December 2012 | Myanmar
Myanmar would not make a very large attempt to get you to like her.
She might make a small gesture of welcome, lean over in a form-fitting longyi to pour you a cup of tea – but don’t let yourself think this extension of graciousness means your acceptance matters much to her, if at all.
With or without you, Myanmar is who she is, as she has been for a long time. A lifetime of segregation from the other girls has given her self-assurance, a confidence borne from lack of competition nonetheless lending her no airs. She does not need your validation, so she will go out of her way to neither impress not snub you.
If countries were girls, Myanmar would not be conventionally pretty. She won’t try to be a Western pinup – ill-bred and scantily clad – not because she eschews the stereotype, but because she hardly knows it. All the same, she is smiling behind the layers of thanaka paste that keeps her cheeks fresh and supple. It is a smile she knows will bring the boys on her own terms.
She knows herself well, knows she isn’t classy or vain, or as guileless and innocent as the world would like to make her out to be. With grime-caked fingernails and hair matted hair in a tight knot she’ll work for her living, strength evident not in her physique but in her heart.
Come nightfall, she’ll squat with the rest of them on a stool along the sidewalk, knees askance, scarfing down a dinner you cannot identify, or identify with. Don’t try to join her. You haven’t the gut.
In her distance there is a magnetism, and you want to know her, if only because she is different, heady, exotic. When she allows you sidelong glimpses into her life, treasure them. When she opens up her home for an evening, take in all you can. There will be time to make sense of it later. You may not succeed, but you will devote countless hours to unravelling this enigma. Perhaps you may envision a life with her, and allow yourself to indulge in the brief fantasy. Keep that to yourself, it will not impress her.
Eventually your time with her will come to pass, and she will bid you an emotionless farewell, while you must contemplate a return to your daily life. Neither of you has changed the other. Each time you look back, it will be with more fondness than understanding. When you think about Myanmar now, what more can you claim to know about her than when you started out?