Kenneth Wong is in quite a difficult dilemma. He is ethnically Chinese, he was born in Rangoon, the capital of Burma, and he currently lives in San Francisco. So when he is travelling people constantly ask him where he is from. Mr. Wong just looks at them with a confused look on his face, and doesn't know how exactly he should reply. Some people even mistake him for a Japanese tourist and Mr. Wong is so perplexed about his identity that he just plays along. That's why the author has traveled back to Burma to figure out who he is and what it would have been like if he had stayed in Rangoon instead of immigrating to the USA.
"A Prayer for Burma" is Kenneth Wong's diary of his experiences while visiting the country for a month. We see the vibrant, hectic and hot city of Rangoon through the eyes of a man who spent many years in the city but is now just a visitor, returning to find old friends and practice his fluent Burmese. A rush of memories comes back to him on every turn though the maze of streets. When Mr. Wong sees a bus pass on the crowded and dangerous boulevard leading to the Shwe Dagon Pagoda, he remembers riding on a similar (if not the very same) bus when he was a child to school many years ago. And when he sees a couple walking hand in hand, he remembers his old high school friends that were in love. Like everywhere in the world, many things have changed. Yet there are moments when it seems that things haven't actually changed that much after all. It is only our perceptions that have changed as we can't help but grow older and (sometimes) wiser. We lose our innocence, rooms grow smaller, paint chips on buildings and we see a new sadness that we never saw before. And somehow it becomes our responsibility to help the elderly, the children and those who are simply less fortunate in life. For Mr. Wong there are too many problems, too many new ideas flooding his head and too many people seeking his help. He becomes overwhelmed as he tries to help a shy prostitute feed her family, a sickly child who lives in his deceased grandfather's graveyard and a young couple that want desperately to move to America.
In the end, Kenneth Wong realizes that he is only a visitor and besides giving the girl that he met in the graveyard a shiny box of Starbuck's mints there is not much he can do for the many people who need help. What he can do is ask questions, talk to his old friends, meet interesting people in the many tea houses that line Rangoon's streets and discover new things about himself.
Amazingly, Kenneth Wong finally discovers the truth one day to his identity. While leaving Rangoon's small airport, Mr. Wong is helped by a young porter who offers to carry his bag and also offers insight into the author's identity. He tells Mr. Wong with authority, "You're Burmese, you were born here. That makes you Burmese." Mr. Wong is shocked that he traveled all the way to Burma to find the answer the question of who he is, and that the question was answered by a small boy in just one sentence.
"A Prayer for Burma" is only a month in the author's life, but there are enough amazing stories, beautifully recounted scenes and wonderful characters to easily fill this novel and my head for many hours while I read. I learned a few words in Burmese, got an introduction to an interesting religion and found out a little about the politics of a country in the midst of a dictatorship. When I picked up this book, I stepped into an amazing world that seems like a fantasy. So thank you Mr. Wong. I hope that you can return to Burma soon and write a sequel. And most of all, I hope the many prayers for Burma are heard.