I Got to See Their Words

Columns of monks filed through downtown Yangon, cordoned off and protected by people who stood on both sides of the streets, their hands linked to form a human barrier between the marchers and the military. The monks’ begging bowls, pounded metal that rings like a bell, were turned upside-down in refusal of the alms that are their due – mounded rice or folded bills that grant merit to those who give.


Photographs and videos were smuggled out on cell phones, young boys swimming them across swirling, muddy waters on the border with Thailand. Monks and nuns in garnet red and petal pink, surrounded by armed men in dark uniforms, made their way around the globe. The entire world watched.

The images moved and frightened me.

September 2007 was the first time since 1988 that Burmese people protested openly against the military dictatorship, and the first time ever that Buddhist monks and nuns took political action. It was unheard of; their beliefs prohibit it.


When friends asked, “Are you really going to Burma?” in the midst of the protests, I hadn’t known how to respond. All I knew was that I was going to Burma to teach. I had learned to say “Burma” instead of Myanmar, as those who struggled for democracy did when it was safe for them to speak. But my ignorance was vast.

I knew nothing of the daily lives of the men and women who lived under the repressive regime, some of whom had joined the monks’ protests. After the stunning images had faded friends continued to ask, “Are you still going to Burma?” The weeks of political unrest were thrilling, despite the terrible reprisals. But the uncertainty of the situation took its toll. It didn’t help that my friends kept up their skeptical, anxious refrain: “What are you going to do there?”

I clung to one bit of self-knowledge: I was weirdly confident that I would be able to make a connection with the Burmese in the workshop I’d been asked to lead. We would find a way to think together.

As a teacher, I know how to help students figure out what their questions are, how to unearth and identify what they want to learn. Once I got to Myanmar this would guide me, the pointing needle on the face of the compass.

In my  secret heart, I knew that the trip called to me because of my eyes. My eyes are vulnerable now; the changes may, sooner or later, steal my vision. There is so much I want to see. But I could never have gone to Burma as a tourist; Burma was not a place to go simply because you wanted to see it.

A non-governmental organization in Yangon had asked if I would lead a workshop on critical thinking. I am a cultural anthropologist whose work focuses on education. I’d never paid attention to critical thinking. How could I possibly teach it, in Burma? Critical thinking was their idea.

Still, the group’s request that I teach critical thinking had been wise. They did need to understand, if not to embrace, the alien notion. Organizations in Myanmar must deal with international development agencies, investors, philanthropists and global initiatives of every stripe.


The dark interior room shimmered with heat. It was December, not yet the hot season by local reckoning. No one else seemed to notice the stifling damp air. When we took our afternoon tea break, one of the young women always brought me a cup of scalding sweet tea.

At the threshold of the dim windowless classroom was a line of footwear: slippers in orange and pink and black, cheap rubber flip-flops, sandals woven out of delicate reeds or embroidered in Karen patterns of red and black or Kachin blues and purples.

Inside the room, neatly groomed men wrote or chatted around a horseshoe-shaped arrangement of tables. Exquisitely dressed women sat alongside them at the tables. Their hair glistened. Two of the women had cheeks powdered with thanaka, a traditional white powder applied in decorative circles that also protects against the tropical sun. They were all waiting for me.


The participants were staff members of the local NGO, which operated largely underground in 2007. No one in the group had been to university. Some had little formal education. What did I have to offer that would be useful to people engaged in community development, in agriculture, daycare, and public health programs in remote areas where villagers struggled to sustain daily life?

I had assembled an assortment of readings, some academic, some written for a general audience. I hadn’t a clue what would be appropriate. My hope was that I could translate their request into a Freirean, problem-posing framework. That way, I could help them discover and pursue their own questions. I might better have carried what the Burmese call sticky rice than the stacks of articles that I stuffed into my suitcase, cursing the generals who controlled the Internet so tightly that I had to pack every single page I imagined I might need. Black rice would have served too. The students would at least have recognized that. Or wild rice, which would have appealed to them; they’d have liked hearing that my sister lives in Minnesota where wild rice is grown.

The members of the workshop were all English speakers, but their levels of fluency varied wildly. Two out of sixteen could read English. Many spoke limited Burmese. Myanmar has more than one hundred and fifty ethnic and linguistic groups. Communication was undependable.

This problem wasn’t new for them. They traveled to isolated ethnic regions where they organized farmers to increase the rice yield, or demonstrated the importance of using mosquito netting to cover sleeping children. The students were endlessly patient and kind as they translated for me and for each other.


The river of daily life ran gently in Yangon. There was great poverty, and it was impossible to forget the despotic regime at the time of my visit. Lurking surveillance made every interaction guarded; everyone I met had a family member, a friend or a colleague who had been imprisoned.

Still, on the surface, life was a soft current, flowing with beauty and restraint. Critical thinking was a sharp, swift blade, a sculler’s oar that sliced the water with each clean stroke.

