College Unbound

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How I Walked Away with my Bachelor’s Degree in 14 Months — Debt-Free

In 2017, I traveled on 19 airplanes, visited 23 cities in 8 different countries, started my own business with 3 additional internships, and graduated debt-free with my bachelor’s degree.

I’d say 2017 was a fairly productive year on my end. None of it would’ve been possible without Western Governors University (WGU), a self-paced program that offered ultimate flexibility and affordability to pursue a college degree.

The traditional four-year college isn’t for everyone. It’s costly and time-consuming, but it’s the most common path to take, so why not just jump on the bandwagon? It’s difficult to be the small fish in a big pond, not to mention the part where you drown in a massive pile of debt. For those of you who are like me — restless, poor, and constantly looking for ways to “beat” the system, this post is for you.

I’ve had a lot of people ask me how I was able to finish my degree in this unconventional way, so I’m going to highlight some of my go-to strategies:

Credits

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CLEP, CLEP CLEP!

  • My work in high school (quite literally) paid off when I found a school that accepts AP credits. I managed to transfer in 33 credits from AP classes into WGU.
  • CLEP, CLEP, CLEP! Once I realized that WGU accepts CLEP credits, I started “CLEPing” out of the generic freshman classes. Each test costs between $80-$100 and you walk away with 3 college credits after studying for 1 – 2 weeks.
  • By the time I was accepted into WGU, I entered as a second semester sophomore, thanks to those AP and CLEP exams.

Time Management

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Starting my own business gave me the ultimate flexibility while gaining teaching experience.

  • WGU’s tuition is based on a 6 month flat-rate tuition. This means I can take as many classes as I want during a 6-month period and pay the same amount. The moment I realized I could compete against myself, I knew that this was the perfect school for me. A constant competition to win against myself!
  • I started my own piano teaching business for ultimate work flexibility. It also gave me a steady income while gaining business and teaching experience. I ran my piano business from 3:00 – 8:00pm, leaving plenty of time before and after work for studying.
  • Each class was self-paced, which means I could take a class for a week and pass the exam or stretch it out over 6 weeks. I mapped out a plan to crank out the easy classes quickly so I could prioritize the more difficult ones.

Setting Goals

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A plane ticket to Nepal was the greatest motivation to finish Finance and Accounting.

  • I made a point to keep myself motivated by setting goals for every class.
  • Kayak Explore was my ultimate carrot on a stick. I only allowed myself to check it out after I would pass a class…and I usually would end up purchasing an impulsive plane ticket to some exotic place (hence, the 19 airplanes).

Finances

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When your parents pick you up at the airport in traditional Burmese longyis. #relationshipgoals

  • WGU is a reasonable school and with their flat rate tuition, you can make it as cheap or as expensive as you want. It all depends on how quickly you can get through the classes.
  • I also jumped on the opportunity to find random scholarships and was awarded a couple of them. Even those small $500 per semester scholarships add up!
    Running my own business helped pay my way through school and save up for traveling.
  • To graduate debt-free, I decided to move back in with my parents to cut costs on living expenses. This was a lifesaver as I am not tied down by any debt and can take off whenever I want. Plus, they were always there to pick me up from the airport at odd hours of the night.

    Traveling

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Traveling motivated me to finish school even faster.

 

  • Online school can get lonely very quickly. Without classmates, it was difficult to find community and friends. Luckily, with the flexibility of online school, I was able to travel quite frequently and meet people along the way while keeping up with classes.
  • Traveling not only let me meet incredible people, but it also motivated me to study and finish school even faster (so I can travel more, of course!).
  • Online school gave me the flexibility to take classes wherever I wanted — coffee shops, libraries, airports, buses, etc.

Professors

  • The major reason why people don’t choose online school is because they feel like they’re treated as a number and cannot establish a personal relationship with their professors.
  • My experience was quite the opposite. WGU is known for its personalized one-on-one faculty support designed to fit the modern life.
  • I had an incredible student mentor who called me once a week to discuss my progress, goals, and study habits. She would answer my emails and phone calls at anytime of the day, even on the weekends. The only time she didn’t call me was when I was in Nepal and had no service.
  • When I would send in a paper to a course professor, they would call me up and walk me through the paper, sentence-by-sentence, to ensure that I had the highest success. That kind of one-on-one attention doesn’t happen in a typical state college.
    WGU has gone above and beyond to ensure that their services are accessible for students at anytime.

Study Less, Exercise More

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Morning runs with Jackson beat last-minute cram sessions any day.

  • In high school, I locked myself in my room and studied all day long. On snow days, weekends, and holidays — all I did was study. I decided to approach college in a different way, creating a new philosophy: Study less, exercise more.
  • I spent my mornings running up mountains instead of doing last minute cram sessions before exams. I started trying out new activities – Freeletics, trail running, rock climbing, kickboxing, yoga, etc.
  • I was able to think and perform more effectively in school and noticed a substantial increase in my exam grades. Now I realize that my parents were right the whole time…exercise really does change everything. Who knew?!

