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Jul 172017
 

In my last post I said that Mandalay is home to me, and I promised that in my next post I’d muse on what “home” means to me. Well, I tend to keep my promises. My idea of “home” is not like most people’s because of my life circumstances. I should begin, however, with parsing the word “home” because without that we’ll get nowhere.

We use “home” in many different ways in English. In some of the languages I speak, notably Italian and Spanish, you can differentiate between “house” and “home,” but the distinction is generally blurred and the common word for “house” (casa) is commonly used to mean “home” as well. “Vado a casa” or “me voy a casa” should be translated as “I am going home” not “I am going to a house.” Here is a significant stepping off point. Is the house where you live right now your home? I think for most people that’s a minimally acceptable assertion. If I ask you, “Where are you going?” and you reply, “I’m going home,” I take no more from that statement than the simple understanding that you are going to the place where you live – now. You need much more context to change the idea to something deeper. For example, the old hymn, “Lord, I’m Coming Home” (title of one of my books), means that when I die I’m going to heaven: my true (spiritual) home. Likewise, if I ask, “Where is home for you?” I’m not asking where you live right now, but where you consider to be your place of belonging – sometimes phrased, “Where are you from?”

I imagine that for most people the answer to the question “Where are you from?” is very simple. A few of my friends have lived all of their lives in or near the place where they were born, and in some cases their parents were born there too. For them the answer to the question is easy. For others it’s slightly more complicated, but not much more so. Many people I know were born and raised in one place, but then moved to another as adults and settled there. Their answer to the question can be a little more hedged, therefore: for example, “I was born in Atlanta but I’ve lived in New York most of my life.” In this case Georgia is probably home in a deep sense, but New York is home for all current intents and purposes.

So . . . where am I from? There things get sticky. People seem determined to place me somewhere, but they are misguided. I am not from anywhere. I was born in Buenos Aires to a Scottish father and an English mother. My elder sister was born in England, and the middle sister of the family was born in Buenos Aires. I am the youngest. When I was 2 years old the family moved from Argentina to Eastbourne in England, my mother’s home, where we lived with her aunt for almost 5 years, and then emigrated to South Australia. Therefore, by the age of 6 I had lived on three continents. We lived in South Australia in several locations for 8 years, then moved back to England, eventually landing in Burnham in south Buckinghamshire. I lived there for 5 years, then moved to Oxford for 4. After that I was a bit adrift for a while but landed in Leamington Spa for a year. Then I emigrated to the United States.

I went to North Carolina where I was married and attended graduate school for the Ph.D. I lived in Chapel Hill for 4 years, and spent 1 year doing fieldwork in a fishing village in the Tidewater region. Then I moved to Long Island, New York, for 1 year, got divorced, and settled on the campus of the university, where I was an assistant professor, for 3 years. Then it was up to the Catskills where I married again, bought a house, had a son, and all of that “normal” stuff for 27 years (with a year’s sabbatical in Santa Fe, New Mexico). When my wife died and my son went off to college I retired and moved to Buenos Aires. I’ll get to that part in a minute. After 4 years there I moved to China for 2, Italy for 2, and now I live in Myanmar.

So . . . where is home? Where am I from? The deeply truthful answer is nowhere, but I’ve had different answers throughout my life. If you want a general answer to those questions it is “Not here.” For a while Buenos Aires was a strong contender, and my location there is certainly deeper than any other place I have lived. It’s impossible for me to describe fully the feelings I had when I landed there at age 58 after a 56-year absence. The minute I stepped into the terminal at Ezeiza airport and got a taxi into the city I knew I was HOME – finally. It’s impossible to explain. It just felt RIGHT. Some deeply embedded memories must have been stirred. The sounds, sights, smells, feelings of the city resonated with me completely.

The food brought back memories of my father’s and mother’s cooking when I was a boy. Milanesa and spaghetti with tuco were mainstays for dinner and El Libro De Doña Petrona was the only cookbook we had besides our battered version of Mrs Beeton. I had made sure I had milanesa as my first meal when I arrived. I also got some yerba mate and a mate gourd and bombilla early on because the smell of mate is the smell of my boyhood. Drinking yerba replaced tea and coffee in Buenos Aires, and still does. I carry my thermos and all the accouterments all over the world with me. Sometimes it’s a bit of a challenge getting yerba, but I’m never without a supply. I brought 2 kilos with me in my very limited luggage when I flew to Myanmar. I’ll do without a suit and dress shoes, but not yerba.

Tango music will make me cry in a heartbeat, and the dance in the milongas and in the streets generally captivates me. If you have not seen tango in the streets of Buenos Aires you have not seen tango. Show tango in the theaters, and ballroom tango are not tango. The tango of the people of the streets is the real deal, as the music of an orquesta tipica with a front line of bandoneons – if you can ever find one. Traditional tango is a dying art.

Everyone called me Juan the minute I arrived even though for 56 years I had been called John. Juan is on my birth certificate but my mother always hated the fact that I had to have a Spanish name when I was born and changed it to John the minute we arrived in England. She registered me as John at my first school, and for some reason I’ve never had any trouble getting a UK passport, and such, as John even though my birth certificate says Juan. Back in Buenos Aires I got an Argentine DNI (identity card) and passport as Juan Alejandro, and since then I’ve insisted on being called Juan.

