Zooming In

Colouring-ing

Chris Lin believes in writing as a force for activism. Stories and poetry have been his source of strength as he watches the conflict unfold in his home country of Burma.

Zooming In is a podcast that tells stories of 2020, but it’s not a COVID podcast. It’s about how life keeps going, even through a global pandemic.Zooming In is a podcast that tells stories of 2020, but it’s not a COVID podcast. It’s about how life keeps going, even through a global pandemic.

Chris Lin believes in writing as a force for activism. Stories and poetry have been his source of strength as he watches the conflict unfold in his home country of Burma.

This podcast collection was made possible with funding from Lotterywest.

Special thanks to our storyteller for this episode Chris, and to our production team: executive producer Kara Jensen-Mackinnon, audio engineer Mason Vellios, scripting and interviewing by Sisonke Msimang and Claudia Mancini.Copyright © 2022 Chris Lin.

This story and corresponding images have been licensed to the Centre for Stories by the Storytellers. For reproduction and distribution of this story/image please contact the Centre for Stories.

View Story Transcript

Sisonke: Welcome to Zooming In, a podcast about the lives and feelings of regular people who are like you and me. People seeking connection and love. People who are just muddling along, trying to be human. I’m your host for this episode, Sisonke Msimang.

Chris: I came to Perth from Burma in 1994, uh, with my family. We migrated here.

Sisonke: Chris isn’t a refugee. He’s a migrant. His family joined a rich diaspora that is four generations deep. For Chris, living in a new country wasn’t that jarring. There was a lot that was new, but the receiving community of Burmese that was already living here, made a lot of other aspects feel familiar. There was food, there were ceremonies and cultural celebrations, and of course, there was language. Refugees leave after disaster has struck their nations. Chris and his family left before Burma was engulfed in chaos. Their story has been about watching their country implode at a distance.

Chris: So, the story of my family is that my great uncle who had been living here since the seventies was, you know, worked a sponsor both our family, but also extend extended family network as well. So, over the course of a few years in the mid-nineties, there were a lot of us who met migrated out here. So, I’ve grown up in Perth, spent most of my formative years here. Since then, I’ve made a number of trips back to Burma, especially in my sort of, teenage, you know, later adult life. So, the connection to Burma for our family is a strong one. And that’s primarily due to the large diaspora community we have here in Perth. I believe there were about four generations of Burmese immigrants who have migrated here since the 1960s, which was when the military coup tape took place, a very rich diaspora here. And also, I think language comes into the frame as well. So, when I’m with my family, particularly speaking to my parents or aunts and uncles, I automatically revert back to Burmese. And despite the imperfections of my Burmese language, it’s a lovely way to actually reconnect. I think language is that real connective strand to the culture, the place from which you’re from.

Sisonke: The community Chris was raised in wasn’t perfect. As Chris says, at the social gatherings there was sometimes too much alcohol. Chris thinks this largely because of the trauma that many in the diaspora, particularly his parents’ generation, carried with them from Burma.

Chris: Yeah. And, you know, and I suppose part of the serious side of that really is I’m reflecting now certainly is I think a large part of that came from how incredibly hard their lives were here as well. So not so much for my generation who were really the beneficiaries of my parents’ generation, but certainly my parents and aunts and uncles, all of the relatives, more or less settled into labour-intensive jobs, you know, a lot of factory-based roles. So, I think that was, there was certainly, I think, a distinction in the experiences that we had between the generations

Sisonke: Many people have traumatic memories of moving to Australia. That wasn’t Chris’ experience. He had a newish but relatively large community he was arriving into, and he was young enough that everything was just fun. He didn’t know how to speak English when he first got here, but he had a love of language and of learning.

Chris: I think it had always been there even when I was in Burma, I was always an avid reader. I lived next door to a, I suppose, the equivalent of a library where they had comic books, you know, that they lent out on a nightly basis. I was always an avid reader then. And then when I came here, once I sort of managed to have a bit of a grasp on English, and I went through a really great ESL program, I remember I had a wonderful ESL teacher, Mrs. Gilmore, and I think that really cultivated my love for books and stories. I think it all started there. She’d give a tremendous energy to those classes by reading out stories, you know? So it wasn’t, it wasn’t just teaching language, but it was also feeding the imagination, I think. And I remember vividly sort of coloured children’s books. I can’t remember their titles, but I do remember, you know, just sort of what they looked like.

