a blog about the cultural experiences my husband and I have because of our work abroad...what's delightful and beautiful about different countries and cultures...what we have learned from living and working in countries other than our home country...and how those experiences have changed us

Sunday, December 11, 2016


We are in Laos! And it’s a bit unexpected! About 3 weeks ago, Stephen received an email from the project manager of the sister project in Laos to Stephen’s project in Yangon. The Laos project manager had been promoted to country director and so the project needed a new manager. He wanted to know if Stephen was available to consult on the project for 3 months. Just so happens that Stephen was available and it seemed to us this was an opportunity we couldn’t really pass up. So Stephen got the ball rolling pretty quickly and here we are back in Southeast Asia during the cool dry season, heading into Christmas in a country where it’s not celebrated all that much, and working on public health that will hopefully benefit some poor people in Laos.

I had little time to consider this opportunity and even less time to prepare for it mentally or materially. We only brought 3 bags with us, not even the full allowance, which is in sharp contrast to the 7-9 bags and extra luggage charges we usually have to deal with. The week before we flew out was Thanksgiving, which we spent with my family at my sister’s house, and it was just focused family time. I hardly even thought about what I might need to buy or pack to take with us overseas. Of course we have become quite familiar with where we can purchase the things we need in the region; Bangkok and Singapore have most everything we could want or need. Plus as we have been living out of hotel rooms for the past 7 months, we’ve learned that we can live without a lot of stuff that we once thought we needed. Both of us are going into this new country/new experience with almost no expectations. A bit of a change for us, but I think it’s a healthy approach.

Our first day in Laos was somewhat of a familiar routine for us. Our hotel has a similar feel to the three other SE Asian countries we’ve spent so much time in. Oddly though, there was no electric kettle in the room; something I fully expected as every other Asian hotel room has had one. I was prepared to drink the terrible instant nescafe I thought I would find in the morning. But I didn’t even have that luxury. Ha! At 6am it’s always hard to find a coffee shop open in SE Asia but the hotel staff were happy to bring us hot water. They brought a tea pot of hot water and one cup. I poured two Starbucks Vias and a packet of hot chocolate mix into the pot. I generally need milk in my coffee to drink it but a solid night’s sleep following a long haul international flight transformed instant coffee and cocoa mix into a marvelous treat!

Our bed was hard and our pillows were lumpy but we slept well anyway. We did things a little differently this time and didn't sleep during the 11-hour layover in Seoul like we routinely do, so we arrived in Vientiane with just a few hours of uncomfortable airplane sleep during the 40 hour journey from the US to Laos. I guess being that tired helps to eliminate sleep problems.

On our second day in Vientiane, we took a long walk. It’s hard with jet lag but lots of exercise after one of these journeys to the other side of the planet helps me tremendously. We walked towards the Mekong river and found a lovely park. Then a bit further we stopped into a guesthouse to check extended stay rates. After that we looped back towards our hotel and found a large indoor market and a shopping center.

At day two I was still feeling a bit ambivalent about being in Laos. Something that helped me turn the corner was when we stopped into an independent hair salon to get Stephen’s haircut. The owner of the shop couldn’t have been more friendly and accommodating. I liked him instantly. Before we had hardly stepped inside he said to us, “How can I help you?” and when Stephen replied that he needed a cut, the owner gestured to his assistant who would wash Stephen’s hair. (Later Stephen told me that is was the most thorough hair washing he’d ever received!) I sat on a cushioned bench to wait. As soon as the owner/barber/hairstylist finished with his current customer he turned on the air conditioner just for me. Even though it is the cool season, we had been walking a lot that morning and I was warm. I had taken out my handkerchief and wiped my face just after I sat down. Something I’ve experienced time and time again is just how observant and attentive people throughout SE Asia are.

I wasn’t sure how much English proficiency the hairstylist had so I thought it would be helpful to show him a photo of Stephen when his hair was short. So I found one and when Stephen came back out front I showed it to him and then with his permission showed it to the barber. He glanced at it for all of one second and then proceeded to cut Stephen hair in EXACTLY that length, shape and style! I would almost venture to say it’s the best haircut Stephen has ever received! So awesome. And the price for this expert cut? $10.

The subtitle of my blog notes that I write about things that delight us about other countries and cultures. This is a perfect example. Getting a good haircut has become so nearly impossible for me that I’ve given up. I cut my own hair. But here we just walked into a totally unknown shop and walked out satisfied beyond expectation. The experience lifted my spirits for the whole day!