It was an enormous wrench leaving Buenos Aires 4 years ago, but I knew I had to leave for several reasons, even though my friends begged me to stay, and have sent me heartfelt messages periodically ever since. The main reason I wanted to leave was that it’s very difficult to get anywhere from Buenos Aires. My son was intent on traveling in Asia after college and I wanted to catch up with him. But flying to Hong Kong or Tokyo is a 3-day affair from Buenos Aires. It made a lot more sense for me to move to Asia for a while. After that I figured I would spend 2 years on a different continent, travel around, then move on. So far, so good – with a few bumps in the road. It’s been China for 2, Italy for 2, and now Myanmar. In the process Argentina is fading more and more from my consciousness. Argentina is still bedrock, but it’s not as deep as I thought it was. In Mandalay when people ask, “Where are you from?” I respond “Argentina” automatically. It makes sense to say that, and I feel it. But, in reality, Argentina is no more home to me now in a profound sense than anywhere else. I have no home. In truth I never have had, and never will have, a home. In some ways that gives me the kind of freedom that few people have. For one thing, you can’t be homesick when you have no home. There’s nowhere I yearn to be.

Of course, there are plenty of platitudes like, “Home is where the heart is” and the like, but they are just platitudes with no real meaning for me.

The big question for me at the moment is, “Where next?” In truth, I have not the slightest idea, and that’s a bit troubling if I set my mind to it. Usually I don’t. The larger question will come at some point, “Where will I choose to settle for the long haul?” I’m healthy, and my body keeps up with me. But that will change at some point. For now I am just being pragmatic and thinking only about the present. I’ll let the future take care of itself. Wherever I land it won’t be HOME, but I’ll manage.

 Posted by at 12:54 pm

Kipling and Mandalay (3)

 anthropology  Comments Off on Kipling and Mandalay (3)
Jul 092017
 

This post is my third in a three-part series on Rudyard Kipling’s poem “Mandalay.” Previously I talked about the origins of the poem, and gave a critique of its content. Those posts may be found here:

http://www.passionintellectpersistence.com/kipling-and-mandalay/

http://www.passionintellectpersistence.com/kipling-mandalay-2/

Now I want to consider the various attempts to turn the poem into a song. The volume in which the poem appeared is called Barrack Room Ballads for a good reason. The poems are all, to one degree or another, in the form of what 19th century poets thought of as ballads. Now this is a slightly complex matter. Nowadays we think of a ballad as a species of lyrical song, but in the 19th century the term was somewhat vaguer. For example, the Harvard English professor, Francis James Child, collected verses in a five-volume work which he called English and Scottish Popular Ballads (1882-1898). He gleaned these verses from various sources, mostly literary and antiquarian, and published them without music, because he was interested in their poetic form, not their musical qualities. It was not until almost a century later that Bertrand Bronson published the twelve-volume work, The Traditional Tunes of the Child Ballads (1959-1972) that the scholarly and literary world came to appreciate that Child’s ballads were meant to be sung, and that most of them ultimately derived from the oral singing traditions of ordinary people, often shepherds and farm laborers.

Kipling’s ballads are more in the vein of Child’s ballads than Bronson’s but most scholars now believe that Kipling had particular well-known songs in mind when he wrote the poems, because of their metrical structure. Kipling’s “My name is O’Kelly, I’ve heard the reveille…” for example, fits the Irish rebel song Lillibulero quite well, and, therefore, could have been in the back of Kipling’s head when he wrote it. Whatever the case, the Barrack Room Ballads, including “Mandalay” are easily turned into songs which, perhaps, makes them more memorable and durable. “Mandalay” at 6, 4-line stanzas plus chorus (also indicative of ballad form), is rather too long for popular stage performance or commercial recording as a song, so when Oley Speaks wrote music for it in 1907 he trimmed it to the first, second, and last stanzas only, giving the gist of the poem, but not the specifics. Often even the second stanza was omitted. The first and last stanzas taken together, with the absence of the middle particulars, present an image of a (generic) British soldier thinking wistfully of his service in Burma and longing to return. The mangled Cockney voice is largely absent so it could be an officer or a common soldier speaking. Peter Dawson’s version, with his high-class accent, gives the impression that the singer is an officer. My first post presents Dawson’s version, which you can review there. Here’s a film version from 1935 featuring Laurence Tibbett going all out in dramatics and with an accent that meanders between upper crust and the gutter.

Transforming the poem into an officer’s lament (in the Peter Dawson vein) perverts Kipling’s intention of portraying a working stiff who once served in the Queen’s forces in Burma, and saw a world he never imagined existed in his childhood in England, and to which he yearns to return. Tibbett does a better job at threading the needle than most, but gets a bit lost in his purpose through rank theatrics. How about this for theatrics.  What is it?  Red Skelton meets Rudyard Kipling?

By contrast, Old Blue Eyes, makes a mockery of the whole thing, although I have no doubt someone will like this. Kipling’s army grunt is now a Las Vegas lounge lizard. Sinatra has tinkered with the words a little because Kipling was apparently not hip enough for the swinger. Kipling’s Burma girl is now a “broad” and the man who can raise a thirst is now a “cat.” These changes, not to mention the jazzy rearrangement of the music, deeply offended Kipling’s widow. Watch at your peril:

If you poke around YouTube you’ll find dozens of quite similar renditions mostly from the 1930s and ‘40s. It did surprise me to discover this version: a 1971 version by the Danish popular quartet, Four Jacks – in Danish.

No comment.

So . . . let me return one more time to Pete Bellamy’s 1973 version featuring the entire poem to a different tune from the familiar Speaks version.

This is the version I tend to return to when I want to be reminded of Kipling. It has two things going for it. First, it contains the complete poem, and, second, it’s not full of dramatics.  It lets the poem speak for itself.

