Pinoys easily adapt to the environment where they are placed. We integrate well and get along with people which make us effective social development workers. In my second year working in Karen State, I feel I need to know more and appreciate the Karen culture. Karens are proud people. They struggle to retain their distinct culture from the majority despite efforts at integrating them into the mainstream Bamar culture. For now, my familiarity with some aspects of Karen life and culture can be described as only skin-deep.
The first is the ubiquitous Karen flag and the symbols with it, the big drum and the horns on both sides. I said ubiquitous because you can see them displayed in most houses and in car stickers. It is proudly displayed in government buildings together with the union flag. Its blue and maroon hues were in contrast with the union’s green and yellow colors.
Language is harder for me to learn. I only have several Myanmar words. Other than the broad-spectrum mingalaba greeting, I can confidently use the deh (go straight), nya beh (turn right) and beh beh (turn left) to taxi drivers. These words ensure that I can go home wherever I may be. Karen language is distinct that even the Bamar people cannot understand a word of it. And to think that there are two main groups of Karens also with different dialects. I don’t have a single Karen word in my vocabulary as I was writing this piece.
I have written and published an article with Myanmar Times about the traditional dress and I can now spot the difference between Karen attire and those with other ethnic groups. Somebody even told me villains in Myanmar movies always wear Karen longyi. I don’t know if that observation was stereotyping typical among local movies, or mere coincidence.
In Hpa-an I live in Karen traditional house, a wooden that has the feature of ordinary homes you find when going around in remote villages. I like the ambiance of a traditional house, the well where we source our water, the brick fences and the feel of wood on my feet. My only problem was the squat-type toilet common to Myanmar but a pain-in-the-knee for old people like me who are used to seat-type toilet bowls. I have to buy a portable toilet seat to remedy the situation.
Food is another aspect I have to be more familiar with. My initial impression was that Karen food is influenced by the Thais, which means it is spicy, compared to the oily-and-curry food of the Bamar, which is an Indian influence. My daily fare in Hpa-an is sautéed glass vermicelli or seyk liza, a bitter stew of goat innards we call papaitan in the Philippines.
I had the opportunity to join the celebration of the Karen National Day last November where I viewed a traditional community dance. One of the main features of the celebration was a contest of the traditional singing and dancing. Each group of about 50 participants represent a township and financed by sponsors from the same township, while some were financed by overseas Karens.
When we arrived at the venue contest, the Hlaing-bwe township was performing. One set of performers were singing while the rest were dancing. Resplendent in their yellow attire, the moves and sway of the group mesmerized the audience. The dance went on for almost an hour, draining the energy of the dancers to the point where some participants collapse after the performance. After the dance, it was announced that some personalities and local politicians donated to the Hlaing-bwe group in appreciation of their performance.
The aspect I love was the positive attitude towards community work. Karens love to work in group and they put their trust when they see that the activities we are implementing build up the Karen people. Working with them in building sustainable cooperatives is rewarding for me personally and professionally. As a student of Karen culture I think I have to double my efforts at educating myself on the Karen culture to be more effective in working with them.