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.

23854068379_22e8f2f169_o

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.

10401133_10208401060282485_5287510688047810111_n

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.

22315709853_b38aaf3a0c_k

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.

24530520816_8a109be26b_o

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.

734802_10153765651830120_4926561024017674980_n

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.

10628189_10208401045842124_447164238741846609_n

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.

1915283_10153765651505120_2721931616008344228_n

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.

12466011_10208347144134615_5233299538380365730_o

“Don’t forget us, Teacher.”

 

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The more English I teach them, the more they are able to communicate.

22749528460_289949beb3_o.jpg

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.

22948045251_2a7495b455_o.jpg

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

My entire bag was filled with that fresh aroma. My computer, notebook, pens….everything was just a little fishy that day.

23352264682_4f94fd6bd7_o

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

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.

23164682910_1561c8fe1e_o

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?!

AHHH STOP!

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.

10386769_10152497663686596_8311540443451416312_n

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.

“Really?”

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.

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!”

1606836_10206251352581136_7342439833937947900_n

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.