na foine ting

Monday, August 09, 2004
We saw Miss Saigon, done by the spectactularly talented kids at CMT this weekend. Twice.

Bec was in the Philippines during the fall of Saigon, and my family was in Burma (now Myanmar) shortly thereafter.

It's funny how relatively unaffected you can be by the story's plot drama, things like suicides and thwarted love, and how deeply and crucially other things hit you, like refugees on a chain link fence, images of abandoned children, or the faces of dictators on banners and buildings.

I had a sense of a constant proximity to strife and suffering, growing up. Along with that, an overpowering sense of removal, where I could see, experience and be affected by it all, and also couldn't do anything about it.

In a way, this probably defines the expatriate third-world experience.

Or the human experience. I don't know.


"This is Radio Rangoon, coming to you on a beautiful--ah, no, very rainy--Tuesday morning. With me today I have as always the lovely Lauren--say hello, Lauren--"


"--and soon we will be going to--where are we going to?"

"Ice cream."

"Ice cream, but first, a lovely rendition of--of what? Speak into the microphone now:"

". . . you say."

"Daisy Bell."


In chorus: "Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer do. . ."

The wet Rangoon streets slid by around us, and jasmine dangled from the rear view mirror, mixing with the smell of cigars and Maurice's pungent cologne.

Maurice was half Burmese, half Scot. He looked like a somewhat swarthier Cary Grant, with elegant hands and a rogue's smile. Maurice worked for the KGB, which meant that the job as our driver had less to do with driving and more to do with tracking and reporting our movements around the country.

Being a secret agent apparently didn't stop one from taking little girls for ice cream. Or to the movies. Or out to the lake behind the Shwedagon Paya to ride ponies. Maurice would pay the pony ride man, and then take the lead rope himself, running along beside the pony and alternately threatening it in Burmese and encouraging me in English, mostly along the lines of phrases learned from westerns.

"Get 'em up there! Ride 'em cowboy!"

Maurice wanted to emigrate to the States and run a dude ranch. Like many men in third world countries, his impression of the US came primarily from movies that were highly censored and a decade or so out of date. To him ours was a John Wayne world; romantic, full of adventure and opportunity, and a far cry from socialist Burma under Ne Win.

He would have done well here.

Maurice knew everyone, and everything. He knew when things were going to happen, and how to get things done. In a world where he was forced to work between governments, countries and ideologies, he made his own rules and carved out a life for himself that had a surprising amount of integrity, surprisingly little compromise.

"And today?" he would ask my father as we got into the car. "In the book or not in the book?"

He'd tap the log book he kept on the dashboard with a cigarette-stained fingertip.

My father might on certain days shake his head.

"Good, fine. No book today."

It was Maurice who truly understood my fear of all things in my bedroom that went creeping and crawling. Maurice who time and again raced up the stairs at my shriek and dispatched this spider, that cockroach from the dolls' house. Or who had the brilliant suggestion of keeping my many stuffed animals hammocked in the canopy of mosquito netting over my bed.

Maurice was a servant. It's what in 1974 domestic help was still called, in a country where even police state socialism couldn't quite throw off British imperialism's effect.

There was curry luncheon every Sunday afternoon at the Rangoon club. Expatriates from all the embassies gathered around long tables laden with crystal and silver. Brown people served. White people ate.

My father and his Scottish cohort both bridled at the club tradition but like many things one finds in foreign service, weren't in a position to change much. They drank too much beer, behaved badly. On one notable occasion they paid two rickshaw drivers to lend them their rigs, and had a post-lunch rickshaw race down Rangoon Road, stripped bare to the pale waist.

Maurice came and went as he liked in our house. He didn't knock, and often used the front door. In the morning he arrived with newspaper packages full of jasmine for my mother, which hung in baskets around the house, filling it with their sweet, heavy scent.

I never again felt as safe in a third world country as I did with Maurice in Rangoon. In the market, out in the streets, out in the jungle when we drove long distances to visit his relatives on the government dime.

When we visited Burma again, I was old enough to realize when we left how we had gone without having done enough for him.

And how, with everything else, he had forgiven us for that as well.


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