The Luck of Time

Burma, Death, English Teacher, Family, Funeral, Thailand, Time

“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

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.

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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

Burma, Rohingya, Thailand, USA

“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 Forgotten People

Burma, Facts, Genocide, Rohingya, Thailand, Trafficking

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.

Around the World in 38 Days

Asia, Burma, English Teacher, Thailand, Travel

I always admired the movie, “Around the World in 80 Days”….mostly because Jackie Chan proves himself to be the studliest Asian that ever existed. But I also loved it because of the idea of traveling around the world. I always wondered what it’d be like to travel all the way around the world. I always wanted to do it just to say that I did it…and now I finally can! When I left Thailand on April 13th, I flew from Phuket to Seoul to Los Angeles to Colorado Springs. When I left Colorado on May 21st, I flew from Denver to New York City to Dubai to Phuket.

Granted, I spent the majority of my time people-watching in airports and trying to keep down the “mouthwatering” airplane cuisine. Since I sat in the emergency exits every time, I had the pleasure of sitting next to not one, not two, but three screaming children. One child even jolted towards the emergency exit and tried opening up the door several times. I only notice after I hear a scream in terror from a mother…a scream so horrific that I thought the world was going to end….then I look to see some toddler trying to pull the emergency exit door. After that, several adults would jump up to grab the kid. This happened a total of 11 times. I counted. Crazy Asian children.

I’m glad the airplane emergency exits aren’t that easy to open. It really would be embarrassing to have my family find out that I died because some toddler opened up the door during my flight and I got sucked out. Glad that didn’t happen. I prefer to leave this world in a more majestic and mighty manner.

I can still say that I made it around the world in 38 days. Woohoo! Making my way up (or should I say “around”) in this world.

So yeah, I guess that’s my big claim to fame. I can pretend that I am now old and experienced in traveling since I’ve done the big round-the-world excursion. The only thing that I realized (well I realized this a long time ago, but it made me realize it even more) was how small the world really is and how many places I want to visit before I die. I’m having a hard time staying put, even in my luxurious spider-infested apartment located in (what I call) “Little Burma.”

I used to think that I’d find my special place somewhere on the other side of the world, immerse myself in the language and culture and “settle down” for a while. But now, all I want to do is get up and go see a new place with new faces and new cultures. But for the moment, I guess I’ll stay put.

One of the greatest “welcome home” presents I’ve received since I came back to Thailand is what any foreigner would get: the typical “Wow! You’re so fat!” comments. This is a shout out to all white people who have ever lived in Asia before: If you’ve ever been called fat by your Asian friends, know that you are not alone!

Ever since I’ve been back, I’ve somehow become the town gossip. All people talk about is how fat I am (they really seem to highlight that), how ugly I look with pimples, and how white my skin is. The white skin part is the only positive part, apparently it makes me 50% more beautiful (yes, there is a formula to beauty, according to the Asians). As for the pimple part, I can’t help it that I’m still getting over this whole puberty thing. And the fat comment thing is just normal. I still haven’t gotten used to the fact that the guys will literally look me up and down, walk around me, and then finally say, “Ohhhh Sophie is so ugly and fat!” Gotta love cultural immersion, eh?

The other day, one of the girls picks up my arm, rubs my arm hair, looks at me and says, “You have very hairy arm. Your skin is pink. Your arm is fat. The same pork.” So that’s been my new nickname around here: Pork Skin. Apparently it’s catching on in the Burmese community, much to my excitement.

I’ve been trying to find ways to avoid being called fat, but there’s no way around it. Every day I get about 10 comments or so. I was even sitting in a meeting and was so thirsty, but I knew if I got up during the meeting, someone would look at me and comment on my weight. But I didn’t care. I was dying of thirst. So I stand up and walk towards the water cooler. Two seconds later, I hear someone say, “Ooooh Sophie! Wa de, no?” (‘Wa de’ means ‘fat’ in Burmese) and then everyone is agrees.

I would really like to find a place to get up and drink water where I’m NOT called fat. But apparently those places are non-existent here.

But you know, that’s just another perk of living with some crazy Burmese people. You never know what’s going to come out of their mouths. Even when my sister came, one of the guys says, “I don’t think you and your sister are related. She is very beautiful and you are very ugly. Why is she beautiful and you ugly?” Yay! The brutally honest words of Asians! Gotta love it.

I just thought I’d address this issue of Asian honesty in case any of you “body conscious” and incredibly insecure people want to come visit. You’ll soon realize that my gap year hasn’t been filled with smiles and laughs and feeling awesome while speaking Burmese. It’s basically a fat middle-schooler’s worst nightmare.

