Post : Several years ago
Updated : August 5, 2019
Hello Ko Hla Min:
It was a pleasure to read the message of good wishes to all RIT members sent by Bhikku Ashin Pannagavesaka (Bobby Myo Tun, A69).
I’ve just finished dashing off a note of greetings to him, and was reminiscing on those days when the reverend, along with Roland, Saluja, George, etc., used to hang out with the teaching staff of the RIT English Department. I believe that he also either won or came in runners-up in the RIT Students’ Scrabble Championship. Those were the days …
Re: your recent kind reference to my book, forgive me for wanting to elaborate a bit more. The book was designed to expressly represent more than just an abridged reference list of judiciously sourced contemporary words and terms regularly employed by the educated native speaker of English in his daily communication. Through its carefully crafted examples drawn from politics, history, economics, and the sciences and arts, the intention is to expose the discerning reader, notably the non-native speaker, to varied issues of topical interests that will further supplement his attempts to enhance his acculturation process through language learning. As it currently stands, it is my hope that this book will comprehensively serve all language learners at the advanced level, particularly those hoping to “level their language playing field” in an English speaking environment (see www.eslspecialist.net for additional information.)
My introduction to teaching at RIT began as a team member of the English Department. Besides Daw Yin Yin Mya (Head of the English and known to us as Terry), and Daw Sheila Saing (Asst. Head), there were 10 tutors including myself. In his own inimitable and affectionate way, Saya U Khin, also one of the new tutors, decided to spice up our group by giving us nicknames. I’m sure my former colleagues will forgive me for revealing these juicy tidbits as this generous gesture of U Khin’s served to bind and give our departmental community a semblance of togetherness.
Daw Yin Yin Mya was complimented with the name Shwe Man Mé (in honor of her previous beauty pageant title of Miss Rangoon). I wouldn’t want to reveal Daw Sheila Saing’s. Despite its not being slanderous or derogatory, it was a typical humorous expression of what we Burmese immediately notice about anyone’s appearance. U Win Mra was known as Rakhine gyi, Saya Tony as Shan gyi (sadly gone, but he must be smiling down on us from his abode of eternal rest), Sayama Toni as Byaing ma gyi, Sayama Muriel – a name I don’t recall, but which I think reflected her sweet innocence and being the object of Saya U Khin’s “secret” admiration, Sayama Khin Saw Tint, ungallantly nicknamed Ahnaik té gyi, and Sayama Charity who was inexplicably called Shwe nga.
For some strange reason, U Khin spared me, perhaps out of intimidation or deference for my scrabble prowess, as he often challenged but rarely ever beat me in games involving money bets. Both Saya Joe Ba Maung, and Saya Kyaw Lwin Hla, easy targets, were also excepted by U Khin, perhaps to portray a side of his that reminded him of having some good social graces. These intimate nicknames, characteristic of us Burmese helped with the bonding process more closely, and nobody took offense at their liberal use. It certainly seemed that despite our different ethnic backgrounds, we enjoyed a far greater measure of coexistence, cooperation, and friendship in our department than the Burmese government of the day did, in their efforts to co-opt and mold the various ethnic groups of the country into a unified whole.
Those were halcyon days for us at RIT, teaching classes of 20 to 25 respectful and committed students, who basically went along with what we decided was appropriate to teach, and in the manner we decided was best for them to learn. Saya U Khin and I usually had Sayama Terry’s ear, so to speak, and we got to make considerable input into the curriculum and test instruments. At exam time, I was given the duty of conducting the Listening tests over a loudspeaker system across a few wooden framed classrooms (not unlike large zayats), likely due to my previous stint as a radio entertainer with the BBS.
I got to love my work and I became very attached to the students. In particular, I remember one student. In my classes, he was almost habitually slouched over his desk in the last row of the class, seemingly half asleep on one bent elbow with glasses barely supported on his nose, and seldom looking up or towards the front of the classroom. His seeming indifference belied a very active, bright, and absorbing mind, one which on facing a problem or engaging in conversation requiring close concentration manifested its ability to ably comprehend sophisticated concepts or language use. Usually indulging in his pastime of doodling, I’m sure he was immersed in daydreams of one day becoming an editor of a successful newspaper or a widely popular and eagerly-read newsletter.
