Excerpt of Burmese Lessons by Karen Connelly
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The Dinner Party
I said that I would find the place myself. I wanted to walk through the city, into Chinatown. "No, thank you. I do not want a ride, it's all right."
The pause at the other end of the phone was so long that I thought the line had gone dead.
"Are you still there?"
He asked again, "You... want... to walk?" Judging from the hesitating formality of the telephone exchanges we'd had earlier, I'd decided that my volunteer guide, San Aung, was over fifty, and a dedicated worry-wart.
"I do want to walk. Please tell me again the name of the restaurant. And how to get there."
He did. He described it all carefully. He said, "But it can get dark in the evenings. You will be all right alone? I do not want you to get lost."
How dark could it possibly get in a city? I said, "There is no possibility that I will get lost."
I set off gamely enough. The light coaxes me out of weariness and into intoxicating newness: the tea-shop stools, the bottle caps pressed like ancient coins into the hardened mud of the streets; the scowling face of a boy as he pours steaming water into a large pot, then tosses in a load of dirty dishes. As I cross the street, a woman reaches up to a yellow-waterfall treelaburnum?snaps off a lemony sprig, and tucks it like a bird into her braided hair.
Even the dirt draws me in, the realness of dirt that lines the edges of millions of flip-flop-clad feet, including my own, which I wash every evening before I sleep, as I am unable to get into bed with dirty feeta habit ingrained a decade ago, when I lived with Pee-Moi and Paw Prasert in northern Thailand. It comes flooding back to me in the flood of Rangoon, that early time cascading into this one.
I experienced a surge of those memories when I first moved back to Thailand six months ago, a vivid unrolling of the past in a small Thai town, my long-ago life with my Thai family. When I was seventeen, I went to live and study for a year in northern Thailand. It was a Rotary Exchange Programa dry-sounding moniker for an experience that was utterly transformative. I was a precocious teenager, already publishing my poems and stories, and chafing for more contact with the big world. Living in a strange, brilliant, difficult place gave me something specific to write about, and the book I eventually published about my life in DenchaiDream of a Thousand Livesbecame a bestseller. It also financed several more years abroad and set me up, at twenty-five, as a bona-fide writer.
Earlier this year I returned to Thailand, but now I live in the welter and roar of Bangkok, a city I both love and hate for its chaos. At the height of the after-work rush, Rangoon seems much quieter than Bangkok, more manageable, less noisy. Though noisy enough. The glorious disorder slowly organizes itself into the busy face of evening. Where at first I moved, dazed and jostled, in a thick crowd of bodies, now I float from one stream of rushing humans to another. Young office men with soft faces, housewives confounded by the price of chicken, students who glimmer with intelligence. On Anawrahta Street, small-time salesmen with slicked-back hair have spread their waresnail clippers, small electronic gizmos, hand mirrors, ballpoint pens, sunglasses, bottles of cologne, and loads of used clothes, much of it smuggled in from Thailand or Bangladesh, since Burma produces very littleon swaths of the wide sidewalk.
One of these salesmen, white-suited and handsome, like a Burmese version of an Italian gangster, is picking his nose when he meets my inquisitive eyes. He smiles at me unabashedly. Women walk home with their baskets of greens and onions, and other women stride in the opposite direction, toward the river and the boats that will ferry them across it. Four young Indian children in their pyjamas, their eyes kohled and their cheeks swirled with thanaka, play a checkers-like game on a set of broad steps. Normally I would stop to watch, but I must not be late for dinner.
Excerpted from Burmese Lessons by Karen Connelly Copyright © 2010 by Karen Connelly. Excerpted by permission of Nan A. Talese, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.