Staying Motivated

  • I was able to stay motivated by setting specific goals, travel plans, and weekly routines. A lot of people need the structure of a brick and mortar school to stay motivated and meet deadlines. With online school, I created my own deadlines and set my own exam dates. It worked out great for me, but online school isn’t for everyone.
  • If you are considering an online program, make sure you can create a system where you will stay motivated by setting specific deadlines.

Conclusion

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I didn’t know anyone to approach college the way I did, so I was extremely hesitant to try it out. I decided to take a chance and try it out. Luckily it worked! If you’re interested in taking this approach to college, now you know that it is possible and quite accessible.

While online school isn’t for everyone, it’s a perfect alternative for those interested in pursuing a degree in a quick, affordable, and flexible manner. With the rise of MOOC’s (Massive Open Online Courses) and schools like WGU, there are now options for individuals who choose to forgo the traditional 4-year college experience. I can confidently say that it was the best decision I made.

From Rwanda 1994 to Myanmar 2016

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“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.”

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“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.”

 

One Fish, Two Fish, Dried Fish, Fried Fish

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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 Luck of Time

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“What makes life valuable is that it doesn’t last forever, what makes it precious is that it ends…I know that now more than ever.”

I know that now more than ever.

Out of all graduation speeches that I have heard (and believe me, I’ve heard a lot), I can safely say that Gwen Stacy’s speech is by far the best. Granted, it was written by a professional screenwriter and not some overly-enthusiastic-to-graduate-18-year-old. Nonetheless, the speech delivered a powerful message; something we can all relate to, whether we are graduating now or not.

Up until today, I thought that the speech was just that; a good graduation speech. I never gave much thought about it — mostly because the only reason why I watch Spiderman is to gaze at Andrew Garfield for 2 hours (guilty!). But now, I was able to view Spiderman on a whole different level.

Today, as I experienced one of the hardest and most contradictory days of my life, I realized that Gwen Stacy’s words hit me so much deeper than I thought.

If you think of the worst thing that could ever happen to you right now, what would it be? When I ask myself that question, I usually think of the same nightmare; the dream I hope will never come true.

That same nightmare I always dread actually became a reality for one of my dear friends.

On Saturday, my student’s father died a sudden death; completely without warning. He came home from work, ate dinner, took a shower, and sat down to watch TV with his wife. Suddenly, he ran out of air and started choking. There was no time to do anything. Within a few short minutes, he was gone. His wife tried everything she could, but it was too late. That’s it.

One minute he was perfectly healthy, relaxing after a long day of work, and the next moment, he’s gone.

Just like that.

And he was only 42 years old.

My 14-year-old student lost her father. She came home from her friend’s house to find out that her father was gone forever.

She didn’t get to say goodbye or tell him how much she loved him. In the blink of an eye, he was taken away from her, never to be seen again.

My nightmare became her reality.

When I heard the news, I immediately thought of my own family. I could never imagine living a nightmare where my parents or siblings are taken away from me in a matter of minutes. No time for goodbye, no time to process, no time for anything.

Today I went to the funeral. It was the first Buddhist funeral I had attended, so I was obviously a little unfamiliar with the rituals they were performing. Of course, I was not surprised when I first entered and they immediately sat me down and offered me the most amazing feast. Of course. The Burmese never seem to disappointment in that department. I was prepared for that.

I wasn’t prepared for seeing my student. I wasn’t prepared for seeing her mother. I wasn’t prepared for meeting the man who had been her father’s best friend since the age of four.

I thought I’d seen suffering before today. I was wrong. I have never seen so much pain, sorrow, and grief together in one room before. As I entered the funeral, I spent some time in the main area, seated with the other guests who were interacting with the Buddhist monks. After a short ceremony, we went outside, where they displayed the coffin. The crowd starting coming, surrounding the casket. As I looked around, I realized just how much influence this man had in his community. Crowds of people started to flood in from all areas. A father, a friend, and a beloved husband, I could tell that this man had changed so many lives. What I would give to meet him right now.

Just as I looked around, astounded by the amount of people who showed up, I heard a blood-curdling scream. A woman pushed through the crowd, screaming and crying. She began kicking at the ground, punching the walls, shoving around tables.

She was yelling in Burmese, so I only caught a little bit of it. I could hear her scream, “Why” over and over again. I realized I saw her during the ceremony. She was unusually calm. When she spoke with her friends, she forced a smile on her face. But as soon as she saw the coffin, she broke. It was as if the shock was over and reality stepped in.

Several men came to pull her back and calm her down, but that made her struggle and kick even more. The more I heard her scream, the more pain I felt for her. Every time she screamed, I felt as if I was being stabbed in the heart over and over again.

As the crowd stood there, listening to the woman screaming, I couldn’t help but think, “That could be me. That could be me. If this was my mother, father, sister, or brother, I would do the same.”