When I wasn’t teaching, I was either playing scrabble with Saya U Khin, Roland Thein, Sayama Anne, or Bobby Myo Tun, now respectfully addressed as Bhikku Pannagavesaka, who undoubtedly must now be spending some time apart from his meditation in his monastery in Mawlamyine to reminisce on some of the earthly pleasures RIT once had to offer.
Our teaching staff was a friendly bunch. We had a regular stream of students, and some members of other departments visiting with us either to exchange pleasantries or to “check out the scenery” from our vantage point on the 3rd floor. Regulars such as Roland Thein and the Rev. Bobby Myo Tun (no disrespect intended), were often joined by Johnny Hla Min, Kenny Wong, Robert Win Boh, La La, George Tun Pe, D.S. Saluja, Toby Kittim Ku, Zaw Min Nawaday, Walter Tan, Gregory Win Htut, Reggie Kyaw Nyunt, etc., and their delightful female counterparts viz., Christine Phyu Phyu Latt, Emma Myint (later an RIT sayama), and Pamela Myo Min (now Head of Architecture) etc.,. Others, one year junior were Merrylin Smith (now Mrs. Zaw Mon with a very successful career in the US government’s EPA), Than Than Yi (at whose house I played tennis a few doors from Daw Aung San Su Kyi’s residence on University Avenue), Amy Lei Lei Myaing (Tex), Rosie Gyi, Annie (?), and Merlin Vaz, etc., Many of these students not only strolled into our “English Corner”, but unstintingly gave of their time to help me set up the RIT scrabble group, which later even involved the participation of Sayagyis Dr. Aung Gyi, U Min Wun, and perhaps Saya Bilal Raschid in competition games in the institute. The students’ help also extended to organizing the department’s debates and carol singing at Christmas time – an interesting seasonal Christian celebratory event, where racism and religious discrimination played no part in the thinking of our community. We were just happy to be one, and to do things and enjoy each other’s company in whatever manner we could, all in true Burmese fashion.
On other fronts, I thoroughly enjoyed socializing and cultivating friendships with faculty members from other departments. Saya U Sein Shan (Math) was a consistently friendly and jovial presence, as were Saya U Maung Maung Win (Mech) with his flashing smile worthy of any CNN news anchor, Saya Maurice Kyaw Zaw, and Saya U Soe Paing, whom I called “the involver and the motivator”. I had frequent stimulating conversations with Sayas Christopher, U Thein Dan, and U Allen Htay of the Civil department. And of course, I was not only very friendly with Saya Bilal Rachid of the Architecture Dept., but was, and will always continue to be deeply grateful to him for helping me get my Canadian visa. He did much to introduce me to the international diplomatic circuit where the foreign ambassadors often engaged in discussing topical issues, a pastime close to my heart. We now keep in close contact by email, and I plan to visit him
and others in the Washington [D.C.] area in the near future.
In the same way that I had learned to smoke from some RIT seniors in 1959, I also learned to drink from socializing and playing tennis with the Russian Architectural and Mining lecturers. Interestingly, Viktor, the head of the Russian group took me aside when I went on my rounds to wish my various colleagues “Good-bye”, and asked if I would mind keeping in touch with him as he wanted to immigrate to Canada. When asked, “Why Canada?” his answer was a simple, “They have excellent fishing there!”
Despite my very cordial relations with Sayagyi U Yone Moe through my occasional visits to his office, there was one person in the administration who seemed to consider me anathema to the institution, with no apparent justifiable reason. Whenever I happened to see U Soe Thein the Registrar, which was practically everyday, he would always stare or glare at me with thinly disguised feelings of dislike. I know I’m fast forwarding a bit here, but I’d like to narrate an interesting and illuminating anecdote that happened towards the end of my teaching career at RIT.
