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.

Continue reading

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.

“It was the bloody thaw”

Thaw (n) – A very brief positive moment in a troubled romantic relationship often causing individuals involved to get high on the ephemeral goodness and galvanizing them to go all in for higher stakes without directly addressing underlying deep-seated tensions

It was the bloody thaw!” said a woman just coming out of a two-year long divorce process, when asked why she married him in the first place.  “But after the thaw comes a long ice age.

Drinking a warm cup of tea with me at a corner table in Yangon’s Acacia Tea Salon, she did not seem bitter.  She had since landed her dream job, working for a cause that was dear to her.  She was dating someone new and attending swanky parties in town, surrounded by many friends and family.  As if the dissolution of a 20-year marriage were not enough hurt, the nastiness that surrounded the divorce had left her with financial burdens.  How could anyone be so callous to a loved one?  Yet, there she was, sipping her drink strongly, calmly and parting me with wisdom in the cool ambiance of a Yangon winter night.

It was a love marriage for them, each ticking the other’s check boxes at the time.  Issues which finally led to their downfall were always there.  The couple was cognizant of them, and yet they were genuinely in love and didn’t dwell too long on these signs.  Communications and more commitment would straighten out the differences in time, she had thought.  I have heard of women in troubled unions choosing to have more kids, hoping this would soothe the differences.  I have heard of people moving in together to resolve issues, or getting married to fix a particular kind of tension.  We always live in such different realities, yet in this particular case, more commitment was not the answer.

With the benefit of the hindsight, she admitted to having picked the wrong filter: these check boxes thought to lead to the kind of companionship desired.  The fluff changes over time.  You change.  Your parents change.  Twenty years later, she says that the only critical check box is if, behind all the fluff, your partner is still kind to you and can remain empathetic in times of conflict and disagreement.  Your partner maybe a great parent, a wonderful boss, and a kind neighbor.  But the real personality that counts is not how the person presents him/herself to the outer world, but how he/she relates to you intimately and internally.  The personality X is the one that matters.

I really needed to hear this insight from a more experienced Burmese cosmopolitan woman who was modern and professionally-driven.  We tend to be complicated beings.  In her case, at the time of marriage, she had felt she needed her husband to be “Burmese” in certain ways – to be able to taste ngapi, wear a longyi, or exude a certain kind of Burmese charm – to get along well with her parents.  But as she learned 20 years later, your Burmese parents only want you to be happy in the long run.  This is the kind of checkbox to be pondered with more care, depending on the larger context.  Probably “nice to have” but not critical.

Oh, my mentor lady adds.  Your partner also needs to be comfortable with himself.

To summarize,

  • Does your partner remain kind and empathetic to you in times of conflict?  What happens when you say no?  Do you act kind to your partner when you disagree with him/her?
  • Is he/she comfortable in his/her own skin?
  • Personality X is the one that counts.
  • Fluff changes over time, rethink your “filter,” develop your romantic intuition.
  • Be mindful of the “thaw.”  Throwing in more commitment will not fix underlying tensions.

I have felt an immense level of gratitude that she sat down with me to discuss her divorce, something so personal, and took time to warn me against the dangers of picking wrong filters.  Prior to this tea, I had only recently reconnected her at a birthday party, and we met through a work assignment when I was a summer intern.  She did not need to tell me about her divorce, but she did, and it gave me some guidance to questions I was grappling with as a professionally-driven Burmese woman in mid-twenties.

In my twenties, I do not know what I do not know.  I have not seen enough of the world or people.  The best anyone can do in their twenties is to find a fine balance between being intentional about relationships, coming up with meaningful check boxes, and not getting too hung up, too dogmatic about them all at the same time.

Happy Valentine!

Also, I have started a new tradition to donate to a cause of choice in honor of or in tribute to all former lovers during Valentine Week.  Join me.

Serial Monogamist

Winter in Yangon!

It is 63 degrees this morning! SIXTY THREE. No more rain and flooded streets. Yangon is gorgeous when it wants to be.

This week, I’m truly a free woman. FREE woman. Just to top things off, today is the day to claim my free tenth coffee at Bar Boon downstairs from my office, after I have purchased their coffee at exorbitant prices for the past nine times. Love it when things work out like that.

Today, I want to write about boys. Through the lens of an ambitious, heterosexual female.

Length of breakup negotiations: This really cute baby was born around the same time of my breakup.
Been a lifetime: This really cute baby in his sailor outfit was born around the same time of my most recent breakup.

When you are in early twenties, it’s easy to dismiss boys as unimportant or trivial. There is still graduate school to worry about, and you’re still learning the ropes at your workplace. Yet, at a time when Myanmar is going through a historic transformation, the society as a whole is changing. When it comes to dating, there is more than one protocol to follow for us Burmese ladies, and we’re getting pickier than to say yes to someone your parents ask you to. Arranged marriages are falling out of fashion and yet we also do not yet openly discuss dating with your parents – at least my family does not.

So amidst this change and confusion, where do we look to for guidance and advice when it comes to boys?

But we are not alone in feeling clueless.

David Brooks of New York Times comments that “[Society] is structured to distract people from the decisions that have a huge impact on happiness in order to focus attention on decisions that have a marginal impact on happiness. The most important decision any of us make is who we marry. Yet there are no courses on how to choose a spouse.”

