We met our new Taiwanese friends at their hotel and they walked us to the small village called Naloy, where they teach. They explained how their small class had started the whole way there. In 2008 the now founder of the class, Hope, had come to Myanmar with the dream of helping the village kids by teaching them English, and some Chinese.
Aptly named, Hope is a teacher at home in Taiwan, but had always been interested in teaching English overseas. She was walking around the small villages that surround Hsipaw when she noticed the same phenomenon we had witnessed at the school near Ms. Popcorn’s Cafe. All the kids ran up to her waving and saying good-byes in place of hellos. She later learned that they had been taught some English in school but only grammatical English, so they had no idea how to pronounce or put into context anything they had learned.
She knew this was the perfect place to start her class, but after nearly a week of visiting villages in the area with a translator trying to establish something with village leaders, she was ready to give up. The village leaders simply didn’t understand why a “tourit” (tourist) would want to come to Myanmar and teach English.
Hope was ready to leave Myanmar and try somewhere else another year. She was heading back to her hotel when she saw a goat herder heading down one of the paths towards a village she had not yet visited. Interested in his hasteless stroll, she followed the goat herder and after walking for some time she decided to stop and have a picnic.
Not 10 minutes after she had finished eating she was surrounded by village kids who appeared to be eager to learn. Eventually one of their mothers saw what was happening and brought Hope some chalk and a piece of black sheet metal to write on. And it was there, in a field, in the tiny village of Naloy, where Hope’s school was born.
When we arrived at “Mama & Papa’s” house we were introduced as teachers. Mama and Papa were delighted to have more teachers to help with the school, despite the fact that we’re not actually teachers. We later learned that Mama & Papa are actually the village leaders, and after that day in the field 3 years prior, Hope’s school had been moved to their home where they had created quite a unique classroom.
The kids sat on a tarp, next to the pig pen and chicken coup. Hope still wrote on the big piece of sheet metal but now had her own chalk she had brought from home. In fact she has donated lots to her little class, and her friends from home have donated as well as the other teachers. The kids all had notebooks, pens, pencils, and erasers all donated from the Taiwanese and their friends.
In total there were between 15 – 35 students (the numbers varied daily) ageing from 4 – 15, and 7 Taiwanese teachers, plus the two of us. There was Hope known as “The Teacher”, Tingway, Chincha, Paiganne, Unju, Shawn and Juntu. When the kids arrived Hope told Dariece and I that we would be teaching the class.
Completely shocked and nervous we got in front of the kids and started going over some of the stuff that Hope had told us they had learned. We got off to a rocky start, with a few long awkward silences and some bored whispers coming from the class, but eventually we just got into a groove. The kids loved it.
We turned the learning into games and songs and although Hope had done a wonderful job of this in the past, the kids seemed happy to see new faces helping the teaching squad. At the end of the class, Hope took over and told all the kids to “line up to go home”. All the kids made a line leading to the path that heads back to the rest of the village. Hope had us stand at the front of the line and kneel down. Each kid came forward, one at a time, said good-bye and gave us a huge hug. It was incredible.
After just one class they looked up to us like their real teachers. There was so much respect in their eyes, and we could see that they were eager to learn more. We were hooked. This is exactly what we were looking for and more. A chance to be away from tourists but more importantly, a chance to make a difference.
English is like a gold mine of opportunity for these kids who would otherwise be left with only the avenue of agriculture passed down by their families. Tourism is a lucrative business that is only beginning to flourish in Myanmar, and with a little bit of English these kids could become tour guides, hotel workers, waiters, or any other job that deals with foreigners. Teaching these kids English at such a pivotal moment in Myanmar’s history felt like giving them a pan in a village that has just struck gold.
That night, after the kids had gone home, Mama and Papa invited us all to stay for dinner. Our Taiwanese friends explained that they stay for dinner every single night. Mama and Papa, as we would later learn, would not take “No” for an answer. The meal was delicious and gave us the an opportunity to enjoy traditional Shan cuisine, an experience that few visitors to Myanmar ever have.
We laughed and talked, and even though the village leaders do not speak a word of English, through hand motions and charade-like plays, we were all able to get our points across. We spoke of Taiwan and Myanmar. We spoke of different animals we find in our rooms at home and different foods we eat. We spoke of Canada, an interesting topic for villagers in Myanmar who, largely due to lack of foreign press, remain mostly ignorant to countries overseas.
After dinner Mama, Papa, and a few of the students who had returned after their suppers, lit candles inside of large rolled up leaves and used them as lanterns as they walked us back to the main road. Dariece and I walked the rest of the way to our hotel absolutely buzzing. We were talking about how amazing the experience was and already planning the next lesson.
We ended up staying in Hsipaw for 8 days and taught for 2-3 hours every night. During the day, our new friends showed us some of the other sights around Hsipaw. Tingway and Papa took us to a waterfall about an hour away from Naloy. This waterfall was absolutely stunning. The walk to get there took us through rice terraces, farmland and a sugarcane factory, to a massive cliff face where the crystal clear water cascaded 100 meters down over enormous, moss-covered boulders. I was the only one to swim and my methods of getting in and out of the water seemed to entertain Papa to no end.
