Of Life and Work Myanmar, with the Land and Children

Here are some pictures from the orphanage/monastic school where I volunteer. The girls wear pink (nuns) and the boys wear saffron/burgundy (monks). The kids in regular street clothes are orphans.

I’ve been asked to submit my thoughts on my day to day life in Myanmar, and tie it to Iowa. This is easily accomplished: I’ve met people everywhere I’ve lived who have variations on the same basic wants, needs, dreams, and routines. People struggle to make ends meet. They want the best for their kids, or at least better options than they were given - be it regarding education, housing, food, or clothing. They surround themselves with loved ones. Many generations may live in one household, and pitch in for all aspects of life. “Many hands make light work,” as my grandmother used to say. In direct juxtaposition with the military/government’s negligence of social programs, among the poorer economic strata of people there’s not a lot of “buck passing,” but rather jumping-up to assist friends, family, and neighbors in everyday lifting, be it raising children or carrying their lives around on their heads and their shoulders. 

Often, this uplift is literal. Myanmar still relies heavily on manual labor, and many of the things we take for granted as necessary for day to day work (such as dollies, elevators, and shipping vans) aren’t built into Burma’s routine. For transporting things around a warehouse, up or down many flights of stairs, or across town, people rely on actual man power, not a mechanical equivalent. Many people don’t own much more than the basics.  While I have positive things to say about simplifying a life by removing excess clutter, not having a choice does not provide the same comfort.

Both Myanmar and Iowa have agriculturally based economies, but American farmers aren’t generally forcibly removed from their land; they are given an opportunity to sell, to negotiate a fair price, and to decline unacceptable offers. For the last few decades, and perhaps even further back, land has been confiscated from hundreds of farmers, some with compensation and some without.  Iowa farmers also have crop insurance, the details of which are a mystery to me despite my Iowan upbringing, but I know enough to know such things are blatantly absent from Myanmar.

Those are just a few of the many hardships present in this country, but I haven’t directly seen the more brutal ones, even though they are still happening (Google “ethnic cleansing, Rohingya,” or “Katchin military” for examples). Foreigners are, by and large, not allowed to enter the places where the worst happens, or if they are it is with heavy restrictions, and I haven’t been bold enough to try to sneak undercover and report back. Here, I’m just an English teacher. 

Initially, I was teaching English language to children in Nursery through Primary 2, and during the second semester I was switched to take on the main English teaching role for Primary 4. For the 2013-2014 school year, I have been responsible for the linguistic development of somewhere between 100-140 children under age 12. Fortunately for the kids I taught, their parents could somehow afford to enroll them in a private, International school. The government established “minimum wage” was $80 US per month up until a few years ago; currently it is somewhere around $150 US per month. Most of the really prestigious schools cost about $300 a month for students to attend, and with the history of military negligence, abuse, bribery, and financial/social exploitation, this country has created an impassible chasm of poverty, with very few opportunities for those unable to bridge it.  Effectively, the rich receive an international standard of education, and the poor receive a state education; still effective in covering the affectionately described “three R’s” of reading, writing, and ‘rithmatic,  staples taught in any rural one-room school house, but without any flourishes. This is the primary option for many families, but there are additional complications when a child has no family to look out for such things.

Children lose their parents all around the world and some are given up voluntarily, but in Iowa we have social services to catch those who can’t be provided for, programs that some government representatives would like to cut. Mostly, I think, because social responsibility without a clear profit margin is a burden they would rather not carry.

In places where social services are not truly a pervasive option, other solutions must be found. Here, they can be raised in a Buddhist Monastic system. They start their day at 4 a.m., and beg alms from local stalls for the benefit of the collective monastery or nunnery where they sleep four to a wooden cot. Begging teaches humility, and vendors willingly offer donations, as no taxes are collected for the benefit of social programs. Plus, within the Buddhist religious structure, treating the poor and downtrodden well as well as making offerings and donations ensure you receive good karma for your trouble.

It’s also an incredibly diverse area of the world to be in, and shows that many different views—Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, Christian-- can live together peacefully. The caveat comes when basic human rights are overlooked in lieu of one group maintaining power over another. Currently, on the western side of Myanmar, there are religious conflicts between Buddhists and Muslims, something that has been raging for the last few years, including late night attacks women and children by Buddhists armed with machetes. Yes, you read that correctly.

The Extremist group, 969, is a band of Buddhists who believe Muslims have no place in the country, and they have burned homes and Mosques all over the country because they fear the group will rise up and take power…something that is highly unlikely, given that the Muslim population is a mere 10% of the country, and that in many areas Muslims are not allowed to hold property.  Their children aren’t allowed to attend university, and they are only allowed to have two children per household.  A recent article from the New York Times , “Rise in Bigotry Fuels Massacre Inside Myanmar,details some of the horrific events between groups.

 Xenophobia is something that is felt around the world, and its roots grow in the fertile soil of fear. People who know nothing about a group towards whom hate speech is targeted will quickly climb on board with the aggressors in an effort to distance themselves from something frightening, something threatening. There’s strength in numbers, but not when you create a common enemy just for the sake of assigning a face to the thing that goes bump in the night. In Iowa, a region of the US renowned for kindness and hospitality, one would hope such ethnically or religiously-based hate would never occur, but unfortunately, it has been disheartening to see xenophobia expressed in small ways: the neglect of ESL classes, the devaluation of the opportunities to celebrate multiculturalism, and, sometimes, open hostility towards anyone with a better tan than you. Clearly it’s not every person who acts in such a way, but that it is so frustratingly commonplace should not be acceptable. Hatred is not something you turn a blind eye to, because even if you don’t actively participate, your silence condones it. People’s responsibility to look out for one another should not follow guidelines of age, gender, sexual orientation, race, religion, or political ideation.

Still, when I first came here, I knew no one. Since I arrived, I have met four other people from the state of Iowa alone. I have been introduced to EMBARC (Ethnic Minorities of Burma Advocacy and Resource), a group in Des Moines, Iowa, a group whose presence and services are crucial, because as of 2012, there were hundreds of Burmese refugees currently residing in Iowa, many of them employedin places like Tyson’s meatpacking plants.

Living in Asia, I have the distinct pleasure of never blending in. In a sea of the most diverse faces I have ever seen, I am finally experiencing what it feels like to live under a microscope, to be that “other,” and to know I am seen as such. Thankfully I am doing it in a part of the world where many people are friendly and helpful towards nearly everyone, not just those that look like them. Thankfully, the few extremists whose hatred reaches unfathomable depths are not the average laypersons you pass on the street.

I can’t possibly do justice to explaining the depth of richness in this country, and that goes for the good or the bad. The people, the food, the language…all of it wraps around my soul, and swaddles me in a peaceful happiness that I have found nowhere else, but it is a bittersweet embrace. It has made me feel humbled by my smallness in this world. It has made me outraged against those who intentionally shirk their responsibilities (or actively are manipulative or malicious) towards their fellow humans. It has given me new reasons to be entirely confused and new chances to rehash old sources of ennui.

Read Kaitlyn’s first piece on life in Myanmar here

Read more and see more photos in the Wright County Monitor, March 13 issue.