by Kathryn Aung and her family
This essay is part of Aruna 2023 Publicly Engaged Fellowship Program. Kathryn is one of the 2023 fellows at Aruna. She developed this project, co-produced with her mother, brother, and sister, under the guidance of Aruna member Chu May Paing.
The inception of my fixation on nostalgia was a product of the military coup. I had been in the US for six years and frequently felt homesick, wondering how much has changed in Yangon and fantasizing what return would feel like. But at the end of these ruminations is an assurance that Burma will continue to exist, that my motherland will welcome her daughter in due time, and that return was an unquestioned possibility. The coup destroyed my dreams of homecoming, and I was left with dual agony: the pain of watching people suffer and the pain of separation from the homeland. I tried to seek comfort in memories, developing a ritual where I meditate on a scene or location and attempt to reconstruct my surroundings and experiences from memory. While recreating moments of nostalgia was soothing, it also brought another kind of torment: the pain of forgetting. I could no longer remember places and events with the level of detail and immersion I wanted. My memories are the core components of my connection to Burma, and to forget is akin to a form of death. So, I labor to remember.
In this vast diaspora scattered across various states and countries, collecting our memories of the homeland can be a form of reassembly when return seems uncertain. I have gathered my brother Josh and mom to collaborate on this project in sharing our familial memory to illustrate a microcosm of nostalgia in the larger Burmese diaspora. My youngest sister contributed by depicting images to accompany our writings.
Kathryn: The balcony
When I miss Yangon, I sometimes google pictures of the city and browse on google maps to see all the new businesses and shops. I often try to connect myself to the locations in these images, pulling from my memory library of the time I used to walk these streets. One fixture of the Yangon landscape I love is the balconies on the flats. When my family moved to 16th Street in Chinatown, I loved to sit on the balcony and hang my legs out from between the rails. I would pass the time on the 4th floor by watching people go about their day. I paid attention to the egg store on the ground floor of the building in front of our apartment, what time my friend's mom returned home with her white car, the guy pushing carts of purified water, and the café down the street to my right. Often when I reconstruct my memories, the details are hazy. Was it just an egg business or did it also have chickens roaming on the street? What brand was my neighbor’s white car? What color was the plastic roofing of the café? I also remember a business a couple of buildings down on the left. It ran a power generator during blackouts, but I cannot remember what business it was.
Sitting on the balcony with my feet stretched out was arguably the freest I probably felt as a child. During the summer, I could feel the breeze when it glided through the street. The joy of hearing အုန်းမွှေးလုံး and shaved ice cart was unparalleled. During blackouts at night, my family would hang out on the balcony, and I could zone out to the noise of the generator. If we were drying freshly washed laundry on the hangings, I could feel the water droplets from the clothes tickle my feet. As I got older in my pre-teens, I was sometimes discouraged from hanging my feet out the balcony rails because it was improper and disrespectful to the men walking beneath me on the streets. Yet, what truly deterred me from the balcony was an annoying neighbor who incessantly blasted Baby by Justin Bieber in the evenings.
Kathryn: One thing I wish was more common in American suburbs is tall apartment complexes with balconies where people can gather. While I miss the balcony because I cannot recreate the same experiences, my mother misses Burma because the similarities between Tulsa and Hakha stir up her memories.
Mom: Tulsa and Hakha weather
Ever since I arrived in Tulsa, Oklahoma, I was reminded of the time I lived in Hakha, which is the capital of Chin State, due to the windy Tulsa weather. It was winter a month after we moved to Tulsa, and I was surprisingly feeling nostalgic about Hakha which also has a similar dry, cold, and windy weather with the wind blowing from all directions. Back in Hakha, the month of October is quite windy to the point that people in town used to say how the wind could carry small kids in its way. We have one main road in town through which we walk to school every day. There was one area where we had to pass near an elementary school which was especially windy because there were no houses on either side of the road. Going through that part of the road for school or church was the scariest part in winter. My cousin sister who lived with us at that time hated passing through that part of the road as the wind messed up with her hairdo which she painstakingly styled to look just like some of the movie actresses of her younger days. She felt that she got a lot of nice compliments about her hairstyle, thus, the wind was her nemesis. I also remember the time we went for Carol singing during the Christmas season in the cold. Caroling was my favorite memory of Hakha when we went around the houses at night in the cold where everyone stayed indoors. The silent roads and town truly evoked the feeling of Silent Night.
Kathryn: Annual events act as anchors in our lives, whether they be Christmas or other festivals. They allow us to recreate or maintain cultural customs, providing the diaspora an opportunity to engage in communal nostalgia. For my mom, Christmas served this function, and for my brother, it was Chinese New Year and Independence Day.
Josh: Chinese New Year
A holiday I love and will always be a part of my childhood memories is the Chinese New Year. Growing up in the Chinatown area of Myanmar, Chinese New Year was greatly celebrated every year. I can vividly remember all the pretty decorations of red lanterns all throughout the streets as I walk past them at night. As a young boy, my favorite part of this holiday celebration was the majestic dragon dances and lion dances. I was so fascinated by these cool dances as a kid and I still am fascinated as ever even now. Watching the dragon and lion dances every year was a very crucial part of celebrating Chinese New Year for me at least. There was not a year that I missed out on honestly. The sounds of the drums and instruments have never left my ears to this day. There are still visuals of the stunning dragon lion dances and all the flashy moves they would perform right in front of my eyes, still replaying at the back of my mind.
