Today is March 23, 2017, my 211th day in Myanmar.
I’m a Chinese millennial, grew up in Central China, educated in Midwestern U.S., lived in Spain shortly, and now reside in Myanmar.
My roommate in Yangon, one I found via a random Facebook post, is an Indian boy in his mid-twenties, grew up in the Middle East, educated in Bombay and a picture-perfect New England college town, soaked in the West Coast sunshine and now resides in Myanmar.
Many nights, after work, we’d sit in our dim-lit living room, eating take out and watching hit American TV shows. In between episodes, we’d chat about our days, how it’s like being a foreigner and being an expat (two very different things). We discuss the generational gaps between us and our folks, exchange childhood and adolescent stories that are colored by our multicultural background as well as our distinctive, but both mind-boggling, circumstances. These generational gaps are byproducts of the immense development in the past decades that has reshaped the two most populated countries on earth, a.k.a. our respective homes.
We could not avoid discussing work, careers, jobs, because we are twenty-somethings having bounced countries to countries to make a life ours. We both take pride in what we do and want to put as much as we have into creating something and making it real. We value working, not just because we’ve got no other ways to put food on the table, but also because it’s the value instilled in us by the parents we’ve grown distant from. What we do is an integral part of who we are.
We often chat about love. In fact, we bonded over our chats of love, those that are the previous pains and those that are our current dreams. Our words, most of which hopeful, often mix with tears, regrets, confusions and anger.
One night last week, he texted me out of the blue: “’Americanah‘ is breaking my heart.”
“I know,” I said. “It is breaking mine, too.”
One time I was listening to a podcast episode where American blacks talked about books that they love. One reason they used repeatedly to explain – almost to the extent of justifying – their love, was: “I could see myself in those characters.” A handful complained about not having stories whose protagonists look like them, or sound like them, or think like them.
I got confused.
I’ve read books of both Chinese and English since childhood. I didn’t remember ever reading a character or a story where I saw myself reflected (“The Hunger Games” came the closest, but it was a fantasy). Thing is, I didn’t think that was the purpose of reading anyways. We read for work, for pleasure, for self-indulgence and for enhancement of knowledge. We read for many different reasons. But if I were allowed to read for one reason and one reason only, it would be for me to understand the people whose lives I had not lived, to see a world that’s not the world I see. That would be why I want to read.
Midway through “Americanah,” I made a desperate plea to the book owner, a Burmese repat who got two degrees in California (a returner, a native yet not, a local stomach plus a Western-educated brain. The list of titles could go on.)
I said: I wish white people, you know, people who might not be able to travel, who are not used to being outliers, or who are not used to stories from and about outliers, would also like this book.
I see so many complications and just down-right fucked-up things with that statement – the value to a book like “Americanah” should not require the affirmation from the White. Yet I can’t and don’t see the importance of perfecting it – the English-speaking world, at the end of the day, is dominated by the White.
The truth is, in a perfect world where all of us are empathetic and curious, I could not imagine anyone not liking this book, anyone not wanting to celebrate the existence of it.
This book is too real. It is the life that I experienced growing up in a country without many options and much freedom to choose. It is the life that I experienced going to the U.S. and understanding race, and class and myself in a different light. It is the life that I will continue to experience floating in countries, being as close to an insider an observer on the sideline could be.
I realized: it is a salvation to be reading stories that I see myself in. I was rescued and comforted by Chimamanda’s words. I was patted on the back and told what I felt was normal and what I did was not that sinful.
I also realized: in a not-so-perfect world, not all people will like this book. But I wish that for those of you who need it, you will find it one day, and be saved as well.