Lydian and Naing Naing: In Myanmar — By Jennifer Shipp
Asia Myanmar Southeast Asia

Lydian and Naing Naing: In Myanmar — By Jennifer Shipp

Some stories are like lotus flowers; they bloom in layers with each new set of petals adding a transformative shape to the whole. It’s hard to tell these stories, because they aren’t linear. They’re like Indian epics–Ramayanan characters engaged in famous battles but meanwhile imagining new worlds or earnestly wishing new beings into existence that cast off on digressive journeys of their own. Over the past three months, I’ve wished many times for a linear, well-lit path with weeds that have been nicely mowed on both sides, a clear destination up ahead on a hill, but mostly, I’ve felt like someone who’s lost in a rainforest, shoe-less with only a rusted machete and a broken handle. 

For people who have never traveled long-term in foreign countries, it might be hard to understand this story, I suppose. Jet lag, culture shock, illness and fevers, and the sense that home is literally a world away are not experiences to scoff at. Long-term travel and expatriation both take their toll and the emotional landscape is full of dark caves, deep canyons, and shadowy deserts of black skies and black sands. Lydi, John, and I have explored this landscape thoroughly for ourselves and we thought we knew it well enough to guide Naing Naing through it, a young man from the villages just outside of Bagan, Myanmar in a country that had been completely closed to the outside world until 2013. But no. Emotional landscapes are mostly solitary places. Guides are not allowed. 

As it turns out, Lydian picked a stubborn, strong-minded man as her husband. He doesn’t get weak-kneed about very many things, but he can be incredibly calm and docile in the midst of chaos. This weird dichotomy of Naing Naing’s calm-centeredness mixed with his sudden, piercing determination of a knight on a white steed going to battle with a sword that’s sharp enough to cut down trees has been hard for John and me to accurately size up. Indeed, Lydian has surprised us with her docile nature and how gentle she tends to be in certain situations with Naing Naing. At times, I’ve looked at her and called her “submissive” and then, I check myself and remember how Lydian can be firm and unwavering. She manages with an iron fist. And she chased down a stewardess in Thailand with her eyelids narrowed and a supernatural glare set against this woman, yelling at her and grabbing at her, ready to get escorted out of the airport by security in order to get Naing Naing’s ticket so the two of them could fly out of Thailand. Lydian is not submissive, no. Not in a general way, but she possesses an impressive flexibility in her nature. Sometimes she’s scary in her determination, but she can also be unwaveringly patient and soft with Naing Naing. What can I say? She loves him, so he gets a higher dose of patience than anyone else in the world.

And the two of them argue. They argue all the time about petty stuff like what to cook for dinner. 

And add to that the visa problems and Naing Naing’s weak passport and how we had to take the two of them on this long-journey from Ecuador to Panama to Barbados to St. Vincent and the Grenadines (where they got married) to Nicaragua to Honduras and then to El Salvador where we were turned away and so we returned to Honduras and took a different path to Guatemala where Lydi and Naing Naing applied for a visa to Mexico. It was a long, stressful journey. The most stressful journey we’ve ever taken because we never knew if we’d be allowed to board the next plane or not at every single destination.

And Mexico was the Promised Land, or so we thought. I mean, it was Lydi’, John’s, and my Promised Land. But for Naing Naing, it was a jumping off point–it was the place he had to get to in order to hold onto Lydian and then return to his homeland. From Mexico, he desperately needed to go back home to Myanmar. By the time we reached Mexico, he was emotionally overwrought with culture shock and the stress of having endured multiple airport experiences with immigration agents who threatened to not let him board his next flight. Often, he was separated from us and taken to a white room. To Naing Naing, I’m sure, it felt like Myanmar was lightyears from Mexico. But his feelings were all coiled up in tangles and he couldn’t sort them out after 8 months of international travel. So he took to that mighty steed of his with his super-sharp sword and left one random afternoon from Mexico for Myanmar with only about $600 USD in his pocket, a few Spanish words, and no idea how on earth how he would get home.

