A little over a year ago, Jacob and I were riding motorcycles through the mountains of eastern Burma looking for music and a way to talk about an incredibly complex and misunderstood place.
'Misunderstood' would be the operative word -- it seems that each hill and valley has its own language in this region. Without a translator, we relied on the inevitable "guy who speaks some English" in every village to help us out.
We stopped for noodles in a small village in Shan State. The guy at the stall called down the street. The guy down the street called further down the street. In two minutes, a "guy who speaks some English" came bounding toward us in an Arsenal jersey. He'd learned a bit of the language in a refugee camp, the rest from movies and TV. He helped run an organization for disadvantaged kids, and he sold pirated music from a desktop computer linked up to a car battery beside the noodle shop.
Did he know some musicians who could play for us? There were some very old people who might be able to play a few songs, he said. They worked in the fields during the day, but they might come and play for the foreigners.
They did come and play for foreigners, with a quizzical look and a smile and a great show of appreciation for the small donation we gave in return. The resulting session was tough -- an overindulgence in betel nut, battered old instruments, a beating sun -- but this was a beautiful moment.
A year later, in Iowa (where I grew up), in the post-industrial meat packing town of Waterloo (where I did not grow up), I showed this video to Liberetta.
Liberetta is one of about 1,500 Burmese refugees living in Waterloo, drawn by jobs at the meat packing plant. Liberetta has a love for cooking, a way with languages, a PhD from India, and a lifetime of stories from Malaysia and Burma and Iowa and between.
I showed Liberetta this video and said, "Liberetta, do you know what she's saying to the camera at the end?"
Liberetta grew up a few miles, and quite possibly a few languages, away from where we shot the video.
"Oh! She's speaking my language," Liberetta said.
The woman is speaking Karenni, of which there are four main subgroups, of which one is Kayan, of which there are another 4 main subgroups, of which one is Padaung. The few words of Karenni Kayan Padaung the woman speaks at the end of this video are perfectly intelligible to Liberetta. They are in her mother tongue.
In the kitchen in Iowa, where the snowflakes beat on the window, Liberetta translates the interaction I had a year ago in Burma.
"She says, 'I am not beautiful, don't film me. You are beautiful.'"
The woman in the video then busts out the most beautiful smile. I've watched it several times just for that moment.
'Misunderstood' being the operative word of that trip.