Small epiphanies, loosely joined

Over seven months in Southeast Asia, my assumptions unraveled just enough to glimpse how much I still don’t understand.

How did they cope, I wondered in Burma, where not just whole families but whole communities lived in single-room ‘long houses’? How did husbands and wives, young lovers, and kids, manage private lives when thirty people ate, slept, and bathed together? But as they quizzed me in pidgin English, I began to understand they did not mind their lack of privacy. They did not see themselves as separate from others, as I did. And then slowly it dawned—over months—that they felt sympathy, not envy, for my cherished independence.

For the first time, I met people who had almost nothing. They lived in mud huts not even graced by a chair. Poor things, I thought, as another part of my brain fretted about the storage costs for my stuff in New York. I missed my New York furniture sometimes. But as I sat cross-legged, aching, and fidgety, I began to notice that these folks had the stomach, back, and calf muscles that Pilates queens dream of. They sat regally on packed-earth floors for hours. My body was atrophied from years of school and office chairs, in which I sat to pay for more chairs. How nice to have strong sitting muscles, in place of strong wanting muscles.

I watched people give to monks on daily alms rounds. The monks smiled, the donors bowed and said thank you. I thought this was daft and hierarchical at first. But then, in village after village, people gave freely to this rich tourist with obvious pleasure. Giving, in poor Buddhist countries, is not a duty but a joy. It is an investment in karma for which the recipient should be thanked. I was humbled by—and envious of—this sense of abundance, and no longer sure which of us was rich.