Grateful Goodbyes

Three weeks ago I left Myanmar after nearly three years of living there.

Honestly, I had expected more tears. But I think I somehow I feel so hopeful about the futures of my friends and students there that I couldn’t feel too heartbroken. Or it could be my strong intuitions that I will be back in the golden land sooner rather than later. Or possibly I’m just really excited for what is to come and I’m attempting to block out the emotional realities of leaving behind a place that really does feel like home.

My final weeks were such a blur. I was desperately trying to tie up loose ends at a job I loved dearly while balancing time to say bye to friends and students, with some extra moments on the side needed to just step back and soak up the environs that I would soon be missing so much.

Thank goodness one of my final weeks in the country included the epic and most definitely under-rated thingyan (Burmese New Year or Water Festival). This festival is indescribable so I don’t know where to begin except to say that it is a city-wide water-fight in Yangon and to be running around with friends on that day is unmatched by any other holiday I’ve ever celebrated.

I also was able to visit Kayah State during my final month. This marked the 7th and concluding state for me as I have somehow managed to reach the other six (Rakhine, Chin, Karen, Mon, Shan, and Kachin). I haven’t been able to visit all seven regions yet, so that is something to look forward to! Loikaw, the capital of Kayah, was beautifully ringed by hills and had a sleepy relaxed feel which is just what we were looking for after thingyan.

This past year I started the practice of meditation – in a very faltering, one-step-forward-two-steps-back kind of way. I’m not sure if it’s my mind playing tricks on me, but somehow life in Myanmar, even in a city as chaotic as Yangon, does somehow seem more conducive to keep a habit like this up. I attended some classes regularly and found myself walking around my neighborhood in less of a daze thinking about all the impending tasks that needed to be done, but instead with much more focused and mindful movement. The way meditation rewires your brain is definitely useful for those long traffic lights on your way to work. And so, in my last week and a half, I was doing a brief meditation retreat that had me waking up at 4:30 AM several mornings to go to the stunning Aung Min Gaun Monastery.

Actually, I went to meditate there on my very last day in Yangon, which I think ultimately contributed to my over-tiredness and last-minute packing, but still definitely promoted a sense of calm on a day where I could easily have gotten emotionally overwrought. Because the truth is I don’t feel ready to leave. And no matter how much I try to convince myself otherwise, it could be quite a while before I’m able to make it back there.

I’m thankful to all of my students, friends, and co-workers that made my last few weeks so wonderful with surprise phone calls, home visits, and gifts. I do have to say though that saying goodbye after goodbye to so many that you’ve learned so much from and had such good adventures with is painfully difficult.

This blog will be one of my best coping mechanisms this summer. I’m sure I’ll write about the transition back to the U.S., but I’m also going to need to finally jot down all my thoughts on my favorite trips, foods, books, sights, and celebrations of Myanmar. The rest of my toolbox for my inevitable homesickness includes studying and speaking the Burmese language, staying in touch with friends there, attempting some Myanmar recipes, and maybe even going so far as scrapbooking with all of the random ticket stubs and bus tickets that I tend to hoard.

Now wish me luck because I’m headed off to do the Trans-mongolian railway for three weeks! I’m travelling from Beijing to St. Petersburg via Mongolia, and all aboard my favorite mode of transportation- the train. Definitely more on that to come soon.


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New job, new challenges

It has been a crazy and busy past year. I am really appreciative of the kind and positive feedback I received from my rant on being an expat abroad, but I’ll head back to more personal territory now. I’d like to explain what I’m still doing over here in Southeast Asia.

To paint a preliminary picture, I first wrote these thoughts down on the porch of a village home in Nan Province, Thailand, surrounded by a group of community development workers from Myanmar who were passionately arguing about how best to present their learnings from the past few days. I couldn’t stop smiling because this kind of energy is so much fun to be around. I love being part of the experiential learning process, both as a student and as a teacher. I think in the right setting, in the best possible environment, these two roles should be interchangeable. In my current work, I find myself happily and gratefully assuming both positions.

