War and God

I was recently messaging with old friend Barry Mateer who is now in Iowa about his time 50 years ago when he was a Peace Corp volunteer in Nepal. He was there for a couple of years, returned to Iowa, got sick from a disease contracted over there, almost died, and when drafted, he filed for Conscientious Objector (CO) status. He was required to do some Alternative Service instead of serving in Vietnam. He elected to return to Nepal, and his parents, although concerned, did not object.

My tennis buddy and teaching colleague in Barcelona was about the same age. He too was a CO, did his Alternative Service cleaning toilets at a state hospital (mental institution). I was a bit younger, was in line to be drafted, but by then the war was winding down. Nonetheless, I also applied for CO status and was accepted about 6 months before Jimmy Carter ended the draft, so I didn’t have to do any Alternative Service. (I did end up volunteering for my church in China for a year, similar to AS, but many years later.

Which brings me to this story in the Smithsonian magazine, The Priest of Abu Ghraib. It is a long piece about Joshua Casteel and his time in Afghanistan. Another war, same story. Casteel was raised in a very religious family and volunteered for the war. I will let the article tell his fated and tragic story, a story where he struggles mightily to be a good Christian as well as a good soldier. He fails. With terrible consequences.

We switched as a family from the Catholic church to the Church of the Brethren when I was a teen. I was never sure whether it was because it was such a great church (it was) or whether it was because it was a peace church. I certainly am grateful, though, for the move. While my family has moved cities and congregations (they are now Presbyterian), I have wandered away from a formal religion and accepted a happy agnosticism like those around me here in Japan. I still volunteer, though, and I still think about war, killing and god. But nowhere like Joshua Casteel.

Myanmar 2017 Day 3

Day 3

Wake up early, pounding rain outside, novel until it gets light out. About 7 AM a bunch of teens unload a truck full of sand at the bungalow next door, under construction. We are literally at the end of the road and have to jump puddles to get to our place.

We wait for the pickup, but as breakfast approaches, we start walking and meet him just before arriving at “downtown”, two lanes with thatch covered roofs between, some of the most interesting wood carving I have ever seen, set up like an exhibit. At the bottom of the hill is the cafeteria, all open air, but with fans to blow the sweat around.

Breakfast of mohinga, traditional noodles and curry soup with lime and cilantro toppings, delicious. But also some dal chana (soybean curry) and chapati bread, which I get my fill of 3 helpings. Really good food here.

The classroom is also open air, about 50 meters down the road, but on the way we observe the assembly of the children’s school, with about 300 kids all lined up in their uniforms, lead in chanting by the most senior student. A sight to behold. Then they break, the older ones distribute flowers to the younger ones, and they all pay tribute to a pair of old ladies, donors to the school, lining up and giving them the flowers, about 200 of them.

It seems that the head monk here is a real businessman, promoting the wooden sculptures for sale, some for hundreds of thousands of dollars. He has the masters training acolytes to make this sustainable. He buys land and puts up dormitories for the children, enlarging the school from a couple dozen 5 years ago when he came, to the current 400 or so. Next year’s target is 600. It is some of the teachers of these students we are training.

Class time arrives and we have 17 students. 13 are elementary school teachers, 5 of whom teach English. 4 are not teachers. Our target audience, high school English teachers, is nowhere to be seen. The organizers arrive 10 minutes after we have launched into class. They leave before we finish our first hour. We need to have a discussion. Likelihood of a return next year plummet.

We slog through the day, and the students enjoy it without really understanding. We decide to have fun and not worry about the learning. The philosophical attitude helps. At the end of the day, though, they say there are busy tomorrow morning and can’t come to class. We find out later there is a huge assembly of students from all over the area with a famous author (we shake hands at dinner, he is in the bungalow next door), speaking to 2,000 on youth concerns. So we have the morning off.

We take a short walk around the compound on the way back in the dark after dinner. Have to remember to bring a flashlight next time.

Myanmar 2017 Day 1

August 2nd, last day of teaching an intensive summer course in Tokyo, and get my grades in after that. I have been going “a tope” (Spanish for “full out”) for 3 weeks while battling a foot infection (40.5, or 105 fever), not because I am an athlete, but because it attacks almost yearly in July during rainy season. Get the usual medicine, but it is a slow recovery.

Pack at night, and to the airport the next day. Super smooth connections on the express trains get me to the airport. Pick up my baggage (delivered the day before) and spy a money changer without a line, buy crisp $100 bills because those are the most accepted at the Myanmar money changers. No real way to change directly Yen to Kyat.

