August 28, 2009
Last Days in Mandalay and Back to Yangon (and then back to the U.S. of A.)
Towards the end of my first week at Phaung Daw Oo, Principal U Nayaka asked me to prepare a lecture for a school-wide assembly. He wanted me to talk about my experience of returning to Burma (for the first time in nineteen years!) and answer the students’ questions about education in America. So, in the time in-between my four F.T. classes and my evening class at Golden House, I had to squeeze in a lecture and Q&A session for over three hundred kids. My audience included the children from the Orphanage, children from the Ethnic House, children from the Golden House, and the volunteer teachers who also lived on the school premises.
My lecture, which I gave in English and halting Burmese, was about (1) the difference between modernization and westernization, (2) the importance of sustainable and culturally appropriate development in Burma, and (3) the potential of ordinary people and communities to organize and provide social services for themselves. There’s a Burmese proverb that says, “The value of wealth is in charity”. I reminded the children that education was an investment, the best kind of wealth – but it would only be valuable if it was freely shared and used to help others.
Principal U Nayaka was very pleased with the way the lecture went and asked me to give it again the next day to the teachers at the school. My lecture for the teachers touched on the same subjects that I covered in my lecture to the students, but the Q&A session went very differently this time. Whereas the students asked me exclusively about schools in America, the teachers asked much tougher questions. Such as: Do I believe that Burmese culture is compatible with modernity? What is my opinion of the F.T. English-to-English program at the school?
The same day that I gave my last lecture, I became quite sick. I couldn’t get out of bed and I had to cancel my classes for the next few days. The hot and dusty weather in Mandalay did not agree with me. I decided that it would be best to return to Yangon before I felt any worse and spend my last few weeks at Ngar Kyan Pyan.
Once I got back to Yangon, I immediately felt better, and got back to work. In order to make the most of my time at Ngar Kyan Pyan, I asked to teach the sixth and seventh htan students as well as my old eighth and ninth htan classes. My ninth grade students also mentioned their desire to learn how to use computers. So, in addition to my four classes, I also taught a computer class twice a week to the ninth htan students.
While all this teaching was very time-consuming, I also had many invaluable conversations with my students in and outside of classroom. They would ask me about the U.S. I would ask them about their native villages.
Here is what I managed to gather about village life from my eighth and ninth htan students (ninth and tenth grade, ages 13 to 19):
Most villages have only up to 7th or 8th htan (middle school). None of the children came from villages that had up to 10th htan (high school). Some of the children came from villages that only had up to 5th htan (primary school), or no schools at all. Almost all my students said if they had not come to Ngar Kyan Pyan, they would not be in school; they would be working to support their families. One of my students joked, “I would still be a student – a cow student.” In Burmese, “cow student” means cow herder. The children estimate that 9 out of 10 village children will attend school up to the 4th htan (5th grade), but after that, only about 2 out of 10 village children continue to go to school. Almost nobody goes to high school. This is because the villages don’t have high schools and children who want to go have to commute to the nearest town or city, thereby incurring additional costs their family cannot afford. My ninth htan students claim that it would cost almost 100,000 kyats – about $80 – to go to high school for a year. At the same time, the children estimate that in a month, their families may make about 10,000 kyats – that is, about 9 U.S. dollars. Some families make even less. 
When I asked the students if they were excited to be in Yangon, one boy said, “Of course we are. In our village, people gather around when they see just one car. Even if it’s just a motorcycle, we gather around. Here, there are so many cars. Also, we have no electricity or running water in our villages. When it gets dark at night and you want to study, you have to use a candle. Sometimes, you don’t even have a candle, so you have to use an oil lamp.”
However, despite the excitement of seeing cars and electricity in action, almost all my students expressed much longing for their families and their native villages. Although some of the students have been in Yangon since the start of the Nigrodha Sāmanera Project over three years ago, they still felt deep connections with the villages, which was apparent to me in their written assignments. In the words of one of my eighth htan students, a 14 year old boy from Taze Township, “My villagers are honest and truthful. I am at Ngar Kyan Pyan monastic school now. When I grow up I want to be an engineer. If I am an engineer I will build good houses for my village and I will make my village into a town. I try hard not only for my village but also for Myanmar and other countries.” 
 However, the children say it is difficult to know how much money their families make in a month or a year because they don’t get a monthly salary. Almost all the children’s parents are farmers; thus their income depends on the year’s harvest.