For the past year, I’ve been working at my first non-AmeriCorps, non-VIA, no fellowship/internship/any-kind-of-waterborne-device JOB. This is not to say that I haven’t enjoyed countless moments from the three years prior, because I have. The professional growth and personal experiences that those organizations have given me are immeasurable. They have all happily led me to this particular moment in time, tapping away at my keyboard after a long day of visiting dynamic community development initiatives alongside some of the brightest and most enthusiastic from Myanmar’s burgeoning civil society. I could never have done this job confidently without my two years as a VIA Fellow- first as a Social Sciences Teacher at Kant Kaw Education Center and then as a Grants Fellow at the International Rescue Committee (IRC) and my year as an AmeriCorps VISTA at Partnership for the Advancement and Immersion of Refugees (PAIR).

I think I’ve already written extensively about subjects I taught at Kant Kaw, as well as the types of interactive projects I assigned, but I’m not sure if I adequately expressed how much these students taught me and how in love with teaching I fell. Even after I began my second year fellowship with the IRC in Yangon, I still taught in the evenings so that I could stay with one more batch of students until they graduated from the program. Kant Kaw fostered my love of experiential teaching and leadership building in young adults, especially in programs that foster cross-cultural understanding.

I’d also like to write a bit about what I gained at my second year fellowship. IRC taught me about sustainable community-centered project design. I had no idea what to expect when I began at IRC, only that this was an organization that many admired for their supportive refugee resettlement work in the U.S. I wasn’t really sure what an INGO might look like on the ground in a developing country. I was very much a student during my time at IRC. I helped out with basic grant management tasks and communications, and I am very grateful to all the staff there for letting me soak up so much by including me in meetings, workshops, and even sending me to visit project sites outside of Yangon.

I saw the way the Yangon-based staff worked tirelessly to get the right materials and support and the right kind of mobilizers out to these very difficult situations. Whether it is potential interreligious conflict or dangerous roads during monsoon season, the central office staff take it all into consideration. Although international donors often do have a lot of demands that need to be accepted in order to receive funds, they work to design project activities that are feasible in the local context, ones that will encourage community participation and ownership, and ones that will be sustainable after the official project timeline is over. They also really listened to concerns and suggestions of the field-based staff. And then of course the field-based staff were unbelievable in their commitment and relentless problem-solving on their feet. I have to admit that I have always been a bit biased towards local NGOs, but I think the right kind of INGO works similar to IRC where consistent support is provided by headquarters in order to make the lives of those trying to do effective community mobilization easier and safer. I was honored to be a part of the organization for a bit and to see firsthand what carefully-thought-out and energetically-implemented development programming should really look like.

However, I did find that I missed the particular challenges and rewards that come from working in education, so when the opportunity came up to apply for the position of Program Coordinator with the Community Development and Civic Empowerment (CDCE) program, I knew I had to apply. And happily, luckily, and gratefully, I started with CDCE in April 2014! I can’t believe it has been almost a year.

She shoots... she scores!
She shoots… she scores!

Dancing to present student awards for their hard work!
Dancing to present student awards for their hard work!
Exploring the Golden Triangle - where Laos, Myanmar, and Thailand meet
Exploring the Golden Triangle – where Laos, Myanmar, and Thailand meet
With co-worker Ko Aung on the way to remote Mon villages to watch students conduct focus group discussions with farmers
With co-worker Ko Aung on the way to remote Mon villages to watch students conduct focus group discussions with farmers
Outside of host family's house in rural Nan Province, Thailand
Outside of host family’s house in rural Nan Province, Thailand
Taking students to fire lantern festival in Chiang Mai
Taking students to fire lantern festival in Chiang Mai

CDCE is managed by a local NGO which was founded in 2006 by a group of social activist leaders who had been involved in the 88 revolution (read here http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/asia-pacific/7012158.stm) in Myanmar. It has acted as a three-month certificate program at the Faculty of Social Sciences at Chiang Mai University that would allow for grassroots community development workers from Myanmar to come to Thailand. There they would finally be able to hold open discussions on sociopolitical issues, freely learn how to run development programs, and gain skills for mobilizing communities even in a highly restrictive setting.

