Sunday, June 29, 2014

My Conversion to Globalization

Myanmar is one of the most rapidly developing nations in the world. We're talking 6 to 8% annual GDP growth per year projected for the next 10 years. It's easy to have huge growth every year when you start with shit. Myanmar is like China was 30 years ago. It's like Thailand was 20 years ago, or Vietnam was 15 years ago. It's in the same place as Cambodia and Laos are today, but it's got a couple advantages, culturally and geographically over those other two countries that make this place what I predict will be the next Third-world Asian nation gone prosperous.

When I was a teen, I was aware enough of economics to have understood the term 'Asian Dragons', namely, South Korea, Singapore, Malaysia and Taiwan. Those four economies, underdeveloped at the time, were predicted to be major players in the world economy, the pundits told us back in 1983. Sure enough, South Korea has made Japan look like Canada. Singapore is a First World country in the heart of SE Asia. The average income of Malaysia rivals that of any European nation. I don't really know much about the economy of Taiwan, suffice to say I think we can lump it into the dynamo of the world's second largest economy: China.

Whatever you might think of globalization, the transformation of the aforementioned nations is a product of that much maligned economic dynamic. The citizens of the Asian Dragons now enjoy things like potable water coming from their civic water systems, a national health care system, high speed internet and political freedoms absent under more authoritarian and underdeveloped times. Life is a lot better now in the Asian Dragon nations than it was 25 years ago.

What countries are the next Asian Dragons?

Thailand, Indonesia, India, Vietnam and the Philippines are halfway there. Each of these countries have built some of the infrastructure for making development possible. The average Thai makes $5000 per year. There is a minimum wage of $10 per day, which is pretty good by Third-world standards. Despite this, one thing that all these nations still enjoy when it comes to the global marketplace: cheap labor. A large percentage of the people of all 5 of these countries subsist on what is considered the international standard of poverty: earning less than $2 per day.

Two dollars a day feeds them and their families. It lets them live their traditional lifestyles without undo hardship. It does not, however, provide them the extra income to become consumers of the very stuff they're making. People living on $2/day aren't starving in Asia, but they're sure not buying mobile phones, LED TV's or subscribing to their local satellite service.

Thing is, there are countries nearby that have even cheaper labor. ICLM.

The conventional wisdom amongst the ICLM nations (India, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar) is that they want to be like Malaysia, South Korea and Singapore. They want to develop to the point of their neighbors. Twenty five years ago, if you'd asked me, I would have been against the modernization of these Asian nations. At the time, there was a certain spirituality, a sense of community and a feeling of the village that existed here that I thought would be spoiled by the impersonal ennui of modernity.

Now that I've been here a while in the 21st century and had a chance to observe this region up close, I'm not so worried. The critics of Thai culture today might disagree, but I think they've hung on to their 'Thainess' whilst on the verge of becoming a developed nation. Here in Myanmar, we'll see what happens, but this place has been in intimate contact with the West for hundreds of years, and it's still maintained its unique cultural identity.

There really are huge, substantial and undeniable advantages for the people of poor countries like Myanmar in becoming more developed. Clean water, freedom from famine, decent and secure housing, national health care, a minimum wage, smooth roads, fewer floods and democracy: these are all byproducts of development. Whether or not the village culture of interdependency, feeling happy with what you've got and the positive effects of their religion will withstand the pressures put on them by the cultural effects of a developing economy, we shall see. I've changed my mind from 25 years ago. I think the benefits of development outweigh the potential cultural losses. Perhaps its because I'm a Westerner, but I'd trade a feeling of oneness as part of a village for clean water, electricity and the internet any day of the week and twice on Sundays.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Quest for Crocs!

Not a river. It's a road
Seems like a lot of my blog lately has been devoted to footwear. I think it's because it's the rainy season; you pay more attention to what's on your feet when you have to make your way through flooded streets.

Watch the video at the end of the blog. I think it worked out well. The pics throughout the blog are screen captures from the video.

