Clarion and Myanmar: Back and There Again

Monastic students

Kaitlyn Huisinga Munro is 2004 graduate of Clarion-Goldfield High School. Since last summer, she has taught in Myanmar. She previously wrote in the Monitor about teaching and everyday life in the country.

Last spring, tending bar back in Clarion for a few months before I departed, I finalized my plans to live and teach in Burma/Myanmar.

I was hesitant at first to tell people.

No one knew where I was going. They had never heard of this country before. No one could understand why I would want to do this.

These, I’m told, are typical reactions to people toying with being an expat. Everyone is familiar with the traveler who recounts their tales from exotic destinations. The first few tellings are ingested with rapt attention, but after that it’s like watching hours of vacation slides, and they come to loathe the person who compares every small thing to something that happened to them long-ago and far-away. Even my friends and family thought I was going a bit far with my quarter-life crisis.

The only person who completely, unabashedly assured me was a patron at the bar, a retired farmer who would come in midday to sit down with a drink and catch up on the local gossip with anyone willing to exchange it. One day, when the bar was empty, the subject of my pending adventure came up. He tipped his John Deere cap up to get a better look at me, squinting against the blue light that emanated from the big screen TV behind me. He asked questions; when was I leaving? How long was I staying? I answered; in May, and I’m not sure. He knew where Burma was, the first recognition of its kind for me. He let me prattle on for another ten minutes, each of my sentiments punctuated with excited, nervous giggles.

My journey overseas officially began with that conversation; up until that point, I had been the only one indulging in the trip. Anyone I spoke with regarding my plans met the laundry list of things to do with glazed eyes and a half-cocked smile. I may as well have been going to the moon, for all they could connect to my pending scheme. My eyes fluttered at how easy it was to talk with someone who was genuinely interested.

When I paused to catch my breath, embarrassed at how much I’d just blurted out, he took the opportunity to return the favor. He told me about how great it is to travel, about how he spent months in another foreign country during ‘the war’ (I forget which one, exactly) and how the people he met were so beautiful, kind, and hospitable. He called them the nicest people you’d ever meet, and that’s from an old Iowa farmer.

People in Myanmar know quite a bit about the United States, actually, but one thing always is brought up: Obama visited in 2012, giving hope to the general populace that the west hasn’t forgotten them. With the help of political figurehead Daw (Mrs.) Aung San Suu Kyi, the visit gave a renewed hope to the people who have been denied education and had their rights trampled under the former/current military government.

They do, unfortunately, extend this hopeful impression to every facet of the United States in a way that I assume parallels the view held by the waves of immigrants who flooded our shores in the early 1900’s: practical thoughts of jobs, houses, cars, and full bellys for everyone, and occasionally something as silly as streets paved with gold. To outsiders, America is still the land of plenty, the land where hopes and dreams are still realized through the simple applied process of hard work and ambition.

It breaks my heart to correct them, and explain that we have our own share of problems, but it doesn’t feel fair to equate student debt, mortgages, and the fight for universal healthcare with the struggles people go through. The minimum wage in the United States should be raised (in my humble opinion) for example, but to discuss the difference between $8 and $11 an hour seems cruel because most people in Asia make around $70-$150 American dollars a month.

Sometimes it’s easy to confuse openness to experience with a bucket list: I didn’t think about how many countries I could fit in my passport (four now, if you’re wondering), I simply set out to see what the world looks like, even though it terrified me. There is always an adjustment period when trying something new, and failure frightens the fight or spirit of adventure out of lots of people. And you will fail, at some portion of it. We all fell off our bikes a few times when we dared to try and ride without training wheels, right?

Traveling is just the graduated ambition that can no longer be satisfied by our childhood achievements alone. Getting married, starting a family, affording a nice house, finding your dream job…these are all good things too. But they are features of nesting, ways to make your life comfortable where it is, aspects that embolden the permanence of your decisions. While I fully embrace the idea that there is no sure-fire, well-beaten pathway to happiness, I will also heartily, willingly, pleadingly say that travel is better than anything else.

I never really felt at home in a small town, despite the cozy allure that hangs over every small Midwestern village. Now that I have been so far from it, I do get homesick for some of the simplicity, and the familiarity of friends and family. But I also feel more confident in the decisions I make, more accepting of feeling out of place. We’re meant to step outside our comfort zones.

Read more in the April 17 issue of the Monitor!