The Office

To balance out last month’s needlestick-themed post I’ve decided to try writing some lighter, less disturbing updates from the border, starting with an exposé on The (Burmese) Office.

There are no David Brent-like figures hovering around the desks at SAW[1] but some things are intrinsically familiar:

Caffeine-dependence. Water is almost always on the boil for coffee, partly because the 3-litre boiling apparatus takes at least 30 minutes to start heating it up. This thing is no benign British kettle – once ready, it has to be handled with extreme caution. A broken spout necessitates artful removal of the top lid and even more artful maneuvering of the metal cup to lift out the water, like lowering a bucket into a burning well, and the whole procedure requires a lot of concentration. When lost in morning brain-fog, there’s the ever-present risk of blistering drops and vapors, or – if you forget to unplug at the wall – being zapped by a rogue electric current.

Another effective way to wake up.

AM death trap

AM death trap

N.B. For budget reasons there’s no fridge and in the first few weeks I resigned myself to ingesting sickly sachets of 50% über-refined sugar like everyone else, which meant I would flip from a state of bleary-eyed hyperactivity into a diabetic coma by 10am. But then I discovered ‘Coffee Mate’ and instant espresso became the new fulcrum of my foggy morning ritual – I almost can’t remember what it’s like to suck down a take-away flat white with those caramel-tinged whorls of dense, creamy foam on top (almost).

Internet-dependence. When the router goes down there’s a spurt of extreme collective annoyance paired with a collective problem-solving routine that transcends all specificities of context and culture: turn modem off; wait impatiently for one never-ending minute; turn modem back on; repeat Steps 1-3; bash modem; inhale and exhale; call Internet provider; stomp around emitting loud groans; repeat Steps 1-3 and so on and so forth…

Procrastination. The kind (there are so many, sigh!) that comes from the combination of WiFi – working or not – and an ever-proliferating list of laptop-based Things To Do.

threefloatyfaces8

One sticky, feverish afternoon, when the office was strangely empty and quiet except for the overworked fans, one of my Burmese colleagues slunk over to my desk bearing a look of downcast shame and confessed she had been avoiding her list by streaming a C-grade Ashton Kutcher comedy online.[2]

I nodded soberly and heaved out the Burmese-English dictionary to look up the word. In an exchange of wry, heat-stroked grins – a moment of compressed identification – our office friendship was cemented.

Work-Life imbalance. In the same vein as being a dedicated doctor or a devoted cog in the machinery of international Human Rights, working at a Burmese migrant women’s CBO with a self-professed social mission is more a vocation than a job. This has its benefits – moral fuel, solidarity bonds, a firm reason to get out of bed in the morning – and its stressful sides.

The latter isn’t really comparable. At the moment I’m the only member of staff who isn’t a Burmese migrant, and it doesn’t take long to realise that the vague and flimsy boundaries between work and life in this situation are less a matter of choice, or are at least more difficult to alter, than for middle-class professionals working at an NGO or hospital in London (for example). For instance ­– glaring lack of employment options aside[3] – most of my colleagues have only limited legal status in Thailand and therefore can’t travel freely outside of Mae Sot let alone jump on a cheap airline every few months for a long weekend to unwind and “recharge”.

At least now, with Burma opening up, going back and forth over the border is becoming relatively straightforward. This means it’s possible for people to visit friends and relatives they might not have seen for over a decade. But to get to Yangon cheaply still involves a treacherous 20+hour overland bus journey, including a night spent parked on some winding roadside in the mountains – not ideal conditions for a relaxing mini-break.

On the upside, I think the intrinsic rewards here are more concentrated.[4] And from a feminist perspective, it’s more evolved, mainly because there’s a lot more work-life integration. Small kids squealing, drawing on the desk or playing on the floor during staff meetings is a natural feature of a workday (and a mere blip of distraction compared to being sucked into a Facebook newsfeed vortex). Colleagues prepare and eat lunch together sitting on the floor around a tiny, low-rise table; often someone will be frying something in the kitchen for an afternoon snack. There’s a twice-daily cleaning roster and homey remnants strewn all over the place, like a bag of fresh eggs or a box of nappies sitting on the shelf next to documents and office stationary. It’s sort of like an ideal, functional, grown-up share house – one based on teamwork and a common value system. Some of the staff even sleep there, in a small side room out the back.

This domestication of the workplace – the much-maligned blurred line between workspace and “homespace” – doesn’t seem to come at the expense of productivity, or professionalism. As far as I can tell there isn’t really a downside. It saves time and money (not to mention fossil fuels). It bolsters staff morale. It takes some of the everyday hassles that sap away concentration and energy levels out of that pernicious, untenable work/life equation which is so widely adhered to in the First World and which over time can render highly competent, keen-bean employees into teary, twitching, highly ineffectual office drones that eke out a 9-5 by loitering in the corridors, hiding in toilet cubicles, googling RyanAir specials and meditation courses and drooling onto their keyboards.

Office jokes. As the only one at the office who can’t speak Burmese (yet) it drives me nuts when everyone else spontaneously bursts into a ROFL giggle fit mid-conversation. And it happens all the time ­– sort of like working with a bunch of waggish, old hand British nurses making merry quips in A+E on a Friday night when everyone’s wading through chaos high on Styrofoam cups of tea dispensed by the trolley lady.

Over the past 3 months, through personal encounters and direct observations, I’ve come to the conclusion that Burmese migrants are a funny bunch: quick to laugh, good comic timing, a flare for teasing, gentle mockery, self-deprecation and deadpan delivery. I think part of it is adaptive trench humor – like that of Jewish and Irish comedians – in this case, sharpened over decades living in exile while a cold-blooded military dictatorship represses, attacks and bankrupts one’s homeland. The handful of political prisoners I’ve met, or that I’ve realized I’ve met, have been especially irreverent and chuckle-prone, not to mention entertaining, although I struggle to find the funny in some of their jungle/prison anecdotes[5].

With this in mind, the frustration of not being able to take part in office jokes is giving me a strong incentive for doing my Burmese homework.


[1] Social Action for Women

[2] who, in her defense, works full-time while studying a Community Development course and raising her 5 year-old son (i.e. is entitled to the odd Ashton moment now and then).

[3] e.g. because of not being able to speak Thai, not having a work permit or recognized qualifications, or because of having one’s education interrupted by being thrown in prison or forced into exile.

[4] As opposed to financial or other external rewards

[5] like the ones involving heavy artillery fire, or pranks played on hapless fellow inmates involving fake loudspeaker announcements that a family member had come to visit – more heartbreaking than hilarious!

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