Mission Impossible

I hired Daniel to take me on an overnight trek in Kalau. He was an excellent guide, despite indulging in the longest, loudest, most prolonged belching sessions I have ever had the opportunity to share a mountain with.

Daniel’s grandparents arrived in Burma from Kerala in 1890. He has visited India only once, on a two-week holiday, but under Burmese law he is classed as ‘foreign’. Kalau is an old British hill station and has a large population of Indian and Nepali descent, imported as civil servants by the British, who didn’t want to train the Burmese. Over a hundred years later, their descendants are still resented for this former favored status, and are allowed limited freedom of movement and property rights. Perhaps because of this discrimination, the ‘foreigners’ in Kalau have struggled harder to learn English than the ‘natives’. Daniel learned English at Catholic school and from the BBC World Service, and we managed to have good chats as we walked.

He took me to a village school, where seventy or eighty kids sat in a single room, supervised by three teachers. They were divided by age into four groups, and each knot of kids chanted the day’s lessons by rote. Schoolbooks were ancient and scarce, and pencils were donated by the few tourists who passed through. In the middle of the room, the youngest teacher was cutting a child’s hair.
“The parents won’t do it, even though we tell them,” she explained. “Often, we cut fingernails too.”

Among the only teaching materials was a map that the head teacher had made. Burma, divided into regions, each region carefully stuck with a mosaic of representative products. Teak chippings. Tiny paste rubies. Rice grains. Scraps of cloth. Wheat, vegetables, coal. She had rigged a little electrode plate by the names of each province; if you touched it with an old ballpoint, the region would light up on the map. The children had played with it so much that now the battery was dead.

The map had won her a prize at a state competition: three dollars, which she had used to buy ingredients for a meal for the children. She needed to give them incentives to come to school, she explained, as their parents often wanted them to stay at home and help with farming. The oldest child in the room was about nine, the youngest a squalling one-year-old tied to her sister’s back.

As she carefully pointed out the products of each region, Daniel said:
“It is simply amazing that this country is kept so poor.”

Little paper, few pencils, few books. The one gleaming item in the schoolroom was a laminated mission statement that I was to see in every classroom I visited. Though the teachers could barely speak the English they taught, this McKinsey-worthy effort was proudly written in English first, then in bubbly Burmese script.

“Our Mission is to Create a Learning Society to Equip Knowledge Workers for the Information Age.”

The future knowledge workers of Burma chanted the two-times tables. 80% of them will not get to middle school.

Later I tried to explain to Daniel that there were poor people in America too, though the poverty was on a different scale. I told him about a school I’d visited in Brooklyn, where the teacher complained that she’d used her own money to buy a uniform for one little girl, whose father had immediately sold it. He didn’t believe me. How was this possible?

“Well, sometimes people don’t have homes to live in, so they live on the street. Housing and food are very expensive, and if you don’t have a job or a family to take care of you.”

“But why don’t they simply take some land and grow food?”

“You can’t do that. They don’t have the money to buy land. And they don’t necessarily know how to grow food.”

“So all the land is owned by somebody? There is none free to take?”

We pondered this for a while.

“It is very strange that people are poor in America,” he said.

“Well, it’s very strange that people are poor in Burma, too.”

One thought on “Mission Impossible”

  1. Hi Dervala,

    Your work is very moving. As you mentioned somewhere else on this site, people sometimes find there way here by Googling, which is how I got here.

    I did a search for “manhattan orthodontistry” (long story). I think I may have misspelled it, because I only got four pages, and one of your diary entries happened to be the first page. I never went back to Google.

    I have been reading your stuff for about half an hour now, and am hooked for the rest of the night, I fear. “Mission Impossible” was brilliant. One of the best directors I ever worked for was from Kerala, so it caught my eye. By the end, there was a tear in it. (Also, Keralan food is my favourite–no joke.)

    I lived in New York for maybe 3 years. Kansas: 19, London: 20, Scotland: 1. I’m only 40, so there must be a mistake somewhere in there. I’ve never been to Ireland, but I’ve known a lot of Irish. And I’ve travelled a lot. I’m a filmmaker. But I love writing more than making films.

    You mentioned Jeremy Paxman at one point. I’ve worked with him. I liked him, but I didn’t really get to know him. I worked with Spike Milligan once. He was lovely; just loved to be silly without trying to impress you. That was one of the most memorable couple of hours of my life, but I don’t remember anything we talked about.

    I only mention these people out of an interest in comparing nationalities, but of course, it always ends up being meaningless. Your discourse on poor Americans reminds me of some of the anti-Semites I’ve met over the years (I’m a plain old WASP myself). Whenever they come out with their poison, I always point out that I’ve met way more poor Jews than rich ones. They always say I’m full of it. I’m sure there were poor Romans too. But you’re only really poor if you don’t exercise your mind enough and you don’t do enough generally. I’ve gone from being very broke to being very wealthy many times in my life, and it means nothing to me. All I care about is maintaining the freedom of my mind and creating as much as I can with that freedom.

    Did you ever get your visa? Perhaps I’ll check out your diaries some more and figure it out for myself. But since it’s all about you, I’ll talk about myself just a little more.

    I moved to London when I was only 18, having visited no less than 8 times previously. I didn’t intend on staying, but I accidentally landed a job with the BBC a few months later, and never left, until just over a year ago.

    I used to wear a T-shirt to work that read, “Toto, I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore…” It was regret. I spent 20 years missing my hometown. When I finally got back, it was such a relief. I don’t know if Dorothy was right about there being no place like home. I feel like I would be happier here even if I had been born in London. The irony is that Frank L Baum didn’t even live here. He was in Nebraska, but changed the state to protect the innocent. He hated the mid-west, with its tornadoes, then told us all that if we were born here, we would never be happy anywhere else. Talk about sour grapes!

    I live in Manhattan, Kansas, and it really is paradise. It’s nestled snugly in the Flint Hills (over 1/3 of Kansas is hilly!). We have 3 “overlook” hills where the teenagers go in their cars to look down upon the town to snog. In the summer, more than half the residential streets have so many trees, you could drive for blocks without ever seeing the sky. As a university town (there is no other purpose for this town–Kansas State University), three months of the year are bliss: when the students are gone and I and some of the remaining professors seem to have the whole town to ourselves.

    I’ll never go back to London. I hope you find your paradise, even if it’s just another urban nightmare somewhere. I recommend Kansas.

    Hal Dace–13 April 2004

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