Dedicated to my great-aunt, Vera Baylis, who died last year, 18 October 2013.
The corners of the photograph are yellowing; the Sellotape along the edge has collected blackened debris, and has long since lost its adhesion. My grandmother’s sister, Vera, wearing a white Yinzi blouse (a traditional Asian blouse buttoned at the front), her hair twisted back with a halo of tiny flowers, sits at my grandmother’s right-hand side. Sisters now separated by oceans. I have seen few photos taken of them together; this one from 1949, only one year after the country gained independence, when my grandmother, Nita, was just seventeen. In the picture her eyes are full of hope; her face free from the lines that crease between her eyebrows and tug at the corners of her mouth. Lines formed by age and lines formed by worry.
People often ask where I’m from. A question prompted, no doubt, by the residual pigment of my skin, a shade diluted through the generations. And I always tell them the same: ‘My mum is Burmese’. Strictly speaking this is true, or at least
was true. As defined by Josef Silverstein, ‘Burmese is a political term including all the inhabitants of the country,’ making it an encompassing term, a fluid and temporary one. So until July 1966, when they were forced to relinquish their Burmese citizenship, my grandparents and their two children were still counted amongst the Burmese people. What we were not is ‘Burman’, the predominant ethnicity in the country; neither are we fully any one thing. We are hybrids, person-sized melting pots of cultures and nationalities. Inheriting an anglicised surname from their Irish father, Fredrick Stevens, Nita and her siblings described themselves as ‘Anglo-Burmese’ or ‘Eurasian’; terms that mean little here in Penge, South East London.
The house is small, with the kitchen and a combined dining and sitting room
making up the ground floor. The aroma of warm baya jaw (fritter made from crushed
yellow split peas, onion and chilli) and fried palata (flaky fried flat bread) has soaked into the curtains and sofa so that it always seems like tea time. The main room is adorned by images of Burma. A map depicting the many ethnic groups embroidered with girls in traditional dress, an oil painting of elephants hauling logs through the river in Tuangoo and several intricate figurines carved from teak, all serve as reminders of the home they left. My granddad fusses over my mother and me, offering us more food even though I’ve had two helpings already. Nita is tiny in her chair, her little legs barely reaching the ground. The place seems oddly quiet without the usual drone of the television. She leans in close to tell their story. A story of two sisters who married two brothers and whose lives took opposite turns.
Spark Street, Rangoon, 1947
Nita crept down the hall to Bernice’s bedroom. Well, tried to creep, as much as her new
clunky-heeled shoes would allow. Clack clack clack. She kicked the shoes off in frustration and they clattered noisily across the floor. Did British women really wear these foot-torturing things every day? She could have worn sandals, save herself this discomfort, but it would have looked ugly with her polka-dotted A-line skirt. You could get away with it with a longyi (a Burmese sarong) to hide your ankles; but there was no way she was going to turn up to the dance dressed like that. Like some common servant girl.
She rapped lightly on Bernice’s door. Nothing. She must still be at work. Nita swung the door wide and shimmied across the room to where she knew Bernice kept her jewellery box: under the bed.
‘What are you doing?’
Nita jumped, bashing her head on the frame of the bed. Pearls in hand she whirled around to see Vera kneeling in front of Bernice’s dresser, one cheek pasted in thanaka (a cosmetic paste made from ground tree-bark).
‘Are you taking Bernice’s pearls?’
Nita’s cheeks burned and for a moment she wished she was the one with half a face full of thanaka. She hated to be embarrassed by her sisters; especially Vera – the youngest.
‘No. Actually she said I could borrow them. Did Bernice say you could be in here, stinking up this place?’
Vera glared, her eyebrows slanting down: two angry black caterpillars plotting their revenge. Nita walked over, pulled out a rouge palate and bumped Vera aside with her hip.
‘Now move over, I need to use this mirror.’
Vera folded her skinny arms across her chest.
‘Fine,’ she said, ‘but Mama won’t be happy when she hears you took those.’
That little snake, thought Nita, she would tell all right, and Mama would be mad for sure. She hadn’t been happy about Nita going to the dance tonight, worrying all the time that her girls would do something to embarrass the family and besmirch their father’s reputation. His dealing in trade had got them their luxury apartment, right at the centre of the capital. Their home even overlooked the Secretariat, and while it meant they were at the business centre of Burma, it meant the city was privy to their business too. Nita knew that if Vera snitched, she would be stuck indoors all evening.
‘Hey, how about you come with me?’
‘Oh come on, it’ll be fun. How will you find a man if you never go out? You don’t want to be like Merlyn, left on the shelf.’
