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.

Society Notes: Name-Dropping

Today is a big day in Myanmar politics.

Power was transferred democratically to a new president this morning.  As April’s Thingyan New Year festival draws closer, Myanmar begins anew with a new President, a new administration, a new Stock Exchange (which started operating just last week), and a new fiscal year – the one where people actually start paying tax!  Myanmar with new beginnings!

Like Myanmar, I am personally morphing into a new phase, with new opportunities thrown my way.  Would not be so bad to get out of the country for a little bit after being stationed here for four years now although I would definitely miss comforts of home.  Still won’t be so bad to move away from this suffocating Yangon society.

On that note, I think about what people are up to this Thingyan New Year holiday, remembering a tiny, little passage from J.D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey.

This is of course in Franny’s voice, who seems as much tired and exhausted with her scene.

…I know when they’re going to be charming, I know when they’re going to start telling you some really nasty gossip about some girl that lives in your dorm, I know when they’re going to ask me what I did over the summer, I know when they’re going to pull up a chair and straddle it backward and start bragging in a terribly, terribly quiet voice – or name-dropping in a terribly quiet, casual voice.  There’s an unwritten law that people in a certain social or financial bracket can name-drop as much as they like just as long as they say something terribly disparaging about the person as soon as they’ve dropped his name – that he’s a bastard or a nymphomaniac or takes dope all the time, or something terrible.

Be honest.  You have been there too.  In Franny’s place.  Here’s another.

History and Her Story: The White Umbrella

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When an elderly man close to political circles saw me with this book, he was not shy to express his disapproval, “That book is so distorted.”  He served in the military for years and seemed to hold contrasting views with me on just about every major issue I could think of.  That’s when I knew this book had to be a gem.  Published 17 years ago, this book deserves a lot more publicity than what it has now.

Throughout my public school years, I did not learn history, only propaganda.

For instance, students are familiar with the national holiday celebrated on February 12th.  When I was in middle school, I remember entering state-sponsored, city-wide essay contests in honor of this Union Day. An official version of the store places Bogyoke Aung San at the center of this event, whereas this memoir presents this event as originating from a discussion among Tai princes of Shan states on how to best prepare for their autonomy upon the British departure.  Aung San was invited as a guest to the Pang Long Conference on Union Day, not its organizer, at the suggestion of student groups in Taungyi.

Yet, the diverse ethnic voices and details of the agreement were never highlighted in my classes.

If you grew up in the nineties in Myanmar, you are also familiar with the Myanmar government’s narrative of “a national unity.”  In the mainstream narrative that centers the majority “Burman” over a diverse multitude of cultures, only unity is a core value, when in fact it is only recently that the country as a whole is ruled with the power concentrating on Rangoon and later Naypyitaw. The British colonialism has been blamed for its “divide and conquer” style, and yet most of the Shan States long enjoyed their own autonomous ways and freedoms, before the British was ever in the picture.

Knowing is a process.  I guess I was sort of always aware of all this, but did not give much thought to this bias until recently, as embarrassing as it is to admit this now.  Only when you travel to Chin, Karen, and Shan States and notice how the local identity is held differently and how they do not buy into the official history, and only when you read books like this, that you painfully realize how the faulty versions of events have been drummed into your head from early on.

This book is perhaps one of my favorites I have come across on the history of Myanmar, which is usually told from the majority Burman assumptions.  This book gives an important perspective to meditate on.  Moreover, Sao has lived a remarkable, badass life!  She was born a Tai princess, became a First Lady of the first modern President of Burma, and later a member of the Myanmar Parliament, a rare feat for a woman in 1950s.  On top of all this, after her husband and  youngest son were killed, Sao went underground and became a leader of Shan State Army in sixties.  Such a strong, feisty woman!

Highly recommended. For more alternate histories of Myanmar / Burma, check out this reading list at GoodReads.

Here, Sao describes her visit to Rangoon under the British rule before Japanese came in.  Yangon / Rangoon is full of remarkable tales.