Another version that gives the full poem is this electronic remix by Toby Darling.

Interesting, but I’ll pass.

I’d be surprised if any of the singers here has actually been to Mandalay. It makes a difference to me. Frankly I don’t think any of them are evoking Mandalay (in the 19th century or now).  What is Mandalay to them? Somewhere exotic? A tourist dream?  What?  To me it’s home. Next I will muse on what that thought means to me.

 Posted by at 7:53 am

Kipling and Mandalay (2)

 anthropology, Philosophy  Comments Off on Kipling and Mandalay (2)
Jul 082017
 

This post is my second in a three-part series on Rudyard Kipling’s poem “Mandalay” which is rarely read aloud simply as a poem but has been transformed into a song several times, most popularly in a rendition by Oley Speaks which was made famous by the Australian bass-baritone Peter Dawson. My first post about the poem, which includes the Dawson version, is here:

http://www.passionintellectpersistence.com/kipling-and-mandalay/

The poem is easily made into a song because it has a ballad form and was included in Kipling’s collection Barrack Room Ballads (1892): poems, all in some kind of ballad verse form, intended as accounts of the army experience during the heyday of the Victorian British empire as seen through the eyes of the common soldier. The mood of the poems is one of honoring salt of the earth types who did all the hard labor, the bleeding, and the dying to build the glorious empire, yet got none of the credit. “Mandalay” is not exactly completely in that vein but is told from the perspective of an ordinary soldier, once billeted in Burma, who remains captivated by the country in comparison with the ugliness of London. Here’s the full poem again:

BY THE old Moulmein Pagoda, lookin’ lazy at the sea,
There’s a Burma girl a-settin’, and I know she thinks o’ me;
For the wind is in the palm-trees, and the temple-bells they say:
“Come you back, you British soldier; come you back to Mandalay! “
Come you back to Mandalay,
Where the old Flotilla lay:
Can’t you ‘ear their paddles chunkin’ from Rangoon to Mandalay ?
On the road to Mandalay,
Where the flyin’-fishes play,
An’ the dawn comes up like thunder outer China ‘crost the Bay!

‘Er petticoat was yaller an’ ‘er little cap was green,
An’ ‘er name was Supi-yaw-lat – jes’ the same as Theebaw’s Queen,
An’ I seed her first a-smokin’ of a whackin’ white cheroot,
An’ a-wastin’ Christian kisses on an ‘eathen idol’s foot:
Bloomin’ idol made o’ mud
Wot they called the Great Gawd Budd
Plucky lot she cared for idols when I kissed ‘er where she stud!
On the road to Mandalay…

When the mist was on the rice-fields an’ the sun was droppin’ slow,
She’d git ‘er little banjo an’ she’d sing “Kulla-lo-lo!
With ‘er arm upon my shoulder an’ ‘er cheek agin my cheek
We useter watch the steamers an’ the hathis pilin’ teak.
Elephints a-pilin’ teak
In the sludgy, squdgy creek,
Where the silence ‘ung that ‘eavy you was ‘arf afraid to speak!
On the road to Mandalay…

But that’s all shove be’ind me – long ago an’ fur away
An’ there ain’t no ‘busses runnin’ from the Bank to Mandalay;
An’ I’m learnin’ ‘ere in London what the ten-year soldier tells:
“If you’ve ‘eard the East a-callin’, you won’t never ‘eed naught else.”
No! you won’t ‘eed nothin’ else
But them spicy garlic smells,
An’ the sunshine an’ the palm-trees an’ the tinkly temple-bells;
On the road to Mandalay…

I am sick o’ wastin’ leather on these gritty pavin’-stones,
An’ the blasted English drizzle wakes the fever in my bones;
Tho’ I walks with fifty ‘ousemaids outer Chelsea to the Strand,
An’ they talks a lot o’ lovin’, but wot do they understand?
Beefy face an’ grubby ‘and –
Law! wot do they understand?
I’ve a neater, sweeter maiden in a cleaner, greener land!
On the road to Mandalay…

Ship me somewheres east of Suez, where the best is like the worst,
Where there ain’t no Ten Commandments an’ a man can raise a thirst;
For the temple-bells are callin’, an’ it’s there that I would be
By the old Moulmein Pagoda, looking lazy at the sea;
On the road to Mandalay,
Where the old Flotilla lay,
With our sick beneath the awnings when we went to Mandalay!
On the road to Mandalay,
Where the flyin’-fishes play,
An’ the dawn comes up like thunder outer China ‘crost the Bay !

In contrast to Peter Dawson’s early 20th century version, here’s Peter Bellamy’s version (1975), the entire poem (not snippets) set to a variant of the shanty tune “Ten Thousand Miles Away:”

Bellamy set many of the Barrack Room Ballads to music, and then compiled them on an album of the same name. Around this time Bellamy was an acquaintance of mine and I booked him at a folk club in Oxford. Afterwards, among other things, we talked about how he was trying to change entrenched beliefs about Kipling. At that time Kipling was largely dismissed as an old-fashioned Victorian colonial whose poem “White Man’s Burden” was seen as summing up his patriotic, ethnocentric view of Britain as the arbiter of global morality and civilization. Here’s the first stanza (try not to puke):

Take up the White Man’s burden,
Send forth the best ye breed
Go bind your sons to exile,
to serve your captives’ need;
To wait in heavy harness,
On fluttered folk and wild—
Your new-caught, sullen peoples,
Half-devil and half-child.

