Much ado about egg tarts

Pasteis de Belem. So well-loved all over Southeast Asia as the Portuguese egg tarts.  When in Portugal, I have to have ’em every day!

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The original egg tarts

The original pasteis tastes incredible!  I have a bit of a history with these egg tarts.  One of my assignments during the KFC launch in Myanmar was to sample all egg tarts across town (about five bakeries in total in Yangon) and study their price points and diameters.  You see, in some parts of Asia Pacific, egg tart sales make up about 22% of the chicken shoppe’s top line during festive times.  I find the butterfly effect simply fascinating: monks used egg whites to starch clothes and make pastries with leftover yolk; then separation of the state and the church forced the “conventional” pastries to the open market; centuries later, there I was, accidentally ended up with the duty to sell them to unsuspecting Myanmar consumers under a U.S. name.  I find all of it wacky and fascinating at the same time.

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Myanmar Art: Pyithu by Sue Htet Aung

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Artist – Sue Htet Aung
Exhibition Title – Pyithu
Venue – Nawaday Tharlar Gallery behind Park Royal Hotel

Sue Htet Aung’s new politically-charged series makes use of large chess pieces, drawing on an obvious analogy between political games and a game of chess.  This metaphor is so obvious that the painting with a woman easily identified as Aung San Suu Kyi is titled “Strategy and Hero.”  The artist asserts that some games reveal heroes who stand by the people.

Pyithu is a Burmese word for the people.  Ordinary people are at the very heart of this exhibition content.  When you talk about politics, you cannot escape the people.  The word itself originated from a Greek word meaning in relation to citizens.  The spirit of the people is hauntingly there in these paintings.

The one intriguing aspect of this series is its focus on the ongoing religious conflict and the politics behind it, with a trail of religious leaders walking abreast away from the viewer.  At a time when New York Times calls Aung San Suu Kyi a “coward” and a few protestors in Yangon are pressuring the United States Ambassador to leave because of the use of the word “Rohingya,” the portrayal of religious harmony and solidarity in the arts is a brave and peaceful message this community needs.

Go see for yourself at Nawaday Tharlar Gallery!

As my country Myanmar goes through a historic transformation, I have noticed a peculiar thing under the current of changes, and that is the political power play found in Myanmar’s politics.  Of course every nation on earth is engaged in tit-for-tat games, and I as an ordinary person have been engrossed in these games without even realizing.

In a nation, games are played out in religious, social and economic spheres.  At times, these games lead to neatly decided outcomes and stability, but at other times, games lead to conflict.  To this end, I have been witnessing both scenarios unfolding in Myanmar.  In these scenarios, I have seen the major religions come together in solidarity to tackle the social ills in my country, but I have also witnessed the unfortunate birth of religious extremism in Myanmar.  I have seen ordinary citizens like myself become a collateral damage in power negotiations way beyond our control, but I have also had the privilege of witnessing the birth of heroes, who choose to stand by the people in hard times.

It is my pleasure to present all of this sentiment in an art form in this exhibition.

– Sue Htet Aung

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Myanmar Memories at TEDxInyaLake

On my birthday, I received a note from a former supervisor and a mentor, in a Tyra-Bank style email as follows.  She had then just gotten the organizer license for TEDxInyaLake.

Your mission May, should you choose to accept it, is to be the Communications, editorial and marketing director of the inaugural TEDxInyaLake event.  In this mission, you lead the creation of a strong online presence of the event, including website content, a blog and social media, and promote the event to the public.

Your additional mission, should you choose to accept it, is to be a Curator as part of the curation team to set topics, select, invite and prepare speakers.

This email will self-destruct in five seconds.

Good luck, May.

A year later, here were are, with TEDxInyaLake videos, just edited and released over the weekend.

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Insignificant Others

Parami is a Burmese word derived from Sanskrit roughly meaning talent, aptitude or recollection of a past knowledge.

In Buddhist literature, Parami describes ten sets of skills or virtues, or the inherent aptitude for ten personality traits.  Patience, for example, is a virtue, or a type of Parami.  Some people are naturally more patient than others, but you can learn to become more patient even if it does not come naturally to you at first.