In the city, men sat for hours in teahouses, clusters of small plastic tables and chairs set under faded awnings along the sides of the streets: a river of talk. They shifted their seats regularly, dust rising as the chairs scraped the dry dirt and they rearranged their longhis. A citizen of Myanmar could be arrested if he or she took part in a gathering of five or more people.

It wasn’t wrong to believe that critical thinking, a sharp-edged Western analytic tradition, would be problematic in a place like Burma. But there was no place like Burma. In 2007, Burma was the longest continuous military dictatorship in the world. Besides, I firmly believe that people learn best that which they want and need to know – and they were the ones who wanted to study critical thinking.


When I’ve taught teenagers from Brooklyn and Queens, we sometimes played a game called “human barometer.” The game requires a strong assertion to be written on the board at the front of the room. “Myanmar is not a democratic country” is an example. We wouldn’t have chosen that sentence in Brooklyn or Queens, of course. To choose that statement in Yangon would have put us in peril.

What I selected for the barometer game was “I believe people learn best from experience.” These students had by then studied several theories of learning: rote learning tested by examination, behaviorist training that relies on reward and punishment, and learning by doing as described by John Dewey. I’d chosen provocative texts on which they could practice analytic thinking. I thought they would catch on easily. I hoped the game would be fun.

I lined up a row of chairs to make an improvised barometer. Members of the workshop had to stand up, one by one, and walk to the spot on the line that best indicated their agreement (to the left) or disagreement (to the right) with the statement.

The students were paralyzed. Politely following my instructions, they stood, but then refused to move forward. Everyone was standing. No one spoke. Finally two or three people took a few tentative steps, then stopped and hesitated, immobilized again.

The men wore the required customary dark cotton longhis, trim ankle-length skirts, the fabric looped into big knots at the waist. They approached the line across the room ever so cautiously, resting a hand lightly on the back of a chair as if to balance across a patch of ice. The women, who wore silks in stunning turquoise and lavender and palest lime, took even longer, inching forward as though that would render them invisible.

After interminable minutes they had formed a loose cluster. Their bodies were vaguely grouped towards the end of the line that signified “Yes, I agree that people learn best from experience.” But I couldn’t be sure. No one was willing to stand out.

Even Sarbo, a stocky, self-confident school principal who spoke fluent English, hesitated, shifting slightly from foot to foot. I had noticed that Sarbo was not intimidated by me so I stepped to his side. I asked in a low voice, “Sarbo, why does it take such a long time to decide what you think, or where you will stand?  Was it wrong for me to ask you to do this?”  He just looked at me, his handsome, full face expressionless in the shimmery heat.


Later, after I’d managed to draw the barometer game to a close and we had eaten lunch, Sarbo pulled me aside.

Sayama Nancy, Professor Nancy” he said, “perhaps you do not know that in our beliefs it is not customary to choose between two things, two extreme opposites.”

I nodded and thanked him, unsure how to interpret his words. I knew so little about Burmese Buddhism; I hoped I hadn’t offended anyone. But quite a few of these men and women were Christian. Perhaps Sarbo’s remark pointed to how the constant awareness of a military regime affected people, or how their thinking had been constrained since childhood by the government’s arbitrary, ruthless exercise of threats and punishments, frequently directed at those who spoke out.

“In our country,” Sarbo continued, “it is not a good thing to take a strong position in this way.”

Before I could say anything Sarbo spoke again. “It is not a good thing,” he said, “and it is not safe.”


After we had been together for some time we tackled an essay about well-meaning farmers in Saskatoon, Canada, who sent a contribution to a poor agricultural pueblo in Mexico: four dairy cows. The Mexican villagers, who had only known beef cattle, planned to slaughter the cows. The Canadians’ gift would have provided them with weeks of precious meat.

The article asks whether it would be better, in the long run, for the campesinos to keep the cows for milk. Or not. This was a problem the Burmese understood.

Sarbo and Su, a woman who worked in daycare, spoke up to say that children need an ongoing supply of milk. But, they insisted, the Mexicans had to reach their own decision. There had to be a participatory process, regardless of the outcome.

Everyone in the room understood what would have seemed bizarre to my students in the United States: determining the correct answer was not the issue. What mattered was how the campesinos organized themselves to make the decision, and that the entire community took part in in the deliberations.

There was a lively discussion about the Mexicans, who viewed cattle as a source of beef, and the Canadians, who had sent dairy cows, the wrong kind of cattle. We explored several strategies with which to analyze the problem. I reassured myself that they were indeed practicing critical thinking.

Finally, I asked them to make the human barometer again. What conclusion had they reached about the gift? The end points on the barometer were: “the peasants should eat the cows for meat,” which was the Mexicans’ preference, and, at the other extreme, “they should keep the cows for milk,” as the Canadians had intended.

Again, not one single person stepped confidently to take up a position on the spectrum. A thoughtful, shy man smiled at all of us around the table. “Nancy wants me to do something that I cannot do – again,” he said.


