a blog about the cultural experiences my husband and I have because of our work abroad...what's delightful and beautiful about different countries and cultures...what we have learned from living and working in countries other than our home country...and how those experiences have changed us

Monday, September 21, 2015

Music teacher in Myanmar

Well! A month of school has already passed by! And I've been working at my new job for 5 weeks.  I could have written several posts a week---so much fun stuff to write about---had I not been so incredibly busy and tired!

Wow, I hardly know where to begin! I guess with the first week.

So I had little idea what to expect from my new students. I prepared lessons with routines and activities to give the children a fun and enjoyable introduction to music class while I started to evaluate their capabilities, their English proficiency, their ability to understand me and follow my directions.

We sang our way into music class "Here we go to music class, music class, music class. Here we to music class, let's all sing and dance" to the tune of "Here we go round the mulberry bush."  We sang the most common songs with good movements: Hokey Pokey, Head Shoulders Knees and Toes, If You're Happy and You Know it. We clapped rhythms; the children echo clapped first my rhythms and then each other's rhythms around the circle. I played high notes on the keyboard and they showed me they heard "high" by stretching their arms to the ceiling. For the low notes that I played they showed me that they heard "low" by crouching down.

We sang "soh-me" "hel-lo", and "soh-soh-me" "how-are-you?" with solfege hand signs. We danced improv dance moves to a variety of music. And then we sang our way out the door: "Tick tock tick tock, time to go, time to go. Goodbye children. Goodbye teacher".

It was an amazing first week! I could tell right away that these children are incredibly musical, not to mention eager and willing. Every week since, I have been adding more and more challenging activities to our lessons and the children just keep amazing me with what they are able to do. The potential they have is quite exciting.

A routine I learned in my student teaching, and have done with every class I've had since, is to greet each student by name and ask them to return that greeting. "Good morning Poe Poe" "Good morning Ms. Sabrina". It is one small way that I can form a bond with each child. And it helps me learn names. I am good with names, but with 173 different students with quite foreign (to me) names, I still don't have them all. These are some of the names I do know: Su Myat, Ko Shine, Tanaya, Thone Min, Chan Chan, Bone Bone, Hei Hei, Ji Young, Ye Won, Sal Bone, Shlok, Htet Zin, Thiri, Alua, Go Khant. Some of the children take English nicknames to use at school like Brian, William, Grace, Krystal, Candy, Sweety, Leo, Ethan, Roy. Because I have so much more experience with those English names, I can remember them almost 10 times as fast as the Myanmar names. But to help speed up the process of remembering the names I'm less familiar with, I took photos of all the children and wrote their names underneath. Then I studied my photo sheets before each class started.

The children on the other hand learned my name easily and use it frequently. When they pass by my room on the way to another special class: "Ms. Sabrina, Ms. Sabrina, hello Ms. Sabrina."When I am out in the hall filling my water bottle and they are standing in line. "Ms. Sabrina, Ms. Sabrina, Ms. Sabrina." When they see me walking into school, "Ms. Sabrina, Ms. Sabrina, good morning Ms. Sabrina." It is nice to feel popular. :) One of the women who cleans the school smiles at me when the children start calling out my name.

So my life is heavily focused on music but I still get to do a little bit of art. I chose to teach Zentangle for an after school activity this quarter and it's been just so fun! The Year 2 students who signed up for Zentangle caught on quickly. The first three weeks we only used black pen, learning new "tangles".

Then this week I gave them a mini lesson on how I "paint" with colored pencils. I told them I was a "colored pencil artist" and showed them a pen and colored pencil painting I did in my sketchbook.

They oohed and aaahed. :) And a couple said, "I like artists." So sweet these children!! We have 45 minutes for our Zentangle class but the time just zings by. I barely gave them more than about 10 minutes to use color. So just as he was leaving, Leo came up to me and said, "Ms. Sabrina, I really want to finish my coloring." So I said, "Ok Leo, next time we will start with color."

Life feels pretty good right now. Of course there are challenges. For instance, I am still recovering from a nasty respiratory infection that caused me to lose my voice for three days. Our exposure to infectious agents is so much higher here. And my walk to school is an obstacle course. On the sidewalk informal restaurants use nearly all the space and in between the sidewalk and the lanes of traffic runs a river of rain and sewer water. There are no crosswalks so I cross when there is a break in traffic. I walk for the exercise but it is not a pleasant stroll by any means.

There are many, many daily uncomfortable challenges to living in this low-resource country. But the mix of it all makes living and working in Myanmar a rich experience.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Tailor made skirts in Myanmar

Last weekend I finally did something I’ve been wanting to do since we started living in Southeast Asia: I found a tailor and hired her to make me some clothes. Stephen had seen a place near Yankin Center where many tailors were working. On Saturday we went in and asked one woman at a time if she spoke English. When one answered, “Nearly English…” we started to talk with her.

“Myanmar clothes?” she asked.