Walking down the coast
Walking down the coast

Doesn't matter how tone deaf you are, if you work in Myanmar, you can't escape karaoke
Doesn’t matter how tone deaf you are, if you work in Myanmar, you can’t escape karaoke
Helping to rebuild dams in Lampang
Helping to rebuild dams in Lampang

Recently, the inconsistent but still tangible political changes in Myanmar have enabled a very real opening up of space for civil society to work within. Definitely things are far from truly safe and transparent, but to hear it from local activists, there has been a shift. This has been reflected in the CDCE programming as well, with administration staff from government rural departments joining the group of fellows in order to encourage positive partnerships between civil society and government in the sector of community development. CDCE has also been recently allowed to hold some of its training within Myanmar, which gives a tremendous opportunity to take lessons learned from Thailand and apply them immediately to research and work on the ground upon return.

Fun in the park
Fun in the park

No better pepole to celebrate a birthday with!
No better pepole to celebrate a birthday with!
More dancing with students to celebrate all of their hard work!
More dancing with students to celebrate all of their hard work!

The program has many different course topics and lecturers with the main thread running through out being the enhancement of skills and knowledge in community development, project management, and leadership. Through my position, I’ve been able to do so much of what I love: leading team-building games that have everyone doubled over in laughter at the end, facilitating discussions where people are truly listening to others, creating an atmosphere of trust and support, organizing experiential learning field trips with opportunities to reflect on what was seen and heard. I’ve been able to teach some courses as well- on public policy, on advocacy, on transitional justice, on sustainable project design, and most enjoyably for me – on building up personal peace-building and conflict resolution skills.

After I led a hike up the Chiang Mai mountain on teambuilding day only to have everyone get soaking wet in a sudden rainstorm. They still look happy, right?
After I led a hike up the Chiang Mai mountain on teambuilding day only to have everyone get soaking wet in a sudden rainstorm. They still look happy, right?

Teaching public policy and civil society engagement
Teaching public policy and civil society engagement

My favorite day of the program! Teambuilding day!
My favorite day of the program! Teambuilding day!

Friendships built through laughter.
Friendships built through laughter.

It is not always an easy position but it is always an interesting one and I wouldn’t give up the opportunity to have gotten to know my co-workers and the program participants for anything.

With some of my lovely co-workers!
With some of my lovely co-workers!

Go ahead, ask me about this.
Go ahead, ask me about this.

The Joys and Pitfalls of Development Work Abroad: Or knowing when it’s time to go home

I’ll be clear right from the beginning, by ‘pitfalls’, I mean any mental roadblocks you might put up in your own self-reasoning. Why am I here? Who is benefitting? Why does no one seem to care about the good work I do?

I’ve read lots of valid criticisms of ‘voluntourism’ and ‘short-term internships’ and on an even larger scale, ‘foreign aid’ and the concept ‘development’ in and of itself. This is not going to be an argument against all of those points. They remain to be important topics for further conversation. Here, I’ll be addressing just a small tangent of these important debates- what the hell is a foreigner doing working in ‘development’ outside of their own country? To define terms quickly, by foreigner, I mean someone operating in a country outside of the one they were born and raised and one in which they do not carry citizenship. By ‘development work’ (which is a less than useful phrase), I mean volunteering, interning, or working at any non-profit, community-based organization, community development initiative, public or NGO-run school, social enterprise- any organization that has a humanitarian or positive environmental or sociopolitical mission at its core. Development is increasingly becoming a more general and often deficient term.

