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“Ok. Ok.  No Problem.”

Androgyny in Old Bagan

 Amy Dewitt

Burmese manTo Burma, I was a man.  I had the freedoms of a Burmese man: I wore pants, traveled without (many) boundaries, drank beer, and played chin low on the streets with other (much more talented) men.  It did not occur to me until a second chin low game: I was playing with only one other boy, and a group of giggling girls and women kept creeping closer and closer to the spectacle.  I ignorantly invited them to play, much to their dismay, and was quickly reprimanded by my male opponent.  “Oh no!  Not women.  No women can play chin low.”

Well, what am I then?  I understand the difference between my gender role and that of the Burmese women, but what was my sex in the eyes of my Burmese friend, Aung Kyaw Min?  I asked him for verification that it was acceptable for me to be kicking and flopping about like a tap-dancing flamingo, and he assured me, “OK. OK.  No problem.”  It became clear throughout my travels that Western women come parading into Burma with the air of a proud, cheroot smoking, bittel root spitting Burmese man.  It is completely unintentional; it’s not inconsideration, merely a different lens.  Where do we fit into this gender-bending phenomenon as women wanderers?

The lens fit the vision of the Burmese men vis-à-vis their interactions with my travel companions and I:   He grabbed her breast, continuously, as if merely tapping on her shoulder to get her attention in passing conversation.  He didn’t even flinch.  First time: Hmm…awkward, but maybe he doesn’t realize where his hands are.  Second time: More awkward – an annoyance this time.  He must not understand.  She better tell him.  Third time…fourth time…fifth, sixth: Alright.  He must not have heard her. She just removes his hand for him.  That’ll do.  Another clutch: It’s my turn to verbalize her discomfort.  Communication failure.  Anger finally boiled up into motion; at the next hand-to-chest contact she shot up and disappeared into the crowd of the Pagoda Festival.

Chin low boysWe found her, and he found us.  He wanted an explanation; he had no understanding of what had just transpired.  As we were tootling on back toward our beds via rickety rental bicycles, Win Aung dispensed his polemical confusion.  I gave him an anatomy lesson on respect – exhibiting areas of a woman’s body that are not meant to be touched in conversation.  He was dumbstruck.  His explanation was as follows: “OK. OK.  No problem.  This is not problem for me.  I know it is OK.  I am not a bad man.  It is her [the violated’s] problem.”  Within the confines of a language barrier, I told him that it is a problem when someone asks you to stop – no matter how comfortable you are or confused you are at the request – and you do not abide by such wishes.  She was uncomfortable and made it clear in all available ways, bottom line.  He did not understand.  Our compromise was a tearful apology on his part, and we let him safely escort us to our guesthouse to pacify his woes.   

Her comfort zone had been breached, under any context.  Any physical contact between unmarried Burmese men and women is rare.  But, the boundaries between Burmese men overlap as concentric circles versus the male-to-male reserve held in our own culture.  In Burma, a common conversation initiator was a hand to chest rested there long after attention was grabbed.  We did not hold the anticipated level of reticence around the men that was expected to be held by  the local women.  The majority of those women carried that hesitation to their interactions with us as well, as if we carried the dominant role in society.  But we do not; we are all women spinning on a patriarchal global axis – geography, be damned - regardless if in the United States or crouched in a festival crowd in Bagan.  This is the same axis that spins many Burmese women into the world of trafficking as Awatsaya Panam investigates in Migrant Domestic Workers: From Burma to Thailand; these are the invisible women of Burma.  Perhaps it was our blunt freedoms that made them hesitant to interact with us.  Perhaps in the midst of our blunt freedoms Win Aung grasped at the equivalent of his buddy’s chest, but upon voluptuous handful it is impossible that his gears did not click into the rhythm of reality.

What is our role as women wanderers?  To place realistic trust in the people with whom we have a rare opportunity to make connections.  Safety.  To Burma we were men but to men our freedoms can not mask our breasts or vaginas, and preexisting ill intentions will leap through any gender-bending loophole.  We said goodnight to this man, and scoffed at the salty, ersatz tears on his cheeks.  And in the morning, we put on our pants, gave a cheer to Burmese beer, lit up a cheroot, and frolicked with neighborhood children.

Burmese beer
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