My fieldwork in Myanmar begins!

It has been a month since I started my fieldwork in early October. So far my life in Myanmar had been great! Other than fieldwork, I’ve had much fun travelling around town and meeting new people. Even though I’m starting to get used to the environment, I still find the new cultural experiences to be really exciting.

In my fieldwork, I have been observing the daily operation and ways of communication within the factory. Attending the meetings gave me a clearer idea of the workplace dynamic, but it was through chatting with the Chinese managers and Burmese staff that I learnt many interesting things. At first glance, there are quite a lot of stereotypes. The Chinese managers think the Burmese are kind, polite, ‘obedient’ and detail-oriented, yet too lazy , overly religious, and ruthless when it comes to protecting their own pecuniary interest. The Burmese staff on the other hand, think the Chinese are diligent, helpful, responsible and serious about work, yet too demanding, money-oriented, show insufficient respect for local culture, and not humanistic enough when it comes to managing staff and running their businesses.

I gathered some stories about disputes at the workplace. Despite the ‘obedient’ assumption of the Burmese people, there have been cases of direct complaint to the labour department about working overtime, disagreement about work and bonus arrangements, frictions about workers being late for work due to lengthy ‘buddha-worshipping’ time, as well as some minor sense of dissatisfaction regarding management style. It is interesting to observe the various ways in handling problems, and the legal culture of the Chinese and the Burmese as revealed in the way factory rules are enforced and complied with.

Since I have been teaching English in the factory, I have had ample of opportunities to develop relationships with the factory members. There are six Burmese Chinese interpreters in the factory, and although I did not get to talk to them in great detail, I think they play a big role as the bridge between the Chinese managers and the Burmese workers, and they not only act as just translators, but also assistant managers and mediators. As I commence formal interviews in a few weeks’ time, they should provide a lot of insight into the intercultural dynamics.

I’m look forward to the next stage of my fieldwork!

Pre-fieldwork Trip

I have just returned to Hong Kong after a short pre-fieldwork trip to Myanmar. The reason for this trip is twofold: to gain some understanding of the garment-manufacturing factory that I would be conducting fieldwork in, and to visit in person a university near the factory (called University of Pakokku) for seeking collaboration opportunities. It was a pretty useful trip and I would like to share some of my insights.

The garment-manufacturing factory is located in Pakokku, a town near the touristy and famous Bagan. It is quite a big factory: there are about 900 Burmese workers and 15 Chinese managers. The factory owner and all the Chinese managers had been very friendly to me, and for my coming fieldwork I have secured accommodation in the factory. After observing the factory for a while, one thing I noticed was that the Chinese managers didn’t really know much Burmese, and they communicated with the Burmese workers mainly through an interpreter (Burmese Chinese who are fluent in both Burmese and Mandarin), or through very simple words and body languages. I think I must not underestimate the importance of interpreters in shaping intercultural interactions.

I also visited the University of Pakokku (http://pakokkuuni.moe.edu.mm/), with the intention of hiring an interpreter from the university who is fluent in Burmese and English. After meeting the rector and department heads of the English and law department, they have agreed enthusiastically to assist me in my research. As I have only materialised my visit through personal connections since phone calls and emails didn’t work out, my impression was that Myanmar is still not very open to foreigners. How this may affect intercultural interactions is something that I’ll take into account.

Overall, I’m quite confident after the trip that the process of my fieldwork will be smooth. This factory will serve as a starting point and foundation of my data source, and I will try as hard as possible to seek other opportunities as well.

Why Chinese FDI in Myanmar

For decades, Western companies have been going abroad to expand their operation, but the emergence of Chinese foreign direct investment is a comparatively recent phenomenon.

The world witnessed the emerging economic power of both public and private Chinese companies. For many reasons including the need to adjust to rising costs, expand scale of operation, gain entrance to overseas market and secure natural resources, more Chinese companies than ever are venturing outside of their borders.

My research interest is formed as I noticed how Chinese manufacturing sectors are moving to foreign countries such as Myanmar, Bangladesh and Vietnam. After visiting Myanmar a few times, I had the opportunity to tour a Chinese-invested garment-manufacturing factory, and it was immensely interesting to me how the Chinese managers supervised and communicated with the Burmese workers.

It is possibly assumed by many especially the Western world that Chinese and Burmese culture, being both ‘Eastern’ and ‘collectivist’ cultures, share many similarities. But is it really the case? A series of uprisings and strikes in Chinese-owned factories in Yangon (the capital of Myanmar) seem to indicate there is more to this.

There are bound to be various issues of cultural differences and conflicts, and conflict-resolution may not always be achieved satisfactorily to restore trust in mutual relationships and expectations. There is a lot more to be discovered.