James Beard Publication of the Year 2017

A Night of Burma’s Finest Drink and K TV

A Night of Burma’s Finest Drink and K TV

Fermented Rice Wine in Lashio

“Safa malaf.”

My colleagues and I raise our glasses and pour the fermented rice wine, which they jokingly call “White Label,” down our throats.

“Safa malaf means to health and wealth,” they tell me and my throat burns and we laugh.

There are ten of us squeezed into a cluttered bedroom that sleeps five men on hard wooden boards. We are in the Ta’ang Students and Youth Union (TSYU) office in Lashio in the Northern Shan State of Burma. There is a community feel to the TSYU office, which doubles as a boarding house. Bedrooms can be found in attics and basements and behind little doorways, and when all the beds are full, mats are laid out for guests. My drinking companions are Ta’ang men who are all aged under 30.

“We are the indigenous people of Burma and South China. This is our homeland,” says Su Det, a wiry young man trying to grow a mustache, as he leans into me, breathing hot “White Label” air on my face.

“We believe that our father is the sun, and our mother is the dragon. Our history is of persecution. By the Mongols, and the Thai, and now the Burmese.”

Su Det raises his glass and we take another a drink. “Safa malaf.”

I take a handful of beef jerky from the table to mask the taste.

“Burma’s finest drink,” Chat U says and slaps me on the back, laughing wildly.

These young men work for TSYU: an ethnic community group providing support for the Ta’ang people. It may seem hard to believe at this moment, but during the day they provide education opportunities for Ta’ang youth and financially assist displaced and impoverished Ta’ang villagers.

“You want to K TV?” they ask me.

“What’s K TV?” I reply.

Chat U starts to sing ‘My Heart Will Go On’ in melodramatic fashion.

“Karaoke,” I shout out.

We ride three to a scooter. I am in the middle with my legs splayed out to either side. The cold wind whips our faces and we cheer and scream. Our private karaoke room is adorned with aluminum foil to provide a genuine space-age look. The men choose hit after Burmese hit, tirelessly screaming until three in the morning. They ask me if I’d like to hire girls and I tell them I have a girlfriend.

“It’s not what you think,” they say. “We are very innocent.”

The hired help pour drinks for the men, avoid small talk, and sing one song between them before leaving. My companions are happy with their performance.

On our return trip back to the college we are stopped at a road block on the highway by the Burmese military. The soldiers check my companions’ papers and ask a lot of questions about me. After twenty minutes we are allowed to proceed.

The next day I am asked to see Chat U in the TSYU office. He reminds me that the military are observing my movements and that I must obey my curfew, which is 10pm.

Follow the author’s writings on his website: www.markjisaacs.com.

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