Monday, July 30, 2018

Yangon, a City Stuck in Time


I am quickly approaching the completion of my first full week in Burma.  It really is quite difficult to even describe this country.  My first few days were spent in the former capital, Yangon - previously known as Rangoon.  The city was small in scale, although nearly 6 million people call it their home.  There were no skyscrapers or even medium sized buildings.  In fact, Yangon still has nearly all of the colonial style buildings from the British era of the country.  They really were quite amazing to see.  Most Asian countries have some trace reminders of their colonial times, but much has been demolished to make way for more modern buildings.  Not in Yangon, though, as it was cut off from the world due to military rule until 2010.

It is clear, however, that the west is moving in.  While the country does not yet have a Starbucks or McDonalds, I have seen both KFC and Pizza Hut, which are both staples around Asia.  We also passed the construction of one of the largest buildings in all of Yangon - right near a lovely lake.  Upon closer inspection, I realized it is going to be a Wyndham Hotel!  So, yes, Burma really is opening up to the world.

Yangon has a beautiful culture, filled with tea shops and temples.  It has also has been the only city so far where I have been able to actually find coffee.  The restaurant I discovered was definitely geared toward expats and tourists, but I didn't care - they made a perfect cappuccino.  Typically in Burma, tea is the main beverage of choice.  Tea shops line the streets of every city.  They are used as a hub for social interactions as well as for business.  It would not be unusual for a man to spend an entire day at his tea shop of choice.  Also, you need to immediately change the image of the tea you have in your mind because Burmese tea is nothing like what we are used to at home.  It is layers of black tea and sweetened condensed milk served in very small glasses.  It is an unusual taste that comes across as very sweet and definitely takes some getting used to.  I have naturally gravitated back to my usual coffee.

Yangon is steeped in history as it used to be the capital during both colonial times and military times. The capital was moved to a newly designed city in 2006 to be more centrally located in the country.  During the time of military rule, Yangon/Rangoon was the face of the resistance movement.  Several famously brutal protests took place in the city, including one known as the Saffron Revolution where about 30 monks were killed. The biggest protest in the city, though occurred on August 8, 1988 (8-8-88).  This protest, organized by students at Rangoon University, resulted in up to 10,000 deaths and a defeat by the military regime.  Being on those streets, the places where history was made was quite chilling. I think it is safe to say, now, that those people did not die for a lost cause as Burma has made great strides toward democracy in the past eight years.  The results of that protest are still seen in the city today.  Since the protest was organized by students, lots of precautions have been mandated by the government to ensure students do not have too much time to interact with each other.  The students stay in the same classroom all day and the teachers rotate to prevent students from different majors from plotting additional revolts.  The military also banned any kind of student union or social location on college campuses for the same reason.  These rules are still followed today even though the military is no longer in power.

In addition to the protest sites,  we also were shown where General Aung San was assassinated.  This famous general, and father to Aung San Suu Kyi, was in line to take on the presidential role at the conclusion of British rule in the country.  His assassination started the country down the long and arduous journey of oppressive rule that lasted nearly sixty years.  The building where he was shot is currently being restored in hopes of being preserved for future generations.

Probably the grandest site in the city on Yangon, though, is the Shwedagon Pagoda.  In fact, it is well renowned around the entire country.  Historians believe the temple was built between the 6th and 10th centuries, although local legend says it was built over 2,000 years ago.  If that were true, it would make it the oldest pagoda in the world.  The entire structure is gold plated and contains over 3,000 rubies and 5,000 diamonds including a 76 carat one.  Beyond the rare gems, though, the temple is well known for the relics it contains from four previous Buddhas.  The day we visited was a national religious holiday and the place was absolutely packed with locals visiting to make offerings to the monks and pray.  It was a truly remarkable experience.  Pictures just cannot even begin to do justice to the experience of being there, but here are some to enjoy anyway!

I am currently in the ancient city of Bagan having an amazing time.  Keep an eye out for my next blog to read about this magical place!

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Golden Rocks and Bumpy Trucks

After achieving a life goal, entering Burma,  my experiences are already off to a good start, although I do wish Sunday and his family were here with me, but that will hopefully happen in the future.  After arriving in the country I enjoyed a very long taxi ride to my hotel.  Traffic in the city of Yangon is crazy!  I am pleasantly surprised with the condition of my hotel.  It's much nicer than many hotels I have stayed in back home!

Also, does anybody else find the lack of colorful cars unusual??