So what have I learned after traveling around the world in 38 days? I could be praised in America for being the “crazy non-conformist 18-year-old who put off college to teach some Burmese kids, ultimately carving their paths for a better future” and I could gain the nickname of “Pork Skin” all in 38 short days.

I guess we’ll just have to wait and find out what other nicknames I’ll be given!

This is Pork Skin signing off. Oink oink.

A Spoon-Feeding Education

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

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

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

Ouch.

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

These kids are keepers!

These kids are keepers!

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

Whoa. Fancy.

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

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

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

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

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

"Teacher, I never stop studying English!"

“Teacher, I never stop studying English!”

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

I guess I should elaborate.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meet the Team

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Meet FED’s Unified Learning Center football team:

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Name: BoBo                        Age: 15                     Grade: 8                  Position: Mid-Field (right)

Background: I come from Daiwai in Myanmar. I have been in Thailand since 2009. I have 1 brother. My father has no job because he has health issues. My mother is a house cleaner. I have played football for 5 years. I like football because I play with my friends. I would like to meet June Mata because I like his football technique. My favorite football team is Manchester United. I have a dream to be a game shop owner and a professional football player. I will work and save money to start my own business. My father’s health situation is not good. I will not come back to continue my education because I have to work. Even when I leave school, I will pay a visit to our lovely school and play football. As I am the second leader of the student body at my school, I want to continue to develop good leadership skills. I encourage our young students to study hard and gain as much knowledge as they can. I also encourage the children who have not entered school to study with us. I hope these children could get a chance to read and write properly. That would be great.

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Name: Kyaw Myo Ko           Age: 13           Grade: 7           Position: Offense

Background: I am from Kawthoung, Myanmar. I came to Thailand in 2014. I have one brother and two sisters. My father works as a fisherman and my mother has no job. I have been playing football my whole life. I like football because I look up to people such as Cristiano Ronaldo. If I could meet any professional football player, I would want to meet Cristiano Ronaldo. My favorite football team is Barcelona because I really like Messi. I dream of becoming a football player in the future. I don’t know if I will return to school in May. I might have to find a job. I hope I can continue studying.

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Name: Aung Thet Ko         Age: 14            Grade: 7            Position: Offense

Background: I am from Mal Lo Mying, Myanmar. I came to Thailand in 2014. I have a younger brother. My father is a builder and my mother is a shopkeeper. I have played football in Myanmar and in Thailand. I play during my free time at school and after school. If I could meet any professional football player, I would want to meet Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi because they are both very talented. My favorite team is Barcelona because Messi is the best player. I want to be a doctor in the future. I cannot come to school in May because I must go and work on a construction site. My family has no money. I must work, but I want really want to study.

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Name: Aung Thura Oo           Age: 14             Grade: 8             Position: Offense

Background: I come from Kawthoung in Myanmar. I came to Thailand 3 years ago. I have 2 older brothers and 1 younger brother. My father is a gardener and my mother works at a resort. I have played football for 6 years. I like football because it is my favorite hobby. I would like to meet Messi because I like his skills and techniques in scoring goals. My favorite team is Barcelona. I dream of being an engineer in the future. I will continue school in Myanmar when school closes in March.

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Name: Toe Tat Aung            Age: 14 years old            Grade: 8            Position: Offense

Background: I am from Dawai in Myanmar. I have been in Thailand since 2007. I have one brother. My father’s job is a builder and my mother works at a hotel. I have played football for 4 years. I love football because my dream is to become a football player and it is also very good exercise. I would like to meet Messi because he has very good ideas when playing football. My favorite football team is Barcelona. I hope I can become a football player in the future. If my school has enough money to offer grade 9 classes, I will come to school next year.

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Name: Nay Min Oo            Age: 15            Grade: 8           Position: Offense

Background: I come from Mon state in Myanmar. I have been in Thailand since 2012. I have 1 younger sister and 1 younger brother. My father works on a rubber plantation and my mother works at a restaurant. As the eldest son, I have to work, collecting rubber liquid in the early morning around 2 am. When I finish my work, I come to school. During the school holidays, I have to work at the construction site, wash dishes in a restaurant, and perform general work anywhere necessary. I also take care of my youngest brother at home. I have played football for 8 years. I like playing football because it is something I do every day. I would like to meet CR7 (Ronaldo) because I like his skills in scoring goals. My favorite football team is Real Madrid. I really hope to be an engineer and a successful football player. I don’t think I can fulfill my hopes and dreams. I cannot go to school in May. I must quit school because my mother wants me to find a job. Right now, I am a leader of the student body at my school. I have many responsibilities to take care of the other students. I am happy to study here and encourage all children to study. I want to continue studying, however, I cannot do this because my family has no money.

