Notes on September in Myanmar

(I forgot to give this introduction in the first of such posts: these Notes are monthly logs we Cardoner Volunteers here in Taunggyi have to turn in, and to make them more interesting I’ve been writing them in the Notes style this blog and Facebook have led me to develop over the years)

  • September – the month I traditionally call ‘my month’ – started with my Nal performing poetry for the first time in her native Marbel.
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As her former teacher, I felt like this was my triumph too

  • Her performance was punctuated with Inday Precious here in Taunggyi wailing in worry as news of the Davao blast reached us. The last thing anyone heard of her boyfriend before the blast was that he had gone to the Roxas night market – the site of the explosion. We would later find out that he was okay, but while no news came Undag was inconsolable.
  • Nal was supposed to have class on that day at that time, but she skipped it and went home to Marbel to perform. She may well have been injured if she was there (my girlfriend likes wandering around alone at night). It was hardly an exaggeration to say she had been saved by poetry.
  • Amidst Davao’s collective grief, I here in Taunggyi could only be thankful that, while many innocent bystanders died from the blast, my romantic interest was not one of them.
  • When news reached her, she shared to me how the fated escape from danger shook her. One of the victims, Kristel Decolongon, was around her age from Suralla, a town near Marbel. The blast made my girlfriend realize how it could have been her – it could always be her – and how fragile life was. That the victim felt so near her (in terms of age and origin) made her feel the blast more palpably.
  • Suffering, when it does not happen to you, elicits diverse but not altogether conflicting reactions: Thank goodness it did not involve me, but my goodness it could have been me.
  • The first semester was ending in SAG. Part of the requirements that the kids had to give were translations of poetry in their own languages to English. This was a requirement I thought of giving them even before I left the Philippines, and I knew from then on it was a good idea. The kids ended up turning in a rich assortment of Myanmar’s internationally underrated literature.
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The literary folios

  • They also had to submit poetry folios. All three sections gave three copies each (one for me, one for SAG, and one for Ateneo de Davao’s SALEM), but only one, first year section Stanislaus, printed copies for all its students.
  • I do not know how teachers of other subjects find fulfillment in their teaching, but it is always such a rewarding thing to see students of literature producing something from what you thought them. When you start seeing them sharing Kachin or Burmese poems on Facebook, you know you’ve succeeded as a teacher.
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It is particularly fulfilling when they begin espousing your advocacy: this is a poem by my young monk student, Noom, in a hybrid of Shan and Thai.

  • The third years had to defend their research proposals. This was the first time defences were held in SAG, and in spite of a few expected bumps the results were very satisfactory. I may have even unwittingly inspired Inday Precious (who sat in some defence panels) to do research and take up a Masters.
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Some of the third years during their defence

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It is a great irony that the calculator I used to total the panelist scores for the thesis defences was one I bought for high school Chemistry, whose teacher introduced me to research and made me hate it for years.

  • Before we gave the final exams though, we had to leave the country – the 70 days allowed for us to stay as non-Burmese was running out. And so, from Taunggyi we travelled for half a day by bus to Yangon, then from there took a flight to Malaysia, where we would stay for three days in Kuala Lumpur.
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Some of Yangon’s beautiful colonial buildings look neglected

  • Yangon felt like a badly managed museum, rich with historical and cultural sites but run down in many parts. The former capital was bustling with the sudden influx of tourism, and is it continues to burst I could see the seams. I only hope it doesn’t lose its wonderful ancient soul as it meets the demand for modernity and globalization. (more on Yangon in a later post!)

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  • I finally went to Shwedagon Pagoda. When I first saw it on television I was only in High School, and the metaphor that immediately came to mind was that it looked like a Mountain of Gold. I have since wanted to see it in person. The chance to be in it felt like a personal conquest.
  • In Myanmar, the mountains you climb can sometimes be gold.
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And can be visible from far away

  • By now I’ve gotten the hang of managing different timezones. That KL had the same time as Davao made it easier.
  • We were met in Kuala Lumpur’s airport by a Burmese, Alvin Aung Myint, one of SAG’s scholars and future teachers. The moment just made it palpable how international a situation I was in.

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  • In many ways Kuala Lumpur felt like a return to Singapore, it had the same Malay urban vibe about it, and in some areas even the same smell. I had once vowed to myself to return to Singapore when I went home from a summer there, and so far this is the closest I’ve been.(for more on KL, see my Kuala Lumpur Experience post!)
  • The internet is a wonderful thing. While the Malay Peninsula and the Celebes sea separated us, my Ilongga in Davao felt very close, and not a minute passed that I did not hear from her. Petronas Towers, Masjid Jamek, Merdeka Square, the Muzium Negara, Central Market, Petaling Street, Jalan Alor: wherever I was I was chatting her, and it felt like she was exploring KL with me. And it was a joyous thing that, for three days at least, we weren’t an hour and a half apart. In more practical terms that meant we had the same sleeping pattern.
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I was chatting her while I took this selfie, on the same phone

  • Back in Taunggyi, Abdula organized a Communication Arts Festival for his three sections. I was never too big on Speech Choirs but he got me to judge in a Speech Choir contest. The kids seemed to have enjoyed it, and to that extent it succeeded.
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With speech choir judges Brother Bosco and teacher Billy.

  • He also got me to judge the on the spot essay writing contest, and that I was very big on. This was not the first time I had judged such a contest (the last time I could remember was when I was still in Silliman and the National Youth Summit was held in Dumaguete), and since the first time I did it I’ve always adopted a policy when judging handwritten essays: pay no attention to handwriting. I will never forget that I did not win any place in the only Region-wide press conference I attended (when I was in High School) simply because my handwriting wasn’t pretty enough.
  • Which was hardly a problem among the student really: the elegant curves of the Burmese script were coming out of their Roman letters.
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And in all fairness, my handwriting can be difficult

  • Three months into the mission and I think I’ve determined what I can leave behind after a year here in Taunggyi: to help SAG move forward in terms of extracurricular involvement, and to give it a platform for tangible output for its project of giving English-language education.
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The SAG student Constitutional Convention with Inday Precious.

  • I had already helped in the former, by helping the students draft a Constitution for their student council. The experience drafting two student council charters (one of them, Silliman’s Graduate student’s organization, was actually ratified) finally proved to be useful.
  • But I want to aim to give my own contribution (the above was largely Undag’s accomplishment). I want to help set up a newsletter for the school. Talks with Father Paul already resulted in two benchmarks: to make releases monthly, and to include the international community of SAG’s donors, partners, and attached teachers in the target audience.
  • For the latter aim, I want to initiate the establishment of an Online Archive for translations of Myanmar’s literary works. It will be tied up with the output of students in literature classes, and it will hopefully not only provide the international readership with access to Myanmar’s literature, but also showcase works in the minority languages in the country, particularly those spoken in Taunggyi like Shan, Intha, and Pa’Oh.
  • A bible passage important to literary theory is also good for volunteers to contemplate upon: the Parable of the Sower. As a volunteer sent out on a mission, on one hand I may see myself as a seed, cast unto earth which may be shallow or full of brambles. I cannot accomplish anything if the earth I find myself in will not let me bear fruit.
  • And yet I may also see myself as the earth in question, and the seed cast upon me as opportunity. Will I throw the opportunity to the scavenging birds, let it shrivel up with the shallowness of my efforts, or let it be choked by the tares of my own self doubt? Or will I strive to be fertile earth?
  • One thing is for sure: vegetables, fruits and flowers grow very healthily here in Taunggyi.

 

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