I arrived at the Sittwe airport where I was met by the two grinning faces of the students whom I had taught in Yangon during October. This put me at immediate ease after trying to talk to the 11 teachers in Thandwe who looked mostly bored and at best a little confused by me.
Sittwe is actually a fairly small place; the large main road full of hustle and bustle belies the few scant roads leading off of it. My student secured a room for me for the duration of my stay and then I was left alone to shower, change and rest before meeting my new students that evening.
We travelled in a tuk-tuk to the other end of the main road where we entered a small building discreetly tucked off of the main road. The ground floor of this building is home to the Center for Education, Arts and Literature, a small community project headed by a young man who insists there is no leader and that he couldn’t do the project alone. While I believe he would not be able to achieve much alone, I do not believe his protestations about being the unofficial leader. His English is great, after spending a year in Yangon with American teachers. He is also a very talented artist and has used his fantastic creative abilities to teach children to express their fears and concerns about what they see in society through the medium of drawing and coloring. These pictures, along with some of his own, are proudly displayed on the walls of the long thin room.
Accompanying the works of art are photographs of the 4 libraries that CEAL has helped to furnish in rural locations, including the village where the students who collected me from the airport live. Each library is clean and bright with a beautiful, natural mural of squirrels, trees and mushrooms adorning a wall or corner space. They are great spaces for children to learn to enjoy books and reading. Many of the libraries that I have seen in Myanmar are dingy and dark affairs with books pilled randomly as and when they are donated.
In total there were 11 or 12 students to meet me and discuss the timing of suitable lessons. We also discussed how many people I could fit into the teaching space, the fact that they had a projector but it was currently broken and the lack of intermediate or higher English lessons in Sittwe.
The next morning, at 5:15 am I got onto the back of a moped bleary-eyed and wishing I had worn my sweater as the morning air was chilly. Going to the house of one of the students I had met the previous night, there were soon mopeds everywhere and about 15 people, myself included, headed towards the beach for some early morning exercise.
I chatted to two students I had met the night before and a new friend of theirs. Initially they were quite shy, and told me that they had fears of very negative stereotypes of foreigners. They soon relaxed and started to talk more freely, telling me that I was not living up to their fearful assumptions and that they were really pleased and excited to meet me and find that I was so nice!
Once on the beach, one of the girls became the instructor for a series of exercises like I have seen people in Yangon and in Bangkok perform en masse. As a reward for waking up at 5:15, there was a stunning sunrise that was a deep ginger as it rose over the calm sea.
On the walk back to the mopeds I gave an impromptu lesson on the difference usages of the present simple, present continuous and present perfect vs past simple tenses. Grammar is one of my favorite subjects to teach due to the logic and patterns involved. I have spent a long time analyzing why we use the tenses that we do in which situations and if there is any difference between what is common usage and what is technically correct grammar. Therefore a 6 am walk seemed like the perfect opportunity to teach and it gave the 6 of us a good excuse as to why we were moving so much more slowly than the other half of our group. Although this may not have been completely accurate, I think we just took a more sedate pace without reason!
Later that evening the group returned to the beach; the number had grown to around 20 for this later excursion. We played games as children might on the sand. We played a game of tag which was referred to as ‘Tom and Jerry.’ It involved a rather frantic run and grab between pairs, accompanied by shrieks from the girls and overly enthusiastic lunges by the boys which resulted in them falling and assailing the escape of their victim.
I was pleased to learn that one of the members of the group, who I had simply assumed was a girl, smiled at and not really paid any further attention was actually a gay male who was at least presenting as feminine. I suppose perhaps I should admit that my initial thought was actually “oh good, a girl who is almost the same height as me!” Whether this individual is actually trans, I am not certain. Gender division is a little more fluid here I find and boys will often have hairstyles and wear jewelry which would be considered camp or even feminine in the west. It was explained to me that they were often invited to take part in group activities and encouraged to discuss and share opinions as much as everyone else. No-one had any problems while playing the fairly physical game, and I was very heartened to see this display of inclusion in a country where homosexuality, let alone gay marriage, is illegal.
NEH Coordinator and Teacher Trainer
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