Tuesday, February 26, 2013

SAISers on Winter Break: Myanmar

This is the second student guest post about their winter break activities activities. Our guest blogger this week is Cristina Garafola, who was a regular student blogger for Admissions last year. Cristina is currently completing the MA component of the 5-semester option, having completed the Hopkins-Nanjing certificate last year, and she is concentrating in China Studies.

In Which SAISers Visit Myanmar (Burma)
Hi everyone, this is a guest post about my trip abroad during winter break (which is known as intersession at SAIS). Since returning from China to SAIS D.C. to continue my studies last fall, I’ve been taking China Studies courses and also broadening my horizons by taking some classes in the Southeast Asia Studies Department, including one on Myanmar (Burma). I’ve also begun learning Burmese, which has been really interesting so far. Both Johns Hopkins and SAIS have had an established presence in Myanmar for over 50 years—the Rangoon-Hopkins Center was actually SAIS’s first overseas program! SAIS has also hosted recent Track 1.5 Dialogues between the U.S. and Myanmar governments on a variety of issues. You can read more about SAIS’s presence in Myanmar here.

Anyway, during this intersession break, six SAISers had the opportunity to travel to Myanmar for three weeks to intensively study Burmese in Yangon (Rangoon), the country’s largest city. This was a really great opportunity given the recent developments in the bilateral relationship between the United States and Myanmar, so we were thrilled to go! Our group had two second year students studying Burmese at the intermediate level and four of us novice level speakers, including me.

Along with our language study, we had some amazing opportunities to meet with key players in the reform process. One day, we visited the administrative headquarters of the opposition party (the National League for Democracy) and talked to some of the party staff. We also got a quick picture with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, although we didn’t get a chance to talk with her as she was running late to another meeting. From left to right below: me, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, Anne Gillman SAIS ‘14 (right behind the Lady), Dan Greenland SAIS '14, and Aichida Ul-Aflaha SAIS '14 as the Lady speeds out to her next meeting:

We also met with the U.S. Ambassador Derek Mitchell and the deputy chief of mission at Embassy Rangoon, as well as some SAIS grads that work there. Posing with Amb. Mitchell, DCM Virginia Murray, and Rob McDonald SAIS '10 (far left):

We did make it outside of Yangon twice. The first weekend, some of us traveled to Bago and Kyiaktiyo (pronounced Jyia-ti-yo), which is home to the Golden Rock or the “magic rock,” a precariously balanced rock that has a golden sheen from thousands of devoted Buddhists applying gold leaf to the rock over the years:

Our second weekend trip was also fascinating. We headed to Bagan to explore the temples and pagodas there—supposedly there are over 3,000. It’s a bit like Angkor Wat in Cambodia but definitely has a different feel. Rather than a somewhat organized city layout, the Bagan area is dotted all over with pagodas of different sizes. Most are a red brick color, but some of the larger ones are white with golden tops (sometimes known as “corn cobs”):

Here’s a gold-leaf buddha from one of the pagodas. Almost every pagoda featured a central sitting (or sometimes standing) buddha. The larger pagodas, like this one below, also had statues in the center of each side of the inner hallway:

A central watchtower stands above the sea of pagodas in Bagan, Myanmar:

One of the key takeaways from our trip was the “small world” aspect to Myanmar. Whenever we met someone new in Yangon, new Burmese and ex-pat friends alike almost always knew this person by name, had met them before, or were even good friends already. By the end of our three weeks in Yangon, we would recognize about a third of the people at a typical evening gathering, like a happy hour or a new exhibit at an art gallery. I got a taste of this “small world” firsthand when I was flying back to the United States. When I found my seat on the flight from Yangon to Taipei, sitting across the aisle was a Burmese college student named Patricia—the first Burmese student to ever attend my undergraduate alma mater! We also met some Burmese-Americans from the Washington, D.C. area and became good friends on the long flight back from Taipei to the United States. It just goes to show the value of in-country experience when learning a new language or trying to understand developments on the ground. Returning from Yangon, our language capabilities had improved from our lessons and daily use, our understanding of the political and economic situation had become a lot more tangible, and we had connected with a lot of people working in both Myanmar and the United States to shape the country’s development. Building on this experience, it’ll be fascinating to return in a few years (or even sooner, I hope!) and see how the country continues to transform.

To read other posts in this series, please click here.