Friday, August 18, 2017

Taking a splash in Inle Lake

Photo: Chris James WhitePhoto: Chris James White

Have you ever noticed the vast difference between the things some people consider dangerous or unsafe – especially when it comes to kids?

In some countries, it’s completely okay for a small family to ride on a motorbike without helmets. It’s not uncommon to spot a small child protectively squashed between parents.

In many Western countries, such as the United States, we don’t allow our kids outside without knee pads, elbow pads, helmets. We’d envelop them in padded suits if we could. God forbid they should run around as fast as their bodies will carry them in fear they’ll fall and scrape their knees.

During our family’s recent trip to Bagan and Inle Lake, cultural differences in safety perceptions became very clear.

In New Bagan, we visited a traditional family-run pon yay gyi (black bean paste) factory called Lucky Owl. Pon yay gyi is made from soy beans and is used in pork dishes throughout Myanmar, but prides itself on being from Bagan. In order to make the black bean paste, the soya beans go through a long process of being boiled outdoors in gigantic vats above open fires. Walking around the factory, I nervously instructed my five-year-old daughter to be careful, not to touch this or that, not to step there.

Meanwhile, I watched a three-year-old boy roam nimbly between the boiling vats and open fires. The ground was slick with bean paste – I nearly slipped and fell – but this kid, prancing around in his flip-flops, didn’t even flinch. No one flinched. It was completely acceptable for him to be there. I didn’t hear anyone instruct him what not to touch or where not to step. He apparently knew his limits.

The following day, I visited the Golden Cuckoo laquerware factory and showroom in Myinkaba village. While on a guided tour, I watched a three-year-old girl sit on a platform with a sharp blade in hand, carefully practicing etching laquerware designs.

Her mother works at the four-generation, family-run business as one of the talented etchers. The young girl was surrounded by other women. She held her knife perfectly, safely, placing her thumb behind it, knowing the right angle so as not to cut herself. In the company of those nearby, she was allowed to experiment and to express her artistic self without anyone fussing that she had a sharp blade in her small hands.

During our visit to Inle Lake – a beautiful area dotted with small, floating villages – it became apparent how people’s lives are dependent on water. Kids, who were likely as young as eight, but perhaps older, row their long boats to school, picking up their neighbourhood friends; families row to the pagoda, to the market, and to the clinic; they bathe in the lake; they fish; and children fly kites from canoes.

By the age of five, kids are taught how to row small boats; by the age of 12, boys can row with just one leg while standing on their narrow canoe. Babies snuggle in the arms of parents sitting at the upper edge of the shaky long boat, perfectly balanced. It’s normal. And no, the locals don’t wear lifejackets (you won’t find child-sized lifejackets on the tour boats, either). This is life – life on the water.

Life on the lake. Photo: Chris James WhiteLife on the lake. Photo: Chris James White

It might be hard to wrap your head around these differences. You might be thinking “I would never let my seven-year-old out on a lake, rowing an unsteady canoe all by himself,” but this is normal here. Rowing to a friend’s house alone is the equivalent of letting your child outside to play in the cul de sac with the neighbour’s kids. And children here are never alone.

Extended families share the house. One moment, a mom breastfeeds her child, the next she’s gone and a sister, auntie or friend watches the baby. No hand-off. No “do you mind please watching” or “I’m going to run upstairs real quick … will you please look after … ?”

It’s natural. Everyone helps. Multiple eyes watch the kids, teaching them how far they can go before being hurt.

The perceived safety gap is stark between Western and non-Western countries, but things aren’t really that different at home, especially when contrasting rural and city life.

Growing up in the countryside, my brothers and I sat in the back of our pick-up truck on top of wobbly bales of hay. We rode horses bareback. My brothers had guns at a very early age: real guns that shot real bullets. Entire summers were spent at my best friend’s house, unsupervised, swimming in her pool and riding four-wheelers across the fields. I took walks alone in the forest telling no one what I was doing or where I was going. Many of my friends were driving combines by the age of 13 and some were as young as 10. This was our life. Our community didn’t think it was crazy, strange, or unsafe.

At Inle Lake, my daughter fell into the water. Well, the truth is my well-padded bum knocked her over the edge of a slim and rickety bamboo dock. Within seconds, complete strangers jumped in the water after her and pulled her up. Women came running out of the shop with clean clothes offering them as “presents” to us.

Everyone responded much more quickly than I did. Each person seemed to immediately know what to do; several of them worked together solving a problem before I could have – unless, I lived on the water.

Setting aside our own fears and learning to let go (at least a little), allowing our children to push their boundaries, is imperative and empowering. I want my daughter to stretch herself, to be independent and to explore, while knowing there are consequences for her actions if she goes too far.

It’s a life lesson: We all have limitations, we’re not invincible and we all need help sometimes, too.

Becky Cavender is a freelance writer and blogger from the USA living in Myanmar. You can find more of her writing at