One Fish, Two Fish, Dried Fish, Fried Fish

Asia, Burma, Burmese, English Teacher, ESL, Rohingya, Thailand, Uncategorized

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.


I even started to dress like them… “Oooh! Teacher very beautiful!”

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.


My Rohingya mother always looks out for me and provides me with my daily dose of dried fish.

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.


After months of working with them, I have finally gained their trust. And that means everything to me.

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.


Something’s fishy!

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!


The One Day Plan vs. The Five Year Plan

Asia, Burmese, English Teacher, ESL, Future, Rohingya, Thailand

What are your plans for next year? When are you going to college? What degree are you going to get? How will you find a job? What are you doing with your life? Where do you see yourself in the next five years? Ten years? Twenty years?!


The “five year plan” questions. The “what is your future” questions. The “tell me how you will become an adult” questions.

This is a shout out to all students and recent graduates. We’re all familiar with the classic “five year plan” questions. It seems to be the only topic of conversation anywhere we go. When we make it to the job interview, when we attend family reunions, even when we sit next to that stranger on the bus.

My freshman year in high school was when all the questions started to flood in. From there, I knew it was a downward spiral into the land of perpetual “future” questions. That’s just the way it is in our society. We are constantly asking the same question:

What’s next?

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with asking that question. It’s always good to plan for the next thing, to anticipate what is to come, to try and sort out your life. But what I’ve discovered in my experience is that no matter how much you plan or how much you talk about your plans, it’s never going to go the way you anticipate.

If my organized life had gone according to plan, I would be studying in my second year of university, attending my dream school on a generous scholarship with plans to study abroad next semester.

Instead, I’m sitting in a small apartment in Thailand, eating fish paste with my Burmese friends, teaching English over 10 hours a day, and trying to dodge the Burmese pythons that cross the road as I’m riding my motorbike.

I guess you could say nothing goes according to plan.

But that’s the beauty of it all, isn’t it? We can try as hard as we can to plan our futures, but in reality, life gets in the way. It’s good to have reality slap us in the face from time to time. If we lived our whole lives in a dream, always planning the next thing, we wouldn’t actually be living. We’d be dreaming. We can’t be dreaming forever. Eventually we will need to wake up.

My experiences in Thailand have taught me to spend less time dreaming and more time living. After living in a transient community where everyone migrates when they find a new job, I’ve learned to appreciate the people that surround me today. They might not be there tomorrow.

After living in a constant state of confusion, I’ve learned that life is unpredictable and I need to go with the flow.

After living in a country so vastly different from my own, I’ve learned that there are ways to easily adapt to new surroundings. You can’t do that through planning. You have to do that in the moment.

It’s taken me a while to learn that the One Day Plan can actually be better than the Five Year Plan. Even though I’ve lived here for a year, I still ask the same questions every day:

What am I doing here? What will happen when I go back to the States? Will I ever get a job? Will I ever finish my degree? Was it a good idea to come here? Or am I just a rebellious teen who is escaping the responsibilities of going to college?

I stopped following my traditional Thai One Day Plan and started to fall back to the American Five Year Plan. Coming back to Thailand after my visit in America confused me more than ever. I wasn’t sure if I made the right decision in coming back or in taking a gap year at all.


But then one day, everything changed.

That single greatest day changed the way I saw everything in my life, putting it all back into perspective.

Of course, the greatest days always seem to begin as the worst days. It was a Monday morning, I was stressed out of my mind from my usual dysfunctional school that seemed to be in utter chaos yet again. Teachers were missing, students were running around screaming my name, news reporters and donors were visiting the school…just a typical day at my Burmese school.

Not to mention this was the day when I decided to run around and catch all of the stray dogs at the school. I sent them to the vet (during my 1 hour of free time) for vaccinations and the removal of certain body parts to stop them from reproducing…

Just as I finished wrapping up my lesson with grade 5 (after the whole dog-catching shindig), I walked out of class, completely disoriented from the heat. I was heading towards my next class when I saw a van pull up to the school. Three men and a woman stepped out of the van, carrying large video equipment. They walked from class to class, pulling out each Rohingya student and interviewing them. I didn’t think much of it, so I continued going about my daily teaching routine. When the interviewers finished, they came into my classroom and asked if they could speak with me privately.

They were from VOA (Voice of America) and were writing a story about the Rohingya refugees in Thailand. The man who translated my students’ interviews was Rohingya. He approached me and said, “I want to thank you, Miss Sophie, for everything.”

“Why? What did I do?”

“I interviewed several Rohingya boys today. They told me their stories. Some of these boys were trafficked and sold into slavery. They were lucky enough to escape onto another boat and come to Thailand. Most of them have lost their parents at a young age. They have never been to school before. When I asked them if they enjoyed living in Thailand, they said that they hated it until they met you, Sophie. All they could talk about was the special English class that you offer for them. They all kept saying, ‘Miss Sophie! The English teacher! She’s so much fun and so friendly.’”

I was shocked at this feedback I got from my students. So I just laughed.


He replied, “Yes. I don’t think you understand what kind of an impact you’ve made on these boys. You’ve shown them love; something they’ve never seen before. These kids have been outcasts their whole life because of their ethnicity and religion. You’re the first person who has accepted them. Thank you so much for what you have done for the Rohingya people. We respect you and admire all the work you have done for us.”

As soon as he finished, all twenty Rohingya boys came running up to me, giving me high fives and screaming, “Miss Sophie!”

In that moment, I realized that my One Day Plan was the cause of all of this. If I hadn’t spontaneously decided (in my one hour of free time) to teach the Rohingya boys some English, maybe none of this would have happened. If I had spent time planning on teaching these boys, I would’ve realized that my schedule is way too chaotic to start an additional English class. But I didn’t care. I was all in the One Day Plan as opposed to the Five Year Plan.

Although I do admit that my One Day Plan has made my teaching days a lot longer and more stressful, in the long run, it has paid off. All the stressful questions of my future have disappeared as I continue to stick with my One Day Plan philosophy. I realize now that there is nowhere else in the world where I am supposed to be. I am finally in the right place.

Today, I'm right where I'm meant to be.

Today, I am right where I’m meant to be.

What’s beautiful about a One Day Plan is that it is what molds one’s Five Year Plan. I know for a fact that my Five Year Plan has changed even from when I met these young Rohingya boys. I know that I want to continue helping these people and working to change their situation.

Sometimes a person's One Day Plan can change someone else's Five Year Plan.

Sometimes a person’s One Day Plan can change someone else’s Five Year Plan.

I only hope that my One Day Plan has influenced and changed the Rohingya boys’ Five Year Plan for the better. I hope they are able to look to their futures and see more glimpses of hope and opportunity. If their lives were touched by me even in the slightest, whether it is having a new friend or learning a new English word, that is proof that sometimes the One Day Plan can be better than the Five Year Plan.