Well I’m officially back in Thailand after my three-week stint teaching in Myanmar. It’s almost hard to write this post because I don’t feel like I‘ve seen enough of the country yet to really sum things up, but I promised a three-part series so here’s the finale. I wonder if this is why the third (insert trilogy movie title) sucked so bad.
Let’s start off with something that has actually very little to do with Myanmar. One of the things that I was legitimately worried about before coming was that people here wouldn’t think I was funny. Whether I’m writing, teaching, or hanging out with friends, I like to try and make people laugh. And now that I’ve taught this course so many times, I entertain myself in class by trying to be funny as I teach. Before I left, I was telling a coworker that nobody in Myanmar was going like me and that my blog post afterwards would be called, “I’m not funny in Burma.” Well, I’m happy to report today that I am indeed still funny in Burma. It may have taken until the literal last presentation of my course, but I did it. And you know what helped me finally figure it out?
Mr. Bean. Mr. Fuckin Bean. After getting to know the teachers, it came up numerous times that Mr. Bean is wildly popular here. Whereas my deadpan, sarcastic jokes fell on deaf ears, excessive physical humor and goofiness went over with flying colors. I may have felt like an idiot, but I won the crowd.
I also had to get used to getting stared at again. A lot. While I got a pretty good taste of the ogling when I was teaching at my Thai school, Myanmar was a different story. For one, they generally don’t get that many tourists. Maybe in Yangon we are becoming more prevalent, but up in Tachilek where I was? Not so much. Plus being 6’3” with a bald head and red beard didn’t help.
This was especially obvious when I observed the Myanmar teachers in their pre-school classes. Every time they finished an art activity, the students would slowly start zig-zagging their way towards me. As they got closer, they watched closely to see if I was going to make any sudden movements. (I have a newfound sympathy for zoo animals.) When they finally realized that I was a mild and peaceful creature, I became surrounded by what Brittany described as, “a pack of ravenous mini humans.” They all wanted to rub my arm hair or stand by and wait for my patented poke-in-the-belly move.
As for my overall experience, one of the main things that I came to love about Myanmar is the people. I’ve spent a lot of time talking here about how great Thai people are, and they are. But for some reason it felt different in Myanmar. I realize I’m generalizing two entire populations, so there’s a lot of exceptions, but sometimes it feels like Thai people have a pre-set opinion of what a Westerner is. They’ll greet us, but once they figure out which category we fall into (teacher, backpacker, sexpat or businessman) they will respond to us in a certain way. In Myanmar though, it felt like people were more genuinely interested and seemed more curious. Conversations involved more than excitedly shouting, “Hello!” and scurrying away giggling when somebody asks back, “How are you doing?” I’m sure that people who live here know how that interaction goes.
Teaching to a group of Myanmar teachers was much different than teaching to Westerners. For one, despite the fact that the people in my class were adults and professional teachers, once you put them back into a classroom setting, they instantly reverted back to being little kids sitting at a table with their friends. I think the biggest cheer I got throughout the entire course was on the first day when I announced that it was break time. There was a borderline ovation.
All in all, they were an incredible group to teach and they were all so eager and sincere about wanting to improve. Whereas some Westerners just want to be told how to teach, these teachers were trying to understand why we were doing what we were doing. Part of it is because our method is based more on real communication and creativity, whereas the system they were raised with is largely based on drilling and rote memorization. On the last day during the test, there was an exam question that said, “How can you modify your teaching to allow for more student creativity?” Several of them came up and asked, “But… this wasn’t on the study guide?” Being graded on effort as opposed to being graded on a correct answer was brand new for them.
All in all I had an amazing experience teaching here. The first week was hard as I dealt with culture shock, but by the end I was really enjoying myself. Thank you to all of the teachers from NIEC and NELC for bringing me into your little family and making me feel welcomed. Thank you for inspiring me to not only go back and visit Tachilek later this year, but for making me want to see the rest of the country. Your food was delicious, you taught me the longyi life, and your carnival boat rides have questionable safety standards. Saying thank you in your language may have taken me three weeks to remember correctly, but I finally did it. Je-zu-tin-bah-dey Myanmar.