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Full Length, Feature-Film Migration

 While in Yangon, Burma my friends and I took a trip to America.  It seems like a far-off destination, but really it was just on the main street across from the shuttle bus drop-off.  All it took was a risky and carefully calculated crossing through the speeding traffic, and we were back on American turf. 

America” was a movie theater showing three several month old American flicks on a Burmese weekend.  The theaters were broken up into three separate, oversized buildings, one for each show; tickets cost less than a dollar and came with one complimentary ice cream cone.  Alright, so it wasn’t America, but it sure did not feel like Burma.

My comrades could not go without a taste of Johnny Depp causing us to straggle into the building masked in a giant poster for Pirates of the Caribbean: Deadman’s Chest.  We waited with the masses of families and couples and groups of young friends in the lobby eating ice cream until finally herded toward the mandatory metal detector.  We were successful, only after emptying our pockets, leaving our purses, and removing our shoes and belts.  High security for a social event.  Baaing with the rest of the sheep, we ascended two flights of stairs, showed the man with the flashlight our tickets and were guided to our balcony seats. 

The show started with a Broadway-style opening of the deep red, velvet curtains.  Then the screen flashed with the same dancing popcorn and soda, hand in hand and smiling, as in the United States, only there was no popcorn or soda prancing about the Burmese theater, only ice cream and Tang.  When the snack dance ceased, the screen blanked to a blinding white background with thick, bold letters forming: “All Citizens Pay Respect to Your Nation’s Flag.”  The entire theater crowd stands up as the words transition to the country’s flag and national anthem.  We remained seated.  We were the only ones. 

What does that mean?  Was it an order, or simply a disclaimer to all of the non-Burmese that it wasn’t necessary to pay respects?  I definitely felt demanded; I was compelled to stand and place a hand over my heart to a country sanctioned by the United States.  Pay respects?  It made me think of the men and women introduced in Maura Stephens’ article, “The Heart of Burma.”  They too were paying respects in the United States by marching to free their leader and their country while this small percentage of the population were sitting back with feet on the seatbacks in front of them, chattering away with their friends or on their cell phones.  We were a part of the elite, a migratory elite that chose not to pay respects.  At any rate, we were not dragged out of the facilities for resisting the government.

When the movie finally began, the crowd only got louder, rustling bags of snacks, talking on cell phones, forgetting about their “inside voices.”  The movie was in English – to be expected, without Burmese subtitles – not to be expected.  This massive theater was teeming with non-English ears, and they all attended with no intent of understanding the dialogue.  On top of a failing sound system, it was nearly impossible for our English ears to hear what was going on.  This crowd was clearly a selection of Burmese higher class; was a weekly visit to an American movie a demonstration of class?  Is the American ideal strong enough to create a desire for American media even without an understanding?  Or maybe I was wrong entirely:

The theater was a collective gathering of downright noisy.  Captain Jack Sparrow continued to spout out skewed English, untranslatable even if there had been subtitles.  And yet, somehow through the racket, the theater would belt out into roaring laughter at all the appropriate moments.  It was interesting to note the differences in emotions.  While it was always a united expression, what they found humorous was different than what the three of us giggled at.  There were joint gasps at parts that weren’t meant to inflict fear and on-cue sighs of relief after random scenes.  Their lack of understanding on a word-by-word basis was irrelevant; they had formulated their own understanding using what is known (the Burmese culture) Burma streetand what is speculated (the American).  This was a subconscious understanding, as if they had gathered together prior to the flick to discuss when and what would be funny, sad, exciting, scary…

America was a Burmese movie theater, entangled with the presence of Burma’s governmental stronghold, American influence in media, youth culture, and socialization, and Burmese chuckles and chatty cell phone conversations.  When we walked out the doors back into Burma, I had to blink my eyes back into reality, grab the hands of my friends and cross the street.

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