I had my favorite skirt with me so I pulled it out of my bag and showed it to her.

“Skirt!” she said. She said yes she could make it and so I asked her about fabric.

“You buy.”

So I asked, “Where?”

“Near. Yankin Center. Second floor. Auntie Mary.”

My skirt has a lining and she said she would buy that part. “How much?” I asked. And she said she would charge me 5000 Kyats to sew one skirt. That’s US$4.23. She introduced herself, “Oh Ma”. I told her my name. And then Stephen and I walked to Yankin Center so I could find some fabric for my new skirts.

We went to what I thought was the second floor but I didn’t find Aunty Mary, (I actually didn’t quite understand what she said so I was looking for something that sounded close to “Anny Maddy”. I finally stopped into a shop that sold traditional Myanmar clothing and precut yardage of cotton fabric. As I was contemplating a couple of colors, a young Burmese man said to me in clear English, “That fabric would look very nice on you. I’m just saying.” I turned to him surprised he was speaking to me and asked, “Do you work here?” Thinking that was the most likely reason he was offering his opinion. “No,” he said, “I’m just a customer.” He was right though, the fabric he was referring to was a dark teal fabric which IS a good color for me.

I bought the teal fabric and a maroon colored fabric. And I took these back to Oh Ma.

When we dropped off the fabric, Oh Ma looked at her calendar and said she could have them finished by July 2. Can you imagine? I mean, two tailor made skirts done in 4 days for $8 dollars??? Wow. I was so super excited as we left.

And then as we were walking back to Yankin Center again, Stephen noticed the sign for Aunty Mary on the outside of the building. Turns out we went up one floor too many (the Burmese label floors differently than Americans do). Aunty Mary is a fabric shop and I hadn’t stepped in two feet before I was in love with what I saw. Stephen encouraged me to pick out more fabric and have Oh Ma make more skirts. I picked out two beautiful new fabrics.

Today I went back to pick up my skirts. They were done and Oh Ma showed each one to me.

The two made out of traditional Myanmar fabric Oh Ma called, “Kachin, Myanmar Kachin.” Wow I love all four. These new skirts are part of my new wardrobe for my job at MIS.

When I was working with preschoolers in Cambodia, I found that this type of full skirt was the most functional for all the moving we did together. We sat on the floor, then we stood up and jumped, hopped, twirled…and sat back on the floor again. Most Myanmar women wear long skirts, “Kachin” as Oh Ma said. They are more straight than these and would restrict my ability to lead my young students in dance and other movement. But, because they are long, I feel like I am still being culturally sensitive.

So how cool is that? Custom skirts made by a Myanmar woman tailor. On Saturday as Stephen and I walked home from our rendezvous with the tailor, it started to rain. Monsoon rains are heavy. We were getting soaked. From from under his umbrella Stephen looked at me and said, “Are you having fun?” And I smiled and replied, “Yes!”

He smiled back, “Me too!”

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

A capital city less than 10 years old

In the middle of June, Stephen attended a meeting to address NCDs (non communicable diseases) called by the World Health Organization (WHO). The meeting was held in Nay Pyi Taw, the new capital city of Myanmar. Just 10 years ago, Yangon was the capital of Myanmar and what is now Nay Pyi Taw, was rural farm land. On November 5, 2005, the government declared Nay Pyi Taw the new official capital of the country and on the 6th began moving ministries into the new city they had just built from scratch. According to Wikipedia, the government cited overcrowding and lack of space for expanding government offices as the reason for the move. Nay Pyi Taw is about a 5 hour drive north of Yangon toward the middle of the country. Because school has not yet started and I am not yet working, I took this opportunity to go with Stephen to see what the new capital city was like.

"Nay Pyi Taw" can be translated “royal capital” “seat of the king” “abode of kings” or literally “royal city of the sun” in Burmese. And it is quite a contrast to Yangon, with its mostly narrow and very busy streets. The streets of Nay Pyi Taw are brand new, having as many as ten lanes, and are elaborately landscaped with beautiful trees and flowering bushes. There are street lights and miles of sidewalks that line these newly built and nearly empty roads. As we drove into town, it seemed like the whole city was hotels; many looked quite grand but several appeared to still be under construction. Of course there are other things: restaurants, shopping centers, housing...but they are spaced far apart. Not jammed together the way things are in Yangon.

It took nearly the whole day to travel from Yangon to Nay Pyi Taw, but we did have some time in the evening before dinner once we arrive to do a little sight seeing. One of Stephen’s staff, a medical doctor working for the project, took us on a tour of the Uppatasanti Pagoda. It is the Peace Pagoda. The Burmese word “Uppatasanti” can be translated as “protection from calamity”. We were instructed by the doctor to take off our shoes and leave them in the car. We walked barefoot to, from and all around the pagoda.

