Life is a balance of holding on and letting go. –Rumi
I shake out the handful of journals that are stuffed into a sack in the top of my backpack. They tumble onto the bed at the Airbnb where I’m staying in Bali. I shuffle through the journals and notebooks, trying to remember which covers go with what countries.
It is April. I’ve been on the road for almost a year.
I flip through them and find entries from Kathmandu and Pokhara, Nepal. The journal closes with a single entry from my time in Yangon, Myanmar, the country I visited after Nepal, but it is only a couple pages.
I grab the journal I think comes next, sure it will hold more entries documenting my experiences there. But when I feel its fabric cover under my fingers, I remember—I bought this one in Vietnam, the country I went to after Myanmar, one sunny morning as I wandered the zigzagging streets near Hanoi’s Old Quarter.
I shake my head and look at the leather- and fabric-bound covers strewn across the bedspread. This can’t be right, I think.
I drag out other notebooks—ones where I write drafts and jot down ideas. They’re not organized like my journals, which are chronological even if they are stream-of-consciousness. There must be a scrap, I think. There must be something more.
I flip through the pages, searching.
What I remember from my two weeks in Yangon is this:
The sun and sweat of the day, cars honking and swerving around each other amid traffic patterns that seemed to lack reason but had some kind of choreography. Taxi drivers driving Japanese-made cars (steering wheels on the right) but on the right side of the road. How hard it was for them to understand what I said, even when I tried to speak in Burmese.
The humid city nights. Sitting on hard plastic chairs, hard wooden chairs. At a street vendor. At restaurants and tea shops with open fronts and big breezes and menus I couldn’t read. In curry shops, pointing to large, rectangular pans of red, yellow, green sauces mixed with mostly unknown ingredients (though some staff knew enough English to tell me “vegetable,” “fish,” “chicken”). The salty, fishy broth of the bowls of mohinga that I ate—the national dish of Myanmar—thin rice noodles with egg and chickpea fritters on top.
Sitting across from my friend Jon at a beer garden outside of the city center. Talking about the election results. Each of us pressing back tears at some point in our conversation.
It was November.
I’d started my journey the summer before with two journals, both given to me by friends and colleagues, and I ran out of pages midway through my visit to Myanmar. I didn’t buy a new one until weeks later when I was in Hanoi, Vietnam.
Besides one short entry from Yangon, the days between Pokhara and Hanoi remain unrecorded, though I find scribbles in my scrap notebooks—the ones with paper covers that end up filled with to-do lists and story ideas and hostel addresses.
The election results came out a few days after I arrived in Yangon, and in one of those notebooks, I find the beginnings of blog posts, unfinished drafts titled things like, “Do You Love Your Neighbor?” and “All Right, America, Let’s Get Woke.” A poem titled #NotMyPresident that begins
We will not relent.
We will not be silent.
We will not return
to the shadows where you think
we belong. My tired heart
is full of more
than enough fight.
On the page before, I find the number of a taxi driver who took me to North Dagon to visit my friend Jon. I was asking the driver to help me call my friend to let him know I had arrived at his school. I pointed to my phone (which had no service). I showed him my friend’s number in my notebook. The taxi driver took the notebook from me. He wrote his own number down.
The story I want to tell of Yangon is of hot days and humid nights, of street food vendors lit up by bare bulbs, of teahouses and shiny, golden temples. But that is only part of my story.
I thought Myanmar would refresh me. Two months in India and Nepal had left me feeling overwhelmed and confused. The culture of those countries was so different from mine, and I was increasingly troubled by my own positionality as a white American middle-class traveler. By the time I left Nepal, I doubted the entirety of my project. Questioned whether my stories mattered. Wondered if anti-colonialist, feminist travel (and travel writing) were even possible for a white, American writer.
I wondered if I should just shut up.
I knew some of those struggles would follow me, but still, I had a friend in Yangon—Jon, an old college buddy who was teaching English with Peace Corps—and I looked forward to reconnecting. And while I hadn’t lived in Southeast Asia, I’d lived in South Korea and thought that Myanmar’s culture might be a little closer to what I was used to.
So, as I boarded the plane that would take me from Kathmandu to Yangon, I mostly felt relief.
But when I got there, I was again swept into emotional and intellectual disarray. I struggled with the language (and felt guilty for not being more fluent).
I struggled with ordering food, and not quite knowing what I was asking for became a twice-daily hurdle that some days I didn’t want to jump over.