This is, indeed, Kipling’s philosophy – no mistake. But we can cut him some slack. It is not the sum total of his philosophy. And . . . he was a product of his age: the Victorian Age whose industrialism, colonialism, and subsequent prosperity were generally viewed by the English well-to-do as the pinnacle of civilization. A few – a very few – were not able to turn a blind eye to the concomitant slavery, degradation and poverty of the laboring masses at home and abroad, but Kipling was not in the forefront of this movement. Nor was he in the rearguard either. He was somewhere comfortably in the middle. A nuanced reading of “Mandalay” reveals this middle position.

First we need to consider the voice of the poem. Who is talking? Is it really a demobilized British soldier or Kipling himself? I’d have to say it is a bit of both, with Kipling in the foreground. Kipling was born in India, but, as was normal for the children of British colonials, he spent from ages 5 to 16 at school in England. Then, because he lacked the academic ability to get a scholarship to Oxford, and because his parents lacked the resources, his father found him a job as a journalist in India. After a stint in India he traveled extensively on his return to England in 1889, which included his brief stay in Burma, involving his unrequited passion for the “Burma girl” he saw at the Moulmein pagoda which I mentioned in my previous post, and which is undoubtedly the underlying thread of the poem. He did also fall in love with a geisha in Japan on the same trip, so one does have to wonder how much exactly the Burma girl meant to him: enough apparently to dedicate a poem to her memory.

Let’s accept, however, for the moment, the poetic fiction that the voice of the poem is that of a British soldier yearning to be back in Burma, rather than a love-sick young journalist-cum-poet. I’ll forgive Kipling his slightly amateurish effort at conveying a Cockney accent (or whatever it is supposed to be). But . . . in the poem Kipling betrays his ignorance of Burma which he knew only slightly. For example, he calls elephants “hathis” which is the Hindi word, not the Burmese one. He talks about the “Great Gawd Budd” by which I assume he means Buddha. The fact that the Burma girl is Buddhist is fair enough; Burma is home to a long and deep tradition of Theravada Buddhism, which is strongly rooted in Mandalay. There are monks everywhere, all the time. Would a Burma girl kiss a statue of Buddha? I very much doubt it. Furthermore, the Buddha is not a god. Buddha was a man, highly venerated to be sure, but a man nonetheless. Then we come to the question of whether a Burmese woman would forsake Buddhism for a common English soldier. Here I am a little torn. It rather depends on whether you think a Burmese woman would be attracted to an Englishman (of any sort) and, if so, why she would. Furthermore, would she throw over her culture for the sake of that love? These are not easy questions to answer.

If an Englishman were simply dropped out of the sky into Burma before there was any colonial presence, or, perhaps, any knowledge of Europeans, I’d say the chances of an attraction would be minimal, but that’s just speculation. It’s not something we can know. As it is, the British army, whether officers or common soldiers, represented money and power. Money and power are attractive (to some people). There’s also got to be a fantasy element here, whether it be Kipling’s or his fictional soldier/narrator’s. Why wouldn’t a beautiful Burmese woman be mesmerized by the kisses of an Englishman?

These are just juvenile fantasies. The more troubling aspect of the poem to me is its brazen notion that Victorian England is all strait laced and Puritanical, but, Burma is free and easy going (“there ain’t no Ten Commandments). Really? Burma has no moral principles such as don’t lie or cheat, and honor your father and mother? You’d have to be blind, deaf, and stupid to think that. Of course we can soften this judgment by asserting that this is the British soldier talking and not Kipling. But you’ve got to believe that a man who can call colonized people “half-devil and half-child” does not hold a high view of the ethical strictures of their culture (no doubt bred of ignorance).

So, all right. Kudos for depicting an ordinary soldier as sensitive to the differences between London and Mandalay, and further kudos for suggesting that this soldier prefers what Burma has to offer over England. But let’s not delude ourselves into believing that what the soldier thinks Burma has to offer really exists, or is more than just a recognition of his privileged position in a colonial situation, which is much better than his status at home. London women know him for what he is, Burmese women don’t.

In my next post I’ll compare various song versions of the poem. After all, it was the song, as performed by Peter Dawson that inspired me to move here in the first place.

To be continued . . .

 Posted by at 6:50 am

Kipling and Mandalay

 anthropology, Philosophy  Comments Off on Kipling and Mandalay
Jul 052017
 

People of a certain age know Rudyard Kipling’s poem “Mandalay” to one degree or another, maybe just snippets. I knew bits of the poem from a very young age because my father would occasionally sing snatches of the song, “Road to Mandalay,” created out of the poem by Oley Speaks and popularized on a recording by Peter Dawson:

For decades this was all I knew of the poem and had no idea that it is a mere shell of the original. Even though I knew nothing of Mandalay other than what the poem tells us, it’s fair to say that this was a prime reason for me wanting to come here. Here’s the whole poem in its original version:

BY THE old Moulmein Pagoda, lookin’ lazy at the sea,
There’s a Burma girl a-settin’, and I know she thinks o’ me;
For the wind is in the palm-trees, and the temple-bells they say:
“Come you back, you British soldier; come you back to Mandalay! “
Come you back to Mandalay,
Where the old Flotilla lay:
Can’t you ‘ear their paddles chunkin’ from Rangoon to Mandalay ?
On the road to Mandalay,
Where the flyin’-fishes play,
An’ the dawn comes up like thunder outer China ‘crost the Bay!

