It’s 8:00 am on a Wednesday. It’s the new moon. There will be no ferry truck waiting for me at the corner; it’s a holiday and I have the day off from teaching English here in Yangon, Myanmar.
I could stay home and drink tea and read, I could catch a cab somewhere new, see some of the sights that are on my list. But instead, I climb/trot down my five flights of stairs and pop out at the bottom with a cheerful, “mingalabar!” to the woman who runs a food stand outside my building and turn right.
There’s a morning market on the street not far from my building. At least once every weekend—and often on my mornings off as well—you will find me there, even if I have bigger plans for later in the day. I love to get out to the market. I’ll be strolling through the kaleidoscope of fruit, the umbrellas, and the people. I love to surround myself with color and life, and that market is the place to do it. It’s honestly one of my favorite places to be.
There are two women who I usually buy bananas from. Every time I walk past, they call out “Hello!” and I answer back with “Mingalabar,” at which they usually laugh. Most people are like that on my street; friendly and kind, ready to laugh. I feel safe with them.
A tip from a friend of mine who was in my orientation group, though: if you ever do stroll through the market and encounter those women, wear pants. Or a long skirt.
For the most part though, I don’t feel constricted here; I, at least, feel free. Don’t get me wrong, this is a fairly conservative country, and what is socially acceptable for men to do is often not something that women are permitted to do. The more obvious things come with temples where women are not allowed in certain places, or to touch certain things, and those rules apply to me.
There are places that I cannot go. A quick look around will reveal there are also unwritten and unofficial social divisions between men and women here that are quite palpable. To name a few examples, I have seen countless men and boys playing chinlone, but no women. Every bar I’ve ever gone into, you can count the women on one hand—that is, if you can count any at all. Bars in Myanmar, it would appear, belong to men. It can be disconcerting, especially at first, before you start to see the patterns of these rules.
Many of these social and cultural laws do not apply to me. This is because I have the privilege of being quite visibly foreign, and a lot of rules for how women should behave in Myanmar are not applied to foreigners. This is the regrettable, but convenient, reality for me and other western women traveling and teaching English here. In Myanmar, women have one set of rules, foreigners have another.
Even when it comes to clothing—with the exception of the ladies who sell me bananas—I have never heard any comment on the inappropriateness of attire on myself or any of my traveling companions. You might even spot short skirts and shorts here and there among young women of Myanmar. Going to bars, playing chinlone, wearing shorts or even going for a run, you might illicit some strange looks, some staring, or even some laughter, but none of it ever feels malicious or creepy. Just surprised, like the way you might start if a man in a dinosaur costume strolled down the street walking a cat on a leash. A stare will turn into a smile in an instant if only you bother to offer up a smile of your own.
Despite these divisions, I would say that women are largely respected here. Not once have I seen an instance of cat calling in the month that I’ve been here, which sadly I cannot say about spending a week in a major city in the U.S. There are, as with all things, exceptions: Yangon is not with out it’s dark sides and it’s share of cruel people.
However, I have yet to run into a situation where I felt unsafe, and the most uncomfortable I have felt this whole time was when I heard an outdated and racist nursery rhyme from the U.S. being sung by so local school children. Overall, I trust my gut; if I feel uncomfortable, I leave. It’s a rather easy thing.
Even after dark, I am pretty confident in my safety here. I’ve never stayed out past 11 p.m., mind you, because I’m a pretty hard-core morning person and like to be asleep by 10 p.m., but the sun sets fairly early and it’s usually pretty dark by 6:30 p.m. Yet, I still feel safe strolling along my streets in the evening to see the city at night, especially during a festival, when the streets are all decked out with lights and lanterns. Not once have I ever felt fear for my safety. In fact, I feel safer here than I do on the streets of any major city in the U.S.
To any woman whose family is reluctant to let her travel or teach alone in Myanmar because “it isn’t safe,” I would say firstly, that it is regrettable. It’s unfortunate that so many people—some of my own friends and family included—who form these preconceptions about what a country will be like based less on actual facts and statists or even personal experience, and more on stereotypes about geographic locations and places in the world where the population is not predominantly of European decent.
Do your research. Don’t just read this article, find out whatever it is that your friends and family will find out if they look into Myanmar, and learn it. Have an answer for the questions that will most likely come up, and back up that answer with quantitative or qualitative data.
Family members and friends that are more set in their dispositions are trickier. Still do your research and have your answers ready. That really is the best way. If you need to, you can refer them to websites where you got your information. I would recommend sending them Greenheart Travel’s website, if you’re teaching English through Greenheart Travel or their partner, Xplore Asia’s website, is also a good option, especially if your family members are of the belief that a non-U.S. or non-European source cannot be trusted.
If you are fortunate enough to have understanding and open-minded family members, you should be able to bring them around if you are able to present facts and information that will put their minds at easy in a polite manner. Ultimately, don’t let anyone stand in the way of your dreams for traveling and teaching abroad, whether it is in Myanmar or beyond. Do your research, follow your heart and embrace a sense of adventure.