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.