flip of a Switch in burma
By Allie D'Amanda

It’s pretty much human nature to put yourself and your way of life in the center: the center of your mind, your thoughts, your actions, your reactions, and your judgments. Burma’s government is a military dictatorship, where criticizing the government can get you killed.  No one in Burma knows what it is like to smell free air, or be able to speak their minds without fearing an undercover military agent (who sometimes dress as monks and listen in on conversations) might hear them and shoot them.  They don’t know what it feels like to have no fear, so to them, this is what is normal, this is at the center of their minds; this is their way of life.

            I had an experience that allowed me to feel some of that fear.  My friend Ashley and I chartered a van that took us on a nine hour, uncomfortably bumpy ride to “Elephant Camp,” a small elephant village where we stayed overnight and rode elephants into the jungle.  On the way back to the ship, we made a stop at a small restaurant in a small village. Our tour guide sat with us at the table, and the atmosphere was cheerful and busy.  There was a table next to us that has a group of men who were laughing and drinking beers.  The teenagers that were waiting tables joked with each other and seemed excited to see us there.  An American movie was playing on the TV, and music was playing. 

            Suddenly, like a switch was flipped, the TV and music shut off, the men who were sitting next to us suddenly were all gone, our tour guide got up from the table and went to another corner of the restaurant, and the waiters lowered their heads and stopped talking altogether.  About two minutes later, two military officials walked in with guns strapped to their waists, and walked around the restaurant.  I’m not sure what they were doing, because I actually lowered my head as well, feeling a wave of uncomfortable fear rush through me.  Until this moment, what had merely been some words I read in books and warnings from our pre-port lecturers became a stark reality.  Once the military men left, “the switch” was turned back on and everything resumed as it was before they had entered.  In only a few moments, I moved from an objective observer to a participant. 

I noticed that the quick actions from the Burmese people in the restaurant were so smooth and calculated it was like second nature to them.  What was abnormal to me is completely normal to them.  Coming into their country and comparing their way of life to mine is never going to help me understand who they are, what makes them smile, laugh, cry, and even live for the next day.  Anthropologist Gerry Tierney mentions in her essay entitled “Becoming a Participant Observer,” that “fieldwork based on participant observation is a two-way street: just as I had expectations of the people, so they had expectations of me” (13).  She says that when you are spending time with people who are “so seemingly different,” you must spend time dealing with your own “foibles and negative characteristics” in an attempt to understand yourself better.  In turn, this will help “bridge the gap” between yourself and the Burmese people you are trying to identify with (13). 

But how do I do this? How much do I have to compromise my own identity in order to understand these people?  And at what point do I begin to intrude on their lives, and disrupt the two-way street?  Hopefully in dealing with my own fears, “foibles and negative characteristics,” I will become a better participant observer, take my experiences with people in these countries back home, and make them have meaning and significance in my own life. 

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