By Yanshu Li
Spring arrived a little late in Blacksburg, Virginia this year. It still felt chilly in April. Khaing came to the quiet town as a Humphrey Fellow, which is a U.S. fellowship for professionals who had no previous experience in the states.
Born is Khaing Thandar Nyunt, she now is a 37-year-old woman and a mother of a four-year-old daughter. She works for the central bank of Myanmar as an assistant director.
Her first name pronounced as /kai/. Short and handsome.
Besides studying English, fellow experience American life with their hosts around were tight schedules. The fellowship program also required all fellows to do volunteer work.
There was one woman, a 65-year old who lived by herself, who asked for help with her garden. The lady wanted a tidy garden, but she was too sick to get the job done.
There were too many small trees that appeared to be disturbing the woman. Khaing decided to cut off those trees first. She needed a chainsaw.
“It was my first time using a power tool,” Khaing says.
Thanks to a group effort with other volunteers, the small piece of land looked clean soon after.
The old lady was not pleased. “Oh.. I wanted some of the trees in my garden,” the lady asked. “Can you help me to move some back in?”
Khaing started to pick up some remaining complete trees and planted those back in the garden. The lady asked her to put in some fertilizer in the soil.
Some other fellows went up to fix the rooftop. Khaing went to remove the mold in the outside wall later. They all brought their food jars but had no time to eat.
After the work had completed, the lady looked at the outside of her house and said, “clean, clean, clean.”
“It was hard work,” Khaing says. “But I enjoyed it.”
Khaing observed a strong sense of community in Blacksburg, which she has not felt before in Myanmar. She became attracted to it and began volunteering in the community theater ‘Lyric.’
With 11 staff, the theater depends on the volunteers to take care of the rest of the work. Khaing’s main job was to sell popcorn and soda drinks during her 45-minute shift.
“At the end I can sell theater tickets as well,” she burst into laughter.
Khaing was born in a Buddhist family. Helping others as a kind action is praised in the religion. Volunteering is a kind act of aid, but Khaing felt it’s very different compared to her childhood experience of helping to build a pagoda. When she was around eight years old, her neighborhood came to help. She came to the pagoda construction site as well.
Buddhism is the predominant belief in Myanmar, there were a lot people coming to help build a pagoda.
“The help was more for the merit in the religion,” she says.
Like earning an extra credit if the practitioner helped with something related to the religion, it is to be believed that it will be rewarded after. They believe in karma.
“In Virginia, my volunteer was for other people, not for myself,” she says. “Because I saw there are people who really need help.”
The fellowship required each fellow perform 10 hours of volunteering during the four-month program. Khaing did 10 hours per month.
After 4 months studying language in Virginia, she transferred to Boston University to continue her program in finance.
Soon as she settled down, Khaing called her coordinator asking for a volunteering location in Boston.
A Father’s Girl
Khaing read books about Buddhism since she was a little girl. But the one book she calls the one that influenced her was a children’s book named Pollyanna.
Her father gave it to her when she was eight.
“For me, that book told me how to be,” Khaing says.
The way of being, as Khaing describes what she learned from the book, was that instead of complaining about or blaming for what have happened, for example, an accident caused a broken leg, the person should be thankful for the other intact leg.
“Always look at the good side,” Khaing says.
Khaing says this is also the way her father is. Her grandfather passed away when her father was seven. Lacking a male model in his life, her father tried hard to be a man he wanted to be – taking things in as it is; never complaining.
Her father was the youngest son. His older brothers bullied him because he was their step brother. After their father had died, the condition became worse.
Khaing’s father made it through those dark days, and now he is the affluent one in the family. He went back to help the brothers who need support, regardless of what happened before.
‘Do you remember about Pollyanna?’, her father would say this to her when Khaing blamed others for something.
Twist and Turns
Khaing’s father joined the military because the family couldn’t afford him to go to college. He didn’t want the same thing to happen to his daughter. He supported Khaing’s education all the way, and the family was excited when she was admitted to Yangon University of Economics in 1996.
As a freshman in college, Khaing was the other student busy and focused on their majors, although it only lasted for three months.
In October, the university was closed due to public roit. People, including students, were protesting for ending the military government. It escalated and finally caused the shutdown of all universities across Myanmar.
Khaing was forced to quit school.
“Go learn something,” her father said. “My friend told me there’s an accountant training program, go learn accounting.”
Her father didn’t want her time to be wasted, or worse – her falling in love with someone when she was only 19 years old.
During the first two years of education recess, Khaing distracted herself from being depressed and bored by learning Chinese and English. Her mother taught her how to embroider. She even learned how to be a pilot with simulation machine.
But the scattered system didn’t satisfy her aspiration, Khaing took her father’s suggestion and signed up as the accounting trainee.
In 2000, Khaing earned her diploma of accounting at a professional level. It was not a bachelor degree, which was supposed to be hers if the universities weren’t shut down. For the university system, she was still a freshman.
The universities were re-opened at the same year.
Before she came back to school, she was employed by a private company for her accounting skills. Seven months later, she quit.
“There were mostly men in the company. They smoked, and drank a lot in business dinners, and one manager started approaching me,” she says. “I decided to quit.”
She went back to the university as a sophomore, and changed her major to accounting. Three years later, Khaing passed the academic test and was awarded a bachelor degree in commerce.
To be a real professional in accounting in Myanmar, she needed to be a certified public accountant. It took her three more years of studying to be qualified.
No pain, no gain. In 2005, she was chosen for a position in the banking system among 600 applicants, along with other five candidates.
“I was also looking to get a master’s degree, but the policy changed, so I decided to apply for a government job,” she says.
For her expertise in accounting, her supervisor in the bank recommended her a scholarship for a masters degree in public policy, which was funded by The Asian Development Bank.
She went to Grips University in Tokyo, a renowned college for the major, and studied with fellows from different countries.
Studying in Japan was her first time living abroad. She took her Burmese way of thinking with her – when good things and unfair things happened she would think everything was fine.
“It’s because of my karma.” she would think.
Unlike Khaing, the students from other countries would argue and debate reasonably about what they saw that was not good enough in their eyes. The dynamics in class informed her that the blaming and complaining is not always bad.
“I should not be very aggressive, but I should know what is right and what is wrong,” she says.
One year later she finally received the master’s degree. She came back to Myanmar and was promoted to work in the central bank.
Now when she criticize the changes in Myanmar, her father gets surprised, his daughter has changed as well.
“You can see my life; there are cause and effect, cause and effect. I can not control; only I did my best,” Khaing says. “Life shapes as it likes.”
In her room, except a twin size bed, a desk,
and a two seat couch, there is a small Buddhist altar at the corner. She put a thumb-sized Buddha statue on the altar.
Sitting on the couch, legs crossing in a relaxed posture, she heard the sound of steaming in the kitchen. It’s white rice in her pot.
Winter has come to Boston. Khaing still walks from school to her apartment in the three-kilometer route.
“It’s cold tonight. There is the white steam,” Khaing says, breathing into the air as it condensed. “I like it.”