‘Er petticoat was yaller an’ ‘er little cap was green,
An’ ‘er name was Supi-yaw-lat – jes’ the same as Theebaw’s Queen,
An’ I seed her first a-smokin’ of a whackin’ white cheroot,
An’ a-wastin’ Christian kisses on an ‘eathen idol’s foot:
Bloomin’ idol made o’ mud
Wot they called the Great Gawd Budd
Plucky lot she cared for idols when I kissed ‘er where she stud!
On the road to Mandalay…

When the mist was on the rice-fields an’ the sun was droppin’ slow,
She’d git ‘er little banjo an’ she’d sing “Kulla-lo-lo!
With ‘er arm upon my shoulder an’ ‘er cheek agin my cheek
We useter watch the steamers an’ the hathis pilin’ teak.
Elephints a-pilin’ teak
In the sludgy, squdgy creek,
Where the silence ‘ung that ‘eavy you was ‘arf afraid to speak!
On the road to Mandalay…

But that’s all shove be’ind me – long ago an’ fur away
An’ there ain’t no ‘busses runnin’ from the Bank to Mandalay;
An’ I’m learnin’ ‘ere in London what the ten-year soldier tells:
“If you’ve ‘eard the East a-callin’, you won’t never ‘eed naught else.”
No! you won’t ‘eed nothin’ else
But them spicy garlic smells,
An’ the sunshine an’ the palm-trees an’ the tinkly temple-bells;
On the road to Mandalay…

I am sick o’ wastin’ leather on these gritty pavin’-stones,
An’ the blasted English drizzle wakes the fever in my bones;
Tho’ I walks with fifty ‘ousemaids outer Chelsea to the Strand,
An’ they talks a lot o’ lovin’, but wot do they understand?
Beefy face an’ grubby ‘and –
Law! wot do they understand?
I’ve a neater, sweeter maiden in a cleaner, greener land!
On the road to Mandalay…

Ship me somewheres east of Suez, where the best is like the worst,
Where there aren’t no Ten Commandments an’ a man can raise a thirst;
For the temple-bells are callin’, an’ it’s there that I would be
By the old Moulmein Pagoda, looking lazy at the sea;
On the road to Mandalay,
Where the old Flotilla lay,
With our sick beneath the awnings when we went to Mandalay!
O the road to Mandalay,
Where the flyin’-fishes play,
An’ the dawn comes up like thunder outer China ‘crost the Bay !

You can see that the Speaks/Dawson version is merely the first and last stanzas with the meat and substance of the original missing.

Kipling wrote “Mandalay” around March 1890, when he was 24 years old. He had arrived in England in October the previous year, after seven years in India. He had taken an eastward route home, traveling by steamship from Calcutta to Japan, then to San Francisco, then across the United States. Rangoon had been the first port of call after Calcutta; then there was an unscheduled stop at Moulmein. Kipling wrote the following at the time about Burmese women:

I love the Burman with the blind favouritism born of first impression. When I die I will be a Burman … and I will always walk about with a pretty almond-coloured girl who shall laugh and jest too, as a young maiden ought. She shall not pull a sari over her head when a man looks at her and glare suggestively from behind it, nor shall she tramp behind me when I walk: for these are the customs of India. She shall look all the world between the eyes, in honesty and good fellowship, and I will teach her not to defile her pretty mouth with chopped tobacco in a cabbage leaf, but to inhale good cigarettes of Egypt’s best brand.

At the time Mandalay was the former royal capital city of Burma, which was part of British India from 1886 to 1937, and a separate British colony from 1937 to 1948 when it became an independent nation. Moulmein is the Anglicized version of (present-day) Mawlamyine, in south-eastern Burma, on the eastern shore of the Gulf of Martaban.

British troops stationed in Burma were ferried to and from Mandalay on the Irrawaddy River by paddle steamers run by the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company (IFC), hence the Irrawaddy was known as the “road to Mandalay.” Rangoon to Mandalay was a 700 km trip each way. During the Third Anglo-Burmese War of 1885, 9,000 British and Indian soldiers had been transported by a fleet of paddle steamers (“the old flotilla” of the poem) and other boats from Rangoon to Mandalay

Kipling claimed that when in Moulmein, he had paid no attention to the pagoda his poem later made famous, because he was so struck by a Burmese beauty on the steps. This chance encounter is the real core of the poem shrouded in the sentimental longing of a British soldier for Burma following his ten-year stint in the army and subsequent return to the squalor of Victorian London. There’s a lot to the poem and to Kipling’s ambivalent colonialism inherent in it. In my next post I’ll add to the welter of words concerning Kipling, the British Empire, and Mandalay.

To be continued . . .

 

 

 

 

 Posted by at 10:51 am

Teaching in Mandalay

 anthropology, Philosophy  Comments Off on Teaching in Mandalay
Jul 042017
 

So now I’m settled into my hotel, know my way around, and have started my second week of teaching at KGI. It’s time now to settle into a routine that suits me and is not too repetitive. I should begin daily Burmese language lessons for example, but I’m being a bit lazy about that at the moment. I don’t want to start any kind of formal or informal lessons because I don’t want any more of my time locked into a schedule than necessary. As with China and Italy there’s no absolute necessity to learn the vernacular because my work situation is English only, and I do not have to conduct much business outside of work, and what little I do I can transact with people whose English is passable. Even so, I should press on with some studies on my own not least because Austronesian languages have a structure, vocabulary, and writing system that make you think outside Indo-European norms. Once you’ve dealt with measure words, particles, and the like you never look back. This brings me to my topic for the day: the ethical dilemmas of teaching science in English to Burmese primary students.