One day, a brilliant student of mine – who shall remain anonymous, returned from the government’s annual Lu Ye Chun summer camp for outstanding achievers. At the usual meeting of students, faculty and administration in the RIT Assembly Hall, instead of going along meekly with the official policy line of praising the program to the skies, and using the occasion to encourage other students to strive for higher ideals within the government’s philosophical purview, he delivered a critical unflattering message labeling the program as nothing less than an attempt to indoctrinate the students with questionable socialist ideals! We sat in stunned silence, not for one moment expecting such a tirade. I never quite got around to asking him what chastisement was meted out to him, but within an hour of his outburst, I was “requested” to see U Soe Thein in his office. There, I was pointedly accused of imbuing this student of mine with harmful western liberal thinking that was detrimental to the Burmese Way to Socialism. Despite my protests to the contrary, I was roundly castigated on the grounds that I was a natural suspect due to my westernized manner of dressing, my behaviour, and outlook. Well, so much for U Soe Thein – himself a suspected front man for the party, and his heavy-handed attitude. There was no love lost between us, but I very sadly had to conclude that after this, my first experience of discrimination in my life, and a few other misgivings about the systemic failure I was witnessing, including the plight of the working class people at large, I would sooner or later have to leave the land of my birth, as it was becoming extremely constricting and taxing for me to exist in such a stifling political system. I have since moved on, preferring to relegate the “U Soe Thein fiasco” to a footnote in my teaching career at RIT.
And as for my student? I was left with an absolute sense of admiration for this young, conscientious, and courageous person who had had enough gumption to speak truth to power!
I need to linger awhile and talk a bit about some delightful and noteworthy events and persons. On the lighter side, I couldn’t help but chortle at Ko Ohn Khine’s and Ko Zaw Min’s reference to their pastime of ogling the your lady-students passing by the canteen on their way to G Hall at the lunch breaks and after classes. Let it be known that Sayas Tony, U Khin, U Kyaw Lwin Hla and myself, no strangers to the female attractions of either the sayamas or the students, would lunch almost daily in the canteen seeking out the fringe benefits attached to our jobs, and to having lunch in that ideally situated viewpoint location. Sayas Joe Ba Maung and U Win Mra graced these occasions with their presence from time to time, and while waiting for our htamin net hin or si kyet khauk swe, we always amused ourselves watching Saya Kyaw Lwin Hla go through his ritual of asking for hot water to wash his plate, spoon and fork before eating. His explanation was that his 5 years of living in Australia (his father had been Burma’s ambassador to Australia) had more or less robbed him of his immunity to gastrointestinal bacterial attacks, and he feared developing ailments resulting from his use of non-sterilized utensils. We laughed then, but I later understood his apprehension after my son fell sick from the same kind of problem in Mandalay during our trip to Burma in 2007.
Our wait for the food was well worth it though, especially as we could enjoy the spectacle of watching Saya U Khin “wolfing down” 3 to 4 helpings of Si Kyet Khauk Swe in double quick time. Given his slim build, I could never figure out where he stored all the food that he ate.
During these waits, we also utilized our time well by discreetly “monitoring” the flow of traffic to and from G Hall, the ladies’ residence. It was our way of recharging our energy and relaxing our minds before returning to the heavy duty of teaching Reading, Writing, and Speaking. This practice of traffic observation got to be quite addictive, for when I played soccer on the sayas’ team, I’m sure while Sayas U Maung Maung Win, U Soe Paing, and the rest of the team were practically dripping ‘blood, sweat and tears’ in their effort to get a win, I was nonchalantly content to “play for the pleasure of the game” (read) the cheers and applause coming from G Hall, which overlooked the football field. Life, you understand, requires a balance in all things.
U Win Mra
On a more serious note, Saya U Win Mra and I, from early on, were earnestly determined to make something of our lives by eventually serving in the Burmese Foreign Service. I was, at that time, reasonably steeped in the knowledge of politics, history, and economics, and as he was a product of a career service family with a father enjoying the position of Secretary to the Prime Minister, it was quite natural that we would find common ground in purpose, and a meeting of the minds. Our RIT discussion and debate locale was Ma Tin Aye’s shop just outside the RIT premises, where we would spend a great deal of time over dinner discussing world affairs, historic events, and foreign policy of the more powerful countries in the world. My younger friend (Mra) flattered me by according me the position of mentor, as we prepared ourselves for the forthcoming FS exams. To trim this story, as the day of the exams approached, I discovered some disturbing trends in my thinking. Something had not been sitting well with me and had been bothering me for some time. I agonized over this unknown factor for about 10 days before the exams. As the exams drew nearer, I slowly realized that I was not sure I wanted to take the them, or to join the Foreign Service. I was slowly becoming convinced that I could not serve a calling in which I had lost my faith in the system, and my ability to give of myself 100%. After more soul-searching, I told Saya Win Mra that I wasn’t going to go through with our plan, and that I was seriously making up my mind to leave the country. To his credit, he stayed the course, disciplinarian that he is, exercising far more determination and an unshakeable grip on his dream, for which I’ve complimented him over the years.