I also met some farmers in Mawbe – a rural Township outside of Yangon – while accompanying my cousin on a community service activity (his high school group was giving a presentation about composting and its benefits to the locals). The Mawbe farmers I met said they made anywhere from $400 to $700 during good harvest years, but go into debt during bad harvests. I knew borrowing money from the government and/or national banks was not an option in Burma so I was curious to know what the farmers meant by “going into debt.” The answer? They had to borrow from neighbors and fellow villagers who happened to have money that year.
 This is an excerpt from a written assignment that I asked my eighth and ninth htan students to complete. I asked them to write a biography about themselves. I am currently putting together these biographies into a website for the Nigrodha Samanera Project, so that donors will be able to read about the children they are helping to educate.
August 24, 2009
Mandalay and Phaung Daw Oo monastic high school
So here was the original plan: I was to stay in Yangon for a few weeks, teaching classes at Ngar Kyan Pyan. Then I was to travel through the Ayeyarwady Division and visit villages that had been devastated by Nargis last year. Then, I was to return to Yangon before going north to Mandalay to volunteer at Phaung Daw Oo monastic high school for the remainder of my time in Burma.
Unfortunately, things did not go as planned. Two days after my arrival in Yangon, U Aung Shien, the older brother of U Dhammapiya, asked me if I wanted to accompany him to the Ayeyarwady Division and then to Mandalay. He was to bring two orphan boys from Name village and admit them at Phaung Daw Oo monastic high school in Mandalay. If I had known at the time that this was to be my one and only chance to visit the Ayeyarwady Division, I would have said yes. But I (and U Aung) had thought there would be other opportunities, so I told him I’d rather stay in Yangon for at least a week before traveling again. However, one week dragged out to three weeks. I fell sick – twice, and U Aung was delayed in Upper Burma because of a death in the family. By the time he returned to Yangon, it was late June and the monsoon was in full swing.  The weather was said to be even worse in the Ayeyarwady Division. Many of the villages that Child Aid Foundation worked with were accessible only via boat, which is a hazardous means of travel during the rainy season when the rivers were flooded. So, with much regret, I had to cancel my trip to the Ayeyarwady villages!
Luckily, the weather in Mandalay is hot and dry all year long, so I did not have a problem visiting Phaung Daw Oo monastic high school. Despite what its name may suggest Phaung Daw Oo is strictly neither a monastic school nor a high school. Its seven thousand students are of all religions, ethnicities, and ages. On the school premises itself, there live over 700 novice monks, 100 orphans, about 80 children from ethnic minority groups at the borders, and about 120 orphans from Cyclone Nargis. The other 6,000 live in Mandalay, and often come from poor, working-class families. More information about the school can be found on its website: http://www.dhammadana.org/pdo/about.htm
When I arrived at Phaung Daw Oo, I met with the principal, Sayadaw U Nayaka and he introduced me to an eighteen-year-old volunteer, nicknamed “Kristy,” who took me under her wing. From Kristy, I learned that there were well over three hundred paid teachers at Phaung Daw Oo and about one hundred volunteers. Most of the volunteers (including Kristy) were recent graduates of the school, and many (including Kristy) were enrolled in distance learning programs at local Universities because they could not afford to attend classes.  Kristy also explained that there was a special program at Phaung Daw Oo called Fast Track. Fast Track (or F.T.) classes were smaller in size, taught entirely in English, and open only to the brightest students at the school. Many of the F.T. classes were also taught by young volunteer teachers like Kristy. This made sense because the F.T. classes only had 10 to 20 students, while the regular classes had at least forty or fifty students.
I also visited the children at the Golden House – the children who had been orphaned by the cyclone. There were over seventy boys and forty girls, altogether. This gender inequality was due to the fact that many families didn’t know that Phaung Daw Oo accepted girls until recently; because it was a “monastic” high school, they had been under the false impression the school would only accept boys, specifically, novice monks. However, more and more families were now realizing that both boys and girls were welcome at Phaung Daw Oo, and more and more girls were now arriving at the school.
My first day at Phaung Daw Oo, I observed two F.T. classes in the morning – a second grade class and a ninth grade class . In the afternoon, I taught my first two classes – eighth grade and ninth grade. It was easy for me to cut-in as a substitute/guest teacher for the F.T. classes because the teachers were volunteers and they were eager to observe my class and improve their own English. In the evening, I held an informal English-speaking class for the middle and high school aged children at the Golden House. Our class, which ran from 6 to 7:30 p.m., was held in an outdoor classroom with bamboo walls, wooden benches, and no lights. At about 7 p.m. it would get too dark for the children to see the board and I would have to review the day’s lesson orally with them for the remaining half hour. For the rest of the week, I fell into this schedule of teaching F.T. classes in the mornings and afternoons and teaching the Golden House children in the evenings.