Up to this point, since I retired from being an anthropology professor, I’ve been hired to teach ESL and a little bit of subject matter. In China my duties at various schools mostly involved teaching English language but there was also an expectation that I would supplement language lessons with some kind of enrichment classes focusing on Western history and culture. In Italy I taught quite a range from world history to English literature, information technology, and chemistry along with English language classes and standardized test prep. None of this bothered me in the slightest. My Chinese students studied English language and culture because they wanted skills that would help improve their job prospects, and in Italy the secondary school curriculum I plugged into was mandated by the state. In Myanmar things are rather different. I am teaching science at an English only private school for the first 4 primary levels.

Parents in Myanmar send their children to fee-paying private schools if at all possible because the state supported schools are well sub-par. Not all private schools emphasize English language by any means, but there is stiff competition among those that do because English language skills are seen as one avenue to success in employment in Myanmar or overseas. All well and good. Teaching Chaucer to Italian 16 year olds was in my opinion idiotic, but the state set the curriculum and I saw nothing intrinsically wrong with teaching about Medieval England even though the subject matter was a little advanced for their age. My qualms began when I started teaching science to Burmese 6 and 7 year olds. Contrary to typical Western unthinking popular belief, physical science is not an avenue to THE TRUTH, but, rather, a system of thinking that brings with it enormous benefits, but also enormous problems – physical and philosophical. Factories churn out mobile phones that can do a lot of good things; they also pollute the world. The physical problems are well known; the philosophical ones are more hidden. Western physical science is a worldview, a belief system if you like. It is not an avenue to ALL truth, nor is it the ONLY avenue to truth. It is not even an avenue to solutions to fundamental human problems like how to mend a broken heart.  It is a powerful system, but one with limits: profound limits that few people recognize. In a way Western physical science is like the Japanese shinkansen: the bullet train. It’s very fast and efficient, and gets you to places very quickly and smoothly. But . . . it runs on rails, so it can only take you to certain places. You can’t go to new places without building new tracks. Your legs, on the other hand, can take you pretty much anywhere, admittedly slowly and with effort, but more or less anywhere. I’d say that if you want to get from Tokyo to Okinawa, the shinkansen is your best bet, rather than walking. But you can walk it. If you do have the time to walk it, furthermore, you’ll see many things you’ll miss if you speed along by train. You can also take detours that prove valuable.

When you travel the shinkansen you have to buy a ticket which then allows you to travel to certain destinations with ease. Graduate school training in science does the analogous thing for the budding scientist. Graduate training shows the neophytes where the tracks lead. Rarely does anyone question the need for tracks or the value of following them to certain destinations. It happens but it’s very rare.

Last week my classes were mostly about class rules and such, but on Friday I began seeing classes for the second time and got down to subject matter. Physical science that I am teaching is distinctly Western. One of the first things that the textbooks all explain is how to classify things in the world. Things are matter or non-matter, living or non-living etc etc. Matter has mass and volume. Living things grow, move, respond and reproduce. And so on.  This is not remotely an Asian way to classify things.

Asian languages typically use measure words which you must use when you count things and they classify the world in a distinctly non-Western way. Chinese measure words, for example, divide the world into things that have joints (bamboo and trains), things that are flat and useful (tables and credit cards), small animals (rats and rabbits), small things you read (books but not newspapers), and on and on. What would science be like if we used this classification system? It would look like ancient Chinese science which was blended with what we think of as philosophy and religion. Not useful you say? Then how come they invented compasses and gunpowder and printing which Europeans knew nothing about until they went to China? Could Chinese science have developed in uniquely different ways from Western science if it had been left alone? We’ll never know, although some physicists in the West have gained insight by studying Asian philosophy, and some Western medicine is learning from Chinese traditional medicine. Several singing coaches at my former university in New York swore by a Chinese herbalist in the Bronx who cured them of throat problems that Western physicians were powerless to treat.

So . . . here I am embarking on teaching Burmese children Western science. Is this right of me? As an anthropologist I am troubled.  The lame response is that if I don’t do it someone else will. True enough. But should I be aiding and abetting in this enterprise? I guess I’ll figure that out as I go along. Actually, my contract only runs until September with a chance to renew until February. So, teaching 160 students for a few months is not exactly going to alter the world. Neither is one person becoming vegetarian going to stop the exploitation of farmed animals. Nonetheless it is a principled stance. I suspect ere long I will start to be subversive. Maybe I will begin to inject doubt and/or Burmese ways of seeing the world as I learn more about the culture.  Too early to tell as yet. But those who know me as a teacher know that being subversive is second nature to me.

And so to bed . . .

 

 

 Posted by at 3:54 pm

Mandalay 7

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Jul 032017
 

After my contract negotiations with my school resulted in me getting Mondays off I had the opportunity this morning to complete my boxing the compass from my hotel – west, north, south, and today east. From now on I’m not going to take my camera out routinely with me which may – emphasize “may” – stop me being pestered by motorcyclists and taxi drivers asking me where I am going. It’s possible also that I may become a known quantity on the streets and so (generally) left alone. No telling, really, at this stage.

I spent 4 hours this morning heading a little north but then striking east to the edge of the city. I was not very hopeful because there’s nothing much marked on the map in this region, and the city abruptly ends in farm and scrub land between the built-up area and the mountains. It is, in fact, to my way of thinking, a pretty desolate region. Mandalay is generally spread out because there’s no shortage of land for urban expansion, and so no need to build upwards. Building high-rise buildings is undoubtedly expensive as well, and local builders may lack the expertise for anything elaborately multi-storey.

