One of the reasons I traveled halfway across the world was to understand cultures that were so different than my own. I’d see photos of people living in what we would consider a shack and smiling. They looked genuinely happy. Meanwhile, in my world, people would have everything and still seemed so miserable. So what was it that made people with so little so happy?
The first explanation came from something that often makes me skeptical. Religion. Most of the countries I would be visiting were predominantly Buddhist, and so I wanted to learn more. My first lesson came from a guide in Thailand who explained that Buddhism is about wishing wellness on everyone. He played me a chant which had been translated and literally wished the best to every person you could imagine. Happiness to mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters and grandmas and grandpas and children and adults and those who are healthy and those who are not. The list went on and on. Soon I began to understand that people at temples are not necessarily praying for themselves, but for the happiness of EVERYONE.
The idea is that you get so much more out of life when you give happiness than when you receive it. Think about how good you feel when you do a good deed for someone. Giving a gift has always made me happier than opening one, so this made a lot of sense to me. The crazy thing is, you can actually feel it in the country. You can see the difference. People smile at each other, help each other, and they are sincere.
So what could this possibly have to do with speaking English in Myanmar? Simple. I wanted to learn more about Buddhism and so my approach was to smile like a maniac at every monk I saw until one of them talked to me. Alas, one stopped and said hello. I was in Yangon at the Shwedagon Pagoda which is the most sacred temple in Myanmar, and I was thrilled.
He asked me if I was a buddhist and I explained that I was learning about it. When I told him I was from New York, he said “Newwww Yorrrrk” with a sense of awe. He asked me what I thought of our new president and I gave him an honest answer which made him laugh. Then something happened. He invited me to an english class the next day. I agreed to go and then he said, “be there at 7:00am” and pointed to a plain business card with just an address on it.
7:00 am! Gosh that’s early. But if you don’t go, is it bad karma? And didn’t I desperately want to talk to a monk and learn more about Buddhism and the Burmese culture? If I passed up this opportunity would I regret it? And so, I vowed to get up early, walk to “English class” and well, I don’t know what else. He didn’t really explain why I should go or what I’d be doing.
My new friend Emmy was slightly intrigued and decided to go as well. We arrived at exactly 7:00am and were ushered into a room where an old man exclaimed, “we’ve been waiting for you!” I said, “you have?” as I was quickly pulled along and told to sit. Emmy was seated on the opposite side of the room. Suddenly three people came and sat on my right and started introducing themselves. I had only gotten one name when 4 others descended on my left.
A man appeared out of nowhere asking if I wanted tea, coffee or water? I opted for tea before I could even register what was happening. I learned a few names, repeating them multiple times before getting them right or maybe they just gave up on trying to get me to pronounce them correctly. Then more students came in. There were almost 15 circled around me asking me questions.
“What is your name?”
“Where are you from?”
“How old are you?”
“Tell us about your life.”
“Your skin is so pretty.”
“Do you like Myanmar?”
“How did you first hear about it?”
“In your next life would you like to be a man or a woman?”
After making it through the interrogation, I began to ask the questions back realizing that the whole class would be focused around simply talking to me. As we got to know each other a bit, the questions became more personal. “Do you have a boyfriend?” followed by giggles. “Do you live with your family?” followed by whispers. “How many kids do you want?” followed by gasps even though I said one instead of zero.
As I asked the questions back I learned that most people in Myanmar live with their family or relatives until they are married. They are allowed to date, but it seems much more serious. Not like dating in the U.S. which could mean going out for only a month. And of course they all want kids. Lots of kids. Even the idea that I was traveling alone seemed gossip worthy. Their parents wouldn’t let them travel without the family going as well.
The topic that hit hardest was “Are you proud to be an American?” I had learned that most of the class was Buddhist, but two of the girls in the front were Islamic. They were bright, chatty, and sweet and it broke my heart to think that the country I come from felt they were worth fearing. In reality, they just wanted to know what American girls liked to wear and what our makeup was like. They were typical 17 year old girls. “What do you think of Burmese girls?” they asked intently. “I think they are very pretty, smart, and nice.” They all giggled and blushed, thrilled that I thought they were as pretty and exotic as they found me.
I spoke to two different groups over the course of three hours. Some questions were fun and light like my favorite color. Others were more thoughtful like whether I prefer a sunrise or a sunset. Some questions were political and more difficult to answer especially with a language barrier. Regardless, I felt I got to experience a side of Burmese culture that most people visiting don’t. I was honored to spend time with such amazing, kind, and interesting people.
If you are ever in Yangon I recommend going to an English class. This one happens to be every day (except Wednesdays) at 7:00am and you will be welcomed whether they are expecting you or not. Just go to 167 Seikkantha Street (downtown between 38th and 39th Street) near Maha Bandula Road. The class is on the third floor but you will see a small sign out front.
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Michelle Della Giovanna
Writer at Full Time Explorer
I’m just your average New Yorker who quit her job in the fashion industry to explore the world. Come find out what it’s like to trade in five-inch heels for squat toilets.