With my major decision out of the way, Saya Win Mra and I decided it would be a good idea to make a final journey to Pagan for posterity. We prepared ourselves well for the trip, reading up on all we could about this historic abode of early Burmese royalty. We decided to backpack our way through this emotional journey to make it more meaningful, which would not only cement our close friendship, but tie us more closely in spirit to the land of our mother country. We tramped around on foot for miles, taking in all the major historical sites, and shared information and knowledge about each edifice over our evening meals. These discussions continued after our evening bath in the Irrawaddy and our preparation for our night’s rest, which often took the form of spending the night in any one of the neglected and untended pagodas. The spectacular sunsets and the cool quiet dawns were surreal and created an unforgettable canvas in which these memorable events have been indelibly etched for us. My trip to Pagan in 2007 brought mist to my eyes, and that wasn’t just because of Mother Nature’s cool mornings and evenings. It would have been difficult to remain unemotional on seeing the shimmering rays of a setting sun on the mighty Irrawaddy. I’ve often asked myself if it has been worth leaving my homeland, and I don’t doubt that every Burmese expat living in foreign lands is constantly reminded of the price he has had to pay in giving up his country on principle.
Well, where are all my English Department colleagues now?
In 2000, my family and were invited to visit and spend time with Saya U Win Mra and his wife in the Burmese Embassy in Westchester, New York. After 30 long years, I was delighted to see my closest friend who was then Burma’s Ambassador or Permanent Representative to the United Nations. They welcomed us joyously, and the first words U Win Mra uttered were: “If it hadn’t been for you, I wouldn’t be here today”. I took this as a compliment, not knowing if there was a downside to this comment. We spent time going over our memorable moments over traditional Burmese dinners and complemented by one of my favorite Bordeaux French red wines – Saint Emilion! During my stay, I must’ve depleted the embassy’s stock considerably, as this happened to be my favorite week-end dinner Merlot. We chatted about how he had risen in the Foreign Service ranks, and in which countries he had served as ambassador. I had occasion to read some of his speeches, but I could find no grammar errors as they had all been impeccably written. This memorable trip culminated in lunch at the UN, where he introduced me to a few other foreign emissaries. Our meeting up in Rangoon in 2007 was no less momentous, with dinner at his residence, followed by a jam session of playing and singing some of our favs of times gone by when we did the BBS and Rangoon nightclub circuit. After a good stint at the Foreign Ministry as Director General, U Win Mra is currently heading Burma’s Human Rights Commission as its new Chairman. Much water it seems, has flowed under the bridge.
Sayama Muriel is happily married to a Mr. Rivers, and teaches English in Cheng Mai, Thailand.
Saya U Khin left Burma after being transferred to Mandalay University, and is now engaged in freelance work as a legal consultant in Taipei, Taiwan. He’s still a bachelor, and for the rest, you can fill in the blanks.
Saya Joe Ba Maung is retired, having left RIT while I was still there, to work for the Burma Railways. He married his ever loyal lady love Nyi Ma Lay, and looked a healthy, happy man in 2007.
Sayama Toni, unfortunately lost her husband – Burma’s ambassador to S. Korea early in the last decade, and returned to Burma, where she teaches, along with her daughter Aye Aye – U Win Mra’s daughter-in-law, at a private school in Rangoon. She is still very attractive and has the same walking or gliding gait that one usually associates with a model – or a very graceful bird.
Sayama Daw Khin Saw Tint was widowed some years ago, and lives in retirement in Rangoon. All my attempts to see her in 2007 failed, but I still hope to see her one day.