For those who are more familiar with the Western philosophy, Parami can be closely understood as the virtue described in Plato’s Meno, where Meno begins discussion by asking Socrates if virtue can be taught at all.  One idea that stands out to me – or something that comes to my mind at 3AM like right now! – is that Socrates responds to Meno by saying that virtue is a form of knowledge or wisdom you can acquire through recollection, made possible by dialog.  My high school made me read this document as the first assignment to highlight that class discussions, rather than lectures, are critical to learning.  To a young mind, I loosely understood the Buddhist idea of Parami as Plato’s description of the recollection of skills, knowledge or wisdom that is already in one’s possession.

Traditional Buddhist literature often goes on to describe a significant other or a soul mate as a “Parami PyaePhat” – one that complements or hones your Parami.  Your significant other complements you, not because you are broken and need to be fixed, but because by interacting with you, he or she challenges you and helps you grow, bringing out the best (the virtues) in you.  The right partner should make you want to become a better person.  If your partner talks during movies and you have come to make peace with it, your partner has essentially helped you grow your virtue of patience!  You are a better person for it!  (Which by the way is the reason I talk during movies, to make you a better person.)

This is a lovely concept.

In traditional Jartaka stories, men with successful and heroic endeavors often have their female cohorts, often blended to the background and described as “Parami PyaePhat.”  In modern times, you still see this concept at work.  Sheryl Sandberg tells women to choose their life partners wisely, quoting a study of women in the Fortune 500 List crediting their partners’ support as a critical element in success.

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From Mark’s Facebook Status

In modern relationships, people sometimes choose careers and push love to the back burner from time to time.  Trade offs – temporary or permanent – have to be made.  Our lives are so mobile these days that I would be hard pressed to name any individual who has never experienced some form of long distant love.  It’s simply part of the package.  In 2016, “I am not fit for long distant relationships” has replaced “I am not fit for a committed relationship.

When a couple manages to stay together and goes on to achieve great things together, they are “Parami PyaePhat” to each other.  Like the ones pictured on the cover of Time Magazine.

In this sense, if a couple has to sacrifice the union to achieve individual goals, isn’t it essentially a negative Parami by way of supporting each other’s goals in absentia?  You are doing your partner a favor by not being together.  Just like Madeleine and Leonard in Jeffery Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot.  That is the love story of our generation.  

So, make it count.

An Imperial Kitchen

Kitchens are the heart of a household.  One can assess a family’s internal matters by the organization of a kitchen.

At Seoul’s Changdeokgung Palace Complex, a similar idea holds true.

Constructed in the early 15th century, Changdeokgung Palace Complex today still bears the palatial grandeur of Korea’s long civilization, complete with detailed art work on panels and multi-layered roofs.  Visitors admire the royal garden and stately rooms with soft aesthetics found in numerous patterns showcased on the walls, partitions and lanterns.

My impatient local guide from an organized tour tells me about the special sand used in the palace compound, designed to create sound so that an intruding assassin can be immediately detected.  She also tells me about the designated seating chart in front of the main hall where advisors and aides sit in hierarchy denoted by the marked distance from the King’s throne.  “Will the King have to yell?” I ask.  It is a massive court after all.  The guide’s response: “NO!  The King does not need to do anything!

But I don’t care much for all that.

What really stands out to me is the imperial kitchen.  A medium-sized structure with minimalist interior work: white-tiled and sun-soaked through large glass windows.  Locked to modern day visitors, the kitchen’s traces of indoor plumbing and electricity are easily visible.  The kitchen’s classical artwork on the exterior masks the highly modern and simple arrangement of the interior space formerly used exclusively by royal servants.

Changdeokgung Palace is already famous for its indoor heating system through stoves built under each pavilion with smoke channeling out from a standalone chimney next to the structure.  Modern electricity came to South Korea just seven years after the invention of incandescent light by Thomas Edison.  Changdeokgung Palace was already electrified by 1894, which is quite impressive.

Yet, it is a curious thing to see that the modernity of electrification is often masked under traditional design elements as is the case with incandescent light bulbs in the main hall, or relegated to servants as is the case with the sophisticated kitchen operated only by servants.

Of course I am assuming this, but changes have always been uncomfortable.  Changes bring even more discomfort to those who are on the better end of keeping the status quo, like the royalties.

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Changdeokgung Palace Main Hall after electrification

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A proper industrial kitchen with plumbing and electricity

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Changdeokgung Kitchen

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A Korean guide explaining the palatial heating system but not too happy with my questions

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Doing some major lurking