I looked over at my student, who looked as though she hadn’t slept nor stopped crying for days. Her eyes conveyed so much suffering, so much pain. You shouldn’t have to see that much suffering in the eyes of a beautiful 14-year-old girl. It’s just not fair.

When we carried the body to the Buddhist temple, my student marched in the front, holding a photo of her father. She is by far the bravest, strongest 14-year-old I have ever known. Following her, tons of Burmese men, women, and children walked to the temple. When we reached the building, we stayed outside while the family members went inside. From the outside, I could hear women screaming, men weeping, and children crying. I’ve seen people cry at funerals before, but nothing prepared me for what I saw today. I saw a whole new side to the word, “suffering.” I never knew what pain looked like until now.

The sudden death of this man shocked everyone. There is no way to describe the ominous black cloud that loomed over this funeral. It was different from other funerals, probably because of the sudden death. There was no time for anyone to process what was going to happen. Suddenly, he was just gone.

There’s nothing you can say to someone who had lost someone so suddenly with no way to say goodbye. There was nothing I could do. I felt completely helpless.

Today was strangely contradictory because several hours after the funeral, I attended a birthday party for my 5-year-old neighbor. I felt strange attending a birthday after I had just witnessed one of the most painful funerals of my life. It was as if I was trading a life for another. I felt as though I shouldn’t even attend the party. I went home early, feeling uneasy. While I was sitting in my house, I heard them start to sing Happy Birthday. It was about halfway through the song when the words of Gwen Stacy came to my head:

“What makes life valuable is that it doesn’t last forever, what makes it precious is that it ends…”

As I heard those words, I jumped up, ran outside and joined the tone-deaf Burmese Happy Birthday singers. I spent the evening celebrating the life of my 5-year-old friend. When I thought of Gwen Stacy’s words, I realized that life truly is valuable. We need to celebrate life; whether it’s a celebration for turning 5 years old or a celebration of one’s finished life; life should be celebrated.

There are so many questions that will remain unanswered. We can never answer the questions of why life chooses to end.

I don’t know why my student’s father passed away so suddenly.

I don’t know why my 13-year-old student’s life was taken by a brain tumor last year.

I have no idea why life ends when it does and why it begins when it does, but I know that life is precious. It’s precious because it doesn’t last forever. That’s just it. Life ends. And just like everything with an expiration date, it needs to be celebrated while it is still here. We need to realize that time is luck.

I don’t know when life will end for me…or when it will end for the ones I love. But that’s why life is truly beautiful. It’s beautiful because it’s unpredictable. There is such beauty in unpredictability. This unpredictability creates a sense of urgency. Maybe if we realized how short life truly is, we would stop living a life we don’t want and start living a life we do want. There would be more urgency to follow our passions and spend time with the ones we love. Because it’s only a matter of time when we will be gone. I can’t ask for more time. None of us can. That takes away the beauty of it. The beauty of unpredictable time. The only time I have is right now.

“So don’t waste it living someone else’s life, makes yours count for something. Fight for what matters to you, no matter what. Because even if you fall short, what better way is there to live?”

The One Day Plan vs. The Five Year Plan

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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.

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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.

The (supposedly) Greener Grass on the Other Side

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“He was the single most hopeful person I have ever met…”

If I was Toby Maguire, those would’ve been the words I used to describe Leonardo DiCaprio in The Great Gatsby. Jay Gatsby, the man who had “an extraordinary gift for hope” and possessed a “heightened sensitivity to the promises of life…” (Fitzgerald).

But I’m not Toby Maguire. Not even close. Somehow, when I heard him speak those words in the film, they resonated with me. Every time I hear this quote, I can’t stop thinking about a boy who happens to be the single most hopeful person I have ever met: Siphul.

I mentioned Siphul in my previous post. He is the 12-year-old Rohingya boy who intrigues, inspires, and challenges me. His award-winning smile sparks joy. His laughter triggers excitement. But most of all, his enthusiasm ignites hope.

Hope for a better life. Hope for a better future. Hope for a sense of belonging.

If there’s a way to sum up Siphul in one sentence, Toby Maguire (or, I guess the screenwriter of the film) has already nailed it.

“He was the single most hopeful person I have ever met…”

It hit me one day when I was sitting next to him, watching him write his name in his new book I just gave him. He stopped, put down his pencil, and looked up at me with wide eyes filled with excitement.

“Teacher! When do you go to America?”
“I go back in 6 months.”

“Whoa!” He sat there and stared into the distance for a second, thinking of what he was going to say.

“Teacher! American men say I come to America in 6 months! 2 months finish, I get passport. I go to America. I see teacher! I study in American school. I speak English! Yes, yes, yes!”

I was really surprised when I heard this…I also had no idea what to believe. You never know what’s true when you’re speaking to a 12-year-old who’s escaped a horrific past and is barely holding on, trying to learn 3 languages at the same time.