Saya U Kyaw Lwin Hla, who made most of my entertainment arrangements, and arm-twisted my friends to attend my brunch at Traders in Rangoon in 2007, is well and working as a Director for the Myanmar Investment Bank (name ?) on Merchant Street in Rangoon. He also took me and my family to a sumptuous Thai dinner at a restaurant on the Royal Lakes. His previous work at the UN has not only enhanced his resumé but also showcases his smooth interactive skills with people.
Since 1967, I have lived a successful life in Canada, one beyond my expectations, and one that has brought me recognition by the Canadian government, industry, and the field of education for my contributions to specialized language training for professionals. For all my flashy style of dressing and high aspirations, I’ve never been materialistic, my main priorities in life now being the welfare and safety of my wife and son, closely followed by a tantalizing glass of red wine and stimulating conversation. Writing my book was very rewarding, and took the better part of my last 2 years. May yet author a few more, time permitting.
I did not come out to the west for educational or financial reasons, but along the way, I‘ve improved on my earlier status in Burma. Freedom to think as I desire, and to act as my mind dictates, were primary motivating factors in my decision to leave Burma, and I am strongly convinced that my years of study at St. Peter’s, Mandalay U., RASU, and RIT contributed immeasurably to molding me and giving me direction to succeed in life.
In my quiet moments of reflection though, my heart always returns to the fun-filled halls of RIT, echoing the sound of familiar voices, and the other moments I drift back to the hot, humid, and dusty streets of Mandalay, where I got my first beginning in life. For this anyatha, that’s where home is, and always was ever since my first ancestor from England set foot on Burmese soil in 1825, and married a fair Burmese maiden, an event repeated by my maternal Portuguese ancestors,
ultimately planting roots in the upper Burma regions favored by Burma’s mightiest kings. I may never see my homeland again, but the memories and feelings can never be erased. In closing, let me give you my slightly modified version of what some writer once said:
“You can take the man out of the country (taing pyi), but you can’t take the country out of the man.”
Thank you all for sharing these nostalgic moments with me, and for having played a crucial role in helping give me a more rounded identity that has made me proud to be called an RIT alumni, and a Burmese national. I’d like to wish each and every Saya, Sayama, my former students, and alumni my very best in your quest for a long, happy, healthy, and successful life, wherever and however you have chosen to follow your star.
May Burma and RIT rise again to recapture their true glory!
Editor’s notes (2019) :
Saya Des and Saya U Khin won several Scrabble Championships held at the Guardian and/or YMCA premises. At that time, the sayas’ desks have Chambers’ Dictionary and Jone’s Pronouncing Dictionary [the then] de facto references to settle the “challenges” (especially for seven-letter “bonus” words).
Received New Year’s greetings from Saya U Khin a few years back. Hope Saya can share his experience as well.
Saya “Tony” Sao Kan Gyi’s pen name was Khemarat. Saya passed away.
Saya Joe Ba Maung was national tennis champion in singles and doubles. He was succeeded as singles champion by his doubles partner U Than Lwin. Saya is GBNF.
Saya U Win Mra was national pole vault champion and the winner [or runner-up] of the “Elvis Presley songs” contest. He was Ambassador to the UN. He is Chair of the Myanmar Human Rights Commission.
Saya U Kyaw Lwin Hla was a staff member of UNDP. He was succeeded by his brother U Kyaw Zin Hla.
Saya Des’s son is a physical trainer.
Sayama Naw Charity retired as Professor/Head of RIT English department. I met her in SPZP-2012.
Sayama Toni is a cousin of Ko Thet Tun (Henry, M75, Sydney, Australia). She has two grand children. She hosts Scrabble meetings.
Sayama Muriel’s spouse is Saya U Aung (U Nge, Mr. Alphonso Rivers). Met them when they visited Saya U Tin Maung Nyunt in Milpitas, California, USA.
Sayagyi U Min Wun put the seating plan for his Surveying class using reverse order. So, as Roll Number One, I had to sit at the last row to find out that I cannot read the blackboard. That’s how I became “Four Eyes”.
Khin Maung Win (Roland) was an excellent debater and scrabble player.
Dave Singh Saluja, son of entrepreneur Teja Singh, co-founded “Rama Enterprise” in Bangkok, Thailand with his elder brother (an alumnus of Massachusetts Institute of Technology).