photo & text by nacrowe
BURMA CHRONICLES (DRAWN & QUARTERLY, 2008) is an autobiographical memoir by FRENCH cartoonist GUY DELISLE that depicts his yearlong tenure in MYANMAR while his wife was stationed there as part of her work with the international NGO DOCTORS WITHOUT BORDERS. to state the obvious, this era in the history of MYANMAR predated the military junta's experimental flirtation with democracy and the release, political rise and swift downfall of AUNG SAN SUU KYI. it also predates the genocide currently taking place against the MUSLIM ROHINGYA population in the southwest of the country.
what makes this book interesting, much like his other works cataloguing similar stints in NORTH KOREA, CHINA and ISRAEL, is deft manner in which DELISLE presents a culture through his personal experiences as an expatriate with everyday people. given his status as his wife's "plus one," he essentially uses this unique opportunity to critical examine his daily mundane interactions. this manifests in a narrative that is made up of intimate vignettes about dealing with issues ranging from the systematic (MEDIA CENSORSHIP, GOVERNMENT CORRUPTION, FOOD INSECURITY, INTERMTTENT ELECTRICITY and UNRELIABLE INTERNET CONNECTIONS) to the personal (LOCAL CUSTOMS/FASHION/CUSINE, RELIGIOUS HOLIDAYS, GENDER ROLES and FILIAL PIETY). sure there are times when his observations come off a bit PATRONIZING and even PATERNALISTIC, but in my experience that is part of the process of acclimating to new surroundings and normative culture that differs from your own. so i dont fault him too much for that, in fact i think its a testament to his honesty to include such and gives this graphic novel a sense of authenticity.
as ive mentioned in this forum before, i formerly worked in MYANMAR in the northern city of MANDALAY, which is far from the metropolis that is YANGON where DELISLE resided more than a decade before. there were things i learned from BURMA CHRONICLES about my area, specifically KACHIN STATE which was to my north. i taught children of their military during my tenure and i really had no idea about the jade mines located there and the dismal, sub-human conditions endured there by local workers at the behest of foreign companies (mostly CHINESE). i did not know about the narcotics problem there and how it worked within a broader GEOPOLITICAL STRATEGY by the military junta. of cause looking back, who would have told me? i was literally surrounded by AMERICANS, some of the CHRISTIAN MISSIONARY persuasion so at the very least they were highly unreliable on most any subject.
having been a PEACE CORPS volunteer in ALBANIA i worked in concert with some foreign NGOs so i found it interesting learning about the politics regarding the mission of DOCTORS WITHOUT BORDERS and the decision matrix they utilize to deem a situation beyond salvageable. in BURMA CHRONICLES DELISLE and his family leave because the organization determined that they were rendering services that should be provided by the government. in essence they were aiding in the lack of development and progress by the military junta. i find that sort of thing incredibly interesting. too often in ALBANIA i felt that PEACE CORPS was more interested in what we got our counterparts to produce rather than having them self-determine and work towards mutual goals. that over time all we provided was a crutch for the locals to rely upon instead of becoming more self-sufficient. it is nice to know in this instance that responsible NGOs take their mission seriously and are willing to depart if the conditions do not present themselves. of course, i admit that an NGO is different than PEACE CORPS, which is an extension of the STATE DEPARTMENT, so maybe those missions and their ethos dont match exactly, but all the same it is not in the AMERICAN interest to have developing countries rely on us for expertise. or maybe it is?
i thought DELISLE did a stellar job of elucidating the experience of adjusting to living in a developing by a WESTERN expatriate, worts and all. i highly recommend this graphic novel to anyone interested in learning about that experience or even a pre-"democratic" MYANMAR for that matter. cant wait to seek out his other publications.
listening to the greater discussion these days regarding ONLINE / REMOTE / HYBRID LEARNING is something i find interesting due to the fact that in a previous life i was an english teacher who worked abroad in international schools (specifically in VENEZUELA, JAPAN and MYANMAR) and utilized such. my experiences obviously were played out long before the current pandemic, which unfortunately shows no signs of abating and has made such a classroom a necessity.
what drew me to online learning was a sense of student accountability. when i was studying at TEACHERS COLLEGE COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY there was this program run by a professor called the STUDENT PRESS INITIATIVE. the basic idea around such was to locate at-risk youth, usually students already incarcerated with the juvenile detention centers and have them write. volunteers would tutor them and eventually they would create a product that would be published yearly by the prestigious COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY PRESS. it was meant as a means of empowering students through writing. as published authors these kids would speak at forums and ultimately take pride in their work and those of others. the basic concept of leveraging the university to empower at-risk youth always stuck with me.