‘Don’t be horrible about Merlyn,’ Vera snapped, ‘I can’t go tonight, I promised I’d cook for Nana.’
‘Vera, we have servants for that! Might as well go cook for some other family and sit on their floor like a dog. Why are you always like this? Don’t you know you’re worth more?’
‘We’re just the same as them, Nana is-’
‘Nana is old. Things were different then. You were born with privileges and it’s time you started acting like it. Dad would be ashamed.’
‘You’re the one who’s ashamed! You won’t even speak our own language.’
‘I know all the words I want to know. Besides, knowing English will get us further. That’s why we’re taught in English at school. So we’ll see who’s right when I’m living in a top-floor apartment and you’re cramped up in a shack scrubbing floors for Nana and Merlyn.’
Vera narrowed her eyes, lowered her hand into the tub of thanaka and splattered it over Nita’s face. The thick mixture felt cold and heavy as it hit her, smelling musty and sweet all at once. Nita could feel it congealing in her hair. She turned to assess the damage in the mirror. Her carefully applied rouge and lip tint was ruined. Nita screamed: a sound like a battle-cry. Vera ran from the room.
They had always been different, Nita tells me. Four sisters whose views split right down
the middle: Bernice and Nita embraced the benefits of being Anglo-Burmese in colonial
Burma. They were seen favourably to the Burman, given better opportunities, higher-powered jobs and more comfortable homes. Merlyn and Vera were less inclined to celebrate their skewed society, feeling strongly about the hypocrisy of favouritism.
‘Vera and Merlyn were always trying to find their Talaing roots,’ she says. ‘They were closest to my mother, and to Nana. They dressed the same, always with the longyis and their hair pulled back off the face. Sometimes they would sit together and talk in all that old dialect, so fast I could never make out what they were saying. Nana was Talaing. Mama was half, but me? I was my father’s daughter: Irish at heart.’
Nita met my grandad, Robert Baylis, in 1955. He was the cousin of her school
friend, Ivy. I ask her what she thought of him when they first met.
‘I liked him because he was tall,’ she laughs. ‘I had enough of all of these short
fellas going after me. They think that just because they are taller than me that that is tall enough (Grandma is 4ft 11), but I knew better. Now, all my children grow up nice and tall.’
Robert was raised in a poorer household than Nita. His father, Aloysius, passed away in 1943 when Robert was thirteen. Being the eldest (and tallest) of six brothers, Robert assumed the position of head of the Baylis family. He was privately educated at St. Paul’s English Institution in Rangoon and found work as a field construction engineer, designing buildings, bridges and airports.
‘I was lucky,’ he says, ‘because my mother paid for my education and because
I was an Anglo I was able to get a good job with good money. Before the war almost all
high-power jobs went to white men or those with a part-English heritage. My boss was an Englishman, and my colleagues were all Anglo-Burmese. We didn’t interact with many Burmans. They mostly lived in the villages, and could only afford to live in Rangoon by working as servants.’
I ask him how he felt towards the native Burmese people; whether he thought it was fair that they were the underdogs in their own countr y.
‘We did feel superior to them, so many of them were uneducated, but I didn’t
see anything wrong with the way things were. It had always been this way my whole life. I worked hard to get my job as an engineer and because I could speak both English and Burmese, when we had to deal with Burmese people they would send me. Maybe it was unfair, but I could not be worrying about the Burmans. I had my own family to worry about.’
Although Burma gained independence in 1948, life remained relatively unchanged for my grandparents at the beginning of their relationship. With my grandma working as a secretary for a Chinese shipping company they had enough income between them to rent their own apartment, while still giving money to Robert’s mother to support his younger siblings. Two years after meeting they were married, and later that same year had their first child: a son named Peter.
‘The wedding was the longest day of my life,’ says Nita, leaning back in her chair, her eyes skyward. ‘I was feeling sick all day and had to meet Robbie’s mother for the first time.’
‘You made her cry,’ says Robert. ‘She never let me forget.’
‘She only cried because I would not call her ‘Mum’, Nita shakes her head. ‘Never met the woman before, and she expects me to call her the same as my own Mama. She put bad luck on us, crying at our wedding. Sow qui ma!’
The only time I hear my grandparents speak Burmese is to argue or insult
each other. Whenever they fight they yell in Burmese to protect our ears from the obscenities they’re saying. Consequently, the only Burmese I know is a carefully compiled list of swear words and the numbers up to eight.
The Wedding, Rangoon, 27th April 1957
Nita slammed the bathroom door and leant her back against the cool wood. Her face
felt hot with rage and she could feel droplets of sweat decorating her forehead.