A Burmese Beauty
In other news, my 6-hour-a-week schedule is over; I've picked up another class. Now, that only brings me up to 12 hours a week, so I'm still taking it easy, but it is a noteworthy class. It's my first opportunity to teach a corporate class, a segment of my school's business without which, we wouldn't be here. In a corporate class, the teacher goes to the company's facility and teaches there. I just finished my first week doing this.

It's been great! Everyone in the class already knows
The guy behind me is wearing almost the same shirt
each other, and they're in a familiar place. Consequently, the students seem to be more relaxed, more open and more ready to learn. When I left their office this last Friday night, I knew I had delivered a fantastic lesson. Everyone was enthusiastic and appreciative, and I got this tremendous sense of satisfaction with my job. I really do love being a teacher at moments like that. 

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Car Wash

There's a place in our little corner of northwest Yangon that we teachers like to congregate. We call it 'The Car Wash', simply because it is an actual car wash by day. At night, it becomes a relaxing restaurant and beer station. A couple weeks back, as we were talkin 'bout the Car Wash, yeah, one of my co-workers asked me if I was able to cover the Rose Royce 70's song 'Car Wash', on ukulele.

C'mon. Of course I can. There aren't that many popular songs that aren't 'coverable' (particularly this tune which is all just one note, D, throughout until the bridge). I said yes, and she challenged me to make this video. Challenge accepted and completed!

I welcomed the challenge because this is one of my all-time favorite songs. Ask Peter Hodder and Dave Jezukewicz about personal history with this tune. I was but a kid when this song came out, but its one of those songs that I've always wanted to cover. The audio part could have been a little more synched, but not bad for a day and a half work.

Many thanks to the Kaung Thar Car Wash and Restaurant for their help in making this video.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

A Typical Day in Myanmar

A Typical Day in Myanmar

I've really taken to this place. Really. With learning the language, whole new sides of it are opening up. The more I learn about it, the more fascinating and interesting here becomes. I wouldn't rather be any place else than here, now, doing what I'm doing in this weird, exotic and often frustrating land.

Today was a typical day. My fellow expats living here reading this would not find any of these occurrences strange or out of the ordinary. It was anything but boring.

5:40 AM – I wake up and open my eyes one second before my alarm goes off. I frequently do this; it's a weird prescience that wakes me in anticipation my alarm sounding just moments before it does. First thing I remember in the morning grayness is that I forgot to buy coffee yesterday. I haven't slept well. Last night's rain storm has continued on and off until this morning. It's cool outside, and whereas most mornings I can do some light chores in order to get myself warm before facing the chilly water of my bath, both the hour and the rain have conspired to keep me from breaking a sweat.

I step into the bathroom and dip the big ladle into the basin of water. Bracing myself, I dump it on one leg, then another small bucketful on the other the leg. One arm, then the other. Okay, I'm ready. Exhaling, I dump the cold water over my head. I shiver a bit, but am invigorated. Who needs coffee?

I'm dressed and out the door by 6:15. I buy a couple energy drinks and a piece of bread at a mom & pop general store stand. It starts to rain again. I have not forgotten my umbrella, but this decides how I'm getting to work. The guys at the taxi stand at the end of my street know me by now, so there's no haggling over the fare. It's 1000 Kyats.

6:30 AM – I arrive at work and pull out my wallet to pay the driver. Uh oh. I've got a few 200 Kyat notes, but all the rest are 5000 Kyats (reminder $1 = 1000 Kyats). He may not have change. Sure enough, I hand him a 5K and the driver reacts like I've tried to pay him with the Monalisa. Change? No, of course not, not at 6:30 AM! I sit there, holding out my 5000 Kyat note, somewhat annoyed. At this hour, none of the businesses in the shopping center are open. What are we going to do? He begins asking random passersby if they've got change. None do. He takes my five and runs off towards the mall entrance, leaving me in his still running taxi. I get out and start after him; apparently, he doesn't know it's still closed. I clap my hands to get his attention and as he turns, another cab pulls up to drop off a fare. Aha! He pleads with the other driver for change, and comes back smiling with my 4000 change. It begins to rain harder.

