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

Friday, May 29, 2015

Teaching music in Myanmar

I can hardly contain my excitement for what I’m writing about in this post! Today I signed a contract to become the lower primary music teacher at Myanmar International School! (click on the school name and it will take you to the website.)

I love working with children whose first language is not English. I first discovered the thrill of sharing my first language with children in a public school in Chiang Mai, Thailand. I read Dr. Seuss’s ABC book acting out as many words as I could…”Big A little a…what begins with A?” When we got to "Big V little v..." and one little boy said “violin” while miming playing a violin (an imitation of my movement), I felt a zing of connection with those children and a strong sense that I was designed to do this type of work.

In Cambodia, I took a leap of faith and accepted a job teaching preschool children though I had no specific early childhood education training. I found preschool children to be the most delightful age group I had ever worked with. I used music and movement to support my English language instruction, and my darling little students loved all the singing and dancing we did together.

When Stephen and I decided to move to Myanmar, I had ideas about what a job for me might look like. I thought I might teach English as a foreign language but I didn’t know to what age students or in what school. I had thought about learning Burmese first, before starting a teaching job, so as to better communicate with and understand my students. Though my love is preschool children, I thought maybe my skills would be put to better use working with older students who had more English proficiency. As we settled into our life in Yangon, I thought about teaching but didn’t know what path or direction I should take.

Then two Fridays ago I spent the whole day painting, a type of meditation for me, and by the end of the day I had this strong sense that I should start looking for a job. I love painting and drawing: it is a significant part of who I am, but on Friday I felt that I also want to teach. Now, not later. It seems that when either painting or teaching are not a part of my life, I feel like something is missing. So that night Stephen and I looked online for schools close to our apartment. We found The Yangon Academy and Myanmar International School, both only short walks away. I decided to try both schools and see what openings they had. From the online school calendar, I discovered that the school year was about to end and the next school year wouldn’t start until August. Perfect. Time enough to prepare for the new year. Since the school year for Myanmar International School ended this week and Yangon Academy’s school year doesn’t end until the middle of June, I decided to go to MIS first. My hope was to be able to speak with the principal before school let out for the summer.

On Tuesday I walked the 1 kilometer to MIS with my resume. When I walked through the gate of the school, a guard gestured for me to check in. I told the other guard sitting at the desk that I had come to apply for a teaching job. He called the office secretary and I had to speak to her on the phone first before I was allowed to enter the building. I then had to sign in and was given a visitor’s pass to wear. Once inside the building I told the secretary I was there to inquire about the job openings I had seen on the website. She left and another woman came out and said, “Do you have your CV?” I gave it to her and she had me wait in the foyer. After I waited a few minutes she came back out and asked me to wait 15 minutes to see the principal and this time invited me to sit inside the office. After awhile, Anna came out and invited me into her office. We had an impromptu interview and Anna told me what she needed at the school and if I would be interested. What she needed was a music teacher for ages 3-7 years old. Teaching music to preschool children!!! I’m not sure I could have dreamed up a better job for myself. And not only that but Anna also suggested that maybe I teach piano lessons as an after school activity!

My first career was not classroom teaching but piano teaching. When I graduated from college I became a full-time piano teacher. I had a marvelous time as a piano teacher. When I decided to get my Master in Teaching degree, my hope had been to be a primary school teacher during the day and then after school give piano lessons to a few students. I found out just how ambitious that dream was and I was never able to make it happen. Maybe now I will.

This week I visited the school several times. I met with the lower primary principal and the upper primary music teacher, walked around in my music classroom in the lower primary building and saw most of the children who will be my students next year when I attended the lower primary awards assembly.

Now I have two months to prepare for the next year. I spent all afternoon yesterday reading my new book for teaching music that I purchased for Kindle. It was published in 2015 so it’s one of the most current music teaching resources available. :) I’m making lists of songs and children’s books I already know and love to write into lesson plans. I’m practicing my sight singing…

I think it’s going to be a fun year!

Monday, May 18, 2015


Moving to a new city involves adjusting and adapting to different things. When that new city is also in a new country the number of differences goes up. Moving from the US to Yangon, Myanmar has meant a long list of differences for us to learn how to deal with. In this post I describe a few of those differences.

We moved into our first apartment in Yangon several weeks ago. Our landlords are the sweetest people.

They are a family of three and the daughter speaks the most English, but it is limited. She mostly talked through the real estate broker or a friend to tell me everything I needed to know about living in this building. The infrastructure is different here in Yangon and this family and other condo owners and businesses throughout the city have found ways to do what they need to do.

First, the water that runs through the pipes into the condo is not safe for drinking. We don’t even brush our teeth with tap water. Many Burmese purchase 20 litre (5 gallons) bottles of water for 600 Kyats (US$0.60). We have seen men pushing cart loads of these bottles all around the city. Our landlord bought us our first bottle as a gift and then when they brought it into the apartment he also went and found a wooden stand for it to sit on. They suggested that we buy 3 bottles at a time and then exchange them.

Another challenge with the city provided water is that it normally only runs in a trickle. When we were searching for apartments, whoever was showing the unit to us would show us the water pressure through the tap. In our building, every unit has its own water pump and its own holding tank located on the roof.

