I’ve just wrapped up my TESOL certification program here in Yangon, and although I have yet to arrive in Tacheleik, the town where I will be teaching for at least the next three months, this feels like a good time to reflect on my experiences so far here in Myanmar.
I previously spent a year working as a teaching assistant in Madrid, Spain, so I’m no stranger to the ESL world. Although I loved my time in Spain, once my year was up, I felt I was ready for a more challenging cultural experience. One thing led to another, and seven months after returning home from Europe I found myself boarding a plane for Myanmar.
Prior to leaving, when I first told friends and family I had chosen Myanmar as my next destination, I was met with a resounding chorus of “Where’s that?” with the occasional, “Be careful!” thrown in for good measure.
Myanmar is, unfortunately, not really a country that has much of a place in the western collective consciousness. What little knowledge the average person does have tends to be hazy and (regretfully) negative, but beyond that pretty light on the details. While I’d like to think I had a slightly more nuanced and informed view before arriving, I can’t deny that I really didn’t know fully what I was getting myself into.
Yangon is magnificently dysfunctional and wonderfully addicting. The neighborhood that I’ve been living in for the last month is a total cultural melting pot, with a wide variety of ethnicities and religions (notably Buddhist, Muslim, and Hindu) represented. I don’t think that I fully expected the level of diversity seen in Yangon. Myanmar shares borders with India, Bangladesh, China, Laos, and Thailand, and in many ways the country feels like a crossroads between these different cultures.
I actually expected to have to give up far more western comforts here than I have so far. While the streets aren’t exactly lined with McDonald’s and Starbucks, it’s quite easy to find an assortment of western food throughout Yangon. While I’m a strong proponent for living (and eating) as the locals do, I can’t deny it’s quite nice to have pizza once and awhile, which fortunately is in no short supply in the city. I fully expect this to be a completely different story outside of Yangon, but for now, it certainly has made the transition easier.
Truly one of the most difficult things to adjust to so far has been the absolutely mind-boggling traffic. Constant, never-ending seas of traffic. I knew it was going to be somewhat bonkers, but nothing fully prepares you for the utter insanity that is driving in Yangon.
There are seemingly no rules of the road to speak of, and although the country drives on the right side, most cars have been imported from Japan, and are meant to be driven on the left. Like elsewhere in this part of the world, you really are taking your life into your own hands each time you cross the street. Simply put, it pulsates without interruption. That is, unless you find yourself caught in one of the very few traffic lights scattered throughout the city, which can literally take a five or ten minutes to change. Crazy.
Because Myanmar has been closed off for so long, and has yet to see the waves and waves of western tourists that make their way to neighboring Thailand each year (it really is only a matter of time), I was expecting to be seen as more of a curiosity than has been my experience so far. I’m very aware that in much of the world being tall, blonde, and awkward makes me an absolute curiosity. At best it provokes stares ranging from cautious to inquisitive, and at worst can incite a furry of photo shoots from overly curious locals.
But happily, I’ve mostly been met with indifference. People are friendly to be sure, and absolutely welcoming, but other than a few kids excited to speak with a foreigner, I feel surprisingly invisible (in a good way). Maybe that will change the farther away I get from Yangon, but for now it has been a pleasant surprise.
Admittedly, I wasn’t expecting too much from the TESOL course, or even general support with housing or other practical needs once I arrived in Myanmar. This was likely colored by my experience going through the Language and Culture Assistant program in Spain, which offered virtually no assistance with obtaining my visa and ID card, finding a place to live, getting a SIM card, or anything else of that nature.
I could not have been happier to be proven wrong. Greenheart Travel and their partner company NELC-Xplore have provided literally everything from transportation from the airport to a place to live (which is much nicer than I was expecting). They’ve been crazily helpful with any and all questions I’ve had about Myanmar and the course itself. If anything, I didn’t think it would be this easy to adjust and settle in.
So far, the reality of being here in Myanmar hasn’t varied wildly from what I had expected. I knew it would be a vastly different experience from anything that I’d done before, and I tried my best to arrive without any concrete expectations. What hardships I had anticipated to encounter have so far actually been overblown. Again, I feel that this could all change once I arrive in Tacheleik to begin teaching, but I feel that my first month here in Yangon has been a resounding success.