Lack of integrity or apprehensiveness about dignity? | Serinde / Public domain

I’ve not lived in Myanmar as long as some and I can’t say that I’ve seen it all. One thing I do catch myself doing, however, is defaulting to my Western worldview every time I find myself in an unfamiliar situation. In fact, that is one piece of wisdom that a college professor gave me. It’s natural that we humans try to rationalize things through the worldview which we know the best – our native one. Of course, by doing that, we may be blinding ourselves to something that’s happening under the surface.

I’ve heard ex-pats living in Myanmar toss around the phrase that, “Myanmars are so superficial.” This is often said in context to the many photos that they see their local colleagues post on Facebook or how their local friends may gossip “a bit too much” about someone’s outward appearance. Sure, to many expats, those are examples of someone caring too much about an “outer image” and not thinking of values or ideas. I heard one expat go into a discussion of Piaget’s stages of development and break down how Myanmar people are probably still somewhere between the Preoperational Stage and Concrete Operational Stage (i.e. still mentally between 2-11 years old). While to some, these expats may be generalizing and projecting viewpoints with racist undertones onto Myanmar people, I view it as a failure of the expats to understand one valuable thing in the eyes of Myanmar people: dignity, which is theikkhā in Burmese, from the Pāli sikkhā.

Dignity, to Myanmar people, is what gives you your self-worth. In my many days of living in this country and hearing people mention the word theikkha, I’ve never heard anyone talk about gaining it. I only hear them talk about losing theikkha. The term for that is theikkha kya, which literally means ‘dignity fall.’ How does one’s dignity fall? Usually it falls based upon your actions which you do before other people. Did you shout at someone to the point where you were red in the face and storm off with your fists clenched? That’s a loss of dignity, because you failed to demonstrate self-control. Did you shamelessly and passionately kiss your unmarried partner in front of family and friends? That’s a loss of dignity for you both, because you failed to consider whether your actions would make others uncomfortable. While Westerners may consider the first example to be warranted depending on the situation, Myanmar typically try to avoid public outbursts. (Trust me, the ones whom you do see shout at each other publicly on the street are not viewed favorably by many traditional folk.) The second example may appear prude and old-fashioned to the Westerner, who may retort, “what is this? The 1800s? People need to grow up and allow others to express their love to each other, as they see fit.” For the Myanmar, guarding one’s dignity is more important than expressing love. Who, after all, would want to love someone with no dignity?

Now that I’ve introduced the mindset of dignity, let’s go back to the previous examples I touched on in the introduction. The first example being that someone posts too much about their life the second being that someone cares too much about someone else’s outward appearance. Previously, I had a student who posted on Facebook a lot. Let’s call her “Eindray” (meaning: innocence).

Eindray had taken many photos throughout her life at every major turning point. Not only that, Eindray scanned every certificate she had ever acquired from school, a short course, a conference, a contest, etc. and had them all printed out in a portfolio she could put on her coffee table to show guests her accomplishments with ease. Eindray was also an avid Facebook user. She would find quotes and other sayings from English-language websites and paste them into her statuses (sometimes giving credit, sometimes not), often attaching a picture of herself. The most outlandish thing Eindray ever did, though, was repost old photos from years ago (say, of her enjoying a conference in Bali) as if she was currently doing that thing. All of her classmates and I, of course, knew that it was all a ruse. But many people who did not see her on the weekends actually believed that she went on lavish trips all of the time. She even reposted pictures with me, long after I had left the job, in order to show that she was receiving tutelage from a foreigner.

The question remains… Why would she do this? Is it because she wants to seem popular and rich? Is it because she wants to make others jealous of her lifestyle and envious of her? Any of those possibilities may be true and I don’t claim to have read Eindray’s mind, but one forgotten possibility is that she wants to appear dignified. To have a tangible set of certificates in a book means that you have accomplished a lot, which means others have given you plenty of opportunities and you’ve taken them. To travel a lot means that you have free time, wealth, and privilege. To learn with a foreigner means that you have good communication skills, wealth, and intelligence. (All from a Myanmar perspective, of course.) Eindray also has the dignity of her children to think about, too. Children in Myanmar are often compared to their parents. As a teacher, I often hear other teachers say, “he’s going to do great things, because both of his parents are doctors.” As a Westerner, I can think of a few people I know whose parents were doctors that didn’t exactly follow in their footsteps. But here, children have a lot to live up to. Inversely, if parents are seen as failures, their children are not looked on with a lot of favor, either. This brings us to outward appearances:

Just as I can’t read Eindray’s mind (read: heart in Burmese), no one else can either. Therefore anything that Eindray says, does, writes, eats, drinks and anything else becomes a projection of her heart. And if there’s one thing Myanmar people are apt at doing, it’s telling you what kind of a heart an individual has. Therefore, if you dress revealingly, especially as a woman, you are destroying your eindarē theikkhā (lit. ‘innocence dignity’). If you smoke a lot (prohibited by one of the Five Moral Precepts of Buddhism, known as the ngâ pâ thīla in Burmese), you’re displaying lack of self-discipline and addiction to worldly pleasure. A dignified person would not use addictive substances (openly).

If you’re an employer, have you ever asked a local employee to do something, but he or she seemed very reluctant and hesitant to do it? At the same time, s/he doesn’t refuse, but later makes an excuse as to why the task couldn’t be done (and of course the excuse had nothing to do with anything on his/her end). While the thoughts of “laziness, incompetence, or insecurity” may come to mind, it may simply be that s/he is afraid of doing a bad job. If s/he does the task wrong, everyone will think him/her to be incompetent and s/he would lose dignity. If s/he tells you “I can’t do it” or “no” outright, s/he’s disobeying you, which also translates to a loss of dignity. So, by giving him/her a directive without first checking whether or not s/he is well-suited for the task, you’ve put him/her in a bad position. Thus, the only way out of it, is to make an excuse as to why the task couldn’t be done.

My advice to those with friends who share a lot, just unfollow them on Facebook, it’s a lot easier. I have maybe 20 people unfollowed on mine and my life continues on as normal. My advice to employers, try to assess the abilities and comfort zones of your employees before asking them to do new tasks. Nobody would want to keep working for you, if you constantly put them in difficult positions and the office gossip might slander you as a bully. How, though, can we foreigners amend some of our actions to appear more dignified? I’ve made a small list, for starters:

  • Avoid shouting angrily at people.
  • Don’t become overly intoxicated publicly
  • Don’t touch people of the opposite gender unless you know them really, really, well.

That’s a lot of don’ts, so I’ll throw in some do’s.

  • Be willing to talk to people about what you do in your spare time and what your interests, hobbies and goals are. Even at work, Burmese people tend to think of every relationship as somewhat familial.
  • Stick up for yourself when you feel that you are wronged, but without getting angry.
  • Dress appropriately for where you are going. (i.e. don’t wear beer-branded beaters and knock-off Crocs sandals to a religious site, like Pagan)
  • Be aware of your facial expressions. Non-verbal communication speaks volumes, when you’re dealing with a society that doesn’t expect to be able to speak with you. I often hear my appearance get judged on the street based upon how quickly I am walking or how I appear facially.

No one is perfect. I’m certainly not, either. There are a lot of things that I still have to learn about how I present myself to others here. All-in-all, I suppose it’s an ever-continuing process of self-assessment and maturity.


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