Thursday, February 19, 2009

Wa Kyi

After rough days at school, which seem to occur more and more often recently, few things redeem my faith in humanity like an English lesson with Wa Kyi. Every Tuesday and Thursday after work, I hop on my bike and make my way to her house for an unfailingly entertaining tutoring session.

Wa do I describe her? I only have little bits of information myself, given that our communication is entirely based on gestures, facial expressions, and what English I've taught her over the past four months. I'll let her introduce herself with the questions and answers we've practiced.

What's your name?
My name is Wa Kyi.

Where are you from?
I'm from Burma.

What language do you speak?
I speak Karen.

Do you speak English?
A little bit.

How old are you?
I'm 64 years old.

Where do you live?
I live in Denver.

I was connected with Wa Kyi through the Colorado Refugee ESL (CRESL) program, which I found while I was still in Cambodia and looking for Denver jobs. In addition to offering regular ESL courses for refugees in Denver, CRESL sets up in-home one-on-one tutoring for women who can't attend the classes. That's how I came to know Wa Kyi.

Like I said, our communication is rather limited, but this woman has an incredible story. She grew up as a farmer in Burma, never went to school, and never learned to read or write in Karen, her native language. She lost her parents, husband, son, and daughter in the conflict between the Burmese military and various ethnic groups. She finally fled to a refugee camp across the border in Thailand, where she lived for at least one decade, maybe several, before having the luck to be chosen for relocation in North America.

She's been here in Denver for several years now, and is living with another Karen refugee family, who are all wonderful people with unbelievable and unbelievably heartwrenching stories of their own. In spite of everything she's been through, Wa Kyi is a beautifully feisty, spirited old woman. She's never gone to school, but every day as I leave, I hear her singing her new vocabulary out loud as she hobbles around the house: "Shirt, pants, skirt, underwear! Shirt, pants, skirt, underwear!" Sometime she'll answer the phone in the middle of her monologue, picking up the receiver saying, "...skirt, underwear! Hallo?"

It's rough going, this learning English business. When teaching English to people whose language I don't speak, I depend on "universal" symbols and materials like clocks, calendars, and numbers. But what do you do when you realize that a clock means absolutely nothing to a woman who's spent her whole life in rice paddies and refugee camps? How do you explain the concept of schedules, of appointments, of time? That when a short stick points to the number nine, it means nine, but when a long stick points to it, it means 45? That four round pieces of metal are the same as one green piece of paper? The difference in pronunciation between "80" and "18," "put on" and "put down," "shirt," "skirt," and "shorts?" Why "a" is pronounced "uh?" The change in meaning between "sister" and "daughter," between "woman" and "she?" The meaning of "it?"

We've had our share of frustrations, to be sure, but Wa Kyi is an amazingly good sport. She makes the most hilarious facial expressions, noises, and Karen-English sentences when she's trying to figure something out: "Ooooooohhhh...eeeeeeyaaaaa...I-dunno-la. Ta good ba, brain nih, ooheeeeee...", as she scrunches up her face until her eyes disappear and shakes her whole head.

Today, we were learning family words: mother, father, sister, brother, son, daughter. I told her that my family had five people. Then she told me about hers: "Father, die. Mother, die. Boy, die. Girl, die." She pointed to herself and held up one finger. "One. One go to America." Then she got up and walked to the kitchen. "Eat noodle." And she shuffled around the kitchen, making me noodle soup, singing her new vocabulary song of the day: "Mother, father, brother, sister. Father die, mother die. Die, die, die." Humming a happy tune. Bringing me noodles and cake and milk. "Eat. Good-good. A-wii." Delicious. And I come home with my hair smelling like fish sauce, reminding me of one more world that's come crashing into mine.

Friday, February 13, 2009

On a lighter note

It's been a rough week, I'm not going to lie, but now it's Friday and time to switch gears, so here are some little bits of humor from life at the middle school.

Upon discovering that I do not have a TV in my house and that I have seen next to none of the essential movies of the past decades, some of my teacher friends were giving me a hard time, and one of them said, "What, did you grow up, like, Mennonite or something?" I busted out laughing and said, "Yes, actually...Wait, did you know that?", thinking he did and was just making a joke. Then I saw his face get red as he said, "Oh. God. That's embarrassing."

In one of my 7th-grade math classes today, I was teaching one of my favorite students how to solve algebraic equations without resorting to the trial-and-error method. I showed him, "Look, you just reverse the operation, and poof, the number next to the variable disappears! Magic!" He just looked at me, rolled his eyes, and said, as if he were explaining to a small child, "Miss, that's not magic. That's math."

Also today, I got to help chaperone a group of students on a bowling excursion. The other adults and I got in on the fun and bowled as well. Before we started, one of the other teachers, without our knowledge, gave the guy at the desk goofy names for us all to put up on the scoreboard, names like "Z-Rocker," "Abinator" for Abby, and "E-tastic" for me. The rest of us, sitting at our lane, watched our names come up in their five-letter versions: "ROCKR," "ABINA," and then mine: "TSTIC." We nearly died. One of the English teachers told me she'll never be able to think of me as anything else. How am I supposed to go around applying for teaching jobs with a nickname like "Testicle?" I'm just praying none of the students ever find out.