With 135 recognized ethnic groups living inside a country not even the size of Texas, there is no one word or image to adequately capture Myanmar. In the north, snowy peaks shelter the Kachin peoples; out west, the Muslim Arakanese struggle for recognition; in the far southern islands, groups of “sea gypsies” follow the fish. The abundance of languages, dress, and customs makes it difficult to differentiate between these culturally diverse lands. The following guidelines will help volunteers in Myanmar to show consideration and avoid offense.
1. The Name Game
Myanmar may be the name on its embassy, but many people in this country still refer to it by the colonial name, Burma. The word is a British adaptation of the Bamar ethnic people, the dominant of eight main recognized ethnic populations. Some natives consider Burma to be a negative reminder of colonization. However, many others argue that Myanmar (Republic of the Union of Myanmar), is a title chosen by an authoritative government and exclusive of the country’s ethnic nations.
Moving forward with President Thein Sein’s public reforms, most other countries accept the latter name. Members of various ethnic groups tend to prefer the previous name. Depending on which you choose to use, and this will also depend on whom you speak with, know that some regional and city names change as well. For example, Yangon Myanmar or Rangoon Burma.
2. Religious Respect
Myanmar is predominantly Buddhist, with some ethnic states practicing Christianity and other localized religions. The crimson-colored robes of monks are a common site in every city and village. Regardless of an individual’s spiritual practice, these religious members are shown respect. Common gestures of deference include never pointing your feet at a monk, and giving them the most accessible seats in a bus or train. Also, women should never touch a monk.
3. Body Language
Buddhists consider the head to be the most sacred part of the human body; down below, feet are held to be the dirtiest. So, while you’ll be expected to remove your shoes whenever you enter an indoor dwelling or private space, be careful not to point your feet at anyone. Touching someone’s head is also an insult.
4. Accept Hospitality
Many Burmese survive on subsistence farming; they might have little, but they’ll eagerly share with visitors and guests. Buddhists, especially, find it rude to eat something in front of others without offering it to them first. On the other hand, it’s impolite to decline an offer of such hospitality. If you’re concerned about eating something, whether for bacteria, taste, or lack of repayment, take a small portion. Even a single bite will assure your host that you appreciate the gesture.
5. Sharing is Caring
There is no “typical” Burmese meal. However, most food is served in a similar style. A family sized bowl of rice is placed in the middle of the table, with several vegetable (or meat, if it’s available) dishes, plus optional spices to heat everything up. Meals are shared occasions where each person puts a small amount of food on his or her plate, then eats with a utensil or hand. As a guest, you’ll be offered the first bites and the choicest meats: be careful to leave enough for the remaining diners and don’t take more than you can finish.
6. Where & When to Wash
The same acknowledgement of clean and unclean body parts will dictate what you wash, and where. Rinsing your hands after a meal should not take place under the same faucet where you clean your muddy toes.
7. Gender Roles
While the popularity of female politician Aung San Suu Kyi proves that some females enjoy more freedom than their neighbors in other Asian countries, there are still unspoken gender rules. Rarely will you see a woman drink alcohol, especially in public; however, Western women are allowed (in moderation). Only males ride on the tops of buses and boats. Many Buddhist temples prohibit women from entering particular rooms or areas, so keep this in mind if you are checking off your bucket list of must-see experiences in Myanmar.
8. Hand Gestures
Similar to other Southeast Asian cultures, the Burmese take great care with all interactions involving their hands. To properly introduce yourself, or offer or accept an item, place one hand firmly under the elbow of the extended arm. This gesture is taken so seriously, even waiters at a restaurant do it before passing your plate!
While many conversations may begin with a choppy “’Ello!”, the Burmese are models of social politeness. When greeting anyone, use the common expression of kind interest in the Burmese language “Mingalaba” (Minga-la-ba). It translates loosely to mean “Have an auspicious day.” Like the well-used “Namaste”, this phrase is not reserved for a particular social class or gender, but can even be used with monks and respected elders.
Another part of social respect requires the use of titles before personal names. Anyone seen as wise and helpful can be called “Teacher X (insert name)”; due to the history of strict military control, names like “General” carry less admiration than those that reference education. Women of a certain age are often called “Auntie”, and their male counterparts called “Uncle”. If you are unsure how to address someone, it is safe to ask. The Burmese tend to be very understanding of foreigners and will do their best to make you feel at home.
Now it is time for you to Volunteer in Myanmar, and get the chance to immerse in Burmese culture for yourself!
Not sure if volunteering in Myanmar is right for you? Check out this article on Why You Should Volunteer in Myanmar.