7:00 AM- My one and only class to teach for the day begins. We happen to be in a part of the textbook which is using art and music as the subject matter from which to teach English. Today's lesson includes a reading about nursery rhymes and lullabies. I start the class off with yours truly playing a ukulele song based on old English nursery rhyme: The Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly. The students have a 'gap fill' worksheet I made up just for the occasion, turning the song into a listening exercise. Any day that begins with playing the ukulele for an appreciative audience can't turn out that bad.

Everything is going okay in the lesson, and when I call for the mid-class break, a couple of the students tell me, “Uh, Teacher, water. Lots of water,” and they point down to under their tables. Whoah! There's a huge puddle of rain water which seems to be leaking out directly from the wall. It's still pouring outside. Hmm... Never had to deal with flooding the classroom before.

“Okay, everyone, we're changing classrooms. Everyone please move to the next room!” (Which was fortunately empty). I inform the office staff of the flooding on the 3rd floor, and continue the class with no further weirdness.

9:00 AM- Teaching is done for the day. I settle into my desk and prepare tomorrow's lesson which takes about an hour, and that's it. I'm done. See, we're actually having a temporary slump in enrollment while simultaneously hiring a bunch of new teachers. Two of the classes I was scheduled to teach have been canceled due to low enrollment (including the teenagers class I was so happy about in my last blog), and so whereas I would normally teach 18 to 24 hours a week, right now, I'm down to six hours a week. Luckily, I'm not paid by the hour.

10:00 AM- I run into the teacher's liaison officer here at work. She's the Burmese person who takes care a lot of the everyday life stuff that we need help with being foreigners. She's the one who helped me get my satellite TV installation scheduled for this upcoming Saturday. Last night, she texted me with news that they were in fact coming today, Thursday. Cool! I was looking forward to a night watching the History, Discovery and Nat'l Geographic Channels. Maybe a bit of World Cup. I ask if she knows what time today they're coming. She doesn't know, but they said they would call her before coming.

11:00 AM – It's time to use my office's relatively quick internet to write an e-mail that I hope will help fix a situation I've been faced with for months: finding shoes that fit. My search goes back to my last few months in Thailand and has continued here in Yangon. I must have checked with 1000 stores by now; nobody sells shoes in US size 12 (46 here) that aren't also way too narrow or cost $300+. It's been such a long quest that I've been on the verge of giving up for some time and just wear sandals all the time. My already worn out shoes that I brought with from the USA have disintegrated on the pavement of Myanmar.

I got some new hope recently when a Timberland Shoes store opened in the mall where I work. Surely, an American company like Timberland would have my size, and even if I had to pay what amounts to a month's rent for a pair, I was willing to do so. No such luck. The biggest they have is size 11. I'd decided to write an e-mail to Timberland, pleading for help.

I search and search for a customer service type e-mail address for Timberland. I can't even find their company website. I give up. I'd recently learned that one of my co-workers with similarly large feet had to have to shoes sent from the US by family; you cannot order things on the internet and have them shipped to Myanmar. My mom would probably do this for me too, but she and my dad have now begun their new lives as full-time RVers. They're having their own adventure, and overseas shipping isn't something I'd want to ask. I do have a wonderful sister though.

Instead of writing Timberland, I write my sister.

The torrential morning rainfall has dissipated to a steady drizzle.

1:30 PM – Teachers' Meeting. I've worked at a lot of companies, and staff meetings aren't ever a lot of fun. I walk into our monthly meeting somewhat apprehensive of being the butt of some resentment from my colleagues. I'm not the only teacher whose 'under hours' right now, but some teachers are still scheduled to teach 24 hours a week, and I'm at six. It's not my fault. I'm sure I'll be getting some of their classes assigned to me soon; it just hasn't happened yet. I fully expect it to be talked about in the meeting. It's never mentioned.

3:00 PM- My sister has written back, offering not just to send me one pair, but two! Wow! This is great! My shoe-quest is nearly at an end! She tells me to find a couple pairs I like online and send her the URLs and my shipping address. I spend the next half hour in online shopping bliss, perusing the 10,000 different styles of men's shoes available at I can almost feel them on my feet now. Between this and the TV guys coming, today is shaping up to be a pretty good day! I even got a free jar of coffee out of a gift basket that one my non-coffee-drinking colleagues had received.

