An English Teaching Adventure in the City of Gold - Yangon, MyanmarJustin Ruhe
“Hello Sir, how are you today?” A thick Myanmar accent rang from far in the corners of my perception. I stood mesmerized by the reflection of the setting sun underneath the glistening golden bell of Schwedagon Pagoda,
“Hello Sir. Sir, How are you today?” There was that voice again, but this time closer.
It took every ounce of my power to break away from the sight of the gleaming temple towering over me, but finally, like a bug tickling my the top of my skin, those far off words had travelled through my ear canal and into the registration area of my brain.
Someone is talking to me.
“I’m doing quite well,” I think I said.
I don’t remember exactly, but what I do remember was the mischievous smile of the chubby-cheeked monk standing in front of me. He commented on the clarity of my accent, and asked me what I was doing in Myanmar. What am I doing?
Wait, what was I doing?
Staring at this giant landmark I had seen endless pictures of on travel blogs and newsfeeds? Trying to get over my irking irritation at the lady at the front of the temple who took my shoes out of my hand, and threw them in a locker before telling me about the 2,000 Kyat storage fee? Trying to find a way to pack as much authentic Yangon culture into two days of jetlagged travel as possible?
We continued with the small chat, my thoughts marathoning way ahead of the actual words coming out of my mouth. A suspicious feeling was eating at the back of my brain.
It was clear the monk wanted something, but it was impossible to tell just what it was. A million tripadvisor scams montaged in my head.
The incredible Schwedagon Pagoda, even more beautiful in the evening!
“Am I a teacher?” He asks.
Ok, now we’re getting kind of personal. I’m supposed to be on vacation here, but yes, actually I am a teacher back in Thailand.
There was a flash of excitement in the monk’s eyes. I could feel it coming. The inevitable wind-up, and…pitch!
“Oh that’s wonderful,” I think he might have said.
He produced a card, one for me, and one for Krissy. He told me about his conversational English class, and invited me to go the next day at 9 AM.
“This isn’t a scam is it?” I asked, feeling dirty for even asking a monk that question.
“No scam, see you at 9 am! The address is here. We’ll even make breakfast.”
Krissy and I shared a look…
What have we got to lose?
Similar sights in Thailand..
Flash forward to the next morning, we hailed a cab and I greeted the driver with an optimistic grin and a heart full of adventure. Two seconds later we’re beeping and swerving our way through the chaotic mess of roadway that is Yangon.
Reassuringly, about every five minutes our cab driver would study the address on the monk’s business card, and then shake his head. My grin grew wider each time, eventually turning into an uncomfortable cheek-splitting smile I continually flashed at Krissy with the same manic certainty the cab driver insisted he knew the way.
I promise we won’t be human-trafficked today! I smile at Krissy.
One hour of beeps and bumper hugging later, and we had reached a destination. A destination I was fairly certain wasn’t my intended destination.
“There?” I said, looking where the man’s outstretched finger pointed.
He smiled and nodded. I had expected a temple, or a Learn English sign or something, anything but the shoddy and unimpressive house in front of us.
I started to protest, pointing at the business card again, but it was too late. The cab driver reached across me to open the passenger door. He was clearly done with the goose chase.
So Krissy and I hit the street, not sure whether to feel adventurous, scared, or irritated by the fact that we were obviously in the wrong area, with nothing to guide us but a misleading business card.
I look up to see a group of old ladies on the porch staring right at us.
Quick, engage Thai diffusion mechanism!
I smiled as wide as I could, and walked up to them.
Through a song and dance that looked something like disco-directional charades, I was able to get my point across and the kindhearted ladies pointed us off into a new direction.
Well, this is the best we’ve got, and we’ve already come this far.
We walked through stony corridors, past sewing shops, beetlenut huts, and more than few wily street mutts.
We were both feeling a little downtrodden by this time. It was already past nine o’ clock, and we were late for the English class, or scam, or wherever the hell we were going.
I checked the card again, and started paying attention to the addresses on the walls around us. The cab driver had surprisingly gotten us pretty close. The numbers on the walls were just a few off from the address on the card.
The numbers ticked up one by one as we moved down the street, and before long, we found ourselves standing at the gate of a modest temple.
So much for a welcoming party, I thought, tiptoeing into the ghost-like courtyard.
Helllllooooo! It’s the nervous foreigners who are 45% certain they may be abducted and have their organs stolen today…
And then the assault happened—four puppies came out of nowhere, viciously jumping up and licking our knees.
