Yangon wakes early. I imagine its citizens lie awake in the last remaining night, silently still with ears perked and eyes squinting, waiting for the tiniest sounds of birds and the faintest spot of light. At the first signal of day, they bounce out of bed and head into the streets.
It is not even 6am, and the street vendors are out with steaming pots and bubbling vats of oil. You can start your day by earning “merits” or “good karma,” an act of charity, which is all it takes to influence the fortune of your next incarnation. Here in Yangon, earning merit is translated into buying a cup of grains for the pigeons. I’ve never seen healthier flocks of pigeons in all the lands. Every few blocks, there is a lady with a basket filled with corn, a tin cup and hundreds of pigeons coming and going. The ladies are there, on their designated corners, before first light, and they disappears before 8am, taking the pigeons with them.
The vegetable sellers, the florists, the mango guy, the noodles lady, the man with fresh curlers and the couple with fried French toast and paratha drizzled with sweet condensed milk — all have their station set up, animated, well into the this-and-that of their business — and it is not even 7am.
She has a table filled with noodles, vegetables and tofu. I walk up to her and point to it with a smile accompanied by a tiny nod, the international sign language for, I would like some of that please, except she return my inquiry not with a bowl of noodles but panic and confusion. She yells for someone just down the block to come and translate. A friendly middle age guy come up and starts talking to me in Mandarin Chinese. Wait, a man is talking to me in Chinese, wait, I just want some noodles —- I am not sure what is more jarring. Being spoken to in a language I understand but unexpected or the inability to communicate a simple desire. I often forget that I am Chinese; it has proven to be a point of internal confusion more than once. In most parts of the world, the first language offered for translation is English, where as here in Myanmar, part of Indochina, Chinese is our assumed lingua franca for a black haired almond-eyed woman.
The man points to the noodles and says to me in Chinese, noodles. I nod my head, yes, I would like some. He guides me over to the next stall and place an order for me. Maybe the other lady only sells noodles to be taken home and not to be eaten right there? Maybe that is why the universal “I would like eat that” sign failed? I turn this over in my head while slurping down my breakfast. A lady comes and sits down at the first noodle stall and she is served with a bowl of noodles. I don’t get it.
Stewed chicken feet, ohn-no-khaut-swei (coconut chicken noodle soup) with curlers added from the stall 10 feet down, si-gyet-khauk-swe (noodles with bits of pork, fried garlic oil, soy sauce and chopped spring onions and a bowl soup on the side) and the customary pickled vegetables. Customers’ queue up to this tiny cart none stop. The women to my right just ordered 6 bowls of noodles to go. A seat vacates to my left and it is immediately taken. With practiced rhythm, the proprietress of this very popular cart seasons bowl after bowl from the line up of fried onions, oils, sauces, chilies, chopped peanuts and cilantro. A quick twist of wrist and breakfast is taken away in two separate plastic bags, one for the noodles and another for the soup.
I finish my breakfast and thank the lady in Chinese.
On every street corner, there is a cart selling something to eat. On the next street over, a man sits down at a noodle cart selling mohinga (rice vermicelli in fish broth with onions, garlic, ginger, lemon grass) and settles in with the morning paper. Plastic chairs, folding tables, disposal chopsticks and wood fires. Metal lunch tiffin, thermos filled with tea and an umbrella all carried in a small plastic basket with handles, making their way to work. People are carrying their breakfast noodles in plastic bags. The metal gates for stores and banks are tightly shut but the day has long started and is being lived out on the streets.