—for Daw Aung San Suu Kyi
It was already dark as the young Chinese-American beauty made her way to a rendezvous with her mentors at Li Po’s bar in Chinatown. Known to her American friends as Lily Chan, she had recently returned from a trip overseas, including a visit to ancestral villages in the southern Chinese province of Guangzhou. There she’s known by her traditional name, Chan Xiao Meng, a name given her by her paternal grandmother because it was raining the night she was born, the Mandarin term “xiao meng” referring to the delicate, mystical feeling evoked by the pitter-patter of rainfall.
As she entered the quiet bar on Grant Street, two Burmese Buddhist monks who awaited her—a senior monk in his 60s and his younger assistant, mid-40s—stood respectfully and bowed in greeting. Broad smiles formed instantly on their kind faces as she approached and offered each man a warm, welcoming hug and kiss on the cheek. For the next few hours, she regaled the holy men with her wit and disarming smile, beguiling them with tales of her recent adventures—on their behalf—in the dangerous, far-off land they longed for as home.
“Oh, Xiao Meng! This is too dangerous for a young lady!” the elder monk remarked as she told them of perilous exploits bringing humanitarian aid to remote tribal villages in Burma, just south of the Chinese border. “We should not have requested such a great favor from you. For this, I humbly beg your pardon.”
“Nonsense, it was the least I can do,” she replied. “I’m honored to help you. The Karen are such sweet and beautiful people, and your modest financial contributions, at least by American standards, buy a truly great benefit for them. They are very grateful for the Western medicines and the clinic your gifts support. Who would believe that for a few thousand dollars you have hired a full-time doctor and two dozen nurses? The outreach in the jungles has eased great suffering. I am honored to assist in this effort.”
Xiao Meng had met the younger monk less than a year before, at a lecture about Aung San Suu Kyi and the plight of the Burmese people, sponsored by the World Affairs Council in downtown San Francisco. They impressed each other even before they met by their informative questions to the presenter, himself a former prisoner of the regime recently released through the efforts of Burmese and American activists who persuaded a Congressman to use political influence to free him from prison, where he’d been held and tortured for years.
Xiao Meng noticed the monk as soon as she sat near him. He was tall for a Burmese, with a broad-shouldered, athletic figure clear in outline beneath his yellow robes. He possessed the photogenic, strong-featured face of a movie star, she thought, were it not for his shaved head and thick-rimmed glasses, which made him something of a geek, a quality that attracted her all-the-more when joined to his shy yet charismatic personality. Xiao Meng found him too charming and handsome to have permanently renounced sex as part of his vows. What a waste! she thought more than once that night, a delicious and guilty thought under the circumstances.
After the lecture, Xiao Meng invited the monk to join her for coffee at a café nearby where they spoke late into the night. A few months passed by, and once their friendship had solidly developed, the monk invited her to meet his teacher, an elder monk in his 60s, whose stout body and rounded features reminded her of the Buddha himself. She especially enjoyed this elder monk’s jovial and approachable manner. To her, he seemed one of the wisest men she had ever met, a model of enlightened sagacity, and she instantly noticed a remarkable inner power and authority emanating from him that was at once both spiritual and physical. Her word for this was “presence”. Had he not been a man of peace, she thought, this powerful man might also have seemed quite dangerous and, to his enemies, a most formidable foe. From the moment they met, she considered him a man to reckon with.
Over the many months that followed, Xiao Meng and the two monks formed a warm and active friendship. One afternoon following her meditation lessons at the small apartment near North Beach where they often met with students and activists, she announced her intentions to visit family in southern China. The monks took her aside and invited her, in strict confidence, to secretly assist them by smuggling cash into the Burmese countryside to support a rare Western medical clinic providing medicine and services to the Karen tribe. Xiao Meng readily agreed given her free-spirited and adventurous nature, her passion for helping others, and unparalleled admiration for the monks and their leader, Burma’s national hero, Aung San Suu Kyi.
The beneficiaries of their charity, members of the Burmese Karen tribe, were political enemies of the Chinese government that—keen on exploiting the vast untapped natural resources of the Karen’s tribal homelands—supports the military Junta ruling Burma, which the Junta renamed “Myanmar”. Bearing a wad of cash provided by the monks, and generously supplemented by her own financial contributions, Xiao Meng had recently flown from China to Singapore then Burma, putting her life in harm’s way for a people she’d never even met.