Sao also occasionally accompanied her husband to Rangoon.  There was a good unsurfaced road to the capital now, though they preferred to travel by train.  It took two days, a slower journey but less dusty and cramped.  When they arrived their schedule typically included state dinners and meetings at Government House, the official residence of the Governor of Burma.  It was a palatial three storey Victorian mansion set in a beautifully tended garden on an ample square of land that stretched all the way from Ahlone Road to the corner of Windsor and Prome.  Alighting from a chauffeured limousine at the mansion’s grand doors, they were greeted by a nine-gun salute, an honor prescribed in the prince’s Writ of Authority.

Government House was not the only building of note.  Under the colonialists, Rangoon had become Southeast Asia’s foremost city.  The new buildings south of the railway station were highly elegant: the Court House, the Port Commissioner’s Building, Grindlay’s Bank, the Bank of Hong Kong and Shanghai, and the Bank of India.  Colonnaded and corniced, the gleaming white facade of the Strand Hotel faced the Rangoon River, where steamers crowded the jetties.  From here, the country’s major exports made their way down the river to the sea.  Burma was the world’s foremost rice exporter.  There was oil, too, carried by pipeline 376 miles from the Yengangyuang fields of north-central Burma, Britain’s largest far eastern oil discovery.

In contrast to the edifices of bureaucracy and finance, the country’s parliament building was a small two-storey building with an unadorned pyramid-shaped tile roof, as plain looking as an army mess hall.  Nearly invisible from Maha Bandoola Street, it sat within the Quadrangle, a square of land surrounded by three wings of the massive Secretariat Building.

Within the Secretariat’s endless corridors, Britain’s Chief Secretary presided over ten Secretaries, three Joint Secretaries, five Deputy Secretaries, nine Under-Secretaries, five Assistant Secretaries, seven Registrars, and a host of support staff of the Indian Civil Service.  They lived by the Secretariat Code, a huge volume crammed with correction slips and addendums.  Their windows overlooked the tiny parliament building, a fitting architectural arrangement.  The Secretariat was the source of the country’s true governance, not parliament.

Not far from the Secretariat was City Hall and Sule Pagoda.  Squat and bulbous, the pagoda sat at the hub of the several busy streets, the widest being Sule Pagoda Road.  From morning till past sunset, the spicy-sweet smell of Indian curries and the garlicky steam of Chinese noodles drifted onto the road.  The restaurants defined Rangoon’s cosmopolitan nature for, above all, this was a city of immigrants: 250,000 Indians and 40,000 Chinese outnumbered the 160,000 Burmese, who were mostly landless laborers.

The British influence skirted Sule Pagoda and traveled like a vein north, following the flame trees of Prome Road past the Governor’s mansion, the Good Shepherd Convent and Girl’s School, the exclusive Pegu Club.  Haunts of the wealthy clustered around the city’s two picturesque lakes – the swimming and boating club on Royal Lake, and the yacht club on Victoria Lake, which the locals knew as Inya Lake.  Between the lakes lay Golden Valley, a suburb of well-built mansions and bungalows.  Just east of Golden Valley, imported thoroughbreds thundered around the Race Course’s grass oval.  In a satellite town beyond the city’s northern limit was Mingaladon International, one of the most modern airports in Asia.

Rangoon was impressive but Sao didn’t enjoy her visits.  She hated the city’s heat; even the water tasted too warm.  At get-togethers, conversation was limited to a bewildering tangle of political gossip; the Burmese parliament had become a nest of corruption, intrigue and racial tension.  Trying to follow all the charges and counter-charges in the newspaper made her head ache.

This-Is-Not-A-Book-Review Review: A Burmese Heart

I met Vanessa at one of those Yangon’s networking sessions accompanying a report launch back in late 2013.

Though I could instantly tell her sharp mind from our very first meeting at the crowded British Club bar, I had no idea then that Vanessa had been working on a manuscript the entire time.  After three years of interview sessions, tape transcribes, writers blocks, and many frustrated evenings of staying in to Skype with her editor through flimsy Myanmar Internet, Vanessa has finally made her manuscript available to public on Amazon earlier this month.