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Name: Kyaw Swar Thein           Age: 13           Grade: 6           Position: Defense

Background: I am from Dawei in Myanmar. I came to Thailand 1 year ago. I have two brothers. My father and mother are both construction site workers. I have played football for 1 year. I like football because it is my hobby. I would like to meet Cristiano Ronaldo. My favorite football team is Barcelona. My dream for the future is to become a football player. In May, I will go back to Myanmar. I do not know if I will go to school there or not. I am not sure.

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Name: Aung Thet Cho            Age: 14           Grade: 6             Position: Goalkeeper

Background: I am from Mal La Mying in Myanmar. I came to Thailand one year ago. My brother is Aung That Ko. He plays offense on the football team. My father is a builder and my mother is a shopkeeper. I have played football for one year. Football is my favorite hobby. I would like to meet Cristiano Ronaldo. My favorite football team is Manchester United. My dream for the future is to be either a doctor or a football player. I will go back to Myanmar in May. I do not know if I will go to school there.

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Name: Mr. Thant Zin Win           Age: 15           Grade: 5           Position: Middle

Background: My family is from Mon state in Myanmar. I was born in Thailand. I have 2 sisters. My father and mother work in the rubber plantation. I have been playing football for 7 years. I would like to be an international player, like Messi. I like his playing style. My favorite team is Barcelona FC. I am excited to come back to school next year. I will not go to work.

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Name: Thu Ra Aung             Age: 14              Grade: 5             Position: Middle

Background: I am from Dawei in Myanmar. I came to Thailand a couple years ago. I have four brothers. my father is a fisherman and my mother sells food at the market. I have been playing football for two years. I would like to be a player like Neymar. I like his playing style. My favorite football team is Barcelona F. C. I will come to school next year and continue studying.

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Name: Raker Soe            Age: 13               Grade: 2              Position: Middle

Background: I am from Mawla Myine in Myanmar. I came to Thailand when I was 4. I have 2 brothers. My father and mother work on the rubber plantation. I have been playing football for 6 years. I like football because I would like to be a player like Neymar from Barcelona. I would like to meet Neymar because I like his football playing style. My favorite team is Barcelona. I would like to be an international player in the future. Next year, I am excited to come to school.

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Name: Cho Myant Aung            Age: 12            Grade: 5             Position: Middle

Background: I am from Dawei in Myanmar. I came to Thailand when I was 5 years old. I have one brother. My father is a construction worker and my mother works at a bungalow. I have been playing football for 2 years. I would like to be a player like Ronaldo. C Ronaldo 7 is awesome! I like his playing style. My favorite team is Manchester United. In the future, I hope to be an engineer. My mom encourages me to study until a master degree level. If ULC does not have high grades in the long term, I will go back to Myanmar and continue my education.

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Name: Thein Min Paing             Age: 13             Grade: 4             Position: Middle

Background: I am from Myanmar. I came to Thailand when I was 10 years old. I have 1 sister. I have been playing football for 2 years. I like football because I am good at it. I would like to meet Cristiano Ronaldo. My favorite football team is Barcelona. I would like to be a football player in the future. I will come to school next year, I will not go to work. I am happy to continue studying.

Here they are, ladies and gentlemen: the ULC football team. Woohoo! These kids are incredible. All of these boys are so talented, on the football field and in the classroom. I have high hopes for their futures…it would be amazing if they were given an opportunity to continue their studies or perhaps do an internship or find a job where they can practice their English. These boys are such hard workers and are so dedicated to their studies. I want each of them to succeed and meet their goals (no football pun intended).

If there are any football scouts who are reading my blog, you should meet these guys!

Perhaps Neymar or Messi is looking for a couple youngsters to train? Here they are! 🙂

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Born in the USA

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“What’s your name?”

“Kim.” (Her real name will not be mentioned)

“Where are you from?”

“I am from Myanmar.”

“What grade are you in?”

“I am in grade 7.”

“How old are you?”

“I am 18 years old.”

I stopped, realizing that there are actually two 18-year-olds in the classroom. One of them is sitting in a desk among the other 7th grade students. The other is standing in front of the classroom. One is a student. The other is a teacher. One dreams of receiving a high school diploma. The other knows she will receive a university degree. One is from Myanmar. The other is from the USA.

