(Extracted from the book “When Global Meets Local – How Expatriates can Succeed in Myanmar” by Hana Bui. It is the first-time popular guidebook for expats on how to work well with local colleagues.)
There are stories about expats who have lived in Myanmar for a long time, i.e., five years, seven years or more, but who are still very “expat.”
A Westerner told me that he has a friend who organizes inbound tours for Europeans in Myanmar. This friend has lived here for five years but never has been to a local restaurant or a street food shop.
Another one shares about an American expat working in the economic development sector who was surprised to know that locals eat with their hands. The expat had been working here for years.
Those people seem very “expat”; they are alien to the Myanmar culture and people.
How can a person live in a country for years at a time and not know the basic “nuts and bolts” of the place where they live? Probably they only live in the “expat ghetto”.
Local professionals suggest expats mingle with locals more. Many expats do not spend time with local colleagues outside of the job. Sometimes it is good just to get together in groups. It would be great to organize monthly gatherings with locals and not talk about business; just use the time to get to know more about each other personally.
Unearthing or decoding the reality of a situation brings its reward.
Here is a funny story of a friend of mine who came from Europe:
He was curious about a kind of fruit with yellow colors, with a hard cover that looked like a hedgehog’s hide, and which had a unique smell.
He was too shy to try it when it was sold on the street, even though he is very cosmopolitan and has traveled and taught in more than a hundred countries in the world, including years in Africa.
Eventually, after trying it once, he enjoyed it very much! Now he even buys it to bring to friends.
It is durian! They like it, too!
You may miss out on lots of good things without an “audacious” mindset. It requires a bit of a daring attitude for many expats to blend into the local scene in Myanmar.
Further, learning the local language is one way to bridge the gap. At least knowing enough language to survive is helpful when necessary, and your local colleagues will be happy to see you make the effort to study Burmese.
“If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.” (Nelson Mandela)
Beyond any doubt, though, be prepared for being laughed at when you first utter some Burmese!
Hana Bui is an intercultural trainer and author. Her book “When Global Meets Local – How Expatriates Can Succeed in Myanmar” is the bestselling first-time guidebook for expats on how to work well with local colleagues.
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