A Country of Parentheses: Visiting Myanmar (Burma)

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In front of you is a stranger. Well, not exactly a stranger. It’s someone you briefly met through a friend of a friend two weekends prior. Recent enough to not be erased from your short-term memory. But just drunk enough to let his actual name slip from your mind faster than the grip of that shared introductory handshake.

Pulling up your scarf, you hope he doesn’t notice you. But he does. And COME ON, now he is engaging in conversation. He remembers everything about you. And although you can’t decide if he’s actually being genuine or just acting like a jerk (sometimes they are one in the same), he continues to use your name, at least once, in EVERY SINGLE SENTENCE.

You avoid the paralysis of awkwardness by steering clear of any conversational topics which might involve monikers, surnames, or even my beloved Twitter handles. Fortunately, this is actually quite easy. The English language empathizes with forgetful losers and utilizes pronouns like “he” and “she” in such a casual way.

With the ending of a half-decent conversation, you’re out of there before you have to reprogram his number into your phonebook as something other than “ddude.” And yes, of course a similar incident has happened before. This explains why the correctly spelt ‘dude’ is already occupied in your phone.

You exit the conversation with a sigh of relief.

But you will still never know what to call him.

A situation not at all comparable to this occurs in Myanmar (Burma). 

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A country of mixed curries, currencies, and colloquialism, Myanmar (Burma) is a toughie.

It gets internationally criticized by humanitarian officials. It gets geologically hit by massive earthquakes. It was once the richest country in Southeast Asia. It now has a massive number of people living below the poverty line. And the country’s most famous politician is endearingly referred to as “The Lady.”

But what do we call it?

What do we call a country still searching for its own name?

Burma?

Myanmar?

“Myanmar” (exaggerated by making those absolutely awful air quotation marks with your fingers)?

To be fair, you can’t really toss out any of these names without a little background.

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In 1989, the country officially changed its English name to “Myanmar.” (Probably banning the official use of air quotes, too.)

Good, done. Official is official. Myanmar, it is.

Well, not so fast, Le Monde Sans Italics.

There’s more to these parentheses than a late 80’s name change.

Much like other regions in the area, the Burmese language has clear differences between the spoken and written word. When speaking, the country is pronounced Bama. When written, it is Myanma.

Want to make things even more confusing? The word Bama actually refers to one of the largest ethnic group in the country. Regardless of size, it is really not all that inclusive.

Right.

And let’s just add to the mess.

Phonetically, Bama actually originated from Myanma. But of course, this only really considers nasal sounds and speech pathology. We haven’t even got to the part yet when the military regime changed the English name of the country without really considering the views of the citizens.

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Unlike the hide-and-seek behind my scarf with “ddude,” I seized opportunities to talk to locals in Myanmar (Burma). My impression was this:

People wanted to talk about their country.

Maybe they didn’t want to get into the historical (and political) intricacies of Myanmar (Burma). But they definitely wanted to converse. However they referred to the country, it was almost as if they were also addressing their own political views. It was Morse code…with words.

In press, Aung San Suu Kyi (“The Lady”) calls it Burma. So do the locals. But without any actual attachment to either, would I be a poseur for doing the same?

My passport states, “Republic of the Union of Myanmar.” This, along with the local currency of kyat, was my only way to identify with the country. So does that mean I should be calling it Myanmar? As a visitor, do I even know otherwise?

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Repeatedly, the country was referred to as Burma. It sounded cool. It sounded ancient. It sounded secretive and inviting. It sounded like it was supporting the people, rather than the parliament. It sounded exactly like my experience there.

But in the end, talking about the actual name of the country was actually rather difficult.

So naturally, I avoided it altogether.

Language (and more specifically, labels), can be both encouraging and restrictive. But sometimes, that’s all there really is. You take away the label, and it is like it no longer exists. Burma may be all that is left.

If you remove the name, the people of the country may have nothing to identify with. Myanmar is not where they grew up. Myanmar is not what their passport reads. Myanmar is no longer theirs.

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When I started writing this post, I wasn’t expecting it to end with such uncertainty. I figured by writing out my back-and-forths about Myanmar (Burma), the conclusion on what to call it would become a little more clear. And silly me, I actually thought that after writing this, I would become super motivated to finally ask “ddude” his real name when I inevitably ran into him again without the shield of my scarf.

But that’s actually not the point.

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As I said before, Myanmar (Burma) operates on two different currencies. It offers like, ten different cuisines. It probably has hundreds of communities which even the government, unable to complete a nation-wide Census, doesn’t really know about.

It’s a country still navigating itself as a whole. And as individuals.

In the end, does it really matter what we call it in our phone book?

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5 thoughts on “A Country of Parentheses: Visiting Myanmar (Burma)

  1. I’ve been in Myanmar/Burma one month this last february and i think you are absolutely right. There’s so much confusion, that my local guide told me: “Myanmar in burmese means strong and fast…. But Myanmar is actually weak and slow, like its internet connection”.
    I loved this country anyway, it doesn’t really matter how it’s called. <3

  2. I always avoid the “Ick, I don’t know his/her name” thing by asking them to spell their name as I put their number into my phone. Nine times out of ten most names can be spelled differently these days. If they say “the normal way”, just encourage them to spell it more and if it’s something simple like “Matt”, say you know someone who spells it “Mat” or “Matth” or something silly like that. :P

  3. Pingback: Myanmar | Just Go Places

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