Saturday August 26, 2016, 10pm
Post n°5 – The mysteries of the longji
The longji may look like a skirt, but there’s little feminine about it. Walking down the streets of Yangon, perhaps half the men wear them, and here at the monastery, it’s part of the uniform for lay men. Actually, women also wear longjis, but theirs look more like long skirts because they tie them in a way that makes them look skirtlike. So what is this thing?
It’s a piece of fabric about two meters long and a meter wide whose short edges are sewn together to create a sort of cylinder more than twice my waist size. You step into it and wrap it into a knot in front, around the bellybutton area, and it’s supposed to hold. The legs are partly trapped, wrapped like a sausage, forcing me to take small steps, and the shirt
is supposed to be tucked in. Not the most comfortable thing around, for sure. But kind of cool. According to Wikipedia, it was imported from other Asian countries during the colonial period (1885-1948), so the tradition doesn’t go so far back. The previous skirt-like garment was apparently much more elaborate, and the piece of fabric much longer. So I guess I am lucky to only have this simplified version to deal with.
Anyway, after two weeks of tying the thing at least twenty times a day, I’m far from mastering the technique. When I first arrived at the monastery, ten different Burmese men showed me how to do it. They had all grown up tying longjis, and this was as natural to them as tying shoelaces is to me. But for some reason, they each had a different technique. They all knew the technique perfectly, but they all did it differently. I think I have it down, but somehow when I’m done tying my longji, it looks like it was just hit by a mini-tornado.
Burmese guys can knot it up in two seconds flat, while it takes me at least twenty. And what to say of the results? Their longjis are neat and of equal length all around, going all the way down to the ankles and folding neatly in front, the way it’s supposed to. But mine end up of unequal lengths all round, sometimes touching the ground in front and revealing part of my calfs in the back. What a shame. And I somehow manage to create complex fold patterns in the front. Men will gaze down with a look of puzzlement or disapproval when they pass me. But none has yet congratulated me on my longji-tying skills. Obviously, originality and creativity are not appreciated when it comes to tying these things. Furthermore, I categorically refuse to keep my shirt tucked in. It’s already so hot I am perpetually dripping sweat, but tucking the shirt in just makes things worse. So when it comes to wearing the longji in a traditional way, I’m a disaster.
Yes, the longji is refusing to reveal its secrets to me all at once. But I persevere. Many times a day. The battle continues. The damn thing tries to squeeze my legs together while I walk, limits my steps to 30-centimeter micro-strides? I pinch it on both sides and lift it out sideways, discreetly, to unfold the folds and free up my legs a bit. It tries to trip me by getting me to step on it when I walk upstairs? Again I raise it like a woman doing a curtsy. It tries to crush my stomach when I sit for meditation? I just undo the knot (and redo it before getting up). It’s a ferocious battle, and judging by my disheveled appearance, I probably look like I’m losing. And for sure, seeing how conniving the thing is, I am prepared for treachery. Whereas Burmese men apparently go naked under their beloved longjis, I refuse to play along. Yes, I know that sooner or later my longji will spontaneously unknot itself and plunge to the ground. So I am prepared.
What more can I say about the mysterious longji? I guess time will tell.