The story of the Burmese white doll.
WE live a block down from Strand Road where big, big ships dock at the port on Yangon River. Big ships spilling over with mounted weaponry. They are stationed, steady against the ebbs and bobs of the water with their hefty weight, dormant under the haze of the violent sun, out-of-place in our city’s bustling community.
From the big black ships, through the billowing white steam, white people in black starched uniforms stride grandly onto our land. They disperse through our streets into the nooks and crannies of hotels, restaurants, bars and brothels like harmless black ants. The next day, they will be gone. My country: a transit.
It is easy to differentiate those who are on their way to their assigned bases from those who are on their journey home. The latter do not shy away from the burn of our tropical sun; their bodies are burnt down from experiences much worse. The former still hold an optimistic pride and exoticising curiosity in their pale devouring eyes and pale healthy skin. Through our country, they go and return. Transit. This wasn’t always the case. Once upon a time, they had stayed.
Once a year, when the American navy docks overnight at the port down the street from our home, we go for a walk on Strand Road. My father hosts me up in his arms, grabs my mother’s hand and takes us for a walk. We venture into what has become another man’s land.
“Where do those big ships come from, Papa?” I ask. “Where do these people go?”
He says, “They go to the other side of the world, far far away. Would you like to go with them?”
“No, Papa,” I answer, “I will stay right here. I will stay right here at home.”
Strand Road is much unlike ours. There, the buildings are massive with windows that are overly large but iron-barred. Their architecture is old—historical but always relevant. All the bricks are painted an earthy red to resemble the designers’ sunburnt skin. I love looking at these colonial buildings that have become foreign embassies and the Burmese government’s new customs offices. Strand Road never lost its colonial qualities. There, people look like me. Pale in all aspects, sickly flushed under the vicious sun. From under my plastic blue parasol that I always carry, I spy on the foreigners that look down their sharp pointy noses at us and bark gibberish. What strange creatures they are! I whisper the funny things I see —these people are always doing something funny— to my father who shushes me with an inhaled laugh and I hide my face in his neck from the glare of the sun and people. There, people stare at me.
When my mother’s friends visit, they ask the street vendors in front of our apartment building: “Where is the home of the child who looks like a little white doll?” The street vendors who are also our friends ask back although there is no need for confirmation: “The little white girl with the winter sun in her hair, the summer sky in her eyes, and a tiny parasol in her hand?” Everyone on my block knows who I am: the little white Burmese girl.
“How beautiful!” People comment as they pat my cheek more lightly than they would other children’s. It’s as if they worry my skin would break under a single touch of their rough Burmese hands. But I am just as strong. I, too, am Burmese.
Phyu Hnin, my mother says, you are white snow on a scorching summer day.
My mother lays me down on the softest blanket she owns and blows air against my belly, my little arms and legs, until I giggle and flutter in her arms like a swirl of white snow. Her lips against my skin makes a bubububu sound like the motor of boats running across the Yangon River. It reminds me of the thrumming of my heart as my mother fluttered around me when I got my first sunburn. That burned me from outside in; this is a warming glow from inside out. I remember the warmth of her breath as she tries to breath colour back into the white of my skin.
My mother likes to dress me in sundresses the color of sunflowers. It brings out your pale pale skin. She curls my colourless hair into two pigtails that hang over my shoulder. Clear your bangs out of your pale blue eyes. Affixes a single white gardenia blossom behind my ear. We use natural perfumes not fake chemicals that will destroy your skin. Slips black velvet slippers onto my tiny feet. You are a classy young Burmese lady. And hands me my tiny parasol. Your Pa stole it for you from a white man. I wonder: did they steal me from a white man too? People look at us funny—maymay and I. First, always with a wrinkled frown. And then my mother says, “She is my daughter.” What happens after this part is the funniest and almost always in this order: wide eyes, their eyebrows do a see-saw of dipping further into the middle and then slipping down the other end, their lips part to let go of an undermined fallacy. And lastly, they say: “Your daughter looks like a white child.” To that my mother would reply, “Thank you.”
My mother did not say thank you when a white couple from America offered to adopt me. I was more than relieved because I don’t want to have a stepmother like Snow White did. I don’t need the privilege of looking like a white person, of being accepted more easily into their community, because I already have a community of my own, even if it’s one that doesn’t always see past the colourlessness of my skin. Neither community is.
“You are not adopted,” my mother reminds me before I even knew what that word meant. Adopted: I was not found on the streets in a cardboard box as my uncle likes to joke; I was not left on the steps of the monastery beside our apartment as my littlest cousin was; I was not stolen from the stroller of a white couple as I once feared. “You are mine,” she says and I believe her.
My birth left a long vertical scar on my mother. 6 inches long from her belly button to the end of her stomach. That is where I come from. My mother was cut open vertically instead of horizontally, sewn back up with hurried irregular stitches. Everything was wrong. My mother cried when she first saw me and then she fainted. I, lying on her bosom asleep and unmoving but alive and real, was the first thing she saw when she awoke. My pale pale skin and my wispy hair both in colour of stars. An angel, she thought, like those from the windows of the church on Bogyoke Road that she used to sneak into as a child. Something that shouldn’t exist.
