Pressurised choices

Except probably for introverts with a steady job and without underlying health conditions in a comfortable lock down arrangement, this has not been an easy year.

My lock down experience has been both healing and growing. Crazy homesick for Yangon, separated from loved ones and physically alone, fending for myself here in London. With a ton of walking; so the new HAIM album is literally my quarantine summer anthem this year.

All this time in hand and a dearth of distractions make for a perfect storm for self-reflection … and overthinking of my life choices dating back to my college graduation year. Down the rabbit hole of the Quarantine Subconscious, I wake up at 5am these days when I’d rather stay asleep with questions like:

  • Is impact investing a hoax? Is climate-financing the new green washing? Is it too late? If so, should I be caring more about money?
  • Should I cut some slack with boys, or am I right to protect myself? Did I fold too soon when I could have just checked? Would I care without quarantine?
  • Would I have been happier as a suburban mom in the American South vs. my lonely quarantine existence in London with an expired Schengen visa?
  • How would my life be different if I had taken the offer to work for a hospital chain or a Fintech company close to family in Myanmar?
  • Have I been living my best life? Have I been true to myself?
  • AM I DOING ENOUGH?

This period has been healing because I started out the year with multiple deadlines and workplace anxiety, something I had not dealt with before. My entire team was given a formal redundancy notice in a pretty dramatic fashion to relocate to Mumbai (from London) if we wanted to keep our existing roles, a textbook example of a stress event. Working from home starting mid-March has been a blessing (in disguise) since it was becoming challenging for me to manage the workplace stress and I was already working out an arrangement with my supervisor to allow one day of WFH a week for three months (atypical in my old school team). The paperwork was already approved. I am thankful for these early weeks of the lock down for providing space and a gentler pace to heal.

The growth part comes later. Now that I have had a chance to recuperate and rest, and have sorted out my professional plans, I am finding the current circumstances suffocating, even as the U.K. authorities continue to relax the lock down rules with much controversy and public confusion. I share my spacious urban flat with a beautiful courtyard and a private outdoor space with a fairly new flat mate, lovely under normal circumstances but has a clinical germ phobia even before COVID-19 set in, which makes things a tad more challenging emotionally and mentally for both of us. I am stuck professionally since the team transition process delayed due to macroeconomic uncertainties. Most importantly, I am stuck in the lock down without my usual social and cultural activities I enjoy about London as a city, while increasingly becoming homesick since I have not had a chance to go back to Myanmar to see my folks.

Myanmar

The Myanmar government has been handling the situation much better than I expected, which is to say my expectations were low. I am concerned by the return of the draconian censorship rules, including Internet blackouts and arrests of journalists, critiques and activists. However, on the health front, the authorities seem to be tracing cases and imposing targeted lock down rules. The international flights have been grounded since March, with a strict three-week facility quarantine for those on relief flights. Education campaigns have been put out at least in dense metro areas. Due to a local basic manufacturing base, I have not heard major issues with PPE and sanitisers in Yangon. The reported COVID-19 cases are still under 1,000 in Myanmar. I would not be surprised if there is under-testing and under-reporting. At the same time, no Satellite images of mass graves like in Iran yet.

The retail businesses are recovering; one QSR business is back at 80%-90% of pre-COVID volumes, from a dip to 20% in early April. The stay-home practices have also opened up a slew of social media influencers. Many investors are seeing deals in the pipeline since businesses are branching out from banks in accessing both debt and equity capital. Deals are getting done – Alibaba & Wave Money and Ascent Capital’s debut investment into Frontiir during the quarter. The Myanmar government’s CERP (economic relief plan) to me reads like a joke with a lack of clarity but it is something. There was also a debt moratorium for the MFI industry but without clear guidance on a targeted end date, which increases the overall uncertainty and risks in the market – this gravely affects Bottom of Pyramid households. In summary, things are not great, but compared to what I remember from the Cyclone Nargis about 12 years ago, there is some sense of gravity and action from the authorities today.

Call

About five weeks ago, I received a phone call in the middle of my work day in London from my family in Yangon saying that my grandmother was at the 44, 29 blood pressure mark. Depending on your level of pessimism and basic medical knowledge, you could say she was only half alive or already half dead. Dialling into this family call to see my grandmother die was the *(grand)mother of all Zoom calls. She had been sick since March, and I then had a few days of window of opportunity to decide where in the world I could hunker down for the lock down, which I had estimated to last at least two months. I knew I would feel crushed by isolation and loneliness here in London without any immediate family members during the quarantine. I knew my grandmother’s situation was at the time 60-40 (60% chance of getting well again). Yet I decided to take that 40% risk of missing my grandma’s funeral – a decision I knew I would have to live with. As Margaret Atwood wrote, “I made choices, and then, having made them, I had fewer choices.”

Perspectives

I look in equal part amazement and estrangement at my colleagues (especially non-Black ones in these times) happily coupled up during the lock down, half-joke on team virtual drinks about not receiving their annual bonuses in time. And when they say COVID has put things in perspective for them, I could not relate.

For every person whose good fortune you look up to in wonder, there is someone suffering more than you are, too. There is always someone with less, and you are the person with better fortune in their eyes.

With my new found extra time, I started volunteering from my home as a Burmese-English interpreter for an ICE (U.S. Immigration and Custom Enforcement) legal case. It involved a Burmese (Chin) former child soldier, now a sushi chef in a Michelin kitchen, currently locked up in a jail making a plea not to be deported to the hands of his aggressors (the Myanmar government), and away from his serious partner in Chicago. I was shocked to find out that we were born in the same year. He and I have lived a little, hold different kinds of pain and unhappiness, and my college philosophy courses mind me it is near impossible to compare suffering and utility inter-personally. Yet I believe some joys and sufferings are more intense and systemic than others.

I’m not telling you to make the world better, because I don’t think that progress is necessarily part of the package. I’m just telling you to live in it. Not just to endure it, not just to suffer it, not just to pass through it, but to live in it. To look at it. To try to get the picture. To live recklessly. To take chances. To make your own work and take pride in it. To seize the moment. And if you ask me why you should bother to do that, I could tell you that the grave’s a fine and private place, but none I think do they embrace. Nor do they sing there, or write, or argue, or see the tidal bore on the Amazon, or touch their children. And that’s what there is to do and get it while you can and good luck at it.

Joan Didion

To make your own work and take pride in it

As for my counterfactual questions at dawn, only time will tell. However, if anyone asked me if I have been true to myself, you bet your ass that I have been – or I would not be wondering these questions to begin with. These are my choices reflecting my values, not guilt-tripped nor imposed, definitely not expected of me. May not have been the right decisions all along but they were the best decisions with the information I had at the time.

And that is good enough.

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