Immigration, no line, time to buy a couple of bottles of whiskey at Duty Free, one for Wunna, one for Moe. Dig into a new novel for the flight. Board and get a bulkhead seat with nobody next to me. We leave 15 minutes early and arrive half an hour early. I mistakenly get into the diplomat line, and the immigration person processes me anyway. Baggage comes through in record time and I am out into the lobby before Frank and Wunna arrive to pick me up.

The drive to dinner is remarkable only in the lack of things. The city is much improved, with far far fewer piles of garbage. Cleaner, and more cosmopolitan is my first impression. And the dogs, far fewer of them too.

On to Moe’s new restaurant, Rakhine food in a simple atmosphere, lots of tile and bright lights, looks like a cafeteria line, at the back, lots of trays of food, but they are brought to us. We have a pleasant dinner with the organizers of the program, Chang, Yin Law Mon, Wunna and Pyoe.

We finish up the pleasantries, I pay the multifaceted Moe, our restauranteur and travel agent, for the trips he has arranged for us during the next 6 weeks. Wunna drives us back to Frank’s place.

At this point Myanmar kicks in. Frank lives on the 8th floor of a newish building, next to Wunna’s building and next to the rice shop of a good friend. The elevator does not stop on his floor, so we go one floor up and lug the luggage down a flight of stairs.

Frank has lived in this 100m2 apartment for almost a year, but he has never moved in. Almost no furniture, beyond the what came with the flat. The two tables in the kitchen are piled with stuff, making them unusable. True bachelor life.

I roll into the futon on the floor, in the one room with air conditioning, and listen to the drip drip drip of the humidity pulled out of the air but with drainage blocked. Next morning I wait for Frank to wake up, more novel. Forgot to get the wifi password, so can’t tell my wife I have arrived.

Going to Myanmar this summer

Tingles. Frank emails me back with a short message, and it is so good to have someone on the ground teaching classes in Yangon to communicate with, to get solid information so early.

For those here the first time, I went to Myanmar as a volunteer teacher trainer twice in 2014. The first time through Friendship Force with family and friends. I invited good friend Frank along and we spent 10 wonderful days teaching in a monastery. Frank and I returned in August (supported by JALT this time) and spent a whole month teacher training, and expanded our network of connections.

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Frank returned in the fall of 2015 and has been working there since, not just volunteering. He works most closely with Ko Wunna, a businessman who sponsors some of the free schools in the NLD network, the political party that won a landslide victory last fall, and is now in power. Opening up the country.

That is why we have a larger need than before. Growth is accelerating.

The plan is for a group of 3-10 volunteer EFL teachers to do a short 3-5 day intensive course in Communicative Language Teaching, repeated four times, in four different cities in Myanmar. This will happen either in August or September, or maybe both, depending on arrangements.

As details get consolidated by our hosts, the NLD Education Network, I will be working to consolidate a list of committed volunteers.

Myanmar is a developing country, and while Yangon is relatively cosmopolitan, expect rougher conditions outside. Myanmar is warm all year round, 30 degrees (about 90) and the summer is rainy. Food is basic, mostly fried, but can be spicy. Hard to find wifi and air conditioning.

But the people are exciting and wonderful, full of expectation and a real feeling of hope. This was even before the election. I can’t wait to get back to see how it is.

If you are interested, please contact me. You will need to pay for hotels ($40 a night, minimum) and meals during the month, and maybe even transportation between the cities. Food is cheap unless you want foreign stuff. And of course, your flight in. For me, from Tokyo, I plan to spend about $2,000 for the month.

We will be looking for places to get support first for buying and shipping teaching materials, then to defray some of those costs above.

Lots of work, but well worth it. I plan to fold in some research on using the Internet for audio delivery and compare that with students in Japan, see who benefits the most. See a slide show of what we did in 2014.

 

Frank in Myanmar

FrankKevin201408 On this most momentous day the first real democratic elections in Myanmar are happening. Frank Berberich, sends a message:

Yes, I’m very glad to be here now. The run-up over the last few months has been noisy and intense. The “Reds” (NLD) supporters seem to vastly outnumber the government “Greens”.

Today, it’s quiet on the streets, though, so a very easy trip to AA (six members!). Many shops closed, but lots of people lined up at schools for voting. One of our two Burmese members proudly showed us the ink on his little finger–the badge of a voter having done the citizen’s duty.

Many people on the street, shopping, drinking tea, talking, taxis and buses mostly, but not nearly so noisy. If only this were normal…. Some fears about possible problems as the results start coming out, but no bulletins from the Embassy so far.

I sent Wunna a note of congratulations on this historic day. Whatever the outcome, I hope it is “free and fair”, and I feel privileged to be here as this wonderful, but so long abused, place struggles to find its way into democracy.