Myanmar (but for a specific few folks)

Because time has taught me well and experience has enlightened me so (at least I would like to think so), I am well aware that the enjoyment of, appreciation for, and reaction to traveling abroad is all about one’s perspective, as is life in general, for that matter.  While one bloke may find a restaurant’s filet mignon succulent and savory, another chap a few tables over may ready himself to retch due its unforgivable (perceived) blandness, and just as one lassie gazes admiringly at a famous modern art exhibit at the MoMA in Manhattan, pondering its profoundly insightful take on the perils of the underprivileged, another gal may later encounter said exhibition and immediately label it as excruciating-to-look-at esoteric excrement.    With travel, it is—undoubtedly—the same.  One may boast that Paris ranks as the world’s most appealing city, while another might heartily exclaim that claim belongs to New York.  At the same time, the vistas offered from atop the Swiss Alps may move one person to joyful tears, while the same scene prompts another, standing a mere few feet away, to yawn, yearning for the scenery of the Canadian Rockies, instead.  Vividly I recall my own sister, sometime back in 1999, when I brought her to Lucerne, Switzerland, nonchalantly labeling the, to me, gorgeously quaint city as simply “Okay.” Consequently, I proceed with this blog somewhat tentatively, for one person may come to see that I am spot on and completely accurate about my latest travels, in his/her opinion, yet another may dramatically guffaw while reading my posting, having had an utterly different outlook on the place.  That place, it turns out to be, is Myanmar, and I write about it simply to give some more insight into the place for fellow soon-to-be new teachers at the same school for which my wife and I have accepted two full-time positions to start in August, and for family and friends, too.  I simply want to give them some of my perspective (remember, it is just that!), as long as they promise to not hold anything against me because my point of view might differ from theirs when they/we finally arrive this summer.

Eagerly curious and admittedly a trifle concerned about our soon-to-be new life in the country formerly known as Burma, I planned on visiting Myanmar soon after my wife, Pei Ling, and I accepted contracts for one of the three main international schools there, positions which we landed after my attending the Search Associates Bangkok overseas school job fair in January.  As is often the case, one cannot visit a school before making such a profound decision, for jobs are offered on the spot—or soon after such fairs, as it was for us.  A mere week after the recruiting fair, we needed to decide if we would take the two offers, yet that still didn’t allow enough time to fly all the way there in order to make the decision any easier.  Thankfully, though nothing is ever completely accurate and one never can believe everything one finds online, we at least had the convenience of the Internet to search as much as we could about Yangon, the school, Myanmar, etc., over the few days leading up to our deadline.

With our minds set on relocating to Myanmar to teach—at least enough so to sign our names on the dotted lines, questions immediately arose about what housing options exist there, options, that is, that are to be offered by the school as part of our contracts.  That there is a slight concern about it is in itself something new to us, for when I moved to Taiwan in 2004 to teach at Kaohsiung American School, housing was simply assigned to arriving staff in apartment complexes spread throughout the city, with few teachers ever actually living in the same building—and such placement seemed somewhat random and very independent of the school (whereas for our new school, it appears that housing options are at a few select locales at which the school groups new teachers together).  Also, two years ago, when we moved to Switzerland, our housing prospects were essentially limited to housing near campus, or even on campus, so there wasn’t as much of a need to know about the options beforehand; moreover, we felt that all options in Lugano would have been fine, wherever we landed.  Somewhat narrow-mindedly, we assumed that life in Switzerland and our accommodation didn’t need to be questioned.  However, to not know what to expect in Yangon was a trifle daunting, as naïve and shallow as that may sound; thus, I booked tickets a few days after our contracts were signed, heading first through Bangkok (in order to apply for a one-day visa at the Myanmar Embassy) since that seemed the most expedient way of getting there.

