musings on music, travel, books, and life from Southeast Asia

It’s the first week of June, which means that the new school year is starting in Myanmar. Back to school means the end of those carefree lazy days, and it also means having to buy new uniforms and school supplies for the new term.


Most of the kids that I know from 90th Street in Mandalay are among those students returning to classes this week. Not all of them, however, are still in school, a few having to drop out prematurely and work to help earn money for their families. Not an ideal situation, but it’s a poor neighborhood and people do what they can to get by. Keeping that in mind, I wanted to do something to help the children and their families now that the new school year was commencing. Two years ago I bought material at a local market, enough to make school uniforms for about a dozen students. One of the parents measured all the kids and took the material to a nearby tailor on 90th Street, and in a few short days they had their uniforms. That went over well, so I decided to do it again this year, but on a larger scale. I contacted my friend Khin Nwe Lwin, who is the daughter of U Nyunt Htun, one of the men who patronize the teashop on 90th Street. Khin Nwe Lwin works in Pyin U Lwin, a town about 90 minutes from Mandalay, but she returns home at least twice a month. I asked her if she would help coordinate the buying and distribution of uniforms. This time I said that I wanted to buy about 20 uniforms, not only for the kids that I took on a field trip in March, but any children from that group of families. Khin Nwe Lwin helped me pick out some deserving kids that came from poorer families and tallied the cost of everything.


Unfortunately, I had this brainstorm after I returned to Bangkok, so I wasn’t able to give her any money when I was in Mandalay. But I solved that problem by recruiting a special courier. One of my friends, Walter, teaches at an international school in Mandalay (yes, such things do exist there!) and he comes back to Bangkok frequently for visits, trips that are actually necessary due Myanmar’s rule about foreign workers having to make cross-border visa runs every 10 weeks. So when Walter was in town last month I gave him a chunk of money to give to Khin Nwe Lwin. Once he was back in Mandalay, he hopped on his motorcycle and zoomed over to 90th Street and passed the money over to the owner of the teashop, U Tin Chit, who then gave it to Khin Nwe Lwin. Altogether, we outfitted 23 children! There was some money left over, so I suggested that she divide it up and give each child a bit of pocket money. In a recent e-mail she reported that everything went as planned, and sent me these photos to prove it! From the one photo, it looks like a few of the boys must have done short summer stints as novice monks. In any case, I’m happy to know that the crew will all be looking good for the new term. Study hard, kids!



Meanwhile, I also got an e-mail from one of my friends in Bagan, a fellow who goes by the name of Ninety Nine. It’s even spelled that way on his ID card! Now in his early twenties, he is currently working at a new hotel in town. He had dropped out of school for a few years, but about two years he started taking classes again so that he could get his high school diploma. Easier said than done, apparently. He failed the final exam last year and after more study sessions he recently took it again. This is what he told me in the e-mail:

“I fail my exam again for this year, about the mathematics too. So, I don’t want to try for the next year. This subject is like fighting the lion for me. Please give me the best advice.”

Hell, what I can tell the guy? Keep trying, study harder, you’ll pass it next time, blah blah blah. Honestly, I don’t even know how important it is for him to pass this exam, unless that’s essential for getting a job in the tourism industry, which seems to be his preference. He has outstanding spoken English language skills, and an engaging personality, so I think he’d make a great tour guide, or someone who could manage a shop or restaurant that caters to tourists. Whatever he decides to do, I hope it’s easier than “fighting the lion.”



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