Yet, I exist, unapologetically.
My mother cried when she first saw me. Happy tears, she says firmly. I am not sure if it is me she is convincing, or herself.
Apart from the colour of my skin and hair and eyes, I am the spitting image of my father with my mother’s soft smile. My mother says my skin is white because my Pa is Chinese. My aunt says Maymay dreamt of a white man while she was pregnant with me. My grandmother says I was born on an unusually cold winter morning and my mother breathed in too much cold white fog. My fortuneteller says I am a white snake reincarnated—“look at all the fortune you brought your family!”
The fortuneteller scares me. She peers into my hands and under my skin as if she can read my cells and diagnose my future. She grins with teeth blackened by betel nut and calls me ‘little doll’ and tells me when I grow up, I will either live in the land of the white people or I will die of skin cancer before I am thirty-seven. It is with the white people that I belong, she says. I call her a liar and hide in my mother’s htamein. I press my face into my mother’s pelvis and I can feel the ridges of the long horizontal scar against my cheek. I wish I could crawl back inside her stomach and be reborn different, the same as my people.
One thadingyut full moon, our little family went to a pagoda festival. There we prayed to Buddha and then rode the merry-go-round, played ring toss, ate molasses on a stick, and paid 500 kyats for a magic show. Heavy percussion music cloaked us and coaxed us farther through the darkened hut closer towards the stage. On the raised platform stood a man in a Western suit jingling the keys to the large black shrouded object behind him as he skipped and danced to the comically cheery Burmese music playing in the background. With the final clap of a hand drum, he pulled off the black cloth and paused. Underneath was a cage. Inside the cage, a white Burmese python and a white monkey. “Do you want to see them closer?” the performer asked the audience. The audience roared their approval. The man whistled. The lock unlocked itself. The tiny white monkey climbed up the man’s back to perch on his shoulder. The man heaved the snake into his arms and held it up over his head. “Have you ever seen rare white animals before?” The crowd yelled “No!” and clapped. “This is all for now. Come back later for more magic and unusual creatures, none like you have ever seen before!” People stood up to leave. I hid between my parents before anyone could see and identify me as an unusual creature and take me away to join the show monkey in the arms of the man dressed in a Western suit.
Once, my mother forgot me in the sun too long without my parasol and sunglasses and my skin turned flakey and my eyes red as if I was a snake shedding its skin or a demon reincarnated.
Due to the defects of my biology, I cannot be a tropical girl.
I love the days when the sun doesn’t shine. Monsoon. The rain pours and I celebrate. I embrace the part of me most people do not see. I live the childhood I see the children in my street live. I am a girl of the tropics. A girl like others who bathe, play, run, jump, spin, dance in the monsoon rain. I am freed from the chemicals of my sunscreen, the covers of my long-sleeved clothes, the shades of my sunglasses, and the limitations of my body. My blue parasol lays open and useless on the sidewalk while I roam our street. In these moments when people turn their faces towards the sky, shut their eyes, and pause. In these moments, we are the same: clothes soaked, colours saturated, community strong. In these moments, I am a true tropical girl.
My uncle’s large backyard seemed small with the bustle of the horde of my extended family, herded outside for hot pot and fireworks, in celebration of the lunar new year. Among my paler-skinned Chinese cousins, all of us dressed in red, I was not so different. We played games on the small mound of grass bracketed by a fence of flowering plants. “Tag, you’re it!” and we ran around and around past the rose bushes, kiss-me-quicks, aloe veras, and cactuses. One push too rough, one step too quick. A child fell. The little girl lay on the dark green spears of grass, her arm clenched around her waist, her hand clenching that injured arm. She bled and bled and did not stop. Drops of blood peeked out of her white skin and streamed down her arm like rivulets of monsoon rain, seeping through her fingers clenched white and bled into her red qibao, darkening to black like spilled ink. She opened her mouth in a loud wail that did not get to produce sound before her father pulled her into his arms. My father hosted me up into his arms and held my head against his shoulder until all I could see was the white of his undershirt beneath his faded red button-up.
She is special, my father explained, just like me. Her skin is special just like mine. He uses big words to describe the two of us: hemophiliac, albino. Her problem is in her blood, which luckily I do not share because I am also my mother’s daughter. The fault of my biology lies in my cells.
When I grow up, I will finally understand. When I grow up, I will prove that my fortune lies in my hands more than in the skin of my palms and my body. Hopefully, by then, the phyu in my name will define me for more than the colourlessness of my skin.
I may not be coloured like others, but my blood will speak true.
Never forget: I am Burmese.
Yaminn Phyu is an emerging writer of fiction and prose poetry. She grew up in Yangon and is now studying in Stanford University, USA.