When you move into a Burmese community, probably the first thing you will learn is that they have a strange fascination with fish. The more I think about the variety of fish they have, the more I always revert to Dr. Seuss.
Dried fish, canned fish, fried fish….one fish, two fish, red fish, blue fish, green eggs and ham…wait…what?
When you think about it, every culture has a fascination with something. Americans and their peanut butter. South Africans and their biltong. Russians and their vodka. The British and their teatime. The Irish and their beer. The Spanish and their siestas. The list goes on…(sorry if my ignorant stereotypes offended anyone…)
In the Burmese and Rohingya community, their “thing” is fish. After living here for about 15 months, I’ve become pretty comfortable with this whole fishy thing. Everything smells like fish. Always. And now, thanks to the Rohingya women, my laptop, English flashcards, and basically all contents in my backpack smell like dried fish.
Not all English teachers’ backpacks smell like dried fish. I’m just a special one, for sure. Ever since the Rohingya children stopped coming to my Burmese school, I’ve started to visit their shelter every day for a couple hours. I teach the 44 refugees at the shelter, ages from 4 – 40. It’s quite overwhelming teaching all different types of levels.
The women want conversational English, the younger boys want multiplication and division, the younger girls want to learn the alphabet…sometimes I have so many people grabbing me, yelling, “Teacher! Teacher” that I just want to scream!
But I take a deep breath, and…as Mika would say, “Relax, Take It Easy.”
I try what I can and hope that they’re getting something out of it.
One thing that I noticed over these past 8 months was their behavior towards me. When I initially arrived, I felt uncomfortable. I felt as though I could tell what these women were thinking. Who does this crazy blonde think she is? She thinks she can just come in, play with the kids and teach us some English words for a couple hours and then leave and get on with her happy life?
I immediately felt some tension when I started teaching and knew that I needed to prove to these women that I’m not just here to “save the people” by teaching them English. Sure, teaching them English will help them find employment and teaching them vocational skills will provide opportunity. But English teachers come and go. Volunteers come and go. I wanted to somehow prove to them that I want to know their stories and not try to be one of those “saviors” who teaches them the ways of the English-speaking world. So I asked them to start teaching me Rohingya. I asked them to show me photos of their husbands, siblings, children, and parents. They showed me on maps where their separated family is and where they desire to go.
The more English I teach them, the more they are able to communicate.
As I teach them about emotions, they explain to me. “Teacher, my heart hurt. Very sad. Husband gone.” And I am slowly able to piece together these stories that they have been aching to tell me. The more they open up to me and share their stories, the more honored I feel to be with them. But there was one day in particular when I felt as though I finally have gained the trust of these women. That was the day they filled my entire backpack with dried fish and canned fish. One of the women comes to me and says, “Teacher, very very thank you for English teaching! Very very thank you!” Then as she speaks, two other women surround me. A third woman comes with something wrapped up in her skirt. She looks to her right and left, turns to me, smiles and says, “Shhhhh!” Then shoves whatever was in her skirt into my bag. Then she opens my front backpack pocket and shoves 4 cans of fish paste inside, turns to me, smiles, and embraces me.
Hugging is not something very common in their culture, so this really meant a lot to me. As she hugged me, she said, “Thank you, thank you Teacher Sophie. See you tomorrow.”
I dared not to open up my bag and see what they put inside. For all I know, they put some dead animal inside…which I later found out that they did.
When I opened my backpack later on, I realized that they shoved 12 whole pieces of dried fish into my backpack. If you’ve ever been to a fresh fish market, you’ll know the familiar smell of dead fish.
My entire bag was filled with that fresh aroma. My computer, notebook, pens….everything was just a little fishy that day.
Although it would’ve been nice for them to ask me if I liked fish before they shoved it in my bag, I consider it one of the biggest honors. The Rohingya have their thing. Their thing is fish. I’m honored that they wanted to share it with me. For me, it was a sign that I have finally gained their respect and trust. I’m not simply some foreigner who wants to come in and “change” their lives by teaching them English. I want to be their friend, to learn their story (because their stories are absolutely fascinating), and understand their culture.
It’s taken me about 8 months to get that dried fish shoved into my bag, but it definitely was worth the wait.
I don’t regret a single day, hour, or minute spent at that shelter. The craziness and chaos of it makes it easy for me to fit right in. I’m honored to continue to be their teacher for as long as I can.
Oh by the way, I now have 12 canned fish paste (started off as 4…keeps on adding up!) and even more dried fish. Winning!