when i began teaching abroad i found myself in communities that were fiercely collectivistic. this meant my students were largely motivated by the opinions of their peers and family, unlike AMERICAN kids that are generally individualistic. my idea was to publish their written work, all of it. no tests or quizzes, but written papers and projects from class. the act of making it public for their classmates to see up the ante. usually i was attempting to reinforce basic literary, research and communication skills and by publishing such i leveraged the community against the individual. by and large it worked.
at TEACHERS COLLEGE COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY there was also much promotion of project-based learning as opposed to testing. learning comes from the adaptation, modification and implementation of concepts rather than rote memorization of such (this pragmatic approach goes back to JOHN DEWEY). unfortunately now everything is the later and not the former.
given that i was overseas, i'd often have students write articles about their community, especially those people would not think to interview. in MYANMAR my students interviewed and wrote articles about ORPHANAGES, FARMERS, TAILORS, TEA LEAVE MERCHANTS, JADE MERCHANTS, BOUTIQUE OWNERS and ARTISANS within the community. these articles were then sent to friends of mine that taught in other countries and had their students read and write follow-up questions. what was amazing was that my students and those that asked the questions both employed english as a second language. if you are interested in checking out all the different projects i did in MYANMAR, they can be found HERE.
its one thing to have kids use quotes in a project, its another to raise the stakes and let them know that if they misquote their subject than they are effectively denying them their own voice. my kids took it very seriously because of such.
id also have them take surveys of their classmates, utilizing data. this sometimes dovetailed with concepts in their math class and we'd do some cross-curricular activities for both classes. very cool stuff.
in VENEZUELA i had a newspaper elective where students did everything from MOVIE REVIEWS, NEWSPAPER STAFF INTERVIEWS, TRAVEL ARTICLES, EDITORIALS to ARTIST/ARCHITECT PROFILES for the school newspaper EL MOSQUITO. my biggest accomplishment was getting students to buy in to participating in surveys that were the basis for all EDITORIALS. the whole enterprise reinforced literacy, reading and even NUMERACY. im still very much proud of it.
VIRTUAL ORAL PRESENTATIONS
for many parents there was a big emphasis on students being able to speak english well. i addressed this by having students use their phones to record them explaining part of a project. i had parents come in for one-on-one meetings in MYANMAR and the voice of their son or daughter speaking english clearly from a recording brought them to tears. examples of this are HERE, HERE and HERE.
below are two examples of videos my students in MYANMAR made for two different projects.
the first had them write and sing new lyrics to a popular song about something they learned that year, in the case of "ADD IT ONLINE" they sang about the final step in the WRITING PROCESS, which is PUBLISHING. they also all turn into ZOMBIES in the video and eat me alive.
the other video finds some students doing a S.T.E.A.L. (SPEECH / THOUGHTS / EMOTIONS / ACTONS / LOOKS) character analysis on the DISNEY character WALL-E.
whats awesome about doing these videos is that i could use them in other classes in the future. i was essentially stockpiling material for future students to utilize and have fun with.
as you can imagine, i miss teaching in ways i cant even verbalize. i literally could go on about online learning but i think you get the idea. unfortunately the way the education field has been going in recent years (away from project-based learning towards rote memorization), i am similarly glad to be out of the profession.
if you are interested in browsing the two website from my teaching days in VENEZUELA and MYANMAR, EL MOSQUITO is linked HERE and my class page for MYANMAR is linked HERE. enjoy!
photos by nacrowe
so there i am at SUVARNABHUMI AIRPORT in BANGKOK (pictured below) just hours after leaving MYANMAR and my intense year of teaching there. im waiting for a 10 hour+ connecting flight to HAMAD INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT (pictured above) in QATAR which will in turn connect me to an even more insane 17 hour flight stateside. as an aside, DONALD TRUMP only hours before had decided to cut off ties with the ARAB nation, despite seeming to forget that our naval fleet was stationed there. but thats another story in itself.
i just remember sitting there taking it all in: the architecture of the airport, the fact that i was lying supine on an extended couch with built-in charge port and hassle free high-speed wifi. traveling is stressful, but this moment wasnt.
what people fail to realize is how beautiful these foreign airports are. and they should be. when visitors arrive, even those just passing through en route to somewhere else, obtain an impression about a country through infrastructure.