Never did we think we could actually stake a claim for a particular property.  Rather, we just wanted to know more about what we were going to potentially get or at the most to perhaps even put in a more well-informed request, knowing all along that the scheduling of housing arrangements at American/international schools is never clear or promised from the start—nor is it ever easy for those involved with the process.  Even in Switzerland, we were asked to move out a week after we had moved into one place, having unpacked much of our 53 boxes already, for a returning couple had expressed strong interest in the place we got.  Though it was an option to change, it felt more like we needed to.  Flexibility is key in all of this, as we have learned over the years.  Though most folks are probably champing at the bit to know where they’ll live and what the place is like, it will behoove everyone to go more with the flow than set expectations very high.

That Yangon is changing, rapidly so, goes without saying, yet whether or not those changes are bound to be superficial and temporary—or permanent and deep-seated is, sadly, an unknown (in reference to the political situation and such, not about the new road surfaces or construction, more import goods, etc., which are all very much real).  One would hope that these current changes will lean more towards the latter, more far-reaching, broad-sweeping transformations, but simply put, it is too early to see.  However, hopes are personally high, as they are with the international community, those expats already there, and with many, I assume, Burmese as well.  One thing is, indeed certain though.  Changes have already occurred in Yangon, for I witnessed a difference in the city itself this time around, compared with my trip there in 2009 as a backpacker on a quick nine-day journey that brought me only to Yangon, Mandalay and Bagan.

Admittedly, my travels the first time around only allowed me to scratch the surface of what Myanmar is all about.  Never did I have truly lengthy, insightful conversations with locals about life there, nor did I stay long enough to see more deeply into the societal and cultural idiosyncrasies that are evident once you step out of the airport.  Having only seen Yangon for a few days, the famous pagodas and temple complexes of Bagan, and Mandalay, with its worthwhile sights, I caught a mere glimpse of the country’s surface highlights.  On this trip, however, my focus was more on the housing complexes offered by the school, the campus and facilities, and on getting to meet with some of the current teaching staff and administration.  Consequently, once again, I cannot offer poignant revelations about how the Burmese feel at this moment, what culture truly entails there, nor much more than basic ideas about living in Yangon.  I still wonder if the locals believe the hype, that is, all the changes that their government has claimed is in store on the horizon.  Are the changes, hitherto, for real, or just a glossy surface coating, offered only to appease the international community or for more personal gain for those in charge?  Are things looking up for them, the locals?  What changes do they want?  How much do they want their society to change?  Are they willing to give up aspects of life there to “gain” in other ways?  Do they believe that opening up to outside influences will benefit or threaten certain ways of life?  Countless other questions are on my mind, too, so I hope to learn such things when we move there, but at this moment, I can only venture to guess.

Disclaimer:  For this blog, I can only offer this: the basics.  Some facts, some insights, some assumptions.  That’s it.   However much I strive to remain neutral and balanced, someone will find my ideas biased.  That’s natural.  Others may post a response that my insights are too simplistic.  Yet others may criticize me for not learning more.  So it must be clear from the start that this blog isn’t to offer profound academic explanations about the culture of and the life in Myanmar.  It is only to give my future coworkers, family, and friends some ideas about life there.  That’s it.

Recently, I added an intentionally tongue-in-cheek post to my Facebook, stating that I ate at Subway, Baskin Robbins, Sizzler, Dairy Queen, 7-11, etc., while in Bangkok before heading to Myanmar—and that is why I love Thai food.  My intention was simply to shed light on the fact that international travel is continually becoming less exotic and foreign because of the break-neck speed of cultural diffusion from east to west, west to east, and simply between nations, cultures, and so forth.  In 1992, when I first backpacked through Europe, I remarked in a journal entry that I despised seeing McDonalds’ Golden Arches while strolling the side streets of some German city.  It has only gotten worse.  Living in Kaohsiung, Taiwan for six-plus years, I’ve seen intersections in the city where there is a Starbucks, a KFC, a Blockbuster and a Cinemark movie theater within view, prompting me to think I was on Main Street, USA for a moment.  For many locals, such options are thoroughly savored, but I find them somewhat unsavory.  Choosing to live abroad, for me, is to partly be away from all those creature comforts of “home,” whatever and wherever that may be—though there are certainly many an expat who need such things, particularly those who only eat western food or go to western establishments (of course, opting to live overseas is not just based on food and shopping options).  In Yangon, there is, essentially, none of this.  Similar in that way to Laos and Cambodia, at least when I was in those two countries four and six years ago, respectively, Myanmar hasn’t yet been overrun by American fast food joints, IKEA, Carrefour or the like. Wholeheartedly, I welcome that aspect of life there.

