It's About Time We Saw Burma In Mainstream Pop Culture
Burmese people may be a drop in the ocean of the British population, but that doesn’t mean we don’t deserve representation.
Let’s start with a game:
I want you to name a character from popular culture who is Chinese or of Chinese descent.
Hua Mulan? Jet Li as Nameless in Hero? Chloe Bennet as Daisy Johnson in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.?
Now, I want you to name a character from popular culture who is of Indian or of Indian descent.
Kelly Kapoor, Mowgli, Kumar Patel?
And finally, I want you to name a character from popular culture who is of Burmese descent.
Last year, when discussing comics with a friend, we were both lamenting the lack of Asian superheroes. Any person of colour interested in comics knows it’s a hobby as well as a headache – for every Ms. Marvel and Miles Morales there’s the outdated stereotype of the Mandarin and the now-problematic Iron Fist. She was complaining at the lack of Indian superheroes, saying that there’s a lack of them in comics. I agreed, we both stated that we wanted to see more Asian superheroes, then she went back to her lunch.
If you live in the Western world, you’ll be hard-stretched to come up with the last time you saw Burmese people portrayed in popular culture.
Sat next to her, I quietly opened my phone and put “Asian superheroes” into Google. Up came a Wikipedia list of Asian superheroes. I scrolled to B for Burma and there was nothing. Remembering that Burma is now officially called Myanmar, I tried M. There was nothing. I was optimistic and thought that Wikipedia might be badly compiled, and that if I reached into the depths of the internet, I would find something. While Burmese folklore has shamans and magic beings, these would fall closer to mythology than any sort of “super” being. Burma/Myanmar has been used as a setting in stories – such as in old issues of The Phantom and The Plaid Avenger – but these have always incorporated colonial tropes and outdated jungle settings. A couple of articles suggested there had been depictions of one-shot villains and assassins of Burmese origin. But no. No superheroes. No representation.
If you live in the Western world, you’ll be hard-stretched to come up with the last time you saw Burmese people portrayed in popular culture. It’s not because we don’t exist here – the UK, for example, is reportedly home to 11,000 Burmese-born people, not to mention the British-born and mixed-race Burmese people who live here. In London, you can find a handful of Burmese restaurants and popups. Occasionally, around New Year they’ll be small festivals and fairs. But a collective understanding from others on what it means to be Burmese, or any ethnic group from Myanmar, is missing. The group may be a drop in the ocean of the British population, but that doesn’t mean we don’t deserve representation, and to see ourselves reflected in the culture around us.
When people call for greater representation of minority groups in the media, it is in part so there is a greater awareness of identity and a step away from stereotypes – Japanese women are no longer only being cast as geishas and sexually repressed schoolgirls, and Indian woman are no longer only all-singing, all-dancing aunties disapproving of their younger nieces. Stereotypes do harm communities by presenting them using a select number of often inaccurate traits — but an entire lack of representation, meaning communities become nonexistent in public consciousness, is just as harmful.
I’ve long come to accept that non-Burmese people do not write Burmese characters, because that would involve too much work. While other Asian cultures are more visible and therefore easier to draw characteristics from, Myanmar's ethnic groups – its Bamar, Karen, Rakhine, and Rohinga people – are too undocumented for fiction. And attempts from the outside to understand Myanmar’s people would probably be met with frustration. So let me break this down – Burmese identity in itself is complex. The country is internally fractured along ethnic lines, among those who still use the name Burma and those who prefer Myanmar. It’s been invaded, by the British, by the Japanese, and then locked away from the world under the junta in the fallout. Only recently has the country opened up, but years of hiding have done nothing for us as a global presence. Outsiders cling to Aung San Suu Kyi – Burmese Nobel Peace Prize winner and politician – as a way to understand Myanmar, but this desperation has turned a controversial figure into a global icon. There’s a lot to work with in Myanmar and from Burmese culture – it just requires work.
This conversation isn’t limited to Myanmar, nor is it limited to Asia, and it's one that should be addressed now.
I remember in primary school, when we were asked to speak about something in a show and tell session, I made up a story cobbled together from a poster of Lord Vishnu I found in our house. Something about a Burmese god who charmed the pythons out of Rangoon. Everyone, including my teacher, believed me, because hey, what other information did they have to go on? I’ve spent my life drawing maps in thin air, pointing, drawing the large land spaces of China and India and miming Myanmar nestled in between. While going through these motions I’ve thought how much easier it would be to be Chinese or Malay, or closer to the distant Indian connection in my family, as at least then I would have more cultural clues to what it means to represent these places. I could walk through a supermarket, pick up a pack of ready-made beef rendang, and roll my eyes at the bastardised recipe, or watch a celebrity cook butcher a gyoza recipe. I wouldn’t have to break down what Burmese food tastes like and appears like using other reference points – like a laksa, but meatier; think of a soupy Malay curry.
Instead of a concrete identity, I just have questions: What do you do when you want to learn more about a country that for so long was adamant that it would let no one in? When your only parental link has spent more of his life here because he understands that this is where he and his family can thrive? Without a notable diaspora, where can you see an example of collective identity? How do you know what you are meant to represent?
My need to feel connected to Myanmar becomes conflicted when I think of the sacrifices my grandmother made to bring my dad and her family to England. As much as she would frown every time my dad reminded her my brothers and me didn't speak Burmese so she would need to ask me to bring her tea in English, her and my father's survival in England through the late 20th century was thanks to their willingness to conform to UK standards. It took my dad 50 years to return to Myanmar, as he was so focused on his work and using the money he made from it to give us the best life possible. Why should I expect him to weave a culture for us based only on a few memories from childhood? England, for both of them, was a safe haven, and adopting English culture was survival. My feeling of needing to reconnect with Myanmar is a privilege I get from their work.
Where can you see an example of collective identity? How do you know what you are meant to represent?
Without a diaspora or a strong family tie, compiling my identity has been a puzzle. When younger, I listened to the experience of South and East Asian women and tried to fit mine into theirs – stories of aunties cruelly pointing out weight resonated, as did their descriptions of families and men only capable of showing emotion through huge dinners and overfeeding. When rich friends would pass through Myanmar on their gap years, I’d talk to them about it in general terms, gleaning whatever I could from their stories and pairing it with my limited experiences of Burmese culture at home – yes, I think, pagodas are big and, pointed, like the bamboo models we have at home. Yes, ohn no kauk swè is delicious and comforting.
When I finally did visit Myanmar, age 22, accompanied by my dad, I pieced together the lonely puzzle in my mind – I saw women who looked like me carrying the handbags my aunts had smuggled back before. The pictures in living room finally made sense, as did the smells that would come from my grandma’s kitchen. A relief of knowing there were people I didn't have to explain my world to was only dulled when I returned home and the elaborate mime act started again. It was just more complex now, as I had a more fully realised image to work with.
If we want diversity then it truly has to be diversity for all. This isn’t a question of pitting countries against one another for representation, it’s understanding that diversity for all means for all – that a range of stories are told about a range of people. This conversation isn’t limited to Myanmar, nor is it limited to Asia, and it's one that should be addressed now, while conversations about diversity are part of the popular discourse.
So here’s my pitch – a Rohingya girl. Born in Myanmar, flees to the UK. When she gets to England there’s no one like her, so she clings to the memories of her old home while integrating with her new home. As she grows up and spends time away from Myanmar, her memories fade. Around the same time, she begins to notice she is able to see and take on other’s memories, kind of like a Rogue, Charles Xavier deal. While her power doesn’t save her own memories, seeing others’ and using her powers to help them makes her feel less alone, so she uses her powers to try to do some good. Let’s do this.