It is quite an impressive Buddhist house of prayer. In the photo above you can get just an idea of what the inside was like. In the photo below, if you look closely,  you can see the tiny shapes of Stephen, the doctor and our driver leaving the entrance.

The mountains off in the distance make this a most beautiful and serene city.

After the pagoda tour, the doctor found an interesting restaurant for us to dine at that evening. It was buffet style Myanmar food. But instead of our getting up to get the food, waiters brought everything to our table.

And they replaced dishes even before they were empty. My soup had just gotten to the right temperature when a waiter whisked it away and replaced it with a full steaming bowl of a type of corn and sweet potato soup. As you see from the photo there were many different choices of meat and vegetables. The doctor could translate some of the items but not all. As usual, Stephen and I sampled some completely unknown dishes. One of the salads was especially good. The whole meal for all three of us was less than $12.

The following day Stephen and the doctor spent all day in meetings.

Afterwards Stephen felt pretty jazzed about the work he’s doing. NCDs (non communicable diseases) are a significant problem for the country and now is the time for action. If Stephen’s project is successful it could have positive impact on the health of a large number of people in this country. The known needs coupled with the potential of the project give Stephen hope, but also a weight of responsibility to deliver.

For our second evening in Nay Pyi Taw, the doctor bought tickets for us all to go through the Nay Pyi Taw Fountain Garden. I certainly wasn’t expecting what we discovered. It was like Disneyland! But with an entrance fee of only 700 Kyats ($0.61).

While we waited for it to get dark (when the musical water show would start) we walked around the gardens. Such fun water features.

As we were walking, a group of mostly women came up to us and wanted to have their picture taken with me. When it happened the previous night the doctor said, “You’re like a movie star.”

Evidently my white skin and light colored hair are “exotic” to these Burmese.

Although no rides, there were some waterslides and pools. A few people were swimming.

I didn’t smell any chlorine though so even though it looked inviting, Stephen and I would not be quick to jump in. We've done that before and the of risk getting sick is too high. But all the water features were certainly lovely to look at.

As we drove out of town the following day we passed the roundabout with ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) flags. The 25th annual ASEAN summit was held in Nay Pyi Taw in November of 2014. The many hotels we saw were build for hosting big events such as the summit.

Beautiful with its wide open spaces and fresh air, Nay Pyi Taw is an interesting new capital city.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Kandawgyi Nature Park and the Zoological Gardens

On the weekends we often try to take long walks from our apartment out in different directions to explore our new city. Yesterday Stephen and I walked south toward the city center to Kandawgyi Natural Park. Stephen had located the lake on one of the maps we have of Yangon and wanted to see what it was like. What we discovered was another beautiful green space in the city. A large lake was crisscrossed with boardwalks and full of flowering lotus.

The garden areas surround the lake were filled with trees and bushes, many with flowers. We seem to find new plants we’ve not yet seen before all the time. Like this very strange and colorful flower.

I tried to learn the name of the bush it grows on but my internet search gave me nothing. :( Ah well, I still took several photos for possible future paintings of this flower plus the lotus and also one of the many dragonflies that were flying around.

Next to Kandawgyi Natural Park were the “Zoological Gardens”. I had not heard this term before and didn’t know if we would find animals or just gardens. After purchasing tickets for 3000 Kyats (about $3) per “Foreign Adult”, we soon found out. At the entrance/exit there were these long heliconias among palm trees and a variety of other plants and flowers.

And our first animal exhibit was the hippo enclosure. One of the hippo enclosures: we saw another one later in the day.

After the hippos we saw a cement sculpture that we think is only likely to be found in an Asian zoo park.

A living sculpture of an elephant was right after the cement dragon sculpture. So in only a few minutes it became clear that “Zoological Gardens” was the perfect name!

I am fascinated by big cats. So I was thrilled to discover the white tiger.

And then the orange and black tigers. We saw 5 of them! And there were possibly more. Unlike any other zoo we’ve visited around the world, this Yangon zoological gardens had multiple locations for many of the animals.

There was a fierce lion.

And a beautiful jaguar.

I think one of the highlights of the day was feeding the Asian elephants. For 1000 Kyats ($1) we could buy a basket of pieces of sugar cane. We bought three baskets.

There were many other animals too.

Asiatic black bears.



A giraffe. With quite an elaborate exhibit at the front of its habitat.

White rhinos.

And birds. Like this type of hornbill.

And on the roof of the love bird cage were some domestic cats I guess maybe hoping for one of the birds to escape!

There were also black swans and white swans, pelicans and various kinds of ducks. A couple of kinds of deer. Sun bears. Lots of monkeys. And a reptile section that we mostly skipped. :) We did pass by a few crocodiles. They stay so absolutely motionless, one could easily mistake them for stone sculptures.

The “Zoological Gardens” turned out to be another wonderful discovery in the city we call home. It and the Kandawgyi Nature Park are happy additions to the list of pleasant aspects of living here that balance nicely against the not so pleasant aspects.