One article I read before getting on the plane to Myanmar was, “To Hell with Good Intentions” by Ivan Illich. I keep it with me and have come back to it several times, just to keep things in perspective. In his transliterated speech, he begs these young idealistic Americans to please not come to his part of the world with their misguided intention of thinking they are ‘helping’ people. He welcomes foreign tourists who will bring money and (hopefully) genuine interest in learning about the culture, but brings up valid points about why a young foreigner who speaks no Spanish and has no concept of village life couldn’t possibly make a lasting contribution to his host community and is actually much more likely to cause harm.

I try to be someone who carefully considers the repercussions of my own actions. That being said, I do have six suggestions on how someone (such as myself) can approach development work outside of their native land in a constructive and conscientious way. I’ll start with the easiest.

1. Stay longer. If (and this is a very important stipulation) you’re very much enjoying where you are and what you’re doing, why not extend? The benefits become exponentially greater.


 

2. Understand deeper. Put in as much effort as you can given natural ability and available opportunity to learn the language (at least the basics) and use phrases as often as possible with the people you come across. Make friends and ask them your questions (politely) in order to further understand the culture, thereby avoiding the easy jump to negative conclusions when things go in an unexpected direction.

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3. Play harder. Enjoy the moment. Attempt to make friends. Laugh with strangers. Eat weird food when offered. And best of all, participate fully in all and any opportunities to celebrate that come up. Local holidays? Go all kinds of crazy for them.

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And now for some harder truths:

4. Frame your presence not as a present, but as cultural exchange. This decision of yours to go work abroad is not going to translate into you selflessly giving time and energy to help or save others until you can get back on that plane smiling remembering all those whose lives you’ve touched. That’s crazy talk. You’ve made the selfish choice (see number five below) to impose yourself there physically for your own benefit. Do not be so bold and naïve to decide to also impose your value system. The least you could do is mentally frame this experience as facilitating cultural exchanges between yourself and the people you meet. By framing it that way, your behavior will reveal your open-minded attitude and desire to learn about them. Hopefully, they will also want to get to know you. And if they don’t, that’s their right.

If you’re facilitating enough positive cultural exchanges, hopefully you gain so much, that it begins overflowing and positively touching others. But maybe instead of focusing on all you’re gaining, you’re focusing on your ‘sacrifices’. You’re away from loved ones, your favorite foods, the comfort of knowing what’s being said around you, the ease of high-speed internet, I mean the list could go on and on, couldn’t it? Let’s make it clear to everyone, both in your current and previous country of residence, all that you are giving up. Or maybe instead you should just…

 

5. Admit that you’re selfish. Did people from the country you’re currently in call you up one day when you were at home and ask you to please hop on the next direct flight? If your answer to that question is honestly yes, then you’re obviously much too important and probably have too much work to be doing to be reading this blog. If (like me) the answer to this question is a timid no, then I think you know where I’m going with this. You are here because you want to be here. As much as you might complain about the difficulties or bemoan the things you miss the most, at the end of the day, you are the only reason you are here and you are the only reason you are not heading back. If you don’t wholeheartedly accept this reality, your mental health will suffer. I don’t necessarily say this out of great concern for you, I don’t even know you, but I am worried about all those people who didn’t call you up and invite you, and who are now suffering from your eye-rolls and your obvious anger at their way of life and systems. Because you’ve forgotten that you’re there because you decided to be and are instead blaming those you meet for having created a country whose conditions are not meeting your expectations. If you can not admit that you’re selfish, let me pull an Ivan Illich and state that it’s really, really time for you to go home now.

Everything I’ve written for this particular suggestion up to this point can apply to tourists and development workers alike. But now let me talk specifically about working or volunteering at a non-profit or other similar socially-motivated organization. The best contribution any person in any field of work can give to society is to find their strengths (what they’re really exceptionally good at) and their passions (what they can’t stop talking, thinking, reading about) and then combining the two and actively finding the profession that can accommodate both, or creating the job themselves. For someone who really genuinely cares about the betterment of society, as most who work in development claim to do, this can be a very freeing concept.