These happy surprises in Vientiane are starting to accumulate. Like the fact that the sidewalks aren’t broken up and full of holes. Hold on, let me back up: that there ARE sidewalks is a welcome surprise! And these sidewalks aren’t mostly taken up with food vendors, motorbikes, or lots and lots of people.

In general it is a quiet city. Fewer people helps. Vientiane has an estimated 760,000 people, while Phnom Penh (according to Wikipedia) has 1.5 million people, Yangon’s 2014 census report revealed there were 7.36 million people living in that city and Bangkok (according the the UN) is home to 9.3 million people. Having lived in all three of those densely populated SE Asian cities, Vientiane is a breath of fresh air. Literally! That’s another pleasant surprise: very few foul smells on the air! You can imagine just how nice that is!! :)

On Monday we drove north to the town of Vang Vieng with the whole team from the organization Stephen will be working with. It was their annual conference and since we were here we were included. It’s an absolutely gorgeous spot set on the CLEAN Nam Song river with limestone mountains as a backdrop. This is a hot tourist destination as there are many forms of entertainment: 4 wheel exploring, river kayaking and tubing, cave hikes, hot air ballon and hang glider rides plus poolside relaxing with drinks!

I’m quite content to sit at the open air restaurant and watch the myriad of traffic crossing the wooden bridge or out on our deck just enjoying the peacefulness of the mountains.

Stephen spent a long day in meetings learning about the project and getting to know the staff. The last two days have been intensive work. There’s always so much at the start of a new job. What’s nice is he’s already familiar with the project and his supervisor. Much of what he did for his project in Yangon will serve him well in this new project. And of course I am biased, but the project and the organization will be well served by Stephen! :)

As we were sitting at lunch today I said to Stephen that it feels like this opportunity is such a gift. It wasn’t something we pursued, it came to us, but these past 7 days have just been so nice.

Until the next post…

(P.S. Writing takes a LOT of time and energy. I know that’s not a novel concept but it kind of hit me today and explains a lot why my blog has been so quiet for over a year.)

Saturday, January 2, 2016

First semester as the lower primary music teacher

As I wrote in my last post, once I started my job as the lower primary music teacher at MIS, all my time and energy went into work. My blog was one of the things I had to set aside. So now, on holiday break, I'm am doing catch up posts. The first was mostly about Stephen's work. This one is all about my work.

By mid-October I felt fairly comfortable in meeting the demands of my job. True I had all but abandoned the Urban Sketching Club I had started and did almost nothing on the weekends but the absolutely necessary chores. My job consumed my life. But I was doing a good job.  I was writing good lesson plans and submitting them early. I was creating activities for my students that helped them meet the standards for the National Music Curriculum of England. These activities were engaging and fun so that without even realizing it, they were developing a variety of musical skills. Slowly but surely I was creating my own music manipulatives such as laminated solfeggi circles for sight singing, laminated quarter notes and eighth notes for rhythm practice, and individual repeat sign cards for listening exercises. I don’t have an assistant so I do everything myself. And the laminating machine is in the main building across the street, so I need a large block of prep time for those projects. I only have a couple such blocks of time each week. Though I requested instruments in August, I received nothing. Nor was I reimbursed for the class set of shakers I bought which I used with nearly every class. The shakers and claves (rhythm sticks) were the two instruments I had enough of where each child could have an instrument. So wow did I make good use of those two instruments. Claves were excellent for rhythm practice. I would tap a rhythm using some combination of quarter notes and eighth notes and all the children would echo my rhythm—in unison. Then each child would have an opportunity to be the leader and the rest of us would echo that student’s rhythm pattern. This is excellent practice in working together as an ensemble. Laying the foundation for future participation in a band or orchestra when they are older. The shakers were especially good for my nursery and KG classes. I would play a variety of music and allow my young students to shake to the music in whatever way they chose. They could also get up and dance while playing their shaker. I gave a model for the children to follow if they chose, generally a steady beat or repeated pattern that matched the rhythm of the music. Smiles abound when they get the shakers and I turn on the music. They think they are just having fun. But actually they are learning to respond to a variety of music with movement and improvise with an instrument—two standards in the curriculum. :)

I love the challenge of taking curriculum standards and translating them into fun and engaging activities for kids. I love to make learning fun. Because it is! But it does take a lot of effort and by the end of October I was extremely ready for a break.