Sisonke: Chris’ parents were big proponents of education. His dad worked in a factory and his mum dedicated her full attention to her three children.

Chris: So, I’ve got a brother and sister. Mum was a full-time parent at that stage. So, she’d look after all of our school pick-ups drop-offs. With my dad, we saw less of him because he was the one who was the breadwinner, you know, working long hours in the factory to support the family. Mum particularly, supported, I think, us to be proactive readers. You know, I think they saw books as an entry point to English, but also to the opportunities of what that represented in terms of knowledge, culture, education, and later on a projected sort of career pathway. So, she’d always, encouraged us to read. And I remember in the nineties, we used to have these things called book clubs at school, which were paper catalogues of books that you could order through class. She’d always made sure that, to order each of us a book, each time that that came along, that was always around one, you know, once a term or so. But that was really, yeah, another way of fostering that, that love of reading, that love of stories

Sisonke: Chris did well in school and built a life in Perth. And the love of stories he’d had in his village as a small kid and the love of reading Ms Gilmore had encouraged in him remained strong. He went on to complete a PhD in English. In 2000, Chris’ family was able to visit Burma.

Chris: So, my family’s first trip there was in 2000… end of 2005. So, my whole family went back to Burma for the very first time since we left in ‘94… over 10 years. I actually didn’t make that trip because I stayed back to look after the family home, but yeah. So, it was certainly a decade after we first left, and I know that that was a hugely important milestone for, particularly for my parents. Mum had been dreaming of going back to Burma, you know, and so happens due to economic considerations and stuff, it just got very difficult to go back. So, going back, that was, so that was their first time. My first time going back was in 2009. And I went back with my parents, for the, for the first time.

Sisonke: Chris loved it. So much about Burma felt familiar, but also there were differences, of course.

Chris: We went back for about five weeks, I think, and after about three, four weeks, I’d started to feel like I missed, in terms of what I missed, I suppose it was some of the space, the sense of personal space, and the sort of independence as well. It’s not that independence doesn’t exist there, but, you know, they’re sort of on a spectrum. So, yeah. So, in short, yeah, I did feel a little bit like an outsider.

Sisonke: He was also able to see how much his social relationships and value system had been shaped by Burma.

Chris: I think I’m certainly among, you know, our generation, I’m the oldest of my generation here in terms of my cousins and stuff. And I’ve, I’ve held onto probably some of those values in a, maybe a slightly more palpable way. That sense of familial obligation. I think something that’s lovely about that part of the world or in other parts of the world is a sense of collectivism as well. You know, here, I think being in the west, we’re conditioned to think, I think in a very individualist way, in an independent way with all of the good things that that comes with, particularly in terms of independence, creative thinking, critical thinking, all of those things are really important. What I retained from a place like Burma is the strong sense of familial-mindedness obligation, the sense that you’re also part of a co-extension of a collective.

Sisonke: But the poverty in Burma was jarring, and the inequalities he saw were wider and deeper than anything he had grown up around in Perth.

Chris: You always know about the political situation growing up, but I think it’s a different experience when you go back and experience the things in person. Even not necessarily overtly political things, but even everyday things like seeing, you know, young children, during my travels there, in you know, sort of, different spectrums of poverty, and the lack of opportunity. I think maybe if I can put my hand, my finger on it, it’s a lack of opportunity. Here, I think when you grow up, irrespective of whatever social media you might grow up in, and not to underplay the disadvantages and all that, but there’s across the board, a certain aspiration, I think you can, you can have a certain level of that, if you invest a certain amount of time effort, that there are certain avenues of opportunity. I think in Burma, what I started to get a sense of more is those opportunities are more reserved for people of affluence and of wealth. And the people below that spectrum, I suppose there’s always sort of degrees of struggling.

Sisonke: After his first visit in 2009, Chris went back again in 2014. Burma had changed dramatically.

Chris: Yeah. So, I went back first in 2009, and then the second time in 2014 and the differences between those two time periods were quite stark. In 2009, the country was still relatively closed off. The tourism industry hadn’t quite exploded in the way that it would later sort of post-2010. So, I think the level of sort of every day, it’s not that people can’t claim their independence and you know, their right to, you know, freedom of speech and all that. But I sensed, definitely a more caginess in that way, which I didn’t discern later on when Burma had opened up to the world, around 2011, 2012.

