Yangon Roads

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.”


Strange Damascus Memories



“If you are really a lesbian, proveeeeittt! Kiss me NOW!” A giggly girl shrieked, rather loudly, flapping her long, luscious hair about as well. She also had the Arabic equivalent of a Valley Girl accent.

In most situations, this might have been a proposition to consider.

Except we were in Syria. And I don’t like giggly girls who shriek, anywhere in the world.

I fumbled uncomfortably, and looked at the television with all the men, pretending to have taken a sudden interest in Syrian football.

I really do have the strangest experiences on my travels.


“Wanna see something cool?” Before I could reply or enquire further, S stepped on the accelerator and brought his little Fiat car across five lanes on the road at a deathly angle, chuckling the way only a Russian-Arab person can in the face of extremities. “Damascus,” he proclaimed, “is kind of like a real life Grand Theft Auto.” I agreed, once I collected my breath.

Everything he took me to confounded me.

“I have a drive-thru liquor store!” — okay.

We stocked up.

“Let’s go drinking and dancing! On the mountain!” — okay.

We went.

We go-karted — drunk. I may have crashed.

His friends pulled out an old Nokia phone packed with classic Syrian tunes. All of them were Russian-Arab, the offspring of the Syrian men and the Russian women they married when they studied in the former Soviet Union. For that moment we all linked arms and fell about our sides laughing as we attempted our best impersonations of Arab Village Dancing.

The next spring some of them would be dead.


Stranger experiences followed me everywhere I went in that country.

I found myself in a farmhouse in the outskirts of Damascus, sitting by a large wooden oven in a garden. It had been purpose-built to cater to the roasting (or proasting) tendencies of the proprietor and his Russian-Arab friends.

My mother made this vodka, someone started, from the potatoes in her backyard. It was delicious.

I cured all of this Baltic herring and other fish myself, another Russian in Damascus announced. It was delicious.

Somewhere between eating cured herring and drinking homemade vodka I found myself in the middle of a large field. When I awoke a middle-aged Russian lady of the cougar variety was hovering over me, massaging my back.

But damn if I knew what she was saying for I had herring on my mind.


Back in the SL

I have become one of those people.

For the fourth time this year, I am sitting at the Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf at Colombo airport drinking the world’s worst coffee and the worst food.

I am also strutting around in heels. Here. Also in Indonesia. In the Philippines. Everywhere. I walked into a TASMAC in dodgy neighbourhood in Madras in my Asian office lady dress and in my heels. Everybody stared. The truth is I have misplaced my flip flops and the hippie that was wearing them along with it.

The heels make my friends laugh. A, who hasn’t lived in Singapore for the last five years, literally dropped her cocktail all over our bags as she stood there marvelling at how I was wearing proper shoes.

Here I am now in a designer top, hippie pants, heels and uncombed hair. I have lost my hairbrush, too.

My life these days is at once more stable and at once more colourful. The opportunities get larger and more varied. The opportunity costs increase. There is clarity. I say “epic” and “amazeballs” a lot. I also say “let’s jam” when talking about meetings because I work with so many Americans and call so many of them my friends.

I’ve had the chance to pursue some incredible opportunities at work (in tech), for play (in writing), for causes I care about; I am pleased.

My dog goes to doggie kindergarten and camping trips, and I go to meetings. Sometimes I remember to comb my hair. I pay rent in one of the world’s most expensive cities and I travel once a week, sometimes more. I get to see my lovely family all the time now, which is a vast improvement from 2008-2013.

We ringed in the new year in an apartment overlooking the Singapore River. The fireworks were beautiful but the best part was the good friends I love. Years ago in the back room of a tiny political party’s office — an episode we will probably laugh about for the rest of our lives — I met N and S, and they have been exactly what one Facebook caption said, “together through good and bad, politics, broken hearts and unwritten novels.” The all-nighters will come to something. The elections were our becoming. The friends to whose sides you flee to for refuge and for pineapple tarts and gin when you’ve had your heart broken are the ones to keep.

Last night I attended a beautiful wedding in Sri Lanka. Normally weddings make me want to cry with how trite and awful they are, yet despite the rituals and the chaos, this one was full of love and light. It was clear every single soul that made it out there came because we truly loved these guys. From Johannesburg to New York to Singapore, guests were family to the couple, jointly and separately, at various points of lives led in Sri Lanka, Singapore, New York City and elsewhere. Here were two souls who had withstood trials of such intensity and magnitude, who had moved mountains to be with each other. Though the guests fumbled, we eventually managed to let loose a flurry of wishing lights into the sky over Pannupitiya.

That’s what all this is about, the bride not so tearfully (compared to her best friend) told us. Family, friends that are family, and love.

In the balmy Sri Lankan heat I felt at home in the tropics, my heart full of love and happiness for the first time in a long while.

Never again will I settle for second best, nor for anything short of extraordinary, unconditional love.