Bodily Discomfort (Or Please Stop Talking About My Body)

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┬áthis 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.

 

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The Myanmar Work Ethic (Alternatively, The Ethics of Work in Myanmar)

The United States is a land devoted to the notion that the customer is always right and workers are there to provide service with a smile. Sometimes, this leads to disheartening but hilarious websites where workers share their worst customer service experiences with the world. Other times, this ideology is simply disheartening.

I’d like to believe that despite living for almost two decades in the US, I have not internalized too much of this mindset. I’d also like to believe that I am a nice person, but every once in a while I can feel the inner angry suburban soccer every American develops inside them getting agitated and getting ready to demand to see a manager.

The other day, I attempted to ride a trishaw to go visit a friend. For those of you who are unfamiliar, a trishaw is like a rickshaw but designed in a way that makes it even more dangerous to ride, and is pictured above. My desire to take this particular mode of transport was largely borne out of nostalgia and a romanticised vision of myself being whisked around the city feeling the sun on my face and the exhaust fumes in my hair. And I say attempt because I was denied the opportunity to ride said trishaw. After walking to the end of my street, I approached a cluster of trishaw drivers sitting in the vehicles and asked them to take me to a boba place less than thirty streets away. A twenty-minute walk according to Google maps. The four drivers, though not currently in the process of earning money, or in a situation where their services were being clamored for, told me that that was too far and too much work and that I should take the bus instead. I walked past them and immediately got into a taxi.

Now, I’m not advocating for a world where I should be given whatever I want so long as I can pay for it, but I do believe I should be able to purchase whatever good or service someone is selling so long as I ask politely and can pay for it. Trishaw drivers do not make a lot of money, and it’s not even like I was trying to haggle. And… this is their┬ájob? But I suppose situations like this and a slightly less imbalanced power dynamic between buyer and seller is part of the charm of living here.