This is the story of my fortuitous “entrance to the field” as an anthropologist-in-training. The trope of the social scientist intent on long-term, embedded fieldwork navigating myriad practical and cultural challenges is long-established in discipline folklore. Nearly all pre-fieldwork seminars held by PhD students undertaking traditional ethnographic research at my university feature discussion, sometimes cursory, sometimes at length, of “settling into” the field for a few weeks or months at commencement of research. During this time the student finds somewhere to live, gains access to initial informants and learns the lay of the land.
Urban field sites can present different challenges to rural ones. In my first field site, suburban Yangon, finding cheap accommodation is a challenge, as is trying to co-reside with local residents who do not speak English. Clearly differentiated international visitors are rapidly funnelled into the Facebookverse of expat apartments, copiously high rents and cosmopolitan boat parties. Due to the hundred-year old yet still current Household Registration law, residing with a local family is illegal under a tourist VISA and requires approval from local authorities in other circumstances.
This blog post tells of how I managed to obviate most of these challenges: it is a tale of good luck, of fortuitousness and friendliness. It is a story of how, twenty-four hours after arriving in-country, I had a place to live, people to talk to and anthropological opportunities right at, indeed within, my doorstep. I write it to encourage other anthropology students preparing for fieldwork in urban centres unknown: serendipity still exists if you are open to it.
I arrived at Yangon Airport in February 2016 at 11:00PM. Tired, weak and hungry, I hailed a taxi at the airport with an Italian traveller I knew from the plane and headed downtown. After dropping off my companion, I climbed the stairs to my chosen hotel close to Sule Pagoda, approached the front desk, heartbeat fortified from the ascent, mind relieved at the prospect of a good night’s sleep— only to be told there were no vacancies. This story repeated itself for the next two hotels I checked, until finally, past midnight, I found a vacant dormitory bed at the Okinawa II guesthouse.
Curling up and falling asleep, I was pathetically woken a mere two hours later by a cacophony of drunken snoring. Even with earplugs the noise was so pervasive, so searing, that I simply couldn’t drift off. Eventually, after failing to encourage my sleep impulse to triumph over the aural wall of backpacker spit, I capitulated and wandered downstairs to check my email. Mosquitos attacked my bare legs and arms and rats darted across the floor in the gloom.
With the first rays of sunlight, I packed my Burmese textbook, notepad and pen and headed out into the city. I would not let this rather ignominious first evening upset my mojo.
Wandering directionless through the sunrise happenings of downtown Yangon; deliveries, emboldened stray dogs, enterprising tea shops and ravens, pigeons, more rodents, my stomach rumbled and I cast about for food. I saw through a glass window what appeared to be a tea shop or restaurant doing brisk business. At first I walked past, not really considering it; I wanted to get some street-side fare. But for some reason I turned back, walked in and sat down.
Maybe it was the pizza slices I could see resting peacefully inside a cabinet, alluring even at 6AM. For a Gen-Y Australian, pizza has real, if strange, power.
I sat in the tea shop practising my Burmese and observing my fellow patrons. A motley variety of customers were passing through, ordering pizza, rice, noodles, parata, pudding and other eclectic fare. Then I felt a hand on my shoulder.
“Your Burmese is very good,” a voice said in my ear.
I turned around awkwardly and saw a small Burmese man dressed in sports gear – including sneakers, sweat bands and a tennis bag – smiling widely at me, eyes glinting.
“Oh, it’s not that good,” I replied.
“No, it is,” the man continued, sitting down beside me. “How long have you been in Myanmar?”
“Just a few hours, actually.”
The man introduced himself as Zaw Oo and explained that he was a tennis coach meeting some contractors on business at the tea shop. After talking about my ignominious evening at the hotel and some introductory pleasantries, he asked me pointedly if I enjoyed tennis.
“Sure, it’s fun,” I replied. He nodded slowly.
“I tell you what,” Zaw Oo said, “you stay here for one hour, and then I will come back and show you an apartment I am renovating.”