One of the trickiest arguments I’ve heard against those who go abroad to work is that there’s plenty to be done at home. Is it because they just want a nice-sounding excuse to go on an adventure? Or is it because they think their home country is so much better-off that they need to go help the poor souls unlucky enough to be born elsewhere? I hope beyond hope that for most their answer is closer to the former. I know without doubt that there is a lot of work to be done in the country that I am from. A lot of the issues you can find here: poverty, racism, violence, natural disasters, corruption, environmental degradation, drug addiction, disease, can also be found in the United States. I am living in Myanmar now and choosing to stay here longer because I am so beyond excited about being here that there are times I feel I need to physically jump up and down to express my joy. I love my home country (structural racism and atomic bombs aside) and my family and friends that live there. I’m sure one day I will find a way to do the work I love most there as well. And when the time comes, I’m confident I’ll be jumping up and down again. Because I’ll be selfishly following my own desires, which hopefully has positive effects on all I interact with.

Which brings me to my next point in my rant. What are you telling people from your host country when they ask you how you like living there? If your answer isn’t an enthusiastic affirmation of loving it, then what do you think gives you the right? I’m not talking about long late-night discussions with good friends you’ve made where the conversations leads to criticizing the current government or any number of things (hopefully though you are good enough friends at that point to accept any critique they might have on the country you’re from as well). I’m talking about those quick encounters in a restaurant, at the market, or maybe in the office. If you’ve got a laundry list of complaints that you like to share with anyone who will listen, please remember that this country was not designed for you. You are there as a guest. If you find it so unlivable, don’t live there. (Also remember that when you get together with a group of other expats and begin a roundtable of why it’s all so hard, people around can understand more than you think they can.)

 

6. Don’t lose sight of history and the wider sociopolitical context. In short, read some books: This point applies more to all the white-skinned individuals of the Western world who take it upon themselves to go and visit or live in a country where the majority of people are not white. However, I still feel it applies to everyone, although that might be coming from the biased opinion of someone who loves history and all its complexity an unhealthy amount. We can’t escape the past, no matter how long ago or remote it may seem to us now. The world is the way it is because of things that have come before. That actually might be the one truth that I could never be convinced otherwise on. Colonialism and imperialism are not dirty words that we need to shut away in a drawer and never speak of. Instead they are kicking and screaming realities that continue to shape perceptions and actions today. Probably more than I could even imagine. This is by far the hardest item to follow on my list. And I think it really changes depending on who you are, where you’re from, and where you’ve chosen to work. So I can only speak to the immense amount of privilege it seems a white and native English speaker have in these contexts. Be aware of it and for the sake of humanity, work as hard as you can to not take advantage of it.

 

I began this post by explaining some reoccurring mental pitfalls you might encounter when you ask yourself certain questions. Questions that have answers that can rewire your thinking into a negative cycle that damages you and then ultimately damages those you encounter (who again, did not ask you to stop by – see number five above). Let me try to answer those questions in a more positive way.

Why am I here? Because you chose to be. Because you wanted to be. If you hate it, please leave.

Who is benefitting? If you’re still enjoying the experience, then one person who is most definitely benefitting is you! Hopefully your mind is expanding and your professional skill set is strengthening and your desire to see where you can best apply your strengths and passions is escalating at dangerous speeds. If that’s happening, then you’re probably pretty dynamic at work. You’re also probably happy- thereby increasing the happiness of both your loved ones and those you come across in the country you live in- friends and strangers alike. If that’s true, then you can add those people to the list of those who are benefitting.

Why does no one seem to care about the good work I do? I don’t know, maybe because you won’t shut up about it? If that’s why you’re doing what you’re doing, then you haven’t yet found what really makes you fulfilled. Do everyone a favor and continue your search. Also, don’t take yourself so damn seriously.

