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.
Posted by Thirii Myo Kyaw Myint at August 28, 2009 12:24 AM