Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Young blood: Myanmar returners make a splash

Thazin Wah – Bo to friends and customers, and her customers are always her friends – arrives for work at 7am and leaves at 11pm. As the owner and sole employee of her small Thai restaurant, Green Gallery, which opened last November on 52nd Street, just steps from Maha Bandoola Road, the hours are long but necessary, and they bring their own rewards.

For Thazin, the job is a dream beginning to take shape. After 14 years living under a secret identity in Thailand, in April 2013 the 28-year-old returned to her native Myanmar – a path many others have and will follow.

About 80 percent of the roughly couple million migrant workers in Thailand intend to return to Myanmar in the coming years, according to a December report of the International Organization for Migration. The promise of economic opportunity, social acceptance and – perhaps – the chance to contribute to the country’s renewal outweigh the risk still hanging over any venture here.

But when she left Balugyun, Mon State, at age 14, to stay with an aunt in Bangkok, Thazin didn’t look back.

“I thought I’d live in Thailand forever,” she said, despite the fact that for most of her time there she never told anyone where she was from. Instead she learned to speak English and Thai, still her strongest language, and held her tongue when even good friends made racist remarks about the perceived Burmese infiltration of their country.

“If Thai people know you’re Burmese, they fuck you up,” she said. “It hurt. I would say I’m from Bangkok. I was just waiting for my time.”

She got a job at an Italian restaurant, then at a Chinese one, then at a hotel, then at an English pub, working as service, reception and supervisor. Later she started selling crystals – the kind in which a custom three-dimensional image can be etched into the glass – to tourists. She also sold “genuine leather” wallets at night markets and T-shirts in the street.

“I did that for a long time,” she said. “But all the Thai people hate Burmese so much, I thought, ‘Why am I staying here? I want to do something for the Burmese.’”

Returning posed its own difficulties. Thazin’s exploratory trip to Yangon in March 2012 turned out to be a less-than-pleasant experience.

“I was so tired and I just wanted a place to rest and eat some good food, but you couldn’t find anything,” she said.

After returning to Thailand, she began to dream of the kind of oasis she’d been hoping to find but hadn’t. Then she began to think about building it herself, in the hectic, grease-curry-fuelled heart of Botahtaung.

She hadn’t actually worked as a chef before, but she enjoyed cooking for friends. And she’d noticed, too, that those around her had started taking a more positive view of Burmese people since Myanmar’s fortunes had risen.

One longtime friend, Laddawan Shomelor, had experience as a restaurateur and offered to teach Thazin to cook – Thai salads, curries and soups, from recipes passed down from her father.

“She told me her plans to open a restaurant in Myanmar,” Shomelor said, “but I didn’t take her seriously.” Until, that is, they started an informal weekend cooking boot-camp. That was when, Shomelor said, “I realised she meant business.

“I was sad, of course, because she was a really good friend moving away, but I also thought, ‘She can do it.’”

With photocopies of handwritten recipes in hand, Thazin moved to Yangon. She knew, however, that learning to cook wouldn’t be half the battle.

“I lived in a hotel for about five months, looking for a place every day,” she said.

Her mother would have preferred to see the daughter she named after a variety of orchid (the thazin flower is a de facto symbol of Myanmar) married with children rather than courting corruption as an entrepreneur, but nonetheless agreed to loan some money to help Thazin start a business.

But after running up a number of false starts – being shown unworkable places, agents not showing up and, one time, paying an agent’s fee only to be denied access by the landlord – as well as a hotel bill of K25,000 per day, Thazin worried she might run out of funds before she even found a place.

She stumbled across the white door of her current location one day while being shown another spot across the street. The owner happened to be a Mon also, from Mawlamyaing, and agreed to an initial one-year rental agreement.

Going for a country home atmosphere, Thazin had wooden chairs made, hung photographs of Aung San Suu Kyi and Myanmar people, and settled on a name – “Green” for the trees in Yangon and “Gallery” for the city as living history museum.

The restaurant opened in November. Thazin started out sleeping in the kitchen, like so many homeless busboys do, but in January she was able to move in with some friends. And after four months business is picking up. She is now hiring a couple of cooks.

Most days bring new, curious local customers and steady lunchtime regulars. Green Gallery has also become something of a hangout for young expats working or studying in Yangon.

“I want to see foreigners wearing longyis in here,” Thazin said. “I want Burmese to see that they don’t have to change their culture.”

Some days, she said, she meets new Burmese customers who look on with some hopeful amazement that a young woman like herself could establish her own shop. Other days, the cheroot-smoking restauranteuse with boyishly short hair and rolled-up shirt-sleeves is all too aware that her blossoming business doesn’t look quite like others on the block.

“I know it will take time. This year I just hope I can make the [restaurant’s] name and enjoy meeting the people who come,” she said. “I always knew I could do better than selling. I always told myself that. It’s Myanmar time. I came back for Myanmar.”

source: The Myanmar Times
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