LETTER TO A STRANGER
TO THE MONK WHO SHARED LYCHEE SODAS WITH ME
BY YING REINHARDT
The May midday heat was the worst, I remember. The humidity was so suffocating and there was nowhere to go for relief. You should have looked uncomfortable, but you didn’t. You were squatting opposite me, with beads of sweat soaking the sides of your greying temples. Your unperturbed stance, your orange sarong hiked up to your bony knees, your weight spread equally across your sandaled feet, indicated that you were seasoned.
We were sipping nameless lychee-flavored sodas outside Old Mr. Aung’s shop while watching traffic go by. The sickly sweet opaque liquid, made reasonably cold by Old Mr. Aung’s icebox, was a daily treat—a tiny indulgence we rewarded ourselves with just for showing up for the day. It was one of our many afternoon rituals that I looked forward to while teaching at Growing Together school. You—middle-aged with leathery skin and a full beard and an unruly afro, which you tied back with a rubber band, completely decked out in neon-orange robes. I—barely 23-years-old, round-faced with tapering eyes, wearing a dust-streaked tank top and flip-flops. Local women in swaying hips and tight longyis stared at us as they walked by. Outwardly, we made an unlikely pair of friends.
“Manuelita, Manuelita, dónde vas?” you suddenly belted out. “Con tu traje de malaquita, y tu paso tan audaz!” The song was about a tortoise called Manuelita who fell in love with a male turtle. Thinking that she looked ugly and old, she decided to go to Paris to transform herself.
“Like you, Ying, Manuelita traveled to transform herself. Why you picked Myanmar, I don’t know!” you said and laughter ensued. Is this how strangers who find themselves in places far away from home bond?
When I learned that you were Colombian but raised in Argentina, I pestered you to teach me Spanish. Yesterday, instead of writing me useful Spanish phrases like you did before, you sang this song with your guitar. A well-known children’s song from your country you’d said. I didn’t ask which one. Your past was just as mysterious as your future. You never liked to bring it up.
Now you wanted to know if I remembered what the song was about, testing me to see if I was listening. You are a good teacher, I could tell.
Unlike me. I didn’t know the first thing about teaching. I had quit my first job as a public relations consultant in Kuala Lumpur to come here, but for reasons unclear to me. To simply get out of my comfort zone, to see how far a Malaysian girl-next-door with no money can go? To reclaim adventures that I never had while studying abroad in Australia? To break-free from the obedient Asian daughter role that I’d perfected so cleverly over the years till now? Never partied, never drank, dated my first boyfriend chastely for the longest time until mum passed away and suddenly, my time on earth felt like it came with an expiration date. You should have seen my dad’s jaw drop when I told him I was quitting my job to travel to Myanmar.
“Do you think money grows on trees?” he’d fumed. “I’ve sent you to study in Australia and this is how you repay me? When are you coming back?” Not daring to meet his eyes, I’d mumbled something like, “I don’t know.” What was clear was that I needed to get away. Even if it meant dropping everything and hopping on the first train out of Malaysia, without financial security and my father’s blessings.
Surely you must know this feeling, too. You went from being a regular bloke in Argentina to a yogi monk for this social-spiritual organization called Ananda Marga, spending most of your waking life meditating, doing charity work and teaching yoga around Asia. Did your mother react the same way as my father did?
You gave away your life to make the world a better place for others, just like how you gave away your name. Call me Dada, you said, when you first appeared on the steps of Growing Together. But Dada wasn’t your real name. It was a term given to monks serving the organization, like Sensei, Ajahn or Guru. Are you a Luiz, an Eduardo or a Jorge, I pressed.
“Does it matter?” you replied gently. “Don’t get too attached to names. Let go of who you think you are or should be. And just be.”
How easy would that be, I wondered. Walking the earth, slipping in and out of new identities like a seasonal coat, knowing that names and backgrounds didn’t matter? Could I be a bolder version of myself if I were an Amber or a Megan? The other volunteers hailed from countries like the U.S., Australia and New Zealand, and everywhere they went, they commanded attention. They never lacked words nor thoughts. I, in comparison, was bashful and quiet—my presence often forgotten. I was prone to clamping up when moving in crowds. The art of small talk eluded me. And it wasn’t that I didn’t have opinions; I just didn’t see the point of being adamant about something so inconsequential, like where we should go for dinner that night. “There isn’t a restaurant called anywhere,” snapped back one of the American volunteers once. “Just tell me where you want to eat!”
Loneliness became a familiar friend until you turned up. On first sight, despite how trippy you looked (were you a mystic or a traffic cone? I couldn’t tell), I knew you were a kindred spirit. You liked that I listened more than I would speak. To you, quietness could be a powerful virtue. But ironically, we never ran out of things to talk about. Together, we contemplated on kindness, on meditation, on enlightenment, on our lychee sodas rituals and how you’d miss it once I left. Who else would I drink it with, you’d lamented. I was thrilled to hear that I was special to you. A week leading up to my departure, you asked me what I’d do next. I’d shrugged, indicating that I wasn’t sure. But I was certain that going back to a nine-to-five job wasn’t the answer. “I wish I could do more of this. You know, throw caution to the wind and just, I don’t know, roam the world? See if I can stand on my own two feet out there,” I blurted. My dreams suddenly had gotten bigger. Possibilities started to dangle right in front of me, ripe and waiting to be plucked. Was it silly of me to want this to go on forever? I was afraid you might laugh. “My dear girl, you finally got it!” you exclaimed proudly. “Of course, now that you’ve seen the light, why else would you go back to the darkness?”
You stayed on in Myanmar after I left. In your email, you wrote that your spiritual and social work was not over. Mandalay was recently flooded and you had to travel there to deliver food and relief packages to families who had lost everything. You could no longer drink cold lychee sodas because you recently developed bronchitis. “I’m old now, Ying. But I try to drink one sometimes to pay homage to you.” After that, our emails petered out. I often thought about you.
Now that Facebook and Coca Cola have arrived in the new Myanmar, I desperately cling to my memories of you like a souvenir from the past. In my memories, you never grew old. Two years ago, I tried contacting you because I’d be visiting Yangon again, this time with my husband. “After almost a decade!!!!!” I emphasized, hoping for a favorable reply. But the Dada in my head no longer existed. Instead, you wrote back saying you’re no longer a monk and now go by with another name.
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