Burmese proverbs and my mum

My favourite Burmese proverbs

I remember very well about one of the weekends spent with my family because I learnt an idiom from my mother that I never heard before. That day, we watched the movie The Iron Lady together. The movie depicts the life of Margaret Thatcher who struggled to cope with the death of her husband. She talks to the imagined presence of him while the scene flashes back from her childhood till when she became a British Prime Minister. Normally this type of a biography film is not her type but she was good at making me believe she enjoyed it. We finished the whole movie eventually.

At the last minute of the movie, she whispered to me this Burmese saying that I never heard before “ေသရင္ေျမႀကီး၊ ရွင္ရင္ေရႊထီး” (reads: Tay yin myay gyi, shin yin shwe htee). The meaning in English could be: ‘It’s the ground for when you die and the golden umbrella for when you are a king’. I had no clue and asked her what that actually meant. She elaborated the saying by referring to its origin. Back in the olden days, a golden umbrella was used in a grand royal ceremony which made it the symbol of success whereas the ground was the symbol of failure. And that’s how the proverb has its origin. Finally, it became a famous proverb to apply in a certain situation when a person faces a life or a death circumstance; becoming successful (the king: success) or the ground (fail). The proverb is most suitably used in describing when someone has to make a decision from two options. The outcome of neither option is predictable, my mother concluded.

Thanks to The Iron Lady, I had a chance to learn one more proverb. Also, my mother has a good memory of a thousand of Burmese proverbs and sayings. Though I personally love them, I don’t know all and there are too many to memorize. Here are my favorite Burmese proverbs I learnt from mom which are meaningful and lyrical.

ကိုယ္ထင္ ကုတင္ေရႊနန္း (ko htin ga-din shway nun). Its literal meaning is ‘a deluded person thinks his bed is in a golden palace.’ This saying is used to describe someone who gets lost in the world of fantasy and see nothing but unrealistic expectations.

Here is the second one: ‘ဆင္ျဖဴေတာ္ မွီၿပီး ၾကံစုပ္ (hsin phyu daw hmi pi kyan sot). This one literally means: ‘to suck on sugarcane on account of the royal white elephant’. History of this proverb is about a royal elephant which is regarded as noble. There used to be a royal elephant named Sin Phyu Daw to whom the king usually provided all necessities because this is how to pet a royal animal. The main food for Sin Phyu Daw was sugarcane while it was a snack for men too. So, the man who took care of Sin Phyu Daw got an easy chance to have sugarcane. This proverb refers to when an ordinary person can get a great opportunity because he/she has a relative or friend who is a powerful figure in the country.

And the last one is: သစ္တစ္ပင္ေကာင္း၊ ငွက္တစ္ေသာင္း (thit ta-bin kaung, hnget ta-thaung). Literal meaning is that ‘one sturdy tree can support ten thousand birds’. The proverb is usually said when a man can support not only his family but also all of his relatives. In our customs, it’s a great honor for a man who can support all of his relatives. These days, it’s almost impossible to do so although a lot of men still try to practice the old proverbs.

What about you, which proverb is your favorite? Do you know any Burmese proverbs that you like as well?

Aung Ph Zaw