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November 20, 2019

Making right choices in life

Those who are well-educated have more choices of livelihood. For a person like San San Aye, who had to leave school, after finishing her primary school, there were few choices, either work as an unskilled labourer at a construction site like her elder sister, become a housemaid, return to her birthplace, a small village in the Ayeyawady delta, and work in the paddy fields as a farmhand, or become a vegetable vendor like her next door neighbour.  When her widowed mother who sold boiled beans in the morning had to return to the village to take care of her grandmother who had suffered a stroke, San San Aye chose to remain in Yangon together with her elder sister and continued to live in the small ramshackle house located in a poor section of Kyimyindine not far away from the Hline river, which they shared with their aunt and her family, rather than return to the monotonous life in the countryside.
San San Aye decided to sell vegetables like her neighbour rather than the boiled peas that her mother sold in the mornings, as it needed very little outlay, and she felt that with a bit of risk-taking, she could earn much more than what her mother made. She was not worried about the initial outlay she would need, as her neighbour said she could introduce her to a money-lender who lent money at a high interest to be paid daily. But little did she know how much decision-making, how much hard work, and how much time the path she chose would demand. She had to choose in which market she should sell. She would have to decide what to sell, from which wholesale market she should buy the vegetables, and how much she should buy. She went along with her next door neighbour to Hledan market where she sold vegetables, to see how things were at the market. It was a bustling market and there were many vendors selling a variety of things along the road behind the market. There were fish, prawn and crab sellers, poultry sellers, mutton and beef sellers, vegetable sellers, fruit sellers, egg sellers, flower sellers, toy sellers, and sellers of all sorts of things that housewives needed daily. She observed how her neighbour dealt with her customers and how she persuaded them to buy more than they intended to. The same day, she borrowed some money from the money lender introduced by her neighbour and invested in round bamboo trays of different sizes and a pair of scales. Weights, she didn’t need, as she got them as inheritance from her mother. That night she went along with her neighbour to buy vegetables from the Thiri Mingalar fruit and vegetables wholesale market not far from where she lived. As advised by her neighbour, she bought vegetables that did not require much outlay, and would sell fast, like chillies, roselle leaves, water convolvulus, and egg plants. Early the next morning, she went along with her neighbour to the market and had a hard time finding a place to sell her vegetables. The only vacant place she found was at the tail end of the row of vendors, not far from a smelly rubbish dump. At first, she was not able to sell a lot, but later as the number of shoppers decreased at about nine, she was able to move to a better spot vacated by sellers who had sold out all their goods, and she was able to cater to late comers who were looking for a bargain. Although most of the vendors had left, she stayed on hoping to sell most of the vegetables in her bamboo tray. Her persistence paid off, and she was able to sell about half of the vegetables she had brought. She wrapped the remaining vegetables in an old longyi soaked with water and returned home to have her lunch. San San Aye returned to the market at about 2 p.m. with her remaining vegetables. Again, like in the morning, she did not make much sale at the spot near the rubbish dump, and only after some of the vendors left, she was able to choose a better place to sell. At about 8 p.m. she was able to sell off all the vegetables she had, and then she set off to the Thiri Mingalar fruit and vegetables wholesale market to buy vegetables.  On her way back home, she stopped at the money lender’s house to pay the daily interest.  When she got home, it was well past 10 p.m. She counted the money left in her hand. The profit did not come up to much, after deducting the interest, the cost of the vegetables, and the bus fare, but she thought that if she could get some regular customers, and a better place to sell her vegetables, she could possibly make more. She had her dinner and then cleaned the vegetables and tied them into small bundles, and it was about midnight when she went to bed. Tomorrow, she would have to leave home at about 4 a.m. to get to the market by 5 a.m.
San San Aye was a friendly as well as forceful person. Whenever she caught sight of a customer who had bought from her the previous day, she would call out loudly to her to buy something from her. She was also not a stingy person and gave a few extras to her customers, so she was able to build a corps of regular customers. She was not too greedy, and only traded in less expensive types of vegetables to keep the capital low. She also had the business acumen to sell unusual kinds of vegetables that she sometimes found in the wholesale market and were not sold by others. In addition, she thought she had good luck, as a few months after she started selling vegetables at Hledan market, a vendor whom she became friendly with returned to her village to get married, and bequeathed San San Aye her place, which was better located.
Now, after ten years, she feels her life has improved slightly. She is able to make a regular profit of about ten thousand kyats a day, and is now able to rent a room for herself and her sister whom she was able to persuade to give up her job as a labourer and sell vegetables together with her. She is also able to send back money regularly to her mother and grandmother. The best thing she was able to do was to repay the money she borrowed as outlay, and so now she no longer has to pay a huge interest daily.  Of course, life is still hard.  The Thiri Mingalar fruit and vegetables wholesale market has been moved to Hline township which was not as close to her house as its old location, so she gets home only around midnight. Sometimes, she falls ill and cannot work for many days. Life is also especially hard for a roadside vendor during the rainy season, as there are fewer customers, and she has a tough time protecting herself with a small umbrella from the heavy rain.
Nevertheless, San San Aye feels that she has made the right choice. She is thankful that she made the right decision not to return to her village, as she would be making only about two thousand kyats a day there, as a farmhand. She is glad that she did not become a housemaid and lose her independence, or become a construction labourer and lose her fair complexion. She is also extremely glad that she has never been tempted to choose the easy path and lose her dignity like some of the beautifully dressed and made-up young women she saw walking on the streets at night. She cannot understand why strong, healthy, young women should want to live on immoral earnings. As for the future, she would like to own a small apartment close to Hledan market and run a dry goods shop. Other things, she is not very sure of. There is a young carpenter near her house who has been showing a lot of interest in her. There is also the fruit seller on the other side of the road who has been making excuses to come and talk to her. (My thanks go to vegetable vendor Ma San San Aye of Hledan market for telling me about her life.)

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