Pressurised choices

Except probably for introverts with a steady job and without underlying health conditions in a comfortable lock down arrangement, this has not been an easy year.

My lock down experience has been both healing and growing. Crazy homesick for Yangon, separated from loved ones and physically alone, fending for myself here in London. With a ton of walking; so the new HAIM album is literally my quarantine summer anthem this year.

All this time in hand and a dearth of distractions make for a perfect storm for self-reflection … and overthinking of my life choices dating back to my college graduation year. Down the rabbit hole of the Quarantine Subconscious, I wake up at 5am these days when I’d rather stay asleep with questions like:

  • Is impact investing a hoax? Is climate-financing the new green washing? Is it too late? If so, should I be caring more about money?
  • Should I cut some slack with boys, or am I right to protect myself? Did I fold too soon when I could have just checked? Would I care without quarantine?
  • Would I have been happier as a suburban mom in the American South vs. my lonely quarantine existence in London with an expired Schengen visa?
  • How would my life be different if I had taken the offer to work for a hospital chain or a Fintech company close to family in Myanmar?
  • Have I been living my best life? Have I been true to myself?
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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.

Myanmar interfaith marriage ban: Women – not monks – decide who they can have sex with

Conflicts. Wars. Power struggle among men. Sometimes, it happens in the name of honor. Sometimes in the name of protecting women. But really it boils down to nothing more than the classic male competition. Us against them. Thinking goes something along the line of it will reflect poorly on us if my/our women are with them. Marking of territories. How women are feeling doesn’t matter, doesn’t enter into the equation.

Who women have sex with, when and how remain some of the oldest and most clichéd preoccupations of societies across the world, especially so in a long isolated country like Myanmar. It is a public affair. Religious leaders want to have a say in it. Politicians want to chip in their two/three cents. Patriarchal institutions want to confine what women shall and shall not want or do.

A one-month old draft legislation in Myanmar now wants Burmese women to get permission from parents and local authorities before marrying someone of a different faith. She can be put in prison for ten years should she fail to abide by the law. The draft law is now being led by a political party and a monk, saying “this law is my dream” and that he is just trying to “protect women” and his nation. Well, the draft law is surely a nightmare for those that treasure liberty, gender equality and individual rights.

There are no safe clinics for Myanmar women to give birth or get necessary healthcare. Girls are usually the first in a household to be taken out of school when faced with economic pressures. About ten percent of families in the Ayeyarwaddy Delta are having to discontinue education of their children because they do not have enough money for food purchase. Alcoholism is on the rise, and Myanmar is one of the few last standing countries in Southeast Asia (and the world) without proper legal protection against domestic violence. A comprehensive gender equality legislation is far from reality, and the focus group was asked to change the name of the draft law on gender equality to a new name that includes “protection.” Why are politicians and religious leaders so concerned with interfaith marriages given the scope and depth of present challenges?

Though I believe in core principles of Buddhism, recent events in Myanmar makes me ponder a Margaret Atwood quote: “Any religion is a shadow of God. But the shadows of God are not God.” And it escapes most sane people when Buddhist monks are forcing women to seek patriarchal permission with legal implications of ten years in prison to make an important life decision such as marriage.

It is as if the society doesn’t trust the ability of a Burmese woman to make decisions for herself. The male knows better. And the funny thing is that this assumption is not even hidden. The chairperson of the Theravada Dharma Network blatantly stated as follows: “Our Buddhist women are not intelligent enough to protect themselves.”

Thanks, but no thanks.

Responsibility to yourself means refusing to let others do your thinking, talking, and naming for you…it means that you do not treat your body as a commodity with which to purchase superficial intimacy or economic security; for 0ur bodies to be treated as objects, our minds are in mortal danger. It means insisting that those to whom you give your friendship and love are able to respect your mind. It means being able to say, with Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre: “I have an inward treasure born with me, which can keep me alive if all the extraneous delights should be withheld or offered only at a price I cannot afford to give.

Responsibility to yourself means that you don’t fall for shallow and easy solutions – predigested books and ideas…marrying early as an escape from real decisions, getting pregnant as an evasion of already existing problems. It means that you refuse to sell your talents and aspirations short…and this, in turn, means resisting the forces in society which say that women should be nice, play safe, have low professional expectations, drown in love and forget about work, live through others, and stay in places assigned to us. It means that we insist on a life of meaningful work, insist that work be as meaningful as love and friendship in our lives. It means, therefore, the courage to be “different;” not to be continuously available to others when we need time for ourselves and our work; to be able to demand of others – parents, friends, roommates, teachers, lovers, husbands, children – that they respect our sense of purpose and our integrity as persons. Women everywhere are finding the courage to do this more and more and we are finding that courage both in our study of women in the past who possessed it and in each other as we look to other women for comradeship, community and challenge. The difference between a life lived actively, and a life of passive drifting and dispersal of energies, is an immense difference. Once we begin to feel committed to our lives, responsible to ourselves, we can never again be satisfied with the old, passive way.”

