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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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.