“Whoa, really? Who spoke to you?” I answered.

“Teacher, in 3 months, my friend go to America. In 6 months, I go to America. American men say. They say I go to America. America is my new home.”

As he was saying this, several of his other friends came into the classroom. Hearing the word, “America,” they jumped up and down and shouted, “Yes, yes! We go to America, teacher! Same same! We go to America!”

Then they ran over, grabbed my hands, and started dancing with me, singing their favorite song I taught them, “Don’t worry! Be happy!”

I pretended to be excited with them, but deep down I had this nagging feeling that they’re having high hopes for something that will ever happen.

It’s difficult to be realistic with the most hopeful boys I’ve ever met. And why shouldn’t they be hopeful? They’ve had everything taken away from them. The only thing they can really hold onto is hope, so why should I take it away from them?

Instead, I did some research on my own. I tried to contact several embassies, asking them about the Rohingya refugee resettlement status. Luckily enough, we had two workers from UNICEF visit the school to meet with me talk about the Rohingya students. I asked them about the Rohingya being resettled in America. Their words were exactly as I feared. They said it is close to nearly impossible, knowing the American resettlement process (Dangit, ‘MURICA!). Even if it was possible, they will be stuck in Thailand for at least a couple more years. But they will never make it to America. If they will be resettled, it will most likely be somewhere closer, like Malaysia.

When I heard these words, I didn’t know what these boys would say if they found out; if their hopes and dreams were crushed. The next day, we spent time in class talking about different countries. I showed the students videos of America, Argentina, South Africa, Australia, and Germany. All the students were excited to compare the different countries, but when I had Siphul speak up in class, all he said was, “Teacher, I want to see the Statue of Liberty. Freedom. I want.”

I looked over to see that he had drawn the Statue of Liberty all over his notebook and wrote “My New Home” next to his American flag. It broke my heart to see that. I know that we always think that the grass is always greener on the other side. For someone like Siphul, there is no grass on his side. He’s in a desert. There is only grass on the other side. He doesn’t care what kind of grass; he just knows that there is grass. There is hope somewhere. To him, that somewhere is America; only America.

It’s like stealing candy from a child; telling Siphul about the realistic aspects of refugee resettlement. I don’t want to take away the only happiness he thinks he has found. It wouldn’t be fair.

I only hope that I am wrong and Siphul’s words of hope will be proven true when he receives his passport and hops on that plane to America.

The Great Gatsby Smile

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“How did you come to Thailand?”

“Big boat, teacher. Have many people. MANY many people!”

“Was it dangerous?”

“Yes. Dangerous. Little food. Little water.”

“Did you come with family?”

“No, teacher. Father die. Mother die. No have family. One person. Me.”

“Do you like Thailand?”

“I like school. In Myanmar I no go school. Police no like Rohingya. Have guns. I no go school.”

“How do you speak English then?”

“I love English. I find English books. I read English books. I want good speaking English. Teacher help me?”

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When I first saw the pink van pull up to our school, I had no idea who would step out of the car. None of the teachers knew, none of the students knew, even our education coordinator had no idea. We all stood outside watching as children started to step out of the van, one by one. These children looked different from the other Burmese students. Not only were they dressed in rags and incredibly thin, but they looked absolutely miserable. That’s something I’ve never seen before in a child. Such depression… such sadness.

It wasn’t long before I started to hear the other teachers mutter something about Rohingya. Then it hit me. These children are Rohingya refugees from Rakhine State, Burma.

I’ve been keeping up to date with the current Rohingya situation and was aware of the religious persecution, the violence, the statelessness that these people have endured. I hadn’t actually met a Rohingya before. I heard stories of the stranded boats loaded with hundreds of them in the Andaman Sea. I heard stories of Rohingya knowingly selling themselves to traffickers because they knew it was the only way they could escape Burma. I heard stories about Rohingya children being deprived of education in Burma. All of these were just stories that I’d read about on the news; just another tragedy I happened to stumble upon as I scrolled through the BBC news. But in that moment, as I saw the children step out of the pink van, those stories became a reality.

Our school is one of the few schools in Thailand that accepts Rohingya students. Even though the Rohingya are from Burma like our other students, they cannot speak Burmese. These Rohingya children have lived in Burma their entire lives, but they have never been to school, never learned to speak Burmese, and have never been accepted in any institution. FED is one of the first schools that has accepted these children despite their religion or educational background.

We have about 20 Rohingya students ranging from 2 – 15 years old. When I first entered the classroom to teach English, it didn’t take long for me to realize that these kids couldn’t speak English, Thai, or Burmese. There was no earthly way to communicate with these boys. None of the students or teachers could communicate with them. Perplexed about what to do, I had no choice but to continue my English lessons for my other students. I felt so guilty leaving these students in the dust. I could tell by the way they were looking at me that they were absolutely dazed and confused. I can’t blame them. They somehow managed to escape their country, something most Rohingya are not fortunate enough to do… and now they are sitting in a classroom where they cannot speak any of the three languages we use.

