Worldfocus blogger Michael Lwin, who recently returned from Myanmar, writes about the urban Burmese social scene.
Four young couples are in a 250-square-foot room with bright pink wallpaper and a modest entertainment system. The two most extroverted stand in front of a television set, striking over-the-top dance poses as the liquid tones of Akon’s “Smack That” roll out of the speakers.
The clown jester of the group, a short, tan fellow with a dark-brown pompadour and oval-framed glasses, carries his porcelain-skinned girlfriend in his arms and twirls her around, some of her black hair sticking against the sweat on her face.
She giggles with glee and waves. She bumps her petite body against his; he jolts and rubs his bottom in feigned indignation.
I could be describing young people anywhere in the world, but this particular group happens to be Burmese living in Myanmar.
The young men are using their hard-earned salaries for a night out on the town. The young women are not exactly their girlfriends.
Rather, most are the daughters of poor families, making a living in Yangoon by agreeing to be something like comfort girls — not prostitutes — but affectionate company for the evening.
Such young women are commonplace at karaoke bars in Myanmar. They sit on couches with the men, put their arms around them, and hold hands. They let the men touch their shoulders, legs, the small of their backs, nuzzle their necks, brush their cheeks with kisses.
The men claim to be sexually experienced, but further discussions reveal that many remain virgins until marriage. For women, there is even more pressure to be chaste.
For young Burmese, dating is very formal. Cohabitation and sexual activity before marriage are taboo, and it is expected that men and women date briefly en route to marriage.
Though there are couples that violate these taboos, I observed that most Burmese adhere to custom.
Respectable young women do not go to karaoke bars.
The young women who work at karaoke bars usually serve a significantly older clientele. Karaoke bars are popular entertainment for middle-aged men, who sing classic Burmese songs like Mee Bon Pwe, Sein Choo Kyar Nyaung, and Shay Yay Sett over chicken wings, rice, and vegetables provided by the in-house kitchen.
I noticed that in contrast to the playfulness displayed with the young men, the women seem ill at ease among their older clients. Often they grimace, subtly remove an aggressively placed hand and assume a vacant, distant look.
I am not sure whether the difference in behavior is a function of the age difference — or whether the younger men I observe are simply a friendlier, inoffensive lot.
The short funny male of the group is charming. He dramatically reenacts choreographed dances from Bollywood movies when Indian songs play; he throws his arms around the neck of his much taller friend, who is wearing a black imitation Armani Exchange shirt, and they bellow out songs together.
The young woman demands the young man pick her up and spin her around the room again, and he obliges.
For that moment, they look like a happy couple anywhere in the world.
– Michael Lwin