‘The English Are a Very Strange Tribe’

In 1936 another white man turned up in Phekhon, in the company of some Indians from Loikaw. He invited two of the grandmothers and some of their friends from the village who wore neck-rings, along with their husbands, to come to England. They had no idea what the purpose of the invitation was, and the Italian priest was vehemently against their going away. Nevertheless, they were all excited and eager for the journey. They were to be taken around Europe by a circus called Bertram Mills and exhibited as freaks. Since we did not have the concept of a ‘freak’, and since, anyway, we took our tradition of women wearing the rings for granted, they and their relatives were unlikely to be offended by the idea.

They were flown to Rangoon from Loikaw, and shipped to France to be shown to the French public as a test of their popularity before they eventually arrived in England. Not long before the Second World War broke out they returned to Phekhon, richer with English money. They showed us photographs of places they had visited, but could never remember the names….

The grandmothers told me that one of the photographs was taken in front of the English chief’s house, in a big village called London. They said that in this big village they didn’t have to climb the stairs, but the stairs carried them up and down. They liked the moving stairs, because they hated walking in the shoes that had been provided for them – since all their lives they had gone barefoot.

They suffered from the cold of England. Nor did they understand what spirits the English were appeasing in always having to drink tea at a certain time, although they loved the cakes that went with this ceremony. ‘The English are a very strange tribe,’ said Grandma Mu Tha. ‘They paid money just to look at us – they paid us for not working. They are very rich, but they cannot afford to drink rice-wine. Their trees are unable to grow leaves during the rainy season. They say, “Hello,” “How are you” and “Goodbye” all the time to one another. They never ask, “Have you eaten your meal?” or “When will you take your bath?” when they see you.’ Grandma Mu Tha gave up trying to account for these strange habits, which afforded her great amusement. If we had had the notion of ‘freaks’, I suppose she would have put the whole English race into that category.

SOURCE: From the Land of Green Ghosts: A Burmese Odyssey, by Pascal Khoo Thwe (HarperCollins, 2002), pp. 28-29

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