I should also mention that during my first class with the Golden House children, I noticed two Europeans who were observing my class. They sat together with the children, participated in the speaking activities and occasionally took pictures of the class. The next day, I met the two Europeans again at lunchtime in the main kitchen, where all the guests were invited to eat. They introduced themselves as Nico and Frederique Schoenmaker, a married couple from the Netherlands who, along with their project partner, were creating a sponsorship program (not unlike Child Aid Foundation) for the Golden House children. They have a very nice website at www.worldexplorations.com (click “projects” on the toolbar) where you can find individual pictures and biographies of the children living at Golden House. The website does need to be updated, however, so the new children who arrived still do not have a profile.
 Due to its close proximity to the equator, there are only three, rather than four, seasons in Burma. In theory, summer lasts from March to June, the rainy season lasts from July to October, and the winter lasts from November to February. However, because of the diversity of the country’s geography, the seasons actually differ greatly depending on where you are. In Yangon, which is a port city in the southern part of the country, the rains start early in June and fall throughout winter. Moreover, the locals claim that the rains have been heavier and more frequent since the cyclone.
 Another volunteer teacher, nineteen-year-old Aye Aye who was also enrolled in a distance learning program, told me that such programs were “good-for-nothing” because “anyone can buy a cheat sheet before the day of the test” and “you don’t learn anything.” Aye Aye, a graduate of Phaung Daw Oo, was raised by a single father on a small farm. She is presently saving up money so she can hopefully attend classes at the University next year.
 Here, I’m going to call the classes by grade rather than htan, because that’s how they were referred to by the students and the volunteers. Remember that there are only ten htans in Burma and each htan corresponds to a higher grade. For example, my 9th grade class was in 8th htan and had only two more years before their graduated high school.
August 20, 2009
First days in Yangon
I wrote a poem about my first day (or night, as it were, thanks to a 10 hour delay in Taipei)  in Burma. It is the only poem I managed to write over there but I am glad I wrote it because I can now offer you my first impressions months after they’ve worn away:
we arrived on a friday. the waters returned, but the railroads still wet. on plastic stools, children sat long-limbed, and elderly men, smoking cheroots, were backlit by a train. i watched the backs of young people, wounded by headlights, returning home, past small puddles, barb wired mansions, the backs of their shoes peeling back in the mud. but the darkness, brewed thick, smelling of rain, sweet water fish, grew heavy in my mouth and jelly-green tadpoles asked to sing. 
It was about 10 ‘o clock at night when I arrived at Ngar Kyan Pyan. The next morning, at 7 ‘o clock, I taught my first class. I guess you can call that “hitting the ground running.” To be fair, my first week of classes were closely supervised by Sayagyi Daw Sadhu,  a retired high school teacher who teaches tenth standard English at Ngar Kyan Pyan. Before my first class, Sayagyi gave me a long lecture about how (a) the children here had very poor English and how (b) I should not be discouraged by this. She explained that the children had attended primary schools in their native villages, where the quality of education was not up to the standards that were held in a city like Yangon. I asked Sayagyi if I could teach the class in English and she said (a) yes, I could do as I pleased, but (b) most of the students probably wouldn’t understand me. So really, she meant no. Anyway, my first class was a comic disaster. The students were shy, quiet, and completely terrified of classroom participation. I was jet-lagged and struggling to speak Burmese properly.
Later that day, I had to report to the main office and put together my teaching schedule for the week. I was to teach two classes each day (including weekends) – the eighth htan students in the morning from 7 to 8:30 a.m. and the ninth htan students in the afternoon from 2 to 3:30 p.m.  There were twenty-nine students in my eighth htan class and eleven students in my ninth htan class. Of all the students, there was only one girl in my ninth htan class. There were only four girls in the whole school. I asked Sayadaw why this gender discrepancy existed and he said there had been twice as many girls the year before, but their families asked them to return to their villages. The girls had only passed seventh or eighth grade. Sayadaw explained that the girls had come from Shan State, the northwestern part of the country bordering China and Laos. The Shans are the largest ethnic minority group in Burma; like all the other ethnic minority groups, the Shans have their own cultural traditions and speak their own language. In fact, many Shans living in poor villages in Shan State cannot speak Burmese very well at all. The girls who left last year had come from such villages. Their families asked them to return because they felt that after living in Yangon for a few years and passing primary and middle school, the girls had sufficient education (specifically, they spoke Burmese fluently enough) to make a decent living as teachers in their native villages.
