What I Have Learnt So Far

It has been 2 months since I moved to Myanmar, a good time juncture to reflect on what I have learnt so far.

Not taking things for granted. I’ve spent most of my life in first world countries where life’s basic necessities (e.g. electricity, water, telecommunications) are all stuff generally happens automatically (at least from my perspective). Not so in Myanmar where blackouts are a regular occurrence (even in major cities) and tap water is not safe to drink. Accessible and affordable mobile SIM cards had only become available in the last 18 months or so and can now be purchased for about US$1.50, when it used to be about US$1,500 just for a SIM card alone. The roads are badly maintained and one of the biggest hazards here is the risk of road accident and falling into a ditch if you are not careful! Which brings me to medical facilities. I’ve been told that you can ring the ambulance but good luck to you as who knows how long the wait will be. Much more advisable to get yourself to a taxi if you still can. But wait, that may work in Yangon but what about Mandalay where taxis are not as plentiful and need to be pre-booked? Bottom line – stay safe and don’t get into accidents or become unconscious. And I’m the lucky one because most of time is spent in either Yangon or Mandalay, the largest and second largest cities respectively in Myanmar. 70% of the population still lives in rural areas where infrastructure is largely non-existent.

Learning a new language is harder than I thought. One of the things that I want to do when I am here is to learn to speak as much Burmese as I can. I have mainly been self-studying using books, recordings, online resources and also practising with my colleagues. It is great fun to say “nice to meet you” in Burmese and see the look of surprise and pleasure on the other person’s face when they realised that you respect their culture enough to learn some of their language. So far I can speak a few very basic Burmese sentences and there is still a long way to go before I can carry on a conversation. Not being able to converse fluently in the local language is certainly an inconvenience but I have learnt that a friendly smile and hand gestures can get me a long way.

The unfamiliar will become familiar. I remember when I first arrived in Yangon, even walking from the hotel to the office was a quite an adventure. There was no proper sidewalk so I have to learn to avoid the cars, the buses, the dogs, the pot-holes and the puddles. My brain was on adrenaline overload as the strange environment with numerous unfamiliar hazards constantly triggered “fight or flight” responses. What should have been simple activities like going downtown for the first time was in fact a major logistical exercise as I had to figure out where to hail a taxi, negotiate the taxi fare and giving directions to the driver. It was exhausting, but also exhilarating at the same time. And then just when I thought I had Yangon figured out, it was time to decamp to Mandalay (where I’ll actually be based for my work) and the learning cycle starts again. Different city, different set of challenges. What I’ve learnt since is that it doesn’t take very long for the unfamiliar to become familiar. The first time I walked to the local market on Saturday morning, I could have sworn that everyone was staring at me as if I have “foreigner” written across my forehead. By the third weekend though, the strangeness subsided and I felt much more at home with my new surroundings.

Be grateful. Not that I was ungrateful before, but living in one of the world’s least-developed country where approximately one quarter of the population are below the poverty line (i.e. survive on less than US$1.25 per day) really magnified just how privileged I am. Compared to how little so many of the people around me have, I am constantly reminded of how much I have to be grateful for.

Letting go of expectations.  I’ve learnt to not have too much expectations, to make minimal plans and go with the flow as much as practicable. I’ve learnt not to stress when things don’t go according to plan (which is quite often in Myanmar) and to be patient and flexible. I’ve learnt to trust that whatever happens, things will work itself out – just not in the way that I expected.


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