Musings in Sittwe

Sometimes knowing in the back of my mind that I have this blog is very difficult for me. I get all excited about current news articles on this confusing, challenging, brilliant country I live in, or I have an interesting conversation with a local, and I feel like I have so many things I want to say I’m going to burst. I think, ‘oh I need to write about this’ or ‘if only I could express succinctly to the world about this one issue’.

But that’s not why I started this blog and I definitely don’t want it to become that. I have lived in this country for 1 year and 4 months. I’m so far from being an expert and to pretend to be so would be a disservice to this country and its people. I read blogs from people who have been here even shorter- stating incorrect facts at best or jumping to biased conclusions at worst. No matter how much I enjoy being inside my own head and analyzing the million thoughts bouncing around, I can’t bring to a public space my own half-formed and uninformed ideas of the problems Myanmar is facing in its path towards peace and democracy.

I have only my observations. I can take notice of them and report them, but to do more than that is risky. This is why I love having gotten so close to my students in my time here- they are my eyes and ears, and the best people for me to learn from and ask questions of. I tell them what I’m thinking and they tell me honestly, from their opinion as a person who has lived all their life in this country, if what I’m saying is crazy. They are the greatest.

So, although I majored in international development at university and although I’ve been reading every article and book on Myanmar society and politics that I can get my hands on lately, I can’t really explain anything to you- why the hesitant transition from dictatorship has coincided with an increase in violent attacks against minorities; why they keep talking about peace, peace, and peace In Naypyidaw but some military units are still attacking civilians in Kachin State; why the education system has seemingly purposefully stifled creativity and critical thinking out of curriculum. I mean, honestly, how could I attempt to clarify those issues, when I still can’t figure out why some person is banging a huge gong right by my apartment at midnight every night, or why pedestrians never have the right of way, or why there’s so many people walking around in their pajamas.

And that’s okay. It’s not my job (thank goodness) to understand, to analyze, and certainly not to find solutions for these issues. But it is my students’ responsibility, and I tell them that every day. It gives me great hope for the future of this country whenever I reflect on the massive heap of intelligence, creativity, and empathy my students display. If they can’t figure it out, then no one can.

I’m up in Sittwe in Rakhine State writing this. I came up here for a workshop for an IRC project, and was happily able to meet with one of my graduated Kant Kaw students for dinner. He’s currently working with Save the Children and is very intelligent. He spoke of the recent conflict and its effect on daily life – for example, there is a government-instated curfew of 10 pm every night- but he also expressed hope in it being resolved. He talked about education for everyone – Rakhine and Muslims (the term he used) alike. (The terminology of this conflict is very sensitive and people often express their viewpoint on the issue by the language they use to describe the two parties). He said there is some good and some bad within everyone and we can never lump an entire group of people into one category. He was confident that education would improve relations and bring about a lasting peace. He has plans to start a school here one day.

I’m so proud. Not only because I secretly agree, but because he came to these conclusions as an independent, critical thinker. I remember a time at the beginning of his stint at Kant Kaw when he might have felt differently.

This is my same student who e-mailed me about a month ago and wrote “I do really enjoy teaching. Teacher Karen, teaching is like falling in love.” Hla Aung Thein, I completely agree. I fall more in love with Myanmar through getting to know my students. I can’t tell you too much about this country, but they definitely can, and undoubtedly one day you’ll all be reading what they have to say.
Sunset in Sittwe

Guess what I got up to last weekend


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As I wrote to my brother before heading on the bus to Taunggyi last weekend, “ I’m going to this huge festival up in northern Shan state (for the second time, I went one year ago) where it’s cold enough I get to wear a big jacket and they light all these candles attached to these big fiery hot air balloons and then they send them up into the air and dance and sing around it and play the drums and people feed me hot spicy soup. And then the hot air balloons let off fireworks- but sometimes the balloons don’t make it all the way up and they just go into the crowd and start fires and then some people get hurt. Which is really sad but still a good festival.”

