Saturday, November 08, 2014

Getting my MA in Burma + my time in Philadelphia--from my memoir Let the Shit Fly

Doing my MA in Ecos. in Burma.

When I decided that I was going to get married, I walked into Saya Aye Hlaing's office one day and told him what I was going to do.
It was a bad time, in the way that in Burma it is always a bad time.
Scholarships to the West were being phased out, and there were only scholarships to the Eastern Bloc countries.
I can't now rightly remember which came first, but I think the scholarship that fell through must have come first.  Because I remember thinking, well, if I can't go overseas to study, I might as well get married.
There was a scholarship to LSE (London School of Economics).
Saya called me in one morning, looking more grumpy than usual.
He said, "There's this LSE thing, this girl, if she goes, she will just fail and come back.  I am going to try and switch her with you."
He could not do it, and she went and returned after failing the entrance exams.
To the marriage idea, Saya said nothing.
He just asked if I was going to continue my studies and continue working at the Dept.  I said Yes.
He said, "Do your MA."
I said, "I will do over 4 years."
He said, "Do it in 2."
I was lucky my MA supervisor Dr. Findlay was still in Burma.
My thesis was completed about the same time as my eldest child.
I gave Saya Findlay my ms., the footnotes written on 4 inch wide scraps of paper trimmed from the press in the basement of the building and tacked together with pins.
Dr. Findlay never complained, he read everything just the way it was.
By then he was already Research Prof.
When about 20 years later, after a stint in Poland and 2 more children, I got the chance finally to study in the United States,
Dr Aye Hlaing was already Chairman of the Union Bank.
Dr Khin Maung Nyunt was the Rector and U Than Nyun was head of the ecos. dept.
I needed a recommendation letter.
Dr. Maung Shein was in DC with the IMF.

I decided I would ask Dr AH.
I didn't know where he lived so I asked his former office asst Ko Kyaw Sein for his address, and I went there with my husband and a cotton longyi to kadaw te (pay respects to elders).

He said, "You know yourself best, just draft the letter and I will sign it."

So I wrote that I always carried through any project I started to the end, and it had always been my lifelong dream to study in a liberal university in the West.

At that point I did not know it was a Fulbright Scholarship, nor which university I was going to.

IIE (International Institute of Education) was still sending our application forms to various universities.

I was supposed to study Transportation Ecos, something worked out I found later by the Burmese education ministry and Fulbright.

So they were in the same mode they are in now, now this, now that, would be the end all and be all to cure all Burma's problems.

I had not idea then I would fall in love with Pol. Sci. while browsing around my carrel in Lippincott Library and checking out what other graduate students were reading.

In any case, that was the last time I saw Saya Aye Hlaing.

When Dr and Mrs Findlay emigrated overseas, I thought I would never see them again.  I didn't go and say goodbye, and I did not go to the airport.

But luck or chance is a strange thing.

I've seen them both several times over the three decades I have been in the USA.  Saya Findlay and Dr Silverstein came to the first Canadian Friends of Burma Conferences in Canada and Ottowa and both of them have been very supportive of the pro-democracy movement overseas.

In my worst time in 1994, when I was the walking wounded, I stayed one weekend with Saya and Ma Ma Jane, and they took me to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

I returned with some books, including a translation of the Chinese folk novel Monkey, and I wrote my book length poem, Shee Monkey goes West, in the margins of this book which I still have.

It would go on to be a Pew finalist script.

In 1982, I did not ask for placement at Columbia Univ. because I was afraid to live in NY City and indeed, in the month  after we arrived in Philadelphia, I read in the student newspaper that a dead body had been found in a rolled up carpet on the street near Columbia U.

What I did not know was that West Philadelphia was just as bad in terms of street crime as Harlem in NY.

Shortly after I arrived a homeless person by the name of Stanley S. Biddle, from one of the richest families of Philadelphia, froze to death in an alcove on campus.

The fourteen years I lived in Philadelphia, one Thanksgiving, a newly arrived student from India was murdered, maybe raped, in the building I lived in.  I was away visiting friends.

And there was also a suicide by self immolation of another person named Kathy Change--nee Chang.

She did it right in front of the Peace Symbol in front of Lippincott Library.

I remember seeing her a few days before, and wondering what she was going to do, now the weather was colder.

(to be continued)

Collage I made based on sketches as a music and visual art concert in Boulder, CO, c. 1998.  Copyright Kyi May Kaung