He told Lydian that he had to go back to Myanmar to figure out how to be a good husband to her. She was devastated and couldn’t make sense of it. She wanted him to stay just a few more days to get his green card.

But the thing about Naing Naing is that, if he sets his will to something, he tends to be successful at it. His sword has a secret laserbeam that he can focus on a distant point and when he activates it, this laser is scorching hot and intense, like the core of the sun. John and I learned that it’s best to stay out of the line of fire when we see him take aim at something. But while he has this quality of being able to reduce anything in his path to ashes, he’s also incredibly gentle when he’s in a normal and relaxed state of mind. His calm is at times, eerie and it takes on a heavy density, like lead, particularly when Lydian blasts off into outer space. 

Lydian has a Momma Bear quality that will be perfectly calibrated for having children, but right now, she uses her powers to go on Missions. In particular, she likes to protect the people she loves, though sometimes, she’ll get all explosive over ideas and beliefs that she presides over, guards, and protects. It depends. She’s a woman so she changes directions as needed. But Naing Naing provides this heavy, dense centeredness when Lydian blasts off into the stratosphere. It keeps her from going too far afield. But when Naing Naing starts sharpening his sword, Lydian changes into water and, as it turns out, she flows wherever he happens to be going.

John and I are trying to learn the rhythm of it all for our own sanity. 

When Naing Naing left for Myanmar from Mexico, he had been refusing to speak to me for about a month already. And he’d been estranged from John for about a week. He left a note saying that he saw John as a father he’d never had and that I made him think, which was scary to him. We couldn’t understand what had happened or why he’d left because we had almost no information. So, a few days after Naing Naing arrived in Bagan, Lydian took off after him (a 2 ½ day journey). 

Initially, John and I were going to go with her, but we didn’t want to get in the way or somehow get between them. We knew that Naing Naing would have to make peace with us because they would need familial support to survive as a couple. But Naing Naing was resistant. He thought we were going to humiliate him or try to hurt him in some way. 

But he didn’t tell Lydian this. Rather, he just refused to call a truce with John and me. 

And so, several weeks after she left for Myanmar, Lydian returned to Mexico, unsure about how to proceed. Naing Naing wasn’t willing to leave Bagan. He wanted to stay there. And she felt like this was a statement about the boundaries of his love for her. Meanwhile, Naing Naing felt like Lydian’s unwillingness to stay in Bagan was a statement of the boundaries of her love for him. 

About a week after Lydian returned to Mexico, it was clear that she was not “over him” and that she was not moving in the direction of getting over him. And that he wasn’t moving in the direction of getting over her either. 

So we all booked tickets this time and decided to risk the journey even though there were no guarantees that Naing Naing would make peace with John and me. Everything we’d seen and experienced in regard to Naing Naing had been positive except that he’d left Lydian suddenly after spending about 3 months in Mexico waiting for temporary residency (their system was backed up by about 2 months, so he never got the promised green card). And we simply weren’t sure what had happened because Naing Naing didn’t have the linguistic skills to convey his emotional content to us. 

But at Lydian’s urging, Naing Naing met all of us near the Seven Sisters restaurant the night after we arrived in Bagan. He stepped out from behind a tuk tuk parked along the road and his face had the youthful look of the Naing Naing we’d met back in January at The Moon restaurant on the edge of town. He was stand-offish at first, afraid that we were going to be harsh with him, but we weren’t. And because, as a general rule, Naing Naing is a gentle man, he put his warrior nature away and then and there, we called our truce. John and I pledged to support Lydi and Naing Naing, that we’d come to Myanmar specifically to be a support system for the two of them. And there we left them on the street, Lydian in her orange scarf and Naing Naing in his pale blue longyi.

And so here we are now. In Myanmar.

Related Links:

Bagan, Myanmar: The Inner and Outer Realities of Place

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