Even if marriage isn’t your end goal and you are focused on your work, new studies suggest that you should not underestimate its role.

Upon one of the many long rural car rides, my former boss Jim Taylor of Proximity Designs, memorably said that my career trajectory will inevitably change depending on my life partner. Then, Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook and the most badass woman alive ever, has popularized the idea that “the single most important career decision that a woman makes is whether she will have a life partner and who that partner is.”

WHAT?!

And remember, Sheryl is not talking about hypergamy. Marrying up has lost its cool in 2013, as this Financial Times piece aptly articulates. Out with hypergamy, and embrace equal relationships. Grab this book written by Sharon Meers and Joanna Strober to hear their research on how to get to 50/50.

Lean In
Defining Decade

While Sandberg tells you to remember the professional impact of your pair-bonding decisions, Dr. Meg Jay tells you to be intentional about your love life as you are with work and get out of relationship ruts.

She says that most of today’s twenty-somethings grew up in broken families and unhappy marriages so we tend to be skeptical of this institution, but Dr. Meg Jay claims that marrying late is not necessarily marrying better. Did you know that statistics show that divorce rates stabilize once the age of marriage hits 25? Some of us don’t want to get married next year but it’s never too early to becoming aware of what you would make you happy ten years down the line.

Of course my mother prefers for me to date one person and marry him, like she has done and like so many Burmese men and women aspire to. Lucky for them. When my mother gets freaked out about my dating decisions, this is what I repeat to her from Lean In:

When looking for a life partner, my advice to women is to date all of them: the bad boys, the cool boys, the commitment-phobic boys, the crazy boys. But do not marry them. The things that make the bad boys sexy do not make them good husbands. When it comes time to settle down, find someone who wants an equal partner. Someone who thinks women should be smart, opinionated and ambitious.

If that’s what you want.

Hpaan Retreating

I am utterly exhausted.

Journey

Journeying against the encroaching dark rain clouds

Across a field of Buddhas

Across a field of Buddhas

On a motorbike

On a motorbike

But not altogether all alone.

But not altogether all alone.

In times of stress and pressure, people have different coping mechanisms.

The most effective way to reconnect with myself almost always comes down to two venues: (1) retreat into nature and (2) cooking something really hearty like pork chops. These along with support from my good friends and word of advice from mentors get me through the worst moments, helping me re-align myself.

This time, my way of restoring sanity came in the form of a hike up to Mt. Zwekabin in Hpaan, Karen State of Myanmar.

Still considered part of the “brown zone,” Hpaan is only recently open to tourists.  Downtown Hpaan was under grenade attacks just some two years ago.  Today, the city is under the jurisdiction of two administrations.  You will see grand offices of rebel forces and government offices, right next to a UNDP branch office, along the main road.

The caves in Hpaan are amazing.  Kaw-Kon Cave seems the most spectacular, for it still has the largest collection of original murals from the 12th century.  The hike up to Mt. Zwekabin, the view of 1,000 Buddhas planted at the base of the mountain, narrow steep steps that are slippery from rain; Hpaan humbles me and fills me with a sense of curiosity and wonder for larger things in life.  It is good to be reminded to live for something larger, deeper and more meaningful, out there, even if we do not exactly know what different things mean.

Hpaan is a bizarre little town.  And we did lots of bizarre little things.  Here is why Hpaan is so awesome and sad at the same time:

  • The name “Hpaan” literally means “vomited frog” or “frog vomit” based on the myth of an enraged mother dragon chasing after a frog for swallowing one of the baby dragon eggs. What a gangster frog!

 

  • My travel buddy – an American traveling to the newly peaceful region of Myanmar – LEFT HER PASSPORT! Look at us living our lives on edge.

 

  • Drank red wine at a tea shop. Out of those white tea cups they always have.

 

  • Hpaan’s most popular landmark and the most sacred site in the state, Mt. Zwekabin is said to be under the guardianship of a celestial pair of siblings because the mountain surface, texture and shape looks like a man and a woman.  Which makes me think that in Myanmar, people do not consider romantic love sacred at all. If this were in Latin America, a large protruding stone mountain shaped in the form of a man and a woman would be dedicated to romantic love.  The myth will be about a couple whose undying love turned them into stones to stay together forever even at the face of misery on earth, or something cheesy like that.  You know the spiel.  But in Myanmar, it’s platonic love that is treated with more respect.

 

  • In a country with world’s highest snack bite deaths, I cannot comprehend how a lot of people can be casually wading into knee-deep water in dark ancient caves of Hpaan, without any electricity.  I just do not get Hpaan people.

A little bit of light here, a little light there.

Clearly, here I am, Eat-Pray-Loving in Hpaan.  Boy troubles, like any other twentysomethings.  I made a mistake.  But isn’t now the time we are supposed to be making mistakes?  The earlier, the better.

Earlier this year, on a work trip, I got a chance to share a long car ride with Michael Joseph, then CEO of Vodafone and an incredibly wise man.  He commented that you are already doing really well if you are getting only 80% right.  The more important thing is not to keep repeating the same mistake.  All our perceptions of relationship and love will be colored by our parents’ experience.  But you live up to your life and things happen for a reason.  He then went on telling me about how a mistake and a loss in personal life led to a gain in career which then allowed him to be who he is today.  Smart life and love advice from wise business people.

Cheers to that.  And remember the 80-20 rule.

Powering through

Narrow path