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The Underage Tea Boys of Myanmar

Burmese tea is a black, bitter, and served with sweetened condensed milk. Step into any teahouse there, and you’ll be served by young boys that work over 12 hour shifts. Although it is illegal to employ anyone under the age of 15, more than a third of...

A trip to a Burmese tea house will change your interpretation of the word "tea culture." A pillar of Burmese life, they are often loud, open-air and bustling places in the mornings, where people sit at short tables chatting amidst a gang of chirping waiters known as tea boys, who dart through the mayhem, balancing white saucers of milky tea and plates of potato samosas. They are the opposite of the ordered ritual of a Japanese tea room or the well-mannered calm of a British high tea.

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No trip to Myanmar is complete without a visit to one.

Burmese tea is a black, bitter, and almost always poured from a beat-up old iron kettle into a cup of warm evaporated milk, where it is stirred and then splashed into a saucer with some sweetened condensed milk. Tea houses are mostly occupied by both young and older male patrons, although women have begun to frequent them in recent years, having been formerly banned in the past. People come at all hours of the day to sip their sugary tea, smoke cigarettes, munch on fried dough and samosas, and chat with friends or talk shop with business associates. And just as likely as your tea being sweet and creamy, and your surroundings being loud and buzzing, is that your waiter will more than likely be a young boy.

a cup of tea

P. Inside a tea house

There are countless tea houses in Myanmar, both in the rural and urban areas, and nearly every one employs a staff of these youngsters. In the bigger cities, these tea-serving halflings often come from the poor delta regions of central Myanmar. For someone from a country where employing children is taboo, it can feel strange having your order taken by kids.

"I came to this tea house because some of my friends were already working here," said P., a 16-year-old from Chauk Township, through a translator. He began working at a cafe in Yangon, a ten-hour drive from his home, at 10 years old. He earns 60,000 kyat a month, or about $60. "I spend about 10,000 a month and send the rest home to my family," he calculated.

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P. sleeps in a back room at the tea house with nine other tea boys and works seven days a week from 6:30 AM to 5:30 PM, a regular setup for Myanmar's tea boys. "In my free time, I read a lot of comics and I also love watching English Premier League." He's a Manchester United fan.

There is nothing new about child labor in Myanmar. Though it is officially illegal to employ anyone under the age of 15, more then one-third of children in the country are working, according to the United Nations. To make matters worse for the kids, Cyclone Nargis—the worst natural disaster to hit Myanmar in centuries—devastated the delta in 2007, a region home to some of the country's poorest people. With limited opportunities made even scarcer in their home communities, young children from the delta were sent to cities like Yangon and Mandalay to make money for their struggling loved ones back home. Girls are often sent to karaoke bars and massage parlors, while boys go to construction sites, textile factories, cargo ships, and the tea houses—places of unskilled work that requires little training or expertise.

"I'm not happy working here," confessed A.M.T., 12, from Bogalay Township. "I miss my home very much, especially in the evenings."

A.M.T.

Already strapped for cash and committed to busy schedules, many tea boys rarely return home. T.T.N., 14, who works in a cafe in Yangon, hasn't been home for eight months. P. said that he makes the trek inland to his family once every couple of years.

The tea boys are the waiters of the tea houses, the runners, and the spinning gears that keep the whole thing moving. Many of them practically grow up in the tea houses, navigating the throes of adolescence among the cigarette smoke, steaming cups, plastic chairs, and the metallic kissing noises that Burmese patrons make to call over servers. If you find yourself in one of these places, it is best to find a seat on the outskirt of the action, outside of the hot sun if the place is open to the street, and watch things unfold as they do day in and day out in Myanmar.