Last 4th of July, Bill's family was new to the country, and terrified by the fireworks, which sounded to his Rwandan mom like war had broken out. This year they've become comfortable enough in the US that this Independence Day, I wasn't worried about them: They planned to hit the holiday sales. I was worried about another family, though.
Last month, I spent an afternoon with four new Burmese arrivals I think of as the Meh/Rehs (father Htay Reh, mother Noe Meh, and daughters Dah Meh, 7, and Su Meh, 5). We met on their fourth day in the country, and spoke through an interpreter.
Still jet-lagged, and in their first big city, the family was spending as much time as resettlement agency caseworkers would allow hiding out in their apartment, terrified of everything about America. From the unbelievable traffic, to the refrigerator, to their dark-skinned neighbors, to how on earth they would ever pay their rent, Htay Reh said he was bewildered by all of it. (Read more about them in our recent story sidebar.)I could picture how awful the fireworks would be for them. I was headed over to see Bill and Igey that afternoon anyway, so I broke out a new Burmese phrasebook - my last I relinquished to a struggling friend of Nyo Nyo's over the winter - thinking I could drop by and warn the Meh/Rehs.There were a couple of problems with this plan. First, the gorgeous Burmese language has letters like you wouldn't believe. Many look like commas, 0s, 3s, 6s, and stemless wine glasses in various orientations. One looks exactly like the Obama campaign logo; another like a candy cane; another like the scaffold for a game of hangman; and another, surprisingly like a baby chicken. The Lonely Planet book made attempting even basic pronunciation sound like a serious long-term project.Then there was the question of what to say. Grammar aside, how do you explain to someone who's spent their whole life in a bamboo hut, a rice paddy, and being tortured by the government forces that drove them off their land what American Independence Day is? Words like "celebration" and "independence" weren't in my glossary. The verb "to be" looked impossible.This year I've been no stranger to pantomime, drawings, or whatever it takes to establish basic communication with few common words. But the thought of drawing explosions, or standing in their living room enacting them while reassuring "mahouq-pa-bu-pyaq-dhana" (which may or may not mean "No problem!") seemed likely to be more disturbing than the blasts themselves.But even piecing nouns and adjectives together, there was no way I could assemble a Burmese quasi-sentence on the fly. I decided I'd have to write something down. "Holiday/day off" didn't quite capture it. "Festival" (a blown-glass goblet with floating accent) seemed more promising. With a 3, 6, Obama logo, treble clef, and green pea, I more or less had the word "Today." Numerous wine glasses, two candy canes, and one chicken went into the above preschooler's rendering of what I hope says: "TODAY BIG FESTIVAL HERE MANY LOUD NOISE BUT PLEASE NO BE AFRAID." (Sorry, Burmese-speaking readers. Wish you were here!)When I got to the Meh/Rehs', Noe spotted me from a neighbor's living room, leapt up from the rug grinning, grabbed my arm, and pulled me inside her home like an old pal. I used up the one Burmese word I know, "Min-gala-ba" (hello). We sat on the carpet, she broke out a bottle of Sierra Mist, and I broke out some easy reader books for the little girls, and an extra phrasebook for her and Htay. Htay opted to investigate "Are You My Mother?" instead, while the girls puzzled over Bill's favorite: "Go Dog Go."Then, just as with Dawami a year ago, we sat together on the rug and read things out of the phrasebook, giggling at words like "toothbrush," and laying the pleasantries on thick "I'm glad to meet you!" "Thank you very much!"Finally, with many shrugs and eye-rolls, I brought out my note. Noe was too polite to laugh outright. She and Htay puzzled over it, read it aloud, and seemed to appreciate the gesture. "Di-ne-nya," (tonight) I looked up for emphasis. Already, they seemed much changed from the fearful crew I'd met a few weeks before, ready to roll with any loud noise that might present itself.After multiple phrasebook goodbyes - "I am going home." "Please don't go." "I enjoyed talking to you." "See you again." - I left the family on the rug, paging through P.D. Eastman and laughing at the dogs on bikes. I suspect they toasted the fourth with Sierra Mist, but I have no idea how to ask.