Age Old Differences
By Pe Myint
(Yin Khon Pwint Magazine, November 1991. Also included in his collection "Lu Thone Pyitsi Yaung Thu Myar and other short stories" which won the National Literary Award of 1995.)
By the time I got off the bus it was .9: 30 pm: already dark. I walked towards the trishaw stand.
One of the trishaw drivers who knew me by sight asked me if I could wait until he has another passenger and I said yes. If I rode alone, it would cast me eight Kyats and if I waited for someone to share, it would be five. The combined daily fare for bus and trishaw was not very cheap. If I can save three Kyats why not?
"Okay, the next in turn come along," the chap who talked to me called out.
The trishaws had to take passengers in turn.
A young man sitting quietly on his trishaw got down and pushed his vehicle out of the shadows.
"Uncle, you can sit and wait on it," he said. Then he turned and called out, "One passenger needed, one passenger needed."
I looked at him. He was a slight, fair boy, probably the same age as my son in high school. He did not look as strong as my son and he wore a rather frayed white shirt. I saw that the seam had unraveled at the sleeve.
But he somehow did not look as if he came from a poor family; he did not look as if he had led a rough life.
Now why was he peddling a trishaw, I wondered. Maybe his parents lost their wealth? How? Did his father lose his job? Or maybe he passed away? What about his mother; how many in his family, is he the eldest? Poor boy, is he feeding his whole family?
I thought of my own son, and felt a twinge of compassion. If it were my boy...if something happened to me, what would happen to my son? Look at this boy, so young, none too strong, and peddling a trishaw. How could his mother bear it?
I began to feel guilty about riding his trishaw. He would need to pedal hard to carry my weight and with another passenger he would surely not be able to manage it, especially on that rise further down the road.
He kept calling for another passenger but he sounded calm and his voice was quite steady.
"Never mind lets go. I'll go alone," I said to him.
He turned to glance at me and then pushed his trishaw onto the road. He began to pedal steadily, not hurrying. It looked to me as if he were used to this work.
Hmmm...not bad, I thought. He looked mature for his age. Good, that is good. I like people who have the courage to face whatever happens. I wanted to know more about him.
"How long have you been doing this?"
"About a year."
"I've never seen you before...oh well, I don't take a trishaw every day, only when I’m late."
He pedaled quicker just before we reached the rise, so the trishaw went rather smoothly over it.
The vehicle seemed well kept. Sometimes the machine would be too old.
Now this boy seemed a good chap, not only feeding his family but looking after his machine as well. Is this his own trishaw, or is it rented from someone, I wondered.
I hoped that it was his.
"Is this trishaw yours?" I asked him.
He glanced at me and maybe he thought I was being too curious; he answered with a short 'Yes.'
I was only feeling sorry for him, wondering if he could continue his studies, if he could study after doing hard work…..
"Are you in school? Which grade?" I asked him.
"I matriculated this year."
"Really! Did you get any distinctions?"
"I got four."
"Isn't that something? To get such good grades even when you have to pedal a trishaw. Why, other kids don't even pass while they are can afford to take extra tuition for all subjects. Well, well, you can't buy brains with money, can you? You look a clever chap."
He gave a laugh. “I did take tuition in all subjects, Uncle. I pedal only when someone is absent, just to get some exercise. I don't like sports, so this is just one way of keeping fit."
"So this is your parents’ trishaw, then?"
He slowed down a bit. Maybe he felt that some explanation was in order.
"This is really my own trishaw, Uncle. I have four that I rent out. Sometimes one of my chaps would be ill or something, then I take my turn. That way I get to know these chaps well, and it's harder for anyone to cheat me. Also I get to meet all sorts of people: that's a good thing, isn't it, to get to know different people."
I felt a bit silly about all that compassion I had been pouring out for him. I looked up at him and now he seemed familiar...now where have I seen him before?
"Wait a minute, where do you live?" I asked.
"The Goodwill Store, near the big market", he smiled as he answered.
I instantly understood the situation. The Goodwill Store is a row of shops owned by one family, all of them as fair skinned as this boy. There is a restaurant, a mini super-market, a shop selling pickled tea and snacks, a video rental shop and a paper copier shop. The whole family runs it. I had made a colossal mistake. But I continued to question him without losing composure.
"How many brothers and sisters do you have?"
"Five. I'm the youngest. My eldest brother works in the restaurant with my parents. That's the original business. The others were set up when we grew old enough...the super market belongs to my eldest sister, the middle brother has the video shop, the pickled tea shop is my other sister's and I run the Xerox machine. But I've had these trishaws since I was young.'
"Since you were young? And you're not young now?"
"Its true, Uncle," he laughed. "I set up my first trishaw when I was ten."
I felt as if I’d been punched in the gut.
I'm a writer who for years have been writing about economics and education, the need to work hard, to get ahead, what good business tactics is. I had written hundreds of articles, some based on material from international magazines and papers. I wanted the younger generation to learn about these things. Now with this young boy I've met my match; I felt humiliated and thought that he must be secretly laughing at me.
"Stop, here we are..." I was at my gate. I felt in my pocket and found a ten Kyats note. "There you go, I have a ten only...don’t bother about the change."
"No, wait, Uncle, don't do that." He hurriedly took out two Kyats out of his pocket and handed them to me.
He looked at me for a moment, and said, "Please don't be offended, Uncle, you seem interested in me, so I feel I must explain...you see, when I'm peddling or when I'm working in my shop, I always take the exact amount. I never take more intentionally or by mistake. I never accept tips either. In the same way I never give more than the exact amount due, not even one Kyat or one Pya more. You see, there's a saying that you take care of a Kyat tens of thousands of Kyats will take care of you. I live by that."
That little so-and-so was giving me a lesson in his smooth way!
"All right, I admit it, you're a very clever chap. Goodnight, are you getting on home now?"
"No, Uncle, there's still time enough for another trip. Make hay while the sun shines, you know."
He turned back towards the trishaw stand.
"I'm off, sir!" he called merrily as he pedaled away.
Well, all right then, be off. You guys go off to pedal trishaws, off to open banks, expand businesses, plot and plan, make hay while the sun shines, get rich, get prosperous, and go on, take over all we have.
I went into my house. Should I beat up my son nodding over his schoolbooks, to get him out of the house and start peddling a trishaw? Should I tell my wife to stop being a mere housewife and order her to set up a Monhinga stall or a teashop? Something must be done.
But then.... what if the argument turned against me? I could imagine the humiliation of having my wife shouting at me about coming home tipsy every evening....so pulled the brakes on my thoughts and crept meekly into the house as if I had not encountered anything remarkable on my way home.
(The above short story was translated by MTG)
Born in 1949, Pe Myint has written and translated over thirty books and numerous articles on self-help, sociology and psychology, as well as biographies, short stories and novels.
He won the National Literary Award in 1995 for his collection of short stories titled "Lu Thone Pyit See Yaung Thu Mya Hnit A Char Wut Htu To Myar".
Reresides in Yangon.