During my first week of teaching, people living at the monastery would regularly sit in on my classes. Everyone was very eager to learn English from a native speaker. Aside from my supervisor Daw Sadhu, there was Lwin Lwin, the nurse in charge of the free medical clinic; Nyein Nyein, the geography teacher; and Aye Aye, a seventeen-year-old student at the Economics University. At first, I had thought that Aye Aye was just like the other university students living at the monastery, but I later learned that she was one of the orphaned children supported by Child Aid Foundation.
I was planning to write more about my students and nature of my classes, but it’s getting late in this part of the world, so I guess it’ll have to wait until next time.
 The cause of my delay was the weather. Since Cyclone Nargis hit last May, the monsoon in Lower Burma has been stronger than ever. The day I was scheduled to arrive in Yangon, there was a massive rainstorm which caused certain streets of the city to be flooded thigh-high. The levees in the city haven’t been working properly since the cyclone, but the government still hasn’t fixed them. So every time there is a rainstorm, roads and houses built on lower ground get flooded.
 Although this is not directly related to my work at Ngar Kyan Pyan, I think it is important to talk a little bit about the neighborhood surrounding the monastery. Before we arrived in Burma, my mother had warned me that Ngar Kyan Pyan was surrounded by a “bad” neighborhood. When I asked her to clarify, she said that all of Thingangyun Township was a squatter neighborhood. The Burmese word she actually used was kyu kyaw, which means to invade, to trespass. She said once you passed the railroad separating Thingangyun and Yankin, “there was nothing but kyu kyaw people.” When we actually arrived in Thingangyun, my mother was very surprised to see lively street markets and white mansions crowding the narrow streets. What happened to the squatters? The government moved them outside the city and built the aforementioned white mansions. Nobody we talked with knew exactly (or seemed to care too much about) when or where the squatters were moved, much less whether or not they were compensated or how they were compensated. What people found objectionable about the government’s actions was the fact that a number of the new mansions were left unassigned to government officials. The buildings were empty and slowly falling into disrepair. I’ll talk more about the lack of maintenance of non-military related government buildings when I talk about my visit to the universities of Yangon.
 “Sayagyi” is a title of respect used to address older nuns. Younger nuns are addressed as “Sayalay.” “Gyi” means big, “lay” means little. “Daw” is the equivalent of “Ms” or “Mrs.”
 The Burmese word htan means class, or grade/standard. However, I could not translate htan to “grade” directly because a Burmese htan actually corresponds to a higher American grade. For example, Burmese students in 8th htan are equivalent to American students in the 9th grade. This is because there are three levels of kindergarten in Burma and children start 1st htan at the age of seven. Primary school is 1st to 5th htan, middle school is 6th to 8th htan and high school is 9th and 10th htan.
August 17, 2009
Better Late than Never (optional subtitle: In which the author makes excuses, excuses, excuses)
A few days before I was scheduled to leave for Burma (Myanmar) I came across an article online titled “10 Worst Countries to be a Blogger.”  Number one was Burma. This is part of the excuse why I am posting my first blog entry now, rather than 11 weeks ago, when I first arrived in the country.
Another excuse I have is that using the internet in Burma is no easy matter. For one thing, only the wealthiest of the population can afford to have private internet access in their homes. Everyone else has to go to small internet cafes that charge about 400 to 500 kyats per hour (about 50 cents).  While these internet cafes are relatively affordable, they give you no privacy. The computers are tightly packed together and the people sitting next to you can easily see all the websites you visit and even read over your shoulder. More importantly, internet cafes are closely monitored by the government. There are signs posted everywhere that say: “please do not visit websites related to politics.” Also, every website I am used to visiting is blocked: yahoo, gmail, brown email, wordpress, BBC, even flickr. I had to use a proxy every time I wanted to check my mail. Using too many proxies, however, arouses suspicion and can attract the attention of the government monitors.
So here I am, safe and warm (perhaps too warm) in California, trying to remember everything from the beginning. I guess I should start with an introduction. Hi. I’m Thirii. If you can’t tell from my name or my prose, I’m female. I’m a rising junior concentrating in Literary Arts and hopefully, International Relations. I like footnotes. I also like helping underprivileged children. This summer, I combined my two passions into a fellowship with Child Aid Foundation, an organization that provides basic needs (i.e. food, housing, healthcare, education, etc.) to children who were orphaned by Cyclone Nargis.
