From Rwanda 1994 to Myanmar 2016

Asia, Burma, English, English Teacher, ESL, Family, Rohingya, Students, Thailand, Trafficking, Travel, Uncategorized, USA

“I had a good friend from Rwanda. We met in high school. She was an exchange student at our school. We became best friends. But she went back to Rwanda after studying abroad in the States.”

“Oh wow, that’s really cool! Do you still keep in contact? Have you visited her in Rwanda?”

“No. She died in the genocide.”

Those moments when you’re completely speechless. Those casual conversations that suddenly take a turn and you weren’t prepared for what you were about to hear. This was one of those conversations.

We don’t usually like to have these kinds of conversations. They’re unpleasant and quite frankly, seem to “dampen the mood” in the room. I get it, it’s not fun to talk about. After coming back to the States, I’ve realized that it’s a lot easier to avoid these rough conversations. In Thailand, it seemed so effortless to talk to my students about their deceased parents, to listen to them describe the day they fled for their lives, or hear about how they will never be able to contact their brother because he disappeared in the middle of the night. That’s because it’s a reality for the people there. Not as much in America.

The closest we get to a reality like this is by the news alerts on our phones, which we’ll check if we have a couple minutes to spare. Maybe we’ll scroll through the article for a minute or two to read about what’s going on in the world. Another children’s hospital is bombed in Syria, another train crash kills 100 people in India, another civil war rages in some distant country in Africa. It’s terrible to say, but the topic of mass death is becoming somewhat of a regular topic in the news. Every other news alert I read on my phone has something to do with a shooting, a bombing, or a natural disaster that has killed hundreds, if not thousands.

“Please, let’s talk about something else. This is so depressing.” I hear that a lot. It’s easy to take a quick 30-second glance at these news reports and then carry on with our regular lives. It’s easy to forget about these news reports…because there’s just going to be a new one tomorrow morning and we’re going to feel depressed once more. And yet again, we can’t do anything about these news alerts. All we can do is read them and carry on with our regular activities. We’re powerless.

I’ve finally reached a tipping point with this realization of feeling powerless. A couple days ago, I received an email from my good friend in Malaysia. He’s a Rohingya and I had the privilege of meeting him in Kuala Lumpur where he shared his incredible story with me. Rendered stateless in Myanmar due to his status as an ethnic minority, he grew up in a refugee camp, was trafficked several times, and has since dedicated his life to fight for the freedom of his people. I admire him so much and the passion he has for seeking justice for his people. He emailed me a report to proofread (my job as an English teacher never ends!), a report that made this whole Rohingya situation just a little more real for me. The report is dense and lists in explicit detail the injustices that the Rohingya have faced against the Myanmar government just from October of this year.

I think the reason why it hit me so hard was because each recorded date and event I read about in the report made me recall exactly what I was doing that very same day.

On October 10th, while seven Rohingya villagers were shot down in Rakhine State by the Burmese security forces, I was studying at a coffee shop.

On October 25th, while five girls aged 16 – 18 were raped by security forces in another village, I was planning my epic Halloween costume (which was pretty epic, by the way).

On November 12th, while the Burmese army opened fire with helicopters near villages in Maungdaw, I was teaching a piano lesson.

Talk about putting things into perspective. This reality hit me the night before Thanksgiving, when I was finally able to fully grasp what exactly is going on in Myanmar right now. These events are seeming all-too familiar…they make me think of the 1994 Rwanda genocide because that’s what these events are becoming. A genocide. And it’s going on right now.

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The very thought of losing one of the Rohingya kids I met was hard enough, let alone all of them. I thought of all the incredible Rohingya people I have met and of their family members they spoke of; the ones who were still in Myanmar. Are they alive? Or are they going to become another statistic in another genocide? Maybe they’re already a victim of genocide…I just don’t know.

I became overwhelmed with this feeling of powerlessness. Here I am proofreading an English report that is documenting the lives of these people who could very well be the friends and family of my Rohingya friends in Thailand. And all I can do is just change the grammatical errors in this report.

Suddenly, all of those news reports seemed to attack me personally. The more death reports I read, the more I felt as though I was mourning the loss of a close friend, over and over again. And it’s happening as I write this. There’s nothing I can do about it, and that’s what scares me. I can’t handle the feeling of not being in control and letting these things happen. Genocide is happening and I have never before felt more emotionally involved. This is happening to my friends and their family members.

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I don’t know why exactly I decided to write about this. Maybe it’s because I haven’t been able to sleep and it’s all I feel I can do right now. I wish I could do so much more. Right now, all I can do is spread awareness of this current genocide that is happening against the people I love and miss so much.

