Myanmar’s transition from the seat of a teashop

scene from teashop

Teashop goers chatter away in the foreground while others blissfuly enjoy mobile games through their improving data services.

Than Zaw’s Yangon teashop may lack the laminated wooden tables of the restaurant across the narrow lane, but where elegance is absent a rough charm replaces it.

There is a countryside simplicity that endears his shop. Its knee-high tables, stapled-together plastic chairs and alfresco setup seem more apt for a dusty farmer’s lot than a roadside amidst the cacophony of Yangon. Only four items are served here, with no menu involved: monhinga (a fish-based noodle soup), kau’ swe (noodles), coffee, and, of course, tea. Six days a week, Than Zaw boils the water for all drinks served in a stout steel kettle over a charcoal fire while flakes of ash waft into the air, the kind that leave a lingering smell of smoke in your clothes.

Patrons come to the teashop starting from early in the morning and through to midday, when they search for respite from the oppressive tropical sun beneath the shop’s perennially popped-up blue tent. Using the daylight for contrast, grime can be seen forming on its vinyl from the incessant drip of leaky air conditioning units perched in windows high above.

There is a familiarity of family here, perhaps because there is a loving connectedness that already exists. Like many lanes in Yangon, the residents of the street pool together labour and money to stage seasonal activities, proudly held under a maroon banner that reads, “44th lan mithazu,” 44th Street Family.

The 53-year-old woman that Than Zaw, 23, works with is his maternal aunt; the girl of 20, his younger sister. I have been coming to this teashop since late 2013, almost as long as Than Zaw has been working here, though he doesn’t quite seem to remember.

“One year – I worked here one year already,” he tells me during one of our unscheduled midafternoon conversations. When he grins, his smile sits impeccably beneath unyielding, angular cheekbones. His frame is chopstick thin and wiry but not sickly.

“But I have been coming here for one and a half years,” I protest. “And you have been here the whole time.”

“Oh, yes. It has been two years already,” he stoically concedes, quietly watching me dip my spoon into my 300-kyat (about $0.30) bowl of monhinga.

Than Zaw’s lack of diligence observing time is common in Myanmar, where poor prospects in development have long limited people to a life of listlessness. For many decades, while the rest of Asia boomed around them, Myanmar remained in medieval-style agrarian stagnantatnon; there simply wasn’t much to do. Instead, teashops like Than Zaw’s act as an outlet for that immense reservoir of free time, a place were it could all be pondered, chatted and flitted away.

But, little by little, it has become increasingly apparent that certain change is finally afoot, with transformation even evident at this teashop without a name.

Just around the corner, construction has come to Thein Phyu Road, intruding upon teashop conversations with the sounds of buzz saws, hammers and heavy engines – today a common occurrence across the city. Yet the din of development in Yangon is only the backdrop. People like Than Zaw and his customers have also experienced conspicuous change since I arrived.

Myanmar teashops have always been the country’s rumor mills, so much so that they were often targeted by military intelligence to collect information and make arrests during the heydays of the junta. But, more than a talking point for politics, they also act as a node for community. Its where people come to talk of family. Of money. Of food. Of love.

Yet these days the teashop patrons seem less engaged in the chatter of local gossip and more so by Candy Crunch and Clash of Clans – online mobile phone games. Since the launch of the foreign telecom companies Telenor and Ooredoo last year, Than Zaw has even purchased a Huawei phone, one with dual-SIM card capability.

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Aunty of the teashop

“Telenor ne MPT shi de” — I have Telenor and MPT (the national carrier),” he said, awkwardly showing me the dual-card function on his new Huawei phone. Then, with a huff in his breathe, he dismayed, “MPT Internet is no good, and Telenor service is undependable,” acknowledging the futility of the new phone he held in his hand with almost serene acquiescence.

