Notes on July in Myanmar

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Taunggyi, as seen from Ayethayar

 

  • My first experience of Taunggyi is vertigo. The capital of Myanmar’s Shan State literally sits on top of the mountain, so I was dizzy during my first few days in Saint Aloysius Gonzaga Institute of Higher Studies. The altitude perhaps, the thinness of the air, or the coldness (over ten degrees less than what I’m used to).

 

  • But perhaps it was also the sheer reality of the volunteer experience dawning on me. I always knew that I was not travelling to Myanmar to go on a vacation, but knowing is always different from understanding, from realizing.

 

  • En route to Myanmar we had stopped by Bangkok, where for three days we went to see gloriously gilded buildings in between good food and sleep in a slightly high-end hotel – luxury proved to be very bad prelude to volunteer work. While also comfortable and far from bad, our rooms in SAG could not help but look humble compared to Astera Sathorn. It was the vertigo of fall, really, expectations finally meeting – and hitting – reality.

 

  • But I had no intention of becoming a tragic character. I was here to be a volunteer, and I had to tell myself failure and disappointment will be the most familiar things in this wonderfully foreign land.

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  • Part of the way I coped with the disappointment was by telling myself Ateneo de Davao sent me here, all expenses paid, not only as a volunteer but as part of the pioneering deployment of the Cardoner Volunteer Program. This program was designed for the school’s alumni and faculty, so while its explicit aim is to contribute to the formation of its graduates and teachers, it also inevitably showcases the best Ateneo has to offer.

 

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The kids and teachers during the welcoming ceremony

  • On our welcoming ceremony, I was the first of the volunteers to enter the media room, where all the Integrated Program students were waiting. The students gave a frenzied cheer. I thought it was such a warm welcome, until teacher Yiyi San, the school’s academic administrator, told me I resembled the vocalist of a famous Burmese rock band.

 

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The second years, trying to make metaphors in the Media Room

  • Teaching is such a fulfilling thing. The look in students’ eyes when they look at an incomprehensible poem, then you help them understand it – you can see that sight regardless of your student’s nationality.

 

  • I had a horrible five year teaching career in the Philippines, and doing it here in Taunggyi only made it clearer that it’s not the teaching itself that was dreadful, but the putting up with fellow teachers. Fellow teachers in SAG have been lovely so far.

 

  • Burmese food has a wild and very diverse spectrum of tastes, with many ingredients I haven’t even heard of. Eating has been all about discoveries for the first few months.

 

  • Best Burmese food so far: Tohpu Nway (sticky Shan rice noodles in a thick pudding of chickpea flour, seasoned with sesame seeds and sweet syrup), Ohn no Khao Swe (noodles in thick coconut curry soup, garnished with bean fritters), and Mon Pya Lu (rice cake with jaggery, coated in toasted rice flour, somewhere between Filipino espasol and Turkish delight). The secret to growing to love a place is to seek the familiar, but also the endemic.

 

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There’s a restaurant here named ‘No Name.’

  • The Burmese have a very potent – but underrated – sense of humour. The language barrier is not soundproof of laughter, even kids who struggle with English throw jokes at you.

 

  • The soil in Shan state is just so eye-catchingly red. Rich in minerals (Myanmar is one of the world’s most mineral-rich countries), fertile for agriculture, but also a faint reminder of how much bloodshed this country has only until recently seen.

 

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And strawberries grow in SAG!

  • It became immediately clear to me that I had come to Myanmar at a very exciting and turbulent time – the very young and still quite delicate democracy has nevertheless already had profound, perhaps permanent, effects on society. The kids are very tech-savy and are always online, and they’re already grumbling about authoritarian relics of the past, even if this past was only just six years ago.

 

  • That irritation is justified though: Burma is booming, but it would have the momentum to rival developed countries if the remaining problems of military times were to be addressed. The kids complain, for example, that Taunggyi’s libraries could be better.

 

  • I cannot help but envy the Philippines I left behind – I also left my country at a very interesting time. One of my dreams, that a Mindanawon be elected President, finally happened, and it’s Rodrigo Duterte of all people! Federalism, the death penalty, streamlining of government processes – things I’ve only dreamed would happen are fast becoming realities. To hit home to what I missed, passport expirations will soon be for 10 years, just after I had mine renewed for five.

