After arranging my teaching schedule and settling into a routine last week, I resolved to start spending more time exploring Mandalay. The city is less immediately beautiful than Yangon, where palm trees hang over wide avenues and grand colonial-era buildings loom over the busy downtown. Here in Mandalay, the greenery has been replaced with cement, and, aside from the royal palace, which is surrounded by a crenellated wall and moat, very few of the structures are aesthetically impressive. Motorbikes dominate the landscape, and the smoke from their exhaust pipes leaves a semi-permanent haze in their wake. This smog, paired with Mandalay’s infamous heat, can be truly overpowering. Many locals wear masks so as not to inhale the fumes.
Despite its somewhat lackluster façade, Mandalay has many impressive sights to offer – but one needs to know where to look. Thankfully, my motorbike driver, Maung Ye, knows the city and its environs like the back of his hand. He’s also a good judge of time, so he has a good sense of how much we can see on a given day and still make it back in time for my evening class. Because I teach seven days a week, I haven’t been able to venture far from Mandalay yet, but there’s still much to see around here: countless monasteries, abandoned stupa ruins, pagodas abuzz with the prayers of the faithful, silk-weaving workshops in Amarapura, the hilly temple landscape of Sagaing, the elephant-crazy town of Kyaukse, and the so-called “snake pagoda” of Paleik, where four resident Burmese pythons slither around the complex. On several occasions we’ve been caught roadside in monsoon rains, which feature crosswinds strong enough to veer a motorbike off-course. Umbrellas, I soon discovered, are completely useless.
I spend most of my days, however, preparing for and teaching my legal English classes. With each day I discover and better understand the strengths and weaknesses of my students, many of whom have little or no experience talking to a native English-speaker. Listening is difficult for them, and speaking even more so; nearly all of them are afraid or embarrassed to read aloud or venture a guess at the meaning of a word – especially because they’re in class with their friends and colleagues. Designing a curriculum that fits their needs has been challenging, but as the courses progress I have a better sense of what kinds of exercises are most helpful for them. One of my groups is slightly more advanced than the others, so I’m able to try out new activities with them to see how those students fare. Knowing how disheartening and frustrating it can be to learn a new language (or re-learn a language you thought you already knew), I make a point to keep encouraging them at every turn. Fortunately, we’ve been able to keep the energy level high so far!
The thirst for knowledge and desire for contact with the outside world is incredibly strong here – so strong, in fact, that I’ve been talked into teaching several other classes around town: first, a seminar-style course on current international affairs for post-baccalaureate students at a large, famous monastery school called Phaung Daw Oo, which provides free teachers’ training and education to impoverished children from around the country, most of whom reside in the school complex; second, a conversation-based class at an English-language school run by a rather cosmopolitan monk, who jumped at the chance to have his advanced students practice with a native speaker; and third, basic English lessons for elementary students at a monastery school. Needless to say, I’m keeping busy here, but I very much enjoy what I’m doing. It’s certainly the most meaningful kind of work I’ve done in a long time.