“Ok. Ok. No
I was a
man. I had the freedoms of a Burmese
man: I wore pants, traveled without (many) boundaries, drank beer, and
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
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
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,
Min? I asked him for verification that
it was acceptable for me to be kicking and flopping about like a
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
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
The lens fit the
vision of the Burmese men vis-à-vis their interactions with my
companions and I: He grabbed her
breast, continuously, as if merely tapping on her shoulder to get her
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.
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
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
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
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
hesitation to their interactions with us as well, as if we carried the
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
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
buddy’s chest, but upon voluptuous handful it is impossible that his
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
we were men but to men our
freedoms can not mask our breasts or vaginas, and preexisting ill
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
with neighborhood children.