This newly published book A Burmese Heart recounts a personal journey of one woman – Vanessa’s grand mother – born and married into a political family during turbulent times in modern Myanmar history. Raised as the daughter of Myanmar’s first modern Prime Minister and wife of one of the Thirty Comrades, Tinsa Maw Naing shares her stories of adventuring in Rangoon as a child, exiling to Cambodia as a new mother and befriending socialite inmates in the infamous Ye Kyi Aing prison as a devoted wife linked to an underground movement.

Too often, history is viewed through men’s eyes both domestically and internationally.  It is often too easy to overlook the personal and political experience of women such as Ma Tinsa Maw Naing as mere props in historical accounts.  It takes agency to share stories and speak up in this fashion.

Vanessa did a reading of a few chapters from her work at TS1 Gallery last year, at an event full of personal memories, nostalgia and transitions.  I have yet to lay my hands on a copy of this book, but judging from this reading event, I would totally read this book.

Again, I make ZERO commission on this book – Become a Facebook fan of A Burmese Heart here, and download it to your Kindle here.  Myanmar Book Center will distribute the book locally soon.  Enjoy an excerpt below.

“There is a fable going back before the time of the Buddha, when the first kings ruled this country. We were a poor people then and there were other kings desiring to fight us for our land, so the Burmese prayed to the gods for a favor. They answered our prayers and granted us not swords, but the hearts of gods to conquer our enemies. The young king who ruled during that time decided to use his power in his first battle, his heart beating so loudly and fiercely that the earth split and mountains shattered, trapping the invading armies. He continued to conquer his wars but he also grew weaker each time, his young man’s body no match for the strength of a god’s heart. The king collapsed on the eve of his most important battle, not dying from an enemy’s blade but from exhaustion and misunderstanding his own power. Now what do you think this phrase means, a Burmese heart?”

“That the hearts of gods are not meant for mortals,” I whispered.

“Right. It also means that we as a people, and especially you, are blessed and cursed with great strength. You must be sure to use it wisely and sparingly, ” May May cautioned. She left me alone with this knowledge, the room silent except for my jumping pulse.

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Final Cover copy

Society Notes: Vanity Lessons

There is this one passage from a novel read last year, and I have forgotten about it for a long time, until now.

As is the case with every other society, certain segments of Yangon can be a bit like descriptions from such novels, even though this novel is has its fictional setting in Canada almost a century ago.

Indeed, the basic rule of the game remains the same – no matter the gender – and can even be found in business contexts, except that the modern, professional version of rules takes a different format.

Ever wonder why $3,000 suits exist?  Newsflash: It’s not just the thread count. Or that time when someone at work said to me, “Never split the bill, because it says you do not have money. Always take care of the bill, or let the other party take care of it,”

At another time, someone more senior than me advised me to wear diamonds and not pearls because “pearls are weak,” as I drew up a plan to handle workplace bullying.

Like it or not, vanity lessons have always been an essential part of human societies.

So I actually chuckled when I read this passage for the first time last year:

…Winifred had insisted on these outfits.  She said I’d need to dress the part, no matter what my deficiencies, which should never be admitted by me.  “Say you have a headache,” she told me.  “It’s always an acceptable excuse.”

She told me many other things as well. “It’s all right to show boredom,” she said.  “Just never show fear.  They’ll smell it on you, like sharks, and come in for the kill.  You can look at the edge of the table – it lowers your eyelids – but never look at the floor, it makes your neck look weak.  Don’t stand up straight, you’re not a soldier.  Never cringe.  If someone makes a remark that’s insulting to you, say Excuse me? as if you haven’t heard; nine out of ten they won’t have the face to repeat it.  Never raise your voice to a waiter, it’s vulgar.  Make them bend down, it’s what they’re for.  Don’t fidget with your gloves or your hair.  Always look as if you have something better to do, but never show impatience.  When in doubt, go to the powder room, but go slowly.  Grace comes from indifference.”  Such were her sermons.  I have to admit, despite my loathing of her, that they have proved to be of considerable value in my life. 

Atwood, Margaret. The Blind Assassin. New York: Anchor Books, 2000, pg. 235.