I tried more and more each day to include the boys. While I gave my other students classroom work, I would work individually with the Rohingya boys…but they were too shy to even look at me, let alone open up and practice their English. There never seemed to be any progress with them. Every day was the same…struggling to get them to speak, aching to see them smile, but nothing happened. The boys had fallen into such a deep depression, it was difficult to bring them back to the surface. I can only imagine what hardships they endured in their past. These boys were so young, yet they’ve been through so much. I only wish I could speak their language. I was at a point where I didn’t think there was any way I could ever get through to these boys.

That’s when I met Siphul.

Over these past 10 months, I’ve been touched by the most inspiring people. I am constantly surprised when I hear the stories of these people, the way they’ve suffered, the perseverance they’ve had, everything.

But Siphul has definitely been one of the most inspiring people I’ve ever met…or ever will meet.

There’s something about him that struck me. Maybe it was that first smile I caught from him; the first smile I ever saw from a Rohingya boy. Maybe it’s the way he cares for his younger brothers; something I would never see from an American 12-year-old boy. Or maybe it was the moment when he finally opened his mouth and spoke English to me.

It was the third week of school and I had been struggling with including the Rohingya boys in my class. None of the boys would speak to me. I was starting to wonder if I was genuinely freaking them out with my over-enthusiasm to teach English and the goofy jokes I make (I do embarrass myself quite a lot when I teach, but I figured it’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make as long as it gets the kids laughing).

But these boys still refused to talk to me. Finally, after three weeks, one boy decided to speak up.

That one boy changed everything.

Siphul’s English turns out to be better than all of my 12-year-old students combined. He speaks with broken, but incredibly comprehensible English. His listening skills are incredible. He can understand everything I say. I can tell that he understands me because every time I’d say something funny, he would nod his head and smile his award-winning celebrity smile (I’m not kidding about the celebrity smile…he’s a really good-looking kid).

Yeah, let me just talk about his smile for a second. If you’ve ever read The Great Gatsby or seen the movie, you’ll remember the first time Nick sees Gatsby smile:

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“He had one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it that you may come across four or five times in life. It faced, or seemed to face, the whole external world for an instant and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favor. It understood you just as far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself” (Fitzgerald).

Gatsby’s smile is basically the equivalent to Siphul’s smile…except he’s a 12-year-old Rohingya boy, not a 32-year-old New York elite…and his priorities are closer to staying alive and caring for his brothers rather than throwing extravagant parties to win the love of an already-wed millionaire. But nonetheless, you get the picture.

I’d spend my free time talking to Siphul. I learned all about his life. He grew up in Rakhine State, Burma. As a Rohingya, he never had the chance to attend school in Burma. He told me about his uncle, who had a large collection of English books. Every evening, from 7-10pm, he would read English books with his three younger brothers.

Siphul playing the ukulele.

Siphul playing the ukulele.

“Teacher, my dream is to speak good English. That is my dream. I want to go to America. I want to see Teacher in America.”

If only it were that easy.

As a Rohingya refugee, there’s been talk about resettling him in the States with the other boys. Knowing the resettlement process and the lengthy loopholes that they’ll have to jump through, I’m a little skeptical about that promise that the US officials gave Siphul. Of course, it would be amazing if he was able to move to America.

I showed him a photo of the Statue of Liberty and his eyes lit up and he said, “Teacher! That is my dream! Very happy in America. No happy in Burma. No happy in Thailand. Only happy in America…with Teacher.”

Siphul has become one of my closest friends at the school. I’ve learned a lot about him. He teaches me about his religion, his culture, and his language. He’ll grab an English book from the shelf, offer me a chair beside him, and read to me for hours.

The best part about speaking with him is every time he explains something to me, he looks me in the eye and says, “Teacher understand?”

Whenever I say, “Yes,” his eyes light up and he smiles his Gatsby-like smile.

It was something that Siphul said one day that got me thinking.

He said, “When Burmese teacher come to class, I no listen. When Thai teacher come to class, I no listen. When Miss Sophie come to class, I listen. Very happy. Love English class. Only English class. Only happy in English class.”

When he said this, his friends came and joined him. He muttered something to them in Rohingya and their eyes lit up and they finally smiled at me, saying, “Yes, Teacher! English class! Very like! English class! Good good!”

When I heard that, I knew I needed to do something.

That’s when it hit me. These boys were being severely bullied in the Burmese classes. The other students have been essentially taught to hate the Rohingya because they are Muslim. When I asked my adult friend about the Rohingya, all she said was that they were evil and should not exist. That’s just the way these people think. No wonder these kids were so miserable. I decided that I would teach these boys separately from my other students.

