Recent Posts

World Without Maps

less than 1 minute read

World Without Maps

I’m happy to announce that something very close to my heart has a new home.

The book I’ve been writing for female travellers to India is now entitled World Without Maps, and has a new home here.

You can sign up there to reserve a copy.

Mahabandoola

3 minute read

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.”

Culture Kitchen 2: Little Myanmar

1 minute read

If you are anything like me, you’ve walked by Peninsula Plaza all the time and perhaps even entered it when you’ve needed to buy cameras and stuff. You’ve probably also wondered about all the wondrous things there. What is the paste they are mixing, what is this delicious-looking food and how can I have some of it, if only I knew what to order?

I’ve had the luck to spend more time in Myanmar in recent times, and I absolutely adore the country. I figured it would be only fitting to feature the community in Singapore for the next Culture Kitchen, seeing as that there’s an entire building in downtown Singapore that caters to that community.

With a bunch of intrepid volunteers’ help, I’m happy to announce Culture Kitchen 2: Little Myanmar. We’ll have lunch featuring the best-of Burmese cuisine, you’ll get to meet and mingle with the Burmese community, we’ll also screen “The City Where They Live”, a documentary about Meiktila’s community and youth leaders and how they worked to heal the city after the horrific communal violence of 2013. We’ll then do a Q&A with the filmmakers live from Yangon before kicking off a walking tour of Little Myanmar.

Sound good? Get your tickets here, there are just 19 seats left.

The Geography of Hope

6 minute read

At 18 I certainly believed I knew everything. I did not know just how much it’d hurt this boy’s heart if I told him the inevitable: that I was in love with someone he could never be—a woman. We went to our favourite bar and sat glumly while he tried to drink away his pain and anger.

At that time it felt as though life simply led me into various unforeseen encounters, at turns dramatic and at others explosive, as if I were but a mere spectator. The woman I loved walked into the bar. I stole a glimpse. I could not look away. Even without saying anything at all, he knew it was her.

She met the man she was to marry that evening after I left.

***

There was a girl I noticed at the campus coffee shop.

I liked her pants. And her hair. It helped that I sat at that coffee shop every day nursing a cigarette because that’s what I did when I was young and stupid. She would walk by, and I would try to find out who she was.

Every day we passed each other in that little corridor or at the coffee shop. I don’t remember how, but she agreed to come on a date with me.

We went to a place I still go to, then on a 46-day backpacking trip to India. I bravely led the way. By the second week we were at the Taj Mahal. We had waited to see the sunset because I thought it might be good to attempt romantic gestures sometimes. As the sun set over Agra I reached for her hand. She pushed it away.

We broke up at the Taj Mahal, which was fitting because we had also fallen in love at the Angkor Wat. From one wonder to another, she still could not erase the shame she felt from being with a woman. Even in a country where no one knew her name.

The next 30 days were epic and vengeful, full of sadness and train schedules.

***

The woman I loved four years ago did not marry the man she met at the bar. I may or may not have had anything to do with it.

The truth was that the more I sunk into the sadness, the more I elevated our mythology. It was not the great love which never was. We were not star-crossed lovers. Not only had I not grown from that point, I had even regressed. Waking up with her every morning made me feel I would lose her any time now. I was a little bit older now but really I was still the awestruck girl in my school uniform and my tie, wanting to know how I could punch above my weight because I can, and God she’s hot.

We were the cartographers of silence which began with a lie, later snowballing into a mountain of mythology and characters with their own CliffsNotes and paths strewn with sad poetry and despair and sadness.

When you throw yourself at a wall repeatedly, it’s okay not to know when to stop, especially if you enjoy feeling sorry for yourself.

But I had adventures to go on and mythology was too heavy to come along for that ride. I threw it away.

***

I don’t dream very much, but that year I had a vivid dream: I dreamed of a tall, slender woman with a soft voice who captivated me completely in that dream. I felt happy in that dream. I was a new person in that dream. I grew to be a better person with this figment of my dream, in my dream.

When I awoke from that dream I was with such a woman barrelling down the River Skrang in Borneo on a hare-brained plan to see tattoos and drink moonshine with the tribal elders of the tattoo artists we knew in the big city. We hit a rock and the river rushed around us as if it wanted to have us whole.