This is perhaps the most palpable change that has occurred at the grassroots level in post-reform Myanmar. In a country where 70% of population eek out a living as poor peasant farmers, the telecommunication revolution has brought the Middle Ages to an end and introduced some of the most isolated people in the world to the era of information. Farmers directly thank the government for this change, having no concept the free market conditions that have led to service improvements.

However, Than Zaw and his family are not as tempted by mobile games. The young man can’t afford to be. After working six-day weeks, including most public holidays, he makes just 90,000 kyat a month, or approximately $88. This salary puts him just below the national average, considering Myanmar’s per capita GDP of about $1,200. Given the transparency of the family business, Than Zaw tells me with ready conviction that this is a salary that he not only started with two years ago, but will likely maintain over the coming years.

From the lens of the teashop, the changes of Myanmar’s grand democratic transition that began in 2011 have so far been relatively distant and superficial. A mirror of many youth his age, while Than Zaw has chosen to stop wearing the traditional longyi in favor of more modern jeans, he nonetheless is still genuinely traditional and very much a consequence of countryside Myanmar. He depends wholeheartedly on family; his only education comes from the pongyijaun – literally the monk school, a monastery – where he learned to read Pali, the language of Buddha’s scriptures. He has not had the opportunity – or money – to pursue further education.

“I was born in Pyapon,” he tells me, a city in the cyclone-stricken Irawaddy Delta region. Pyapon is significant, he proudly says, because it is the site of one of Myanmar’s most politically influential tales. On April 5, 1989, after finishing a rally there, Aung San Suu Kyi was confronted by a firing squad. Staring mortal danger in the face, she courageously walked towards the raised barrels of guns and into sainthood.

Than Zaw moved to Yangon when he was just a child, a migration similar to that of his Aunty. She was born just south of Mandalay in Mahlaing, a small farming town today made up of about 2,000 people. “We have bananas, coconuts and jack fruit,” she tells me using the abbreviated Burmese words for the fruits, as is the common colloquial efficiency used in the Myanmar countryside.

In 1972, her family moved to Yangon in search of work and better healthcare for her sick mother. Outside of Yangon and Mandalay, clinics suffer from deplorable conditions, are inadequately staffed and, like much of the country, subject to constant brown outs. Myanmar today dedicates by far the lowest proportion of its budget to healthcare in the world.

A poor farm girl, she was told by her father to stop going to school and find a job to help provide for the family’s growing needs. And so she did, at the ripe age of 9.

Than Zaw and his family never bemoaned about their fate to me. As a foreigner in Asia, I have become accustomed to being on the receiving end of pity stories, usually told to evoke sympathy and some small donation. In Myanmar I rarely encountered such entreaties. In the West, we have so many benchmarks to compare the quality of our lives; but for the Myanmar people, the ruling elite were invisible and all that remained was innocence and simplicity; they struck me as being profoundly dignified.

At the teashop, watching Than Zaw dispense shockingly straight rivulets of ruddy konya (betel nut) spit on the open lane, I notice a different kind of game. Three men in their thirties have money on their rickety tea table, a large stack of mostly 1,000-kyat notes (about $1) placed in the center. They giggle and shriek like excited schoolgirls after tossing the bills on the table, and when they catch my eye, they don’t shy away, but snicker and continue playing.

By using the ending serial numbers on the bills, they are playing a kind of crude game of high-low.

A few years ago, gambling in public would have been avoided, but today its just another change visible at the teashop. Than Zaw doesn’t mind. Where he is sitting life is getting better, even if only marginally.

“I have a girlfriend now,” he told me after I recently returned from Christmas holidays. “Thu thei’ ei de” – “She is very cold. But I love her. She is cute.”

The young couple met one day when she was passing by the teashop on her way to work, an office just a stone’s throw away from where Than Zaw boils water over charred payment.

“I asked her if she was doing well and if she could give me her number. I don’t remember my number, so I did not give it,” he said elatedly, slyly hinting at the obvious. Clearly, the genial grace of a teashop can work its charm in more ways than one.

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