Returning to some villages in Yinmabin Township, I had forgotten how much Burmese people verbally note your physical appearance. Almost everytime someone sees you, they make some comment about how you look. Things range from exclamations of “You’re fat,” “You’re less fat than before,” “You have pimples,” (my face broke out a ton while I was there), “You’re white,” “You’re tall,” etc. A woman even commented that I was more pink than before, and my friend had to explain the concept of sunburn to her-the woman thought it was the food and the climate. All of these are things I knew about myself and are seemingly obvious when you see me. Instead of saying “Hello,” “How are you,” “Have you eaten,” etc., literally the first words out of people’s mouths were about how I looked.
I know in some circumstances, noting that someone has gained weight or is fat can actually be a compliment because it means that they are well fed or are doing well financially. However, this is clearly not a concern that villagers have about me-someone coming from the United States. Also, this sort of explanation cannot explain why my height, skin tone, or complexion are things worth pointing out. I feel that there must be something else that would explain this need to comment on obvious physical features.
From my experiences, I think this type of greeting comes from a combination of three factors: 1) shock 2) showing care and 3) social norms. In terms of shock, I’m nearly six feet tall and have broad shoulders-some may say “big boned.” I’m also very pale because of my red hair. My appearance is truly shocking for people in the villages, especially those that have never seen a foreigner in person. In terms of showing care, people point out other people’s appearances as a way of showing that they are paying attention to them and care about how they are doing. This point goes to the gaining weight scenario that I described above. Also, this could explain why people who had met me in 2015 continuously told me that I was thinner than before. It’s a way of telling me that they care enough about me to remember how I was and how I am now. In terms of social norms, people comment on other people’s appearances if they haven’t seen someone in a while regardless if the person is a foreigner or not. It’s just a common way of interacting after time apart or with a stranger.
It seems that all three of these reasons could help explain the abundance of comments I received about my physical appearance as a form of a greeting. Putting these explanations aside, I cannot help but feel that these comments about physical appearance are just a way of filling up verbal space. The comments are not revealing new information and are seemingly obvious statements. People standing or sitting in a group would repeatedly say the same thing as one another, so there’s clearly not an emphasis on revealing meaningful, novel information.
From my western perspective, it’s hard to quiet the voices in my head when I’m greeted with these comments. The comments are often about parts of my body that I’m the most insecure about or the most concerned about. During an acne break out, the last thing I wanted was to be continuously reminded that I have pimples all over my face. When interacting in Burmese society with people much much smaller than I am, the last thing I want is to be continuously reminded about how large I am-both height and width. I struggle to disassociate the cultural and social stigma that I carry with me from the United States from the well-intentioned, fairly innocuous Burmese greetings. This dissonance is something I’m working through, and while these thoughts flow through my mind, I respond to the people’s greetings with laughs and smiles.