My student and I are the exact same age. We are both 18 year old girls. We have the same likes, the same dislikes, the same pet peeves. In every way, I am similar to this girl. And yet, in every way, we are worlds apart.

It’s difficult to put into words just how I feel about teaching Burmese migrants. Their lifestyle is so unfathomably different to the way I live my life in America. I grew up in a country that has been hammering education into my life since the day I was old enough to speak. The word, “school” has been ingrained in my daily routine for the past 13 years. From elementary school to middle school to high school, everything I have ever known was related to or because of school.

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And by the time we’re finished with high school, we’ve hit a wall. Finished. So done with school….until university, that is…

I come to Thailand as a high school graduate with plans to return to the States and continue a higher education. I come as a teacher with no experience, no certification, and no college degree. When I arrived, I initially felt insecure about the fact that I had few qualifications to teach. I started to doubt myself. What in the world am I doing? I’m only a high school graduate. That’s barely an education, right? A high school degree wouldn’t land me a job anywhere in the States. Why did they even bother hiring me here?

I never appreciated this diploma when I received it...I now realize that I was holding something that is unattainable for most of the kids here.

I never appreciated this diploma when I received it…I now realize that I was holding something that is unattainable and only a far-off dream for most of the kids here.

A lot of the time, a high school diploma can mean nothing. People don’t think much of it. Of course, most people have one as it is quite attainable in the States. For the most part, we as Americans, are fortunate enough to have the opportunity to receive a high school education and continue on to the university level.

That would be a dream come true for a Burmese migrant. Unfortunately the life of a Burmese migrant is much different from an American; it consists of instability, vulnerability, and heartbreaking reality.

Instability – This is due to the unpredictable lifestyle a Burmese migrant lives. The political repression, ethnic conflict, and economic issues in Burma are all forces that have driven citizens out of the country in search of a better life. Most of the time, families are split when the father and sons leave Burma to search for work, hoping to send money back to the family. When a family is lucky enough to stay together, they live a nomadic lifestyle, traveling from place to place in search of work. Most of the time, they work on the rubber plantations. When the season to tap the rubber trees is over, they are forced to leave in search of other work, creating an unstable and unpredictable lifestyle. This makes it difficult for a child to receive a formal education.

Vulnerability – When in Thailand, Burmese migrants are extremely vulnerable to exploitation because many remain undocumented as illegal workers. What they offer to Thailand’s economy is simple: cheap labor. Thai employers take advantage of these undocumented migrant workers who offer a cheaper workforce and live in fear of deportation, jail, and abuse. These migrants are forced to work the undesirable jobs that are dirty, difficult, and dangerous. They remain extremely vulnerable to the dangers of human trafficking, especially in the fishing boat industry.

Heartbreaking reality – The reality is this: most Burmese migrants will not receive a formal education. They will spend their life working an underpaid, laborious job that keeps them stuck in the continuous cycle of poverty. All they really want to do is go back to Burma. They want to live in their own country, in their own home. They want a life free of military repression and financial barriers. They want to feel safe in their own homes, away from the dangers of trafficking and exploitation. The reality is harsh and heartbreaking.

Most children do not have the opportunity to attend school because they must work to earn an income for their families. Luckily, FED is here to provide an education for the migrant children who enter Khao Lak. Unfortunately, the migrant children live such unpredictable lifestyles that they might only attend school for one year and then leave. Another issue could be that they have never attended school, thus ending up in the lower grades, such as my 18-year-old student in grade 7.

The unpredictable lifestyle of a Burmese migrant makes it difficult to receive a formal education.

I find it astounding that the only reason why I am set so far apart from my fellow Burmese 18-year-olds is that I was born on different soil. I was born in a different country. Thanks to the lovely Bruce Springsteen, I am happily reminded that I was “Born in the USA.” A country that just happens to be a free country, allowing for a safe workforce and equitable learning environment. If I was born in Burma, I would be sitting right there in the desk beside Kim. Perhaps if Kim was born in America, she would be standing in front of the class teaching me.

When I look at the students around me, I see kids who are just like me. Kids who have passions, dreams, and hopes for their future.

I was fortunate enough to be born into a country where I can achieve these dreams. It breaks my heart to see these kids who were born into a different country probably never achieve any of their dreams.