Here’s the blog I wrote for VIA after the festival last year titled Fiery Balloons and Spicy Soup:

In Shan State, the New Year is celebrated in the lunar month of Tazaungmon. So on the evening of the full moon marking the beginning of the month, and in the days leading up to it, there is a massive fire-balloon festival in Taunggyi, the capital city of Shan State. Huge colorful hot-air balloons are let off into the sky with hundreds and hundreds of lit candles attached that become bright flickering outlines of images such as the Buddha when lit against the night sky. Once successfully afloat, the already brilliant and impressive fire-balloon begins to shoot off an array of fireworks. This fantastic, pyromania display symbolizes the release of our sins just before the start of the New Year.

Even more interesting than what‘s happening in the sky is all the mayhem happening right on the ground. Large crowds of people are swarming around the balloons- preparing them for lift-off, lighting the candles underneath, dancing, playing drums, and generally having a good time. The fresh mountain air is chilly at night and families sit huddled on blankets on the hills a little further from the craziness. One such group took us in on our second night at the festival. We were fed spicy soup and received tons of smiles and laughs for every Burmese phrase we could utter. There is nothing more encouraging while learning a difficult language than receiving so much encouragement and appreciation from locals for every single sentence you can slowly piece together.

Suddenly the mood changed as a balloon that was already lit but having difficulty rising began floating right towards us. I’d heard about this happening but hadn’t really thought of it as a possibility. I stood and stared until this woman who had been sitting nearby and smiling broadly while listening to our conversation grabbed my hand, held onto her children with her other, and began running, pulling me along. The crowd was stampeding behind us and we ducked behind a shed as fireworks literally rained down on us. Thankfully, we made it home that night safe and sound. Although I’m not sure how I feel about the questionable safety practices of the festival, I do know how I feel about the people who took us in, fed us, and saved me from a fiery death. They’re awesome.

A Tribute To Tamwe

I believe I underestimated the amount of free time I have when I started this blog. Working at IRC 5 days a week PLUS teaching at Kant Kaw has left me elated (sometimes…) but exhausted, and during my free time I seem to just want to hang with buddies, read something completely unrelated to Myanmar (A Raisin in the Sun, anyone?) or rewatch episodes of Portlandia.

But on the walk home from work today, I knew what could get me excited enough to grab my computer and start typing the second my sweaty self climbed up my six flights of stairs and got into my steamy apartment: Tamwe.

Tamwe. Tamwe. Tamwe.

Tamwe is a sweet little neighborhood and township of Yangon, Myanmar. It is insane. And it is my home now.

Image(The view from our 6th floor balcony)

I can’t claim to be an expert on Tamwe, having only lived here three months, but I just have to share my joys and deep frustrations at living in this crowded, merry-making, grubby, pungent, and noisy community.

So I knew I was going to have to write this blog and was 50% sure I would actually start on it when I got back to my place, but the following incident pushed me to really commit. On my lengthy walk up the stairs, I caught up to my neighbor from two floors up, an older Hindu grandmother in her beautiful saree with her grandson. We met earlier because, in a fit of desperation, I took my Burmese teacher around to help me figure out why Marc and I had been unable to pump water for the past two weeks (no water means a lot of dirty dishes and “creative” bathing- don’t ask unless you really want to know). She had invited us in and talked and talked, with my comprehension level at about 30%. She definitely repeated over and over again that whenever we needed water, just bring our bucket up to her and she’d be happy to share. The nicest lady, really. On the stairs just now, she asked me if we’d been able to pump. With a huge smile, partly because of the answer and partly because I was proud I could understand her, I told her yes, we had water now! She was genuinely delighted to hear this and proceeded to talk my ear off the next four flights up. She kept saying something about a husband, so when we got to my floor I knocked on the door to get Marc help me get to the bottom of what was going on.

Eventually we pieced together that she was trying to tell us that Monday she had tried to bring us aloo puri (potato curry with delicious Indian bread) but no one had been home. With all the passion I can muster about Indian food (which if you’ve met me even in passing, you’re aware of) I told her that we’re at work during the day but to please come anytime in the evening and we would eat any food she wanted to share. We then proceeded to go down some conversational roads where no one knew what was being said, and she finally ended with her hands in prayer position and said “Namaste.” Nearly made me want to cry because I miss India so much.

