By Jane Wang
In the summer of 2015, I quit my job and came to Myanmar to start a new life.
There I was in Yangon. At the beginning of November, Myanmar’s general election took place, and Aung San Suu Kyi’s victory drew the attention of the world, bringing with it a brand new Myanmar. Yangon was completely different from what I had known before. A Shangri-La Hotel was unexpectedly built in front of the Bogyoke Market. The streets which used to be wide with few vehicles seemed to narrow overnight as traffic intensified, and suddenly the city’s traffic jams could match those in Beijing. The internet was open to the public, and Facebook became widely used among young people. At the same time, rickshaws remained popular, and men and women were still dressed in traditional clothes. Everyone believed that Myanmar’s new era had come, and I looked forward to my own experience there.
Since I was going to live and work in Myanmar, I felt very different from how I had felt as a visiting tourist years before. In a foreign country, where I do not know the language, without classmates, relatives or friends, how should I get started? Before departure, I made a hotel reservation online. Four years before, there had not been any Myanmar hotel information on Booking.com. Now, there are a variety of hotels to choose from. However, it’s not a good idea to stay in a hotel in the long run, so I had to look for a house as a long-term base.
The internet in Myanmar is not as well developed as it is in China. Although there are relevant websites, it’s not as easy to find exactly what you’re looking for when it comes to finding a place to live. In a society based on human relationships, you have to turn to other people for information. Therefore, I went to a property agent to look for a house. The rent, however, scared me, even though I’m a Shanghai native who is used to exorbitant rent prices.
The first apartment I went to see was an apartment in a 10-year-old building by the Yangon River, which was very high-end. It included guards and underground garage. Many foreign companies were in that building. A three-bedroom, two-living-room apartment, at approximately 150 square meters, cost US$1,500 a month.
The second property I visited was a one-bedroom, one-living-room apartment, with about 70 square meters of floor space. It cost US$800 a month.
Oh my! Rents in Yangon can nearly match that of China’s metropolises of Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou. I had thought the rent in Yangon would be similar to that of China’s third- or fourth-tier cities. Having escaped from the high cost of living in China’s metropolises, I did not expect to encounter such high rents in Yangon. I learned later that the average monthly salary of a local worker was only US$100. How could rent possibly be so high?
A new friend that I had gotten to know in Myanmar was very kind to introduce to me a different neighborhood. It was a little far away, but the rent was more reasonable. As I gradually got familiar with the city, I learned that Yangon is not a very big city. The neighborhood was a little remote, but it took only 30 minutes to drive to the city center. This was not a problem for me, as I had grown accustomed to taking 2-3 hour journeys (each way) to and from work in Beijing each day.
I went to see the neighborhood, feeling excited. I saw small two-story houses, similar to farmers’ homes in southern China. Each of the houses is designed with an open courtyard surrounded by trees. I fell in love with them. Having seen a few houses, I made a decision on one with a large courtyard, which would cost me US$600 per month. The house was empty and the courtyard was overgrown with grass and weeds – some restoration and renovation would have to be done. Despite the hard work ahead of me, I knew it was the kind of place I had been looking for.
Next, it was time for me to learn Myanmar’s customs. In Myanmar, tenants are expected to make a one-time payment for their expected stay, which is not the same as the Chinese system for paying rent. In China, we sign an agreement and pay three months of rent at a time, in addition to a deposit worth one month’s rent. I informed the landlord that I was going to stay for three years and I was going to redecorate the house. I negotiated with him a packaged rent for three years rather than an annual rent. In the end, he agreed that my threeyear package would include a monthly increase of US$100 every year, but the first year had to be paid up front.
A contract was signed, all in Myanmar language, of which I did not understand a word. In any case, I was about to begin life in a new home. I was full of expectations for my new life.
That is Myanmar. Slowly, not in a hurry, it is developing, in the same way that China developed at the beginning of the 1980s.
Hurt by “eieicici”
Having signed the contract, the landlord offered me an additional month for renovation, a benefit that had not come easy. The following two months were nightmare when I engaged in a tug of war with local decoration workers.
The following were my demands for the renovation: paint all the walls (inside and outside), put tiles on the cement floors (upstairs and downstairs), replace all the light bulbs, remove the overgrown grass and weeds in the courtyard and grow a healthy lawn. Simple as that. Compared to renovation projects in China, it seemed it would be fairly simple, as I didn’t request work on plumbing or overall electrical wiring, nor on the kitchen or the bathroom. According to my calculations, the project would be completed within a month. However, in Myanmar, there were no established renovation companies, not to mention packaged services. This was what happened next:
1. It took twice as long as I expected to complete the project. A friend helped me find a renovation team. No contract was signed, and everything was verbal. As a result, the workers never came to work on time. Three came to work one day, two came the next day and nobody the day after. Each night, I had to confirm if anyone was coming to work the next day. Sometimes, despite workers confirming that they would in fact come to work the next day, they didn’t.
2. Replacing the light bulbs was a job for a high-tech team of electricians, who I had to pick up every morning. I kept them company as they installed a ceiling lamp, which took the two of them three hours, a job which I could have done myself in my Shanghai home. To replace all the 13 bulbs in the house, it took them two weeks, over the course of which the technicians were absent for a few days.
3. Before placing tiles on the floor, I asked the workers to calculate the number of tiles required for the whole house. They gave me a number. However, the total size of the tiles was far larger than the floor space of the whole house. I thought it was okay to allow a bit of waste, but it was unreasonable to allow nearly twice as much. I bought the tiles as requested and saw how they worked on the floors. To fill in the space in the corners and edges, they would cut a piece from a whole tile and throw away the remainder as waste. I eventually understood the wastage.
For two whole months, I suffered as the renovation project made slow progress. That was also the time when I learned the first Myanmar phrase: “eieicici” (No hurry, slowly).
That is Myanmar. Slowly, not in a hurry, it is developing, in the same way that China developed at the beginning of the 1980s. Things will hopefully improve gradually.
That was the prelude to my life in Myanmar.