Saturday, March 9, 2013

When Stereotypes Get Blown Out of the Water

 Solomon was our regular taxi driver (for a year) in Ethiopia. He became my good friend.  My first friend in Ethiopia, actually.  He gave me a sense of being OK and normal at a time when nothing felt normal to me.  By the end of the year, we could spend an hour chatting, flipping between Amharic + English.  He educated me on a country, on language, on culture.

When you're an expat living in a developing country, it's normal to have household help. Well, not only is it normal for expats to have help around the house, it's normal for many locals to hire staff, too.

As I was finishing up a chapter in the eBook I'm writing called "Moving to Myanmar," my friend, L, pointed out that expats shouldn't make assumptions that the staff they hire are uneducated.  He mentioned that their driver has a degree in geology.  L's story reminded me of a Yangon taxi driver I met a few months ago who had his degree in physics.

In fact, if you take a taxi in any big city within the US - and probably many other countries - it's likely your driver will be an immigrant. And it's not too uncommon to find out the taxi drivers were professors or police chiefs or teachers back home. Learning this information has sometimes left me thinking, "Well, there went your dreams of moving to America and thriving!" But maybe that isn't an accurate judgment...

My friend, KP, who is Myanmar, wishes expats/foreigners didn't think that locals were uneducated.  And he's right. According to UNICEF, the literacy rate in Myanmar is 92%.  (According to this article, 14% of US adults are illiterate.)  Our housekeeper has lived abroad and studied nursing.  She also speaks two languages fluently and can communicate easily in another two or three.  I know of a nanny in town who used to hold down a corporate job, but she wanted more flexible hours and realized she preferred working with children. She figured out she could actually earn more money as a nanny for an expat than in her corporate job.

In Myanmar, it seems that even if you have a professional degree, it can be difficult making the kind of income that people holding the same degree in the west would make.  I have a lovely friend here who's an architect/engineer, but certainly doesn't make the sort of money she could in North America/Europe/Australia.  I recently mentioned that to her. Her reply was that she couldn't dream of leaving Myanmar because of her husband.  (And why should she?)

This week, the husband's company driver assigned to us told me he has a law degree.  I was shocked. Firstly, I thought he was about 20, not 27. Secondly, he wears skinny jeans and has funky side-over colored punky-like hair (not exactly the normal lawyer attire).  Lastly, it was hard for me to fathom why he'd drive a car for an NGO instead of practice law.  He explained that his father died recently and he's the oldest son. He needs to take care of his family and makes more money driving than he would as a lawyer (or perhaps a young lawyer starting out). He also shared he happened to enjoy driving, that he finds it calming and relaxing (miraculous in the Yangon traffic!).

I've been humbled by these conversations and reminders this week.  Probably like lots of people, I hold assumptions (incorrect assumptions), that if you have a certain type of job, it may be because of lack of opportunity to access a certain level of education.  How snobby of me. (And I don't think of myself as a snob.)  Not only is it snobby, really, but also unfair. Because, though sometimes that judgment may be correct, it also can be completely wrong.

The fact is, there are glaring inequities in our world. How fair is it that a highly educated professor from - oh, say Pakistan - cannot obtain a professorship in the UK.  How fair is it that a physicist in Yangon can't get his foot in the door in any national companies, let alone international companies operating in Myanmar. And how fair is it that a young lawyer earns more money driving around a little expat family in Yangon than practicing law.

And...who's to say there's anything less important about being a driver than a professor.  Or a lawyer.  Or a physicist. 


  1. Becky, there is an assumption in the USA that people are their professions, it's a job and there are many reasons one may work a certain job. I think that's why people should travel, so they can open their minds to many things. Thanks for writing about this.

    It's why we should treat all people with the respect we would give anyone that we hold in high esteem. I try to give that to everyone, until they give me reason to move on from them. We all have stereotypes...I wish it wasn't so, but it's lovely to hear when one recognizes their own shortcomings and wants to share it with others, hoping to help them, too!

    Thanks for this thought-provoking post.

    1. Thank you, sweet Indigene for your thoughts. :) It's easy to get surprised by people, really. None of us are as one-dimensional as we think. ;)

  2. An honest post :) I'm Thai, Myanmar's neighbor. Thailand has a huge difference between the rich and the poor and we have some kind of thinking set about immigrants from Myanmar or Cambodia too. I think part of this comes from all the news about crimes committed by people from countries we consider poorer than us (which is a misconception but you know that people tend to believe in their thoughts rather than the truth)

    I have known people who graduate from famous school and would earn a lot of money if they want but they choose to live simple lives and be content with it. Some studied in one field but ended up working in completely different field. I guess it depends on what they think would suit themselves best in each period of their lives. And those who don't care much about all the stereotypes will be happiest :)

    1. Hi Pavinee - thank you for your thoughtful comments. :)

      I think you're right about people who don't care too much about the stereotypes will be happiest. :)

      Thank you for coming here today!

  3. I've recognized individuals who move on through well-known college as well as might generate lots of money when they would like however they decide to reside easy life and become quite happy with this. A few analyzed in a single area however wound up employed in different area. I suppose this will depend on which these people believe might match on their own greatest within every amount of their own life. And people that do not treatment a lot regarding all of the stereotypes is going to be most joyful.
    lol elo boosting

  4. i was just browsing along and came upon your blog. just wanted to say good blog and this article really helped me. 


Messages that are negative or mean or hurtful or political will be deleted; so play nice. This is meant to be a happy place. :-)