Myanmar, my second home

November 8, 2015. It is 4.30am and my father-in-law is pounding on our bedroom door.

My husband sits bolt upright in bed. "We're awake," he calls back.

Under the gauzy pink mosquito net, I rub the sleep from my eyes. We are in a leafy suburb of Yangon, Myanmar, and today, my husband will be voting for the first time in his life. My father-in-law would be voting for the first time in 25 years.

As we crack open the door of our room, I see my father-in-law, palms pressed together in prayer, kneeling in front of his small shrine where a statue of the Buddha sits.

The polls open at 6am, but by 5.30am we are out of the house, the two of them dressed in freshly laundered longyis (their equivalent of the sarong wrap skirt). Long lines are already forming at the polling station. Little old women have packed picnic baskets - no one knows how long this will take because no one knows what will happen. Will Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) finally make it to power?


We already know this story. NLD wins. That evening, we are part of a massive crowd of thousands packed shoulder to shoulder in front of the NLD headquarters, singing and dancing in the rain. I have a front-row seat to a moment of profound political change.

Before I met my husband, I knew very little about Myanmar - I knew that it was a country that had been held hostage by a series of military dictators; I knew about The Lady, of course, and the details of her house arrest. But apart from a handful of facts gleaned from current affairs, the country was a mystery to me - until four years ago, when I visited it for the first time.

How does a country go from a handful of facts to a second home?

Writer Taiye Selasi gave a talk last year about being someone who is "multi-local". Her mother was born in England, raised in Nigeria and lives in Ghana while her father was born in the British colony of Gold Coast in west Africa, raised in Ghana and lives in Saudi Arabia. Selasi herself was born in England and raised in the United States. Where is she from?

My husband feels this cultural tension a great deal, as someone who has grown up and lived in both Singapore and Myanmar in roughly equal measure, and spent several years in the US. Which country do you call home?

I've never really had this dilemma - Singapore has been my home all my life. I am steeped in its culture, its idiosyncrasies are my own.

But over the past four years, I've realised that I've started to become intimate with another country. I know the curve of its streets, the touch of its heat and rain.

Taxi drivers no longer speak to me in gestures and broken English, but plunge intothe Myanmar language instead. I can tell you how I like my Burmese tea (I opt for kya seint, strong tea with evaporated milk), the way a Singaporean might ask for teh si siu dai.

Dating (and then marrying) my husband became a four-year undergraduate course on Myanmar. I consumed books, film, literature and art about it, from Amitav Ghosh's sweeping novel The Glass Palace to Mary Callahan's study, Making Enemies: War And State Building In Burma.

Selasi asked, in her TED talk: "Where are you a local?"

I had become a local.

I go back to Yangon frequently to visit friends and family and to take lessons in the Myanmar language.

My visit in May coincided with a literary translation workshop and festival organised by Singapore's Select Centre and the literary non-profit PEN Myanmar, where Myanmar participants translated Singapore work into the Myanmar language and Myanmar work into English.

This year, the workshops expanded to include non-fiction; in this case, Malaysian writer Tash Aw's essay The Face: Strangers On A Pier. They also tackled Singapore novelist Suchen Christine Lim's The River's Song.

The two writers flew to Yangon and we met in the middle of a torrential downpour that marked the start of the rainy season. Our conversations began simply enough - where to go, what to eat.

I loved Aw's essay, a meditation on what it is to be an immigrant, on where he belonged, on absorbing a variety of linguistic and cultural codes and employing them in different contexts. Embracing one country doesn't mean rejecting another. We can contain many worlds. It's true, I realised. I am Singaporean and will always be, but Myanmar has grown to become an inextricable part of me.

Whenever I go back to Yangon, I find myself first adjusting to an elasticity of time, one of the first markers that I've left Singapore far, far behind. A taxi driver will still charge me only 3,500 kyat (S$4) for a short journey that ends up becoming a two-hour traffic jam.

It's not simply an elasticity of time, of course; it's an elasticity of my Singapore-bred impatience and rigidity. I've learnt not to take things (such as electricity and clean water) for granted - and that plans can always be changed. There's an ingenuity and flexibility at work in Myanmar that I've rarely seen anywhere else.

For instance, because of decades of economic sanctions, drivers in Myanmar couldn't get new cars or spare parts, but they had kept their vehicles intact by using whatever was available to them. The chassis might be Chevrolet, but its innards would be an encyclopaedia of whatever the mechanic could get.

And Myanmar has been gamely keeping pace with its rapid introduction to technology.

Lim visited Yangon 13 years ago for a literary event, but had been confined to a tiny part of the city. She was astonished by how much the country had evolved.

Buildings seemed to have shot out of the ground. The cost of a SIM card went from $1,000 to $1.50. When I first came to Myanmar, I had to use landline telephones out on the street. Today, millions of people own smartphones.

"Why haven't you written about this?" she exclaimed. "You must start keeping a diary. I'm going to make you send it to me."

Consider this my first entry.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 03, 2016, with the headline 'Myanmar, my second home'. Print Edition | Subscribe