Laminated dough

There is a Burmese saying that goes, “If you want good tea, let the picker climb the slope slowly.” Allow people and events to unfold in their own time. Don’t rush.

Which is why I am a coffee addict instead. Which is probably why Myanmar has been taking this long to hold (semi-)democratic elections or legislate basic social measures. Not in a rush at all. The country laid dormant for a good chunk of the 20th century and awakened to a new world of smart phones and severe opposition against genocides.

If you are like me, a third world native in and out of separate worlds with multiple visa stories, you will likely already have a degree of patience for ambiguity. Things take longer at checkpoints. Your weekend getaway plans have to be laid out with some advanced oversight. Waiting is part of the game. You are somewhat used to it.

Yet, my patience for ambiguity has never been tested to this degree as during this period. It is a common feeling for others right now. I have been trapped in dire circumstances before, even worried for my personal safety but there was also some novelty and adrenaline involved. Right now, it is just going through a protracted transitioning process day in and out. I would rather a quick snap, like ripping off a band-aid. People, teams, and flights are just taking a little while longer to get back to me. Just have to wait them out. Waiting.

The thing about waiting only for a future outcome is that you cannot find happiness in that corner of your head space. Happiness is neither in the past nor the future. Pursuit of happiness is present. I think I will be happier if I start viewing the act of waiting as an act, rather than just something that happens to me.

In the Burmese saying, you are allowing the tea picker – the external circumstances – to take their time and fall into place. Sometimes, you forget that you are that tea picker. You have to wait on yourself, too. Stillness is the move, but I just do not know how come I view my own time as so limited. It is a type of mania – this worrying about how I am running out of time to do and see things I want.

As I type this, I am waiting on my laminated dough so I can make breakfast croissants on this cool, rainy morning here in East London.

Whenever I am letting the dough stretch and rise, or when I am pickling something in a jar, or watering my seedlings to grow, I am usually able to practise what Buddhists call Upekkha – a form of gentle and loving detachment. I am not ignoring the dough or the plant. I am not trying to fight off something in fear or in restlessness. This is not a fight or flight mode. I am in care of a certain part of the process, while keeping my distance but switching my focus to something else that requires more active attention…like washing the dishes or writing this note while letting the dough thaw or rise.

Why can’t I do more of that in my day to day life?

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

Economy of Reputation

They say knowledge is power.

Knowledge about someone is in some ways power over them. Knowledge over a situation gives you the power to make a more informed decision. Information helps you make more strategically sound moves in a game. In this case, this blog – no matter how small the readership is – is power over me. I am exposing myself, am I not? Why then am I building my own case of vulnerability on the web? I am handing you – neatly anonymous behind your screen – the power to mock me. So mock me, if you wish.

At least, this attempt right here allows me to construct my own narrative, don’t you think? It gives one a small opportunity to express and believe in one’s own agency in some vague way.

Yangon business community is tiny. Personal and professional boundaries are often blurred. There are five or six bars people frequent to. You cannot help noticing some people even if you wish them a chance at their privacy and bear you the burden of knowledge. But Yangon does not work that way.

Therefore in Yangon, any attempt to take a stand (be it contemporary art or sailing) or be in public limelight is self-exposure to endless mockery. This is particularly true when you are higher up the social chain, as is the case with Ivan Pun and Carl Moe Myint in yesterday’s article in Wall Street Journal, titled “Meet the New Rich … In Myanmar,” written with every bit of condescension and sensationalism behind the author’s veiled attempt to highlight the entrepreneurial ventures of the two Myanmar princelings.

Responses are amusingly varied. Some beg the public to stop sharing the article because they believe the WSJ article is a publicity stunt calling for investors by Ivan and Carl. Some talk about how trickle-down economy does not work. Some note the growing wealth divide and resentment in new Myanmar.

Yet, you will notice that Ivan and Carl come from two reputable families off the sanctions list, compared with their peers who are banned from doing business with American companies. Both fathers are self-made businessmen rising to wealth from average backgrounds, hence the “New Rich.” Notably, Ivan and Carl are also younger brothers pursuing their own ventures separate from their fathers’ vast business empires, unlike their respective older brothers. They two are also easily accessible, hanging out at Mojo and Gekko, the same bars where the WSJ author critiquing Ivan and Carl’s wealth hangs out at on weekends in Yangon.

It is also hilarious that WSJ makes a point to comment that there is fast internet availability in Ivan’s Toyota, as if it is the most luxurious thing in the city where 52% of car owners drive Toyotas. And Carl is often seen hailing a cab after a night out. If WSJ’s intention is to critique the rising level of conspicuous consumption, there are far better suited candidates out there, refusing to speak to media at the suggestion of their highly paid PR firms. You will never hear about their shindigs. Now people are suddenly talking about a Wealth X report that came out a year ago. Trust me – there is no shortage of conspicuous consumption in this city, but probably not these two. The two heirs WSJ picked on simply make a low hanging fruit because they put themselves out there. I would feel cheated if I were them.

Does anyone ever hear about Asia World these days, admittedly the largest client to Bell Pottinger in Myanmar? Yangon chatters circulate news of Bell Pottinger staff walking into a local newspaper and asking them to never write about their client, because they are going through an image reform. I bet they will never let their clients speak to WSJ, for smart reasons.

Reputation, often imbued with vulnerability and self-exposure, is a double-edged sword, at the end of the day. It is what people associate with you and talk about when you are not in the room. Disclosure and self-exposure often land you in tricky situations, yet align you with those having similar values, for better or for worse.