At the hotel I had the receptionist scribble the name of my lunch spot in Burmese. Lunch that day was to be outside my sphere of Yangon familiarity: I had never been there, but I had been told by some locals that I must have a typical Burmese lunch at Aung Thu Kha.
So to Aung Thu Kha I went.
After gesticulating at each other for a while, my taxi driver stared at the piece of paper, looked up at my face and laughed: you speak Mandarin, don’t you?
I speak Mandarin, don’t I? I think I do.
I have always been perturbed at how people seem to be able to deduce secrets about me just by peering at my face. This happens at alarming frequency whenever I travel. Some days, I’m told I must be Burmese of Chinese origin. Other days, I’m Thai. In northeast India I am accepted by all of their tribes; my linguistic inability explained away for me by what must be my probable fluency in some another tribal language. Yet in China, the country of my grandparents’ birth and heritage, I am too Southeast Asian. Too dark. Too English-speaking. I am the colour of the sun beating the earth, and China is a distant, lost memory a long way away from the sun.
So yes, I speak Mandarin. The ability to converse in it has followed me throughout the world, sometimes paying handsomely with access few other languages can offer.
He asks the inevitable. “How do you find Myanmar?”
Like everyone else who has asked that before me, before I have a chance to reply he gripes, “It must be terrible for you. It’s terrible. All of it.”
“I love the city and its people — surely all signs point to improvement!”
“Yes. Improvement also leads to traffic jams,” honking angrily as a car tried to cut our place in a jam in a tiny residential lane.
In our brief conversation I learned he was the grandson of Yunnanese immigrants, economic refugees in their time. In the thirties, Rangoon was the shining light of Asia. Its opulent hotels filled with important people. Its white-only clubs invented cocktails such as the Pegu Club. The Yunnanese of China’s deep south fled south to seek their fortune. Some have done exceedingly well; they have assimilated, in a way, taking on Burmese names and speaking Burmese fluently on top of their Chinese identities, preserved and left the way it was when they left in the thirties.
I wanted to know what languages they spoke at home, what they ate. He indulged me.
“My parents made us speak Mandarin at home when we were kids. If we slipped into Burmese, we got fined. They were born here, but they wanted us to stay connected to our Chinese identities as well. Oh, and Burmese food is way too oily,” he shook his head as he dropped me off. “Let me know if you want Yunnanese or Dai food when you’re back in town. It’s better.”
When 1962 happened, among the many atrocities that ensued: Chinese schools closed. Burmese citizens not from the Barma ethnic group were banned from attending certain institutions of higher learning. Just like that the lights went out in Asia’s leading metropolis, and stayed off for a very long time.
In 2014, some of those lights have come back on. And with them, traffic jams. The unpaven road outside a bank near my hotel was, two days later, a pavement. For some, it’s a clear sign Burma is going to be the gold rush of the east of this century: five star hotels’ bars and Chinatown noodle stalls are similarly filled with businessmen from mainland China seeking fortune and glory.
“Perhaps I’ll buy factory equipment from back home and ship it here,” an enthusiastic new arrival announced loudly at a Cantonese-run noodle stall on the streets of Chinatown, rattling off his entire business plan in Mandarin while the other customers looked on uninterested.
Maung Maung, a middle-aged Cantonese-Burmese man jumped up with an oversized Chinese phone and pulled out a floor plan. They looked at it intently. Maung Maung went back to his noodles, slurping. (Maung Maung of just a few moments ago: “My Chinese name, lady, is Jin Bo. Jin for GOLD!”)
“We’ll make plans. See what help you need. I can help,” Maung Maung told the newcomer.
“Do you have my phone number? I still don’t remember what it is,” the young mainlander said in a way that sounded like a plea for help. He’d either just gotten here or still hadn’t shaken off his “overwhelmed by Burma” look.
“Of course I do,” Maung Maung laughed as he perked up. “I sold it to you.”