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If this blog makes you decide to take an extra minute to thoroughly read those news alerts about the Rohingya, then I’m happy to have helped with that. These aren’t just news alerts we should scroll through within 30 seconds of skimming the title. Save all the article skimming for the updates on the Kardashians. That’s when skimming is necessary. But crimes against humanity in Myanmar are real events that are happening right now. As unpleasant as it is, we need to address these issues and stay up-to-date with the events. Genocide is real. It’s happening today, on November 27th, 2016.

“Don’t Forget Us.”

Asia, English, English Teacher, ESL, Gap Year, Students, Thailand, Travel, Uncategorized, USA

“Teacher Sophie! Teacher Sophie! Come, come, come!”

My student rushes into the office, urgently motioning towards the door. “Let’s go!” he says.

When I get up to follow him out the door, I start to hear music from the outside. “Please come with me,” he says as he ushers me towards the dining hall.

As I approach, I see every single one of my students seated, each holding beautifully wrapped presents decorated with flowers and letters and all sorts of “Made in Myanmar”-like decorations.

I look around the room to see the walls completely decorated with countless posters, which the students must have spent hours working on. One of the posters included a drawing of “Teacher Sophie” with her hair in braids and ukulele in hand, surrounded by students. Classic.

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Everywhere I looked, I saw different posters drawn by my students. Each one was unique, but they each had a similar message.

“Don’t forget me.”                    “Don’t forget us.”                    “Don’t forget Thailand.”

 

As I enter the area, the students start to cheer. One of my students pulls up a chair for me in the front of the room, reaches for a letter in his back pocket, and starts to read it. The whole crowd becomes silent as he reads it aloud.

It was the most beautifully written letter. I had no words to say.  A couple weeks before, I remember he approached me and said, “Teacher, I wrote a goodbye letter for you. I know you will cry.”

So at the end of each sentence, he would look up and watch me closely, waiting for me to cry. He just wanted the satisfaction of saying that he made Teacher Sophie cry. And he succeeded.

He finishes the letter with the words, “Don’t worry, we be happy. I wish you to be always happy,” then quickly shoves the letter back into his pocket.

Several others came up and read their letters to me. One of my top students comes up and begins to stutter. I ask him what’s wrong because he is normally the class clown; the one filled with confidence and able to steal the show. This is the first time his goofy grin was wiped off his face. He timidly pulls me close and whispers in my ear, “Teacher, I cannot speak. I am very sad. I don’t know what to say.” He looks me in the eyes for a brief moment, then walks away without looking back.

Several more students along with teachers came up to appreciate and acknowledge the work I did at the school. Every person was genuine and every word spoken meant everything to me. Just as we were about to finish up, I looked towards the back of the room to see something I never anticipated.

Four of my students who dropped out of school to work were standing there with gifts. These kids work insane amount of hours at their jobs and rarely receive days off of work. They’re lucky enough to get 1 day off a month. And they all took the day off just to say goodbye to me. They came up to me and we embraced in a group hug. One of the boys takes the microphone in front of everyone and delivers the most impressive speech. A speech I couldn’t even imagine him saying just one year ago.

“Thank you, Sophie, for everything you did for me. You helped me improve my English for my work. Because of you, I have a good job and can make money for my family. Because of you, I can have hope for a future. We all thank you very much for everything you have done. Please don’t forget us when you go back to America. Please come back to us soon. We love you and we miss you.”

As if it wasn’t hard enough to try and stay calm and collected after that, my student runs up and sets up a laptop.

“Teacher, I made a slideshow for you! So you will never forget us!”

 

As the slideshow pulls up, I realize that he included every single song that was special between us (including the famous “Let It Goooooooo!”). It was adorable. As the slideshow played, the students lined up one by one to give me their gifts. I was (quite literally) drowning in a sea of perpetual gift-giving students. I had no place to move or to put the gifts, there were so many.

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How in the world am I supposed to fit these gifts into my backpack and then travel across Southeast Asia?

Ah. English teacher problems.

As they gave their gifts, they left one-by-one. The remaining students were the oldest ones, the students I bonded with the most.

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They approached me with tears in their eyes. I realized this is probably the last time I will ever see them again. So I decided to tell them everything. I told them about my depression in America, how I had come to Thailand because I was discouraged and lost. I told them how they showed me a new world; opened my eyes to a different perspective that I never anticipated I would see.

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Now there’s no going back. Thanks to them, I have hope for a future filled with more incredible friendships, endless laughter, and opportunities to make a difference. I just needed someone to show me the world. And they did that for me.