– Adrienne Rich, Claiming on Education, 1977

Adrienne Rich (1929-2012)

A universe that includes you can’t be all bad, but does it?

Quiz time. What do you get when you try to summarize Eat, Pray, Love into three passages while you are in a very bad mood? Answer: “Postcards” by Margaret Atwood, who is of course a little darker and better than Elizabeth Gilbert.

That was a sloppy comparison, I admit, but you get what I mean. Both works reflect disintegration, decay, and disappointment while wandering about strange, new lands in solitude. And both make perfect reads after any confusing breakup. It is also clear the postcard-writer in Atwood’s poem is not visiting some charming little gelatoria in Italy. Atwood’s poem is gender-neutral while Gilbert clearly appeals to upper middle class women from the US. In fact, Atwood is not even limiting the relationship of the postcard-writer to be that of a romantic nature. So, please feel free to use your imagination and do not let me color your experience with the poem if it is new to you.

What is it about the impulse to travel alone after a breakup? An attempt to escape? A way to rejuvenate? To pause and think? To prove you could still survive fine on your own? Just to maintain an aura of staying productive while you are feeling so distraught to do your real work?

To break up is to disperse, separate and go in different directions. It makes perfect sense that you feel compelled to go somewhere. Packing up and leaving for a destination seem dramatic enough that you feel you are accomplishing something, but normal enough that you can fit the journey relatively easily into your life. Traveling to new places lets you drown yourself out in bursting stimuli coming at you through all different senses, and distracts you from your troubles. Hey here is a new business idea: “Newly-singles tour packages.” You can have one arrangement for the breakup initiator and market differently to those on the receiving ends. Word.





I’m thinking about you. What else an I say?
The palm trees on the reverse
are a delusion; so is the pink sand.
What we have are the usual
fractured coke bottles and the smell
of backed-up drains, too sweet,
like a mango on the verge
of rot, which we have also.
The air clear sweat, mosquitoes
& their tracks; birds & elusive.

Time comes in waves here, a sickness, one
day after the other rolling on;
I move up, it’s called
awake, then down into the uneasy
nights but never
forward. The roosters crow
for hours before dawn, and a prodded
child howls & howls
on the pocked road to school.
In the hold with the baggage
there are two prisoners,
their heads shaved by bayonets, & ten crates
of queasy chicks. Each spring
there’s race of cripples, from the store
to the church. This is the sort of junk
I carry with me; and a clipping
about democracy from the local paper.

Outside the window
they’re building the damn hotel,
nail by nail, someone’s
crumbling dream. A universe that includes you
can’t be all bad, but
does it? At this distance
you’re a mirage, a glossy image
fixed in the posture
of the last time I saw you.
Turn you over, there’s the place
for the address. Wish you were
here. Love comes
in waves like the ocean, a sickness which goes on
& on, a hollow cave
in the head, filling & pounding, a kicked ear.

– Margaret Atwood

A Post on Love

Some women, like my mom, does not believe in love. She only believes in the right and the wrong husband. Some women, like me, believe love and relationship are two different and even separate entities.

However, some women, like Margaret Atwood or Regina Spektor, believe in the absolute existence of love. These women are not naive – they are aware of the inflated, commercialized abuse of the concept of love. They know that love usually pains them. But they have the power to appreciate, recognize and respect the miraculous state of mind when love prevails, when both parties involved discover that not only do they have that rarity, but they also share it. Nine out of ten cases fail and being on both ends suck. Some of us will never be the one special case. But when that one successful model replicates itself, it makes this whole messy, intricate human reproductive strategy – with its flaws, heartbreaks, unrequited love, guilt and sexual jealousy – worthwhile.

“Then there’s the two
of us. This word
is far too short for us, it has only
four letters, too sparse
to fill those deep bare
vacuums between the stars
that press on us with their deafness.
It’s not love we don’t wish
to fall into, but that fear.
this word is not enough but it will
have to do. It’s a single
vowel in this metallic
silence, a mouth that says
O again and again in wonder
and pain, a breath, a finger
grip on a cliffside. You can
hold on or let go.”

Margaret Atwood, from Variations on the Word Love