Mandalay is built on an only semi-logical grid system. Streets in the teens to 40s run east to west, and 50s to 80s run north/south. But, unlike Manhattan, there are named streets in between the numbered streets, so that going from, say, 66th to 68th street is much more than 2 blocks. Furthermore the streets are not all continuous. You can be happily walking west on 37th street and suddenly come to a dead end because there is a walled monastery in the way.  Walk around and you’ll find 37th street continuing on the other side. Some streets, though, are much wider than others and act as either north/south or east/west conduits, generally choked with traffic at all hours. There are street lights on these main roads, and people do obey them (usually), but most streets do not have lights (or stop signs) so things just sort of flow. On narrower, less crowded, streets drivers honk their horns at intersections to signal they are coming. Crossing a street on foot follows much the same rules as in all of Asia, although I find them less daunting here than those in Yunnan. The simple rule is to cross one half at a time, waiting for a lull whenever possible. If traffic is fairly continuous you just thread your way through. Don’t step out in front of a car, but motorbikes are a safe bet because they’ll go around you. In any case, the traffic never goes very fast. I’d say about 35 mph is average, and everyone jogs along at the same pace.

I walked north on 69th street until I got to 35th street then turned right (east). Because it was a fairly nondescript, featureless road stretching off into the distance, I cut down some side streets, still mostly heading east, to get a change. One of my father’s favorite sayings was “it’s a long road that has no turning.” Ain’t that the truth. Buildings and people thinned as I got closer to the edge of the city with a few very large new hotels, builders’ yards, and car dealerships taking up huge lots between vacant land. It was all very depressing. When I finally hit the edge of the city I had a clear view of the mountains (the Kumon range, I think). I turned south on the boundary road, the Mandalay-Lashio road, which was pretty dismal walking, so turned inland a bit and continued heading south and west as the mood took me. There were fancy hotels dotted here and there on the edge of the city interspersed with squalid hovels – rich and poor absolutely side by side. It was a bleak final hour in torrid heat until I hit Theik Pan street, the central east/west artery, and headed back west to my hotel which is just off Theik Pan street. By the time I got back I was dusty, hot, thirsty and exhausted. Not going east again any time soon.

Here’s an album for you:

https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.1471558236238010.1073741980.100001515440887&type=1&l=a3dadd519f

 

 

 

 

 

 Posted by at 12:17 pm

Mandalay 6

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Jul 022017
 

I’ve been making a point over the past week of walking around the city a lot when I have the time so that, as quickly as possible, I can get to know my way around and locate places that are useful, such as convenience stores. On work days I have not been able to do much, but yesterday and today I was able to put in 7 hours, yesterday in two stints and today in one go.

Today I set out after breakfast at 7 am to take advantage of the relatively low temperature – “low” meaning 32C/90F !!! It’s always hot here. I headed back in the same direction as yesterday, but when I reached the palace I turned left rather than right – heading towards the Irrawaddy river. The street leading to the river was the usual mixture of modern shops selling electronic equipment and other consumer goods, and broken down buildings. I was surprised by the number of people out and about so early on a Sunday.

Close to the river there was a large and thriving street market selling fruits, vegetables, and flowers. It was teeming with people coming and going. The area in town by the river was a swarm of activity with vendors of all sorts set up right on the river bank, and with boats jamming the shore as well. I had decided before I set out to go north along the river bank for several kilometers and then go east towards the palace. Very quickly the market activity on the river bank thinned out to be replaced by men, women, and children working with bamboo in various ways. It took me a few minutes to figure out the process, and the album link I give below should explain. Bamboo is harvested upstream, cut into long pieces, and floated downstream where it collects in large rafts. People haul the bamboo out of the river, saw it into suitable lengths and then split it either into long, thin lathes, or flat pieces, which they then weave into various shapes for different purposes.  There are even whole shacks along the river made from woven bamboo.

I was accosted pretty regularly by young men asking me where I was from and where I was going. By now I’ve developed a standard answer. “I’m from Argentina, home of Messi and Maradona, and I am just out walking; I am not going anywhere. I am not a tourist; I live here. I am a teacher.” The last bit impresses them, but the idea of not being on the way somewhere inevitably bothers them. I have to be on my way somewhere. I cannot possibly be walking for pleasure alone. Actually, back at the market one guy who stopped me said, “I saw you walking yesterday” and I thought, “It starts.” Pretty soon I’ll be known on the streets. It happened in China; it will happen here soon enough. I don’t mind chatting for a minute or two with people who are just curious, but the endless stream of men on motorbikes offering to take me somewhere is starting to annoy me, especially the Indians who pull out a fat notebook and show me the names of people from Argentina they have given rides to in the past. This is a very Indian thing. They are hung up on “credentials” of any sort which they pull out at the drop of a hat. In this case, “See I have taken people for rides who come from all over the world, including people from your home country.”  Yes, yes, very nice – now go away.

Eventually I got to the NW corner of the palace and walked along it with a view to finding a cluster of pagodas at the NE corner.  By this time I’d been walking for over 4 hours and was getting pretty tired. For many years I’ve indulged in this kind of daily jaunt to new or unfamiliar places. The pattern of the day tends to be the same. I start out feeling a bit heavy hearted, a sort of here-we-go-again feeling. Once I see things I want to photograph, my mood shifts and I get in the swing of things. After 3 or 4 hours of walking I find a place to sit and rest for a while and regather my strength. Then, despite the promise of new sites, I go into sensory overload mode and just want to go home and sleep. I was very nearly at this phase when I turned left from the palace smack into Sandamuni pagoda. It’s actually a sprawling collection of sacred buildings all heavily decorated. Opposite is Kuthodaw pagoda, a world renowned Buddhist stupa, and above it all towers Mandalay hill topped by a pavilion.