Another day we went to a hot spring in a neighbouring village and again I was the only one to swim. I ended up chatting with some Muslim guys from another nearby village and learned a little bit about how Islam found its way to Myanmar. The highlight of every day of course was at 4:00, when our little class began in Naloy. We became closer to the children with every class. We taught them new songs that would normally not be appropriate for kids, like “from the window to the wall” by Lil’ John and “who let the dogs out” by the Baha Men. We just had to change the lyrics a little bit and the kids loved it.
Sometimes, in the middle of class, the pigs would start squealing, or a chicken would run over the tarp that the kids were sitting on, or the dogs would start barking, and we would have to wait for relative silence to return before continuing the lesson. These are just things that teachers wouldn’t have to worry about in a western classroom.
The more we taught the more comfortable we became. We wrote entire lesson plans in our notebook and followed them to avoid the awkward silences that the kids had to endure on our first day. We took the things that Hope had taught them and turned them into games or hands-on scenarios. She had taught them how to buy things in a market, so we built a market and had fake money and real fruit so they could practice.
Hope taught them how to give directions, so we put the market at the end of a short zig-zag path so that the class had to direct a confused, blindfolded student through the maze to make it to the market. One day we bought them all toothpaste and toothbrushes. Mama explained that they had never brushed their teeth. We all walked down to the well and taught them how to brush with their new brushes and toothpaste which they obviously cherished.
We sang songs to help them remember the steps and their gums bled from never being properly cleaned but I think that they will continue to brush simply because their respected teachers taught them how.
After a few days we started learning their names and personalities and senses of humour and with each day that passed we saw that glimmer of hope and respect in their eyes grow. Every night at the end of class they would all line up and give us our hugs and good-byes and every night after they left, Mama and Papa invited us to stay for dinner.
A couple of times we tried to be nice by declining their offer, expecting that it must be a massive expense to feed 10 teachers, but Mama and Papa would adamantly insist that we stay, to the point where it became clear that turning them down would be considered rude. We brought them gifts of rice and vegetables to express our gratitude, but the gift they enjoyed most, by far, were the pictures we had developed of Canada and of us teaching the class.
They loved seeing themselves in a couple of pictures and Mama made a point of showing all the other moms when they came to pick up their kids after class. One night, after dinner, we presented them with a couple of gold Canada pins we had been carrying around for the past year, waiting for someone special to give them to. Their eyes lit up and even though they’re not real gold, Mama and Papa seemed to cherish them far more than any gold pin. The fact that they came from so far away, and came from new friends, made them very valuable indeed.
This place became home and our Taiwanese friends, Mama, Papa, and the children felt like family, even after such a short time. On our last day we explained to the kids that we would be leaving and their disappointment was obvious. Hope helped us group them up for a photo and we took the perfect picture with our class.
After the photo we gave Mama and Papa a card and one of the older girls from the class read it aloud. In it, we had all our feelings translated into Shan so they could understand. Thoughts we were otherwise unable to communicate with them. We explained how grateful we were to have met them and how much we appreciated and admired their incredible generosity.
We said that one day we would love to return and that we would always remember our new family and the delicious food we enjoyed at their table. At that, Mama started crying and then some of the girls from our class were crying and before she knew it, Dariece found herself consoling Mama and the girls with hugs and words that neither Mama nor the girls could understand, but it didn’t matter, they knew what was being said.
It was extremely hard to say good-bye to the class for the last time, there was no real line for hugs and good-byes, just a huge group hug that went on for about 15 minutes, each child saying good-bye about 10 times and returning for more hugs. That night we told Mama that we wouldn’t be staying for dinner and she sadly accepted. Instead we went for dinner in Hsipaw with our Taiwanese friends. We talked about the past 8 days and how much it meant to us and enjoyed some delicious Chinese food at Hope’s favourite restaurant.
After dinner was another sad good-bye as we bid farewell to some of the kindest, most generous people we have ever met in our travels. The work that these 7 people have accomplished is nothing short of phenomenal. They have donated their time for 1 month every year for 3 consecutive years and have taught the kids of Naloy some very valuable English.
Naloy will be the only village around Hsipaw where the children will be able to properly greet tourists with “hello” instead of “good-bye.” These seven people have donated money and built a well in Naloy and given away countless amounts of clothing and school supplies. They have created a family in the outskirts of civilization in Myanmar and not only invited us in, but allowed us to teach the class for an entire week. This is definitely one of the best travel experiences we have ever had and we will never forget Mama, Papa, Hope or the other teachers and we will always have a place in our hearts for the little kids in Naloy village. Hopefully one day we can return and pick up where we left off.
This proved to us once more that there is so much more to travel then seeing sights or laying on beaches. We will be looking for opportunities like this again, where we have a chance to give back and make a difference. Thank- you Hope for introducing us to your family and letting us be a part of it. And thank-you everyone in Naloy village, who showed us how happy and giving people can be, even in a place where there is so little to give. We will take this memory with us wherever we go and we will never forget Hsipaw.