In my life, I’ve been to some towns and some big cities … but never had I before come to realize the differences between them and understand why.

The other day I went out with my old schoolmates … They wanted to celebrate after one of them became the best male singer and the other, the king among the medical students who are to graduate in 2014.  And they wanted to hang out with me since I got back to my hometown, Mandalay, after my 5-month stay for SAT classes in Yangon.  I had coached the singer on the phone while I was away in Yangon (not that I’m an expert in vocal pedagogy).  Here’s how it went …

I left my house before 11 am on my motorbike, and reached the dainty restaurant, embellished with simple furniture and serving tempting food.  (I’ve been there before) It was a most appealing spot for a group of friends to get together for a meal.  There were 12 twelve of us altogether so we had to join tables without reservation.  The waiters were amiable when we ordered food.  We were the noisiest group in the restaurant but nobody minded us blather loudly as we had lunch in our own ridiculous way.  The food was delicious and the company of friends made it even tastier.  We sat there for about a long time, even after paying the bill.  Wonder how much the lunch cost?  It cost only K30,000, which is the most reasonable price for a meal of 12 people.

Then, we went around town just to kill time, sharing bikes.  It lasted for some time as we were riding slowly and spoke a lot on the way.  We made a pic-stop at an internet café, and since there weren’t enough computers free for our group, we had to share the computers.  (Most of the people from Mandalay don’t use the internet at home; they go to shops where they can get internet access.)  It was Ok with everyone there – from the service providers to the clients, including us.  The charge for one hour (at a computer) was only K300, so it was only K1,200 we spent on the internet because a computer was shared by 3.

Before going home, we stopped at one of the friends’ house.  Her mother was so hospitable; she gave us tea and we had a nice long chat with her.  She showed her daughter’s photos (i.e. our friend) from when she was little and we talked about a lot of things.  There were 12 of us, so it was more than 30 subjects we talked about.  It was really a nice day out, a low-key celebration with friends, and it was special indeed.  I’d be doing that soon before I leave town again!

Just yesterday, some thought came to mind.  What if such a celebration were in Yangon with the Yangonian friends? … Hmm, let me tell you what:

  1. Everything would cost more … much more.
  2. The hangout would be more tiring and less fun.
  3. And there wouldn’t be much to remember about it.

Why?

I was in Yangon for 5 months, which is almost half a year, and I came to know about the lives of the average citizen.  Although I stayed there with an elitist family, I had to go out as an ordinary student.  I had to public transportation, walked on foot, go to places and get things done myself and draw up my own budget.  I know how things are though I don’t know how it feels like for the people.

The buses for public transportation carry 60 passengers or more when they are supposed to carry 25.  The buses are mostly very old and not serviced; it sometimes feel like I’m on a roller-coaster when I’m on a bus.  Each ride cost K200 at the average, and we mostly need 2 or 3 rides to go from place to place.  The food there – as I always say – is “half the taste and twice the price”.  Most of the restaurants are not hygienic despite the modernity of the city.  To have a decent meal is to find a well-built or well-decorated restaurant but you can only get service with frowns (I don’t know the reason why).  There wouldn’t be much talk for the Yangon people keep things to themselves all the time.  And when friends hang out, only one can’t do the payment because of the high prices.  Everyone contributes to the bill so that no one goes penniless.  Consider it as K3,200 per head for a decent meal at a regular price.  Since neither bikes nor motorbikes are allowed on the streets of Yangon, we can’t scout for fun on our own bikes; it’s either walk a long distance or take the bus.

Hanging out with the dudes from Yangon would not go well in an internet café for everyone affords to use it at home.  Dropping by at a friend’s is not an option either; every family member’s at work and even on holidays, the hosts wouldn’t bother to have a bunch of kids at their home.  We’d have to go to either the cinema or the swimming pool.  At the swimming pool, it’s at least K2,000 per head for a swim.  For the cinema, no one would want to sit in a seat which costs less than K1,000.  After the movie or the swimming extravaganza, we’d have to go on to a drink or an ice-cram in a café.  Cafés in Yangon are more expensive than regular restaurants.  Why there wouldn’t be much to remember is nobody would be savouring every moment of the time together.  They’d have other things popping up in their mind all the time.

Another thing apart from hanging out …

This morning, got to the Jefferson Centre (the Mandalay branch of the US Embassy’s American Centre) where there are English classes and a reading room.  This was my first visit after I got back in town.  I had starting writing for the student newsletter of the American Centre in Yangon and I was asked to extend the news scope to the centre in Mandalay.  So, I was there to get some news.  I also heard they were converting the reading room to a library.  I asked them if books are available for loan and “no” was the answer.  And for the news, I was told of an even which happened over 3 months ago – that is so NOT newsworthy.  The activities there have been relent.  The presentation programme has come to a halt for there was no longer a presenter.  Now, they are doing some petty discussion programme with the few students they have.

This is so unlike the ambience of the American Centre in Yangon.  There, we have the Baldwin Library with a large number of active members, the Self-Access Centre where students do self-study, the Eleanor Roosevelt building where there are English language and other classes, 19 student clubs and weekly student activities and more.  I again came to wonder why the two establishments under the same authority.

BOTTOMLINES

The answers to these two situations – the hanging out and the library thing – are locality and the people.  Look at the locations and histories of the two cities.  Yangon has been around for more than 500 years.  And as Dagon (when it was a small town), it has been there for more than 2,000 years for the sacred hairs of the Gautama Buddha and some remains of 3 other Buddhas are entombed beneath Shwe Dagon Pagoda.  As for Mandalay, it has just celebrated its 150th birthday.  Yangon is near the sea and has a harbour and an international airport and everything necessary for international commerce.  Mandalay is the heart of Upper Myanmar but can only trade with some parts of Asia, not the whole world.  In area, Mandalay is only about a quarter of Yangon.

For some reasons besides the aforementioned, individualism has become the norm in Yangon.  Every individual stands for himself and does not usually intermingle with society.  Because of international trade, the city has become cosmopolitan.  People are more modernized and are more active in a lot of things.  And there is rapid urban sprawl which, of course, makes the town larger.  And the larger the city, the greater the living cost.  Life becomes tough and so do the people.  They have come to develop the metropolitan pride which makes them arrogant even to people from the second largest city (Mandalay) in the nation.  Despite such a pride, no one tends to have an affinity for another.

Thus, I came to both like and dislike the city of Yangon at the same time.  I like if for the advances in everything that it has.  But the people there are not the ones I can get along with very well.  Well, I want my hometown to be as developed and modern as Yangon.  However, I don’t think that is a good idea because if it were to catch up with Yangon, most of the bucolic surroundings, the amenable natures of the local people and more would have to sacrifice to the urban sprawl, the pollution and other bad consequences.

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