Yangon Is My New York

I remember reading the Great Gatsby at school. A slow, nauseating slog which was perpetually fixated on “the green light”. When finally my exams were over, the book was quickly flung into the furthest, dustiest corner of the school book cupboard – whatever fleeting interest I had had, had been exhausted faster than the bootleg alcohol at one of Jay Gatsby’s lavish parties. And then shortly before I first worked in Myanmar in 2013 the trailer for Baz Lehrman’s film version was released. In a sparkling instant, my monochrome sentiment towards the book exploded into brilliant colour. Shortly afterward, I purchased a paperback copy and boarded a plane to Yangon.

Finding myself in a taxi – something I had not experienced very frequently until that point – I stared wide eyed through the windows while the heavens opened and drenched the old gritty apartment buildings and the scaffolding that now forms the skeletons of glistening condos. Yangon was a boom town – the country opening up to the Western World only a few months before had everyone clamouring for a slice of the action. And I was the wide-eyed Nick Carraway stumbling into the party. I sipped gin and tonics by the pool in the British Club and on the veranda at the Governor’s Residence, cocktails at fancy bars in the colonial quarter of town and imagined myself in London or New York or Paris; some glamorous city that at one point had been swimming in new money, which young, wide-eyed men and women were more than willing to soak in. Yangon was my New York.

Quickly making friends with locals and expatriates alike, I found myself rubbing shoulders with gem dealers and pearl farmers, English teachers and engineers, aid workers and ambassadors. Perhaps I dabbled in some scandal. Perhaps I enjoyed myself a little too much. Maybe now I find myself becoming increasingly jaded by some of the people I encounter and the present zeitgeist. But back then I was young and happy and on an adventure.

Temples in Myanmar

Sule Pagoda: a landmark I passed regularly on nights out in Yangon.

Years later, as direct a result of the friends I made on those socially lubricated evenings in Yangon, I would find myself in the Liberian jungle, waking up to my alarm tone: Taylor Swift’s Welcome to New York. That song really resonated with me – that even though I was in the middle of a jungle, getting my hands dirty in a major humanitarian crisis which was as far removed from the Big Apple as I could get, the thoughts and feelings were the same as the young adults who find themselves in a new city and are making their own life for themselves. Not only did the song echo the emotional realities of my move to Liberia and aid work, but also that of my first time in Yangon.

To have that experience; one where your life is in a transformational period, where you are growing up, and making your own mistakes, and taking control of your future is immensely valuable for many young people. A rite of passage in some ways. And not necessarily on the other side of the world. But a moment in time where you say, this is my life, these are my dreams, this is who I want to be and this is how I’m going to make it all happen.

For me, I look back at those life decisions I made back in 2013, what I wanted to achieve and what kind of person I wanted to become. In many ways I’ve accomplished what I set out to do. I ended up in aid work, I ended up working in Myanmar longer term, and I found myself living a life I was happy with. In retrospect, I’m reassured by the fact I achieved what I set out to do, and even though now I’m enjoying where I’m at and not planning far ahead, when the time comes to start planning the next steps in my life and career, I know I’ll be able to follow them through to conclusion.

The remaining question is where or what is your New York? What do you want to do with, not your life, but the next moments in time? No one can plan their life from start to finish, but that’s a good place to begin. Where are you going? Who do you want to become? And how will you go about that?

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