I arrived in the city a couple days early to experience a pilgrimage most Burmese make several times during their lives.  The destination is a massive granite rock at the top of a mountain that appears to defy gravity.  There is extreme religious importance with this rock, which I will explain in a bit, but first, I must share the story of the journey to the Golden Rock. 

Now, Keep in mind, it is currently monsoon season in Burma.  Every day I am here there is 100% chance of rain.  Needless to say, this is NOT the tourist season here.  Unfortunately, I am pretty much only available to visit at this time of the year.  I went into the Golden Rock trip understanding it would be rainy.  In fact, I had a really difficult time trying to find a tour guide who would take me!  I quickly got over the rain, though.  I have my trusty umbrella along with some disposable rain ponchos.  I was fine.

The REAL excitement of the journey, though, came from the truck ride up the side of the mountain.  Upon arrival at the base camp of the mountain, my guide and I transferred to a large truck that held about 50 people in the back.  It was tight and uncomfortable, but felt exactly how I expected.  The real fun started when the truck started bolting up the mountain, easily going 50-60 mph, which would be fine except the incline of the road was so steep I was just waiting for the breaks to fail.  It was extremely exhilarating and not unlike riding a roller coaster that had zero safety precautions.  It was a blast!  Also I had nothing to worry about because my 70¢ ticket included full life insurance!

Among the backdrop of the beautiful Burmese jungle, it was a picturesque trip that gave me my first "wow, I am really here" moment of the summer.  These picture don't do the situation justice, but try to look beyond the truck.  It to impossible to get a good photo as I was going 60mph over extremely bumpy mountain paths.

Upon reaching the summit of the mountain, I quickly descended into a swarm of fog.  I could only see a few feet in front of me and everything I saw had a hazy dreamlike quality.  Not ideal for viewing the valleys around me, but absolutely stunning for seeing things up close.  After taking off my socks and shoes, I made my way into the sacred area.  There were Buddhist monks and pilgrims nearly everywhere praying and asking for a better quality of life.  There were chimes all around that gave the experience a automatic peaceful felling.  My guide led me around to the different areas, first to the closest spot women could get.  In buddhist culture here, women are still seen as lesser than men.  My tour guide (who was a woman) had a clever view on this archaic belief -- she said, jokingly, she thinks they have that rule so the men don't get distracted by the beautiful women when they are supposed to be praying 😆

With the above picture as my view, my tour guide gave me the history of the rock.  There are of course different stories behind the rock, one scientific and another religious.  The religious story states that a farmer, many years ago, met the buddha as he was traveling.  The man was given two hairs from the Buddha as a thank you for his hospitality.  In this sect of Buddhism, physical artifacts are found to be the most sacred religious icons.  The man, knowing how important it was for the hairs to be preserved, set off to find a place to store them.  His quest ended near the ocean where he found the massive rock, which he then transported to the top of the mountain and balanced it as seen in the picture.  At the top of the rock, he built the stupa, which to this day contains the hairs of the Buddha. 

An endearing tale, but not one that matches the science behind the rock.  My guide informed me that the two rocks, the golden one and the base rock, are one of the same.  Over the years, layers have peeled off, almost like an onion, to the point that they are joined by only a 1.5 square foot area.  Furthermore, the golden part, which is made gold through the application of gold leaf, has remained in place, not because of the hairs of the Buddha, but rather because of the laws of gravity.  Scientists have determined, although it may not appear this way, but the center of gravity for the rock is pulling the rock away from the cliff, keeping it from toppling over.  Unless there is a change in gravity, the rock will be there forever!

The stunning site of the rock set among the foggy background will be with me for a long time.  I have heard stories of this rock for nearly 10 years from Sunday and his family.  To see it in person felt surreal to say the least.  Additionally, the rock is one of three national icons - the other two being pagodas in different areas.  Legend states that if all three sites are visited within a year, all of your wishes will come true!  I will be visiting the next two during my time here, so I am getting my list of wishes ready....I'm not sure Buddha knows what's to come 😆

I am meeting up with my tour group today.  I have a roommate this time - he is a second grade teacher who will be heading to teach in China after our trip here!  I can't think of a more perfect roommate match.  I'm looking forward to joining back up with a group to see the rest of this remarkable country.

Sunny Days in Singapore

I can’t believe my time in Singapore is over. Last night I was sitting at the Gardens by the Bay waiting for the light and sound show to begin.

This seemed to be the perfect ending to my time in the country. .  I was surrounded by others who were just as enthralled by this magical city as I was over the past four days. 

