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.


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!

1st vs 3rd World Expectations

After a bumpy start in Reproductive Health (ehehe), Ive been spending Wednesdays in the Surgical Department – a concrete block towards the back of the Clinic, to the left of the sea-blue plastic water tank.

Surgical Department

Thongs (flip-flops) of all sizes are heaped up outside the doorways in accordance with Buddhist shoe-removal etiquette. There is a 40-bed ward, two procedure bays, an outpatient clinic, a small, air-conditioned operating theatre and a staffroom (like all public hospital staffrooms) filled with stray chairs, unstable piles of notes, watermarked textbooks, empty bottles of Coke and Red Bull and a PC that looks like a grey rock stuck to a desk. This one also has a litter of indifferent kittens huddled in the base of the bookshelf with an entourage of fleas – less familiar, although no more disturbing than some of the things I’ve stumbled across on top of NHS staff lockers.

Entering a surgical inpatient ward barefoot is a disorienting sensation. After two or three times you start to get used to it, and to the curry bowls and green banana bunches everywhere, the cats (graduated from the bookshelf) and the patients lying in rows on wooden beds, all in the one room, with relatives mingling in the aisles. It’s a large, airy space, like how I imagine makeshift war hospitals might look like, with missing ceiling tiles and noise from a lone TV buzzing in the background.

Most of the admissions are for treatment of conditions like infected ulcers and burns and chronic cellulitis, or for post-operative care following on-site hernia and hydrocele repair. There are also occasional swathes of young men presenting with severe penile infections caused by unsterile injections of coconut oil into the shaft. How word hasn’t got out yet that this is a bad idea, I don’t know.

In the outpatient clinic I’m paired up with one of the medics, a Karen man who’s been studying or working at the Mae Tao Clinic for the past thirteen years. Together we assess patients with an array of wounds, work injuries, dog bites, abscesses, sprains, lacerations and lumps, mostly in the neck, breast and groin. They tend to stream through the door, one by one, in either a light trickle or a patient tsunami.

One young man walked in the morning after accidentally mangling his index finger with a machete while cutting down stems in a field (or something). He was joking around with his friend and seemed to have no trouble accepting the fact that there was a bloody stump where half a finger used to be – not something stitches could fix.

I thought back to the last severed finger I had come across, in a London A+E a few months before. A middle-aged woman had stuck her hand through her neighbour’s letterbox and had one of the tips bitten off by an overly zealous housedog. What happened next was difficult to follow. She called for help and somehow 3 friends appeared and managed to sidestep the dog, retrieve the fingertip and put it into the neighbour’s freezer, directly on ice (this is the wrong thing to do btw – readers take note!). Then when they arrived at the triage desk, bewildered and flushed, they realized the finger was still in the freezer and the ambulance had to turn around and go back for it, sirens blazing.

More drama ensued. To cut a long story short, my whole day was taken up with this finger, not least because while I was on the phone arranging an urgent referral to the plastic surgeons at a specialist hospital in the unlikely event they could somehow reattach it, the wide-eyed patient and her not-so-helpful but well-meaning posse jumped the gun, presumably in a fit of collective anxiety, and raced out the door without telling anyone, without clear instructions or a trackable mobile phone. And they forgot to take the finger. Again.

I remember wrapping the poor, frostbitten thing in a shroud of sterile gauze and noticing it looked very dainty and well tended-to. A perfect nail painted an inviting shade of coral, with a glitter sheen.

It would make sense that First World fingertips get more attention than the ones on the Thai-Burma border (except when they’re in the freezer or on a hospital desk). The loose phenomenon is one of Adaptation  – of priorities, expectations and distress levels falling in line with the resources at hand (ba-doom).

This is something that’s been on my mind a lot since moving to the edge of one of the least developed parts of Asia, where I happen to find myself spending a lot of spare time reading articles and blog posts related to current debates on the connection between happiness, expectations, and reality. Like this one: Why Generation Y Yuppies are Unhappy. And this one: Fuck You. I’m Gen Y, and I Don’t Feel Special or Entitled, Just Poor.

Some incipient thoughts on the psychology of 3rd world expectations:

There is a undoubtedly a positive side. Deprivation can bring out remarkable levels of human resilience (from experience, the converse is also true). And even observing it can instill a sense of perspective that is difficult to maintain in conditions of saturated affluence. Almost every morning at the clinic, often while fumbling with a cold thermos filled with mixed fruit frappe, I walk past another young man with both arms missing, likely an old landmine injury. Things like that make you remember – or realise – what matters. Fingertips and spilt fruit frappe don’t make the list.

There is also a disturbing side – the apparent resignation, or passive acceptance of a miserable status quo. Unlike a distal phalynx, the penis is a near-universally revered and undeniably useful appendage. Yet some of the young men who wander over to the procedure bay for their daily dressing changes seem almost resigned to the fact that theirs looks like it’s about to drop off. Maybe it’s just because I can’t read their anxiety, or maybe they don’t understand the potential long-term consequences. Maybe on discharge they’re planning to go out and start an awareness-raising/prevention campaign, with flyers and street theater, to alert other men in the community to the dangers involved.

It’s hard to tell.