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.

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

The Wall

Whenever I am outside of Myanmar, I take advantage of much faster Internet speed and gorge on one thing – Ted Talk videos.  They make the best accompany when I go about getting ready for bed in my otherwise hauntingly quiet hotel room after a long day of meetings.  Ted Talk is a great alternative choice when I do not want to hear about planes getting shot down or the spreading of Ebola on BBC News.  Call it a tool for productive apathy.

The Talk Talk that popped up this time around was by Parul Sehgal and her examination of envy in literature and social media:

“Jealousy is exhausting. It is a hungry emotion. It must be fed. And what does jealousy like? Jealousy likes information. Jealousy likes details. Jealousy likes the vast quantities of shiny hair, the cute little pencil case. Jealousy likes photos. That is why Instagram is such a hit…We live in envious times. We live in jealous times.”

– Parul Sehgal, editor at New York Times Book Review, An Ode to Envy Ted Talk

As a recent owner of an Instagram account, I am obviously very late to the Instagram game for my generation.  Because my job expects me to be just a touch keenly aware of the pulse of the popular culture, I have to have a social media presence, even though I initially find the idea of Instagram particularly perverse. 

We all know life does not look like perfectly touched up Instagram photos.  The social platform itself is designed for neither deeper communications nor expressions.  Instagram is not exactly about shared meanings, but it is about brand promotions, more so than other social media platforms.  The Instagram feed feels like seeing someone on the street without saying hi.  It does not allow for an explanation.

Because there is a thin layer between admiration and envy, I feel I have to tread Instagram waters very slowly, taking baby steps.  This blog post is basically a long-ass cry for help in how to use IG. 

In her Ted Talk, Parul Sehgal concludes that jealousy is a problem with geometry, not emotion.  A matter of where we allow ourselves to stand. We do not need to be resentful of others’ excellence. We can align ourselves.  What a lovely idea that makes you pause to think.

Jealousy is my most disliked emotion.  I do not like feeling jealous of others.  I do not want to be an object of envy myself.  I do not want a jealous partner, nor do I want to become one. It is a subtle form of manipulation when a romantic partner tries to get someone riled up and makes him/her jealous.  Jealousy makes workplaces unproductive.  It is stressful and drives people away.  It is like you are on the other side of a thousand layers of glass walls and there is nothing you could do to make better of the situation.

Paro, Bhutan
A wall at Kyichu Lhakhang, Paro, Bhutan
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Walls TS1 Construction
Downtown Yangon
More walls in downtown Yangon

Thought this song aptly captures the sentiment of this post:

The Wall by Yuck

Trying to make it through the wall
You can see me if you are tall
Looking over…

And I know that I am in space
And I know that it’s not real
It’s just the way I feel
Looking over…

Alcoholics with a reading problem

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An intern that loves making puns at work. College friends that loved speculating who among students would be which literary character. My half Polish office-mate from New York City who studied literature and preferred to stay up till 2AM to finish a book to going out. Several of my lady friends that like to throw themed parties in style [one of them successfully made several diplomats to dress up as Great Gatsby characters recently].

These are the people who came to my mind when I saw Tim Federle’s Tequila Mockingbird: Cocktails with a Literary Twist. As the title reveals, you can guess what this cocktail recipe book entails. Here are some of my personal favorites:

  • A Rum of One’s Own
  • Gone with the Wine
  • The Pitcher of Dorian Grey Goose
  • Gin Eyre
  • The Last of the Mojitos
  • Absinthe Shrugged
  • Love in the Time of Kahlua
  • The Joy Luck Club Soda
  • Bridget Jones’s Daiquiri
  • Crime and Punish-mint
  • Vermouth the Bell Tolls
  • Orange Julius Caesar
  • Olives ‘n’ Twist
  • The Old Man and the Seagram’s
  • A Cocktail of Two Cities

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Defense of The Marriage Plot

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Jack asked me one evening what book I was reading and what it was about. I happened to be reading the last book of Pulitzer Prize winner Jeffery Eugenides, The Marriage Plot, which came out a year ago.

The second part of the question, “What is this book about?” requires a longer answer. As I described the plot of the novel, I realized how unfair I was being. There is a lot more to the book than the plot, and there is a lot more to the plot than three main characters falling in love in a love triangle. I wouldn’t call this a romantic comedy, or even bother with ‘chick-lit,’ which is the impression Jack was in after I tried to sum up the 400 pages long novel in 2 sentences. That would not be fair to 9 long years of his work on this book.

Jack is not alone in his judgment (from my poor description). A quick browse on Good Reads will show two main types of reviews: very positive ones and equally negative ratings with people stopping 70 pages into the book, returning it to the library and calling it a poorly done rom com.

A character in the novel gets asked the same question as I did: What’s the book about? His response is this. “The idea of a book being “about” something was exactly what this book was against, and that, if it was “about” anything, then it was about the need to stop thinking of books as being about things.” (If this sounds pretentious to you, what else would you expect from a Derrida-reading English major playing cool at Brown University in 1980s?)

Another character revisits this idea by saying in a class discussion that “Books aren’t about ‘real life.’ Books are about other books…how do you write about something…when all of the writing that’s been done on the subject has robbed you of any originality of expression?”

That’s when all the signals fly out at you. With heavy intertextuality, you could say this novel is a post modern take on classics that have centered around marriage. The novel quickly mentions since the beginning the senior thesis of the protagonist Madeleine, examining the marriage plot in Austin and James.

If you stop reading at the end of the first part, it’s a cute, fun campus love novel with an empty, light tease on deconstructionism, where a cerebral, tall, dark and handsome lad ends up with a beautiful, witty lady of wealthy background after an obligatory rough patch.

But that’s not where Eugenides chooses to end the novel. A seemingly generic love novel with WASP protagonists is a deliberate choice to refer back to the old literature as a point of distinction. The long pages he has devoted to semiotics is more than an embellishment to a shell of a love triangle. Deliberation seems to be the key. It’s Eugenides you’re talking about.

In particular, I would like to draw attention to the criticism made against this novel in the rendering of Madeleine’s character. Criticism comes something along the line of this: despite the frequent lip service paid to feminism, Madeleine’s dilemma comes down to two suitors and her character recedes the more constructed facades of the two males.

At the end of the novel, the two men have not really resolved anything. They have figured out what they do not want to become but without any other alternatives. Mitchell finds out he doesn’t want to go to a divinity school, Leonard disappears into the wilderness altogether. Madeleine on the other hand has found her literary voice and a career direction: that she’s in fact a Victorian. Then there’s also this implication that deconstructionism is a mere phase – intriguing but a fad nonetheless.

More importantly, what is so un-feminist of Madeleine just because her character’s identity is closely juxtaposed against the identities of the two male lovers? Isn’t ‘Who should you love?’ an equally compelling factor in one’s coming of age as ‘What kind of life do you want to lead’? Instead of viewing women’s marital decisions through the lens of hypergamy, why can’t we see the choice of a woman’s life partner as a fundamental self-examination and reflection of her values, morals and aspirations?

So you will probably be very disappointed with Eugenides if you have read his previous work (I haven’t), already know he is brilliant and see nothing but a generic, formulaic love story line because you’re reading it as a generic, formulaic love story line. But he seems to be saying so much more. How much you enjoy this book will largely depend on how seriously you take the author’s deliberation in crafting the novel the way he has now.