Thursday, July 31, 2014

Bago? Bagone! Bawent!

Being a Caucasian person in SE Asia always involves a certain amount of stare factor.  People look at you. Sometime sideways. Sometimes as a double take.  Sometimes they just stare blatantly right at you, slack jawed, overwhelmed by the novelty of someone who doesn't look like they do, someone who looks like those folks on TV, stumbling into their otherwise foreigner-free existence.

Sometimes we foreigners complain about this reality. Yeah, it can have it's drawbacks at times. Being treated like you're some inherently amusing white clown has its negative aspects.  Show me the expat in SE Asia who says he's never somewhat enjoyed being treated extraordinarily, like he or she is someone special just because of the color of his or her skin, and I'll show you a liar.  

When I was 20 years old, due to multiple student exchange programs which spanned my high school and college years, I had spent more than 30% of my post-pubescent life living in Indonesia. I was living in a small West Java town and had pretty much 'gone native'.  I resented being treated differently because of the color of my skin (and hair).  I dyed my hair black and told people I'd meet that I was half-Indonesian, half-white.  I spoke the language better than a lot of the native speakers did, so I could pull off this ruse.

Fast forward 25 years, and now I live in Yangon, Burma, after a year living in Bangkok, Thailand.  One of the things I didn't like about Bangkok, to be entirely honest, is that I didn't like not being someone special.  There are about 200,000 people, folks who look like me, westerners, living in Bangkok proper, accounting for about 2% of the population as a whole.  That's a lot of white folk!

In Yangon, we're about 5000 people in a city of 3 million. We're about .015 %  of the population in the most modernized city in Myanmar. Even then, a lot of Yangonions are used to us. We're not that unfamiliar to most people.

Not so in the case of the next big town up the river, Bago.  Being one of the old capitals of Burma before the British came, it has a long history and lots of interesting pagodas and buildings, so it's on the tourist track for the relatively few foreign visitors.  That said, Bago makes Yangon seem like Bangkok.  Everywhere in Bago we went, we were greeted with hearty "HELLO"'s. People were amazed to see us, like we were movie stars in their midst. As you can see on the map, Bago isn't far away; it's about 60 miles away.  In terms of how different a place it is, it's a lot further than that.

About half of this first of two videos shows the train trip up there. The train was actually fun. We paid $1.20 for 'upper class' tickets, which were quite comfortable.  On our trip up there, it was early in the morning, so the weather was pleasant.  The car swayed back and forth almost making you feel like you were on a boat.  Occasionally, the car would literally bounce down the track, launching everyone a few inches off their seats.  The passengers seemingly enjoyed it, smiling like they were on a ride at an amusement park.

Remember this blog when I wrote about the hovel behind my building?  Sadly, the little shack is gone, replaced by a construction site.  I have a quick comment about workplace safety equipment at the start of this video. 

Saturday, July 19, 2014

War Against Monsoon Internet

It's been a tough last few weeks here in Yangon, Myanmar as it pertains to connectivity. I'm not the only one whose noticed. My friends and colleagues have mentioned as well that for whatever reason, our normally abysmally slow internet connections here in the armpit of Southeast Asia have become impossible. If any of y'all remember the late 90's when dial up speeds were talked about in 'baud'... Well, it's like we've gone from 24K baud to 300 baud. No one knows why.

Even now, I've had to go to an internet cafe to upload, and a 4 minute vid at 'medium' resolution is taking an hour and a half to upload.

Forget about human rights and democracy. This country needs faster internet!

Actually, I just read an article in the local paper connecting the collapse of the internet to the arrival of the monsoon. Since when are weather and internet connected?

It's given me time to do other things like read books. Just finished one about Myanmar history, and it fits in well with this week's theme of war. Trivia question: what is the longest ongoing armed conflict in the world? That is, the longest war on the books? The Burmese Civil War. Started back in 1946 and has never had a moment of peace since. Some organized armed group, somewhere in this country, has been actively plotting to resist, shoot and kill the army of the central government non-stop for the last 68 years.

I'm sure songs like the one I cover by Bob Marley here are inspiration to all those rebels...

Saturday, July 5, 2014

The End of Chapter Three

Hey folks! Been a while since I've blogged, so I thought I'd provide a little update from the Golden Land. It feels like I'm finishing up 'Chapter 3' of my time here, dating from the end of the long vacation to now, here on the 4th of July. Monday, I'm heading off to Bangkok for my semi-monthly overnight visa run, and I begin teaching some additional classes after next week, so it's a time of transitions, new beginnings.

Unfortunately, my chill period teaching 6 hours a week ended several weeks back. I knew it would. I've been assigned two new classes, so I'm up to a respectable 18 hours. Keep in mind that each teaching hour requires about half to three quarters of that time preparing, and with various other duties, I am again working full time.

My first new class was given to me after a new teacher with our company did a runner. He'd been here a week, decided Myanmar was more than he wanted to handle and bailed. Although he'd signed a one year contract, I guess that's kinda hard to enforce when you've fled to another country. Particularly at the start, this place is a really tough place to be, and maybe due to his lofty expectations or maybe just because he was a bit of a pussy, the new teacher ran away back to Dubai, Bangkok, Istanbul or wherever he'd come from (he was a long time TEFL teacher) unable or unwilling to hack it here in the wild frontier land of Yangon.

In a way, his decision highlights an aspect of my new career that I really like. With my certification and growing experience, I can go anywhere in the world and teach. I'm approaching my time here as if I expect to be here two to three years, but if something better comes up, who knows what I might do? I work in probably the biggest labor market in the entire world, namely, anywhere in the world where English is a foreign language.

It's sort of a built in job security.

I've really liked my new classes too, despite their unfortunate timing. The first of these new classes was my introduction to corporate teaching. Twice a week, in the evening (after my 7 AM class in the morning), I visit the clients' office, in this case a major telecommunications firm here in Yangon. I teach them in their facilities which works out well because they're more relaxed and surrounded by colleagues they know. Their English skills aren't much, if any, better than other classes I've taught, but they are more enthusiastic and engaged in learning. Teaching a group whose into it is far more enjoyable and easy for me, the teacher.

My other new class, again taking over for another teacher whose been given another assignment, is an advanced business English class. Again, a whole new experience. These folks are almost fluent, and what I'm teaching is just as much a business class as it is an English class. Fortunately, the resource books are rich and detailed. I've done some time in the business world; I've worked in an office. I've held titles like 'sales manager' and 'merchant', but I'm no MBA. My depth of knowledge is limited. It's still fun. We get to play 'office' while learning English.

Outside of school, I've sorta developed a bit of routine. The rainy season does curtail my ability to get out and about a whole lot, so no new exciting adventures to report or videos to share. If you've followed my blog, you may have noticed that I've been writing less since getting the new TV. Yeah, there is that.

I can't wait for Chapter Four to begin; may it be the best yet.


I thought I was going to retire there. I was the senior staff member. I'd been there longer than anyone. It. Is. Not. Fair.  But on the ...