One of things that appeals to me the most about moving to Asia is pursuing the long-term projects that I have been working on in Burma. In recent years, the country of Burma (also known as Myanmar) has emerged into the spotlight after decades of isolation under one of the world’s most harsh and oppressive governments. During several visits over the past few years, I have had a unique window into the lives of the Burmese people and they have made an incredible impression on me. Among them, I encountered a young Burmese monk who truly is one of the most remarkable people I have very met.
It was on my first visit to Burma that I was introduced to a tall, lean monk wrapped in saffron robes with his head shaven clean. He stepped forward, grasping my hand in a gentle grip, and inquired in near-perfect English if he might ask me a question. I expected the usual curiosity of where I was from so I was taken back when he asked, “What is the meaning of ‘silly-billy’?” As quickly as I could muster an answer, he responded with another grammatical inquiry, as if the list of questions had long been prepared in his head. I tried to explain the meaning of “out of the frying pan” and other phrases that he had heard in movies, but could not locate in his English dictionary. When his questions had been answered to the best of my ability, he pulled his loose robes tight against his slender body and asked, “Now what you would like to ask me?”
Javana was unlike any person I have ever met. Though only 20 years old, he possessed a knowledge and curiosity of the world far beyond his age. He was a student of the English language and aspired to be a teacher, spending his life at the monastery where he could educate other monks in both English and Buddhist scripture. He was intelligent and humble, constantly asking questions and apologizing for his inadequacy of speaking a language that, in my eyes, he had already mastered. His English was not that of broken sentences and words picked up from tourists and popular movies, as one so often hears in Asia. Instead, Javana spoke in fluid and proper sentences with such confidence and depth that often I felt our roles had been reversed and the teacher had become the student. He bothered not with questions of a trivial nature, but immediately dove straight into philosophical inquiries that even I struggled to answer. We had met only a half hour before, but already he wanted to know “What makes you happy?” and “What is your goal in life?” The eyes that fixed upon mine and studied my answers were not one of an average person, but someone so exceptional that I knew one encounter would not be sufficient to fulfill our mutual curiosities.
A week later when we returned to Mandalay, I sought out our trusted taxi driver and asked him if he would take us to find Javana. I had promised him I would return and spend the afternoon together so that we might talk, as he was eager to practice and improve his English. I bought some English textbooks and a copy of Orwell’s Burmese Days and together Rachel and I returned to the monastery. We only knew his name, but among the 1,500 monks, he was an easy one to find. We were pointed from one building to the next until he emerged, gracefully clutching his robes against his shoulder as he strode purposefully toward us. He showed no surprise or elation at our return, but instead a strong desire to begin our conversation. While the other monks looked on curiously, he led us to an empty beach and asked us to sit, wasting no time in asking the questions that surely had been circling his mind all week.
Hours passed, one after the next, as we sat outside the monastery engrossed in conversation. Rachel provided the list of states and capitals that Javana had requested and he questioned us about U.S. geography. We discussed spirituality and religion and he explained the finer points of Buddhism. He laughed when I described our perception of monks and reminded us that many monks eat meat and not all enjoy meditation. We talked about politics in America and our conversation soon drifted to Burma. He immediately grew nervous, shifting in his seat, his eyes scanning our surroundings for listeners as we spoke quietly about the political situation in his country. Above all, “it was improving”, he told me, but there was no doubt that the past had left its mark.
With the sun falling low in the sky, we carried our discussion to the U Bein Bridge. Over 200 years old and stretching 1.2km (0.75mi) with 1,060 posts, the longest teak bridge in the world connects Amarapura to a small Taungthaman village. Monks and villagers stroll to and fro while fisherman ply the waters and carry tourists on sunset cruises. We joined the crowds along the bridge and found a bench on which to sit and admire the setting sun. Our discussion drifted to America and I found myself telling our friend about life within my home country. We talked about a land of limitless opportunity where people are free to speak their mind and pursue their dreams. We spoke of the rights guaranteed by law and a government which provides for its citizens. I voiced both criticism and praise for a country which at times I have both loved and loathed. Yet, I was reminded just how lucky I am to call America home when Javana remarked that, “Living in your country sounds like a dream.”
A year later, Javana and I stood on that same bridge, saying goodbye again after a wonderful reunion. But this time, we spoke of a different dream. No longer did I want Javana to only “dream” of life in America; I wanted him to experience it. With the doors of his country finally opening wide, the opportunity was now within our grasp. Over the course of the next two years, I promised him, we will work to secure his passport and visa so that my friend, the Burmese monk, might finally have the opportunity to experience life outside the only borders he has ever known. We plan to travel to Southeast Asia so that Javana might visit his neighboring countries- from the awe-inspiring temples at Angkor Wat to the busy streets of Bangkok. Our plan is to document his travels abroad and his ever-expanding views of the world around him. Then, if the situation permits, together we will travel to the United States and begin a journey across America. In documentary style, we will capture the experience of a Burmese monk as he travels through iconic American locations, from the Golden Gate Bridge to the streets of Manhattan, and all points in-between. It will be a study in contrasts, cultures, and communication, and in the end, I hope that we can compile the material to produce a compelling book or film documenting our journey together.
Granted, this idea is still a dream and, with all the hurdles we are bound to face, it is possible that is all it will ever be. But, in the end, this dream is not based on a desire for success, wealth or notoriety, but an overwhelming desire to make a difference in somebody’s life. In my friend Javana, the Burmese monk, I have discovered a person much like myself, full of hope and ambition, dreams and desires. But while the circumstances of my birth have allowed me to accomplish even my wildest dreams, Javana has never known even the basic freedoms that most of us enjoy. So I hope that the coming years and potential move to Asia will give me the access and opportunities to expand our dreams into realities, as we work towards establishing an English school at his monastery, building a library in Javana’s village, and giving him the opportunity to travel abroad. Though our goals might be ambitious or even impossible, I am certain that together, Javana and I, can truly make a difference and leave our mark on the future of Burma and its people.