Sisonke: The globally renowned activist and leader Aung Sang Suu Kyi has been released in 2010 and this signalled the beginning of a new era for the country. She had been in detention for almost fifteen years and her personal struggle to bring democracy to then military-ruled Myanmar – Burma to some – made her an international symbol of peaceful resistance in the face of oppression. The year after Chris’ first visit, Suu Kyi contested elections and won by a landslide. But because her children were foreign nationals, she could not take up the position of President. So, a strange position was created – a compromise with the generals who continued to exert a huge amount of power behind the scenes – and she ruled the country using the official title, “state counsellor.” This period is what many people now call Burma’s golden years.

Chris: The transition that Burma, underwent from about 2010, 2011, was from decades of sort of isolationist military rule to a power sharing arrangement. So, in effect the military still held the real power, but what it meant was an elder was cemented in the country’s 2008 constitution, was that it allowed parallel civilian government, but more or less, the military was still reserved a quarter of the country’s seats. And it still had total control over the country’s security related, you know, departments. So more or less that it kept a tight reign on the country. But that said, you know, reflecting on the optimism, the country had its first free elections in decades in 2015 and announced Aung Sang Suu Kyi’s party, the national league for democracy, swept to power, you know, so that was remarkable. That was remarkable. When I think for Burmese both, in country and abroad, you can understand, I suppose, why there was that widespread optimism and the real sense that there was a turning point in the country’s history. Yeah.

Sisonke: Like all migrants who have a distant homeland, Chris kept a close eye on what was happening in Burma. He could see that the situation was deteriorating, and this had an effect on the community here. But life continued, in Burma with people trying to manage the political tumult. The darling Anh San Suu Kyi was getting criticised for the terrible situation of the Rohingya people who were the subject of strong anti-Christian sentiment within the country. It was confusing trying to figure out what was happening and why. But then, in 2020, Suu Kyi was re-elected with an even bigger majority than before. The military arrested her, and a crisis ensued. In early 2021, the crisis deepened.

Chris: The 1st February 2021 was effectively when, you know, Burmese people across the world woke up to the news of, that in effect a military coup had taken place. So, you know, we just started to receive news that, Anh Sang Suu Kyii herself, but also senior, ministers in her government, were arrested that very morning. I remember feeling like, you know, it was early morning on the first, and just a sense of the wind being completely taken out, and a horrible sinking feeling that we were on the cusp of, you know, a sense of déjà vu. I don’t think anyone could have maybe precipitated the extent of civil conflict and suffering at that point necessarily. But I think that in that very moment, I could really, I think we could all sense that this was a seismic event.

Sisonke: For Chris and his community here in Perth, things felt really bad.

Chris: If I can talk about what that feels like, it’s not just for myself, but also I think for, for all Burmese who tend to be living overseas as part of diaspora community looking in, it’s exactly that sadness and the sadness, I think more than anything else is, is for the people there and the country. And it’s particularly, I think, more galling this time round, because it comes on the backend of about a decade of promising reform, you know, reform that wasn’t perfect. But nevertheless, we had seen some reform and some steps in that, in that direction. So, I think the sad, the sadness is for them. And of course, when you’re bombarded, with news of all the atrocities that are happening, you know, on the ground, the killings, the detained detention, the torture, and then you bring COVID as a backdrop into it. So earlier this year, you know, Burma, we went through another wave of COVID and we had family members and friends, particularly among the elderly, you know, who were, you only had to look at Facebook or social media to get a sense of the fact that people were literally running out of oxygen, they were, you know, seeking oxygen supplies and putting, you know, the messages. No doubt, we’re the lucky ones here looking in, but I think, that only has a toll.

Sisonke: There has been a coming together that Chris hasn’t seen before though.

Chris: One of the things, that I’ve seen post-February in the Burmese community in Perth is just how much everyone has rallied together in support of it. So, I suppose the best way to counter that sense of helplessness, that sense of sadness is to try to spell yourself into action, you know, and to try to support us as best as possible, the communities, you know, ethnic groups, et cetera, that you have there. So, we’ve had, you know, a series of fundraising, you know, activities, food, fetes, concerts, as well as, you know, political rallies where we’ve had, you know, the buy-in also of some politicians here because we do need our politicians to advocate, you know, at the federal level, in terms of what Australia’s response might be.

