Zay Linn Htet, 10
Zay Linn Htet is a suave 12-year-old boy of Burmese descent. No one would guess that he was once shamed by kindergarten friends into a long, dark period of denying his own language and culture. Who and what gave Zay the confidence to embrace his heritage again?
Mother, Grace Yin Thandar Aung
Dish of Choice:
Have a listen to Zay's reflection in this journey of documenting his mother cooking fish curry or read on in the transcript below.
Shiyun: I remember when we first did the exhibition in Boon Lay Drive, you were very unsure about having the quote on the wall. And this was the quote - “When I first grew up in Singapore, my kindergarten friends made fun of Burmese culture, so I got a little bit insecure. I told my mother, and she said, ‘Don’t let anybody ruin your culture, because they have their own culture too’”
Could you tell us more about that quote?
Zay: Okay, so basically. On the first day of kindergarten, my mom was inside the class. It was like the first class, so parents had to be inside the classroom too, and see how we do in the first day. And then basically right, my mom, she talked to me in Burmese, and then when she talk to me right, all the kids from my class looked behind me, and they were like so shocked. And then like I’m like “oh dear”
Zay: So then basically during recess, a group of kids was like “I never heard that language before, what is that?” and then I was like it’s Burmese, and then they are like “Ewww Burmese, what’s that? It sounds so disgusting.”
I’m like “Excuse me?” was on mind. That time, my mom didn’t know any English, so she just laughed it out, thinking that it was a joke. So that time I didn’t have any confidence, because I was still small, so I didn’t really process what I was supposed to say
Shiyun: How did you feel at that moment?
Zay: I felt very upset and sad, that they actually said that to my own language and my own you know culture…
Shiyun: How did that affect you after that, before you found your confidence again?
Zay: I started hating on Burmese culture and my mom always cooked like, she always cook Burmese food so that I could like, come inside that Burmese culture. I was very picky, because after that happened, I started eating food in Singapore not Burmese. Now when I thought of that, I feel very.. I feel very ashamed of myself. For not like.. not trying out Burmese culture.
Shiyun: I remembered when I first met you, we were writing names on the TTKC wall, and Shelly also wrote her name. That’s when I realised that you guys are Burmese because from the names. Before that, I didn’t know. I asked Shelly about it, and she said that usually, you don’t want to openly disclose that you are Burmese.
Zay: Yeah. (giggles)
Shiyun: But now you are…
Zay: Yeah, I’m more confident
Shiyun: Where did you find the confidence? Or when did you find it?
Zay: It all started from my oldest sister. She had a lot of confidence I think. (laughs) And I started learning from her - Thank you, Older sister
Shiyun: So you asked her, shared with her about your experiences and she told you to just be yourself?
Zay: Yeah, kind of
Shiyun: Ah okay
I remembered you shared with me that the only time you remembered you are Burmese is when you wake up in the morning and (laughs) see your parents
Zay: (laughs) Yeah. I just don’t know. You know? I still think I’m Singaporean, but after a lot of consideration, I’m like - you know what? I’m Burmese-Singaporean. I don’t care
Shiyun: The thing is that you don’t actually see that representation of yourself? Whether it’s in a textbook or national day. Do you think that it’s an issue for you?
Zay: I don’t think so
Shiyun: It’s not an issue
Shiyun: Do you feel that you would want to see a Burmese-Singaporean representation or you would aspire to be that?
Zay: Er…when I turned P4. I finally met a Burmese person in my school, and I was so surprised. So I kept talking to her. And she’s like “why do you talk to me?” and I’m like “You speak Burmese right?!” and I was so excited.
And then like my mom fetched me from school, and her mom also fetch her from school, and they were talking in Burmese and my mom turned around and said “You talk Burmese?!” and then her mother was like “yeah” and they kept on talking and talking and talking and talking, but… they never got their phone numbers so I don’t know what happened
Shiyun: Oh I see okay.
Zay: Yeah, my mom always does that. When she sees a new Mom, she would go “Gimme your phone number, gimme your facebook”
Shiyun: Oh, but not to this Mom
Zay: Yeah, I don’t know why (Shiyun laughs)
This project was completed in 2022. Photography mentored by Larry Toh.