Today is my one year anniversary.
May the Fourth be with you (and also with you).
One year ago today, I flew Des Moines to Chicago to Los Angeles to Hong Kong to Bangkok.
Nine days ago, I flew Yangon to Bangkok to Tokyo to Chicago to Des Moines.
Four days after arriving back in Iowa, I met with the group EMBARC (Ethnic Minorities of Burma Advocacy and Resource Center) and signed up as a summer tutor. The experience is as much for the students transitioning to life in the United States as it is for me, as I try to carve out exactly my life here after living somewhere so different. I’m still shocked at how clean and organized everything seems, and ongoing radio/tv ad noise distracts me much more in English than it did in Burmese.
In Yangon, I worked primarily with really young kids (age 3-10), and despite having no real experience as a teacher, my job was easy; kids are creative sponges who will love you for showing up and making them laugh. My students already had a pretty decent foundation of English, because they belonged to the emerging middle class in Burma/Myanmar, and many had already been with the English-immersion school for a year or more.
Despite my school’s specific shortcomings, these students were experiencing the benefits of a comparatively good education. Plus, they didn’t have to be rushed through a course to catch up to their peers, or to be taught something more than once: they were young enough that a foundation was already established. They understood concepts effectively the first time around, and quickly, because young minds function at that speed. We all know that trying to learn a new skill later is life is difficult. As an adult, every time you change professions or try to go back to school, there is a learning curve that seems to get steeper by the year, and that’s without accounting for any “back in my day, we walked fifteen miles uphill to school” nostalgia curves. I’m not that old yet, but I’m starting to sympathize with the concept.
“Back in my day,” things were certainly much easier to learn. This is because of the capabilities of a younger brain versus an older brain; we start to forge pathways and make neural connections from a very early age, and just like road systems, it’s much easier to build them correctly the first time. It’s a pain in the ass to try to tear things down and reroute them, or to build something new without a proper foundation. There’s an old joke that states that Iowa has two seasons: winter and road construction. Anyone who has lived here knows the frustrations that go with seasonally patching roadways, and I tend to agree. However, just stop and think for a moment how much worse the streets would be if we didn’t bother with the routine maintenance. Potholes would swallow cars whole. Semis would take out overpasses as they bounced along the uneven asphalt. We’d have to resort to driving tractors across the mucked up terrain everywhere as basic transportation just to arrive safely. (Many people I’ve encountered throughout the world already think we do.) The point I’m attempting to make is that the maintenance is a pain, but one we must endure regularly. The alternative, ignoring a problem until it’s too big to properly address, is clearly much worse.
With my students, I was lucky enough to work with (neural) road systems that were carefully built and closely monitored, as it were. But not only new road systems need maintenance; older roads do also. This should be common sense, agreed? Older roads need a different kind of care and attention, and this is precisely where we may falter when making large-scale decisions, or decide to cut corners because the task ahead of us seems too large. We’re eager to build new roads, but we seem to wait too long to revisit the ones already in place. Heck, why not just stay home entirely? You didn’t really want to go somewhere that required a bit of patience to get there, anyway. There’s a super-highway nearby that takes you somewhere much flashier, and more convenient. Maybe I’m bogging myself down in the far reaches of this metaphor, but if you haven’t figured it out, the road systems are the minds of all of us, children and adults, and the longer you let a problem go without addressing it, the more difficult it is to make improvements or corrections.
In Yangon, the (literal) road systems are horrible, in many places. There is no basic maintenance in many areas, unless it’s a place with a high-flow of tourist traffic. To someone who just swoops in for a quick look-see, that main highway is clean and neat and wide enough that it is not congested. The heart of the city, where the average person works, is much less well-kept, and the further outside of the city you go, the more poverty you see, and the more rustic the roads become. Literal and figurative roads are entirely intertwined here, as the road conditions do seem to be a rather apt reflection of the time and attention given to the education of the people who can afford to live there. If you can afford to live in a nice part of the city, you can also enjoy smooth roads to carry your children to their first-class education, to which they arrive by private car or (relatively) luxurious shuttle-bus. If you live on gravel, your children may walk to school without shoes, or they may end up skipping out on education entirely, instead selling cigarettes and flowers to tourists who endure a few miles of bumpy roads in air-conditioned cars en route to one of the beautifully restored, overpriced, government-owned colonial-buildings-turned-hotels.
I knew that going halfway around the world to teach English in a developing nation which has been closed off from the rest of the world for over half a century would be a journey full of twists, turns, bumps, and pitfalls, but I never bothered to imagine what view would await me from the other side of the experience. A book I read recently, “Only Forward” by Michael Marshall Smith, addresses this in a way that I can’t properly communicate on my own, and maybe the symbolism is convoluted if you don’t have the author’s context. There is a portion where he asks you to envision yourself walking down your street, imagining everything you might see as you go along. When you get to the end of the street, you turn around, and he asks whether you believe it to be the same street. His point, in context, is that it is not the same street, because both you and the street are entirely different from there than they were from where you started. It’s a glorious, simultaneously gut and heart wrenching book, and if you haven’t read it, put it on your to do list. And it was exactly what I needed to read when I read it.
Today, reflecting back on my year on the one-year anniversary of my departure, I was lucky enough to spend the day with a very good friend of mine who just happens to be going through the circus-worthy acrobatics required to be a teacher here in the United States. It amazes me that the problems we have here, some of them socially self-created, are the same problems in a developing nation half a world away. I will speculate more about these in the near future, I hope, but for now, I wonder about the larger picture state of affairs. I’m happy to build bridges, to patch potholes, and to coach drivers… but progress can’t be made without giving the issues at hand proper attention, and on a proper scale. One person can’t fix all the roads in Iowa, neither in a timely manner, nor to the best of their ability. What we ask teachers to do is the equivalent of assigning one construction worker an entire county worth of roads, and giving them only a shovel and a bucket of gravel to do so. If they’d like to do a more comprehensive job, additional materials can certainly be paid for out of their own pockets. And they’ll need to think about more efficient ways to fix roads on their own time, of course, when they’re not physically trying to keep track of and improve upon all the nuances and requirements pertinent to each road. This journey has let me meet such astoundingly diverse and remarkable people and causes me to appreciate the extraordinary nature of those people. Whether we met for just a few moments or we’ve been friends for a decade, I find comfort and reassurance in those specimens of the human race, because most of us are trying to improve upon the world that we’ve inherited. We identify the problems which speak loudest or most directly to us, and we do our best to address and correct them.
We also seem to be terribly surprised to meet anyone else attempting to make improvements along the way, whispering “I thought I was the only one” as we swing our shovel up and move on to the next pothole.
I know I’m not alone, and I know reaching the full potential strength and beauty of each road is out of my grasp, but I will continue to tend to the roads to the best of my ability, and hope that others join me along the way.
If you’d like to help make a difference in the lives of transitioning Burmese refugees here in the Des Moines region of Iowa, specifically the students adjusting to a very different educational opportunity, please send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org; more information about Burmese refugees in Iowa can be found at http://www.embarciowa.org/.
My previous pieces, printed in my home-town newspaper, can be found online here:
Part One: http://www.clarionnewsonline.com/content/clarion-myanmar-along-west Part Two: http://www.clarionnewsonline.com/content/life-and-work-myanmar-land-and-children
Part Three: http://www.clarionnewsonline.com/content/clarion-and-myanmar-back-and-there-again