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.
Posted by Thirii Myo Kyaw Myint at August 20, 2009 12:04 AM