There are certain sounds you hear at dawn in Yangon. The sonorous chants of monks reciting prayers from district temples, punctuated by the strike of a gong. The shrill cries of street pedlars who wander the laneways, selling pe pyote and kaut nyin paung, varying their pitch and elongating the vowels to entice eager ears. The city pulses with the noise of faith, prayers, commerce, and livelihoods while you lie in bed, half-awake.
My uncle’s pickup pulls up outside our bed-and-breakfast. Bleary eyed, we clutch our bags and stow them in the back of the truck. Mum directs proceedings, making sure there is enough room for us to sit. She’s the only one who doesn’t seem tired. The patterned shawl wrapped around her catches the sunlight, turning her movement into arcs of colour. The six of us – mum and dad, my brother and I, our partners – jostle for space in the rear passenger compartment. Legs folded, we settle for the four-hour trip to Sitkwin.
This is an inward journey, ventured as much on the bumpy asphalt of the highway as along the thoroughfares of memory. It’s been twenty-two years since we left Sitkwin, our home before Australia, where my grandparents built a life as teachers and farmers. As we prepare to depart, I think of a line from an Ursula LeGuin novel: the very nature of a voyage, like a circumnavigation of the globe, implies return. I like this. To leave a place is to be gently pulled back, to always be aware of the coordinates of where you are from.
My uncle kicks the truck into life. We wave to the hotel clerks, still yawning in their singlets and longyi, but with the presence of mind to pack us slices of bread in a plastic bag.
An hour into the trip, the cramped clutches of Yangon’s streets subside to prasine swathes of country landscape. It’s easier to breathe here. Mum’s energy is still tireless. She patiently scrapes off the shells of quail eggs and passes them around for us to eat. Somehow, she forgets to give herself one. Her actions remind me of a story she once told me about my grandmother, Moe Moe. At mealtimes, Moe Moe would leave the biggest, fleshiest pieces of meat for her children. She’d prise apart the portions, her hands sticky with curry paste, and distribute them among mum and her siblings. For herself, she’d only leave the bones and when mum asked her why she didn’t eat the meatier pieces, she replied simply that the bones were the tastiest bit. She’d suck on the marrows to prove her point. She liked the bones.
Maybe there’s something in the act of return where you’re not just retracing your steps. You’re folding back on time too. The longer we are on the road, the more the past becomes proximate, crystallising things I hadn’t thought about in years.
Like the times when the electricity would flicker on and our house would be cast in fluorescent white for a few hours instead of candle light. We would celebrate by staying up longer than usual and the house swelled with noise.
The nights during Thadingyuk festival lighting sparklers on the street with other children. The miniature pyrotechnics in my palms illuminating our excited faces and smelling like something metallic.
The cool rain during the monsoons, sweet like freshly cracked coconut, drenching our skin and turning t-shirts translucent.
The school breaks when I’d have a new comic book to read from the bookshop next door. The scent of the pages unmistakeably paper.
The morning we left Sitkwin. The nascent light of the sky, somewhere between blue and black. The trod of hooves as the horse cart carried us to the edge of town, laden with the weight of our bags, our lives, ready to shed the skin of this life for a new one in Perth.
We stop at a roadside teahouse to ease our muscle cramps and order cups of la phat yay. The brew is deep and sweet, and it makes me think of how the Burmese expression teahouse-sitting can mean any number of activities that take place in these spaces.
There’s not far to go now.
A left turn off the highway and my uncles steers us onto a narrow road that leads directly to town. We’re each adrift in our thoughts during this final leg. My brother takes out his phone and plays a song, Take me Home, Country Roads. Our grandfather’s favourite, which we’d played at his funeral. It’s a few months since he passed. Mum starts to cry.
I picture evenings when he’d play the tune on the cassette, the way he hummed along, eyes closed and pitch keening, elevated by the whiskey in his throat. The folds of his face etched deeper in concentration on the high notes. I’m afraid that, in losing him, I’ve lost a small part of what I mean when I say I’m Burmese, that the affinity with Burma he embodied has been loosened.
As we pace those last few kilometres,
I feel the weight
of my grandparents’ lives.
It’s mid-afternoon and the old house is quiet. There’s a stillness here as though it has forfeited all memory of motion. I still think of it as my grandparents’ place though it feels nothing like the house we lived in. The people who own it have opened the doors for our family to have a look around. We’re told that the property had been used as a children’s learning centre over the years, but was now being repurposed for residence. Chalk scribblings on the walls are the only tell-tale signs of this history. Otherwise, the place is coated in dust and spiderwebs, with rubbish strewn here and there. It has the hollowness of a husk, emptied of things, the lustre of the wooden floors and columns that my grandfather polished with care now dulled by the layer of debris. My dad pokes his video camera everywhere. We linger in parts to work out where we used to do what. But the rooms are unfamiliar and I’m surprised to find that the nostalgia I carried has dissipated now that we are here.
Then it dawns on me. We’re not only out of place, we’re also out of time. The home I’d been coming back to recuperate is not the one I’ve found. As special as it is to return, the Sitkwin that we’re hoping to find is rooted in the past, fixed, the moment we left on that horse cart.
To fold back on time in the way that we have, to return to the point of departure, is – like any act of folding – an imprecise art. It leaves creases and imperfections.
Later, as we leave, I look back at what had once been our home. The front of the house has changed, its former wooden façade and shutters overlaid by a concrete exterior, brutal and incongruous. Like us, it has assumed a new skin, a new life.
Christopher Lin migrated to Australia at the age of seven from Myanmar, and is of Karen ethnic heritage. He completed his PhD in English at the University of Western Australia, where he works as a learning skills adviser. Chris contributes to local literary events in Perth and serves as part of the PEN Perth collective, advocating for persecuted writers. He hosted the ‘PEN Spotlight on Burma’ for the 2019 Perth Writers Festival and is an ardent believer in the power of storytelling and the arts.