 

  • Taunggyi has a unique superstition: people are not advised to travel up and down the city in groups of nine. If they do, accidents might happen to them. This is attributed to the guardian spirits (Nats) of the city, who have a monopoly of the number nine. If a group must travel with nine people, the group must bring a rock, which will count as a tenth person. As a visitor, I ought to follow the laws of this land, even those of its unspeakable forces

 

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A banyan, just a walk from SAG, with Nat spirit altars

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A forest of Pagodas in Shwe Inn Thein, some dating back thousands of years

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I bought a shawl of lotus silk – ridiculously expensive, but Inle is the only place in the world that makes silk out of lotus

  • Myanmar has so much unshared wonders: a temple with mysterious black fish in its lake that emerge from nowhere, a whole tribe – the Pa’O – which claims descent from a dragon, cloth woven from thread made of lotus sap in Inle, Every village in Inle not only floating in the middle of the lake but also having their own specialized craft, a forest of pagodas in Shwe Inn Thein dating back to the Ashoka Empire, households with Buddha statues that have been in the family for over two centuries, a vibrant array of intricate hand woven fabrics, each tribe with a different pattern, worn as longyi.

 

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The kids translated Gratian Tidor’s ‘Brownout’ (which I translated to English) into their languages. This one in by Nang Khan Hom into Pa’O

  • Bamar, Kachin, Shan, Pa’O, In, Kayan, Kayin, Chin, Akhar, not to mention Chinese and Indian – I have never seen so many ethnicities in one classroom. And they’re all understanding – fascinated even – with each other’s culture. For all Myanmar’s decades of ethnic strife, the young people let one hope for a more harmonious future.

 

  • Like Davao, Taunggyi is very multilingual. And as the only person who has ever specialized in Davao Filipino (yang nagahalo-halo gud ang Tagalog at Bisaya), I’m trying to plant the seeds of language contact appreciation here. So far the kids are amused. All according to plan. And Buwan ng Wika is coming in the Philippines!

 

  • I am disoriented by how the Jesuits in Taunggyi live. Father Paul the school’s director washes the dishes and does his own laundry. Father Titus plays soccer with the Jesuit candidates and irons his own clothes. Forget Padre Damaso’s Ecclesiastic Dignity outraged over getting the chicken’s neck, the priests here would even let you eat ahead of you.

 

  • But then again, Father Joel Tabora was also like that before we left Davao, so maybe it’s a Jesuit thing.

 

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The Shan Monastery just a walk away from SAG

  • Jesuit institutions are wonderfully fascinated with other faiths. While Ateneo de Davao is the only Catholic school in the world with an Islamic Studies Center, the school motto of SAG is ‘Śīla, Samādhi, Paññā,’ ‘Virtue, Mindfulness, and Wisdom,’ the three categories of the Noble Eightfold Path of Buddhism.

 

  • The kids here have had to put up with very difficult education conditions. They are not used to asking questions (much less questioning their teachers), and learning is all about memorizing. Application is a strange and sometimes scary experience for them. But they’re enjoying it.

 

  • They’re hungry for extracurriculars! Ever since the 8888 Uprising student activity has been all but banned in Myanmar, so now that the most famous player of the Uprising is running the country, the kids are doing everything they couldn’t a few years back. The universities are slow to pick up on this, but SAG is actively allowing them to do it. This means the kids are learning to love SAG more than the universities they go to.

 

  • But they’re even hungrier for learning, palpably more than Filipinos. I give comments to essays in front of the whole class, and where Filipino students would be too shy or scared to be discussed, the students here jostle to be the one who gets to be critiqued next. They’re hungry even for criticism.

 

  • All the things I was good at but time in the Philippines made me feel were useless are now proving to be helpful, even appreciated here: literature, parliamentary procedure, constitution drafting – and to think just a year ago a program head in PWC dismissed ‘creative writing’ as just about writing business letters.

 

  • Sleep during my first month in Taunggyi has been marked by nightmares. A year’s worth of nightmares in just a month. Nothing supernatural, but dreams of rejections: Father Paul saying I’m useless; teacher Yiyi saying I’m useless, the old hags in PWC coming to Taunggyi to declare how useless I am, my Ateneo and Silliman professors telling Father Paul I’m useless. I have never been more appreciated than I have been here, and my subconscious cannot help but forewarn me about how inevitable rejection and being taken for granted can seem like. One goal I ought to set while I am here is to get used to being valued.

 

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Daing na bangus – one of the first dishes I have ever cooked (but that’s for another post!