Why does life have to be so different just because one happens to be born somewhere else? Why are some people born into a fortunate life? Why are others born into poverty? I want so badly to see my students receive everything that I have been given in my life. I want them to go to high school, to perform in musicals, to participate in sports, to have ambitious dreams of the future. I want these kids to have the same opportunities I was given. Why was I the one who was born into such privilege? Why couldn’t it have been Kim? Why do I get education handed to me on a golden platter? Why can’t she get the same as me?

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Why are some people born so fortunate while others are born into poverty?

We take high school diplomas for granted in the States. I know that now.

A high school diploma is easily accessible in American society; something that is often taken for granted.

A high school diploma is easily accessible in American society; something that is often taken for granted.

All I really want right now is to see my 16-year-old, 17-year-old, and 18-year-old students enroll into a high school. I will most likely never see them earn a diploma as they will enter the workforce (along with many of my 13 and 14-year-old students) in March. And the cycle of child labor continues…but they have no choice. They must work to provide for their families.

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Many of the Burmese students will drop out before age 15 to enter the workforce…and the epidemic of child labor continues.

I hate being on the sidelines while watching 18-year-olds sit in classrooms full of 13-year-olds because they haven’t had anything like I have had. I hate watching my 14-year-old students drop out of school to work on construction sites because their parents are too ill to work. I hate hearing my students talk about how badly they want to come and visit me in America, but immediately turn down the idea by saying, “No, Teacher. I cannot. My family is very poor. We have no money.”

Teaching English to them is not enough. I want to find them an opportunity. All it takes is one shot; one opportunity to change a life. Whether it be a scholarship to study overseas or an internship in a field of their choice, opportunity should be equally available for everyone. If these students are given just one opportunity to take a leap in their education, they will soar. That’s all it takes.

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All it takes is one person to find an opportunity for them.

I really wish I could be that person.

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These kids have the same hopes and dreams as kids on the other side of the world…but on this side of the world, their dreams are hidden behind the barriers of poverty and repression.

I paused for a second, stumbling over my words after I realized that Kim was the same age as me. I continued interviewing her:

“What do you want to do….when you grow up?”

“I want to go to London and study fashion design.”

I smiled. Wouldn’t it be cool if her dream actually came true? All she needs is someone to give the opportunity to her. All it takes is one person to change another person’s life. We don’t know who that person is just yet…hopefully, in time, we’ll know.

Let It Go

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I am still debating whether I made the best decision or the worst mistake when I showed my students Frozen. Yes, I did actually expose that movie to the Burmese children. Just like all of us after we first saw Frozen, their lives will never be the same. Can you imagine a life without Frozen? That would be a life without Olaf quotes, a life without the Elsa “Do It Yourself” hair tutorials on Pinterest, a life without the ultimate Tangled vs. Frozen debate.

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But more importantly, it would be a life without the legendary and epic song, “Let It Go.”

Yeah, that’s right. There was a point and time in history when the song, “Let It Go” never actually existed…I’m sure it existed in our minds, but once again, Disney was able to perfectly express everything that we had been feeling…and create the most popular song yet.

I’m not quite sure what it is about “Let It Go” that gets everyone pumped up so much. It’s either the girl power nobody-tells-me-what-to-do message or the catchy chorus, but all I can say is that I have never met a tween who hasn’t fallen in love with the song. Even in a small rural school in Thailand, “Let It Go” was able to work its magic for the kids. Alas, Disney, you’ve done it again!

I didn’t think I’d be that teacher, but I am…I’m the cool teacher. The fun teacher who comes in during lunch to teach kids songs, such as “Let It Go” and “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?” I was even cool enough to choreograph a dance to “Let It Go” for my students, who somehow convinced me to perform with them onstage at my organization’s 14th anniversary. Of course, when I agreed to dance with my students, I didn’t realize that it also meant I was to wear a transparent blue nightgown in front of the entire school. I looked like Wendy (from Peter Pan). Highlight of my career, right there.

“Let It Go” has been a hit song in the school. I hear students sing it everywhere. As I pass through classrooms, I hear them sing it in class. I hear them sing it on the football field. I hear them sing it when playing with their jump ropes. Sometimes they’ll yell it across the football field to catch my attention.

