Earlier this week I had phone calls from two friends, both now working in countries where they were not born, trying to acclimate to a new language, new culture, new environment; the whole works. Since I pretty much did the same thing nearly twenty years ago, I can relate to their situation, although the obstacles and struggles that these two young men have faced pale in comparison to what I had to adjust to when I moved from the United States to Thailand.
The first caller was Yan Naing Soe from Myanmar. I met him about five years ago when he was a teenager working at that Minthiha teashop in Mandalay. He always struck me as a bright, personable kid with poise, someone who would do well for himself if given the opportunity. But with only a sixth-grade education, his options were limited. He saved his meager salary from working long days at the teashop and used some of the money to study English when he had free time in the evenings. He left the teashop earlier this year to take an overseas job in Malaysia. Before he left I asked him if he felt scared to make such a move. “Yes,” he laughed. “I don’t know what will happen.”
But so far, so good. Yan Naing Soe is working for a landscaping company in the Kuala Lumpur area, “cutting lots of trees” and working in the steamy outdoors. He gets Sundays off, which is a better deal than when he was working at the teashop and had no days off. He’s also making a higher salary, which I don’t doubt he’ll be saving and wiring home to his mother who lives near Bagan in Nyaung U. He sounds happy and content in his new home, working with a handful of other young Burmese men. I hope that I’ll see him again soon, probably in Malaysia next time.
My other “foreign” friend is Chiet from Cambodia. He is back working a construction job in Thailand for the second straight year. This time around he is working at a construction site about an hour outside of Bangkok, in Pathum Thani province. He gets two days off work each week. Well, sometimes. The work schedule is erratic and in recent months he and the other workers have had to put in extra hours on the weekend to make up for any days that were rained out. Chiet is making only 280 Thai baht per day (less than US$10), but it’s still a higher salary than he got working jobs as a welder and security guard in Siem Reap. I hadn’t seen him since I was in Siem Reap earlier this year, but he came to visit me at my bookshop last week during a break from work. He’s still the same sweet and goofy kid that I’ve known for twelve years, but gaining confidence and experience. He’s learned a bit of Thai during his time here and he gets a kick out of trying to speak the language with me.
I thought again of my two friends when I read an editorial by Charles Blow in the New York Times last week. He was discussing a Republican senator in the US who did not support extending unemployment benefits past the current limit of 26 weeks. The Republican philosophy seems to be that helping people does them a “disservice” and unemployment benefits should be capped. But as Blow pointed out, this unemployment “safety net” is more than just a “handout” for many people, especially in these bleak times. Here is one excerpt from his editorial:
“Whereas I am sure that some people will abuse any form of help, I’m by no means convinced that this is the exclusive domain of the poor and put-upon. Businesses and the wealthy regularly take advantage of subsidies and tax loopholes without blinking an eye. But somehow, when some poor people, or those who unexpectedly fall on hard times, take advantage of benefits for which they are eligible it’s an indictment of the morality and character of the poor as a whole. The poor are easy to pick on. They are the great boogeymen and women, dragging us down, costing us money, gobbling up resources. That seems to be the conservative sentiment.”
Of course the dire unemployment situation and the perception of “poor people asking for handouts” is not just unique to the United States. A lot of people, most people in fact, want to work or need to work, but either can’t find a job or can’t find one that pays a living wage. Here in Southeast Asia, the meager employment prospects in many countries has caused an exodus of people — such as my friends Yan Naing Soe and Chiet — who have found higher-paying work in other countries.
No, these people are not lazy and like the growing legions of out-of-work Americans they aren’t looking for handouts either. They just want to be able to earn a decent living and help their families. I agree with another thing that Blow wrote in his editorial: poor people are some of the hardest working people I have ever known.
I think about my own situation here in Thailand and consider myself very, very lucky. Not just because I’m living in a country that I love, but also because I’m now in a situation where I am self-employed and able to earn a sufficient salary for my needs. But if I was living back in the United States I shudder to think what I would be doing for a job. Would a company hire a middle-aged man like me? Let’s see; I have experience managing retail businesses (CD stores and bookshops) and also as a journalist. But those are not exactly high-demand professions nowadays. Would I be able to scrape together enough money to open my own retail business again? And if so, would it be able to turn a profit in this unpredictable, portable, online age? These are scary times and I fear they are only going to get scarier.