Sliding through echo chambers and August in Yangon

August by Mary Oliver

When the blackberries hang
swollen in the woods, in the brambles
nobody owns, I spend

all day among the high
branches, reaching
my ripped arms, thinking

of nothing, cramming
the black honey of summer
into my mouth; all day my body

accepts what it is. In the dark
creeks that run by there is
this thick paw of my life darting among

the black bells, the leaves; there is
this happy tongue.

But of course there are no blackberries or serene creeks in the heart of Yangon where I work. Quite a different world encapsulates me. First of all, it rains every day. In all of August, there were perhaps two or three days at most when Yangonites got to see any sun at all. This city, after laying low for decades of isolation and lethargy, suddenly wakes up and tries to make up for all the lost years. Entrepreneurs, private equity guys (they are usually guys), and the well-connected come back into the country that appears to be still stuck in the sixties and can hardly wait to get out of it.


This is what it makes it timely for the film director Baz Luhrmann to visit Yangon and host a private screening of his new film The Great Gatsby. The business community in Yangon could vaguely relate to the aspiration, energy, optimism and even the materialism of the roaring twenties. The upper middle class families eye on the lifestyle one step up. Those that have had a stronghold in Myanmar or are endowed with the right connections happily cash in on the new opportunities that come with the changing times.



At a different end of the spectrum, Yangon got a glimpse into the unseen, unheard communities in the city-scape through the first hand research of students from Pre-Collegiate Program and Kant Kaw. The students did qualitative studies of different pockets of communities in the city such as undertakers, construction workers, street children and commercial sex workers. It was also also a relief to note that children that sell flowers, gums and cigarettes at traffic junctions are not employed by any gang.

A keen observer commented that while students from Pre-Collegiate Program focus on more academic and intellectual insights distilled from research, Kant Kaw students, who are mostly from less well-to-do backgrounds from afar, focus on emotional side of things.  This means, Pre-Collegiate Program may produce smart alumni that return to Myanmar and still contribute to the process of nation-building in Myanmar but Kant Kaw produces leaders with empathy and compassion. In other words, leadership requires maturity and solid EQ. It’s not enough to be smart.


My new job still hasn’t handed me my business cards and I have felt strangely liberated living without these cards. In today’s Yangon where card-swapping occurs every other corner, I have come up with a matrix so that I can stay sane and feel genuine and honest about my relationships. This is how it goes:

Sanity Guide

Those in the circles represent people you enjoy spending your leisure time with. The turquoise square represents folks you will still maintain some sort of operational relationship with because you either have too profound shared history or anticipate certain future with them.

Examples of people that network to you include:

    • Folks that want an intro to someone or an organization and then ruin that relationship for you
    • People that want your time and advice but never follow up once they get through their problems
    • People that you feel short-changed with


And then there are people that are overtly mean to you. And that’s in a way relieving too. This group includes:

    • People that refuse to say hi to you in passing. That saves both parties five minutes of small talk since it’s clear that neither side particularly cares anyway
    • Those that have severely wronged you in the past and you can never be sure about the person on when the same behavior will return

Just some insomniac thoughts.

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