This essay is the first in a series of creative nonfiction pieces published in North by Northwestern's Writing section. To submit your own creative nonfiction essay, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org
I wake up craving. There are no Burmese restaurants in Chicago, a fact I find lamented on Yelp discussion boards and food blogs alike and that my half-Burmese taste buds lament. I search the Internet for “authentic Burmese cuisine Chicago.” I drop the buzzword and search for “Burmese cuisine Chicago.” No dice. Desperate, I search for “Burmese cuisine Midwest” and find myself directed to Fort Wayne, Indiana. Apparently, it’s the region’s Burmese cultural mecca. No thanks. Instead, I browse Thai menus for Burmese add-ins until I hit the jackpot and find Thai Sookdee.
Thai Sookdee’s menu loudly proclaims that it is “authentic Thai cuisine,” and the restaurant’s insides are decorated to match. Its walls are lined with dark wooden panels depicting long tables of men enjoying lavish meals and a display case holds black and white photographs and statues of the intricate bat-nosed dragons that populate Southeast Asian landmarks. The air smells of steamed rice and curry and sizzling meats and speakers play soft music in a language that I do not speak.
The menu itself is detailed, numbered and itemized with pictures next to each dish for the uninformed Thai food seeker. The first item I recognize is gyoza, pan-fried Japanese dumplings. Definitely not “authentic Thai cuisine,” I note, smug. I order it anyway.
There are three twenty-something waitresses working the dinner shift. Each is Asian, each speaks to me in accented English, and each sports a different shade of blonde hair tied up in a neat bun. They come to me in ascending order of blondeness. The waitress who takes my order has brassy locks, the waitress who brings me my meal has dirty blonde hair, and the waitress who gives me the check is platinum blonde. None of them smile.
My features are the kind that boys and men have termed “exotic” in unoriginal attempts at flattery. I inherited my father’s tan skin and fast metabolism and my mother’s curly brown hair and round eyes. My face is a mystery people are eager to solve, because the anomaly of my body means that I cannot just be. “What are you?” might be asked eagerly or sheepishly, but it’s always asked. When I’m feeling uncharitable, I think to myself that this question is the politically correct cousin of another: “Why aren’t you white?”
According to the 2010 US census, there are 100,200 Americans of full or partial Burmese ancestry currently residing in the United States, making up a whopping .03% of its population. My father, who fled to America with his family when Burma became Myanmar, is an authentic Burmese American. Though my mother is a white woman from New Jersey, I am a Burmese American too.
My father has three sisters who all married white men and spawned their own half-Burmese broods. A few years ago, on vacation with this side of the family, my cousins and I found ourselves drunk and lamenting. “We all look Mexican,” said one. “This fucking sucks.”
Tonight, I sit alone on a cushioned bench at a table spread with a cloth that has a picture of tiny Asian babies with high buns playing in front of a temple. This image is rendered in faded turquoise. I eat freshly steamed jasmine rice and it is so, so good that it makes me want to close my eyes and savor it the way only someone in a chain restaurant commercial can savor. It tastes clean and light and I wolf down half of the bowl before I touch my entrée while the dirty blonde waitress stares at me from behind the hostess podium.
For my first eight or so years of life, all of my dinners came with a side of rice. Chicken nuggets and rice. Spaghetti with tomato sauce and rice. Chicken noodle soup and rice. Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and rice. I assumed this was how everyone ate meals, and when I found out otherwise I was disgusted.
With rice, I order Item 705: Gaeng Hung Lay. I stumble over the words when I say them to the stockiest waitress because I’ve never needed them before. I’ve eaten the dish, pork shoulder and pork belly with Burmese-style curry that the menu tells me is combined with “ginger, lemongrass, galangal, shallots, tamarind, palm sugar and garlic,” more times than I can count and I didn’t even know it was pork. I never thought to ask my grandmother, my aunts or Kyi Kyi, my father’s cousin who loves me dearly and whose daughter comments on all of my Facebook photos, for their recipe. It burns my tongue with heat and familiarity.
My experience with this cultural heritage has been minimal to a fault. I’ve never even been to Asia. I eat the food my relatives cook for me and listen to my father speak to his parents in fast, impatient Burmese with English words like “health insurance premium” and “real estate market” peppered in for taste. I never learned the language. My mother wouldn’t let me learn when I was young for fear that I’d get confused. Sometimes, I feel this was unforgivable. Sometimes, I feel this was a deliberate detachment from an inheritance I was already distanced from at birth. Sometimes, I feel robbed.
My looks and lack of experience leave me feeling like a tourist in Burmese spaces. Whether it is the Buddhist temple an hour away from home that my father insisted on going to twice a year or a family gathering with too many strangers, I feel alien, pale, a thinly-veiled imposter. I stumble, clumsy, through the traditional greetings and goodbyes to my elders and converse about the weather. I smile in agreement when my grandfather’s caretaker, fresh from Burma, asks to take a picture with me, a “real American girl.” My discomfort leaves me wondering how to identify with a culture that doesn’t identify with me.
So when opportunities for easy immersion come along, I seize them. I eat “authentic Thai cuisine” and suck down jasmine iced tea after jasmine iced tea as a trio of bored waitresses watches me, itching to print out my check and be rid of me. I pick “Myanmar” when asked in class to give a presentation on any world country. I read news articles about Aung San Suu Kyi, the female Burmese activist who once won the Nobel Peace Prize. But it’s all hollow. It all leaves me with the feeling that I am treading water.