To admit that while living there I may miss some of the conveniences of a more modern city might contradict some of the above, but, overall, I find the fact that there are no Golden Arches, Starbucks, and Burger Kings, etc., quite appealing.  Enticed I am by—more than daunted by—the more laid back, and may I dare say “wholesome,” way of life there.  Hesitant I am with much trepidation about using the wrong word, such as “simple” or “basic,” fearing that I degrade their way of life unintentionally.   Can I judge their society as “uncomplicated”? I doubt it.  I am certain that people there have more complications that I’ve ever had to deal with in my life hitherto.  Because “simple” often carried negative connotations, I worry about calling life there simpler, yet life feels that way there, to me, an outsider.

Regarding housing:

The factors and variables in getting a housing choice (or no choice at all) or even options are complex, based on accompanying family, family size, seniority, etc., so even though I saw places when I visited, we can’t expect to land in any particular place until we get there (or unless Tom writes us with news beforehand).  Even then, knowing that we moved out of one place a week after being in Switzerland last year, we may not stay in a place for long! The one thing I do know is that while I was there, they found out that housing prices are skyrocketing now, so some housing complexes may not even be used any longer.  I cannot comment otherwise, for I am not officially in the loop, but we need to keep that in mind as newbies.  I trust that they will do their best in assigning us to places that are comfortable and clean, but I also recall how, in all three aforementioned countries/jobs, some staff hated their housing, while others loved it!  Nobody is ever perfectly satisfied, from what we’ve seen.  Human nature, I suppose, but I’ve already learned that housing issues are a topic of discussion amongst staff, just as they were in our last schools, and I assume will be in the future at any school we go to. As I learned in the Army years ago, soldiers (teachers in this case) are (often) not happy unless they are complaining.

From the places I visited, Bahosi and Chan Thar, I can assume that all places are furnished (Inya Lake, being a hotel, would of course be), also, though in Chan Thar, two of the four bedrooms didn’t have furniture (for a single guy staying there, which is where I stayed).  I assume with a full family, they’d furnish more. I did actually go furniture shopping with a teacher while there, for he needed a shelving unit, and it was quite cheap!  Naturally, without a shipping allowance, which is what I assume nobody has, I don’t think anyone will be bringing furniture.  To move to Switzerland, we shipped 53 boxes (for our outbound school paid household shipping and airfare), but this time around, we’ll be, literally, bringing only a suitcase each (in addition to one that I brought two weeks ago when I visited, stuffed full with my daughter’s toys and books).  Time to simplify and minimize for all of us!

What I found to be wonderful about Chan Thar is that the pads are so spacious, and, as mentioned above, one single teacher lives in a four-bedroom unit, solo.  If we happen to live there next year, I’d be (mostly) fine with the selection, though there are pros and cons to every place.  Hating to beat a dead horse, I still have to mention that perspective is everything, for one future coworker loves it there, he stated emphatically, whereas another and her partner are ready to move out at a moment’s notice—and have requested to do so for next year.  For positives, I can list a few:  huge interiors (though I was told one tower offers three bedrooms instead of four), relative cleanliness in the apartments themselves, at least the two that I saw, the work out room, the pool, and the quaintness of most of the complex grounds.  The area near the pool and recreation building, where showers and changing rooms for the pool are located, is rather hotel-like, and some of the shrubbery around the grounds gives a green touch to the place.  Moreover, inside the pad where I stayed, though this may not apply to all apartments staff live in, the quality and appearance of the furniture was respectable although the cabinetry in the kitchen is a bit flimsy.  Actually, tables and such were of a heavy-duty wood, so rather durable, I thought.

