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.

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.