Burma, also known as Myanmar, has seen the worst: civil war, child soldiers, slavery, human trafficking, and lack of freedom of speech. Still struggling, students seek education abroad so they can return to their country for a better future. One student is Nandar. This is her story.
It was 2 o’clock in the morning. I felt like someone had pushed me from a 10,000 foot high mountain to the ground. I felt dizzy; half awake and half asleep. I heard the cabin crew command us to wear our seat belts due to bad turbulence. After a fraction of second, I regained my senses and found myself back in my Korean Airlines flight. After travelling for so long, I was still sitting in the flight thinking this is the longest journey which I ever take in my life. I could not wait for the flight to land although it was still three and a half hours away from Honolulu airport.
Yes, it is was long journey.
But no amount of exhaustion could diminish my thrill. A 28 hour trip was nothing. This was my V-Day, the day that I had reached my destination after persevering a life long journey.
My name is Mya Yee Nandar. People call me Nandar, a very typical Burmese name in Mandalay, the city where I was born. To many outside of Burma, my home city became famous through the poem “ Road to Mandalay” composed by Rudyard Kipling.
By the old Moulmein Pagoda, lookin’ lazy at the sea,There’s a Burma girl a-settin’, and I know she thinks o’ me;
For the wind is in the palm-trees, and the Temple-bells they say:”Come you back, you British soldier; come you back to Mandalay!”
Come you back to Mandalay, Where the old Flotilla lay:
Can’t you ‘ear their paddles chunkin’ from Rangoon to Mandalay?
On the road to Mandalay, Where the flyin’ fishes play,
An’ the dawn comes up like thunder outer China ‘crost the Bay!
Brief History of Burma
Before I explain why I came such a long way to study, let me tell you a little bit about Burma. Burma is almost in the middle of Asia, in fact 40% of all the people in the world live in the countries which share our borders. In case you’re not that handy at math, that’s almost 3 billion people. Burma has a rich culture which dates back at least 2,500 years. We are also rich in natural resources such as rubies, jade, sapphires, gold, teakwood, oil and gas. Unfortunately, we’re not so rich where it counts for most people – wealth and income.
Like the USA, we were British colony. However the British arrived in Burma a couple of hundred years later than they did in the US and they also left a couple of hundred years later, not until 1947.
Our British colonists left us with a big mess that we’re still trying to clean up. Over the past 60 years we’ve had civil wars, military dictatorships, and a complete lack of human rights and freedoms.
To fully understand our history, let me tell you the story of my brother.
My brother was eight years older than me. He was involved in the 1988 crisis. This was the big push when the people said we don’t want military, we want democracy. It was the biggest crisis in our history. I was a little girl then. My brother was arrested when he was 16 for being an activist. Because he would never submit to the tyranny of the mililtary, he was in and out of prison until he was 30 years old. He couldn’t keep a job. Every company that hired him would be shut down because of his past.
One night I remember I heard a strange voice in his room. I ran into his bedroom and he was vomiting. He wasn’t conscience anymore. I dragged his body to the hospital with some help from two rickshaw drivers. My first impression at the hospital was from a guard.
“GIVE ME MONEY.”
What he asked was the equivalent of 50 cents in the US. At the time, that amount would provide a meal for a family of four.
“Excuse me?” I said. “My brother is dying and you want 500 kyats?”
“If you don’t, you have to stay outside the hospital,” the guard replied.
I paid him. I put my brother on a table in the emergency room. No one would tell me for three days what was wrong with my brother. On the third day I demanded to know what was going on. The nurse said he needed a brain scan, but it would cost $40(US). I said do what you need to do! But we still had to wait another day to get permission to do the scan.
Soon after we got permission, my brother died in the brain scan room.
My brother passed away when he was 33. He was abused as a prisoner. Political prisoners suffered. They would disappear. Nothing would be known. My brother can’t share anything of his struggles now.
It is only in the past year or so that things have begun to change in Burma. You may have heard of Aung San Suu Kyi who was finally released from house arrest. This was the first sign of change and hope.
These unstable 60 years have left Burma near the bottom of the world in education. In healthcare, we are at the bottom according to the United Nations. There is nowhere to go but up.
A Tragedy That Shouldn’t Have Happened
When I started my journey, there was also nowhere for me to go but up. I finished high school when I was 18. At that time the university was closed. I had to wait until I was 21 for the university to open again. When I got into the university, my first degree was English literature. I told my mom I wanted to become a tour guide. So while studying for my degree I also took tour guide training. In order to save money for my post-secondary studies, I ran my own cultural tour company for almost a decade. This also gave me the opportunity to proudly share the wonders of my country.
I often traveled to the most remote villages in the most remote regions including those in the Himalayas. On my first such trip, I traveled with a group of Europeans to a small village. We had to trek for 12 days. When we reached the village we requested to one family for us to stay overnight. We stayed with seven family members, six of whom were ill. They kept coughing so hard. At first I thought it was a very bad flu, but didn’t realize what happened until later. The grandmother poked me to wake me up. I could tell she didn’t want to wake me, but she had to ask me if I had anything to relieve her bad cough. When I held her hand, I could tell she had a high fever. She was coughing so hard. My clients woke up too, but they didn’t have anything to relieve the cough. I felt so bad I couldn’t do any single thing to soothe her suffering.