Must not cry, must not cry, she silently repeated. One crying at a wedding was bad enough but two! Catastrophic. This was all wrong, they had rushed; she wasn’t ready to be a Baylis. She loved Robbie, but now she had a brand new family she knew nothing about and a mother-in-law that would sooner spit in her tea than smile at her.
Nita exhaled noisily and stepped away from the door, only to find herself face-first in taffeta; her trip accompanied by an unceremonious ripping sound.
‘Nita? Is that you?’ There was a soft tap. ‘Your train’s stuck in the door.’
Nita looked up to see Vera holding up the last 2ft of her dress, her mouth open in horror as she examined the tear.
‘Give me that,’ snapped Nita, snatching it and bundling the fabric in her lap. ‘It’s a stupid dress anyway, and it’s not as if I’m ever going to wear it again.’
Annoyance flashed over Vera’s placid features, but quickly melted into concern.
‘Are you ok? Why are you in here all alone?’
‘Because it’s too much’ Nita wailed. ‘They all expect me to be ready but–’
‘Why did you not wait a little while longer then?’
‘Vera, I couldn’t. I wish I could explain, but I can’t. And now it’s done and I am
not a Stevens anymore; and Robbie’s mother hates me.’
‘She doesn’t hate you. She’s just upset. The look on her face just now, it was like –’ Vera stifled a giggle.
‘Like a horse’s arse?’ Nita suggested, and they both cracked up.
Nita could feel the nausea creeping back up her throat. She scrambled to stand and dashed to lean over the toilet bowl, inwardly thanking God that they owned one of the few homes with a flushing toilet. She slumped back on the floor wiping a slimy ribbon of bile from her chin.
Vera was staring at her, her usually cat-like eyes stretched round as moons. She clapped her hand over her mouth to keep from yelling.
‘This! This is why you are in a rush to be married. You are not sick, you are-’
‘Shh! Do not yell it out. No-one else must know, do you realise what would happen if they did?’
‘How long have you known?’
‘Not even a month. Promise me you will tell no-one?’
Vera nodded, chewing her inner cheek. Nita knew that look; they all had
it, all four sisters. But it was rare to see the expression on Vera, the good child.
Nita raised her eyebrows, ‘I am not the only one with secrets today, what are you not telling me?’
‘Robbie’sbrotherStanleyaskedmetodancewithhimandIsaidyesand-’ Vera was in such a rush to speak her words melded together into one.
It was strange. Vera was always so calm. Nita had never seen her so excited about anything, and definitely not about a boy.
‘Slow down,’ Nita said, ‘which brother?’
‘Stanley. We’re going to the cinema next Friday.’ Vera shifted anxiously next to her sister. ‘You don’t mind do you?’
‘Of course not. Now we just need to pick a brother for Merlyn and that’ll be all of us married off’. Nita laughed, ‘Won’t Ma Baylis be happy.’
‘She’d be happy you’re calling her “Ma Baylis”.’
‘Careful, before long you’ll have to start saying it too. And why are you still in the bathroom talking to me when you should be dancing with Stanley?’
‘Are you going to be ok?’
‘I’ll be fine. Don’t tell anyone my secret.’
Vera flung her arms around Nita, and even though her bony shoulder dug into Nita’s chest, Nita had never felt more glad for her sister.
‘Now get back to the party, skinny crow,’ Nita said, smiling. Vera squeezed her hand tight and turned to leave. Nita had never seen her sister so happy.
Vera and Stanley married in 1958, tying the family even closer together. They lived at the Steven’s family home so that Vera could continue to take care of her mother and Nana. By 1963 they had three children: Selwyn, Kevin and Sandra. Nita and Robert, living in an apartment nearby visited often with their children, Peter and Arlene (my mother, born April 1st 1959). Looking at the photo albums now, it is difficult to tell my mother apart from her cousin Sandra. Even my grandma gets confused and a few of Sandra’s childhood pictures end up sneaking their way in to the ‘Arlene’ stack. With strongly overlapping genetic make-up the girls share certain features: wide, intense eyes the colour of burnt cocoa beans, thin legs, full cheeks and thick dark hair (both cut with a customary wonky fringe).
Most of my mother’s early memories are playing with her cousins. All the children were similar in age and attended the same schools. Peter and Arlene spent most of their weekends at Spark Street, shepherded by Merlyn (having no children of her own had landed her with the perpetual role of ‘nanny’).
‘My best memories are of the Water Festival,’ my mother recalls, referring to
Thingyan, a New Year’s celebration. ‘Aunty Merlyn would take us up onto the veranda
with buckets of water and we’d take turns to tip them over people on the street below. You could pour water over anyone as it was meant to signify cleansing of the soul. We thought it was so funny. We would stand on that veranda for hours and just laugh and laugh.’
