The story of the Burmese white doll.

The Myanmar Times - Weekend - - Weekend | Fiction - BY YAMINN PHYU

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.

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