I struggled with my gender presentation: Jon helped me buy a men’s longyi (a kind of sarong that most people in Myanmar wear but with styles that are specific to men and women). I wore it almost daily, but since I didn’t alter my voice, I wondered if I passed as a man—and if I didn’t, if I should try.
At the same time, I stayed in the girl’s dorm room in my hostel (though I’d asked for mixed), so when I left the hostel, I tied the longyi to the side (“women’s style,” though the fabric was still the “men’s style”) and retied it in the front (“men’s style”) once I was a block away. I repeated the process (in reverse) upon return. (I think I hoped the hostel staff just would think I was a silly foreigner who bought the wrong material.)
I applied for a Vietnamese visa at the Vietnamese Embassy. I thought I’d get my passport back in a couple days. They told me to come back in a week.
And then the election happened.
In the days that followed, I downloaded the whole Harry Potter series to my Kindle. I read constantly for two weeks—Coates, Adichie, Organizing a Movement to End the New Jim Crow. I got into Facebook arguments. I shared posts like it was my job. I longed to connect with the situation at home but felt so helpless. And as a former full-time activist, I felt guilty for being gone.
Jon and I texted each other every day and met almost as frequently. We just needed another American to talk to.
But I barely wrote about any of this.
When I was young, my parents made “memory boxes” for my sister, brother, and I. Mom encouraged us to put things that were important to us in them, things we wanted to remember– drawings scrawled in crayon, an A+ spelling test, report cards, awards from teachers, birthday cards from grandparents. We stuffed them into cardboard containers the size of bank boxes until they almost overflowed.
Every few years, Mom would ask us to go through them and consolidate. When I was a teenager, I remember rifling through the contents of my first memory boxes with confusion.
Why did I keep this? I’d think, holding up some scrap of paper that meant nothing to me now, or an old math quiz, or a note from someone whose name and face had slipped away from me.
Yet, even as I pared down, the memories continued, and I kept making these boxes into adulthood, filling them with programs from performances, movie tickets from dates, certificates of achievement, photos that had floated in and out of frames that sat on my desk and in the corners of my room.
I knew that someday I would need them. Someday, they would help me remember.
My one journal entry from Yangon includes four relatively short paragraphs about Myanmar, most of which were about sleeping. The rest was about the election.
I didn’t write about the dazzling gold of Shwedagon Pagoda.
Or the giggly teashop girl who tried to practice her English with me—what is your name and how old are you and where are you from?
Or Myanmar’s precarious political situation, the reports of religious minorities being massacred in the northern parts of the country, the country’s history of colonialization by the British and later oppression under dictatorships.
Or how every few days, I extended my stay at my hostel, grinning sheepishly to the hostel staff as I handed the money over—fresh, crisp twenty-dollar bills.
Throughout my journey, there have been photos I don’t have but wish I did. Days or weeks that I didn’t write, even though I knew the farther I got away from my experiences, the more I’d have to rely on my imperfect recollections and the things I carried with me—business cards with the names of hostels, restaurants, taxi drivers, brochures and maps I hadn’t thrown away.
I mine the pages of my journal to put some kind of story together. I look through pictures and match dates and times.
What did I do first? Next? Last?
If the story is out of order, but even I don’t realize it, does it matter?
At what point is the memory more real than the original?
When I left the US a year ago, I purged myself of trinkets and items I’d clung to for decades. I turned over memory boxes and halved the contents. I tossed out old spiral notebooks scrawled with notes from college classes—the ones I’d kept just in case I needed them one day. There were copies of prayers and Bible verses from high school youth group and skits from my days working in college ministry. Knick-knacks from international trips and crafting supplies for those projects I was finally going to finish start.
Some things I kept for so long because I was convinced I would use them again—that I would feel deep regret when, planning that syllabus or lesson one day, I’d remember that notebook I threw away that had perfectly laid out the concept I was teaching. I clung to that future moment, that future self. I waited for that self to thank me.
Those things were also supposed to help a future me to remember, to hold on after time and memory had shifted. I imagined that, after friends were gone or loved ones had died, I would find these items in boxes and know “she had touched this” or “we had this love once.”
Yet, I couldn’t hold them anymore. So I filled boxes and bags to dump in recycling bins. I listed things on E-bay and Facebook and held yard sales. I stuffed my friend’s pickup truck with what was left.
After a few trips to the thrift store, my things were gone.
