By Khin Chan Myae Maung
A few weeks back, I read a poem at an open mic titled Why you being into Asians is not okay. It was a cosy event with loads of poets and writers like myself who performed their own work. The crowd was fairly diverse with a few expatriate men and women from different parts of the world. After reading the piece, I could see that there were mixed reviews amongst the crowd. One Burmese man came up to me and said he wanted to hear more women like me speak up about their experiences. As for the expats, I don’t think the mixed drink of exposing exoticism went down very well.
The poem I performed that night was inspired purely by my experiences as a woman of color in the United States. But in that little bar I was performing in, it was setting where people of caucasian decent were the minority. Does that make me racist?
No it does not. Even if in a setting where the white minority is being addressed for the global issue of eroticizing the bodies of Asian woman— that doesn’t make me racist, that is how the system works.The exoticizing of Asian women is not a well kept secret and sadly has become an undeniable part of our identity that subversively undermines women. On the flip side of this, I will also address the emasculated image of Asian men as well. Both men and women are made to feel unequal to their caucasian counterparts. Woman are over-eroticized for being “submissive” and their “passivity” whereas men are shamed for being “weak” or “feminine”. Not to say this feeds directly into sexism and the strict code of gender binaries where women are expected to be quiet and made small, while men are expected to be hyper-masculine and strong.
That said, the sad thing is it didn’t start when sex started to make higher prices than education. No, it started when a few ships docked their boats and native women became concubines for the colonizer’s “mental well-being”. From Africa, India, specifically Sudan, women native to the colonized land where used and discarded by the system created by colonizers. Interracial children from these relationships, during this period were often not recognized as either white nor native due to social and political conflicts.
I am not saying that colonizers and white people are to blame for sexism or the sex trade. No— what I’m saying is we live in a system that has be imbalanced by history. This imbalance has been created throughout history through power— killing, raping and extorting people. The colonizers created a system of hierarchies based on sex, skin color and religion, and the only people it favors is it’s creator. Racism is the systematic oppression and discrimination of a group of people based on the socially constructed hierarchy of race. If we look at that racial hierarchy, from any prespective, brown people, black people, Latinos, Asians, are still below white people. Even if the white people are the minority, they still hold privileges that brown people don’t have. But here we are in a bar in San Chaung listening to the voices to people who were once oppressed, where I feel fear that maybe I have said too much once again.
Here rings another question— Am I xenophobic, or rather, is Myanmar xenophobic? Yes, to a certain degree we are all pretty xenophobic. But name one western country in this year who has not been crying wolf to every immigrant of Muslim descent and I will take back everything. I am not justifying my nation’s xenophobia, because there is never an excuse for intolerance or discrimination. And I myself resent how xenophobic my culture is. But if you take a look at our history, we have never really been given a chance to experience other cultures and ideologies. What children have been taught about the western world is that they are our colonizers and are therefore sympathizers of Westernization. Which is true to an extent, where there is a major fear of gentrification of culture and customs. However one must always remember— these were fear tactics of a power hungry government used to scare its citizens into being blind and deaf for twenty odd years.
Also keeping in mind that if a country’s social rhetoric has always been nationalistic and xenophobic, and its people are a product of that, it will be hard to change the minds of people who have grown up in that environment. Individuals might have different opinions, yes, but as a society and a community, Myanmar has a lot of work to do.
Personally, I find that most Burmese people are simply angry and scared. In my own experience, I have found myself struggling to find the good in people who once divided my country and enslaved my people. Justifying that not all outsiders are looking to exploit our country’s naivety. Still this is no justification for xenophobia—though I will say this, fear and anger are the main catalyst for hate and intolerance. Whatever color you are reading this, just keep in mind that everybody is living life for the first time and we are bound to get scared and frustrated at the inequalities we face individually. But never blame that individual for what society has made them think is true. Find out for yourself, read, explore, educate yourself on the experiences of other people.