Since our flight to Yangon (our first stop in Myanmar) was early–we had to check in the airport at 4:55 am)–Katrina and I decided to head to the Kuala Lumpur International Airport and wait there from midnight until check-in time. This meant staying awake in Old Town White Coffee (the only coffee shop open at the airport) and think of ways to distract ourselves. With both our phones and my tablet drained, we eventually decided to play “Pinoy Henyo”.
We arrived in Yangon at 8:20 in the morning, groggy from the quick nap we were able to take during the flight from Kuala Lumpur. Aldrich, the guy who manages the homestay we’re in now, picked us up from the airport and drove us to Lanmadaw Township, the downtown area of the city where we were staying. I noticed how it looked a bit like the pictures of 1960/70s Manila, with pedestrians spilling out on the highway thanks to a lack of proper sidewalks. While not yet as crowded as Metro Manila (only 6 million people are living in the city), Yangon may just end up like it because of poor urban planning.
The city is slow-moving and filled with organic smells, and lacks the usual trappings of development such as high-rises and huge malls. I think this provincial atmosphere is what attracts a lot of foreign tourists–and perhaps also the fact that Aung San Suu Kyi’s advocacy got Myanmar the world’s attention. (We got to visit General Aung San’s home which was turned into a museum, but that’s another story.)
Before heading to Shwe Dagon Temple, located ten minutes away from where we were staying, we ate at this Japanese restaurant just a short walk away. The food tasted horrible. I told Katrina how funny it was to eat Japanese food in Yangon, and that to think of it, we weren’t really eating Japanese food, but the Burmese interpretation of what Japanese food really is. Then after, I thought that this was not necessarily a criticism of the restaurant’s inauthenticity. What is Japanese food after all? Is it food cooked in Japan, or something prepared by the Japanese? Are hamburgers and fries prepared in Japan or by someone Japanese Japanese food? Do ingredients have to be sourced from Japan for something to be considered Japanese?
Speaking of authenticity: the worshipers in the Shwe Dagon pagoda piously praying to the Buddha statues scattered all over the complex made me think about the nature of authentic versus artificial experiences. I was trying to argue with myself that I will never have an authentic experience of the places I go to, since I will always be an outsider watching everything from a detached point of view. Which made me think: did it mean to say that the only authentic experiences I will have are the ones that I am exposed to on a regular basis? Or the ones that come from places that I truly understand?
Perhaps I was framing the whole idea incorrectly. Maybe I did have an authentic experience. Come to think of it, everyone gets an authentic experience of everything — an exclusive, unshareable experience that one could claim as their own. The conditions of each experience that we have will always be different from everybody else, whether it’s the same place or the same time.
Even a carefully constructed, fully orchestrated experience cannot be counted as inauthentic. If I had been a brain in a vat whose experiences are but controlled impulses fired towards my way, I think those will still be real, even if to the outsider they might seem like a (poor) copy of a real experience. Of course I am not arguing that those are founded on reality, and whatever experience I will have will only be based on the understanding of whoever is programming/creating the experience for me, but still, it elicits a reaction within me, and that reaction will still be authentic.