By Lauren Murtidjaja '11
A small voice cried from outside of our van. “Cezupyubi, ma’am.” Turning, I saw two, tiny brown hands reaching in through our windows. Long strings of white, fragrant jasmine blossoms dangled from the dirty fingers. Behind those fingers stood a young girl, maybe ten or eleven. Her eyes peered sadly into mine as she repeated, “Cezupyubi, ma’am?” The aroma of the flowers spread throughout our musty van.
We had arrived in Yangon, Myanmar on a humid, overcast day in May 2009 to lead a leadership and missions conference for the Myanmar Church of God. We had been in the country less than an hour and we were already surrounded by beggars.
My heart broke as I stared back into those dark, sad eyes. I wanted to turn away, but for some reason I could not break contact with this young beggar girl. I looked down and saw that her arms were half the size of mine and her shoulder blades were practically breaking through her thin skin. “Cezupyubi,” she cried a little louder as the traffic began clearing and our car slowly moved forward.
As we rolled away, my professor’s voice broke through my thoughts, “Are you OK, Lauren?” he said. I smiled at him and looked back out the window, lost in all the new sights and sounds of the bustling city around me.
Locked between India, China, Thailand, and the Indian Ocean, the small country of Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) is easy to miss. Ruled by an oppressive military regime since 1962, the majority of the population lives in poverty while those in power soak up Myanmar’s rich resources. The fact that the people are devout in their Buddhist religion also creates an odd visual dichotomy throughout the country. It is typical to see malnourished and destitute people surrounded by thousands of Buddhist temples overlaid with pure gold.
Our professor, Dr. John Johnson, led a motley crew of students, including Ruby Mitchell ’09, Andrew Mugford ’10, Rebecca Shrout ’10, and me. As soon as our van drove up to our host church, children with wide smiles surrounded us. “Mingalaba! Mingalaba!” they squealed. One by one we stumbled out of the van and were greeted with handshakes and hugs.
“Mingalaba! Welcome friends!” exclaimed one of the young church leaders, Daniel. “Please, come! We will take your bags!”
Several young men rushed to take our bags. We were led to the office where a few young girls rushed to bring us tea, juice, and fruit. I watched, astounded by the overt enthusiasm that these people had to serve us. I thought, “I can’t accept this. I can take care of my own stuff. I don’t want them to feel like we’re anything special.”
Daniel walked into the office with a giant electrical fan and placed it in front of us. Within the hour, we had memorized and perfected the Burmese thank you, “Cezu tinbadeh.” But I couldn’t stop the troubling thoughts of these poor, sweet people treating us like we were celebrities.
We were halfway through the conference when everybody informed us that there would be a talent show the next night. When the evening finally came, we sat and watched three hours of singing, dancing, and acting. But the highlight of the night came when I realized that we foreigners were not so special, after all.
Outside the church, a torrent of rain was pouring down. A tarp under which children were playing began sagging under the weight of the water. Several young men ran back and forth outside, working on the tarp. During the entire talent show, these men ran back and forth, soaked to the bone with smiles on their faces, to fix the tarp. The room inside the church was getting steamy. The men moved the fans away from us and toward the sweating performers on stage.
“So sorry,” apologized one young leader, “You can sit by the door. Air will come in.” I smiled, a little shocked but pleased to see the attention finally being taken off of us.
One morning, our driver picked us up and we entered the crowded city streets. There was no structure on the busy roads. Cars pulled out in front of each other without warning, and there were no clear lanes visible.
“How do people do this?” I wondered as I imagined driving my dusty white ’98 Chevy Cavalier through the combustion. Not only were the streets filled with vehicles, but people kept running in front of the cars.
“Cezupyubi, ma’am!” Two little beggar boys rushed up to the van windows. “They sure know who to go to,” Dr. John said as I tried to look away.
I was overwhelmed by all the poverty and chaos I saw around me. I wanted to be the one to help. I wanted to be the one to empathize. I was even good at it, as I was clearly marked as the one who all the beggars targeted. In reality, though Myanmar was full of the most severe cases of physical poverty and even danger I had seen, the people were richer in spirit, love, and servanthood than anyone I’ve ever come across. I will never forget watching them take care of each other, realizing that they “got it”. In fact, they got it more than I did. Not only did they serve, but they did it with love, joy, and nothing else.
Lauren Murtidjaja ’11 graduated in May with a B.S. degree in social work.