I volunteer as advisor to the Burmese Club at the high school where I teach. Its members are students whose parents, grandparents, or other family members have come from Myanmar (formerly Burma). In some cases, the students themselves were born there, but have immigrated to the U.S. They are just one of dozens of different cultures that comprise the student-body of this San Francisco Bay Area school.
Taking on this role was a bit of a foray into the unknown. I had no idea what the club was about; my only contact with Burmese culture had been teaching two Burmese students in an after school High School Exit Exam preparation class. Many of the kids in that class were smart, interesting, and creative, their only handicap an incomplete knowledge of the English language.
The club’s advisor position had been vacated mid-year, and out of curiosity as much as compassion, I showed up every Wednesday at lunch. I sat there through a few awkward meetings where I felt out of place because I didn’t know the students, nor they, me. They were very self-directed, organizing their own events, and happy to communicate with one another without any need for the fly-on-the-wall advisor. Most of the club members are second-generation or later, and do not have a language barrier; in fact they are among the brightest and most accomplished students in the school. So I took the initiative to ask questions about what they were doing and how I could help. They were very polite, and did ask for certain kinds of help. I assisted them in fundraising through the school’s International Foods Day, a multicultural event where clubs sell foods representing their ethnicities, and everyone gets to try something different while supporting the clubs. We did two of these events during the semester.
The culminating event was the Thing Yan Water Festival, a traditional Burmese New Year’s festival celebrated in April. I didn’t know what to expect; all I knew was that the event itself lasted all day and involved food and entertainment. I reserved the facility (at our school district office) for a Friday afternoon & evening set-up/rehearsal, and an all-day Saturday event (11 hours). I had to buy some balloons and decorations, but otherwise just needed to be there to “supervise.”
I have never been so pleasantly surprised in my life. Once in the theater, the students went about decorating and holding the live music & dance rehearsals. One of the fathers is a sound engineer; he brought his sound mixing and amplifying equipment, played CDs and tested sound levels as the performers rehearsed. I could tell that over the years of putting on the festival, these kids had gotten the routine down. They worked very efficiently, enjoying each other’s company as they did so.
When the rehearsal ended, without any prompting from me, the kids all cleaned up, put away extra decorations, and swept the stage.
I showed up bright and early the morning of the festival. While the event would not really start until 3:00 p.m., we began setting up at 10:00 a.m., preparing the dining area for food vendors, and putting last-minute touches on the stage. At around 1:00, parents began to show up with big pots of home-cooked food. They set up at tables around the room, under signs written in beautifully round Burmese script.
At 3:00, people from the sizeable Burmese community began to show up. They bought their food tickets and lined up behind the tables for platefuls or takeout containers of delicious noodle dishes, spicy chicken, fish, broth, and vegetables. I tried some of the chicken and “rainbow rice,” but also made sure to get some samusas (slightly spicy, flaky triangular potato “pancakes”) and paluda (delicious sweet pink strawberry drink full of tapioca strands and chunks), although I passed on the vanilla ice cream that it is usually served with.
I then walked across the hall to the theater. A lot of the performers were students from our school singing pop songs or playing instruments, but there was also a big Burmese component, including traditional dances (beautifully rendered by students in the club), and two fashion shows: one of traditional Burmese clothing, and one decidedly modern.
Throughout the entire event, the parents helped and socialized. They were very kind and eager to meet me, though some were shy about their limited English. After the last performance, parents and students cleaned up, restoring the large facility to pristine order within less than a half hour. I got to leave earlier than expected, with a real appreciation for Burmese culture—not only food and dances, but a spirit of kindness, family connection, and appreciation of traditions, as well as an infectious joie de vivre.