Kathryn: I can confirm that my brother was thoroughly engrossed with lion dances. Between January and February every year, he religiously mimicked the rhythm of the lion dance drumming with all sorts of tools available. He also enlisted his friend, our neighbor who lived downstairs, to accompany him in practicing mock lion dance drum performances.
Josh: Independence day
Growing up as a young energetic kid, I always looked forward to fun events and celebrations and cherish my memories of annual holidays. I will never forget celebrating Myanmar's Independence Day as a little boy and racing up and down the streets with my friends during running competitions. I recall that most streets in Myanmar would have a variety of entertaining games for the kids throughout the day to celebrate the day of freedom and independence. On the morning of Independence Day, I vividly recall the young me getting up early to the sunrise just so that I would be on time for fun games and competitions. I still have pure childhood memories of competing in races early in the morning and playing competitive soccer games till sunset. The older I grow, the more I realize how pleasant and innocent my childhood memories were.
Kathryn: My January 4ths in the US are spent pondering what independence means when colonialism has maimed us so thoroughly I cannot understand what freedom looks like for Burma and had forgotten the children’s activities. In reading my brother’s writing, I found myself remembering my attempt at rushing to eat biscuits on a string without my hands for Independence Day competition and vaguely recall my brother placing fourth in his race although I cannot conjure up vivid images of the event. I appreciate this particular story for demonstrating the value of exercising communal nostalgia as it awakened memories I forgot I had experienced.
After Cyclone Nargis struck Burma in 2007, my dad went to Irrawaddy for a search and rescue mission. When he returned, he brought back disturbing pictures of death and destruction, stories of people surviving, and two baskets full of crabs, most probably displaced inland due to the storm. As a six-year-old girl, I was captivated by the crabs, some of which were still and some slowly moving their legs. My dad informed me not to be afraid of their many legs as the claw fingers were the real source of threat, and that I should not worry because the claws were tied with plastic strings.
My most memorable experience from Cyclone Nargis was being terrorized by the crabs. I was dressed in my school uniform, waiting for the school bus to pick me up when I noticed a small crab slowly coming out of the kitchen into the living room. My initial fascination with its journey out of the basket became alarming when I noticed it no longer had the plastic strings tying its claws. It soon stood in front of the door preventing me from leaving the house. I might’ve been thankful for an excuse to skip school, but I was caught up in my anxiety about potentially being snapped by the crab claws. I believe it eventually climbed the stairs and went to the attic, but I do not know the story’s conclusion after I left home. Nonetheless, I am reminded of this amusing encounter every time I eat crabs. In some ways, this story highlights the allure of nostalgia. Although I remember many aspects of the storm that decimated lower Burma from the uprooted trees to the horrible pictures of bodies, the most vivid story that stuck with me was the crab. Often people remember the past with rosy feelings, forgetting or choosing to ignore the parts that challenge the positive narrative our nostalgia has constructed.
Mom: Tea shops in Yangon
Yangon’s tea shops with small tables and stools on the roadside is the most common place for people to meet and hang out. On Sundays, during the break between the three services of our church, we would go to the teashop across the street from our church for tea and some light snacks. Hot tea and coffee are available the whole day. During my brief time in the Philippines, I realized that hot coffee and tea are not available all day at cafes which rather surprised me. Back in Yangon, we enjoyed tea any time of the day. I find it amusing how adults sit on tiny stools that look like kids' chairs. I also noticed that the cups have gotten smaller since the time I first arrived in Yangon some 10 years ago to which my friends and I commented on how people only think about profits. In the evenings, I remember enjoying pickled tea leaves with fried bean salad and plain steamed rice. Although pickled tea leaves and fried beans are traditional Burmese food, I initially only enjoyed them with hot tea. I later learned to eat them with rice as a quick-fix dinner when I worked at church, which is common for many living and working in a busy city like Yangon. These roadside tea shops and roadside food stalls selling Burmese traditional food are some of the most outstanding features of vibrant Yangon life. When I see busy restaurants in Tulsa, I think of these roadside tea shops in Yangon and its busy streets with various food stalls and vendors selling food.
A special thanks to my mother Van and my brother Josh for collaborating on this project with their wonderful writings. I would also like to credit my 11-year old sister Christine for the illustrations and commend her for taking on the task of drawing images that she has no personal experience or context for. I hope my project encourages those of us in the diaspora to reflect on our memories and engage in nostalgia. If you would like to share your memories related to Burma, you can submit your writings to this google form. The author may continue this project on Nostalgia in the Burmese diaspora through these submissions. Thank you!
Hakha is the capital of Chin State and is located in the northeast part of the state.
About the author:
Kathryn Aung (she/her) is a graduate of the University of Tulsa, where she earned her B.A. in Political Science and English. Born in Yangon, Myanmar to Chinese and Chin parents, she is a member of the Burmese diaspora in the United States. Her honors research paper explores the online protest activity of the Burmese diaspora in the wake of the 2021 military coup and the construction of a diasporic public space on a digital platform. Her research interests include diaspora political mobilization, the infrastructure of social movements, and the experience of displacement and migration. She was a 2021-2022 Fellow at the Oklahoma Center for Humanities. She is currently a Tulsa Service Year Fellow of 2023-2024 at the Mayor’s Office of Resilience and Equity.