I told Siphul to tell his Rohingya friends that I would now offer English class for only Rohingya kids every day for an hour. Siphul’s eyes lit up and he smiled (ah, the Gatsby smile always makes my day!). Within the next couple of minutes, Siphul rounded up all the Rohingya kids and we all ran into a small classroom (because it was pouring rain) and gathered around. Of course I had absolutely no lesson plan and had no idea what I was going to do…but that seems to be my life around here. The students all formed a circle and motioned for me to go in the middle. I started teaching them and we had the greatest first English class. I had never seen such enthusiastic English learners in one room before. They all were at different levels of speaking, but they all helped each other. From the moment they entered the classroom, they were smiling.

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I think the best part was the fact that they couldn’t wipe the smiles off their faces.

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It was the single greatest day I’ve ever had in Thailand. I finally got to see those gorgeous Rohingya smiles. I know it’s cheesy and all, but their smiles somehow magically warm my heart. It’s difficult to describe just how they make me feel. There’s something different about their smiles. Maybe it’s because one of their smiles alone can light up a classroom. So when you put twenty of them in one room, it’s like, “BAM! We can change the world!” Or maybe it’s because when they smile, I stop wondering about their pasts and stop worrying about their futures. I realize that they’re just children who want to be children. They want to smile and be carefree. They need a time to forget about all the suffering they’ve endured.

When we’re in English class, they can finally just smile and be kids. Every child should have that right.

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Every day since then, I’ve been teaching the Rohingya kids separately. Their progress has been exponential. I am constantly amazed at the fact that these kids can speak such good English in such a short amount of time. They’ve never been to school before, yet they are speeding through my lessons. Every day they surprise me, impress me, and somehow know how to put a smile on my face. I can’t count the amount of times I’ve done the whole laughing-until-crying thing. It’s become a daily routine for me.

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The funniest boys in the world. Who knew they’d have such a great sense of humor?

The problem is these boys are refugees; temporarily placed in Thailand until some other country will actually accept them. I have no idea when that day will come, or if it will ever come. These boys live a life of unpredictability, constantly on the look to find a new home where they will finally belong. Although they belong in my school, I know that this won’t last forever.

Every day, I wait for that pink van to show up. When I see the pink van pull up, I breathe a sigh of relief. I know that they are still here; I can still be with them. I don’t have to say goodbye to them just yet.

I don’t want to think about it when that day comes…when that pink van stops pulling up in front of our school and twenty Gatsby-smiling boys stop hopping out.

That pink van changed everything. I wish I could see it every day, but I know that it will eventually stop coming. The boys will move on. They’ll find a new home. I only hope that I can prepare them as best as I can for when that day comes.

Until then, seeing that simple pink van will remain the highlight of my day.

The Forgotten People

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Genocide.

We’re all fairly familiar with the word. This is a term we’ve read about, seen movies about, and written countless essays about. We’ve seen it over and over again in history. From the Holocaust to the Rwanda Genocide, the list goes on and on.

Most of us will spend our whole lives only witnessing a genocide from our living room as we watch the nightly news. We might not ever meet a person who has been ostracized, persecuted, or even tortured for their faith. If we’re lucky, we will continue to live a safe life in a country where we can voice our own opinions and beliefs, something that others in this world will never do.

I wish we could say that after one genocide or two, the world would become peaceful. People would miraculously stop killing and start treating each other as equals.

If only it were that simple.

If only it were that simple for the Rohingya people.

I’ve decided that it’s time to shed some light on the Rohingya people. Finally, their suffering has been brought to surface by the media. I am fortunate enough to interact with these people on a daily basis, but I’m assuming you don’t. The best way to learn about this is to hear it from someone working in the field. I am working in the middle of the conflict right now. I am teaching English at a Buddhist Burmese school where we have recently welcomed over 20 Muslim Rohingya children. To say that there is ethnic and religious tension here would be an understatement. My next couple of blog posts will be concerning the Rohingya issue and I hope it helps you gain a better understanding of what’s going on.

So let’s start with this:

