Somewhere on the edge of Yangon, Myanmar some children speaking a variety of languages are playing in a pool.
Two women sit watching the children play. Both are Wellingtonians, living in Myanmar where their husbands work, getting used to bringing up children in a culture far removed from their own.
It’s the life of expat families, where having a driver is a given and English speakers are in the minority.
Former Karori resident Libby McKinnon has been in the country a little more than a year.
She moved to Myanmar in October 2013 with her husband, Carl Allwood, and two children Arabella, 6, and Henry, 4.
“We had been living in our house in Karori for a long time. We thought if we were going to have a change they were at a great age to do it, so why not,” McKinnon said.
The couple left a comfortable home and Carl’s job as a lawyer for Spark. Carl started work as a legal counsel at Ooredoo, a telecommunications advisor.
Though the idea of raising children in a new place was exciting, McKinnon said she had to get used to the open sewers, wild dogs in the street, the sheer number of people, and the concrete jungle that is Yangon city.
“I had no idea what it was going to be like. My experience of Asia had been Singapore, Hong Kong and Taiwan, which are very different from Myanmar,” she said.
“We flew in and we saw the original airport building and I thought, ‘Oh my goodness, where have we come to?”‘
Because of the extreme heat, the family opted to live in a serviced apartment with a pool. But rent in Myanmar is not cheap and they pay more than $7000 a month for a home that looks like New Zealand social housing, but with a pool.
“The rents here are horrific,” she said. “For what we pay in rent for a place that was built 15 years ago, we would get a palace back in Wellington. It would be amazing.”
The combination of cheap labour and blame being put on Westerners for any car accidents means McKinnon does not drive, instead relying of her husband’s driver.
Her poolside companion, Shelley Buttenshaw, also has access to a driver, but relies on taxis much of the time – an interesting experience in a country with very few safety laws, where a deck chair can pass as a car seat.
“I find it distressing at times as we are so safety conscious in New Zealand,” Buttenshaw, a former Wainuiomata resident, said.
The stay-at-home mother moved to Myanmar in March with husband Richard and their three youngest children, Chris, 18, Sara, 12, and William, 9. Richard began a sales job, also at Ooredoo.
“Moving to Myanmar was a little daunting. I didn’t know how I would cope with the poverty and huge gap between the haves and have-nots.
“I still find this hard, as anyone who has a house, electricity, running [particularly hot] water and a toilet is in the ‘have’ category,” she said.
The tidy Kiwi message most New Zealanders have grown up with does not apply in Myanmar, where rubbish is dumped wherever. The streets are dirty and the tap water is not drinkable.
“I have learnt to breathe shallowly and not to look too closely at the things in gutters and on the side of the road,” Buttenshaw said.
“I can go for days and then I see a distressing sight I have no control over and I retreat to home for a while. We do what we can to help, but the needs here are so huge and extensive that it gets a bit daunting.”
Despite the dirt and rundown streets, McKinnon and Buttenshaw agree Myanmar is a safe place to live.
“Having kids here has been a very positive experience. Myanmar people love children, so they are welcome everywhere and made a big fuss of,” said Buttenshaw, who homeschools her children.
The two families are among an estimated 120 New Zealanders living in Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city and former capital.
Every month more foreigners arrive in Myanmar to try their luck in what is considered by many the 21st century’s “wild west”. As with New Zealand’s 1860s gold rushes, people arrive hoping to make their fortune.
Buttenshaw said that new expats arriving in the country became a vital connection to home.
“When you don’t speak the language, having meaningful relationships is difficult, so the expat community is really important.
“We have New Zealand friends and hearing a Kiwi accent is wonderful. We pick each other’s brains for places to go, to shop and to find necessities, which is a huge help,” she said.
Myanmar law requires foreigners to do a visa run out of the country every 10 weeks, and many take the opportunity to visit more modern Thailand.
As Myanmar becomes attuned to the comforts of modern civilisation, there has been a move away from traditional clothing and the social street eating and living that has existed for thousands of years.
“Being in Myanmar right now is pretty interesting because we are watching, and participating, positively and negatively, in the transition of the nation into the modern world,” Buttenshaw said.
“Sadly, in the time we have been here the more negative sides of Western culture have slipped in. The young people are dressing in modern clothes rather than their beautiful traditional dress and hang out at the malls.”
McKinnon said that with the influx of Westerners had come the introduction of a new way of living.
“When we got here, expats were more of a novelty. When we took the kids to the zoo, there would be people stopping them and taking photographs. That doesn’t happen so much any more,” she said.
“There would be 10 people lining up to take their photos and have photos with them.”
Fast food outlets and supermarkets had arrived over the past year or so.
“When the supermarkets opened, people really did bulk buy. Everything they saw they would take off the shelves.”
Inside the walls of the apartments and buildings where expats work and live, it can be easy to forget what the real Yangon is like.
Though McKinnon has got used to navigating day-to-day, a fear lurks of what would happen if something went wrong.
“The only worrying thing is we don’t have the same level of support here. If we have an accident, we are relying on them and the Myanmar medical system,” she said.
“There are no expectations that we have at home of being able to get to a hospital quickly. Hopefully we don’t have any major accidents.”
McKinnon realised how different life was for many in Yangon after volunteering three mornings a week at the Green Island preschool in Yangon while her own children were at the British International School.
“All the families there are very poor compared to New Zealand,” she said.
“They had a problem with sewage seeping out of the toilet and the toilet was in the kitchen and it was all because the toilet tank behind it was filled up.
“That kind of thing is so easy to do here. It was only a few hundred dollars to get a new tank put in that fixed the problem.”
She raised money for a new toilet block and water filtration system.
Sometimes it was easy to forget what a violent past the country had, but that was brought home to McKinnon when a Myanmar refugee they knew from New Zealand came to visit for the first time.
“Just seeing him in Myanmar was very interesting.
“Although it’s open to expats, for Myanmar people, coming back is quite a frightening experience.”
In a country where insulting religion can land you in jail, she said they were careful what they said.
“Life definitely revolves around religion. People give even if they don’t have a lot.”