However, there were a few questionable aspects of the place that I found myself focused on from time to time.  First, though there is a guard shack at the gate, the gate was always open and cars seemed to come and go without identification checks.  A number of taxis I took back during the days I was there entered without anyone noticing, I felt, so I wondered if security is too lax.  Another concern was the stories I’d heard that the staff there dump the complex’s garbage over the back wall near the river.  Will that force us to turn a blind eye, or could we possibly see to changing that somehow without stepping on too many cultural toes?  If it is what it is, can I simply ignore it or accept it, however bothersome the practice might be?  To accept certain negative (or different to one’s own belief system) aspects of a society in which an expat lives is one thing, and a necessary facet of living abroad to some extent, but to fully consent to witnessing such a blatant abuse of the environment is challenging, to say the least.  This dilemma is one that comes about at various times and regarding a number of issues for all of us that opt to take our lives overseas, and it has been that way since time immemorial, or at least dating back to the moments when mankind first started traveling and relocating to distant lands, bringing with him/her an outsider’s perspective and all that that entails.  So where do we draw the line?   However it is drawn, it is fine line.  Can we judge as an outsider?  It appears to be a natural inclination for many of us.  Yet if we do, we can be seen as jingoistic.  Who are we to move into a country and place our cultural norms and expectations on the local populace?  For nearly seven years, I struggled with that notion while living in Taiwan, with one particular feature of life there, driving, more than others.

Back in the States, I grew up with an engrained notion that the right of way while driving was an unalienable right, something akin to freedom of the press or religion.  For umpteen years, I lived it while there, both giving it when necessary and expecting it when mandated by some internal sense of right and wrong. Having to let go of that expectation in Taiwan, for it is more a driving culture of “let’s share this road together, all at the same time,” has long been personally problematic.  Do I give up my sense of what I deem important, both in terms of safety and politeness, simply to get by without a fuss?  Or do I maintain my internalized cultural norms and consequently find it hard to adapt to the driving customs on the island?  Naturally, a balance somewhere between the two is often the key, especially because demanding that others give me the right of way on the road isn’t healthy, leading only to stress and frustration on my part if I set my driving customs internal dial to “American;” at the same time, I haven’t yet been able to completely let go of who I am as a driver because deep inside, I feel we shouldn’t have to fully accommodate all cultural values in every place one lives outside of the US.  On that note, just because one culture that I lived in loved eating ‘nato’ for breakfast (a gooey paste of fermented soybean), it didn’t mean I had to adapt to it.  As with driving in Taiwan, I hope to find a balance somehow regarding my impressions and expectations of a clean environment and what the status quo approach to refuse disposal is in Myanmar, for it seems that they are quite divergent perspectives.  Open to the prospect of expanding my horizons as much as feasibly possible while there, I remain apprehensive about how I’ll handle seeing unsightly piles of garbage most everywhere.  Naturally, I hope that I can accept it all with an it-is-what-it-is approach.

So Chan Thar has its pros and cons, as with everywhere.  Another con sticks out for me, and that has to be the noise level at night.  Because the windows are of a questionable quality, noise at night seemed to travel into the apartment where I stayed quite easily.  Consequently, I was awoken a number of times—each night—to the sounds of loud freight trucks on the roadway outside the complex, a few stories below, trains traveling throughout the night on the nearby tracks, and an on-the-hour bell that is rung (actually, a long metal pipe hanging from one end, on which someone bangs out the time from 10pm until the wee hours) so that residents know what time it is.  Being accustomed to living in a residence in Taiwan where we don’t hear street-level noise at night, up on the 10th floor, perhaps I simply wasn’t used to it, which created more of an issue for me, and, indeed, one current teacher who resides there stated that they are used to it and that it isn’t a problem for them, and a few others stated the same.  Again, to each their own when it comes to housing concerns.

