By: Stephen Hull
The sun will set soon, but for the moment, it remains, hanging low above the rice paddies and colouring the sky with a swath of orange-red through the surrounding gray. As I peddle back home I watch the young cane ball players kicking their wicker globe back and forth over the dividing net. Behind them, at some distance I can see a small mosque seemingly alone at the base of the hills.
I’m riding my cheap Chinese-made bicycle back to the office/residence where I sleep and eat after an afternoon of work outside of the town centre. Mae Sot, situated on the Thai-Burma border, can be at times a bustling centre for trade where ethnic Thai, Burmese, Karen, Indian, and Chinese mingle in the market downtown, but here on the outskirts it’s peaceful and rejuvenating. Out here, one can still see the fields, the mountains, and migrant workers walking home or crouching in discussion along the sides of the road.
As I get further into town, I start hearing familiar voices. People, mostly Burmese, call out to me as I cycle by. Some I don’t know but a remarkable number I do, at least by sight if not by name. I wonder how I came to know so many people, as I never expected to come to know this many out here. Having lived in a house full of Burmese refugees for months already though, I suppose it was only natural. If you’re in with one you’re in with them all; the communities are so tight in that respect.
“Tamain sabibila?” I hear from a house that I’ve passed.
“Sabibi.” I answer back.
There’s so much that can be learned from that question, at least when it’s contrasted to the typical greeting back home. Tamain is the Burmese word for rice and sabibila means: “have you eaten?” People here aren’t wasting there breath on questions like “how are you?” especially since it’s so routinely replied to with a thoughtless mantra. This is even more evident when the people are asked in English and they’ve learned it as a second language. “How are you?” we ask and in return they state, “I’m fine thank you, and you?” It’s the first phrase that’s taught after learning hello and it clings on so strongly in the following years. Few and far between are the ESL students who feel inclined to give an answer other than “I’m fine thank you, and you?” I’m still waiting for the day when I get a reply like “To be honest, I feel pretty crappy.”
So, to return to the pertinent question about rice consumption, we have two issues of note. The first is that it calls for one of two answers rather than a single guaranteed response. In that sense, I’ve got a better chance of quickly learning something about my respondent’s current state with this question about rice, given that a person will answer that they’re fine when they’re not, but probably won’t say that they’ve eaten when they haven’t.
The second point of note is the fact that rice is a structural component of the question. When I say tamain sabibila? I’m not asking if you’ve eaten. I’m asking if you’ve eaten rice. A meal without rice is no meal at all. This is true for Burma and as well as here in Thailand, where they likewise greet, “Kin Kow Rueang?” (Have you eaten rice?).
Now this isn’t so strange given that rice is the basis of every main meal here, but it goes further than just a routine food. I once tried to elicit an example sentence during an ESL lesson about the modal auxiliary have to. Explaining that its meaning is one of necessity, like must, I was answered by one Burmese student with the sentence “I have to eat rice.” In my ignorance I started to correct her, suggesting that perhaps “water” would be a better term, since we don’t really need to eat rice. At this point I took yet another lesson from my students: I’m a stupid foreigner and in Asia you have to eat rice.