I have to turn the pump on every day and sometimes multiple times a day.  (The green light means the pump is on.) The way that we know the tank has refilled is it starts to overflow and run out a pipe in the bathroom.

We were warned the first day of moving in not to switch the pump on and leave. They said it would flood the apartment. We found out the hard way that this is exactly what happens. :(

The second large infrastructure challenge is power. The electricity cuts out frequently, sometimes multiple times a day and sometimes for many hours at a time. Often in the heat of the day when more air conditioners are putting demand on the system. To protect appliances from frequent power surges, every major appliance:

air conditioner,

washing machine,


has its own surge protector. Our landlords purchased these and paid to have them installed. The surge protectors save them money in the long run but having to buy them in the first place is just part of the cost of living in Yangon. We did not have these surge protectors in either Tugela Ferry, South Africa or Phnom Penh, Cambodia and appliances burned up often.

Also in response to unreliable power, residents and businesses have backup generators. In Cambodia, our apartment complex had a large backup generator to power everything in the entire building. We were rarely without power for more than a few minutes because of this. The building we live in now in Yangon, does not have one of these giant generators for the building. So each resident must cope with loss of power individually. Our landlords have provided us with an “inverter” and a battery.

This small battery backup can only power the lights and the fan we purchased that can be plugged into the one outlet on the inverter box. As I mentioned above, the power cuts out daily and generally in the hottest part of the day. In less than the two months since we first moved in, it is easier to count the days we didn’t have a power outage. And we have had three evenings when there was no power, no air conditioning, for 4-6 hours. The daily temperature highs have been 37-39 degrees C (98-104 degrees F).

Another difference is that even without power I can still cook. I have a gas countertop cook stove and a gas bottle under the counter.

The fan, though, that pulls the gas and smoke outside is run by electricity so when the power is out, I have to open the window instead. Incidentally, this means that whatever cool air I might have in the apartment will seep out while the hot outside air seeps in. Cooking in Yangon is a hot activity! Even when the power is on. There is no air conditioner installed in the kitchen. I think if I were installing things myself, I would definitely put an air conditioner in the kitchen!

There are other things about our apartment that I would do differently. The bathrooms would have a much different design. In every apartment we looked at, all the bathrooms except one in a brand new building, was the same design: it is just one room with toilet, sink and shower altogether. There is no separate space for the shower so the water splashes everywhere in the room. This poses a unique challenge for keeping clothes, towel, toilet paper and really everything else from also getting wet! Not to mention the challenge of walking on slippery wet floors.

Another change I would make is the open drains. Under the kitchen sink there is an open drain that accommodates both the sink and the washing machine.

In the one bathroom there is an open drain that accommodates the sink and the water tank overflow.

It’s not just that these open drains aren’t nice to look at, they smell and at night when not much water is flowing down, bugs fly up.

So yeah, that’s not so pleasant. But the rest of the apartment is actually quite fancy. In the living room alone we have 12 different light switches.

The wood floors are gorgeous.

The sofa is a large sectional with a matching glass coffee table. We have the largest screen TV we’ve ever had that sits on a beautiful TV stand. And the landlord purchased a year’s worth of “skynet”, 120 different channels. Mind you the majority of those channels are not in English. But still, we never had cable TV in the states. We have a brand new refrigerator, microwave, and washing machine. No dryer of course. Practically no one owns a dryer; everyone hangs their clothes to dry. You can see clothes hanging outside drying everywhere you go. So we have to plan ahead a bit more here than when we had our own electric dryer in the US.

The open drain concept continues outside. Along the streets are open sewers. Sometimes the sidewalk goes beside them,

sometimes over top of them.

We are always cautious about walking above a sewer channel. The sight and odor of them are both intense and unpleasant. But we have learned to focus our attention on other things:

The beautiful flowers.

The guys playing a kind of hacky sack game using a ball made of reeds.

Sweet children.

Quick smiles from those we walk past. Greetings from older people welcoming us and thanking us for being in their country.

Urban gardens.

Delicious mangoes that you can only get in Myanmar.

Skilled barbers who charge $0.65 for a haircut!

And many other things.

Last week we made a quick trip to Thailand. Stephen had meetings with one of the partners to the project, Thammasat University.

Our international flight was about an hour and a half. It can take less time to travel from country to country here in Southeast Asia then it can take to travel state to state in the US.

We use our passports a lot and we have to learn and comply with the different visa rules for each country. Currently we have short term visas for Myanmar that we need to renew every couple of months. And we have to leave the country to do that. Our trip to Thailand served that purpose this month.

We exchange US dollars for Myanmar Kyats or Thai Baht on a regular basis. And we know what things cost in these foreign currencies relative to US dollars.

Temperature is in Celsius. At first we had to convert to Fahrenheit but now we know that 26 feels cool and 44 is stinking hot!

So many differences between our life in the states and our life in Yangon. But we seem to be adjusting and adapting quickly. And that’s important. Change causes stress and stress causes illness. So the better we are able adjust to all of these changes, the less stress we will have and the less risk of getting sick. Sickness threatens our work. And we want to be able to stay and do good work.

So far…so good!