This is one of the million reasons I love Tamwe.

I first fell in love with it when I came to meet up with friends at a local restaurant/beer stand at the beginning of last year. It was such a different pace from where I was living then- Tamwe was so alive and full of commotion. The streets were all lit up with lights and it seemed magical (I hadn’t yet seen it in all its sunlit grimy glory). But I decided that if I was going to stay a second year, I would find a place in Tamwe, not really thinking a second year likely at that point.

When the time came, Marc and I started looking at places in Tamwe not really because of some belief it would be magical, but strictly due to financial reasons. Living here is super, super cheap, and we are super, super broke. Our Tamwe spiritual guide was our good friend Kasey who told us we would not regret the decision and helpfully hooked us up with a local apartment broker.

Our place is big- a sizeable living room at the front, a hallway with three bedrooms coming off it, and then an enormous kitchen. For all this square footage, the affordability is hard to beat. There are some challenges: only our bedroom is air-conditioned… but of course electricity is really limited in this township which is why I’m currently sitting here in a lit room but with the voltage too low to get the cold breeze I desire so much. And then of course you’ve got the squat toilet, which is a turn-off for a lot of expats here, but HEY read up on the health benefits and then get back to me (http://www.naturesplatform.com/health_benefits.html). We do have a showerhead, out of which only cold water will come (but I mean, seriously, why would you want to take a hot shower while living in Yangon?), but our water tanks have to be completely full for the forces of gravity to be strong enough to actually be able to turn it on. So this means most of the time we’re taking bucket showers. And then of course there was the two-week Marc ‘n’ Karen house drought of 2013 which left us confused and smelly.

Image(More pics from balcony, courtesy of Marc)

We live across the street from a pseudo-monastery, no monks live there but it’s a central location for monks to meet and pray and there is, unfortunately for us, a loudspeaker to announce all their words, any time of the day and night. Loudly and with extra distortion to make it as hard to block out for the listener as possible. Every night around midnight or one in the morning, someone living seemingly a hand’s reach away from us inexplicably bangs a very shrill bell a few times which makes the gang of street dogs howl like mad. I want so badly to know why this must happen. Every. Single. Night.

All of these mysteries and inconveniences, although frustrating at first, have now become everyday life. We humans are often unaware of how quickly we can adjust to different conditions.

And then the joys of living here are honestly unbeatable. I’ve found that I’ve been able to fall a little bit in love with this city in a way I didn’t think I’d be able to, solely because of living in this hood.

Image (Tamwe all lit-up)

There is the lovely Hindu family two floors up that I already told you about. There’s the local (albeit mediocre) teashop around the corner that already knows how Marc likes his tea and brings it to him a few minutes upon him sitting down. Even the fact that our apartment is such a fixer-upper (understatement of the year?) proved fortunate when Marc had to make a whole bunch of trips to the hardware store down the street. The two female owners of the shop became our fast friends. They invited us to theirs for Eid Al-Adha (the Islamic holiday termed the festival of sacrifice) and proceeded to give us a ton of goat meat. There is the young woman who stopped me walking home one day to tell me that she loved seeing Marc and I all the time wearing traditional dress (we love our longyis) and that she wanted to come over and be our friend.

And then, of course, nowhere in the world knows how to make a celebration out of every day like Tamwe does. When I first moved here, I thought there must have been a lot of Buddhist holidays that I hadn’t been aware of before. Now, after three months of seeing something festive in the streets every other day here, I’ve realized it’s just that the residents of Tamwe love to get down. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Except when I’m trying to sleep.

Image(Me walking on nearby Tamwe street during Buddhist festival of lights)

Photo Gallery for Voices of the Unseen and the Unheard: An Original Student Research Project on Marginalized Communities in Yangon