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 job? 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.

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Going “Home”

“GO BACK TO (insert country here… usually China or a country the U.S. is currently bombing)!”

Is something I, and many other Asians in the United States, have heard screamed at us. Ironically, though the term “Asian-American” encapsulates such a dizzyingly diverse composition of peoples so as to be nearly meaningless, experiencing anti-Asian racism is one of the few things Asian-Americans actually have in common. Well, that and the love of rice and putting sewing materials into Danish Butter Cookie tins.

This kind of racial harassment, in addition to living in a country with a long history of anti-Asian immigration laws and anti-Asian violence, leads many Asian-Americans to feel as if they do not fully belong. I’ve certainly felt this way many times in my life, and it is a feeling that is complicated by the fact that I am an immigrant. Sure, I am a US citizen now, pay taxes, vote, and volunteer at my local elementary school, but there is a deep sense in me that the US is not my homeland. So, with the rise of President Trump and a quarter-life crisis in full swing, I’ve decided to go back “home”.

This blog will be a series of observations of Myanmar through the experiences of someone is is not quite a foreigner.

Side note: I was probably supposed to publish this post on this blog before posting anything else, but whatevs. We can be rebels here.

 

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.