Sisonke: For Chris, as a member of the Burmese diaspora, the current situation hurts. It’s not just that he can’t go back and visit friends and family – that is not easy. But there is a bigger, more heartbreaking story unfolding there, which brings with it a certain kind of heaviness. In April, after the coup, protesters took to the streets. Most of them were young and committed to building a brighter future. They didn’t want to go backwards, to the closed society of the early 2000s.

One of them – Pan Ei Phyu – was an ardent supporter of the pro-democracy movement, and she had made several TikTok videos of herself singing pro-democracy songs. Fearing for her safety, her mother Thida San didn’t let her join the street protests. It wasn’t enough to protect her. Pan was inside her house when a bullet cut through a bamboo wall in her home. It killed her and left a hole in the wall. It was the size of a pencil tip, a tiny reminder her mother didn’t need. In the months since Pan’s murder, Burmese diaspora communities around the world, not just here in Perth, have returned repeatedly to Pan’s murder as a symbol of the horror of the situation that is unfolding in their country. Chris, as always, has turned to the page to process his feelings. For him, the words of Burmese poet Min San Wai capture perfectly what he’s felt since February. The poem is called Hole, and it has been translated from Burmese into English by ko ko thett.

Chris: There’s a hole the size of a pencil tip

in the bamboo wall of our house.

Not so long ago Little Daughter

piled thanaka on her cheeks and

disappeared into that hole.

She is gone for a long time.

Mother can’t wait any longer.

She peeps into the hole and finds

herself looking down a gun muzzle.

In the background is a gala dinner,

where Myanmar in blood and gore

is chopped up and served.

At the top of the grand table sits

the pagoda donor, sipping a

glass of Little Daughter’s blood.

The dead wail in the darkness outside.

Mother passes out, repeating

My Little Daughter, my Little Daughter!

Father gets curious and looks into the hole.

Family members take turns

peeping into that hole.

Today each and every person in this country

has a tiny hole as big as a pencil tip

in their chest.

Sisonke: Chris’ ability to find the right words to express the distress of a nation he left when he was very small is remarkable. It is also not unusual. He is a product of a diaspora whose heart is forever connected to Burma and he is a product of his neighbourhood.

Chris: I grew up in a part of Perth, the Northern sort of Northern suburbs where there was a large population of different immigrant backgrounds. So, in that way, I think the question of integration is partly about your capacity to see yourself in whatever dimension that might be reflected in others around you. So, both, and I suppose I’m speaking, not just in terms of Burmese, but when you are able to relate to and form friendships with, you know, other immigrant children who had recently arrived, I think that makes the connection certainly easier, in addition to also those friends of mine who were born here. So certainly, a lot of my Vietnamese friends were born here. So, I think that’s only made the connected, the sense of connectedness stronger.

Sisonke: Chris has got a clear sense of who he is in the world and it comes not from living in two worlds, but in having learned from an early age about the power of community. Belonging to a diaspora means that you belong elsewhere, but you are connected to your homeland. Chris has no doubts about his voice, and about his rights as an Australian to call on his government to support democratic change in Burma.

Chris: I often get asked, you know, how can, you know, by friends, how can we help? How can, one of the ways you can do that is by reaching out to, and connecting with people in those communities here, but also by taking an interest. I think that’s the thing with any type of, you know, diaspora community is by if you take that interest, if you can encourage that, I suppose that visibility, you know, I think that that can make a difference for the people who are here, who are also then trying to make a difference for the people there.

Sisonke: Chris is an activist. He uses stories and poetry to fight for the country he left when he was little, the country that keeps the biggest part of his heart, even to this day. For Chris, this isn’t just about national identity. It’s about wanting every child to have the same opportunities he had. The opportunity to read, to learn, to be a part of a community. The opportunity for “colouring-ing” their world however they choose.

This podcast was produced by the Centre for Stories with funding from Lotterywest. Centre for Stories is an organisation based on Whadjuk Noongar land in Western Australia that believes in storytelling as a way to build more inclusive communities. Head to centreforstories.com to listen to more stories, or to make a tax-deductible donation. Special thanks to our storyteller for this episode, Chris, and to our production team, executive producer Kara Jensen McKinnon, audio engineer Mason Vellios, scripting interviewing and production by Sisonke Msimang and Claudia Mancini.