Being back in Myanmar has made me hyper-aware of my body.
Adrenaline spikes accompany every attempt I make to cross a street. It often takes a few seconds of instinctual groping before I will realize the car I’m in doesn’t have a seatbelt. I’ve largely given up shopping for cute premade clothes after realizing that an American medium is a Burmese XXL. Mosquitoes can’t seem to get enough of me. Every day is filled reminders that my body is not comfortable in Myanmar.
But what makes me the most uncomfortable is hearing people commenting so bluntly (and in my opinion judgementally) on one another’s appearance. Observations and guesses on weight, racial heritage, height, and other aspects of appearance are normal, and even part of polite conversation, here. Despite logically knowing that talking about people’s bodies isn’t considered rude in Myanmar, I find it hard to get over this sense of second-hand embarrassment that overcomes me when I hear people talking this way.
I don’t participate in these kinds of conversations. It’s hard for me to think of a less interesting topic to talk about. Yet, that doesn’t stop strangers, acquaintances, and family from dissecting everything from the angle of my ears to the width of my individual hair strands to my weight and/or skin color (usually both), or an innumerable number of other physical characteristics I would never think to even notice in another person. It makes me uncomfortable.
Within this discomfort, any fantasies of cultural reintegration disappear. I’ve realized that it is not that the people I’m interacting with and I have different habits. We have entirely different values.
There is so much naked longing and disdain involved in conversations about appearance here. This is especially true when it comes to skin color. It’s often made explicitly clear that I am treated well because I am lighter than the average Burmese person. It’s a feature that people value, so much so that strangers on the street will tell me to use an umbrella to “preserve” my color. I am granted immense social and economic benefits in this country and others are disadvantaged for something almost entirely controlled by genetics and circumstance. And instead of having conversations about the unjust nature of this system, people are much more interested in investing their time and energy talking about how they wished they looked different or what they are doing to try and change their appearance.
This is not to say that the US is some utopia where people are judged solely for the content of their character but there seems to be much less open disdain for people who do not conform to society’s beauty standards, a greater variety of understanding of what it means to be attractive, and a social agreement to try, even if we often fail, not to put too much value on someone’s appearance. I’ve also been lucky, I think, to have been able to surround myself with people who want to talk about current events, the latest books they’ve read, their pets and children, how their work is going, and a hundred other topics before they would consider discussing if a mutual friend had lost or gained weight. Given enough time, I am confident that I will be able to build a network of friends like that again in Myanmar, but it does feel like that is a much more difficult task here.