In my short time here I have learned so much about the city I had previously only heard about. First of all, I was shocked at how westernized the city presents itself. It was the perfect reprieve after visiting China and before going to Burma. I was able to go to Starbucks daily, and choose from one of THREE on the same block as my hotel. I was able to eat amazing western influenced food (eggplant parmigiana and pizza 🤗.) I was even able to speak to everyone I met since English is the national language. This city brought the perfect mix of the east and the west, although it had much more of a western feel than any other Asian city I have visited. 

I had spectacular experiences while here as well. My first night in the country I visited the famed Night Safari at the Singapore Zoo. The experience was so unique. It is a (mostly) free range zoo that contains only nocturnal animals. I arrived to the zoo at 10pm since, unlike other zoos, this one is only open at night so you can experinice the night dwelling animals in all their glory. Besides seeing a lot of animals I had never before seen, I really got some amazing views of the animals up close...including a powerful lion that was roaring only a few feet from my face! Best of all, the mission of the zoo truly is conservancy. Many of the animals they take are on the endangered species list. Their zoologists work to breed the animals in hopes of building up the population to prevent extinction.   My favorite animal was probably the tapir.  They are native to the Malaysian peninsula, so local, but they were also so tame. They came right up to our team cars!

The photos I took really did not come out well since it was all in the dark, but these few are worth seeing

My next day in Singapore was spent around the Sands resort, which sounds lame, but it really is a remarkable part of the city.  A truly ultra-modern oasis.  I started at this amazing ArtScience museum, which is centered around the idea that art and science are inter-related and require each other in order to exist.  The first exhibit I went to ended up being for young kids, but I still loved it!  If only I could pick up the museum and move it to Philly -- it would be the perfect exhibit for my second graders.  It was all about how our communities are integrated and how communication and cooperation are essential to human survival.  It was all presented to the kids through a digital interactive experience.  It was truly awesome for kids.  At one point, they were able to draw something new to add to the city (a building, car, plane, etc..) and then scan their image into the digital town.  I was very impressed.

After this exhibit, I went to one on MARVEL Studios, which was, as expected, super cool.  Not only did they have fantastic artifacts from the movies and great photo opportunities, they also taught about the science behind the super powers along the way.  What an amazing way to learn science!  This museum was a perfect creative blend of science and art.

After enjoying an amazing superhero exhibit, I switched superhero sides and went to a DC comic cafe!  I had a ridiculous batman themed lunch, but geeked out through every second of the meal.

I loved my time in Singapore.  I could have spent several more days in the city, but I do feel like I am leaving having a much better idea of the historical importance of the city as well as a general idea of the current culture.  I hope to come back one day and explore some more.  For now enjoy this clip of the Gardens by the Bay light show!

Sunday, July 22, 2018

A Week Around China

Yes, I am still in Singapore -- and no this blog is not about Singapore.  I am getting closer, though.  I really want to record my week of travel around China first, though.  As always with SABEH, once we are completed teaching, we are given a week to tour different parts of the beautiful country we have come to know well.  This year, the trip actually included three cities I have already been to -- Hangzhou, Nanjing, and Shanghai.  I really HAVE been to more places in China than the US.  Anyway, the week was amazing nonetheless.

We started in Hangzhou, which of course is the city where I taught during my first two summers with SABEH.  I naturally felt quite nostalgic as I revisited many of the places I frequented during my time in the beautiful city.  I even managed to see areas that were new, like this mind-blowing lotus field in a hidden corner of West Lake.  The massive flowers seemed to go on forever.

While in Hangzhou, I naturally had to revisit the school where I taught for two summers.  Luckily it is owned by the same corporation as the Zhoushan campus we were at this summer and our names were fresh in the minds of the international department.  The director of the international department and one of my all-time favorite assistants met us at the back gate and gave us a wonderful tour of the campus.  For me, it brought back a flood of memories with both the teachers and students with whom I worked.  For the other SABEH teachers who came along, they were able to see another example of a Chinese private school that, while still beautiful, did not quite live up to the beauty of the Zhoushan campus where we taught this summer.

One thing that was new on campus, and blew my mind, were newly transformed geography classrooms that utilized every space in the room to engage the students.  The ceilings had murals, the walls were massive dry-erase maps, and computerized displays lined the walls to engage the students.  The rooms were truly impressive and like nothing I have seen before.  Experiences like this are a huge reason why I love teaching in China.  The teachers here have just as much to offer us in the way of innovation as we have to offer them.