I could have spent hours wandering around the various parts, but I’m going to be in Mandalay for up to a year, so I took a raft of photos and headed down the east side of the palace for home. Photos of my whole day are here:

https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.1470680856325748.1073741978.100001515440887&type=1&l=6400d1e34e

The thing is that when I am getting to know a new city I lug my camera around and shoot off hundreds of photos. But once I have my bearings and know the feel of the place, I leave the camera at home and just drift around. Without my camera I also look less like a tourist and tend to be left alone more, which suits me fine.  As it happens, apart from the hopeful motorbike riders and the occasional interest youths, I usually get left alone. There are very few Westerners in Mandalay apart from in heavy tourist spots, but, even so, I barely get a second look from the locals, if I even get a first one to begin with. It’s quite unlike Yunnan in that regard.

And so to bed. . .

 

 Posted by at 10:09 pm

Mandalay 5

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Jul 012017
 

One week ago today I went from Mantua to Venice in preparation for flying to Mandalay via Helsinki and Bangkok. Since then it’s all been pretty hectic. I got to my new home on Monday, then on Tuesday visited my new school to get my schedule, and started teaching on Wednesday. Then I had to battle the school to get my needs met, and finally got everything sorted yesterday along with 7 hours of teaching. Phew. Today I could finally settle down and settle in. I’ve done a bit of walking around for the past 4 days in the late afternoons, but after today I really feel oriented. When you land in a new city on a new continent it can be daunting at first, but I’m so used to moving continents by now that I know how to get my feet under me in short order. This morning I walked up north of my hotel for 5 hours with a view to ending up at the royal palace. I had little idea of what I was doing, but that’s the general point; just mooch around long enough to get my bearings properly.

First I struck west, then cut north along a main road. Right off the bat I stumbled across a newly planted garden that was attractive and secluded, yet right on a major intersection. It wasn’t quite finished and there was no one in it. Good start though. The main road was mostly new stores punctuated with squalid tenements. That’s par for the course for Mandalay. There are some very rich sections, some very poor ones, and a lot that are a mixture. There was a modern mall, slick hotels, the main railway station, and a variety of specialty stores giving a clear suggestion of what’s to come. Mandalay is the commercial hub of northern Myanmar, but also the focal point of traditional Myanmar culture centered on a very old Buddhist tradition.

What’s odd about Mandalay is that the culture and some of the religious sites are ancient, but the buildings are not. Mandalay was founded as the last royal capital of Myanmar by king Mindon in 1857. Soon thereafter Myanmar was taken over as an extension of the British raj, and went through many changes up to and after World War II. New buildings were gutted by fires in the late 19th century, and important sites, including the royal palace were bombed mercilessly by both Japanese and British forces in the world war. So, what you see around you that has an antique feeling is mostly brand new or reconstructions of formerly destroyed edifices.

There’s no missing the palace when you reach it. It’s an exact square about 1 km on each side, surrounded by a wide moat with a brick defensive wall dotted with turrets. Each wall has an entrance gate in the center.  I came on the palace at the SW corner and struck for the south gate. By now I’m used to being pestered by taxis and motorbikes asking where I am going and offering me their services. I usually just wave them away without speaking, but at the palace there were many more and they were much more persistent. After a few brief chats I learnt that business is very slack right now, hence their persistence. I gather it won’t pick up until September.

At the south gate a taxi driver asked me if I wanted a ride, but I declined and asked if I could get in at this gate. Nope. Only gate with access to the palace was the east gate, so I trudged around for 1 km. It was a pleasant walk but a bit wearing because by this point I’d been walking about 2 hours. In fact I stopped and sat down a couple of times because it was feeling like a slog with no end in sight.

The east gate lets you know that the military still has a stern presence in Myanmar. You don’t see soldiers and police on the streets much, but they were thick on the ground at the gate, and there were personnel carriers filled with troops coming and going, and guards with whistles directing traffic. One soldier pointed me in the direction of a ticket booth with no one waiting. I bought a ticket from the kiosk for 10,000 kyat (, then a soldier at a desk asked for various bits of information which he entered by hand in a ledger, and then asked for my passport. As it happens I didn’t have it with me so he settled for my hotel room key, and gave me a laminated visitor pass to hang around my neck. Then I entered the palace complex. The palace (which is reconstructed because it was firebombed flat by the RAF when the Japanese were using it as a munitions dump) is in the center, and all around it are army barracks and whatnot that are marked RESTRICTED AREA and are off limits – even for photography. I walked the half kilometer to the palace and mooched around. An album is here:

https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.1469659416427892.1073741975.100001515440887&type=1&l=e56fa63cd2

After the palace I walked straight back to my hotel – taking photos along the way – had a quick lunch and crashed.

Later in the day I took advantage of the cool of the evening to look around the district to the south and west of me called Chanmyathazi ချမ်းမြသာစည်; album here:

https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.1469942636399570.1073741977.100001515440887&type=1&l=84ebae1367

After all of that slogging around today, and on previous days (noted in other earlier posts) I feel that I am well settled and have a good sense of the city in general. Tomorrow I’ll walk some more and muse here about the dilemmas I feel about teaching Western science (in English) to Burmese kids.

And so to bed . . .

 

 Posted by at 6:26 pm