SUVARNABHUMI for its part is an absolute gem of an airport. and im an expert on that. i've been to countless airports in over 60 countries worldwide. this airport is setup for the comfort of all tiers of travelers. same with HAMAD INTERNATIONAL in QATAR. the terminals there had geodesic architectural roofs that both evoked palm trees and ARABIC calligraphy. both airports were clean and efficient and at no point did i feel like i was in a cattle call. being in those airports felt like an experience.
now i understand that both those countries are essentially run by hereditary dictators that largely curtail freedom of speech and impose ethnic violence. that and in the case of QATAR utilize what is effectively slave labor for the construction of stadiums for the upcoming WORLD CUP. sadly that labor policy is all too common in the ARAB states as a whole. so i understand all that. absolutely. in some cases i even saw that shit firsthand (looking right at you KUWAIT). not supporting their actions whatsoever, but man i have to hand it to them, those hereditary dictators did create two incredible modern airports. as propaganda by way of architecture goes, both are top notch examples.
now im going to fast forward to JFK, the worst entry point for a supposed world-class democracy ever.
i arrive and the first thing you notice is how dilapidated and crusty the international terminal looks. its an embarrassment. you are yelled at several times to stay in line and eventual you are dumped into the customs section. there are two lines, one for US citizens and those holding visas and then the other line for everyone else. while standing in line full of a wide spectrum of humanity, all tired after a 17+ hour flight, we are all besieged by a wall of televisions all tuned to FOX NEWS where SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS was giving a speech about the then-current MUSLIM ban. she was literally talking about that room and others like. people visiting family, playing tourist. normal stuff. just seemed so incongruent with reality.
at that point you had one of the TSA agents pointing to the non-US line travelers and pointing to the customs officials at the gate. "now when you get up there, no funny business, okay?" this officer declared. "remember, no funny business, SPEAK ENGLISH."
i wanted to crawl in a hole and die i was so furious. first time back home post 2016 election. WELCOME TO TRUMPLAND.
the thing that always gets me is that from the American perspective, we feel like these people should understand what a blessing it is for them to be here. we fail to realize that AMERICA is not special. people aren't any freer here or more intelligent or hardworking than they are in EUROPE or ASIA or SOUTH AMERICA or AFRICA or CENTRAL AMERICA. the whole concept of AMERICAN EXCEPTIONALISM was a mirage we bought into while our infrastructure and way of life was crumbling around us due to greed and economic disparities. when i see JFK or LAGUARDIA, or to a lesser extent NEWARK, airports i'm reminded about how the AMERICAN DREAM is as failed a reality as these crumbling hollow remnants of yesteryear's optimism and ambition about the future.
but that is what i see as an AMERICAN. just think about the message we send to foreigners, you know, those people that we say we dont care about yet compare ourselves favorably to. just think of what they see. if i was them, i'd connect through CANADA if possible and just fly over us.
everything is so depressing at the moment. seems the complete balkanization of the AMERICAN body politic is in full free fall right now. you have a president with tyrannical ambitions kicking the tires on what he can get away with in terms of utilizing the military against his own people.
i've seen this movie before. i lived through it specifically in VENEZUELA, NIGERIA and MYANMAR. when i read about unmarked federal officials with a dubious chain of command carrying out protection details against protestors i have flashbacks to seeing colectivos in MATURIN who were off-duty cops that attacked and killed protestors against NICOLAS MADURO. when i see TRUMP using military helicopters and the might of his forces to clear away protestors for the sake of a lame bible photo op, i think back to living in LAGOS in the mid 1990s and watching the police burn markets with glee. the learned hatred by some of my students in MYANMAR against MUSLIMS as manifested in them dressing up as "terrorists" for HALLOWEEN is mirrored in TRUMP and the REPUBLICANS blanket animosity and racism towards the non-white population. to this day i still wear it as a badge of honor that i didn't stay on after my first contract in MYANMAR at a job where my employer didn't have the moral fortitude to challenge the students against racism. the ROHINGYA CRISIS was taboo and never spoken about. what a wasted opportunity.
i've seen personally how injustice erodes unity and corrodes the national psyche. there is a choice being made right now by our fellow AMERICANS that wear a badge and plead an oath of fidelity to the constitution. at some point they are going to have make a decision on who they serve: the people or this dictator. if they collectively choose poorly we are all fucked.
but that isn't why i'm writing this. i do have an example of an individual who during a time of civil unrest made a selfless, patriotic decision and great personal expense on behalf of his fellow compatriots. and ironically this example is set in the BALKANS, specifically ALBANIA.