3:30 PM – I check with girl in the office to find out if the TV guys had called her yet. They have not, but she's going to call them. I tell her not to bother; it's no big rush. It'll happen when it happens. Besides, I am going home now and will be there the rest of the afternoon.

The rain has almost stopped; it's just sprinkling now. The air is nicely cool for the time of day (it was probably only about 80F), and despite having to step my way around lots of puddles, I enjoy my walk home.

4:00 PM – I arrive home to find my 4th floor apartment flooded. I'd mentioned the various leaks in my apartment in a previous blog. The biggest of these is turning out to be coming from the floor. Near the front door, the water which builds up on my lovely big balcony is somehow making its way through the wall and into my place. If I'm home, it's not that big of a deal. I mop it up as needed. Today, due to the heavy and continuous rain, the puddle inside my front door has turned into a small lake. It has reached all the way to my mattress (which still sits on the floor; I really should get a bed), soaking it's underside. Damn. I get everything off the mattress and stand it up leaning against a wall so that the bottom can dry. So much for my plan for an afternoon nap! It starts to rain again.

5:30 PM – It's dusk now. I guess the sattellite guys aren't coming. No call. No show. Oh well. If they're not going to come when it's raining, I could be waiting a long time.

6:30 PM – I had picked up my work shirts from the laundry lady on my way home, and as she's located next door to one of my favorite places to eat in the neighborhood, I gather up my dirty shirts and trousers and head back to drop off the next batch. Settling in at Robera Asian Cuisine, I order some fried calamari and a lovely Korean-inspired tomato, chicken and rice dish I've had before. They're really not that good at understanding the concept of appetizers versus main dishes at most restaurants here, and so I fully anticipate both dishes arriving at the same time. To my surprise, the calamari arrives first. It's delicious.

I've brought the book I'm reading right now with me, and I get through about ten pages, eavesdropping on the Burmese conversations around me, trying to pick up words and phrases that I know. The rice dish really is taking a long time. I kinda get lost in my book though, and I realize that it's been like half an hour since I finished the squid. I catch my waiter's eye and give what I think is the universal facial expression for 'where the heck is my food'? He smiles and nods at me.

So that didn't work. Finally, I call him over and ask (he speaks a bit of English), “My food? Where is my food?” He looks at me uncomprehendingly, and so I ask again, “Menu? Menu?”. He brings the menu, I point to what I had ordered and say in Burmese “This! This! Where?”.

“OH!” he with the universal waiter facial expression for 'Oh, I forgot to put your order in!'. Hrrmph. It's worth waiting for. When it comes a little later, it's very delicious. The waiter says 'Sorry' when I pay the bill.

9:00 PM – Back home. I open my front door to a very musty smell. I gotta get this leak fixed. My place is nice, but I can't live in a swamp. I turn on the light and find a 4” long (6” if you include the antenna) cockroach hanging out on my guitar case. Hrrrph.

It's 11 PM now, time to try to get on the barely functioning internet and post this... Yeah, it's not working. This will have to wait until I get to the office. The mattress is still damp now, but I gotta sleep somewhere. Waking up at 5:40 again tomorrow. Just a typical day in Myanmar!

Saturday, June 7, 2014

I'm Not Done With the Kids Quite Yet

It feels like I should be on holiday right about now. It's the weekend which delineates two of my language school's intake periods. Monday, a whole bunch of new classes start. Myself, I'll be starting to teach two new groups of students; one of my classes from last 'term' continues. This is my first instance of transitioning like this to new students without a break of more than a weekend in between.

I thought when I said goodbye to my 'teen 1' class on Friday that that was it, I was done teaching children. My school here is for adult learners.  Teaching adults (which can ultimately be a lot more lucrative) is part of why I came here as a career move. The only reason Edulink has been offering 'teen' classes since I got here is because the regualrs schools here have been on summer break.

