May Thant works as a receptionist at a popular backpacker’s hostel in downtown Yangon, Myanmar (Burma). She spoke to me in February 2016.
Can you start by telling me about your background?
I come from a very small town, near Yangon. After our matriculation exams, we have to go to other places if we want to continue our education. Our education system meant my options were really bad. I got good grades so I decided to come to Yangon, and attend a university here. I graduated from the Yangon Foreign Languages University, specialising in Chinese. But now I’ve forgotten almost all of my Chinese words [laughter].
After I graduated, I worked in a small company selling medicine for two years. I think this work didn’t improve my ability or my skills. I thought, ‘I can’t improve myself,’ during this time, so I changed my career and I came here.
[May gets up and welcomes a new visitor to the hostel.]
I’m always busy! This work is my family business. My Uncle shares the company with my boss, so I work at the family business. I really enjoy it here – I am really happy and feel successful here. I’ve been working here one year. In that year I’ve had many experiences from guests and I think I can improve my English skills here.
[The telephone rings. May answers in English and switches to Burmese.]
Do you think you will stay in this job a long time? What are your aims for the future?
Yes, a long time. I enjoy my job, for now. I’m planning to attend some more classes, like tourism, business management. I’ve already attended some classes and got a diploma. I think I will stay here for two or three years.
When I was a child, I really wanted to be an engineer. But when I finished school I didn’t want to be an Engineer. Back then I didn’t know what I wanted to be. I really didn’t know. But since working here I know; I want to be a tour guide, and I want to be a traveller.
There are many different racial groups in Myanmar. What does it mean to you to be Burmese?
It means my parents are Burmese and now I am Burmese. My grandparents are Burmese too, and my parents, and me. If my father was Shan, and my mother Burmese, I would be half blood. It doesn’t change my life to be Burmese… I’ve never thought about that before.
Most women don’t travel alone in Myanmar. How do you feel about that?
I feel many things about that. In Myanmar, women don’t travel alone, they travel with their family, and friends. They fear they are not safe to travel alone, so they don’t travel alone.
If I had the time, and enough money, I would travel alone. Because in traveling alone I wouldn’t need to discuss my plans with others; it is much freer. But here, most girls don’t travel alone. At least one or two other people go with them.
I’ve never travelled alone, but I would like to. I don’t worry about bad things happening. But I’d try to go to big towns, not small towns. Because here the men… [laughter]. Here I don’t feel safe to go to places like small villages or small towns. It’s a little bit more dangerous.
Do you feel safe in Yangon?
I feel safe in Yangon. But sometimes, at night, if I walk to my house, sometimes the taxi drivers will stop and talk to me: “Hey, girl, where are you going? What are you doing?” and I feel unsafe. But I walk quicker until I meet with other people, and I feel safe. I think that kind of thing happens everywhere.
Have you ever been threatened?
Here, the threatening is on Facebook and other [social media]. Most men don’t threaten in the outside world. It is mostly online. Most girls like posting their photos on Facebook, and some fake accounts copy their photos. People make changes using Photoshop and post them to another Facebook page. Often the pages are about naked women or something like that. Maybe the threats go further but I haven’t experienced threatening like this.
Most girls talk about this kind of threatening on Facebook. First there will be a private message, where they will discuss with each other like: ‘if you don’t give money, I will post your photos on this Facebook page.’ They threaten to post naked pictures made in Photoshop. It is blackmail. Sometimes they don’t want any money and they just post the pictures.
It is always someone they already have in their Facebook friends. Here, Facebook is very popular, and people think you can make friends very easily on Facebook. If you don’t know him or her outside, you just make friends on Facebook. Many people make friends on Facebook and never meet in real life. Facebook is very new here, maybe a year or a year and a half.
People use Facebook for online dating, too.
Yes, that is common. I really, really don’t like it. Because we don’t know about him or her exactly, it is not safe. It seems like Facebook is less safe than outside on the streets. [laughter]
What do you use Facebook for?
Yes. I use Facebook for information. Facebook is mainly used for work or political and economic information. So I use Facebook for information about our country and some facts about travelling.
Do you feel safe when you use Facebook?
No. But I only accept friends I know in the outside world; I don’t accept others I don’t know. I use Facebook very little. I normally don’t use Facebook, I just use Instagram because I like photography.
When you speak to people face to face, do you feel comfortable to say anything you want?
Here, it depends on our culture; we can’t always talk freely. For example, if you’re older than me, if it is just you and I, I can’t speak freely to you. It depends on your age. Younger people have to give respect to older people. We can’t speak freely to anyone we want. If you are younger, I don’t need to worry. I don’t need to give so much respect to you, so I can say what I want.
There are lots of differences between men’s and women’s lives. How has your gender affected your life?
Yes sometimes I think about gender, the gap between men and women. Sometimes if I want to travel to other places but it is not safe for travelling alone, women traveling alone, but for men they can travel alone. So I want to be a man.
Here, men’s lives are different from women’s.
Men are taught that women are for sex and cooking and children. But now, some educated women don’t think like this. Those women can do anything like a man and it is the same for them as a woman.
The majority of students at Yangon University are female. But it is harder for a woman to get a good job because everyone looks down upon women. They think women can’t do some jobs, that men can make decisions, women can’t.
There are some jobs that people say: “women can’t do that,” like driving and business. Very few women are engineers. There are big companies where the general staff are all women and the managers are all men. Women do accounting, though, mostly.
Teachers, accountants, they are mostly women. Most doctors are female, because they get better grades in high school so they had the chance to attend medical university. Most girls in our country are very hard working and they get to attend the medical university. But after they graduate they don’t want to be a doctor because the government will send doctors to really rural areas and they don’t want to go there. So after they graduate they don’t work as a doctor. They only want to work in this area, around Yangon.
They will go if it is Ayarwaddy region, Bago region, like this [near Yangon]. But they don’t want to go very far away. Some girls go to other places, but most really don’t want to go to other places like Rakhine and Chin States. They fear it is not safe to go.
Aung San Suu Kyi won the election last November. What are your hopes for the future of the country?
Now, the government has changed and this government really supports education and training. Maybe children can improve their skills. Aung San Suu Kyi really supports education: she will start by changing the education system. I voted NLD [National League for Democracy] in November. She’s the first time we’ve had a woman in power. We hope she can become president; our first woman President. She is a very good role model, especially for women. Most people love her, very much.
Some people love her because she’s Aung San’s daughter. Most people love her because of what she’s done. If she were someone else, she would still be successful. In my opinion, I don’t care about who she is, because it depends on what she’s done. She has a lot of experience and we trust her, because of what she’s done. She is now over 70 and she could rest at her age. But she doesn’t rest, instead she does so much for our country. She is not going to give up.
In part 2 of my interview with May Thant, we discuss sex, taboo, marriage and gender roles. Coming later this month.
This interview was conducted as part of a larger project named Burma Voices Project: Women of Burma, which began in August 2015