So now it’s official (though the date is still to be confirmed). My family is going to be moving to Myanmar sometime within the next few months.
It’s funny the reaction you get from people when you say it out loud. Unlike the immediate delight and even envy when you tell someone you are moving to Rome, Italy, as I did back in New Jersey in 2006 after getting an Assistant Professor of Digital Media job at The American University of Rome; what you get when you tell someone you are moving to Myanmar is usually an echo.
“Myanmar.” They will repeat back, to make sure they’ve heard you correctly.
This just happened 30 minutes ago as I bumped into three coworkers from my university at the local coffee bar. While my friend, AUR’s awesome Registrar sought to confirm that she heard me correctly, I noticed the reactions of my other coworkers. One had wide eyes and a (perhaps just in my imagination) horrified expression on her lips. The other seemed slightly amused and nursed a little smile.
“Myanmar.” I repeated. “Yes. We just found out on Friday and I am still trying to digest the news.”
My husband is with the world’s largest humanitarian organization, The World Food Programme. We were expecting news on where we would be reassigned. Topping our list of preferences was Tanzania, a country I had taught in as a volunteer at a vocational training center in Moshi back in 2005 and had fond memories of.
Myanmar had been second on our list, followed by Thailand, United Arab Emirates, and Rome as a backup choice to help ward off the possibility of being sent to a war-torn part of the world or split up as a family to a non-family duty station.
My husband called me on Friday afternoon. I was with our two sons, ages 6 and 4 at Villa Sciara, the small park in our Monetverde Vecchio neighborhood. Lukas was on the swings and Nico was climbing up the yellow slide even though I told him not to.
My phone rang. It was the call I had been waiting for all day. It was a call we’d been waiting for actually for five years.
“Well. They gave me the news.” He said.
I tried to gauge the tone of his voice. It wasn’t dejected (like it was last year when they reassigned us to Rome for the 4th year in a row). It also wasn’t over-the-top excited.
We had already talked about the possibility of moving to Oyster Bay, getting a house near Coco Beach, and weekend trips to the tropical paradise island of Zanzibar on the weekends if we were to move to Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania.
It was to be a split personality sort of move. On one hand, we’d live in a pocket of affluence, mainly only afforded to the diplomatic and expat community there. We’d be the spoiled foreign “muzungus,” yet we would also aim to be of service, working with people living on under $2 USD a day. Michael would help with feeding and financing such aid through WFP. My role would be in education. I had a half dozen local friends and contacts there just waiting for our arrival to welcome us back to Tanzania with a hearty “Karibu!”
I had already started teaching my sons a bit of Swahili. They learned a popular children’s song “Simama Kaa” and even have a dance to go along with it. I dreamed of visiting orphanages and doing volunteer work together with my sons who would help bring good cheer wherever we roamed. Lukas, my first-grader would read to the kids and help teach English. Nico would run around with the other toddlers and it would be a tiny pocket of world peace and brotherly love. Kumbaya and all. Hakuna matata even.
“Myanmar.” He said.
A wave of horror mixed with a touch of excitement filled my belly. It was mainly horror, though maybe more in response to NOT having heard “Tanzania.”
“Myanmar.” Was all I could stammer.
I tried to say it a few other ways:
-As a question. “Myanmar?”
-As an affirmation. “mee AN-mar.”
-With a note of resignation. “Myanmar.”
I soon remembered it was my job, the sunny American that I am, to be the optimist.
“OK then.” I said, trying to sound happy and upbeat. But then I started seeking reassurances.
“They have nice turquoise beaches there?” I asked, watching the dream island of Zanzibar float away into the sunset in my mind’s eye.
“They do!” said Michael.
“I can get some sort of work there? In a University or with the UN?” I posited.
“Absolutely! The country director had so many suggestions the last time I spoke with him. We talked about you for at least 20 minutes.” Michael sparkled.
“Myanmar.” I said again because I was incapable of coherent thought.
I signaled to my sons that we’d be leaving the park in five minutes. I had to get home and sit down. The world was spinning beneath my feet.
It would truly be starting from scratch. Not only have I never been to Myanmar, I knew zero words of… what do they speak? Burmese? I had never even MET anyone from there. And for me, that was saying something. I’ve taught students from across the globe from every continent except Antarctica. I even shook hands with a North Korean student once. (Nice guy too!)
Could it be true that the moody German in my life, my husband was excited?
“Chi-tay” he said to my sons and I over the weekend. He had downloaded a “Learn Burmese (Myanmar) “ app to his iPad. “Chi-tay” means I love you.
“Chi-tay.” We repeated back. The boys were more enthusiastic than I was.
Friday night I somehow found an indispensable expatriate guide to Myanmar for my Kindle. We watched a few Myanmar videos Saturday and Sunday night highlighting the pros and cons of being in the recently troubled and still fairly isolated country in Southeast Asia.
Yangon (formerly called Rangoon), the city we will soon call home, has a tight-knit expat community. Golden Buddhist temples tower over the city and the people of Myanmar are described as kind, generous, and respectful. It’s known as one of the safest cities in all of Southeast Asia. Bustling markets abound and unspoiled turquoise beaches wait patiently for our visit just outside the city.
My book warns of “pests” we must guard our living quarters against, tropical diseases we must not catch, sky-high prices for foreigners to pay (Upfront and in cash. Crisp $100 USD bills only are accepted), frequent power and water outages, crumbling buildings, poor infrastructure, pollution and chaos in the streets.
No matter how we find the place on arrival, our unique services and skills will be needed and most likely appreciated. There is much good we can do in this part of the world. Who are we meant to meet? Who are we supposed to help?
What will we learn there? Will I find some inner peace amongst outer chaos?
For the moment I am still digesting and also gathering information. My mood floats from cautious optimism, exhilaration, to sheer terror. I must say that Jessica Mudditt’s Yangon, Myanmar blog DOES get me excited and lifts my mood considerably, and for that I am grateful. (Note to self: Make sure to send her a thank you comment or email ASAP.)
It’s my hope I can one day say “Chi-tay” (I love you) to Myanmar as well.
I DO love working in developing countries and I am no stranger to the mix of emotions I often feel before and upon arrival. My recent visit to teach for two weeks in Ethiopia is a prime example. But moving somewhere feels a whole lot more permanent and irreversible.
For the moment, I’ll just try and hold on tight. I’ve just climbed into the roller coaster car and I have no idea if I’ll run away screaming after this first go-round or if I’ll be thrilled and hungry for another turn.
There’s only one way to find out.
We got the news about Myanmar on March 4th, exactly 16 years to the day I had my first date with Michael back in New York City. An Internet meme recently joked that it’s the only day of the year that tells you what to go and do with yourself.
And so we will.