“I was most impressed by the young boys who provided armed escort during my three-day hike into the mountains taking medicines and your money to the clinic,” Xiao Meng reported. “These Karen boys are already men. Some were younger than ten years old. Although sweet-natured, they all carried rifles. I was well-protected.”
“We should celebrate this happy occasion,” said the elder monk, who surprised her by pulling out a small, ornate bottle containing potent Chinese rice wine from beneath his robes. The younger monk, speaking fluent Mandarin, promptly ordered three empty shot glasses from the Chinese bartender who, smiling indulgently, brought them at once.
“Yes, our little sister has returned safely to see us once again,” added the younger monk as he poured the stout wine, called maotai, into the shot glasses and raised a toast.
“I didn’t know that monks were allowed to drink liquor,” Xiao Meng replied matter-of-factly. The elder monk laughed and reflected for a moment.
“We are permitted to drink, but not to get drunk. There is a difference, you know. Moderation is important in all things. And when you are much older, and have spent so much time meditating on your pillow, you will understand that there are many paths to enlightenment,” the elder explained thoughtfully. “If you cannot maintain a state of peace and mindfulness, even amid the countless temptations of the world, what good is this pillow sitting after all?” He laughed again. The younger monk laughed uneasily with him, as they raised their glasses to toast.
“Our way is a little different than traditional Buddhism,” the younger monk added. “Now that we live in your country, we must adapt our ancient practices to this different time and place.”
“Our way is the way of the Bodhisattva,” the elder interrupted. “So we are fully engaged with the world. This is also why we send money to our people through secret couriers like you.”
“I see. I think I understand,” Xiao Meng replied circumspectly, though she didn’t really understand and remained somewhat skeptical. Still, she reflected, their words seemed wise and truthful, and made a strange kind of sense to her. As always, she gave them the benefit of the doubt.
“Do I have to drink this in one gulp?” she asked, wrinkling her nose after sniffing the potent drink.
“Of course,” said the elder monk with a mischievous gleam in his eye.
“It will make a real man of you!” the younger monk added as they all laughed together.
The elder man raised a toast to Xiao Meng: “May the Buddha bless you for your service, and bring you happiness each day.”
“Banzai!” Xiao Meng replied as she bravely hoisted the maotai to her lips and swallowed hard. Instantly her eyes filled with tears, and her head and body twitched violently as the coarse liquid fire spilled down her throat. She coughed harshly. An intense heat radiated through her body, now quivering involuntarily in a paroxysm of disgust.
“That’s nasty stuff,” she added, regaining composure and wiping tears away.
“You’re a real woman now, and a real Buddhist, too,” replied the elder monk with a mischievous wink. “You are now an initiate in the maotai warrior’s path of wisdom.”
Xiao Meng teased and scolded them for playing loose with their vows. “Just wait till I tell your superiors about this meeting and your bad influence on me. From now on, you must do whatever I ask, or I will reveal your secret to the whole world.” They laughed loudly again and refilled their glasses with another round.
In the hours that followed, Xiao Meng traded shot-for-shot with the monks, draining three small bottles of maotai while sharing further details of her daring escapades in Burma. Her companions asked a myriad questions and were especially impressed by her narrow escape from danger when, by a fortunate circumstance—being delayed in a Karen village because of heavy rains—she was prevented from joining a friend, another Burmese activist known to them. Xiao Meng and the activist planned to join a large group of supporters accompanying the democratically-elected leader of Burma, Aung San Suu Kyi, who had recently been released after years under house arrest and was traveling through the countryside to reunite with her people. As it turned out, Xiao Meng narrowly missed being seriously injured, or perhaps even killed, if she’d been able to join the growing caravan of Suu Kyi’s followers whom that day accompanied the “Gandhi of Southeast Asia” as she toured the rural villages of her beloved land.
“I’m fortunate to be alive because of the rain,” said Xiao Meng, her tone growing hushed. “If not for the rain washing out the jungle roads, I would’ve been part of her entourage on the very day she was attacked and re-taken hostage. Hundreds of Suu Kyi’s supporters were brutally injured and murdered that day, by gangs of ruthless thugs hired by the Junta and disguised as Buddhist monks.”
