Scattered around the countryside of Myanmar are odd little communities called welfare villages, expanded Buddhist monasteries that provide food and shelter to anyone who shows up. One of these, a mammoth center that houses nearly 3,000 people nestled in the rural outskirts of the capital, accepts foreign volunteers. It’s a heartbreaking place—people in varying degrees of disability live in cramped, squalid conditions, getting by on food and shelter and not much else. It was there, volunteering for a month, that I met Nyein Aung, the sweetest, saddest, scariest boy I’ve ever encountered.
He lived in the male dorm of the foreigners’ building, the only Burmese person to do so. I was attracted to him instantly. His smile, especially, was beautiful—wide and genuine and infectious. He had an easy, liquid way of moving, that natural grace some people seem to just have. He wanted to be a singer and he could sing like heaven, and it seemed like there wasn’t a drop of malice in him. At first, it was the most pleasant experience with a boy I could imagine. I would go about my day and run into him sooner or later, and we would sit together and make conversation and smile at each other. He would ask me if he could play his guitar for me, and he would carry my bag if we were both going in the same direction, and he would bring me little tokens, like drinks or snacks. It was like being courted, and coming from Melbourne, where someone sharing their bag of K with you is considered the height of romance, I loved it.
He was clearly odd from the start—talking to him had different patterns to it than talking to most people does, and I assumed there was something about him that in the West would be diagnosed as a mental illness. But I like people whose brains work differently, and he seemed charming and clever and harmless. He would sometimes laugh with no apparent justification, and I would ask him why, and he would explain the thought pattern that led him there. I thought that was the best thing I could think of—to be always laughing in a place filled with poverty and pain and fear. Our flirting accelerated over a week or so, and we hooked up. It was great, and I felt strange and alone afterward, but I often feel that.
In the days and weeks afterwards, however, things took a very clear turn. All of a sudden, he was always there. Wherever I was—in my dorm, at the teashop, eating dinner, teaching, in the disabled halls, anywhere—he was also there. It is a very unnerving experience to feel like there is always someone just behind your shoulder, or standing outside your window, or lurking a few paces away, and to be right. I began to dread the sight of him and tried to talk to him about it, to which he responded by telling me that he loved me.
At that point, I ended things. I firmly told him that nothing more than friendship was going to occur between us from then on. For days afterward the only conversation between us consisted of him begging me to change my mind. He continued following me around at all times, now just staring at me sadly, and he slept outside on the narrow first-floor balcony that skirted the girls’ dorm. My bed was located next to a window, by necessity always open since it was over 100 degrees every day, and one of the other girls told me they had seen him standing there watching me sleep. He stole items from my bed so that he could miraculously “find” them later. I spent a lot of time agonizing over whether or not I should just leave, but in the end I decided that I had a right to be there; I’d come to volunteer and I’d committed myself to teaching for a month. Gradually things fell into an uneasy normality.
We continued spending a lot of time together—not by my choice—and I began to notice more and more that the behavior I’d classified as being just a bit odd was considerably more worrying than that. He would do certain unsettling things, and when I questioned him about it he would either say he couldn’t remember doing it or that it “wasn’t him”—even if it was something he’d done in front of me a few minutes previously. He would tell me every day, like clockwork, that he was leaving tomorrow—I think so I would give him the warmth of a pleasant goodbye like I did the first time this happened. If I had even a mild, nothing conversation with a male volunteer (the usual where-are-you-from bullshit,) he would stare at us with such anger and hatred that the other volunteers would tell me it scared them.
Things finally came to a head for me one afternoon.
I was spending the day in the disabled people’s shelter and he, as usual, was with me. Today he was being his nice self. He was treating the patients with kindness and care, translating with charm and humor—in short, being the person to whom I was originally so attracted. It came up in the course of conversation with a patient that I was leaving in three days. He already knew this, but I guess he had blanked it out, because his reaction to it was disturbing. His whole face changed. It’s a hard phenomenon to describe, but everything about him besides his actual physical features—his body language, his expression, the substance that he was putting out into the world—became an entirely different person. He pulled a face at me. He stuck his tongue out, but without an inch of playfulness or self-awareness. It was grotesque; the word malevolent comes to mind. I was visibly shaken and asked him why he had done that. As usual, he replied, “It wasn’t me.” Then he looked at me with a very strange expression on his face and said, a little dreamily, “Who are you, actually? You don’t look like Frances.” He continued staring at me for a while longer and then, as he had promised, he left.
His behavior throughout the entirety of our time together had me constantly on edge, and this particular incident put me in a very frazzled state of mind. But it wasn’t as simple as writing him off as unhinged and forgetting the whole thing ever happened. He was a sweet, kind, clever person—some of the time—and I genuinely believed him when he said the person who did all those bizarre and unnerving things was “someone else.” He never gave me a linear account of his life, but from what I could piece together it wasn’t a happy one. Family deaths, years as a migrant worker, homelessness. It’s no wonder any underlying issues he may have had came to the surface. Speaking to the few longer-term workers, they said his strange behavior had only emerged over the past couple of months. Everyone was worried about him, but no one really knew what to do.
And I guess that’s the crux of it; there’s nothing anyone really could do. I didn’t have the ability to give him the love and attention he needed, but I hope that, somehow, he is able to find it somewhere.