We got a full week off the last week of October for the Buddhist holiday Thadingyut Festival, or Lighting Festival. MIS had a half day before the break and everyone spent the morning in ceremony. In the Lower Primary building, specialist teachers for music, art, PE, and Myanmar studies went to each classroom so the children of each class could apologize for any sins or wrongdoings they may have committed and the teachers could offer their forgiveness and good wishes as is the tradition of the religious holiday. It was my first exposure to the holiday and the particular practices of my school and yet, in the very first nursery class where we started I was asked to speak first. I smiled at the room full of nursery children and expectant parents and said a few words wishing them good health and happiness. When I stopped speaking the nursery teacher clearly wanted me to say more but I had nothing else. I got better at my little speech as we moved from class to class adding words of forgiveness and elaborating on all the good things I wished for them.

It was a special day for the children to get to come to school dressed in colorful traditional Myanmar clothes instead of their customary red school uniform. Even the children who aren’t Buddhist or Myanmar dressed up. I didn’t have a traditional outfit made so I wore one of my skirts made out of traditional cloth.

After the asking for and receiving of forgiveness, the children present their teachers with gifts. As a specialist I have 175 students and I received so many bags of gifts I couldn't possible carry them all. Two of the women who clean our school noticed me staring at all the bags and saw that I needed help. They kindly offered to carry my bags to the street where I could catch a taxi home. Gifts of cookies, coffee, towels, blankets and yards of beautiful fabric. This pre-holiday ceremony was the first time I was able to engage with some of the parents of my students. It made the day a lovely send off to the much needed break.

As I wrote in my previous post we spent the week relaxing on the beach. I booked the trip knowing full well I would be exhausted by that point. Little did I know what was coming after the break would be the most taxing part of the semester!

The Wednesday before our week off, my principal said I needed to start thinking about “costumes” for my classes for the Holiday Program. Every year (since the school opened in 2009 I presume) the music teacher has hired a tailor to make unique costumes for all the children to perform in on stage  during the big holiday program. I wasn’t quite sure just what this holiday program was so I did some searching and found a video of the 2014 program. In the US there is usually a band concert or choir concert for the upper grades. Younger children generally sing songs and play simple patterns on percussion instruments. What I mostly saw on the video was class after class doing some rehearsed movements to pop music and in some cases lip-syncing too. Some classes had quite elaborate costumes. I knew before watching the video that I wanted my classes to sing and for the older grades to play percussion instruments to accompany themselves. But after watching the video I realized that people would not be expecting this and might not welcome the change that I would bring to the program. But I was really proud of the music skills I was teaching my students. They love to sing and can sing well, in tune and in unison. They enjoy playing instruments even more and love every opportunity I give them to try each new instrument I introduce. I really wanted to share all this with their parents. To instead teach them dance moves to some professional recording artist’s song, seemed to deprive my students of the opportunity to share their own musical skills.

So I decided to stick with my original concept of a concert for my portion of the holiday program. All my classes would sing songs. So the music was decided but I still had to figure out the “costumes”. The Holiday Program was scheduled for December 4 which meant when I returned from the break I would have basically 1 month to get custom made clothes for 175 children! When I asked my tailor over the summer to make my skirts, she took a week to make 4! I was in a panic. How in the world could I get all these tailor-made clothes made in time??? I didn’t even have a pattern to work from yet!

Stephen suggested I just have choir robes made. Fit wouldn’t matter so much, so in theory sewing could be faster. So I tried that idea. I found a few pictures of choir robes online. I measured my students and took photos of a few. With the drawing tool in my photo editing program I drew a crude drawing of a robe onto the photo of one of the boys. And I took all of these things to my tailor.

Complete disaster. She just kept shaking her head. Remember, she speaks very little English and I speak no Myanmar language. As best as I could understand, she had never seen a choir robe and had no idea how to make one, particularly not from pictures and without an actual garment to work from.

My principal told me to ask some of the homeroom teachers about the tailors they had used in the past. The Holiday Program is a major production and major showpiece for the school. It happens at a big hotel owned by the owner of our school. Fancy lighting and sound systems are brought in. Dinner is provided for everyone—all 650 students and their relatives, all teachers and assistant teachers. It lasts for hours. And it’s done every single year! You would think, at least I did, that the school would have found a lead tailor for this yearly project. But when I asked, the response was, “No, I don’t have a tailor.” and  “No, I don’t know a tailor.” or worse "Last year's tailor really messed up the costumes." So I decided to use my tailor and ask the assistant teachers in my building to help translate for me.

