I write from high above the street in downtown Yangon, listening to the traffic below and enjoying an unrestricted view north across the city. It has been a good trip so far; my time with the Baldwins in Cambodia was productive and encouraging, and now I anticipate a similar experience here in Myanmar.
My schedules and purposes are quite different in each place. In Cambodia, the main reason to go was to conduct a required five-year review of Pastor Mark’s ministry in the field, which was taken care of in good order. Ancillary to that purpose was reconnecting through preaching and teaching in the villages and at the International Theological College and Seminary in Phnom Penh, where Pastor Mark teaches on a limited basis.
Here in Myanmar, Pastor Kima’s review has already been done. It’s been a long time since I was here, though, and a great deal has changed. Since resuming the fuller duties of the Field Director last year, it became clear that I needed to get my feet on the ground here to have a better grasp of the needs that exist now. So that, and doing some extensive pastoral training, are my purposes here. Today (Friday) is a quiet day, resting up a bit before diving in tomorrow. I’m eager to see the orphanage ministry again, and worship with the believers here. Three days of training next week, and then I begin to make my way home again.
Yesterday, something occurred to me that got my curiosity up. The traffic here in Yangon is very loud. No, really. Much louder than in Phnom Penh. And it is louder all the time. The horns are the issue. People use horns in both cities, but the sound is different here. And so I started musing about why that might be so. (After listening to horns blowing below for a few hours, I had no choice.) And as I thought about it, it seemed to me that the horns have something to tell us about the character and need of the people who live in these cities, and the requisite work required in each place.
First, Phnom Penh. Cambodian traffic can be chaotic. People drive on the wrong side of the street all the time, try to cross left or do u-turns from the right curb, cut through corner parking lots, and zig-zag (especially the motos) through traffic with abandon. Yet for all of that, horns are used sparingly. Most are used to let people know that you are there, a polite little noise that says, “You may not have seen that I’m here, please don’t hit me.” People do try to push forward, and don’t like to let others in front of them, but there is also plenty of giving way when someone decides they wish to push their way into a lane of traffic even when they are going the wrong direction. There can be heavy gridlock at times, though, as everyone tries to get through the same space at the same time. Lines on a road are mere suggestions, and traffic lights can often be ignored – unless there’s a policeman on the corner. Even then, the traffic gendarmes often look the other way. But there’s a politeness about it all that says volumes about the worldview of the Cambodia people. They seem resigned to “go along to get along” when it comes to getting from point A to point B. To explain why that is so would take much more space than I have here, but let it suffice for now to describe the situation as it stands.
Myanmar is another thing altogether. Strange, since both countries are Buddhist and share a great deal of cultural similarity, that they should be so different. But the horns do not lie. Here, they are demanding. Constant blaring, repeated insistent soundings, long blasts shout out, “Move! I have somewhere to go and you are in my way!” And they are clearly emotionally laden with anger and impatience. There’s gridlock here, too, usually associated with construction, which is going on everywhere. But traffic is more orderly here. For one thing, there are no motos, which were banned from the city some years ago. People more or less stay in the painted lanes, and while they drive close to each other, they seem to abide by the laws of the road more consistently. But it’s always pushing, pushing, to get from point A to point B. Whereas in Cambodia one’s fate (from a traffic point of view) is a matter of karma, here is it a matter of no-holds-barred, take-the-bull-by-the-horns determination.
I’m sure that a great deal of this difference is related to the political and social histories of each country, again, much too involved to delve into here. But I will say that whereas Cambodia has emerged from a horrific history in modern times to breathe a sigh of relief as it seeks to rebuild, Myanmar is experiencing huge changes brought about through political activism that have dramatically altered the face of the country. And both countries are experiencing phenomenal growth and an optimistic future as they grow. It’s exciting to be here and see the changes happening all around.
But these observations prompted me to wonder about the implications of these differences, the tale of the horns if you will, for ministry in each place. How do our people in each country present the gospel in a way that effectively addresses the people in their cultural setting? I’ll explore this question in my next installment.
-Dr. Len Pine