After strolling down memory lane in Hangzhou, we went to Nanjing, which I was actually able to enjoy this year because it wasn't 120° like it was the last time I was in the city.  We did the same activities as the last time I was there, but I learned a lot more this time.  I even climbed around 350 stairs to Sun Yat-Sen's mausoleum, which was even more interesting this time around because just two months ago they opened the area where he is actually buried.  For those who may not know, Sun Yat-Sen was the founding father of the Republic of China, a democracy that was established in the 1920s.  His ruling and party were short lived once the Communist party, led by Mao, gained popularity and secured power.  We also went to Sun Yat-Sen's office complex and gardens.  Knowing more about the history of China, it was quite alarming how the falling of Sun Yat-Sen's nationalist party was portrayed as a peaceful transition of power....something it most certainly was not.

We also had the opportunity in Nanjing to visit the bloodbath museum which recounted the Japanese massacre that occurred in the city during their occupation of China.  I learned that over 300,000 civilians in Nanjing died in brutal ways at the hands of the Japanese.  The museum told the stories of many of these people along with the foreigners who helped the millions of refugees who had to flee the city as a result of the killings.  Visiting this museum was a somber experience that made me thankful for the consistency and safety I feel living in the United States.

Our beautiful week of travel ended in Shanghai.  Quite possibly my favorite city on the planet.  The magical feelings I always experience when there were not in short supply, even on my third visit.  This time around I even was able to experience a contemporary art museum, which I have never seen before.  The building itself was a work of art!

While we only had time to explore a small portion of the museum, I really enjoyed the artwork we saw. I could have easily spent hours in the museum, but we had a lot to see and do around the city.  Perhaps I will get back there again in the future.


Also, I may have waited for a half hour in a line to get the biggest french fries I have ever seen...worth it!!

Another summer in China is in the books.  At this point, I really can't imagine spending my summer any other way than collaborating with teachers and traveling around a country I have come to love so dearly.  I already cannot wait to return next summer.  For now, though....I am loving Singapore and cannot even express my excitement to travel to Burma in two days!!

Friday, July 20, 2018

Somewhere in Southeast Asia

Ok, so my blog has been slacking a bit this summer. We actually finished teaching about a week ago and I have been traveling ever since. It’s still been hectic, though, as I worked to finish paperwork from my SABEH responsibilities. I am currently typing this from my closet sized hotel room in Singapore, which, by the way, is a remarkable city -- which I will get to in a future blog post.

Our week of teaching, though went remarkably smooth. I lucked out as this was my first time as a lead teacher, but I was given a fantastic group of teachers that truly embraced the flexibility that comes with working in China. 

One event of the week that nearly pushed me over the anxiety edge was when we had a very formalized question and answer experience with the Chinese teachers. It started out with this really cheesy “talk show” where the SABEH board chair and Greentown’s program leader both engaged in a super cheesy mock talk show. Only in China could something like that be pulled off successfully. 

The q&a ended up going really well. Our SABEH teachers brought their best and it turned into a really interesting back and forth about problems in education both in the US and in China. Not surprisingly, we share many of the same issues. The Chinese educators kept coming back to “how do we fit everything into our day?” And they learned quickly there is no good answer to that question, even in America where we have been teaching this way for decades, there are still things that have to be weighed in the value of importance when attempting to squeeze everything into our short school days.

 I was also shocked to hear a teacher ask how to accommodate an autistic student in her class.  This is the first time in my four summers in China that I have heard any acknowledgment of special education students.   Traditionally, any students who are not up to par were shipped off to specialized schools.  To hear a teacher not only mention a special education student but ask how to meet the child's needs was very inspiring.  

Of course, as with everything in China, the q&a devolved into a never-ending photo shoot with the Chinese teachers.  If you are ever short on self-esteem, visit China.  I always feel like a rock star by the time I leave!

Overall my time spent with the teachers this year was spectacular.  Although I was not teaching every day, I still found ways to connect with many of the Chinese educators and have made several new meaningful friendships.  The Chinese organizer of the program was extremely pleased with all our work and has already invited us back next summer, with the hopes that I will continue to be the lead teacher.  I really hope to return to Zhoushan as well.  The campus was stunning, I have so much more to see on the islands, and I really would enjoy working with those teachers again.  Only time will tell where I will be next year.

For now, I am about to head out to meander around the streets of Singapore.  Expect additional blogs more regularly now that the work portion of my trip is complete.

If you want to see more about our week of teaching, check out this fantastic write up with professional photos from the Greentown School about the program.  it's in Chinese, but can be translated via Google.

Happy Reading!