The Top 10 things you need to know about the Rohingya –

Taken from The Economist

Taken from The Economist

  1. There are approximately 1.1 million Rohingya in Burma. They are a Muslim ethnic minority living in northern Rakhine State (economist.com).
  2. The Rohingya originally migrated from Bangladesh thousands of years ago.
  3. In 1982, Burma released a Citizenship Law that denies the Rohingya citizenship despite the fact that these people have been living in Burma for generations. (uscampaignforburma.org).
  4. “Burmese President Thein Sein outright denies the existence of the Rohingya as an ethnic group of Burma, calling them ‘Bengali’ instead. Labeling the Rohingya ‘Bengali’ is a discriminatory, xenophobic way of erroneously implying that Rohingya are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh” (uscampaignforburma.org).
  5. Several outbreaks of violence have occurred towards the Rohingya, but one specific incident, the rape and murder of a Buddhist woman, sparked off a deadly chain of events. One incident in June 2012 left over 200 dead and thousands displaced. The violent outbreaks have continued, ultimately leaving the Rohingya with no other choice but to flee.
  6. The Buddhists hate the Rohingya for their ethnicity and religion. According to some of my Buddhist friends, the Rohingya are known as “evil” people who should never exist. In October 2012, Rakhine Buddhist communities formed mobs to attack the Rohingya, setting their entire villages in flames. Rakhine State is a part of Burma where foreign journalists and NGO aid workers have limited access, making it difficult to track the details of the situation. However, “evidence of a massacre has been steadily mounting” (theguardian.com)
  7. According to the US Campaign for Burma, one of the biggest issues is that “government officials have enforced explicitly racist policies for decades” against the Rohingya and have “failed to intervene and even participated in violent attacks against Rohingya.” The corruption in the government has fed this genocide, encouraging violence against these people. The government has “subjected Rohingya and other Muslims to discriminatory restrictions and policies of apartheid and ethnic cleansing.” The UN officials have called the internally displaced persons (IDPs) camp in Rakhine State as the “most dismal and under-served IDP camps in the world” (uscampaignforburma.org).
  8. The Rohingya have been forced to flee Burma and seek refuge in neighboring countries, including Bangladesh, Thailand, and Malaysia. Thousands of Rohingya have hopped onto crowded, leaky, tiny boats and have risked their lives to cross the Andaman Sea, hoping to find refuge elsewhere. Traffickers take advantage of their vulnerability, bringing them on the ships to take them to a new country where they will be sold. Many of the Rohingya are fully aware that they are selling themselves into slavery, but they would rather pay the trafficker to get on the boat than stay in Burma. Marmod Toyo, a Rohingya man who has a wife and four children said, “There’s not enough food back home and no work. The human trafficker came and gave me money. I knew he might sell me, but I needed it.” During the journey on sea, traffickers starve them, abuse them, and in many cases, kill them (theguardian.com).
  9. Recently, the neighboring countries, such as Malaysia, Thailand, and Indonesia do not want to accept the Rohingya refugees. When the boat of refugees arrives at the pier, the countries refuse to take them in, leaving the traffickers to abandon the people on the boat and send them stranded at sea. No food, no water, no place to go, these people remain stranded at sea, hoping and praying to find a new home soon. In the past month, around 4,000 Rohingya have landed in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, and Burma. The United Nations estimates around 2,000 migrants are still adrift somewhere in the Andaman Sea.
  10. Those who have been able to land in another country have fallen into the hands of traffickers. Recently, several camps filled with dozens of bodies in southern Thailand and Malaysia have been discovered. These have been the bodies of Rohingya people who have been taken to the trafficking camps and were tortured, starved, and killed. In Songkhla province, 26 corpses were discovered on May 1st followed by two skeletons in Phang Nga (that’s where I live). More corpses have continued to be discovered. After interviewing survivors, brokers, and police officials, NGO Fortify Rights says that these statements “suggest these grim finds may only scratch the surface of a much larger problem in which the Thai government is allegedly complicit….Survivors spoke of regular killings at camps, common graves, and torture at the hands of gang members trying to extort money from their families” (theguardian.com)

Taken from The Economist

Taken from The Economist

Brad Adams, Asia Director of Human Rights Watch says, “Each year, tens of thousands of Rohingya flee the dire human rights situation in Burma only to be further abused and exploited at the hands of traffickers in Thailand. The discovery of these mass graves should shock the Thai government into shutting down the trafficking networks that enrich officials but prey on extremely vulnerable people. Instead of sticking Rohingya in border camps or immigration lockups, the government should provide safety and protection” (theguardian.com)

For failure to combat trafficking, the US State Department recently downgraded Thailand to the worst possible rating on human trafficking: tier 3. This was displayed on the 2014 Trafficking in Persons Report.

Thailand is one of the worst countries to combat human trafficking.

Some Rohingya people are lucky enough to escape Burma, the country filled with religious persecution, sectarian violence, racist laws, internment camps, and lack of freedom. Those who leave the country that brought them so much suffering will enter another country and find themselves sold into slavery at the hands of the brokers. These are the brokers who promised them a safe refuge from Burma.

This crisis with the Rohingya people has received inadequate international attention. For all we know, this has been going on far longer than we think. Although we may be unsure of when it started, we should be entirely and unmistakably sure that it will end. Soon. Very soon. With the media picking up on the situation and the awareness spreading, there is no excuse not to step in for the sake of the Rohingya. We cannot let it continue. We cannot turn our backs on it.

As an English teacher, I feel powerless in this situation. I feel as though I am idly standing by while an entire race of people are being slaughtered. Recently, an exciting chain of events has unraveled, making me realize that I can make a much bigger impact on these victims of genocide than I ever imagined.

More on that later. For now, please share this post. Spread the awareness to your friends. Make sure everyone knows what is going on with the Rohingya people. Please check the news daily and keep up to date with the situation.

We cannot let these forgotten people remain forgotten.