But this period of happiness was short-lived; Burma was changing again. During my grandparents’ lifetimes Burma’s loyalties had shifted; the country’s allegiances split.
Back in 1942 this division culminated in the Japanese invasion of Burma. While Anglo-Burmese communities, along with most ethnic minorities such as the Karens and Kachins, stood firmly behind the British government, many Burmans saw the Japanese threat as an opportunity to demand home rule. Aung San, a communist revolutionary and founder of the BIA (Burmese Independence Army), was recruited by the Japanese in Amoy. Aung San negotiated with the Japanese Army, assenting for them to invade Burma to recapture the country from British rule in return for the promise of independence.
On March 7th Rangoon was evacuated and the Stevens and Baylis families were forced to leave their homes and seek solace in Mandalay and Kachin respectively. They were fortunate, as many people were forced to leave the country altogether, fleeing to India. Those too late to secure flights were forced on a long, arduous journey through the Hukuang Valley, known historically as ‘The Trek’. Many people died on this treacherous expedition due to disease, infection and starvation.
Burma remained under Japanese control for three years. Realising that the Japanese would not award Burma independence as they had assured him, Aung San re-established connections with British authorities in India. He led a revolt on the Japanese occupiers in 1945, helping the Allies to reclaim Burma. Two years later Aung San secured independence for Burma through an agreement with Britain, but unfortunately never saw the result of his efforts, as he was assassinated on July 19th 1947.
Political change happened quickly, but changes that my family experienced in their day-to-day lives were slow. While many Anglos lost their jobs, to be replaced by the more ‘deserving’ Burmans, my grandfather retained his job as an engineer under new Burmese management. It wasn’t until 1962, when a strict military junta was established by General Ne Win, founder of the only political party allowed to exist in Burma from 1962 to 1969, the Burma Socialist Programme Party, that life took a sharp turn for the worse.
‘The Burman wanted his country back,’ my grandfather tells me, his smile falling just short of his high cheekbones. ‘They wanted everything British gone. No more newspapers in English, no more teaching English in schools and no more visitors. Burma was closed to the world. As they saw it we were just part of the problem.’
Under the new military regime my family were left in a country with no freedom of speech, a struggling economy (all industries were nationalised and government-run companies monopolised major exports such as oil, timber and rice); and a floundering educational system (the once prestigious University of Rangoon was put under complete control of the government and its standards quickly dropped. Foreign students were not welcome and, by 1963, degrees from the university were no longer internationally recognised).
The Anglo-Burmese communities had always enjoyed dual citizenship and my grandparents owned multiple passports. However, General Ne Win passed nationality laws that denied many foreigners Burmese citizenship and voided all dual nationality within the country. In 1966 my family were forced to choose: were they British or Burmese?
In the end events like the Rangoon University student uprising made up their
minds. With Nita pregnant with their third child they made the hard decision.
‘People were leaving every week,’ says Robert. ‘There were military troops crawling all over the city. Riots and strikes were happening all the time. When those kids organised a protest, the military shot ’em dead in the street. I did not want my children to grow up around all of that.’
‘And the schooling was no good anymore, only in Burmese,’ Nita recalls. ‘What good would that be? My eldest sister, Bernice, had already left for England and we thought it would be the best thing. England had always seemed like the land of milk and honey to me, and I was excited to go.’
I ask them how Vera and Stanley took the news, and see fresh creases materialise in the narrow gap between Nita’s eyes.
‘She was so angry with me,’ she says, scraping a dyed black curl back off her forehead. ‘She would not leave our parents, and we did not have the money to pay for everyone. But it was no life for me anymore. We had been treated well by the British before all this trouble; I had to go where my bread was buttered.’
So in July 1966 my grandfather, grandmother (with her stomach stretched
so wide it looked as if she meant to smuggle the whole country with her) and their two
children stepped on board the cargo Mergui Ship that would take them halfway around
the world. Nita and Vera had never been separated by more than two streets before, but a month of travelling put oceans between them. It would be a long time before they saw each other again.
‘Merlyn and Vera were standing on the dock,’ she says. ‘I looked into my sisters’ faces until I could not see their eyes anymore, then I watched their little figures getting smaller and smaller until I could not see anyone at all. I felt sad that we were going far away and my family was left behind.’
My mother, Arlene, was only seven when they left. I ask her how she felt leaving her life forever.
