For those of you who haven’t heard, I have become somewhat of a Burmese celebrity overnight when my friend posted a video of me singing a Burmese song. It’s really hilarious how quickly my video has spread and how much feedback I have received from it.
Don’t worry, I’m not writing this post to emphasize my fame and glory (although it is pretty exciting to brag to people that my video went viral). I wanted to talk about the reason why my video has become so popular in the Burmese community. It’s partially because few have seen a white American girl attempt to sing a song in Burmese. But it’s mostly because of the song choice. The song that I chose to sing for my Burmese audience happens to be one of the most well-known and beloved songs in the Burmese culture.
In English phonetics, it is titled, “Pye De Lie,” which translates to something on the lines of, “Let It Be.” In many ways, the Burmese song carries a similar message to the Beatles song, “Let It Be.” Its message is this: whatever has happened in the past, continue to look forward. Keep your eyes on your path, no matter what gets in the way.
In one of the verses, the song mentions how you must watch your river of tears flow into the ocean, where it disappears into the distance and is never seen again. All the hardships in the past are just that: in the past. Keep your eyes on the future. Let it be.
Ever since my video went up, I have had requests to perform “Pye De Lie” for several celebrations. The Burmese people cheer for me and encourage me to sing my song whenever I pull out my ukulele. Every day in class, my students shout, “Teacher! Teacher! Sing ‘Pye De Lie’!” Everyone knows the song, which makes it more exciting for me to know it as it makes me feel more integrated in the Burmese culture.
This song has played a pretty significant part in my time in Thailand. For obvious reasons, of course, it has made me famous. But for other reasons, it has helped me when I have needed the encouragement of looking to the future; not holding onto the past.
One of the most difficult things when working with Burmese migrants is just that: they’re migrants. That means that they are willing to pack up and leave whenever opportunities arise or whenever hardships force them away. In the short 4 months that I have spent here, I have developed strong relationships with many of these people. The only problem is, I never know when they will leave. I have had several friends pack up and go back to Myanmar. I will most likely never see them again. If I am to leave this place right now and return in two years’ time, I probably will not see the same people here. They will all have left in search of other job opportunities or will have returned to their families.
About two weeks ago, I walked into my classroom, realized that one of my students was missing, and asked the other students where she was. They told me she moved back to Myanmar. Just like that. She’s gone. Her parents took her back to Myanmar in search of job opportunity. And now I’ll never see her again. She was one of the shyer students in the class. It had taken her about 2 months to warm up to me and practice her English with me. The day before she left, we spent time together during lunch. I taught her an English song and she showed me her favorite Burmese songs. I wish I would have known that that was the last time I would spend with her.
This happens quite frequently. Burmese migrants are constantly on the move. It’s no surprise to any of the students when their best friend takes off and leaves the next day, never to return. It’s an adjustment with which I am trying to familiarize myself. But there are some things that I will never adjust to…such as what happened last night.
Last night, I went out with the ladies from my football team to have a celebratory dinner after our tournament. One of the women (I’m not giving out names in this blog, so we’ll call her Sarah) received a phone call during dinner. She found out that her 13-year-old nephew just died of brain cancer.
That 13-year-old boy was my student.
He was my friend.
Sarah had been caring for him for years. She was a mother to him, more than his real mother would have ever been. She would drive hours to the hospital and stay up all night with him. She sacrificed so much. Every time I saw her, she was always caring for him.
She took him to the beach during his last week. I happened to bump into them while I was walking along the beach. I sat down with him for only a couple of minutes; enough to watch the sunset with him. He spoke only a little English. He was a little more timid than the others in my grade 7 class when it came to speaking English aloud. He was shy to practice in front of me, although sometimes I would hear him say a couple sentences in English (using the vocabulary words I taught him) to his friends. That always made me smile.
We sat together and watched the sunset. We both didn’t realize it then, but that was one of the last sunsets he would ever see in Thailand. He went back to Burma for his last week, where he saw the rest of his family. At least he was able to spend some time with them before he left.
I think back at all the times I had him in class. He reminded me a lot of my little brother, Keith. He was one of the jokesters in class, always making everyone laugh. He was the kind of guy who everybody loves because he just has a peaceful, welcoming nature about him. He had the greatest, quirkiest sense of humor. Even though I didn’t understand his jokes in class (as they were all in Burmese), he always seemed to get the class roaring with laughter.
It took him longer than the others, but eventually, he became motivated to learn English. I taught him individually several times, coaching him through his vocabulary words. We were planning on learning more English songs together and performing for a set of volunteers who will be coming in February.
One of the best and worst things about teaching is that you fall in love with your students. Each one is so different, it is difficult not to become attached. You love their unique quirks, you recognize their different learning methods, you learn about their interests, you rejoice when they succeed, you encourage when they fail, you smile when they laugh, and you just simply love them.
I think I speak for every educator when I say this: A teacher’s greatest desire is to see their students achieve their dreams. When I hear my students say that they want to become doctors, engineers, and performers, all I want to do is equip them with the knowledge they need to achieve that goal. We spend a lot of time in class discussing our future short-term and long-term goals. These students have such ambitious dreams, it’s hard not to get excited about the endless possibilities they have for their future. When I look at my students in the classroom, I see future entrepreneurs, future human rights activists, and future leaders who will change the world. All they need is an opportunity. It is difficult to simply climb out of the hole of poverty without someone standing there to throw a rope. Opportunity requires change. Without change, the hole of poverty will continue to deepen. These students need an opportunity. They need someone to throw them a rope.
It is difficult to see some students never receive the other end of that rope. I will never be able to see my grade 7 student achieve his short-term or long-term goals. I will never see him achieve his dreams. It’s difficult to be powerless in a situation where reality steps in and takes over.
I tell my students that they are my friends. They tell everyone that I’m their friend. During lunch and after school, I would prefer to spend time with my students because they’re my close friends. I see them every day. I learn just as much from them as they do from me.
It’s never easy to deal with death. There is not one right way to deal with it. Right now, I feel as though death is slapping me in the face, over and over again. I can’t fight it. It’s too strong.
In the Burmese community, death is quite prevalent. Every day, I speak with my friends, who tell me about how they lost their parents at a young age, how their siblings were killed during a village raid, how they will never see their family again. I hear these stories and I cannot even fathom how they deal with them. These people are the most joyous people I have met. They have nothing…literally. I’ve seen families in Africa who have nothing, but they still have family. Here, many of my Burmese friends don’t even have family. All they have are the friends surrounding them, and that’s what makes them happy.
I think that’s why “Pye De Lie” has been such a significant song in the Burmese culture. Its message is so rich and meaningful to the Burmese people. These are people who are able to let go of their past lives that were once filled with the burning of villages, the separation of families, and the murder of loved ones. The Burmese are people who always set their eyes on the future. What’s past is past. They know how to let it be; how to let it go. They know that if they hold onto the past, they will never be able to even think about reaching the future.
That is what the song has taught me. That is what these people have taught me. No matter your past, you must always keep looking towards the future. The simplicity of the message in “Pye De Lie” has so much beauty. It relates to people from all different circumstances. All different pasts. All different hardships.
We must keep looking towards the future. What’s done is done. What’s past is past.
Below is a link to my version of “Pye De Lie.” Watch it and think of the message it conveys. Chances are you won’t understand the language (and if you do, I am genuinely impressed!), but the message is universal.