The robe idea was out. So I went to Ocean market and looked at the children’s clothes. I found a sweet little princess dress, a pair of boys short pants, and a shirt. Now I had actual garments, I just needed to get the right colors of fabric and then get measurements for all the students. Just that! Good golly!!!

Finally my tailor Oh Ma came to my school and some of the assistant teachers started helping me explain what I wanted her to do for me. Think about how hard communication is when people speak the same language! Now add to that that I was feeling the intense time crunch we were under! Many of the questions I needed answers to and instructions I needed to give Oh Ma were lost in translation. But the major message was successfully communicated that I needed Oh Ma to be the lead tailor for my project and find tailors to help share the load of work. Also that I had wanted to use the same basic pattern for the clothes, but that I needed a unique color scheme for each of my 10 classes. There wasn’t time enough to find 10 unique patterns so I wanted the colors alone to meet the criteria my principal gave me of something different for every single class.

Oh Ma left that first meeting with the job of finding tailors to help her and she needed to get back to me as soon as possible with whether or not she could do what I was asking in the time frame we had to work with.

She did get back to me quickly with the answer that yes she could get everything done, but the soonest was December 10. By this point, my principal was working to get the program changed to a later date. But it had not been finalized. I decided I needed to find more tailors if I could, just in case the program could not be switched to the later date.  With the assistance of one of the homeroom teachers, I found one more tailor. The manager of this tailor department was wonderful to work with. Because she was fluent in English, I could easily explain to her exactly what I envisioned. She also had a wonderful eye for detail and added things I wanted for the clothes that I just could not communicate to Oh Ma with the language barrier. Sadly this new tailor department could only handle one class. But at least it was one class less for Oh Ma.

Amazingly, Oh Ma delivered. Though everything was not perfect (fit could have been better, color choices could have been different, etc.), all the children had color coordinated clothes to wear on stage. And she even made the December 4 deadline! I demanded a lot from her but I gave her a big job and I think she came out financially better off for it. There were a number of misunderstandings and mistakes made that had to be corrected, and frustrations were high on both our parts. But I hope in the end she benefitted at least as much as I did from our work relationship.

The costumes project took a huge chunk of time out of my weeks: not just my prep time but also after school and during the classes with my students. Class time that should have been spent practicing music. Originally, my principal said that I needed one song for each class. That’s what I had planned and practice for. But when he learned that the songs my students were singing were only 1 minute songs and not the 3 minute songs of the pop type that they have danced to in the past, he said I need 2 songs for each class.

My students are young, the oldest classes are 6-year-olds. And add to that they are ALL English language learners. They need more time to fully learn the lyrics of new songs. Some of the classes had been working on their songs for months. Now I had to add new songs to each class and we had 3 weeks to learn them. When the program date was changed, I saw a much needed opportunity to focus on the music side of the program. Finally the presentation side was in hand. It was necessary, but for me the most important part was the music. So I made CDs of each class’s songs and typed out the lyrics, gave these to the homeroom teachers and asked them if they wouldn’t mind taking a few minutes of their day to quickly run through the songs. I used music with the lyrics to support reading skills when I had my own homeroom classes, so I thought this would not only be a help for me but could be added to the homeroom teachers’ reading lessons.

The final week of school was almost all about the Holiday program. Monday was rehearsal in the assembly hall at the school. Tuesday was rehearsal at the hotel. Wednesday was a half day with the Holiday Program commencing at 3pm. For the entire week I ran on adrenaline. By 3 pm on Wednesday afternoon I was calm and ready. I had never worked so hard to prepare for a production. And in the end I did it. All the details came together. My kids looked great and there were some authentic musical moments. My nursery and KG classes sang songs and did movements that either supported the lyrics or some musical aspect of the songs. My Y1 and Y2 students sang songs with hand motions too. But every class sang at least one sang where they also played an instrumental accompaniment. I used all the percussion instruments I had in my classroom (drums, guiros, claves, shakers, ring bells, and castanets) plus a set of bells I bought in Singapore in early November when I realized I was not going to get the hand bells I had ordered from the school. I managed to do what I set out to do despite many hurdles.

So here are the photos from my program, thanks to my Kiwi friend and fellow teacher, Kimberly.

Friday, January 1, 2016

Stephen's recent work & travels

Stephen and I have just returned from a two week holiday in Singapore. With its efficient mass transit, beautiful gardens, wonderfully air-conditioned, quiet hotel rooms, and less than 3-hour flight from Yangon, Singapore makes for a lovely retreat city for us.