‘I didn’t realise that we were leaving for good. I was excited; it was like going on a holiday. I didn’t know I’d never go back. I remember wanting to see real snow for the first time. At Christmas time in Burma we’d put cotton wool on our Christmas tree. I thought of snow as soft and pretty, no one told me it’d be cold. My first winter in England I got chilblains over all my fingers. England wasn’t what we had thought at all. It was strange and dark and seemed always to be cold. We arrived in ‘summer’ and it only got bleaker from then. After a week I wanted to go home.’
It was as if God had wrapped the sun in a thick sheet of linen. Nita could only
assume the favourite colour of the English must be grey. The houses were like small even terracotta boxes, but all had that hint of grey that seemed to hang over everything. Even the trees looked dreary.
Sheffield, England, 1966
What awful place have I brought us to? Nita thought.
Bernice was standing in front of the house to greet them. The children dashed
ahead, moving easily without her bulk. They ran past a white fluffy creature with a long snout and skinny legs.
‘Mum, what is that?’ asked Arlene
‘It’s a funny looking sheep,’ said Peter.
‘No, no, not a sheep,’ said Nita, ‘it’s a...’ but she did not know the word. How
strange to be in a place where she could not answer even her children’s simplest questions.
‘A poodle.’ said Bernice ‘It’s a dog.’
Nita opened her mouth to ask her sister what the hell she was doing living in
this ugly little box house in the most depressing dingy corner of the world, but she bit
her tongue. They were guests here and knew nothing of the customs. She thought of the
servant girls they had employed back home; no matter how unfairly they were treated they were always gracious and never complained.
‘We’re so glad to be finally here,’ Nita said, ‘but how will we all fit in that one
‘We have one spare room for you and Robbie, and Arlene can share Cheryl’s room in the attic and –’
‘Sorry Bernice,’ Nita interrupted. ‘Can you show me your bathroom?’
‘Sure, go through the kitchen, out the back door and down to the end of the garden.’
‘Your bathroom is outside?’ Nita noticed her sister’s clothes for the first time.
Far from the beautiful western-style dresses they’d prized growing up, Bernice’s clothes
were faded and plain. They were poor here, she realised, in this cold, miserable place. Poor and ignorant.
‘Well, it’s in a little hut’
‘Oh a little hut makes it all better,’ Nita grumbled as she walked towards the
After all the travelling expenses my grandparents had come to England with the equivalent of £5. Robert’s qualifications as an engineer were never recognised in this country, and so he ended up working at a Wonderloaf bakery and moved to south London. Nita took a job at a canteen. The status they’d had in Burma was no more; here they were foreigners, unknowns. I ask Nita what it was like adjusting to life in England.
‘The English people scared me. They were not at all like the English living in Burma. When I went to the supermarket they did not know the spices that I asked for and I did not know the proper names for all the English vegetables. The women could not understand my accent. When I would try to speak they would just laugh; they must have thought I was stupid. It was four years before I felt comfortable talking with them.’
‘We tried to keep ourselves to ourselves,’ says Robert. ‘We had gone from being the top dogs in Rangoon to being unwanted; and then here we were not wanted either. England was a lot whiter place back in the 60s.’
Later that year their daughter, Michele, was born. My grandma tells me caring for the baby was the only thing that kept her sane. As the children were still young they shrugged off their accents quickly and were soon accepted by their peers at local schools. I ask Nita if she ever regretted leaving Burma.
‘No,’ she says, ‘we did what was best. It was hard, but it was worse for my sisters back home. They had to move out of Rangoon to a poorer area. All Vera’s grandchildren are living in the one little house and there is barely food to go round. Ever since we came to England we have been sending money back to them.’
It’s strange to think that there are people, so closely bonded in blood to me, living so far away, enduring struggles I can barely imagine. They have had to face discrimination and poverty in a country whose leaders refused any offer of help.
‘It will never be the same as how we knew it,’ Nita says. ‘We visit when we can, but it is no place for us. We do not belong there anymore.’
I ask them when it was that they first felt they belonged here, but they both shake their heads at me.
‘We never feel we belong,’ Robert says. ‘Even now, it is not home to us.’
But it is home to my mother; to me and my sisters. We have never felt like outsiders. Before writing this I did not think much about the relatives I have never met, living in a country I have never seen, whose lives could have so easily been swapped with mine. All I know of them is through the letters my grandparents receive. Once, Sandra’s eldest daughter, Mi Kyaw, sent us jade beaded bracelets that she made herself. They are meant to symbolise good luck, and that is all I can wish for her too. Mi Kyaw never questions her Burmese heritage, and I’m sure she would not want to trade her lifestyle for mine. In this way we have both been lucky: from the decisions our
grandparents made almost half a century ago, we now each have, from two different worlds, a home to call our own.