“You are blessed and most fortunate, Xiao Meng. Your name protected you,” the elder monk interrupted. “How contemptible that the government conceals such evil deeds behind the robes of monks. Have these generals no shame? But, I reluctantly confess that I also understand the shrewdness of their tactics. It was an effective trick.”
“I spoke with eyewitnesses who escaped,” Xiao Meng continued. “Many innocent people were raped or beaten to death with clubs and ball-bats covered with spiked nails. Others were shot to death, especially those who threw their bodies between the assassins and Suu Kyi. Apparently she survived, but her head was wounded and bloody after the so-called ‘monks’ attacked her car and drove away with her. Probably to some secret prison to be tortured, or perhaps even worse.”
“By the grace of Lord Buddha, both you and she survived,” said the younger monk, assuming a graver tone. The elder seemed somewhat taken aback by the comment.
“You have word of her fate, then?” asked a surprised Xiao Meng.
“As you can imagine, we have our sources,” the senior monk answered calmly. “We have heard that The Lady is alive, but once again under house arrest. Even the Red Cross cannot get word to her.”
Xiao Meng raised her hand unconsciously to her heart and sighed. “She is alive.
That’s the important thing. I’m so relieved.” She raised her glass to toast. Tipsy after so much drink, her hand was no longer steady and wavered about as she held her glass high.
“To Daw Aung Sang Suu Kyi—good health, long life,” offered the elder monk. He
raised his glass in a solemn toast. The younger monk followed suit.
“To Daw Aung Sang Suu Kyi—may democracy and peace triumph soon in Burma,” Xiao Meng added.
The three comrades downed their shots together and, once again, Xiao Meng’s body convulsed automatically as the liquid fire poured down her throat.
Glancing down at her watch, it was time for her to go. “Well, my dears, it’s almost time for my shift to start. I’m so sorry to leave you. But I’m a working girl, after all, and have to pay my bills.”
Amazingly, Xiao Meng stood with hardly a wobble. The monks rose steadily to their feet to accompany her. She paused for a moment, reflecting on some deep matter. Then spoke: “Do you think it’s possible that Suu Kyi will one day be free again to lead her people? Do you think a democratic transition in your government will ever occur?”
“We can only pray and hope,” said the elder monk.
“My dream,” she continued, “is that one day soon she will be free to visit us here, right here in Baghdad-by-the-Bay. Wouldn’t that be wonderful?”
“We can only hope for such a blessed future,” the younger monk added.
The monks insisted on escorting her down the dark streets and alleyways to the corner of a busy intersection, on the border between North Beach and Chinatown. It was only a few blocks away, and they mostly walked in silence. The crisp, rain-freshened air revived Xiao Meng as she walked. By the time they reached the intersection at the end of Chinatown her head had mostly cleared.
At the crosswalk, she glanced across the street, where neon lights throbbed above the rain-slick sidewalks as armies of seedy hustlers handed out free passes for strip joints, luring male tourists and other passersby. Xiao Meng turned to her companions as they waited for the light to change. “This is where I must bid you adieu. Until we meet again!”
“Are you sure you don’t want us to accompany you further?” the elder monk inquired.
She could only imagine the reactions of the monks when they discovered what she really did for a living, not to mention the reactions of her fellow strippers and customers. She imagined these monks sitting down next to the catwalk to watch her pole dance naked to the sounds of Metallica. Xiao Meng giggled softly, amused at the thought.
“I think you have sinned enough for one evening,” she replied. “And the club where I perform is just a few blocks up. Don’t worry. I can make it alone from here.”
“Ah, Xiao Meng, you must certainly be a great artist!” the elder monk exclaimed.
“Yeah, right,” she countered. “At least, it keeps body and soul together. And I can afford expensive vacations in exotic faraway lands on the other side of the world.”
“We will be most honored to see you perform one day,” added the younger monk. He folded his palms together and bowed. The elder monk bowed as well.
“I bet you would!” Xiao Meng retorted, this time with a sexy, throaty laugh. “Of course, you are welcome to drop by anytime. Just let me know when you’re coming, so I can make sure your passes are ready when you arrive.”
Xiao Meng offered parting hugs to each monk in turn and—holding each man’s face cupped gently in her hands while standing on tiptoes—planted a farewell kiss atop his bald, closely-shaved pate. Neither monk noticed the bright red lipstick stains she left as a parting gift. Then Xiao Meng turned and, as the light changed, crossed the rain-slick, shadowy street and disappeared into the night.