It didn’t take long for Krissy to dote on the dogs.
I tried to find someone who could tell me where the conversation class was, but other than a few wide-eyed monk children who spoke zero English, and apparently didn’t understand my hand gestures, there was no one to be found.
After looking a bit like a lost parking lot surveyor, I finally spotted a senior monk. It wasn’t the monk from Schwedagon, but at least it was someone.
Feeling a glimmer of hope, I tried my best to communicate with him.
Fairly certain he didn’t understand anything other than hello, the monk replied.
“3 o’ clock.”
Then he waved goodbye and shut the door of the small building he was standing in.
Are you kidding me?—was just one of the frustrated phrases that came into my mind at that moment.
I headed towards the gate feeling confused, and cheated.
“Any luck?” Krissy asks, stroking a couple of pups.
Just as I’m about to say, No, I’m a failed adventurer, let’s get the hell out of here and drown our sorrows in a bowl of curry, a group of young men and a monk approach us.
I show the monk the business card, and we chat for a minute in a language of grunts and gestures. I’m beginning to think the monk at Schwedagon was nothing more than some ancient Nat my jetlagged mind had created.
Then this new monk in front of me smiled, and led us to a huge flatbed truck. He motioned to the back.
This is it, I smiled at Krissy. I can hear my grandpa’s overprotective advice flashing like a red alarm in my head—you’re heading straight towards Isis headquarters!
We jumped in the back of the truck, and the vehicle peeled out of the road. It wasn’t long before we were on a major roadway, sliding around the back of the truck-bed like penguins in greased high heels.
Are monk affiliates even allowed to drive this fast? I think, clutching the metal handles.
We flew under large buildings, over bridges, and through dusty streets with vendors walking and hawing every which way. Then I felt the truck come to a screeching halt. We sat parked in front of an unmarked three story building sandwiched in the middle of a packed downtown street.
And what do you know, there was the monk from Schwedagon! He led us into building, and up an elevator that looked like it could have been the set for a horror movie.
Krissy and I walked into the classroom, a long room with a decayed whiteboard at the front, and long wooden benches and tables layering the space. Like a lot of Myanmar, everything had this dusty antique feel to it.
Krissy and I each sat at a separate bench, and it wasn’t long until droves of local Myanmar people sat around us. Even though they were from all different ages and professions, one thing was very clear—these people were desperate to learn English. There must have been over 50 people in the room.
Getting to know our new friends whilst sharing stories
Question after question came, some of the talkers more outgoing than others. We chatted about America, Thailand, my job, their jobs, my favorite things, their favorite things, love… They painted my face in Tannaka powder, gave me a Myanmar name, and wrote a list of foods that I could take to local restaurants.
I asked them about restaurants in the area near the end of the lesson, and a couple of the students agreed to take Krissy and I to a local food shop around the corner. Nothing could have made me happier.
I had gone out on a limb to sample the local food, doing a point and prey at more than enough Myanmar-script menus since I had been in the country, and while some of the dishes had been delish, some had been a pallet challenge.
Now I felt safe with our new tour guides ushering us into the beautiful world of local Myanmar cuisine. We chatted some more about food, dating, and our guide’s love of Eminem’s music.
Feeling full and humbled, Krissy and I paid for the meal and thanked our guides for the amazing experience.
Our new friends offered to take us to Maha Bandula Park, where both the Independence Monument and Sule Pagoda were situated.
We tried our best to politely decline, feeling like we were intruding on their day. But the young guides assured us we were the furthest thing from an unwelcome intrusion. They aspired to work as tour guides, and they warmly welcomed the chance to have us be some of their first tour-goers.
Once again I was flabbergasted with just how motivated these new friends of ours were to learn English. They walked us around the park, and explained the history of the beautiful area. They showed us the sights, and after a while we thanked them and went our separate ways.
The boys asked us to come back and teach another class at the school that night, but we already booked a bus to Inle Lake.
As I stood in the shadow of Independence Monument, feeling the hot sun on my face, I immediately felt a sense of intense gratitude. Admiring the landmarks of Myanmar had been a great experience, sure, but it was but a sliver compared to the immense headfirst dive into the local culture this chance conversation class had afforded me.
I took a deep breath in and embraced the warm blossoming sensation of gratitude spreading through me. Teaching English has allowed me to experience so many amazing opportunities.
It’s easy to lose track of the human nature that unites us all, but its experiences like these that keep me humble, and remind me of the things that are truly important to me in life.
Teaching is one hell of a way to meet the world.