I remember driving back to Yangon, the capital of Burma at the time, after a few days‘ blissful relaxation by the sea following some weeks of arduous travel around the country. As the car made its bumpy way up and downhill on this deserted road still under construction, it slowed down at a bend and I saw a group of girls, some of whom looked no more than twelve years old, carrying baskets laden with rocks which they then deposited by the side of the road.
Meanwhile, even younger girls would take these stones and chip away at them to render them small enough to then lay on the road, like a puzzle. There were dozens of these girls at work, squatting down and each focused on her own little patch.
As we crawled past, one girl looked up at me. Her hair and lower face were covered by a scarf which protected her from the pervasive dust but I could still see neat round patches on her cheeks, smothered with tanaka, a protective and nourishing face powder made from tree bark, worn by most women in Burma. She pulled her scarf down and smiled shyly at my bewildered expression and she carried on smiling as we slowly made our way past. The taxi driver later told me these girls earned roughly the equivalent of 80 US cents for a day’s work – when they got paid, that is, he added as an afterthought.
As we drove on, I couldn’t get that image out of my mind. I couldn’t help that girl, or any of those girls, but I couldn’t forget that scene either. I suppose it was around then that I began to feel an urge to do some little thing to help in whatever way I could.
Now, some five years later, following online research, I made contact with a non- government run orphanage in Burma which then offered me the opportunity to spend one week teaching English to a group of multi-ethnic students in a college in the north eastern state of Shan. I was to travel to Lashio, not a popular tourist destination and the last town in that direction that a foreigner could travel to without a special permit. China lay another 200 kms east. I jumped at the opportunity.
So now, some months later, in the middle of the monsoon season, I finally arrived by bus at my destination, Lashio. 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 series of forest-clad hills and was home to some fine temples. I got a lift on the back of a motorbike with my bulky rucksack and checked into a non-descript, but perfectly comfortable, Chinese-built hotel and went looking for food, something I always take a particular enjoyment in doing…
I didn’t have to look far, the market began some two doors up and the faces behind the stalls reflected the different ethnic influences in that part of Burma as some traders looked decidedly Chinese, while others more Indian, yet others had sharp Mongolian features and some looked purely Burmese .Not that I really had the experience to tell what pure Burmese features looked like.
All around me multi-coloured stalls with drooping awnings (it was raining again) displayed a variety of chicken parts which I didn’t know existed; next to this, small heaps of dried fish of different shapes and sizes lay on canvas sheets offering up their
pungent aromas, eclipsed only by the similarly acrid smell of durian fruit on offer a few metres away. Meanwhile, the vendors, mostly women, sat on their haunches, some smoking cheeroots, others chewing betel nut, gaily beckoning passers-by to sample their produce.
As I walked among the stalls, I was given a few cursory second looks as the only blond person in the market. Indeed, as it turned out, during my weeklong stay in Lashio, I did not come across another ‚westerner‘ in town. There were so many different ethnic influences here, however, that strangely enough I didn’t feel out of place.
After entering one of the market canteens and pointing to a couple of large pots which contained a variety of stewed dishes, I sat down and waited for my meal to be heated and served myself to tea from one of the thermos flasks which are ubiquitous on every restaurant table in Burma. Apart from the dishes I had ordered, a bowl of soup arrived and I was also served rice, which all resulted in a huge meal. I started with the steaming soup, a lightly spiced and tasty vegetable consommé , which I must have looked like I was enjoying because I soon noticed customers at the next table watching me with amused grins, to which I gave a vague thumbs up sign.
As I sat there eating my lunch, I wondered what to expect at the college, and it dawned upon me that I really had no idea what was waiting for me. Would there be some kind of a board to write on, white or black, in the classroom? would there be photocopying facilities? which seemed unlikely when I looked around at the basic surroundings in my immediate vicinities. Would these young „future community leaders“ speak English at near intermediate level as I had been informed? Would I be able to communicate with them and use the materials I had prepared especially for this short course?
These thoughts were going about by head as I was savouring my second course, stewed fish with a delicately pickled tea salad, when I became vaguely aware that one of the neighbouring diners was carrying over his bowl of soup to my table, evidently for me to eat, and I watched as he walked off after nodding discreetly. Either I looked very hungry, or they rarely saw anyone eat that soup with such gusto. Well, it doesn’t take too much to please me. Lashio had already made a good impression on me!