The monks stood silently at the crosswalk and watched her move gracefully across the dark street as she entered the Broadway club district, pulsing with nightlife. The supple grace of her lovely, slender form held their eyes. After all, Xiao Meng was a vision, a strong, splendid female in the full bloom of young womanhood. The way she walked stole their breath away. It was the confident stride of a proud and independent spirit, feminine powers waxing stronger with each step. A passerby may have guessed she was their daughter or perhaps, merely noticing the admiration in their eyes as they gazed after her, that they were just leering, perverted old men.
As the darkness swallowed her, Xiao Meng signaled one last farewell with a careless flip of her hair and vanished into opaque shadows, fading quickly into the traffic and the night. This reminded the elder monk of the Buddha’s words. How brief, how fleeting, are beauty, youth, life—streaks of lightning, drops of dew, ripples in a fast-moving stream. In the growing distance, they could still hear the faint fading click of her high-heels, replaced suddenly by the splatter of raindrops beginning to fall once more on the glistening obsidian pavement.
Almost instantly, as if falling from heaven, a delicate misty shower rained down on the monks out of the late night sky. They quickly huddled together in the shadows of a nearby doorway, seeking shelter. Here, they gazed at each other, eyes adjusting in the dark space beneath the dim streetlight, heads still swimming with too much wine. A smile passed between them as the elder monk slipped the tiny bottle of maotai from beneath his robe, anticipating the liquid warmth. With childlike grace, in the silence of the doorway, he cocked his ear and listened to the song of gentle rainfall. Trained by years of meditation practice, he relished the silence between the loud raindrops, and the lyrical pitter-patter rhythms of the rain as it struck the concrete nearby.
“Ah, Xiao Meng!” he offered, as if the rain had whispered its secret name in his ear. He placed the tiny bottle to his lips. Then he handed the flask to his companion.
“Aha! Xiao Meng!” said the younger as he, in turn, took a full-throated sip of maotai.
The liquid fire surged through their veins, warming the monks from within. After a long silence, the younger spoke hesitantly: “It’s most unfortunate that we must deceive such a special young woman. She possesses many admirable virtues … Of course,” he added as an afterthought, “her views are naïve and wrong-headed, which plays to our advantage.”
“We must never let feelings cloud our judgment or compromise our mission here. We are at war, and our ends will justify the means,” the elder replied. “She is a valuable asset to our cause, and these matters must be handled with great delicacy.”
“Our superiors will be pleased that we have penetrated the Karen supply routes to such extent,” the younger replied after a long silence.
“You are tired, and should take the rest of the evening off,” the elder ordered. “I’ll drop by the Embassy and report on our progress.”
Braced against the late night chill, the collars of their monastic robes pulled tightly about their throats, the ersatz monks stepped out from their shelter onto the rainy sidewalk. At the corner, they waited together in silence for the light to change. Then, the younger watched as the elder strode off briskly into the night.
As he watched his superior being swallowed by the dark, the younger’s thoughts swerved to Xiao Meng. He glanced at the glittering lights of Broadway, where growing throngs of men checked out the strip clubs, some assailed by hustlers inviting them inside. His glance moved farther up the street, following Xiao Meng’s path. Suddenly, he recalled her voice, earlier that evening, inviting them to visit the club where she performed. Although still uncertain of the exact nature of her work, he imagined her at that moment putting the finishing touches on her make-up, preparing to take the stage wearing little more than her lipstick. Faint stirrings of a long-held secret yearning awakened in his loins and breast; his thoughts circled swiftly, incessantly around the forbidden object of his heart’s desire.
As he glanced up at the blackened, storm-swept sky, a spray of droplets danced delicately on his upturned face. All around him, as if an omen, the pitter-patter rhythms of falling raindrops punctuated the silence, at once absorbing and amplifying the late night sounds of The City. Then he too was gone, vanished into the night.
R L. Boyer is an award-winning poet, fiction author, and screenwriter. His poems have been featured in Depth Insights, Mythic Circle, Poetry Zone, ReVision, and other publications. Boyer is a two-time award recipient of the Jefferson Scholarship and a two-time award winner in Literature from the John E. Profant Foundation for the Arts, including the McGuire Family Award for 1st place in Literature. He is a depth psychologist and current doctoral student in Art and Religion at the Graduate Theological Union and UC Berkeley.