This trip was primarily about rest and rejuvenation. Stephen took walks and bike rides along the coast line and in gardens. Finding good spaces to get exercise in Yangon is a challenge. I bought some new art materials and did a few sketches and journaled but mostly I just rested.

I had minor surgery at the beginning of the trip which means I was healing for the remainder. I developed a cough during the final two weeks of my school semester that I spent the whole following two weeks trying to recover from and am still not well despite two courses of antibiotics! So resting was about all I could manage.

When last I published, I had just started my new job at MIS. Since then I’ve been busier than I’ve ever been and had neither the time nor the energy to write a decent post. (I've spent over 8 hours writing this one!) Stephen has been busy with his job too. We’ve done a lot. So now, somewhat rested with some extra time and no work commitments, I will touch on a some highlights from these last few months.

Stephen has traveled for work a lot in this year. In July he flew to New Delhi, India where he attended a conference for NCDs at the regional office for the World Health Organization (WHO). During one of the meeting days, Stephen facilitated his small breakaway group. Though some people questioned his style at the beginning, in the end he was able to generate a new health priority and a step wise plan that worked for all 7 health priorities. His contribution efficiently and satisfactorily wrapped up the meeting when all small groups came together to share their work. This prompted a number of people to seek him out after the meeting concluded to make contact for working together in the future or just to compare notes.

At the end of September, he traveled to Hue, Vietnam for a Greater Mekong Countries Regional Public Health Conference. Stephen met with program managers for projects similar to his from Bangladesh and Laos, plus the European Union (EU) monitor who overseas 8 such projects worldwide. Stephen was accompanied by a few of his staff. They commented at how clean and orderly Vietnam felt compared to their home, Yangon. They noticed the sidewalks and the streets. It was an opportunity to learn for all of them. About how other countries are doing things. Stephen said some of the other countries are doing sophisticated activities and that it would be good for his project to try to move in that direction.

During October Stephen went to Chiang Mai, Thailand for a training on social protection programs. Social Security in the US is an example of a social protection program. Stephen met people from all over the world. Some of the countries represent were: Yemen, Somaliland, Bangladesh, Timor-Leste, Kenya, Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Australia and Myanmar of course, with Stephen there. Stephen facilitated his group of 4 for a debate on a feeding program for children. He said it was in good fun and people enjoyed themselves. Outside the meetings Stephen talked with a number of different people and learned about what others are doing in many different countries around the world. Including the challenges they face. Like violence in Yemen has destroyed some social transfer programs and how they are trying to prevent further erosion of social benefits for people there. Or that Cape Town is actually safer than most places in South Africa.

In November, Stephen flew to the middle east to United Arab Emirates (UAE) where he attended the first global forum of NCD alliances. It was an invitation only event with 200 participants representing 48 countries. The forum was in Sharjah, one of the Emirates. To get to Sharjah, Stephen flew in and out of Dubai, another Emirate.

Dubai is the Vegas of the middle east. An over the top city in the desert.

Dubai has the tallest building in the world. It was featured in Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol.

Stephen brought back for me a number of treats containing dates and some Turkish Delight.

In December, Stephen flew to Geneva, Switzerland for a dialog meeting on NCDs at WHO headquarters. This meeting was focused on how civil society can work better together to address the enormous global burden of disease from NCDs. From Geneva he brought me chocolate. :)

In between all of this travel, Stephen has steadily and successfully managed his project and his staff, built partnership relationships, and influenced the direction of what will become national policy on NCDs. Just before we left for our holiday break, the EU monitor came to Yangon to do an evaluation of the project here, one of eight projects worldwide, as I mentioned above. Over the course of his 4-day visit he assessed the work Stephen has done and submitted a report stating that Stephen’s work has made this project one of the two best managed projects under his oversight.

I used to be able travel with Stephen. This year my job at MIS didn’t allow me to travel with him. But at the end of October I had a week break from school and we both took time off from work and had a holiday break on the beach in Langkawi, Malaysia. A new country for both of us.

Each way, we had a short layover in Kuala Lumpur and sat in what is now my favorite Starbucks in the world. :)

You can’t believe how popular Starbucks is in Asia! In both Bangkok, Thailand, and Singapore every Starbucks is full to the brim and finding an empty seat is nearly impossible. But in Kuala Lumpur, the coffee shop we found was expansive with few customers. Perfect. :)

Our beach holiday at The Danna was wonderful but it was the calm before the storm for me. In the next post I will write what my work has been like these past few months.