the wall

Whenever I am outside of Myanmar, I take advantage of faster Internet speed and gorge on one thing – Ted Talk videos.  They make the best accompany when I go about getting ready for bed in my otherwise hauntingly quiet hotel room after a long day of meetings.  Ted Talk is a great alternative choice when I do not want to hear about planes getting shot down or the spreading of Ebola on BBC News.  Call it a tool for productive apathy.

The Talk Talk that popped up this time around was by Parul Sehgal and her examination of envy in literature and social media:

“Jealousy is exhausting. It is a hungry emotion. It must be fed. And what does jealousy like? Jealousy likes information. Jealousy likes details. Jealousy likes the vast quantities of shiny hair, the cute little pencil case. Jealousy likes photos. That is why Instagram is such a hit…We live in envious times. We live in jealous times.”

- Parul Sehgal, editor at New York Times Book Review, An Ode to Envy Ted Talk

As a recent owner of an Instagram account, I am obviously very late to the Instagram game for my generation.  Because my job expects me to be just a touch keenly aware of the pulse of the popular culture, I have to have a social media presence, even though I personally find the idea of Instagram particularly perverse.  Yet, admitting you do not like Instagram for someone my age is akin to admitting you do not like Lady Dior bags.  How could your taste not gravitate toward a generational icon so classy, so classic, so royal and so legendary, right?  I am probably not cool in your books.

We all know life does not look like perfectly touched up Instagram photos.  The social platform itself is designed for neither deeper communications nor expressions.  Instagram is not exactly about shared meanings, but it is about brand promotions, more so than other social media platforms.  The Instagram feed feels like seeing someone on the street without saying hi.  It does not allow for an explanation.

Because there is a thin layer between admiration and envy, I feel I have to tread Instagram waters very slowly, taking baby steps.  This blog post is essentially a cry for help in finding an Instagram voice.  Too much of coolness and you risk losing friends, not that this could be a problem for me.  Too little and you are not accomplishing much.  Where is the productive line?

In her Ted Talk, Parul Sehgal concludes that jealousy is a problem with geometry, not emotion.  A matter of where we allow ourselves to stand. We do not need to be resentful of others’ excellence. We can align ourselves.  What a lovely and thought-provoking conclusion!

Jealousy is my most disliked emotion.  I do not like feeling jealous of others.  I do not want to be an object of envy myself.  I do not want a jealous partner, nor do I want to become one. It is a deal breaker when a romantic partner tries to get me riled up and makes me jealous.  Jealousy makes workplaces unproductive.  It is stressful and drives people away to distances.  It is like you are on the other side of a thousand layers of glass walls and there is nothing you could do to make better of the situation.

Paro, Bhutan

A wall at Kyichu Lhakhang, Paro, Bhutan


Walls TS1 Construction

Downtown Yangon

More walls in downtown Yangon

Thought this song aptly captures the sentiment of this post:

The Wall by Yuck

Trying to make it through the wall
You can see me if you are tall
Looking over…

And I know that I am in space
And I know that it’s not real
It’s just the way I feel
Looking over…

economy of reputation

They say knowledge is power.

Knowledge about someone is in some ways power over them. Knowledge over a situation gives you the power to make a more informed decision. Information helps you make more strategically sound moves in a game. In this case, this blog – no matter how small the readership is – is power over me. I am exposing myself, am I not? Why then am I building my own case of vulnerability on the web? I am handing you – neatly anonymous behind your screen – the power to mock me. So mock me, if you wish.

At least, this attempt right here allows me to construct my own narrative, don’t you think? It gives one a small opportunity to express and believe in one’s own agency in some vague way.

Yangon business community is tiny. Personal and professional boundaries are often blurred. There are five or six bars people frequent to. You cannot help noticing some people even if you wish them a chance at their privacy and bear you the burden of knowledge. But Yangon does not work that way.

Therefore in Yangon, any attempt to take a stand (be it contemporary art or sailing) or be in public limelight is self-exposure to endless mockery. This is particularly true when you are higher up the social chain, as is the case with Ivan Pun and Carl Moe Myint in yesterday’s article in Wall Street Journal, titled “Meet the New Rich … In Myanmar,” written with every bit of condescension and sensationalism behind the author’s veiled attempt to highlight the entrepreneurial ventures of the two Myanmar princelings.

Responses are amusingly varied. Some beg the public to stop sharing the article because they believe the WSJ article is a publicity stunt calling for investors by Ivan and Carl. Some talk about how trickle-down economy does not work. Some note the growing wealth divide and resentment in new Myanmar.

Yet, you will notice that Ivan and Carl come from two reputable families off the sanctions list, compared with their peers who are banned from doing business with American companies. Both fathers are self-made businessmen rising to wealth from average backgrounds, hence the “New Rich.” Notably, Ivan and Carl are also younger brothers pursuing their own ventures separate from their fathers’ vast business empires, unlike their respective older brothers. They two are also easily accessible, hanging out at Mojo and Gekko, the same bars where the WSJ author critiquing Ivan and Carl’s wealth hangs out at on weekends in Yangon.

It is also hilarious that WSJ makes a point to comment that there is fast internet availability in Ivan’s Toyota, as if it is the most luxurious thing in the city where 52% of car owners drive Toyotas. And Carl is often seen hailing a cab after a night out. If WSJ’s intention is to critique the rising level of conspicuous consumption, there are far better suited candidates out there, refusing to speak to media at the suggestion of their highly paid PR firms. You will never hear about their shindigs. Now people are suddenly talking about a Wealth X report that came out a year ago. Trust me – there is no shortage of conspicuous consumption in this city, but probably not these two. The two heirs WSJ picked on simply make a low hanging fruit because they put themselves out there. I would feel cheated if I were them.

Does anyone ever hear about Asia World these days, admittedly the largest client to Bell Pottinger in Myanmar? Yangon chatters circulate news of Bell Pottinger staff walking into a local newspaper and asking them to never write about their client, because they are going through an image reform. I bet they will never let their clients speak to WSJ, for smart reasons.

Reputation, often imbued with vulnerability and self-exposure, is a double-edged sword, at the end of the day. It is what people associate with you and talk about when you are not in the room. Disclosure and self-exposure often land you in tricky situations, yet align you with those having similar values, for better or for worse.