American culture shock

What happens when a Burmese tourist goes to America?


I am writing this during an extended visit back to the United States, where I am missing my girlfriend. Her name is Saint; she’s beautiful, kind and also Burmese, which means no one can accuse me of racism.  

Granted, Saint isn’t the same dyed-in-the-wool Burmese as her parents. She grew up in the Philippines and attended an American missionary school where she learned to speak English with an immaculate accent. She loves freedom, Duck Dynasty and Lord of the Rings movie marathons.

In fact, the most un-American thing about Saint was that she hadn’t actually been to the country. That finally changed this summer, when she came for a three-week visit starting in Washington, DC (the Nay Pyi Taw of the United States, for those out of the loop).

After those first few days among the famous monuments and museums of my nation’s capital, Saint was most impressed by, in order:

  • Wal-Mart (a department store)
  • Buffalo Wild Wings (a restaurant devoted to chicken wings)
  • Target (another department store).

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Sure, the White House and Pentagon were fine, but Wal-Mart had two whole aisles devoted to socks.

I tried to show her the wonders of New Orleans, world-famous for its architecture, food and music. Same result: New Orleans was OK, but she much preferred my home state of Alabama, world-famous for, well, nothing—except perhaps Harper Lee and throwing Martin Luther King Junior in jail.

These were some of the things she found most interesting:

  • The size of the trees
  • The sound of birds, not a bunch of people yelling
  • Police officers and “all their little gadgets.”
  • People riding real motorcycles and not “little scooters”
  • Parks where couples aren’t hiding under umbrellas

She also liked seeing American staples like KFC and Apple Stores in their natural habitat. Apple Jacks, for example, is an imported breakfast cereal she had eyed on the City Mart shelf for years but couldn’t quite bring herself to spend K12,000 on. In the US, the cereal costs US$4 for a plus-sized box – needless to say, during the trip the glazed green and red hoops became a basic food group.

“I like to see everyone walking their dogs and mowing their lawns,” Saint observed. “It’s just like stepping into a movie set.”

She was familiar with all this stuff, of course. She had watched a thousand classic red fire engines, a million dads grilling hot dogs in the back yard, at the Junction Square Cinema. It all was utterly pedestrian, except for the fact that she had never actually seen any of it. It was exotic because it was mundane.

It took far too much dragging Saint to famous sites and local hidden gems before all this began to sink in. But I could sympathise. I left America for the first time when I was 16, on a two-week trip visiting Myanmar migrant at the Thai border in Mae Sot, Thailand. My first brush with real poverty was sobering and lent some perspective to my teenage self. But it was also like something out of National Geographic.

The takeaway in Myanmar is that when you see foreigners taking photos of their mohinga and being wowed by the local fruit seller, remember your own countrywoman, who flew back home with a suitcase loaded with candy, pancake syrup and baseball gloves for friends and distant relatives. There was no room for her Apple Jacks cereal, so that’s one victory for me.

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