‘How many times you make your skin?’ She asks, smiling this dazzlingly wide and beautiful smile and pulling on her ponytail out of shyness. At first nobody would ask us questions. They just looked at us, smiling and whispering to each other as their teacher encouraged them, in Myanmar, to speak to us in English.
We had shuffled into the classroom in our bare feet and perched ourselves in front of the class next to a blank blackboard. The students sat in rows on the floor, cross legged, with low wooden benches infront of them for their work books.
Myanmar people look so small. At first I thought I was faced with children but as I began to focus on individual faces I realised they were much older. Young adults in fact, learning English to improve their job prospects.
I’m worried my Geordie accent will be indecipherable and loudly say ‘Hello, my name is Toni’, a sentence I would never say in England. The whole class mimics me in unison which freaks me out for a moment, but when I start to laugh they all join in.
I ask a girl in the front row, ‘what is your name?’ She’s seventeen perhaps, petite with beautiful hazel eyes and dressed in a traditional turquoise and gold longhi with matching blouse. She convulses with laughter, covering her face with her hair and trying to hide behind her friend. I worry she might suffocate on her own hysterics but eventually she gets it out and the whole class roars with laughter when I can’t pronounce it, even though I’m copying her like a parrot.
Some of the bolder students start asking questions. ‘What is your profession?’ One asks. In reality I’m very much unemployed. We left our jobs in order to travel but the concept of extended travel or leisure time is unheard of here so I fabricate and explain a little bit about my old job, the one I left behind. ‘What age are you?’ They ask and look horrified when I admit that I’m 28. They guess my boyfriend’s age, who is also 28 at 50 and again the whole class explodes in laughter. He tells them I’m older than him and they really get a kick out of that laughing their heads off and making comments I’m relieved I don’t understand.
The questions keep coming ‘What sports do you do?’ ‘What are your hobbies?’ ‘What languages do you speak?’ And, terrifyingly, ‘What are your future plans? I talk some rubbish about travelling for six months, finding a job in canada or getting a house in England. How do tell a group of students who are hanging on your every word that you have no job and no ‘future plans’ at all?
Their enthusiasm and the intensity of their attention on us makes me start to feel like a fraud. I’m worried I’m not using correct grammar or slipping in Geordie colloqiualisms they have no chance of understanding. I remember how I neglected to complete the online TEFL course I paid for out of sheer idleness and feel ashamed. Today is Sunday, these people go to school or university every day.
They’re obsessed with travel. Still trying to create simple conversations we ask ‘has anyone ever been to England?’ The whole class shake their heads. ‘What about somewhere else in Europe?’ No? India? China? Thailand? No ones been to Thailand? Just across the border? I realise after we’ve left what complete idiots we’ve been. Of course no one’s been abroad. This is Myanmar, a country ruled by a military dictatorship until 2011, and were talking to students from a village township on the outskirts of Yangon. They live in homes without running water or electricity. Even the English teacher has never left the country.
I leave feeling humbled. Humbled and privileged but positive too. Myanmar is changing rapidly and those students have got so many amazing things ahead of them.