This has been something that I’ve been meaning to write about as it’s something that impacts me daily living in Myanmar. Here, discussions or observations about someone’s weight, age, and race are common place. They actually are topics of small talk with just about anyone–friends, strangers, taxi drivers, my students. From growing up in the United States where weight, age, and race are never casually discussed, these comments are jarring for me. It’s taken me time and self-reflection to understand the depth of emotional trauma that has amounted regarding weight and race, and how a mention of these things feels like a trigger.
However, I have realized that this trigger has been developed by an American society’s norms on appearance, but these norms do not exist in Myanmar. While the country idealizes light or white skin, youth, and skinny waists, I will not discuss this obsession in full depth here. I’ve rather come to terms with the fact that someone mentioning your weight, age, or race usually doesn’t come with the negative stigma associated with these topics in the United States. This has allowed me to see past the comments and regard them as trivial rather than an insult.
Comments about my weight have been the most challenging to disregard. I have northern European heritage, so I’m tall at 5’11” and have wide shoulders and “big bones.” I’m also not thin. I tower over almost all Burmese people so I already notice my size and weight in almost any interaction I have here. On top of this, people always point out my height and weight. When visiting a friend in Mawlamyine, we were climbing massive rocks along the water. I was moving pretty slowly to ensure that my footing was solid every step because any slip would result in a cracked skull. My friend then comments “you need to lose some fat. How are we going to get you to lose this fat?” I was initially shocked as the outright mention of the fat on my body, especially so casually. I responded, “if I keep climbing these rocks, I’ll loose some fat” and tried to laugh it off.
When we were playing pictionary in class one day, a student drew a stick figure of me, his teacher. He drew my body as an O with two hands and two feet sticking out from it. The whole class laughed. Just yesterday, I hoped into my uber and was having a great time practicing my Burmese with the driver. He could speak only a little English, but what he managed to tell me was that I was tall and fat for being only 24.
Moving onto discussions about age. While only being 24, age isn’t something that has felt stigmatized for me, until I’ve moved here. Maybe it’s my size, maybe it’s my skin, but for some reason people always think I’m 28-35. The reason I know this is because everyone asks your age in light conversations. I’ve learned that a large reason for this is because in Burmese, there are different ways to address people based on their age, so it’s usually best to just ask them their age because it’s more insulting to address them by the wrong pronoun. When I tell them that I’m 24, they’re shocked. When I first moved here, I felt self conscious and insulted when someone would say that they thought I was 35. I have come to learn that it’s difficult for people to guess my age because my appearance is so different from Burmese people, and that their comments don’t mean that in general I look a lot older. It’s just from their perspective.
Being a white person in the United States allots me privileges, and it certainly grants me privileges here as well. A big difference is that in Myanmar, people constantly comment on my skin color and seem to envy it. It’s not uncommon for people to ask to touch my skin or tell me to protect it with sunscreen or an umbrella to “make sure that my skin stays white.”
I think the most shocking experience though was the way people in a rural village in the Sagaing Region responded to my skin color. The people in this village had never seen foreigners in person before and lacked electricity so they didn’t watch western movies. However, they immediately took notice of my skin and would tell me that my skin was pretty and that theirs was ugly. Somehow, even through isolation from the western world, it was still ingrained in them to value light skin over dark skin. That being said, people provide negative comments about dark skin all the time. My students often say that people in Myanmar are racist (while this is a blanket generalization, I don’t necessarily disagree).
Overall, living in Myanmar has made me all too aware of my appearance. I’ve grappled with how to handle comments about my weight, age, and race because often times I take offense to them. However, I’ve come to realize that people usually don’t mean to offend me, but are rather just stating what they view as facts and are trying to make conversation with me. It’s through a western perspective that I come to feel disdain for these comments, and this discovery has allowed me to take a step back and learn. While I may not agree with the openness of discussions about weight, age, and race, maybe it’s not something to get angry about either.