This is what I remember: Being so tired every day. Reading for hours. Going to bed early. Getting up late.
Meeting with my friend Jon and delighting in our conversations about travel, politics, and living abroad. We ate mohinga together, and he ordered for me in Burmese. He took me to beer gardens and markets and teahouses. Showed me his school where students scuttled by in uniforms with clean, white shirts. Took me to buy a men’s longyi and taught me how to wear it, there in the middle of his bare-walled apartment, the cement floor still hard under my slippered feet.
Later, the flash of triumph at ordering something I knew from a street vendor one night. The small stool hard beneath me, the steam blurring the vendor’s face. The man beside me speaking to me in broken English—“It’s good, isn’t it?”
But is that what he really said?
Last summer, I traveled to Yeongwol, South Korea, with my Korean homestay sister. The air was heavy with humidity from the recent spell of rain, the pathway beneath our feet dotted with puddles. Clouds hung low and ominous. We were walking toward a cave that snaked into the depths of a mountain, its cool tunnels full of shadows.
My friend Keyes once told me before that I was a hoarder of memories and ideas. In part, they were describing my stacks of notebooks from college and the piles of journals I’d packed away before I left. But they were also describing the way I moved through the world.
At first, I rejected the notion. I had worked so hard in recent years to be present. To put down the camera and smart phone. To take in the scenes around me. To live in the moment.
As I walked behind my homestay sister, though, I realized that urge to be present, unmediated by technology or the written word, was really just another means of collecting.
I heard it in the narrative that rang through my head—a voice that told me to be present so I could remember. I was taking in the sights, smells, sounds, all the details—the glint of the sun breaking from behind the clouds, the water rushing below us, the thick, humid air—only to equip myself to tell it later. To others, to myself.
I tried to justify it—isn’t that what writers are called to do?
And yet, after paring my world down to a backpack and a messenger bag, was it time to turn inward? To release that inner drive to hold on to memory? To my own story?
I want to tell you about Myanmar.
I try to remember the exact number of days I stayed, what came first, last, and in between.
I wish I could tell you about the other cities—Bagan and Mandalay—of hot air balloons and boat rides and ancient city streets. But, despite my plans to roam the country, I stayed for 14 days in Yangon.
I want a different story.
I don’t want to tell you about traveler’s burnout and the way the election threw me off and the way I loved wearing a men’s longyi but not the scrutiny that came with it.
Now months have passed. Countries. New languages and other memories have crowded out the old ones.
My notes are hurried, incomplete.
I wish I had a different story to tell. But I don’t.
Maybe I am rebelling against remembering. Against the energy it takes, the care. Maybe I don’t want to remember what it felt like when Trump won—my fear and helplessness, my concern about what would happen to those most vulnerable in our society, a fear that now appears founded as hate has come pouring out of the corners of my country, as lawmakers attempt to pass bills and sign policies that would harm women, people with disabilities, poor people, immigrants, sexual minorities, trans folks.
Maybe no amount of writing would’ve helped me comprehend why others couldn’t see. After months of feeling my heart broadened and deepened by the kindness of people of all types of nationalities and backgrounds, I couldn’t understand the call to hate, to disconnect, to shut others out.
Because what are we but our connections to each other?
As Judith Butler notes, “We’re undone by each other. And if we’re not, we’re missing something.”
Yet even as we risk our own undoing, even as connecting ensures we will one day be disconnected—by parting, by separation, by death—it is those ties drawing us together that make us human.
I don’t have a picture of Jon and me in Myanmar. I have a few of a downtown park where I laid down on the grass and felt grateful for so much green after the dusty streets of Kathmandu.
I have photos of the blinding gold of Shwedagon Pagoda.
And of smaller things: The sign of a teashop I wanted to remember so I could recommend it to others. The pond outside of Shwedagon. The shade of the trees. A moment’s quiet.
But what I remember is Jon’s office, the South Carolina, United States, and Myanmar flags he’d hung there, the way they moved with the breeze. And later, talking about our families and friends as we drank pale lagers out of heavy glass mugs. And later still, the night falling, headlights sweeping across us, saying goodbye.
We think the story is what we write, the moments we’re able to hold in our hands, to share like heirlooms. But what if the story is what goes unsaid, unrecorded? That which is too blissful to put into words, to mediate with a camera. Or that which hurts us most—our darkest secrets and wounds that, like undercurrents, go unseen but constantly move on us and work on us, turning us this way or that.