Chasing the Storm

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While this blog title sounds deep and philosophical, I can safely say that there is absolutely nothing profound in the statement. I seem to gain a reputation here for (quite literally) chasing storms. I don’t know why I do it, but I always seem to get caught up in the middle of one. We’re talking actual storms here…not the metaphorical emotional storms that you overcome within yourself…no. This is the MONSOON kind of storm we’re talking about. You’d think that after 9 months of living in Thailand, I would take a hint of when it is going to rain…but I don’t. I still don’t.

If you remember my post about the first day of school last year, you’ll recall that I gave students quite the impression. I was a deer-in-headlights, naïve 18-year-old who just moved to a foreign country and wondered why on earth that was a good idea. To top it off, I took on the new blue smurf look when my blue white board marker bled all over my hands and I didn’t notice….and wiped my sweaty face continually throughout the day.

Yeah. So that was fun. I was determined to be the professional, experienced teacher this year. I refuse to have another first day of school just like my initial one. So naturally I took precautions (and made sure that all of my white board markers were functioning properly).

On the first day of school, I decided that it’d be nice to get a mango from my favorite fruit man (he sells fruit from his motorbike at the local 7/11). I got all dressed for school with my new uniform (a hot pink shirt), hair nicely pulled back, makeup done right, everything. I set out on my motorbike to the 7/11 and got my precious mango. I was so excited!

But as soon as I left 7/11, WHABAM!

Out of nowhere, a torrential downpour began. I was somehow instantly stuck in the middle of an aggressive rainstorm…and of course I forgot my helmet. So I had to squint to see anything amidst the huge droplets of water attacking my face.

If you were a local Thai or Burmese and you were in the area, you would’ve seen a soaking wet pink thing that glowed with whiteness (that would be my skin) coming towards you on a bright blue motorbike. Mango in the front basket and hands trying to cover my face and maintain control of the motorbike at the same time, I guess you could say I was a sight for sore eyes….or maybe I was the sight that made the eyes sore.

Since my house is on the way to school, I decided to stop by at my place. I was soaking wet. So wet that I slipped as soon as I stepped onto my tiled floor. Luckily I live alone and nobody saw that…except I’m writing about it in my blog now, so everyone will know…

I changed my uniform, so when I got to the school, I looked like the stupid farang (foreigner) who forgot the dress code again. I had teacher after teacher laugh at my soaking wet hair and tell me that I should’ve just put some shampoo in it while driving.

Come to think of it, that’s really an excellent idea considering I am still having a water shortage at my apartment. I’ll try that next time.

But yeah, I was soaking wet all day, even when I changed my clothes. My hair never seemed to dry, so I left puddles of water everywhere I went. I have a new student in my 8th grade class and the first thing he says to me is, “Wow! You are so wet!” We played a game where I gave my students a bunch of cards with words and they had to make sentences. I wasn’t surprised when I saw that the new student creates the sentence, “She is wet” and smiles at me.

Every day since then, that student greets me by saying, “Hello, Teacher. Today you are dry. You are not wet!” I’m glad he’s looking out for me. I expect he’ll buy me an umbrella for my birthday.

So happy and innocent on the motorbike...little did I know that 5 minutes after this photo is taken, I'll realize that it's a bad idea to wear a white shirt in rainy season Thailand...just one out of many monsoon experiences.

So happy and innocent on the motorbike…little did I know that 5 minutes after this photo is taken, I’ll realize that it’s a bad idea to wear a white shirt in rainy season Thailand…just one out of many monsoon experiences.

So at least I’m not known as the blue smurf around here anymore…just the wet girl who doesn’t know how to wear a raincoat or any waterproof clothes.

You’d think I’d learn by now that chasing storms isn’t necessarily the wisest thing to do. But I haven’t yet. Last night, I thought it was a great idea to go out for a run on the beach as the sun set and a huge storm rolled in. I figured, “Hey. I like running in the rain. It’s fun!” Yeah, NO. Not monsoon rain. And not rain with thunder and lightning. As I was running, I realized one thing: it’s raining. I’m wet. I’m in an open area on the beach. I just saw a HUGE bolt of lightning in front of me and I can feel my hair getting static. Not good.

Luckily that motivated me to run even faster back to my motorbike. It really would be embarrassing if I had been struck by lightning. The Colorado girl gets killed by lightning…in Thailand. Makes no sense.

Next time I’ll try to be more storm-smart.

Who am I kidding? I’ll probably end up chasing more storms. They just kind of pop out of nowhere. Chasing storms is always a bit of an adventure. This time I’m talking literally and figuratively. You never know what’s going to happen. You could get a slight drizzle or a heavy monsoon…never know what life’s going to throw at you. Just realize that sometimes you can be fully prepared and other times, you’re just going to have to embrace the rain and squint your eyes just so you can see the road ahead of you. Eventually the storm will end…and eventually another storm will come. But that’s life. You can’t make the rainy season end. You can only learn to improvise, adapt, and overcome.