Kisses & Tea in Yangon

Here’s a story from Jessica to get our Burma posts started:

“The way you get a person’s attention here is to kiss at them,” said our mild-mannered group leader, a Westerner from NorCal like the most of the group members. “It just cuts through all the noise,” he continued. All thirteen of us were seated at a table in a noisy, crowded, open-air Shan noodle lunch joint on a bustling corner in Yangon, near Scott market.

Before I could even begin to believe this was an advisable practise to emulate, to my astonishment, he pursed his lips and produced a loud squeely “smmmoooooch”. A female waitress nearby turned around instantly and hustled over. She did not appear to be offended that an unknown man had just kissed at her.

“I’ll have the noodle soup with chicken,” he said. The waitress smiled and turned to the next person at the table, awaiting another food order.

I was floored. I have been harassed by men kissing at me, making tongue-kiss motions at me, grabbing at me, following me, barking at me, shouting vulgar suggestions, whispering insults, and all the usual rest of it on a regular basis for all of my adult life, in cities across the planet.

But here was a country where I was allowed, even expected to kiss at strangers. And they could kiss at me, completely legitimately. My brain was exploding. Would it even be remotely possible, I wonder, to change my deeply ingrained response of outrage and terror that arises when strange men make kissing noises at me? Even crazier, could I possibly allow myself to take on the role of kisser, to become the harasser and make my own kissing noises at strangers?

I was not nearly ready. But I had five weeks ahead of me in the country. Who knew what might happen?
One hot afternoon, I was sweltering in the back of a cab, running too many errands in too little time in downtown Yangon. I’d hired the same taxi for the whole afternoon. The driver was an extremely kind soul who wanted to practise his English. At some point, stuck behind yet another fuming diesel truck, I must have inadverdently sighed.

“Are you ok, madame?” he inquired.

“Yes, I’m ok, thank you, it’s just hot, you know.”

Suddenly we’ve pulled over. The driver rolls down his window, leans his head out and…”smooooch. smooch smooch.”

A woman selling food at a roadside stand immediately gets up and brings a bottle of water. No trace of irritation. He pays her and hands it to me.

I protest, astonished – both at the gift and at my first experience of an actual Burmese person using the kiss-for-attention. Whoa. My brain begins to register that this kissing noise is a legitimate thing. Regular strangers kiss at each other for non-sketchy transactions.

Whoa. This one small cultural practice is just short circuiting some deep, deep emotional responses in me.

“Beh law leh? beh law leh?” (How much is it?), I manage to squeak out, forgetting he wants to practise English.

But he won’t let me pay him back. I am so deeply moved at a Burmese stranger trying to pay for something for me (Luckily, I have an extra brownie in my bag that I insist on leaving him when our errands are done. Even if he doesn’t like chocolate brownies, maybe his son would).

After this, I resolve to try the kiss-for-attention.

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One afternoon, Jacob and I seek out a regular Myanmar tea shop near Kandawgyi lake. We had taken a liking to this strong tea, served with sweetened condensed milk and sugar to your liking, followed always with a chaser of mild Chinese green tea. The Chinese tea can be found in an old insulated thermos on every table in Burma and is always complimentary.

The tea shop is a nondescript open-air spot behind a gas station, essentially a concrete slab with a roof and a bunch of low tables with plastic chairs.

I am the only woman in the tea shop. And we are the only foreigners. Burmese men converse intently in small groups. Everyone stops and stares when we walk in.




Five servers come over to take our order. In my best Burmese, I ask for strong tea, not too sweet and any vegetarian snacks they might have.

The tea is heaven. I will always miss this tea. Having picked up the ingredients at the mart, Jacob has been trying to re-create it along the way, but he hasn’t got it quite right yet.

Anyway…after my first cup of strong tea and my first chaser of Chinese tea, I’m feeling high on caffeine.

Spotting one of the waiters nearby, I purse my lips. “smmmmm. phiiiiiiit. pppppffffff.”

I’m trying to make my first kiss for attention, but it won’t come out. I decide to call it off, but a glance at the waiter shows he has seen me. I’m turning red, and suddenly I start to laugh. He comes over to the table anyway, laughing kindly.

“Smmmmoooch” he goes, smiling.

“Yeah, that”, I say, relieved, and totally not offended. And we both dissolve in a fit of laughter.

I rest my head on the table for a moment, breathing deeply. “Thanks,” I say, smiling. “Could I have another cup of tea?”