Not only has “Let It Go” haunted me at school, but it seems to have become a theme song during my time in Thailand. After hearing my sister, Jenna, blast that song in the car every time she has a bad day, it has started to grow on me. I can relate to the song in so many ways. Take my motorbike for instance:

When my sister, Bethany, came to visit, I realized that I couldn’t drive her around on my dorky Mr. Bean-like bicycle, so I decided to rent a motorbike. Excited about our new form of freedom, we decided to venture out to the beach. Of course, that is where I accidentally hit on a Burmese guy and now he stalks me every time I go to the beach. That is another story that I covered in my previous blog (check out blog post 120 Days for the full story). Frustrated at my blonde moment, I had to remind myself to just let it go….I’ve accidentally hit on guys before, so it’s not a big deal (although it proved to be a big deal in the future because I go to that beach everyday…and now he’s my official stalker…oh well. Just let it go).

As we get to our motorbike, I realize that I can’t even turn it on. Great. I just rented a new motorbike and I can’t even start it. Of course, there a ton of Thai guys around (always there when I need them!) who were staring at us…probably wondering why two extremely white girls were even attempting to ride a motorbike together. They started laughing at us…luckily it was dark, so nobody could see my blushing red face. Finally, one of the guys steps in and turns it on. I need to establish the fact that he struggled for quite a while to start the motorbike, so it wasn’t just me! I’m not an idiot, don’t worry. As embarrassing as it was, I needed to remember to just let it go.

Intense

Intense “action” shot of the next Evel Knievel.

Then we went out to eat at one of my local restaurants where they all know me. Of course, when we get up to leave, I can’t start the motorbike again. It was starting to get really embarrassing as they all stared at me as my motor would be sooooooo close to turning on and then “blaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah.” Nothing. So I turn to one of the waitresses and ask her to help. She simply walks up and barely twists the starter. And it turns on. I swear, I had been doing that for the past 4 ½ minutes and NOTHING HAD HAPPENED. Everyone looked at me like I was some sort of a stupid white girl…which I guess I am. It’s too bad it happened at the restaurant where I’m a regular. Now they’ll always remember me as the dork who can’t start her own motorbike. Oh well, who cares about what people think about me in Thailand. Just let it go.

Then we went to the market, where we explored, saw some weird things, had some Thai guys hit on us and give us some free drinks, the usual. As we head back to our motorbike, I start to tense up, realizing that I parked right in front of one of the fancier restaurants in town. This fancy restaurant also had several Thai guys standing outside, waiting to greet the customers who came in. I immediately tried to point out which guy would help me start my motorbike because, knowing my luck these days, it was not going to start. As I cautiously get on the bike, I close my eyes as I put my key into the ignition…it starts. “VROOOM!” Ah, the most beautiful sound in the world! It worked! I was so excited, I screamed with joy. And we were off!

We went probably a couple meters until I realized that our motorbike tire was incredibly and unmistakably flat. Great. As if starting it was hard enough, now I can’t even move it after the engine works. Also, I forgot to address my helmet issues as well…I had a broken helmet, so I was unable to adjust it. Therefore, whenever we would drive on the highway (Thai highway…a little different from I-25) the helmet would fly backwards and I would be sitting there, choking from the latch that was attached under my chin. People say that helmets are safe…honestly, I probably had a higher probability of choking to death from my helmet than getting into an accident. Ironic, isn’t it?

Of course, we were nowhere near a petrol station, so I decided to drive on some road until I could brainstorm some solution. Yeah, probably not a good idea to keep driving on the flat tire, but YOLO (did I really just type, “YOLO”?)! I drove on and finally stopped at a store that had several Thai guys sitting outside. Yes. All I need are a couple of guys to see two helpless foreign girls. What could possibly go wrong with that situation? Ok, a lot could go wrong. Definitely. I realized just how stupid I was and how terrible this situation could be. But I didn’t care. Asking for help when one is living overseas is essential, especially in my sort of situations. I showed the guys my flat tire and they pointed to the man in the store. The man comes out to help me, dials a couple numbers in my phone, tells me to sit down and wait, and so we did. This is the part where you’d expect Bethany and me to get kidnapped, taken away somewhere, never to be seen again. But yet again, Thailand seems to pleasantly surprise me. Within a couple of minutes, a man came in a pickup truck. The man in the shop comes outside, points to my motorbike, and the other man gets to work. As I held a flashlight for him, he quickly begins to change the tire.

All Bethany and I could think about is how much these guys are going to try to rip us off. It’s the middle of the night, we’re at some random convenience store, and the mechanic drives to us from his shop to fix our motorbike. Without a doubt, this is a great opportunity for him to take advantage of two foreign girls and take all of our money. After he finished, he turned to me and told me the price. I was shocked. Not only was it cheap, but it was the same price any Thai or Burmese person would pay if they were in my situation. That usually doesn’t happen with foreigners, especially with two foreign girls. It’s refreshing to see people in this country actually treat us like human beings and not try to take advantage of us. So amidst the random issues we had with our motorbike, I was happy to witness a dose of humanity that was shown to us by the Thai men.