Lunch over, I made my way to the college after doing some quick shopping at the market and getting a lift on the hotel receptionist’s motorbike. A five minute ride away, I saw that the college building was a solid red and white brick structure which then revealed spacious and perfectly well equipped classrooms.
I arrived there 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 without delay into the classroom where an English lesson was underway with their teacher, a young and enthusiastic local man with a cool haircut. With the afternoon monsoon 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- and watched with some dismay as the young teacher took a seat alongside the 12 or so students and stared at me expectantly.
I looked around the class, a mixture of ethnic groups, young men and women, all aged in their early twenties or younger and many dressed in a t-shirt and a traditional longyi, a long tube-like piece of material worn by both sexes, though some were wearing trousers. In fact, I realized on looking around that Lashio was the first town I had come across in Burma where trousers were worn as much as longyis, by both men and women. The influence of nearby China perhaps? Never mind, I was there to teach and not to observe their dressing habits…
The tropical climate impeded my thinking process for some moments until I remembered that I had bought a small rubber ball at the market that morning and now, on reflection, I took it out and, bouncing it in my hand, introduced myself telling them where I was from 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 way 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, most of the girls with tanaka on their cheeks, 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 students followed in 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 modest foreign donations meant that students were equipped with quality text books and grammar books which they treated with the respect they deserved.
Similarly, 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 ask them to spread their chairs around and get them involved in a word game. Meanwhile, a different student would leave the classroom at about this time each day and return with a thermos flask of tea for me to drink and a tissue which they showed me was to wipe my brow with. By the third day, someone had the welcome idea of bringing an electric fan into the classroom which was placed facing my desk and which, I noticed, was scrupulously switched off as soon as the lesson was over.
These students had had some previous contact with foreign native speakers of English and were less timid that I had feared they would be though I noticed the common tendency that the boys were more forward in their attempts to practice their English than the girls were. It took me some time to draw out some of these young ladies so they would feel less shy of speaking in public. This is something I have become used to, especially in larger classes, throughout my teaching career, and it has always given me satisfaction when I have been able to produce a proud smile on the face of a young girl who suddenly realises she can express herself in a foreign language with as much verve as her male colleagues.
I had bought a special pack of cards with me from Europe, 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 mirth was involved and a few new words learnt simultaneously. Some of the games I played with them involved them having to create a short story around a set structure in which they would have to invent the names of the lead characters and the location of the action. Consequences. More often than not, names like Shakira, Lady Gaga or Wayne Rooney came up and destinations such as the Eiffel Tower or Niagara Falls as well as Shwedagon Pagoda would appear, to my amusement. This of course led to some very entertaining tales.
While making a conscious effort to keep off the subject of politics so as not to cause problems for anyone, I questioned the students about their hopes for the future. Most of them didn’t hesitate to say they dreamed of living and working abroad in countries like Canada, Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia or South Korea. Interestingly, no one mentioned China, their closest neighbour. Nor did they mention America. When I then asked if they could imagine 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.
On my last evening of teaching at this college, one of the students gave me a ride back on a borrowed motorbike and I found another small group of students gathered outside my hotel. After some hesitation, one of them bashfully invited me to go out for a snack with them to which I, more than twice their age, happily agreed. Later, as we sat on low plastic stools outside a popular Shan noodle house on a warm, sultry evening, I sat back sipping green tea and listening to them chat and flirt playfully with each other while telling me about their favourite music and asking me about a typical student’s life in Europe. In the background there played a Burmese rendition of what sounded like Katie Melua’s Nine million bicycles. When we finally parted that evening and I gave them a mobile phone I no longer used and one of the girls proffered me some homemade earrings she had made for me, I bade them farewell and to have their dreams for the future come true. What more was there to say?
On my last day in the school my students decided to sing me a song:
Now, some months later, with the changes that seem to be happening at such a sudden and unexpected pace in Burma, I hope that those students will be able to forge a positive future for themselves in their country. I hope too that the young girls I came across on that road being built some years ago, will also experience the fruits of the changes which are seemingly sweeping through their country, without having to tolerate the nigh on forced labour conditions which are sadly still evident in parts of the country. In the words of a popular Burmese comedian and activist, known to his fans as Zarganar: „Right now it’s a new dawn in Burma. We must work hard to make sure the new dawn turns into a new day. But we have to make sure we don’t return to the old dark.“ (quote from Hannah Beech’s article in Time Magazine -30 Nov