i've made mention before about my experience as a PEACE CORPS volunteer in ALBANIA and my nationwide literacy project that resulted in me presenting a paper i co-wrote at CAMBRIDGE UNIVERSITY. i have also mentioned before how during my initial stay at my original placement site in the border town of KUKES (10 miles from the KOSOVAN border) resulted in me getting assaulted and ultimately relocated to another city.
what i haven't spoken about before is my former landlord in KUKES, whom i wont identify by name out of respect. in 1997 the ALBANIAN economy, already the second-poorest in EUROPE, took a sharp nose dive after the government lost a reported $1.2 billion due to involvement in a pyramid scheme. the result was countrywide civil unrest. some have described it as a civil war.
in terms of the police, many abandoned their post. but not my former landlord. he went down to the station and personally defended their stockpile of weapons from would-be looters. his feeling was that the last thing that this powder-keg of a situation needed was more firearms and ammunition. the looters came and turned his own gun against him.
i've seen his through-and-through scars. he showed them to me the night of my assault, telling me that i was a PURO KUKESIAN. that i couldn't leave. my assumption is that everything worthwhile in his community comes at a price and my efforts to educate was worth that price. i still hold him in the highest esteem for his service to his community at their hour of need. a true hero and patriot.
when i think now of our current crisis where the police-citizen relationship is coming apart at the seams, my hope is that our compatriots on the other side of the blue line will display some solidarity and empathy with those who have suffered. they are there in their current position to serve and protect the citizens, not the state.
hopefully they realize such en masse before we find ourselves in a new TRUMPIAN hell-scape we can't return from.
life's funny sometimes.
the summer before 6th grade i got in a BMX bicycle accident. a very serious one that landed me in the ICU for several days and came perilously close to paralyzing me or worse. i was very lucky. literally my head missed a curb by inches and no, i was not wearing a helmet.
that was back in '96 and since then i have had a fascination with bikes in general and i'm almost certain it comes from that experience. i've ridden BMX bikes since but for whatever reason i've never owned once since the accident.
this is not to say that i haven't conquered other fears. i've long hated/feared flying but have been in innumerable flights my entire life, including twice on a helicopter (BRAZIL and ZAMBIA). i've had a strong fear of being trapped since childhood, but have learned to really enjoy SCUBA DIVING (LOS ROQUES and ISLA MARGARITA in VENEZUELA).
but for me there is something about bicycles that equates to a sense of freedom. in JAPAN my exploration of my neighborhood only really got underway after getting a multi-speed cruiser that i rode to work in (sighhh, that thing was awesome) and later in MYANMAR where i was teaching the only real mode of transportation was via scooter (taxis were inefficient).
i ended up getting a HONDA CLICK which had a 125cc engine and really flew. for me it was almost too fast. driving in MANDALAY was insane because literally nobody followed any rules of the road out there. at any moment cars, trucks, scooters, street dogs, chickens, whatever might come at you or cross the road from either side. it was dangerous. but i have to say that the idea of getting out of work and driving through flooded rice fields with water buffalo gently lifting their heads out of the paddies while in distance you could see the golden spires of buddhist monasteries is something i will always take with me. i loved that scooter and how it gave me the ability to really explore northern MYANMAR.
i believe my fear of accidents died with that scooter since twice i had to jump off it to avoid other riders making careless decisions. both times i got scraped up but luckily broke nothing. driving a scooter in southeast ASIA can be pretty gnarly and i credit it with getting me over my slight phobia of BMX bikes.
gopro footage from my scooter in MYANMAR
so since coming back to the states almost two years ago i was long considering obtaining a BMX bike. what is funny is that i went to a bike shop in central NEW JERSEY multiple times, initially to educate myself from the staff and later to purchase something. i learned later after buying my bike that this shop is owned by SCOTTY CRANMER, a local NEW JERSEY BMX legend roughly my age who is tied with DAVE MIRRA with 11 X-GAMES PARK MEDALS. what is interesting about this is not his numerous medals, but his story of recovery.
in 2016 he got in a terrible bike accident that initially left him paralyzed with restricted motor skills. by sheer will the dude got himself to eventually be able to walk again and eventually maintain his balance well enough to stay on his bike for short periods.
the idea that i bought my bike from a store where there is a shared experience with the owner is not lost on me and it seems rather funny and poetic. only gives me further motivation to keep riding!
if you get a chance i recommend his YouTube channel as it is inspiring to see someone continue to support other riders in spite of his setbacks. it shows a true love of his sport and the community around it. dude is, no joke, an inspiration.