Clinton School student Kirby Richardson (Rogers, Ark.) is currently in Yangon, Myanmar, for his International Public Service Project with Winrock International. Below is a reflection, written by Richardson of his first two months in Myanmar.
I was lucky enough to be accepted for a position with Winrock International as part of a project in Yangon, Myanmar. My job this summer has been to support the Monitoring, Evaluation, and Learning (MEL) team with the Value Chains in Rural Development project, which seeks to provide knowledge and technical assistance to domestic farmers and processors in order to develop value-additive linkages within the supply chain for five target crops: coffee, soybeans, ginger, melons, and sesame. These linkages are designed to maximize smallholder farmer access to finance, technology, agricultural best-practices, and market access in order to improve cash flow and socioeconomic equity. Other objectives are improving knowledge and responsible usage of pesticides and herbicides, developing climate change resilience amongst rural communities, developing rural infrastructure, and promoting investment into sustainable and environmentally-friendly agriculture.
While I have traveled extensively, for pleasure and for study, no experience can adequately prepare you for working abroad besides the actual act of working abroad. It did not seem like it would be such a different experience from studying abroad for a semester, but it certainly is. Life moves differently within the professional context, and I suspect that that is true regardless of where you are. Interpersonal relationships matter in different ways. Communication takes on a different form, often more practical than cerebral. Consequences for mistakes can be more severe. Expectations are often higher. And time is often in much shorter supply. Add those stresses to the stress of having to engage with a new culture, a new context, and a new set of expectations; that is what it is challenging about working abroad.
Myanmar has challenged me more than any other nation, and often in ways that caught be my surprise. I arrived in Myanmar on May 14 after almost 30 hours of traveling. Upon stepping off of the plane at almost 11:00 PM, I was immediately struck by the wave of heat that I was expecting to feel, but which no amount of travel or prior knowledge can really prepare you for. However, I briefly forgot the heat when I was greeted at the airport by the eternally delightful Mr. Myo Min and his infectious laugh and smile, who immediately became a friend.
My first week was spent in Taunggyi, the capital of Southern Shan state in North-Central Myanmar, with my friend (and boss) Julio. Shan is home to a number of Winrock’s interventions with ginger, coffee, and soybean farmers, so I was able to witness an extension training about responsible pesticide usage and accompany the ginger technical team on a site visit to a local ginger farming village and demonstration plot. Myanmar is such a diverse nation, even just in terms of topography. Rolling hills and mountains in Southern Shan, marshland in Naypyidaw, roaring rivers in Yangon and Ayeyarwaddy, beautiful beaches in Rakhine, rainforest in Northern Shan, Kachin, and Sagaing – they all lend to a breathtakingly beautiful landscape.
Luckily, the monsoon hit around week three, so the temperature dropped slightly. The tradeoff is massive amounts of rain. You see, the monsoon in Taunggyi means temperatures in the low 70s and an hour or two of moderate rainfall. The monsoon in Yangon, however, looks and feels more like that scene from Jumanji wherein Robin Williams fights the crocodile.
Myanmar was under military rule (in various forms) for almost 50 years, with some semblance of democracy having returned to the nation in 2011. Everywhere you look, you can still see the memories of that time period in Yangon, from abandoned military buildings to signs along the road reminding citizens of the mandatory evening curfew. Old military barracks have been converted into apartment complexes or markets, still complete with their brick walls rimmed with broken glass and barbed wire. As one moves downtown, however, one sees a different set of reminders of the Myanmar peoples’ past confinement – colonial architecture. I cannot deny that it is beautiful, but juxtaposed with the abandoned military installations, it paints a grim picture. However, there is also something poetic about the way that these colonial and military buildings have been reclaimed by local people and transformed into something useful for the community.
Myanmar and her people have been very good to me, but this trip has been very challenging as well. The scenery is beautiful, the cultures are rich, the food is diverse and interesting, and the people are extremely friendly; however, this trip has reminded me of just how much of a burden expectation can be. For the first month of my service here, I felt as though I was failing to integrate myself into my group of Myanmar peers. I felt as though I needed to be more direct and intentional about forming relationships with my coworkers that transcended the “colleague” level. I invited peers to dinner, to go see movies, to hang out – all to no avail. When I am not spending time outside of work with expatriates, usually Julio and his wife, Kimberly, I am alone here. However, from thinking about this phenomenon, as well as discussing the issue with Julio, I have realized that I have not failed to integrate into Myanmar social circles, but rather that I have been imposing an external image of what a social circle should look like upon my relationships with Myanmar people. Hanging out with work colleagues, going out to eat, going to the theater for some evening entertainment – those things are not rooted in Myanmar culture. There is a strict divide between work life and personal life.
I have learned a great deal of technical knowledge from Julio and the rest of the VCRD team this summer, but I feel that the most impactful lesson that I have learned is that we must sometimes let go of expectation, embrace ambiguity and a dash of chaos, and be flexible, because that is the reality of working with people. They are often unpredictable, even if in the most amazing of ways.