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 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.

 

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Kyi Lay Kyi: A Romp With (Attempted) Rapists

I have just finished watching Kyi Lay Kyi at a theater, and for the first time since I returned to Yangon, I am scared of walking around the city alone. And for the first time since my return, I am viscerally disgusted by the Myanmar people around me. This movie is supposedly a comedy.

I will admit, the audience laughed quite a lot. I will also admit that I am an elitist snob who thinks physical comedy is trite and using a high frame rate looks disgusting. While that is a matter of personal preference, what should not be denied is the fact that this movie has serious PROBLEMS.

Boiled down to its core, this is a movie about thwarted attempted rape. The plot follows a group of villagers, focusing on two men, the corrupt village head and a miserly villager, and two women, an unemployed gossip and a spinster loanshark. The village head likes the gossip, and the miser likes the loan shark. Their feelings are not returned. Due to some hijinks, the men accidentally confess their feelings to the wrong women, and in a surprising turn of events, the women actually respond positively. Apparently, consent is not sexy, so the two men endeavor to fix the situation. They fail because the both of them combined possess the communication skills of a speck of dirt.

The men of the village gather to discuss how to deal with this problem of actively consenting women. The village head says something along the lines of, “If you can’t seduce the woman you actually want, just go up to her bedroom and hit her on the head. I’m the village head, and I’ll overlook whatever crime you commit.” The audience laughs at this. The group of men decides that this rape plan is too rapey, and settle on a slightly less rapey rape plan. The two men convince the women who actually like them to elope in the night with the plan to switch women in the dark. The “punchline” of the movie is that the two would-be rapists don’t succeed, due to a “hilarious” mix-up that occurred while they were literally attempting to kidnap, forcibly marry, and presumably rape the two women who had expressed nothing but disdain towards them for the last hour and forty-five minutes of the movie’s runtime. “Unfortunately”, they marry the women who actually consent to marry them and are sad for the rest of their lives. Hilarious.

All of this is without mentioning all the other problematic aspects of this movie. These include a subplot where a villager leaves her alcoholic husband for another man, who is GASP! darker-skinned. The “joke” is that dark skin is better than alcoholism, but only just barely. Speaking of the dark-skinned villager, he is the only one in this movie accused of sexual impropriety, reaffirming racialized stereotypes, because he takes the literal clothes off his back to give to the loan shark to borrow some money. The other reoccurring gag takes place at a restaurant where the owner has hired a staff of disabled workers. He is portrayed as noble if naive. Unfortunately, the actors portraying the disabled characters and the script do not allow for the characters to have even a shred of dignity. The man who can’t speak keeps ending up in situations where he is supposed to speak to the customers, but can’t. The blind man repeatedly faces the wrong direction to respond to someone who is speaking to him from less than a meter away. The partially deaf? man (I think that’s what the movie is trying to portray) is only deaf when it’s funny. The man with POLIO slurs his speech and lacks fine motor control, and that’s the joke! It’s funny because his life is hard.

This movie is trash.

But bad movies get made all the time. What really upset me, and I was literally shaking as I walked out of the theater, was how much everyone else around me enjoyed it. What I interpreted as hateful and violent was a feel-good rom-com to the rest of the audience. It was deeply alienating. Arguably the majority of the romantic comedies in the US also promote very problematic messages, but this seems to be on a whole other scale. My family members asked me if I found the movie funny as we were walking out of the theater, and I said no. They decided that it must be because I didn’t understand it, and they are right. I don’t understand this at all.