There are moments that die with us, or with our forgetting. And there is something about that that is beautiful, painful. Fleeting.
I don’t write about Myanmar in Bali. I’m stuck not knowing what to say or how, unsure what story to tell.
Instead, I take stock of what I’m carrying. I clean out my bags and pockets and travel folder. I look at the city names listed on ticket stubs and business cards, try to remember that flight, that train ride, that airport. Who was with me. What I was leaving behind.
I think about my memory boxes, the ways I held so tightly to such things as a child, as a young adult, hoping to constitute a salient version of myself. Hoping one day, with these props, the stories of my life might make sense.
I give the ticket stubs another look of longing. Take another moment.
My fingers hold them tight. And then I let them go.
- I stayed at Yangon Hub, a small, quiet hostel in Yangon that’s only a short cab ride from downtown. The hostel was relatively new, the staff was nice and helpful, it was close to the airport, the beds were SUPER comfy, and there was free breakfast every morning. Plus, the wifi was pretty great, which isn’t always the case for Yangon. It’s not the best location (in terms of being close to all the sightseeing stuff), but there are plenty of restaurants, teahouses, and local flavor nearby. I’d totally stay here again.
- Getting Around
- Taxis: Taxis are your best bet for getting around Yangon, but you’ll have to negotiate a price, as metered taxis are no where in sight. But I found Myanmar drivers to be fair in their negotiating, though I do think I sometimes got a “foreigner tax.”
- Bicycles: My hostel offered free use of their bicycles, which was nice for riding short distances, but traffic is nuts in Yangon, so I only tried to do a long ride once (into downtown). A lot of people in Yangon ride bicycles–but because of traffic, it wouldn’t be my top recommendation for anyone.
- Local Buses: Yes, there are local buses in Yangon. No, their signage and numbers aren’t clear. Is it possible to hop on one for a ride? Yes. Determined to give it a go? Get tips from the Lonely Planet here.
- Circle Train: This slow train takes passengers on a loop out of downtown Yangon and into the countryside and then back again. A lot of commuters from the outer edges of Yangon use this train because of the crushing traffic in the city. The total loop takes three hours, and it can be a relaxing way to see different parts of the city. Tickets are only $0.20USD, and you can hop on at Platform 7 in Yangon Central Station (or any station along the route).
- Intercity Buses, Trains, and Boats: I didn’t manage to make it out of Yangon, but there are plenty of transportation options for those who want to see the country. Check out this page for some tips and options.
- Myanmar uses Myanmar Kyat (pronounced “chat”), though a lot of hotels, hostels, etc. prefer USD. If you use USD, most places only accept new, clean, crisp bills (this means no creases, tears, wear, etc.).
- While only a few years ago, ATMs were almost non-existent, they’re pretty ubiquitous now, so you can easily withdraw kyat as needed when you get there.
- Food and Drink
- Teahouses: Teahouses are the place to be in Myanmar for socializing, eating, talking about the world and its problems, studying, etc. When you find one, get some sweet milk tea, mohinga, and green tea salad.
- Curry Houses: Some of the best places to eat in Myanmar are curry houses–one, because the food is good and two, because you can point to what you want to eat. Two of my favorite places were near my hostel (here and here).
- Street Food and Restaurants
- Street eats are the place to chow down in Myanmar, and street food is abundant. If you’re shy about asking for something or don’t know what a place serves (but it looks yummy, smells good, and there are lots of folks eating there), pick an open seat next to someone and point to what they’re having. For me, it worked every time.
- If you want noodles but aren’t brave enough for street food yet, try 999 Shan Noodle downtown. Super yummy. English menu. In fact, a number of restaurants in Myanmar are starting to have English menus these days. So if you see a place you like, don’t be shy about stepping inside and asking for a menu.
7 thoughts on “Everything I Don’t Remember: Myanmar, Mohinga, and Memory Boxes”
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Thank you, Michael!
This is so beautifully written. You have perfectly captured the stalemate I felt after the election. I feel so deeply connected to your writing. You are extremely talented. I love Myanmar and I hope that you can return one day.
Thank you, Margaret! ❤
Love this blog. As a volunteer currently living in the country, everything you have written resonates so loudly with me. Well done.
Thank you! I’m so glad you enjoy it 🙂 Even though I’m sure it’s not easy, I hope your time in Myanmar is meaningful and soul-filling (in the way only living abroad can be).