Before the motorbike issues.

Before the motorbike issues.

After the motorbike issues.

After the motorbike issues.

Looking back at all the little quirks my rented motorbike had, I realized that it was a great time for me to learn to just let things go. Sure, I might have embarrassed myself in front of dozens of people. I continue to embarrass myself on a daily basis here, whether it’s saying that a guy is super-hot when I want to say that my drink is sweet, or walking into class with my skirt on backwards and blue marker all over my face, I have learned to just let it go.

If you learn anything when living overseas, you will learn that there is so much truth in the saying, let it go. You will seldom be in control of situations. You will always be in a constant state of confusion. You will continually embarrass yourself and stand out amongst the crowd. Your motorbike won’t work. You’ll accidentally flirt with people in a foreign language. Everything will be the opposite of what you planned. Nothing is predictable. Everything is unpredictable.

Big deal. That’s life overseas.

Just let it go.

let-it-go

Pye De Lie

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For those of you who haven’t heard, I have become somewhat of a Burmese celebrity overnight when my friend posted a video of me singing a Burmese song. It’s really hilarious how quickly my video has spread and how much feedback I have received from it.

Don’t worry, I’m not writing this post to emphasize my fame and glory (although it is pretty exciting to brag to people that my video went viral). I wanted to talk about the reason why my video has become so popular in the Burmese community. It’s partially because few have seen a white American girl attempt to sing a song in Burmese. But it’s mostly because of the song choice. The song that I chose to sing for my Burmese audience happens to be one of the most well-known and beloved songs in the Burmese culture.

In English phonetics, it is titled, “Pye De Lie,” which translates to something on the lines of, “Let It Be.” In many ways, the Burmese song carries a similar message to the Beatles song, “Let It Be.” Its message is this: whatever has happened in the past, continue to look forward. Keep your eyes on your path, no matter what gets in the way.

In one of the verses, the song mentions how you must watch your river of tears flow into the ocean, where it disappears into the distance and is never seen again. All the hardships in the past are just that: in the past. Keep your eyes on the future. Let it be.

Ever since my video went up, I have had requests to perform “Pye De Lie” for several celebrations. The Burmese people cheer for me and encourage me to sing my song whenever I pull out my ukulele. Every day in class, my students shout, “Teacher! Teacher! Sing ‘Pye De Lie’!” Everyone knows the song, which makes it more exciting for me to know it as it makes me feel more integrated in the Burmese culture.

This song has played a pretty significant part in my time in Thailand. For obvious reasons, of course, it has made me famous. But for other reasons, it has helped me when I have needed the encouragement of looking to the future; not holding onto the past.

One of the most difficult things when working with Burmese migrants is just that: they’re migrants. That means that they are willing to pack up and leave whenever opportunities arise or whenever hardships force them away. In the short 4 months that I have spent here, I have developed strong relationships with many of these people. The only problem is, I never know when they will leave. I have had several friends pack up and go back to Myanmar. I will most likely never see them again. If I am to leave this place right now and return in two years’ time, I probably will not see the same people here. They will all have left in search of other job opportunities or will have returned to their families.

About two weeks ago, I walked into my classroom, realized that one of my students was missing, and asked the other students where she was. They told me she moved back to Myanmar. Just like that. She’s gone. Her parents took her back to Myanmar in search of job opportunity. And now I’ll never see her again. She was one of the shyer students in the class. It had taken her about 2 months to warm up to me and practice her English with me. The day before she left, we spent time together during lunch. I taught her an English song and she showed me her favorite Burmese songs. I wish I would have known that that was the last time I would spend with her.

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The last day I would spend with my grade 8 student on the left before she went back to Myanmar.

This happens quite frequently. Burmese migrants are constantly on the move. It’s no surprise to any of the students when their best friend takes off and leaves the next day, never to return. It’s an adjustment with which I am trying to familiarize myself. But there are some things that I will never adjust to…such as what happened last night.

Last night, I went out with the ladies from my football team to have a celebratory dinner after our tournament. One of the women (I’m not giving out names in this blog, so we’ll call her Sarah) received a phone call during dinner. She found out that her 13-year-old nephew just died of brain cancer.

That 13-year-old boy was my student.

He was my friend.