Schools have resumed now, and I thought I was done teaching kids. Mind you, I don't mind teaching teenagers (I taught 11 to 13 year olds). It's rewarding in its own way. Kids that age still WANT to learn, they haven't yet got that 'too cool for school' mentality. However awkward that age may be for a lot of them, for those with whom I've had trouble getting through to, when it finally happens and they begin learning, it's like a dam breaking. I had several kids these last five weeks with whom a lot teachers might have 'given up' on, but I kept at it, and not to toot my own horn or anything, but they got it. The started speaking, writing and learning English.

As this new term begins, I found out I'd done such a good job that several of my students (parents) wanted to continue to learn from Teacher Joko. School may be back in session, but for the first time ever, my language institute is offering after-school young learners classes, taught by request, by yours truly.

It's a basic thing about doing your job well that your customers want to come back to you and your company; I've prided myself on doing that for 20 years. It's kinda another level when your company creates whole new products just so that their clients can continue to deal with you. Yeah. That feels good. I feel appreciated.

You'll see some of these 'young learners' in the video below, along with a bunch of other stuff. 

 The last couple weeks, I really haven't recorded anything, other than uke videos, that was worthy of its own video. This has left me with a bunch of half-stuff, which I've strung together here in a single piece sans any kind narrative to it.

The video includes my trip and time at the Onyx Steakhouse here in Yangon, one the handful of places in this city that merits the name. You'll see a lot of my new friends and colleagues as we gathered for a 'pre-wake' for a former teacher. The last day of the term for the kids was fun, cake and free time, but I still felt obliged to include a learning game or two. My sink broke. You see the plumber fixing it. Finally, my latest apartment improvement, a TV and DVD player. You gotta love Myanmar for DVD's. At the same respectable department store where I bought the TV, I picked up a 3-disc set of the entire Harry Potter series in HD for 800 Kyats... 82 cents.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

The Cleaning Lady Cometh

Two weeks ago, I agreed to hire a cleaning lady to come in weekly at 3000 Kyats ($3.12) per week. She's here today for the frist time, on her hands at knees at the moment, diligently scrubbing underneath my sink. When she offered her services at the price above, I didn't hesitate. Yes, overcharging the foreigner is just the way things are done here in SE Asia, but at $3/week, that seemed reasonable to me, and so I hardly felt cheated.

My landlord stopped by just now, supposedly to drop off some brushes for the cleaning woman, but really just being nosy, and in a whispered tone so that the cleaning lady couldn't hear it, he informed me that the going rate for an apartment clean is 1000 kyats ($1) per week. He implied that I should just pay her 1000 Kyats for what I agreed to pay 3000 for just last week. He was standing in the room at the time when I made the agreement to pay $3/week in the first place. Why is now telling me I'm paying three times too much? When it comes down to it, although I'll haggle with a taxi driver or a vendor at the market, I can't renegotiate the price I've agreed to for a service once its done! That's ludicrous! Particularly to someone whose coming into my home to perform a service. I'm paying the 3000 Kyats and that's that!

> > >

Now, I sit here an hour later. Cleaning Lady is all done. My apartment is sparkling clean. Pictures!
You have to smell the cleanliness in this picture to really appreciate it.

Look at that shiny floor! Nothing out of place. My beautiful rose-colored (it's not pink) apartment.

As she was leaving, I handed her the 3000 Kyats. She said, no, the charge was 1000 Kyats, and gave me 2000 back. Huh? She rattled off something in Burmese which I didn't understand, but I kinda think it meant that for the first week, because she was cleaning for the first time an apartment that was pretty dirty, the charge was 3000 Kyats. To maintain that cleanliness, it's
Kitchen counters, 100% pigeon shit free!
only 1000 Kyats per week. She could have tripled her wage with me and I'd have been none the wiser. Burmese people are at the core, a pretty honest lot. A dollar a week for a cleaning lady, yeah, I can do that.

Keep in mind that Myanmar is so impoverished, that half the country survives on an income of $2 per day or less. 25% of them on less than $1/day. $1 for about an hour's work cleaning; she's doing okay too.


Oh look!  A new ukulele video!  This week's Seasons challenge encouraged multiple instruments.  I bought a little Burmese drum and enlisted my friend Anthony, another teacher at my school, to come along with me to People's Park to be my back up singer and percussionist.

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