The grandmother died overnight from the effects of a snakebite.
It was a tragedy that should not have happened. There was no healthcare (or roads) within 60 kilometers and the villages did not have even the most rudimentary dressings, non-prescription medications, etc. For the following 8 years, I asked my overseas clients (mostly Europeans) to bring medical supplies and I would hire porters to carry them to the mountain villages. My greatest frustration was my lack of medical/healthcare knowledge as they regarded any outsider as an ‘expert’ and were constantly seeking my advice and treatment.
I have since traveled to every corner of Burma and experienced similar distress and suffering. I met quite a number of people. How people were suffering. I don’t want to be a tour guide anymore. I told myself I can do much better than being a tour guide. I want to do something more meaningful. I want to do something to save lives. I want to touch and care for people, instead of talking in the air.
It is for this reason that I became determined to become a qualified professional nurse with a level of education only found in the West, especially the US. It does not deter me that I’ve had to start years later than most. It doesn’t deter me that I will have to spend every penny that I have saved. Once qualified, I plan to establish in Burma a volunteer mobile health clinic with a focus on prevention and health education. I would hope that some of my classmates and others would be willing to come and volunteer on occasion as well.
Imagine, a deadly snake helped to set my life’s trajectory.
My Western Education Journey
When choosing a university, I had no clue about the United States. I just wanted a good education. When I was in Bangkok studying at the university I met a visiting professor. She said to contact the University of Hawaii.
I applied and received my acceptance letter by email. This is fortunate as the official letter has yet to arrive in the mail. Mail goes to Bangkok first, then hand delivered to Burma. My first semester at the University of Hawaii at Hilo was August 2012.
I was so NERVOUS getting my Visa. When it was issued I thought that I was dreaming. I arrived in Hawaii and was greeted by Mary Uyeda, a new friend. She was American who was raised in Burma until she was 16.
Hawaii is SO beautiful. The air I breathe in…I feel so privileged to be there.
The first breakfast I ate was fried rice. The portion was SO big. I said this breakfast had to be for two people. My friend laughed.
“Well, Nandar, this is for one person.”
I saved it and ate that breakfast for lunch and dinner too.
Some parts have been difficult. I went to open a bank account and the manager thought I was from another planet. My passport is written by hand. She can’t figure where I came from. She kept talking to me like I have no clue what she’s talking about. I waited three weeks for my ATM card. I went back to the bank.
“Do you know you’re from a high security alert country?” The manager asked. She talked to me like a criminal. I understand there are sanctions on Burma from different countries, but she had no right to discriminate me in this way.
I opened my account with another bank.
And the professors. I spoke English in Bangkok while attending the university. But English wasn’t their first language either. So when I had my first classes in Hawaii, there were different accents. It was hard to understand. I started to record the lectures and I listened to them three to four times a night so I can get used to the accents.
But the professors in the US are great. They really encourage you to speak out loud, what is right, do critical thinking. It’s a very respectable education. Every single minute I enjoy being in the lecture room.
If there is one thing you want people to know about Burma, what would you say?
We need good educated people in Burma in order to reform the country. Although we have a deep and rich culture and although as a society we support each other, education is very essential to our future. We can already see some physical changes due to modernization, but this doesn’t affect ordinary people at all. If anyone has a great interest in Burma, please encourage us to study and, where possible, provide us with educational opportunities. And encourage us to think in a very critical way. It’s our life.
Providing Educational Opportunities for Students in Burma
EducationUSA is an organization supported by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. The goal: help international students access study opportunities at U.S. universities and colleges.
One way of educating students about the opportunities in the U.S. is having a fair in the country. This allows representatives from U.S. universities and colleges to travel and meet with prospective students.
EducationUSA coordinates the Southeast Asia College Fair Series from January 21-February 8. Countries include Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, Thailand…and recently added: Burma.
Jonathan Lembright, the Regional Educational Advising Coordinator for the Mainland and Maritime Southeast Asia region, said this is the first time EducationUSA has included Burma in a series.
“This is only our second year running the fair series and as we expanded our locations for 2013, Burma seemed like a natural fit given the significant interest that’s been expressed from U.S. higher education,” Lembright explained. “It is a student market largely untapped.”
In addition to the efforts of EducationUSA, Lembright shared other opportunities available from the U.S. Department of State to help Burmese students receive an education in the U.S.:
- Fulbright Foreign Student Program, which offers grants to students to study at the graduate level in the U.S.
- Global Undergraduate Exchange Program (Global UGRAD), which supports one-semester study abroad opportunities in the U.S.
- The Humphrey Fellowship Program, which provides 10 months of professional enrichment in the U.S. for mid-level professionals.
- Opportunity Funds that cover the upfront costs of applying to study in the United States for economically disadvantaged students.
- English Access Micro-scholarship Program, which provides two years of English language classes for high school students from underserved communities.
- Provision of English language classes organized by the American Center in Rangoon.
“Southeast Asia is an exciting place to be engaged,” Lembright said. “Many countries are experiencing (or are predicted to experience) rapid economic growth and it’s an incredibly diverse region in all aspects. As such, opportunities for engagement through education will increase, but the challenge will be how to engage in a way that respects and empowers local communities.”