Before I could think and signal my intentions either way, Zaw Oo’s business partners arrived and he left with them to settle deals unknown. Was this a good idea, I wondered? I could get up and walk away now – and not be murdered. But really, to do so would betray such a dismal mistrust of strangers that I would forever be ashamed.
No, I would stay. An hour of Burmese vocabulary passed.
“Luke!” Zaw Oo shouted when he returned to the teashop. “Come on, let’s go.”
And so off we went, zigzagging across the streets; me trying to keep pace as the sprightly old man with sinewy tennis calves regaled me with his life story above the traffic.
Zaw Oo was born in 1949 and lived in downtown Yangon until 1967. He was the eldest of ten in a wealthy family, but after socialist policies were adopted in 1962, their business slowly diminished year after a year. Zaw Oo’s reference points for these five years all come from the tennis world: what brands were available, then unavailable, the inflating prices of strings, racquets and balls.
When Zaw Oo turned eighteen he decided not to be a burden on his family any longer and strike out on his own. He set his targets on Bangkok, made his way to the border, crossed and started a new life. He hasn’t lived in Myanmar since.
He was back in Yangon at this time organising the renovation of his family’s old properties, of which there are several, and staying at the largest one near Kandawgyi Lake. He explained the situation as we walked there.
“I didn’t know what to do with this property, it is on the rooftop. I do not need the money, I am retired. I want to do something good. Then my friend suggested; why don’t you open a hostel for women? I offer girls who are alone cheap prices to stay and do some good deeds.”
When we arrived Zaw Oo showed me around and the tenants stared at me incredulously. I learned their names and occupations: a seamstress, teacher, nurse, market sellers and a maid. After these awkward introductions, we went into a very large, empty room on one side of the building. Zaw Oo raised his eyebrows and pointed through a large glass door. From the balcony there was a perfect view of the Shwedagon pagoda across the tree tops, glimpses of Kandawgyi Lake between flowering tree branches and flights of circling birds moving from tree to tree.
Zaw Oo pulled up a table on the balcony and invited me to sit down and eat.
“I think there is a reason we met in the teashop today,” said Zaw Oo. “Your handwriting is very good. You are researching Burma. You may have been Burmese in a past life. And I think we made merit together at that time.”
The conversation continued at length on Buddhist philosophy, the history of Burma and general cultural differences between Asia and the West. Zaw Oo had seen a lot of the world and had many stories and connections in the country. It was all very interesting. Then, as the afternoon turned to evening and we dined on post-curry mango, Zaw Oo made an offer.
“I am going back to Bangkok in five days. So, you can stay here if you like, for as long as you want,” he said simply.
“How much would the rent be?” I asked.
“Let’s not talk about money,” he replied.
“Well … okay then.”
I had my bags delivered from the guesthouse and watched the twilight sky redden then fade behind the Shwedagon. Zaw Oo told me stories of working at the Bangkok Post, with the United States’ DEA during the 1980s and about his obsession with aviation modelling. With the sun’s departure however, given I was surviving on very little sleep, I decided to turn in.
“Sorry, but I’m very tired,” I said. “So, um, where should I sleep?”
“Well, there’s only one bed, so you’ll need to sleep with me,” replied Zaw Oo.
How on earth did I find myself in this situation? There was nothing for it, so I snuggled down under the mosquito net. Thankfully Zaw Oo didn’t snore; nor were his motives ignoble. I woke to naan bread and beans, stories of 1960s Rangoon and a bout of tennis at the courts across the road. We immediately organised a new bed for me, I decorated my room with Burmese language posters (“Vegetables,” “Office Equipment”), stood back and exhaled.
This whole fieldwork thing was going to turn out alright after all.
And that is the story of how I came to share an apartment in Yangon with six Burmese women less than twenty-four hours after arriving in the country. Four months on I continue to rent the rooftop, speaking Burmese and undertaking fieldwork in the surrounding area. I often come home and startle a housemate furtively using my shower; they run out of my room dripping wet with awkward smiles. I am getting to know their stories, troubles and pleasures. Zaw Oo visits every eight weeks or so.
Some entrances to the field are easier than others, and whether I was Burmese or made merit with him in a past life or not, I am deeply thankful to Zaw Oo for his kindness and generosity.