This was the day when it finally hit me. My time is over. I’m finished. I’m leaving the community that warmly welcomed the Scandinavian-ly white American drama queen into their lives. They introduced me to fish paste, longyis (traditional Myanmar skirts), and internet fame. They showed me a whole new side of the world that I never thought I would see. They redefined the meaning of kindness and hospitality, welcoming me into their “Big Fat [Burmese] Family.”

 

It’s pretty difficult for me to describe just how unique and unpredictable these past 16 months have been for me. I guess all I can say is that you had to be there.

Right before he left the classroom, my student, who was the initial one to read his letter to me, pulls me aside and slips a piece of paper in my hand. He says to me, “You can’t read it now. Only when you are back in America. Promise you won’t read it before, OK?”

I kept that piece of paper with me for the next 3 months while traveling through Southeast Asia. I waited for 3 months to open up that letter. Keeping it in my ukulele case, I saw it every time I took my ukulele out to play. It was absolute torture not opening it earlier, but I kept reminding myself about the promise I made to him.

When I finally arrived in Los Angeles, I opened up the piece of paper. I was so relieved when I found out what it was. It was something I couldn’t stop thinking about and I was finally able to see it again.

It was the same letter that he read aloud at school that day.

“Don’t worry, we be happy. I wish you to be always happy.”

From the dozens of letters I received when leaving, I realized that the one I was holding in my hands was the first and last letter I ever read from my students. What a beautiful realization to have. And what an absolutely perfect way to end this chapter in my life.

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“Don’t forget us, Teacher.”

 

A Spoon-Feeding Education

Burma, English, ESL, Gap Year, Migrants, Students, Thailand

“Stop, teacher! STOOOOOOP!” is what I hear from a classroom as the windows shut and doors slam. I hear shouts of “She is coming! Coming!” in Burmese and I stop walking towards the classroom, confused about whether to continue walking or not. The students seemed pretty adamant about keeping me away from the classroom…is English class really that awful? I’ve only given them a couple painful pop quizzes…right?

Suddenly, two hands cover my eyes and another hand takes hold of me and guides me forward. Confused and a little disoriented, I continue walking (or should I say stumbling) to the classroom. I bump into a couple bushes here and there and stub my toe on the cement step.

Ouch.

But don’t worry, it was worth it. When I finally opened my eyes, I was standing in a pitch black room with 5 candles that lit the area. I looked around to see my grade 8 students surrounding me, saw the presents around the desk, and the beautiful cake that had my name written in Thai. They all began to clap and sing, “Happy Birthday” for me. It was surprising to say the least. I barely had any time to think of a wish before I blew out my candles. Then they opened the doors and windows and I saw that they decorated the classroom and wrote messages all over the whiteboard (with perfect English, I might add; an English teacher’s paradise!).

These kids are keepers!

These kids are keepers!

Then they handed me a knife and I cut one slice onto a plate. They gave me a “special” spoon. I call it special because not only was it the only spoon they had, but it was decorated in red and pink ribbon with a flower woven into the design.

Whoa. Fancy.

I was able to experience my first Burmese birthday. One at a time, the students took turns to shove a huge piece of cake into my mouth. Yeah, that’s right. I was spoon-fed a HUGE slice of cake by my students. Kind of a strange experience to say the least. As if that wasn’t weird enough (they were taking videos and photos at the time as well), they gave me the spoon and had me spoon-feed each student individually. After a quick frosting fight (in which I received the majority of the frosting on my face), they took me around the school to give cake to each teacher. I found it hilarious, mostly because the teachers didn’t even acknowledge that it was my birthday, let alone the huge splotches of frosting on my face. Instead, they saw me coming with the cake and just opened their mouths as wide as they could. They just waited until I would shove some cake in their mouth. Afterwards, they smile (with the cake in their teeth) and say, “Happy birthday!”

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That’s the Burmese tradition. You serve cake to all your friends (with the same spoon) and then at the very end, you take the last bite of the cake. The greatest part about the tradition is seeing full-grown adults just close their eyes and open their mouths…what do they expect me to do? “Ok, here comes the big airplane! Vroooooom vrooooooom!” and playfully “fly” it into their mouths?

Well…yeah. That’s basically what I did to each staff member. Absolutely hilarious. I’ve heard of schools that spoon-feed their students (academically, of course), but this is the first time I have witnessed a school that (quite literally) spoon-feeds the students and teachers. Another refreshing Burmese moment.