As two current teachers had explained to me via emails over the weeks prior to my visit, each housing option attracts some folks while repulsing others.  Though one of those individuals told me that Bahosi was too much in the city to his liking, I actually liked the location.  That Chan Thar is a bit outside the built up center is something he likes.  Bahosi, just like Chan Thar, has its pros and cons, and even the individual flats within, having seen three of the four, are different enough to not be able to categorize the entire complex as a like-them-or-not grade.  Unlike Chan Thar, this complex feels less like an apartment complex and more like a multi-family town home, which is a positive, at least for me.  There is one entryway, with no elevator, a problem for some who wouldn’t want to walk three to four flights of stairs up.  Within each pad, there are two floors, yet the layout was slight different in each.  All in all, I like Bahosi, but I kept thinking about comments I’d heard from others who said it was “ugly” and that there is less of a community feel there, compared to Chan Thar.   Perhaps those folks, some of whom live in the Inya Lake Hotel and others who live in another complex, simply have it better, but I didn’t see Inya Lake spreads inside, other than the hotel lobby and lounge/bar, where we watched the Super Bowl that Monday night.  Speaking of which, that experience was a trifle surreal, for it felt odd that folks live long-term in the hotel, something I am not sure I would enjoy myself if single.  Again, to each his own, making me feel currently that I could have summarized my housing visits in a nutshell:  every place is different and everyone has different ideas about them.

In fact, the same holds true for the school facilities, staffing, administration, etc.  It all boils down to perspective.  This much is clear, though.  The school sits in an area seems a bit out of town, a bit out of the way.  Not knowing the layout of the city well enough yet, I can’t judge whether or not that is a convenience, but it is clear that it depends on where one lives, with Inya Lake being closer, and Chan Thar being furthest, it seems.  The bus trip to and from the latter takes around 30-40 minutes, whereas Bahosi is more like 20 minutes.

The neighborhood of the school has both newer buildings and run down shacks. Indeed, a collection of shanties sits behind the middle school.  Whatever one thinks of this, it is what it is, provoking an “Egad!” response from some, while others may simply accept it.  For me, the reality is that that is irrelevant (though not irrelevant enough because I mentioned it here) because what matters most is the teaching and learning that will take place in the classroom.  The fact is that my old school in Taiwan also had a small community of older, dilapidated hovels behind it, just below my third-floor classroom, and its presence never affected my school life one bit, other than permitting a cursory look into the lives of residents below from time to time.  Just as easily, and just as unimportantly, the structures below could have been affluent condos and it would have made no difference.  The same holds true, at least I hope so, for the shanties behind ISM’s MS building.

The current setting of ISM is this:  In the same lot (or adjoining lots) are the MS and HS buildings, separated by a relatively small sports field, if you will, though a dirt patch instead of lush grass at this time of year—with a covered sidewalk running along the sports field, which connects the two sections, and then down the street from the intersection where the HS sits on the corner, is the ES school.  With the soon-to-be-completed new ES building, the middle school will move into that current structure and the high school will take over the two adjacent buildings.  To walk to the ES, one must pass through a flavorful neighborhood, running about five or six blocks in length, on a street lined with quaint, yet quite basic, tea shops, where locals gather to puff lazily on cigarettes while gossiping about the latest visit of an important dignitary, the fluctuating kyat, or about The Lady, one assumes (and one wishes he knew more about).  These are no Starbucks, thankfully.  These are run-down places with mini plastic stools gathered around wobbly wooden tables atop hard dirt floors, and they are full of patrons who spit their beetle nut juice in open drains or out onto the street.  I loved it!  Sitting there, eavesdropping on a language I can’t understand, reading my Lonely Planet, and taking photos of various details (of chickens in coops right near the entrance, for example), I thought, “I could make this a routine.”

More to follow…

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