A Crazy Life – My Life Changes For Ever In Burma
I found some old photos in an online gallery that I took in 2012. These photos illustrate an event that completely changed my life. I want to share my story with you.
In some previous contributions to this website in 2017, I had started to explain about how I came to live in Thailand, and some of the interesting events in my life. I need to complete those articles to fill in the missing years with ‘Mad Wan’. I’ll do that when I find the time. But suffice to say I ended up married to a Thai woman who had mental problems (don’t they all!). Seriously, she had been diagnosed as severely bipolar, refused to take any medication, and spent much of the time higher than a kite in her paranoia. Her actions destroyed my marriage, separated my newborn son from me and eventually destroyed our hotel business by 2011.
To say that I was at rock-bottom would be an understatement. Once a USD millionaire, now I was penniless, still living with my ex (because I had no money to move out), and things looked totally bleak. Friends would buy me food and one very understanding friend lent me the keys to his small beach villa in Khao Lak, for those times when it all got too much with my mad wife. Things did get too much for me on one occasion after a few drinks of whisky, and I had to be helped out of a Phuket restaurant by good friends after I broke down in tears, almost on the verge of a nervous breakdown.
Things were really not good. I started selling anything that I owned on Ebay to try to save up enough cash to remove myself from this situation.
Then an angel came out of the blue. A friend who knew of my problems contacted me with news of a teaching job in Yangon, Myanmar (Burma). The pay was good (about $1,600 each month plus overtime, which was a lot more than the $0 that I was currently earning).
“But I’m not a teacher”, I told my friend.
“No you’re not, but I know you. You have a good education, you speak English very clearly. What have you got to lose?”
And so it was that I found myself at a private school in Yangon a few weeks later. I was expecting to be assigned to teach teenage students. To my shock, they asked me to teach a class of 20 kids aged just 4 and 5 years old!
Now I’m no stranger to young kids – I have 2 daughters and 2 sons of my own. Anyway, it was either teach that class or forgo the salary. So at the grand old age of 53 years, I found myself sitting on the classroom floor and telling nursery rhyme stories in English, and being paid $1,600 for my efforts ☺
At that time, Myanmar was still under US and EU sanctions. This meant that trying to buy imported western food in the supermarket could be quite difficult. I recall finding a block of New Zealand chedder cheese in the shop and almost coming to blows with a fellow expat teacher in my efforts to grab it! After school every day, I would sit out on the street and eat local food, all washed down with a large $1 bottle of Myanmar beer. That teacher friend in the photo below sadly died a few years ago from lung cancer (he smoked like a chimney).
Life was pretty challenging, but for me it was also like heaven, compared to the terrible time that I had experienced with my Thai ex. I rented a third floor apartment for about $100 a month and recall that when it rained, the water poured into my rooms, but then continued through to the second and first floor apartments. Here are some photos of my apartment and the street where I lived.
And so to my life-changing experience. One Saturday, I decided to go and visit Dala Township. This was a very poor area of Yangon, located across the river. Some Burmese friends warned me that it was not safe to visit Dala, which made me even more interested to visit. I took the ferry for $1 and the ticket master carefully wrote down my name in his book.
On the other side of the river, it was pretty chaotic, with many local people rushing to and fro with fresh goods to sell in the market in Yangon. A young man with a pedalo taxi spoke a little English and asked where I wanted to go. “I don’t know – just drive around”. And so he did.
I was immediately struck by the absolute poverty of the township. Many people were living in the most basic of single-room bamboo houses. I was used to seeing wooden houses in Issan, but these structures were the worst that I had ever seen. What’s more, because of the monsoon rains, many houses were flooded. With nowhere else to live, the families were forced to stay in the stagnant waters.
Considering my own, well-paid position ($1,600 went a long way in Yangon), I looked sadly at these broken houses and the ragged kids standing up to their thighs in dirty water.
Finally, the pedalo driver asked if I wanted to visit the school.
“Why not?, let’s go and see the local government school”.
“No, it is the monastery school. The people here cannot afford to buy the text books that they need to attend government school”.
Soon we arrived at a small monastery. I could hear the sound of children chanting in Burmese. So I followed the sound and soon found myself in a large classroom. There were no tables, no lights and no electricity. Perhaps 100 kids aged between about 4 – 12 years old were listening and rote-repeating what a monk was saying. It was a Burmese language class.
None of the monks spoke a word of English and nor did the children. Until one girl about 12 years old came up to me and said in very broken English “You teach English we.”
I need to explain that for young Burmese people, being able to speak English was akin to being a life-saver. If you could speak English, it was more likely that you could get a job in a shop or restaurant, earning a much-needed salary for your family. Unlike Thailand, where many students aren’t interested to learn English, Burmese children absolutely want to learn the language. It is so important to them.
Looking around at all these kids and the bare surroundings, I thought of my own kids and my good-fortune to have a well-paid job, to be born in England, to speak English fluently. Honestly, I could have broken down and cried!
I’m not religious. But at that point I vowed to myself never to feel sorry for myself or my difficult circumstances again. I vowed that I would ‘repay’ my own good fortune by helping others who were less fortunate than myself. I actually had many different skills to offer. But for those kids, I could offer them the chance to learn to speak some English.
In my next contribution, I’ll tell you how I went about helping these kids, and how I ended up teaching English to Burmese monks. But these efforts were only the start of helping many thousands of young students in Burma.
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