Lashio, finally, my destination. What my guidebook dismissed as a slightly non-descript town (it didn’t even provide a rough map as if to enforce this sentiment), turned out to be pleasantly alluring, if only because it was situated against a hill, surrounded by forests and some fine temples. Getting onto the back of a motorbike taxi with my decidedly bulky 20 kilo back pack on, I tried to keep my balance as the driver sped up the hill in the now pouring rain to reach my somewhat non-descript (but perfectly comfortable) Chinese built hotel where, after negotiating a slightly lower charge (I was, after all, planning to stay one week), and dropping my luggage off, I set out to find a way to get to the Shan State college. I didn’t have to look far, for one thousand kyat (about $1.40 at the time), the hotel receptionist offered to give me a ride on her motorbike…
I went to the college with the intention of merely introducing myself and finding my bearings. This was not to be, it seems. The amiable director who spoke little English ushered me into the classroom where an English lesson was underway with their teacher, a young and enthusiastic local man. With the afternoon monsson rain falling in the background and the accompanying heat emanating from my every pore, I felt slightly discomfited by my lack of preparation- I had intended to start teaching the following day- I watched as the young teacher took a seat alongside the 15 or so students and stare at me expectantly.
The tropical clime impeded my thinking process somewhat until I remembered that I had bought a very small rubber ball at the market in Mandalay and now, on reflection, I took it out and, bouncing it in my hand, introduced myself telling them I was half Irish and half Polish and where I lived and what I did for a living etc… , I then threw the ball to one of the students and asked her to introduce herself in the same fashion.
A trickle of excitement ran through the class as students waited in anticipation to see who would be the next in line to catch the ball from the previous student. In this manner and to the merriment of all involved, I found out that there were many half Kachin, half Lahu students, some half Wa and half Chin, some pure Lahu and other pure Wa… A myriad of ethnic groups, some of which I had never heard of before, all happily sititng together throwing a ball to each other and chatting away in broken English with a lady who until half an hour earlier had been a total stranger to them…
My week spent with these bright and cheerful students followed this vein and though most of them came from needy families living in distant villages, the lack of luxuries in their life was compensated by their grit and positive outlook. Do not get me wrong: this was not a destitute college and foreign donations meant that students were equipped with quality text books and grammar books which they treated with the respect they deserved. Like students all over the world, they had their limits of tolerance for English grammar and relished the moment I would take off my glasses and get them involved in a word game. I had bought a very special pack of cards in England, Scrabble Dash, and had barely learnt the instructions myself when I had this group of a dozen 18 to 22 year olds squabbling over who had thought up the more sophisticated sounding word in the quickest time. Much merriment was involved and a few new words learnt simultaneously.
I did experience some problems learning to pronounce their names, much to their amusement, and had to resort to writing them down in my own phonetic way. Names such as Dbranghdoi, Nzawmai, Htoisanaung, or Yawhtung were just a few of the tongue twisters. One of those names was pronounced in the same way I would pronounce ‘your toe’ and thereafter, the students would point to their toes if they saw me wanting to say something to that particular young man. The man in question was Yawhtung.
Throughout Burma, the majority of people still wear longyis, tube-like pieces of material, which look like a long skirt but are tied at the front, for men, and tucked in at the side for women. examples of longyis can be seen here.
While making a conscious effort to keep off the subject of politics, I questioned the students about their hopes for the future. Most of them didn’t hesitate to say they dreamt of living and working abroad in countries like Canada, Singapore, Thailand, South Korea. Interestingly, no one mentioned America, or Europe; nor did they mention China, their closest neighbour. When I then asked if they imagined settling down abroad forever, the majority equally unhesitatinly added that ‚no‘, they would like to settle down at home eventually. This desire struck me as no different to that of young people in the county I live in. In fact, it is a sentiment expressed by young people in an increasing number of countries. It merely reflects a wish for a better future, a pretty universal longing, I’d say.