So that’s how I spent the morning of my 19th birthday. I can safely say, as strange as it was, I had a great time. I was really touched by my students’ generosity and just how determined they were to wish me a happy birthday. I’m not very interested in telling people when my birthday is. I avoided telling people this year, but somehow one of my grade 8 students found out. They quickly scrambled around town in search of the perfect cake and candles (which, by the way, is incredibly hard to come by in Thailand). It meant so much to me to see the thought that went into my birthday surprise. From the intricate drawings on the whiteboard to the “Burmese for Beginners” book that I received, my students definitely know how to make me feel special. I am so lucky to have such strong relationships with each of them. I mean, what students would build a Frozen jigsaw puzzle, stick it on poster board, and give it to you as a gift? These kids are keepers, I’m telling you.

That’s not the only reason why my birthday was so special this year. I was able to hand my students back their English final exams, showing their improvement this year. They were all ecstatic with their grades and continued to thank me over and over again for being their teacher. The kids went crazy when they saw the English resources I gave them. I also gave each student a class photo and wrote, “Never stop studying English” on the back. It was special when one of my students (who struggles speaking English in class) came up to me and said, “Teacher, I never stop studying English. I want to visit you in America and speak English.”

"Teacher, I never stop studying English!"

“Teacher, I never stop studying English!”

Today, I was presented with one of the greatest birthday gifts I could have ever received; my students’ gratitude. They each came up to me throughout the day and thanked me for being their teacher. They wrote me letters, bought me ice cream (yeah, that’s always a plus!), and sang their favorite English songs for me. My students’ gratitude has shown me, as cheesy as it sounds, that dreams really do come true.

I guess I should elaborate.

365 days ago, I was a different person. Depressed and miserable on my 18th birthday, I didn’t see much use in living a life of failure. Like most seniors in high school, I was stressed, worn out, insecure, and had no plans for the future. I hated myself for everything I was…and for everything I wasn’t. I was depressed; so depressed to the point of wanting everything to end. The world would be a better place without me. It’s not like anyone would’ve missed me…for months, I contemplated ending it all. I didn’t see much use in living a life where I’m useless…I felt useless if I couldn’t win the scholarships I wanted to win, if I couldn’t attend the school I wanted to attend, if I couldn’t prove what I wanted to prove to my friends and family. I felt like a failure. I couldn’t live with myself, knowing that I was such a failure. I even started cutting myself in hopes to make the pain feel more physical than emotional. To me, physical pain was better to feel than emotional pain. It was my way of escaping. My way of thinking that I could set things right if I just stopped feeling emotional pain. I finally hit a wall. I wanted it all to end.

I had only one dream at the time: my dream was to feel needed. I just wanted to find someone who really needs my help. Someone who needs me for who I am and for what I can offer. Skeptical of it ever coming true, I gave up.

That’s when the miracle happened. I remember crying on my drive home from work one night (like I did most nights), desperate to find an opportunity where I could feel needed. As soon as I arrived home, the first thing I see on my Facebook is a status about the teaching position in Thailand. I figured that I had nothing else to lose, so I might as well apply.

365 days later, here I am. My dreams are coming true. I realized that I don’t need the perfect grades, the best resume, or even a university degree to be needed. My students have shown me that you don’t have to be the perfect scholar or educator to be needed. Sometimes what people need the most is a friend. I may not be the greatest or most qualified English teacher, but I know that these students are just happy to have me as their friend. If a friend is what they needed this year, I am so grateful to have offered my friendship to them. If an English teacher is what they needed this year, I am so grateful to have offered my English skills to them. I’m just grateful that they needed me. Because there is no doubt in the world that I needed them more than anything.

My students’ gratitude has shown me that I am needed by someone. It only took 19 years and a trip across the world for me to realize that. I’m glad I finally reached that realization.

I’m just grateful that they needed me. Because there is no doubt that I needed them more than anything.

I’m just grateful that they needed me. Because there is no doubt that I needed them more than anything.

Even though the spoon-feeding of Burmese teachers was pretty entertaining, I’d have to say that the highlight of my day as when I took a group video of my grade 6 students. Before I pressed record, I said, “Ok, class. At the count of three, everyone say, ‘We love school!’” and one boy said, “No, teacher. We say, ‘We love English teacher, Sophie!’”

And at the count of three, that’s exactly what they said.

That’s when I realized that I needed my students just as much as they needed me. I’ll never forget them and I hope they won’t forget me.

Today is the last day of school. I’m not sure if I will ever see some of these students again, knowing the unpredictable lifestyle of the Burmese migrants. Most of them will enter the workforce as they are between the ages of 13 and 16. Others will move back to Burma. Whether they continue their education or begin working their jobs, I am happy to have helped them when they needed an English teacher and friend.

I am also happy to have celebrated my first Burmese birthday in Thailand.