We went places without names on maps. Places without maps. We were apart a lot, but she drove 300 miles to meet me all the time and we travelled tens of thousands of miles together when we could. I ended up travelling tens of thousands of miles each time I needed to see her, which was all the time. We met in Istanbul. We made video postcards about the places we were in without each other, and we sent them to each other every other week.

Eventually we decided it was time to try to steer our way home.

I don’t even remember what home means any more. I had wandered a few hundred thousand kilometres, some of it by foot. Mostly by bus, train or taxi. Even boat.

Home was where she was. Some days it was London. Others, it was Kuala Lumpur.

I found a little house I thought we could be happy in, got a dog, and perhaps for a time we were. It feels as faraway as all of my 18-year-old memories.

***

I don’t remember when I stopped trying. I was back at the Taj Mahal again, and everything about that monument still fills me with despair. I’m never going back there ever again. I looked at her. I felt despair. I didn’t know how to fix us. I just stopped trying. Or talking. I held her hand on a cold New Year’s Eve in Jodhpur. I felt nothing. I kissed her. She did not want to kiss me back. I fell asleep with my back turned, full of anger and secret tears. It had been that way for a while now.

A few months earlier I asked her to marry me. I was met with nervous laughter and panic. In hindsight, it was a bad idea. Everyone knew she would say no.

Except me. Ever the optimist.

The computer says no.

Everybody knows it. But I didn’t get the memo. It was always no.

***

I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to be a lesbian in this society, and it all comes down to this: other people. It’s that I have to automatically assume that all of the following are bonuses, not expectations: having my love recognized for the purposes of property, tax and inheritance; attending a partner’s family functions without unnecessary outcry and suspicion; knowing that if I were to be in a medical emergency, my life partner would be legally allowed to make decisions on my behalf. In other words, to even hope for my future life partner to be perceived as anything other than a complete stranger, is going to have to be taken on other people’s good faith.

As outsiders, that’s all we have to go on: the goodwill of other people. The readiness of other people to stop thinking of us as criminals, sexual deviants and perverts. If I hold hands with a woman I love, I am rubbing it in a conservative society’s face and being too declarative about my sexual orientation; if I walk side by side with one, the man who catcalls and makes lewd comments at us bordering on sexual harassment, is just, after all, being a man and is entitled to his opinions about my body and hers.

As for someone who generally feels like there is nothing in the world I cannot do, all I can do is to keep on doing what I do best—live my life as best as I know how, be kind to old people and animals, donate to charity sometimes, avoid premature death—and dream about the day I hope to see in my lifetime: when our lovers will be our equals, and our love as deserving.

Don’t Lugi Be Happy

1 minute read

In peninsular Southeast Asia there is a word of Malay origin, bastardized by Chinese pronunciation that perhaps best describes the prevalent mindset of the middle class in everything from career to politics: lugi.

More than the losing of face and the losing of status, our collective great fear is the fear of losing out. What of? Anything and everything. A recent history of imperialism, colonialism, authoritarianism and other forms of oppression have perhaps conditioned our brains into a state of perpetual loss. And need for perpetual validation.

Our toddlers go for a dozen classes, academic and non-academic, before they even learn to independently put on their pants. Other people’s kids may win, you see.

It is not enough to get a perfect score at the “O” Levels, scoring a total of 6 points (the fewer the better, 6 being the lowest); to qualify for the top three schools one must have enough point deductions from higher second language, sports and activities, and alumni affiliation, so you’re really aiming for 0 points.

To what end, paper pushers and PowerPoint warriors?

The most successful people I know who have emerged from this Matrix ask a different set of questions.

They do not ask, “what can I lose by doing this?”

They ask, “what can I gain?” Then proceed to minimize the risks through calculated steps and methodologies.

They do not ask, “how can this help me be seen to be more successful by my peers?”

They ask, “how does this help me learn, build, make a life I want for myself, help others, and can it also afford the life that I want such that my peers can see economic success attained through healthy, self-deterministic ways?”

They do not understand the politics of lugi and perhaps it is because some of us do not understand fear; every challenge is a learning curve to be conquered.

Of course this is a privilege of a certain socio-economic class, perhaps an indulgence, but for anyone of an aspirational mindset the fear of losing out is the biggest death knell you can sound. It’s not a competition, but even if it was you’d better be competing because you love it, not because you’re trapped in a race whose rules you don’t understand and whose finish line offers an indeterminate prize you’ll figure out later. Life’s too short to be afraid.