Before the trip, I had wandered into a stationary store in Greenwich Village where I noticed a plastic box of tiny magnetized words. They were words to play with, to write poems on the refrigerator door or leave a silly message for a family member. I bought them. Even though the box was smaller than a box of kitchen matches it was surprisingly heavy. Packing, I almost ditched it.

One afternoon in the workshop I was unusually tired. I wasn’t accustomed to sitting at the head of the table, being the teacher all day. My eyes ached. The multiple languages in the room were exhausting. The humidity was suffocating. Outside, women had begun to carry parasols and umbrellas to protect themselves from the sun. Inside the darkened classroom the heat felt brutal.

As we assembled for the final session of the day I ducked into the kitchen. The female cooks who were cleaning up the lunch looked very young; neither one spoke a word of English. “May I borrow those?” I pointed at the flat metal lids of the biggest cooking pots, ten or twelve inches across. The cooks giggled as they passed me the pot covers.

Back in the classroom I asked everyone to form small groups, which they loved to do. Group work meant they were not singled out or put on the spot. Left to their own devices, the Burmese students created working groups whenever I posed a question or assigned a project. This had never happened in the United States. The sweetness with which they helped one another touched me.

Next I passed around handfuls of the tiny words. They whispered and laughed as they played with the words, trying different arrangements. Each group got a pot cover, which provided a metal surface for the magnetized words to adhere to. The pot lids were tippy, each balanced upside-down on its handle. But the improvisation was good enough. The tiny white words with black letters stuck firmly on the metal.

“Remember the gift of the cows to the Mexican village that had never had dairy cows? Where the farmers didn’t drink milk?” I asked. “And our discussion about outsiders who think they are helping? Who do things that are not helpful to the local community?” Women and men smiled with recognition.

“Now, each group please compose one sentence using these little words. Say exactly what you would like to say to the outsiders who want to help with your projects in Myanmar.”

Instantly, with a rush of excitement I’d never seen from these polite, cautious, gentle learners, they set to work. Was it possible that not having to speak out loud would permit the Burmese to express anger? Or at least to criticize the foreigners? The people in the room certainly knew about experts who addressed problems and imposed resources in a cultural setting where they didn’t know what they were doing.

“Does anyone have ‘for’?” Zin Mar asked. “No, but we need ‘beautiful’,” Charles replied. They laughed and chattered, reaching across the table to snatch words from other people’s piles. “What about ‘children’” “Who has the word ‘flowers’?”

I sat back from the table, half listening, resting in the hot still air that enveloped us. When they were finished, each group had one person report the one thing they wanted to say to outsiders, educated professionals, usually white, often rich, who came and went from far away, bumbling and controlling and generally interfering in their beleaguered country.

The young man who observed that I’d asked him to do something that was not possible had decided to work alone. He read his sentence first. It was the closest to what I had expected, I think, although his tone was understated and courteous: “You must listen to our advice,” he read.

Then, one after another, they read aloud the sentences that they had made with their words. I just listened.

“Our land is a beautiful country, please treasure it.”

“If you think there is a problem, you will make a problem.”

“Children are like flowers that must be carefully tended.”

“Talking with each other we make a peaceful, happy life.”


What if I had not gone to teach in Burma? What if I had never seen their words?


Author's Comment

Teaching and traveling belong on a very short list of the most important experiences of my life.  I’ve explored these pleasures many times, in many settings, which has been my great good luck. As I sneak up on seventy, the chance to write about what these experiences mean, culturally, politically and personally, feels like a new kind of luck. My first trip to teach in Myanmar, the spark for this essay, was extraordinary.



Nancy Barnes is a cultural anthropologist who has had a wonderful long life in teaching. Her experiences range from private colleges and “small” public high schools to teaching ethnographic research methods in prison, teaching swimming to teenagers affected by HIV/AIDS in South Africa, and leading workshops with community development workers in Myanmar – as described in this essay. She is a native New Yorker who has recently returned to the city with her partner of thirty years.


  1. Dear Nancy,
    I first read this beautiful essay over a year ago, when I was traveling and had no way to respond. Now I’ve reread it, and loved it. You’ve shown how deeply ingrained cultural styles of thinking and looking at the world blend with political oppression! It makes me appreciate Aung San Suu Kyi all the more. Thanks.
    I’ve tried to contact you several times, but there are so many Nancy Barnes that it’s been hard to find you. If you remember, we worked together at NWRO in 1968, and I last saw you in New York in 1974. It sounds like you’ve had a wonderful and exciting life.
    I hope you’ll find time to drop me a line sometime:
    Best wishes,
    Pam Blair

  2. love this experience in all its parts — the frustration born of all you couldn’t understand about how the Burmese culture operated, your wonderful persistence, your students’ gentle tolerance and good will and generous efforts to play along — and finally that miraculous moment (divinely inspired?) when you stumbled on a key to unlock the great wisdom they were harboring, living from as naturally as breathing. Thanks for treasuring their words — and sharing them!

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