Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Entrepeneurialism and Burmese refugees

Recently I crossed paths with some Burmese refugees I know. [For those who try to eep track of such things, they were ethnically Burmese Muslims, but from what I've seen pretty mellow Muslims and I've enjoyed my contact with them.] They were quite excited as they were in the process of opening a small grocery store, sort of a mom and pop urban corner grocery, but specializing in goods either imported from Thailand, where they had spent time in a refugee camp, or else the sort of products that Burmese refugees wish to buy for their cooking. (i.e. fish sauce, shallots, ginger root, the sorts of things one often needs to go to a specialty store to purchase at the best price and quality.)
Of course, I was curious and anxious to see this, but it took me a few weeks to get around to visiting the store, which was located on an obscure side street in Albany, and checking it out.
Sadly when I got there, the store had been closed down by the authorities. There were two "Cease and desist" notices on the door from the city authorities stating that the store had to be closed down because it had violated a city ordinance on "banner signs" and also construction had been taking place without a building permit. Inside, however, were all the goods awaiting sale.
I tried to find the owners and talk to them but I was not able to do so. I did find their apartment, but they were out. I have no idea what the plan at this point is but it should be interesting to see.
Alas! Although we like to see America as the land of freedom and opportunity, compared with much of Asia and the third world it is more difficult to start a business here without running afoul of the authorities. Our freedom, although important, manifests itself largely in areas directly stated in the constitution and perceived as being linked to keeping our democratic processes alive. For instance, and I say this with no judgement, our right to criticize the authorities, publish what we wish and own firearms, all of which are arguably linked towards the need to keep an eye on the authorities, are substantially greater than that of most nations. However, if you wish to start a business in the United States, particularly New York state, it is not a bad idea to consult with an attorney first to check which laws one might run afoul of.
It is very difficult for someone arriving from a less developed nation with a more open system of market economy to quite grasp what is expected here.
I have mentioned elsewhere that one problem within the Burmese refugee community is driving without drivers licenses. --and I say this as someone who has put life, car and time on the line to try to teach many of them to drive. Not terribly long ago, I had a driving student who was unable to pass the road test (he was not able to grasp certain concepts like choice of lane and used to freeze up and panic when faced with the road test. Being an educator, I consulted another educator on the best way to build up his confidence and reduce his panic and we agreed that the solution would involve comparing his past accomplishments with his desired goals, showing how if he could do the first set of things, he should be able to do the second. Alas! We ultimately learned that many of the accomplishments he claimed were actually lies that had never happened and that by stressing them we were eroding his self confidence. Oh well, and that's why telling the truth is ultimately important and not doing so is often it's own punishment.)
One day he asked me if he drove "only to work and back" without a license and the police stopped him would they punish him. I assured him they would. Nevertheless, he had soon purchased a van (much larger than anything he had driven before), and began driving it on the highway (where he was distinctly unqualified to drive) and charging his co-workers, Burmese refugees from another, less entrepenurial ethnic group, money for rides to work. Fortunately, no one was killed and last time I checked the van had died, perhaps because he never quite understood what all those fluids were that one was supposed to check and replace. (Of course, after I heard about this I not only dumped him as a driving student, chewed him out royally and then called the police on him, but, sadly, unlicensed driving, even with passengers, is not very high on the list of infractions that the police choose to focus on.)
One activity I do note is a frequent flurry of Burmese refugees from several ethnic groups roaming the streets on garbage night seeking cans for the five cent deposit. The energy and desire to work is there. An actual focus on how to efficiently channel this energy does not seem to be there. Perhaps it will come. Time will tell.

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