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Burma: Cultural Learning Experience

On Tuesday, April 14th, I gave a presentation on my home country, Myanmar (Burma).  The name of the presentation was “Burma: Cultural Learning Experience for Make Benefit Glorious Hampden-Sydney.”  The program was sponsored by the International Club, and it attracted a good turnout of about 40 students, faculty, and staff including Ciaran Buckley, International Visiting Scholar; Eric Dinmore, Assistant Professor of History (Asian); and Frank Hong Liang Li, the Fulbright Scholar from China.

First, I explained the confusion about the country’s name: “Burma” or “Myanmar.”  “Burma” was the name given by the British, and to most people it represented the major ethnicity in the country, Bamar.  “Burma” also represents both the enslaved colonial era and the prosperous post-independence democratic days.  On the other hand, the name “Myanmar” was given by the current military regime, and it supposedly represents the country as a whole.  However, many individuals and nations refuse to recognize the new name as they consider the current regime unlawful.

Myanmar is in Southeast Asia.  It is surrounded by Bangladesh, India, China, Laos, and Thailand.  The country is almost as big as Texas, and the population is about 50 million.  The capital is Nay Pyi Daw.  Myanmar has diverse ethnicities, and the major ethnic groups are Bamar, Kachin, Kayar, Karen, Chin, Mon, Rakhine, and Shan.  The country is made up of seven states, dominated by the Bamar majority, and seven divisions, each dominated by a major ethnic group.  The major exports are gems, timber, and natural gas, and the per capita income in 2008 is estimated to be about $1200 .

I explained about the ancient kingdoms of Myanmar, the colonization by the British in 1885, and the struggle towards independence.  I also told the audience about Myanmar in the democratic days before the military coup in 1962 and the country’s politics since then.  Aung San Su Kyi, the opposition leader to the current military regime and the Nobel Peace Prize winner, was also mentioned. The audience was moved by her bravery and persistence.

In Myanmar there are many fascinating places and sites for travelers; most of them are closely related to Buddhism.  These pilgrimage sites include the 322 foot high Shwe Dagon Pagoda in Yangon, which is considered the most sacred pagoda in Myanmar; the 328 foot high Mingun Pagoda which is a massive unfinished pagoda begun by King Bodawpaya; the divine Kyaikhtiyo Pagoda that sits on the edge of a cliff; and the city of Pagan which has over 2000 pagodas in total.  Apart from these religious sites, Myanmar also has much to offer to tourists.  For example, the city of Yangon has the greatest number of colonial buildings in Southeast Asia.  The Royal Palace (above), in which the last king of Myanmar resided, still exists in the city of Mandalay.  Moreover, not far away from Mandalay is the 1.2km long U Bein Bridge, the longest teak bridge in the world, and near the Mingun Pagoda stands the Mingun Bell which weighs 90 tons and is the largest functioning bell in the world.

In addition, I explained to the audience about unique Myanmar cultures and traditions.  There is no first or last name in the Myanmar naming system.  Men and women alike wear Longyis, which is equivalent to skirts.  The Longyis that men wear are called Pasos, and those for women are called Htamains. Moreover, people wear Thanakhas (left) which is a traditional cosmetic made by grinding the Thanakha wood with a small amount of water. Myanmar foods are also unique.  National foods are Monhinga (fish soup with rice vermicelli) and Laphat (pickled tea leaves).

In the Burmese language, there are 33 letters and 10 numerals.  Traditional Myanmar music consists of Sine Wine (orchestra) and Saung (harp).  As for the traditional festivals, the most famous and the most important one is Thingyan (Water Festival and New Year) which normally lasts for four days in April.  The idea of this water festival is to wash away the sins and impurities from the previous year.

At the end of my presentation, I showed the audience some video clips about Myanmar, such as Aung San Su Kyi, Myanmar music, and Thingyan songs.

At Hampden-Sydney, programs like this are sponsored by the International Club and aim to bring cultural and global awareness to the campus.

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