Sarah had been caring for him for years. She was a mother to him, more than his real mother would have ever been. She would drive hours to the hospital and stay up all night with him. She sacrificed so much. Every time I saw her, she was always caring for him.

She took him to the beach during his last week. I happened to bump into them while I was walking along the beach. I sat down with him for only a couple of minutes; enough to watch the sunset with him. He spoke only a little English. He was a little more timid than the others in my grade 7 class when it came to speaking English aloud. He was shy to practice in front of me, although sometimes I would hear him say a couple sentences in English (using the vocabulary words I taught him) to his friends. That always made me smile.

We sat together and watched the sunset. We both didn’t realize it then, but that was one of the last sunsets he would ever see in Thailand. He went back to Burma for his last week, where he saw the rest of his family. At least he was able to spend some time with them before he left.

I think back at all the times I had him in class. He reminded me a lot of my little brother, Keith. He was one of the jokesters in class, always making everyone laugh. He was the kind of guy who everybody loves because he just has a peaceful, welcoming nature about him. He had the greatest, quirkiest sense of humor. Even though I didn’t understand his jokes in class (as they were all in Burmese), he always seemed to get the class roaring with laughter.

The last class photo we will have with (the boy in the middle) our friend.

The last class photo we will have with (the boy in the middle) our friend.

It took him longer than the others, but eventually, he became motivated to learn English. I taught him individually several times, coaching him through his vocabulary words. We were planning on learning more English songs together and performing for a set of volunteers who will be coming in February.

He was always dressed for the occasion! (back row, second from the left)

He was always dressed for the occasion! (back row, second from the left)

One of the best and worst things about teaching is that you fall in love with your students. Each one is so different, it is difficult not to become attached. You love their unique quirks, you recognize their different learning methods, you learn about their interests, you rejoice when they succeed, you encourage when they fail, you smile when they laugh, and you just simply love them.

I think I speak for every educator when I say this: A teacher’s greatest desire is to see their students achieve their dreams. When I hear my students say that they want to become doctors, engineers, and performers, all I want to do is equip them with the knowledge they need to achieve that goal. We spend a lot of time in class discussing our future short-term and long-term goals. These students have such ambitious dreams, it’s hard not to get excited about the endless possibilities they have for their future. When I look at my students in the classroom, I see future entrepreneurs, future human rights activists, and future leaders who will change the world. All they need is an opportunity. It is difficult to simply climb out of the hole of poverty without someone standing there to throw a rope. Opportunity requires change. Without change, the hole of poverty will continue to deepen. These students need an opportunity. They need someone to throw them a rope.

It is difficult to see some students never receive the other end of that rope. I will never be able to see my grade 7 student achieve his short-term or long-term goals. I will never see him achieve his dreams. It’s difficult to be powerless in a situation where reality steps in and takes over.

I tell my students that they are my friends. They tell everyone that I’m their friend. During lunch and after school, I would prefer to spend time with my students because they’re my close friends. I see them every day. I learn just as much from them as they do from me.

It’s never easy to deal with death. There is not one right way to deal with it. Right now, I feel as though death is slapping me in the face, over and over again. I can’t fight it. It’s too strong.

In the Burmese community, death is quite prevalent. Every day, I speak with my friends, who tell me about how they lost their parents at a young age, how their siblings were killed during a village raid, how they will never see their family again. I hear these stories and I cannot even fathom how they deal with them. These people are the most joyous people I have met. They have nothing…literally. I’ve seen families in Africa who have nothing, but they still have family. Here, many of my Burmese friends don’t even have family. All they have are the friends surrounding them, and that’s what makes them happy.

I think that’s why “Pye De Lie” has been such a significant song in the Burmese culture. Its message is so rich and meaningful to the Burmese people. These are people who are able to let go of their past lives that were once filled with the burning of villages, the separation of families, and the murder of loved ones. The Burmese are people who always set their eyes on the future. What’s past is past. They know how to let it be; how to let it go. They know that if they hold onto the past, they will never be able to even think about reaching the future.

That is what the song has taught me. That is what these people have taught me. No matter your past, you must always keep looking towards the future. The simplicity of the message in “Pye De Lie” has so much beauty. It relates to people from all different circumstances. All different pasts. All different hardships.

We must keep looking towards the future. What’s done is done. What’s past is past.

Below is a link to my version of “Pye De Lie.” Watch it and think of the message it conveys. Chances are you won’t understand the language (and if you do, I am genuinely impressed!), but the message is universal.

Pye de lie. Let it be.