English Class in Yangon

Two days ago at Shwedagon Paya I was invited by three women to practice English with them. The one who talked the most, Win Win Mar, wants to be a tourist guide. All three of them are in an English class downtown, and they invited me to attend a class, which I did yesterday.

That was an experience: a large but very crowded unconditioned classroom in a very run down building. Half the class was monks, although I don't know why. Most of the other students are looking at the business possibilities English represents, but that probably isn't true of the monks. The teacher (U Myint Aung, aka "UMA," which is also the name of the school) looks (from a North American perspective) like an old hippy: hair well down his back in a ponytail, little oval glasses, and slightly twitchy. Every few minutes he'd pick up his microphone on the little stage at the front, and rant at them in mixed Burmese and bad English. His English was ... comprehensible, heavily accented, and well structured. A couple other foreigners recruited at other sites trickled in after me - a woman from Germany who spoke good English, and a woman from Montreal who had just got to Yangon after six months in India. Each of us was surrounded by a horde of very friendly students. As a student arrived, they'd stick out their hand and introduce themselves. Burmese names are a little easier for a English speaker than Thai names, as there are less sounds that are difficult for us to pronounce. After the introduction, every single one would then ask where I was from and how long I'd been in Myanmar. Then followed the other questions they'd been taught, in varying order: what do I think of Myanmar, how old am I, and am I married. No one believed my age, I evidently look much younger to the Burmese: my favourite guess was 26.

I did manage to learn some very interesting things. Monks do leave monkhood if they no longer want to be monks, but they usually stay for many years (unlike Thailand, where stays of a couple months are common).

A lot of people here - almost entirely men - chew betel nuts. This stains and damages their teeth, and leaves them spitting red goo - there are stains everywhere on the roads and sidewalks. It's also quite addictive. I asked about this, and one of the monks showed me his very damaged teeth, and a huge scar on his stomach where he had two operations as a result of chewing betel. He's quit now. I asked what was in it, and he went and got one of the packages: there are carts everywhere that will prepare it for you, and it's very cheap. The nut itself has a white body with red veins through it, and there are several chopped up pieces placed in a leaf of some sort along with some dried tobacco. You stick the leaf and its contents in your mouth and chew.

I stayed in the class for over two hours, and had a very entertaining time. When I left, UMA enthusiastically invited each of us to come back any time. It would seem that any time I want a tour guide around the local sites, all I'd have to do is drop in to be a practice subject for a little while and I'd have volunteers to guide me again.

One thing that has really stood out to me here is how incredibly, filthy rich we are compared to these people. I'm lower middle class to start with, and now unemployed, but I have more money than they can even conceive of. This was also the case when I was in India, but my time there was so structured that I never really stopped to think about it. When the three women assisted me in getting a taxi back to where I was staying, they were shocked at the amount the driver wanted (K3000) and the casual ease with which I accepted it ... To me, that's less than $3, to them it's orders of magnitude more than the K10 or so they pay for the bus. Discriminatory pricing is the norm: sites will charge in US$ for foreigners, and locals pay much, much less in Kyat. And of course vendors in stores have a less official but equally enforced policy of jacking up prices when a foreigner tries to buy something.