Seventeen in Yangon

Yeir Yint Aung (Damian), 17, flips through his study materials from the Center for Vocational Training (CVT), where he is studying to be certified as an electrician.  The center, which boasts sister schools in Austria and Switzerland, is just one step on his path to achieving his dream: to become a famous musician in Europe.  He will begin at the University of East Yangon in the fall, where he hopes to study musicology.  He takes English classes on the side and works at the Kandawgyi Palace Hotel, replacing signage throughout the establishment.
Damian lives by himself on 90th street in Yangon.  Living alone is uncommon for teenagers in Myanmar.  “I didn’t want to live with my parents anymore,” he said, citing ongoing fights as the reason.  His aunt, Daw Thin Thin Kyaing, pays for the apartment.
His aunt tidies up the living room.  She comes over frequently.  “My dad treats me like I’m an idiot,” Damian said, who was born on a Wednesday. He explains that according to the Burmese zodiac, he and his dad are incompatible, in part, because his dad was born on a Sunday. But their most recent argument was about what Damian would study in school.  His dad does not approve of his dreams to perform.
The apartment is sparse.  Most of the decorations are his aunt’s.  At night, he rolls out a soft mattress on which to sleep.
Zin Ok, 20, and Damian discuss possible ways to revive the electricity in Damian’s apartment.  Earlier, a nearby transformer exploded, sending fire shooting down Upper Mandalay Street.  The outage wasn’t specific to his apartment, though – multiple blocks were affected – so they weren’t able to find a solution.
“I’m not going to get light anymore.  At least not for a few days.  I’m really sad about that,” Damian said.  “It won’t get fixed for a while.”  He’s no stranger to long power outages, which often permeate the neighbourhood during the hot months.  His frustration comes from the feeling that nobody cares.
Damian’s aunt cooks for him nearly every day.  On occasion, he visits his 11-year-old sister at his parents’ flat.
Damian sits with his band, Four, named after the number of members in the group.  They were supposed to have practice, but one member decided to hang out with his girlfriend, instead.
Kyaw Si Thu, 19, plays guitar while Damian sings during a moment of electricity in the Candlelight neighbourhood.  Lately, frequent power outages have left the neighborhood shrouded in darkness.  On these occasions, the band has trouble finding a place to practice.
Damian jams with Zin, with whom he writes most of the songs.  He and Zin have differing musical tastes from Kyaw, which has caused some tension in the group.
“I worry that you’ll think I’m a bad person,” Damian says, shying away from the topic of politics, which he acknowledged as being one of his favorite things to discuss when he was younger.  However, in 2012, a few of his friends were arrested and jailed for three years after participating in a student-led protest.  Damian wasn’t there.  “I was too scared to go,” he said.
Damian’s block is home to Buddhists and Muslims, who have struggled to get along.  A few years ago, he witnessed a large street fight, which left members of both parties dead.  While he has never had a bad encounter with a neighbor, he feels unsafe.  “They don’t hurt me only because of the law,” he said.
A child emerges from beneath the jetty to ask for money.  No matter his own personal finances, Damian tries to give to beggars.  “I don’t know why I do it, I just do,” he said.  “In my religion, the more you help, the better your next life will be.”
Much of Damian’s day is spent on the phone, checking Facebook and messaging friends, so long as his data package allows.  “Before I was 13, I didn’t know about the internet.  Now I’m on it all the time,” he said.  He gets most of his information from Facebook.
Damian hopes to be as famous as Justin Bieber one day.  “I want to play in front of thousands of people, on a stage in Europe,” he said.
Damian and his childhood friend, Myat Kyaw (Mitchell), 17, grab a bite to eat at a tea house.
Zin and Damian watch the late afternoon sky turn to rain, signaling the beginning of Monsoon Season.  “I get so tired of the rain,” Damian said.  “it’s my least favorite season.”  But life doesn’t stop when it begins.  The boys plan to play soccer anyway, if they can get enough people.
Most of his afternoons are spent in Independence Park, hanging out with friends or practicing English on tourists, while he waits for his classes at the CVT to begin.

Annie Grossinger works as a freelance photojournalist and writer.  She’s a regular contributor to the Chicago Tribune and two nonprofits, LISC Chicago and Community Empowerment (formerly Art for Health).  Her work has also been shown in several galleries.  Prior to transitioning to photography, she worked in Marketing and Communications in the for-profit and non-profit sectors.  She graduated with a B.A. in Journalism and History from Lehigh University.


Insta: @anniedg