Today is March 1, 2017, my 189th day in Myanmar.
When I met this guy at an iconic Beijing brewery on the fifth day of the Year of Rooster, the brisk and darkness of the night was just settling in. Inside the terribly-lit venue – one that could be uprooted from downtown Denver and dropped straight into the heart of China – half-drunk men and women, Chinese and others, were laughing and drinking their hearts out.
I was comfortably tipsy.
Outside the packed brewery, another Spring Festival has allowed a moment of emptiness in this restless city, as millions of migrants left for the unfamiliarity and comfort of their long-away homes. That night wasn’t as brutal of a winter night as the season usually gets. In fact, after a layer of warmth and desire eased in with the alcohol, we, two strangers nonetheless, decided to take our chat out of the bar and roam around the empty midnight streets of Beijing.
“Hey, do you mind slowing down a bit,” he asked as soon as we walked out together, all four hands in pockets. “We are not rushing to places.”
Weather in Yangon reached its peak comfort in early January: 85-90 F with a bearable humidity and a constant, detectable breeze throughout the day. This is what we call a nice winter. Tourists, especially older ones, are frequently spotted on the downtown streets. One weekend in January, temperature hit this winter’s all-time low. I didn’t know until after the fact, of course, as the coldest was probably no cooler than 25 degrees Celsius.
As March comes around, light wind and the below-100-degree air becomes a luxury and a dream. But for now, we Rangoonists are happily dreaming.
Good weather, especially when it’s rare, brings visitors. In December alone, I hosted three groups of them. The best bunch came just before New Year’s Eve: two of my old-time girl friends flew in from two different continents, 7,000 miles and 40-hour flight time combined, just to see me (or so they claimed)!
While taking pictures in flamboyant dresses (occasionally a little too much for Myanmar standard), playing board games and sipping beers in bright daylight and simply enjoying an afternoon walk, these girls helped me discover a side of downtown Yangon I’ve come to know more in hearsay but failed to find when I first arrived: below-average infrastructure and cleanliness aside, Yangon is an incredibly friendly and welcoming city, with an abundance of goods and resources if one knows where to look. It’s not at all convenient if you come straight from a mature and developed capitalism market (which let’s be honest does its fair share of harm and good), but difficulty – in its most naive form in my case – has given me some comedic spirit and many tale-worthy adventures, all things I’ve learned to treasure living in this country.
Walking around Yangon for three days with the girls also helped me consolidate another discovery: I am a 5’2” habitual power walker. As if to overcompensate for my petite figure, I walk like the entire world’s chasing after me, outpacing girls whose legs are up to my chest.
The last days of 2016, I flew to Hong Kong. While spending what felt like the worst several days of the entire year (on top of what already felt like a very shitty year), I was comforted by power walking and disguising myself alongside thousands of Hong Kongers who are all trapped in the compact island.
Among half a dozen countries where I’ve been lucky enough to function beyond a tourist, Myanmar is the third country I’ve lived in. Home, local friends, all of that good stuff.
The first one was one I’m deeply rooted in, where my parents matured and married, where I was born and raised. Look along, I resemble the majority there. Yet in a crowded and noisy country like this one, I felt my stance often swayed and voice often soundless.
The second country is where I began to discover my identity. I thought this time, this country – or at least the parts of it I was more familiar with – would recognize and accept all that’s me. I quickly realized how naive my hope was – very much like the first, my second country was one that belonged to everyone, so no one. It was a country where I became more aware of race. Actually it was where I went from racial blindness to racial ultra-awareness to finally somewhere healthier in the middle. It was where I struggled as a new adult. It was where I built a life of my own. It was where I convinced myself that I have value, and I’m valued.
In any measure, I led an easy life in both of these countries. There’s also no deny that I am never not a misfit while I lived there. I was a misfit because I was expected to fit in. I was expected to look and think like others, laugh like others and apologize like others. Difference is not something to be celebrated. Difference is something to be warned.
The third country is where I am now. It’s unlike just about everywhere else I’ve been.
With so little expectation of Myanmar before coming in, one particular Myanmar experience I was not ready for was being stared at. In neither of the previous two countries I lived in was I ever stared at as intensely and frequently as I am here. I thought the world is an easy place for a mediocre-looking, petite Asian girl to slip by without much notice. That’s apparently not the case in this country. I’m counting the sixth month in my Myanmar book, yet the staring continues.
Power walk in turn became my defense mechanism, to duck the gazes and resort to my comfort zones as swiftly as a bird.
I can’t precisely tell the reasons behind all the staring, but the rationale I soon decoded: unlike the first two countries, I am not expected to fit in here. I stand out, and the stares proved so. It doesn’t matter how well I memorize the menus of the restaurants I frequently visit. It doesn’t matter what I wear or how well (in most cases, how little) I speak the language. I’m a foreigner here. Forever an outsider.
This is exactly why I’m not a misfit anymore. I carry few societal expectations of who I shall be and how I shall behave. I’m different, but this time, my difference is being recognized as part of me, who I am, not who I’m not supposed to be. I may not have as many options as I used to have, but I’m lucky to choose more freely.
And that is my privilege of being called an “expat,” a word that till this day makes me cringe.
Five reasons I’ve become fond of power walking:
- Power walking is a solid form of exercise.
- Power walking saves time.
- Power walking demonstrates energy and authority.
- Power walking creates an aura of intensity that makes less focus-minded intruders walk away. They don’t want to disturb you when you seem to be “hurrying to places.”
- Power walking serves as disguise.
I won’t try to hide my fear as hot season approaches Myanmar. This will be my first ever hot season in a tropical country, and I don’t think I have the mental capacity to be ready for what’s to come (especially while my precious city is cutting off water for six days). But these beginning days of the hot season has been interestingly magical. Fruits I cannot name hang heavily on the branches, and just last weekend I walked by a rich family’s front yard, only noticing the ripe starfruit that stuck out and above their fence have all fallen off the tree and scattered on the ground.
Before this, I’ve seen maybe three starfruits my entire life.
And mostly on weekends, when it’s nice out, I would get up at 7 in the morning to go for a Burmese-style breakfast at this popular noodle place. Cars line up outside the door and their food ran out often and early. It has all the quality Burmese staples and the cleanliness most Burmese restaurants can’t match, and it takes 10 minutes to walk there. All in all, an ideal breakfast place.
Whenever I go, I’d take my time on the road, intentionally slowing down. More recently on this familiar route, I’d notice these bright red-violet colored flowers spilling out from bushes, screaming for attention.
Moments like these make me smile, ditch my default power walk mode and look around. I will, without fail, find something great to look at.
Beijing, New Year, midnight.
I laughed at the request made by this seemingly observant stranger standing beside me. He was smiling, sparkles in eyes. They were great to look at.