Letter from Burma 8
February 23, 1935
So many questions for your project. Well, I will do the best I can to answer them but
it will probably take several letters to get it all in.
You asked about the native people. They have broad faces and high cheek-bones; the eyes are oblique, caused by the structure of the lids. The men, though short, are a fine, robust, athletic race.
They wear their hair tied in a knot on the top of the head, and wind round it a piece of muslin or gay silk handkerchief; a jacket hangs loosely from their shoulders over the hips, a putso of bright silk is wound round the waist, extending to the ankles, and with one end often thrown jauntily over the shoulder. From the waist down to a little below the
knees nearly every Burman is tattooed, (but not the ladies) in various figures of animals, birds, devils, etc., all enclosed in a groundwork of tracery and flowing lines. This operation starts at an early age and often extends over several years. They also make
incisions into which they insert bits of gold and silver and allow the skin to heal over them
The women are fairer than the men, and their features more delicate. Their naturally long black tresses, of which they are very proud, are gathered at the back of the head a la Chinois, and gracefully adorned with fresh flowers. They are very clean in their persons, probably the most clean in the world; they bathe once, twice, or even three times a day. They wear, wrapped round the body, a ta-mein of silk, using the brightest dye and varied hues, always blended with great taste.
Young girls wear a tight under-jacket. Married women with children cover their chests by a bodice of a looser material folded in under the left arm. The ta-mein is tucked in tightly at the waist, and falls down in front to the ankles, but as the ends only slightly overlap, a portion of the leg, when walking, is exposed, sometimes half-way up the thigh. The bottom of the skirt is of a different pattern, often of a pale pink, with horizontal narrow stripes of dark colours interwoven with gold or silver threads. This skirt trails behind some ten inches or a foot on the ground, and its graceful management, in either walking or dancing, is one of their accomplishments.
When in full dress, they powder their faces with sha-nat-kha, a cosmetic with a fragrance similar to that of sandal-wood, pencil their eyebrows, and rouge their lips. They cover themselves over with necklaces, of pure gold inlaid with precious stones, their fingers with rings, and have peculiar ornaments of amber or gold inserted in the lobe of the ear. These ear-tubes are cylindrical, the hollow being large enough for them to insert a cigar. They are heavy smokers, even children taking to it before being weaned; they also chew betel-nut and yet have small symmetrical white teeth.
Pliability of the arms and body is much prized. By constant practice a girl is taught
to turn the inside of the elbow outwards, and the joint becomes so flexible that it moves with equal facility either way. A girl will stand on a mark, and by bending backwards, pick up a small coin with her teeth which has been placed within a few inches of her heels.
Their manners are pleasing; there is a mixture of courtesy and freedom, and even the
poorest, while frank, are well-bred. In their speech with each other they are good-humoured and considerate, and Europeans are struck with the enjoyment, contentment, and happiness of the people. No one is rich, but there are no beggars. The earth is so bountiful that three months' labour suffices to produce enough food for the year. If by any reverse a family is in want, the neighbours assist at once.
The affection of parents for their children is very great and much respect is shown by the young to the old. They are fond of amusement and excitement, their motto being, "Sufficient for the day is the evil thereof." Strong, patient, and good-tempered, they are indolent in the extreme, yet they can work like galley-slaves on an emergency. No man seeks to make a fortune; should he by chance do so, he spends it at once in good works, such as erecting phoongie (priest) houses or building pagodas, and goes on leading the same life as heretofore, content with a very little.
There is no selling of girls when infants for marriage. The young men and women carry on their courtship openly. About eight o'clock in the evening is courting-time, when the young ladies receive their bachelor acquaintances, and a lamp placed in their casement is a signal that they are at home. The great ambition of a girl is to keep a stall in the market-place. It is her introduction into society, and a sign that she is marriageable; it is the equivalent of our girls being presented at Court or taken to balls and parties. There is a
great deal of coquetry on the part of the girl; if she lights a cheroot, takes a puff or two and then presents it to her adorer, it is a sign that she is interested; otherwise, if she refuses to do this act of courtesy, he knows that his attentions are not appreciated, and that he had better seek a bride elsewhere.
Parents do not unduly interfere in these matrimonial ventures. Once the couple have
agreed to be man and wife there is no delay; a feast is prepared the happy couple eat out of the same dish before the assembled guests; the bridegroom then presents his bride with hla-pet or pickled tea; the compliment is returned, and the ceremony is over. Then follows
the interminable poday (party) but the couple manage to steal away and go to their home, and as soon as this is discovered, the bridegroom's friends and others assemble round his house, throw stones on the roof and at the doors, which although it sounds rude, is part of their tradition.
A woman socially is her husband's equal; his superior in the house and in the interior
economy, as she buys and sells what she pleases. She has the sole right to any property she possessed before marriage, and also to that acquired afterwards. She can hold real property in her own right, and even obtain legal possession of her husband's if he forsakes her.
The Burmese man traditionally wears a sarong sewn into a tube known as a longi.
Women's sarongs are known as htamain. On formal occasions, men often wear cloth turbans called gaung baung and Mandarin collared jackets called taikpon, while women wear blouses. Both genders wear velvet sandals called gadiba phanat.
I think that is enough for one letter. I have enclosed a picture of me in a boat on our river.
Love from Mummy and Daddy