I found out about Child Aid Foundation through Sayadaw U Ashin Dhammapiya , the main founder of the organization and coincidentally, our family monk. U Dhammapiya is the head monk of Metta Nanda Vihara monastery in Fremont, California, but he also has a monastery in Yangon called Ngar Kyan Pyan. Last summer, soon after the cyclone hit Burma, U Dhammapiya and other volunteers traveled to the Ayeyarwady Division,  which was the most devastated region of the country and distributed aid to the survivors. Working together with the local monasteries, which often served as community shelters in the wake of the cyclone, the volunteers provided food, clothing, medicine, healthcare and other basic supplies like pots and pans, soap, etc. Many of the villages they visited were accessible only via boat and even after weeks had received no aid from the government or international organizations.
Child Aid Foundation, however, grew out of the realization that emergency relief aid was just the first step in the process of reconstruction. One year on its feet, the Yangon-based organization is now caring for 575 orphans, 519 of whom have personal sponsors who donate $10 a month. The majority of orphans still have surviving adult family members who are willing to take them in. What Child Aid Foundation does in such cases is offer financial support to those families so they can keep the children in school. Other children who do not have family members willing to take them in are placed in foster homes. Currently, Child Aid Foundation is in the process of building a school for the orphaned children who do not have an extended family or a foster family to care for them.
Child Aid Foundation, however, is not an independent project. It is just part of the larger effort to provide secondary and higher education to the extraordinary number of Burmese children who otherwise cannot stay in school and escape the cycle of poverty that child labor creates. Two years before Cyclone Nargis, the Nigrodha Sāmanera Project (a predecessor of Child Aid Foundation) was started at Ngar Kyan Pyan monastery in April 2006. Novice monks and nuns from poor villages all over the country came to live at Ngar Kyan Pyan to get a religious and secular education. The project funds everything for the children – the construction costs of classrooms and dormitories, the cost of transportation to and from their (often rather remote) villages, the cost of electricity and running water, the cost of food, clothing, school supplies, etc. In turn, the children study around the clock. In addition to their religious studies and their school subjects (Burmese, English, Geography, History, Mathematics and Science for middle school students, plus Biology, Chemistry, Physics in lieu of “Science” for high school students), they also learn Chinese and practical English . There is also a public library that opens four days a week and a free medical clinic that opens two days a week on the monastery grounds.
I will write about my personal role in all this in the next entry, which I will probably post tomorrow or the day after (seeing as how I have nothing to do at home but look at classes on mocha). Sorry for the long post. Thanks for reading. And check out the website for Child Aid Foundation: http://childaidmyanmar.org/. It is not very friendly to non-Burmese people right now, but I will be working on translating things into English as soon as I get my own website for the Nigrodha Sāmanera Project up and running.
 The article stub, which I originally found on the Huffington Post, redirected me to the special report conducted by the Committee to Protect Journalist (CPJ), a nonprofit organization based in New York that promotes freedom of the press worldwide. In case you are wondering, the ten worst countries are: 1.Burma, 2.Iran, 3.Syria, 4.Cuba, 5.Saudi Arabia, 6.Vietnam, 7.Tunisia, 8.China, 9.Turkmenistan, and 10.Egypt. You can read the full article here: http://cpj.org/reports/2009/04/10-worst-countries-to-be-a-blogger.php
 The official exchange rate of the Burmese kyat to the U.S. dollar is about 6 kyats to 1 dollar, which is outrageous! In reality, 1 U.S. dollar is exchanged for at least 1000 kyats on the black market. Also, although it is illegal for Burmese citizens to be possession of U.S. currency (the offense is punishable by three years of imprisonment) many people secretly hold on to U.S. currency because it is less bulky and more resistant to inflation than the kyat.
 “Sayadaw” is a title of respect used to address higher-ranking Buddhist monks in Burma. “Saya” is the Burmese word for “teacher”. “U” is the equivalent of “Mr.” “Ashin” is just the generic first name for all monks.
 Burma has seven states and seven divisions. The seven states are named after the seven largest ethnic minority groups in the country; for example: Shan State is where the majority of Shans live, Rakhine State is where the majority of Rakhines live, etc. The majority of Burmans, the largest ethnic group, live in the seven divisions. Of course, the states and divisions are not ethnically homogenous and in big cities like Yangon and Mandalay, you can find people of all ethnicities, religions, etc. I’ll talk more about the ethnic minorities when I talk about Mandalay.
 It may seem strange that English is mentioned twice – first as a state required subject and secondly as an elective. I should clarify that the English taught in state schools is strictly Parrot English. The students read, memorize and regurgitate whole essays, but they do not understand what they are reading, memorizing or regurgitating. Rather than teaching the students how to write in English, the teachers simply write essays for them, which the students copy word for word on their monthly state exams.