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I was so surprised to find burong mustasa in Myanmar! Apparently it’s a Pa’O specialty

  • It is very easy to miss home, and one of the things one misses most is the food. Thank goodness I had been compiling my family recipes – to entertain the people here we cook Filipino dishes, and I have many old recipes to dabble with.

 

  • Another advantage of being sent out on a mission far from home: you get the freedom to try things your family would not let you, like cooking.

 

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The two plants, replanted just after I miraculously recovered them

  • I smuggled three of my plants from the Philippines. They have struggled for the first month but are now beginning to thrive. Two of them, which look like weeds, the kids unwittingly uprooted when they were helping clean the lawns. I had to dig through heaps of uprooted weeds and rotten leaves, and against all odds I found them. Now they’ve just produced seedlings. The only sure way of losing something, I realized, is if you don’t try your hardest to recover it.

 

  • Having a long distance relationship is difficult, especially if it is for an extended period of time. The constant fear of her cheating is there, but what’s really scary is if both of you grow to learn to live lives without each other.

 

  • But I am not going to live a life here. SAG and Taunggyi feel very comfortable and welcoming, and it’s not difficult to feel at home. But early on I realized that I am here as a visitor, and this land may know the language of my footsteps (in the first month not yet even that!), but it shall never know the intimacy of my roots. I am here to contribute to the growth of the place and the people here, but my contribution is all the living I will be doing. I will never – and ought to never – be more than that.

 

  • Which is to say, there’s no reason for the pretty Ilongga I left in the Philippines to be worried

 

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A shrine in the middle of Inle Lake – the lake was a great place in which to meditate

  • On the motorboat crossing Inle Lake I wonder why I am here in Myanmar. My hometown of Kidapawan, where for almost a hundred years my family has lived, is probably as much in need as this SAG (perhaps more), and yet I am here in a faraway land, where even the way the fishermen row their boats is foreign. And I thought of how my projects for Kidapawan – an anthology of essays, a history book, literary projects – are all stalled because the people in Kidapawan are not cooperating. I have tried to help my hometown, but it’s refusing to help itself. I go where I am needed, but also where I am wanted.

 

  • And then I remembered when I first went back to Kidapawan after five years of being away – the sheer devastation I felt when I realized the place I called home really was no longer home, the unutterable sadness at seeing all the familiar things now become strange and foreign, refusing to be familiar again exactly because they had been once familiar. That had been an unresolved issue, a fundamental question to which I could not find an answer: where do I belong now?

 

  • But at that moment, in the middle of Inle Lake surrounded by the Shan Hills, thousands of miles from Lake Venado and Mt Apo, I understood.

 

  • ‘The changes do not change the portrait of the past that never leaves,’ writes the Kidapawan poet Rita Gadi, ‘any more than how the map remains the sanctuary within my soul, indelibly charting every journey I have made, beyond, and back.’ I am not in Kidapawan, and perhaps I shall never be back in Kidapawan again, but right now, this boat is Kidapawan, and every bit of ground I will stand on is Kidapawan, because that is what it means to have a town in your blood and bones – that wherever you are, you will continue living its life. I never left Kidapawan, because I am

 

  • All these thoughts came with the noise of the motorboat’s gas engine. Matsuo Basho was right – noise is silence, and (when the gas engine stopped for a bit) silence can be as palpable as noise.

 

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I borrowed some Burmese fiction books from teacher Yiyi: Ma Thanegi’s collection of Burmese short stories translated to English, and Maung Htin Aung’s compendium of Burmese folk tales

  • I clearly need to find more Burmese writers to quote. I’ve read seven so far but all of them are fictionists. I need to read more Burmese poetry.

 

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My little corner in Taunggyi

  • It would be no exaggeration to say that my room has become Philippine territory. When I am inside it to sleep, work, or write, I often forget I’m in another country. It is full of things I brought from Davao, and it’s as if I unpacked home from my bags when I opened my large bag with the Duterte sticker. Some of the plants I brought even come from Kidapawan. But for the sometimes freezing cold unheard of in the Philippines (a welcome strangeness!) the room is my sanctuary of familiarity.

 

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  • Outside the room’s door, I have a foot mat spelling out the word ‘Welcome.’ It faces the room exit-wise rather than entry-wise – a constant reminder that I am the one being welcomed into a foreign country every time I step out of my little pocket of home.

 

  • And it is a constant reminder that every time I step out, there could be a new insight waiting for me, if only I’m willing enough to brave the new, unfamiliar world outside.

 

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