Today, one of my classes assigned students to attend a storytelling session and study a different form of media. “Stories!! Storytelling!! Professor, are you kidding us? Do college students need to listen to stories?” In my mind, I was questioning to the professor about his assignment. I had to drag myself to George hall. It turned out a very interesting one – seeing the tradition of storytelling again and in the way she performs. Unlike my grandmother who used to tell me many bedtime stories, the storyteller in front of us is a professional one.
When I told my boyfriend about the event, his very first response is “Is this (storytelling) a profession?” I told him that she was even hired by the United Nations – to give some short storytelling trainings for the boys who were gong to present their cases at an UN assembly.
Indeed, we, Burmese people, enjoyed telling and listening to stories. However, they might find it surprised that people can make living out of this kind of storytelling profession.
In my country, it is also true for many other countries ruled by very oppressed and controlling governments, people share their experiences as stories to each other, because their rights to expression are prohibited. So, they carried the stories that they are told to others. This tradition has been one of the powerful forms of media that entertain, educate and encourage people at the same time. Military governments could stop/control different media or even internet by censoring them, but they find it really difficult to make people stop telling those appealing stories to each other and carrying them from mouth to mouth. Poems and stories give moral strength necessary to resist their oppressive life.
You will find that many Burmese mothers tell bedtime stories to their children, but not just as stories, they are raising a new generation to fight for the cause of justice and giving moral strength/guidance through the stories they carried. I could say that they may not be perfect in educating their children but indeed, they are filling the gap of the educational institutions in the land, where any intellectual thoughts and talks have long been raped.
The storyteller, Laura Simms, who is a Romanian and Jewish descendant, told a story richly reflected by her diverse background and her experience with her Romanian grandmother. Laura Simms brought many cultural, political, racial, religious, historic events, she and her family went through, to the greater audience through her stories.
It reminds me of the nights my grandmother told me, as stories, what she experienced during the second World War. Every time she told those stories to me, I always felt astonished listening to how she struggled to get education in such a very chaotic situation. At that time, schools were only for boys. Education, even religious education at monasteries, was not allowed to girls. But with the help of her elder brother, even during the period of Japanese bombing campaigns, she had already managed to finish her seven grade, which was the highest school level, the school in our village could offer. Her brother and she walked every day about several miles or ride horses to go to the high school at another village nearby for high school classes. Since girls were not allowed to attend at the school, and for her safety concerns as a girl to travel, she had to wear like a boy and pretended to be a boy and carrying a long sward. She was making the point to us how we should value education. She could not finish her high school and did not have any certificate. But she believes in education to help the young become a productive and responsive adult. She was one of the persons I have ever met , who value education much more than even many college degree holders.
Another person who used to tell me stories is my mother. She is good in telling about local and global historic and political leaders as stories. The parents of my mother were very devoted supporters of China’s Mao communism. I often asked her to tell her experience, as a very young girl, joining campaign trips with her politically active parents who used to belong to a communist party, which was related to the underground movements. She often told us about the political speeches of the country’s prominent leaders either she got to listen or her parents told her. Through her stories, she was introducing us the country’s history and political events, she witnessed as a citizen, to her children. For us who are grown up under the still practicing dictatorship system, many of the historical events and most of the promising political leaders of both left and right wing parties during the period of the country’s short democratic parliamentary system were never taught at our public schools’ history classes and any academic institutions. Neither does media mention about them. My siblings and I were lucky because we can learn some of what our parents have been through.
My grandmum and mum are not professional storytellers like Larua Simms but my grandmother, my mother and many other mothers duly serve with their best to train their children not to be dumb, not to be arrogant, and not to be ignorant about the community we live.
In the United States, there are many people and institutions that will pay you if you are really good at in your chosen field, as like Larua Simms can make living out of telling stories. Over there, for the majority of the Burmese, obviously, to have enough daily food is their priority with the money that they could earn by giving manual labour from dawn to dark.
More over, we, many people of us in our generation, are not free to choose the kind of profession we would like to build. It is not because we are restricted, but it is because we want to maximize the usefulness of our education for the country. We all will have to sacrifice, as some point in our life, not just our comfortable life (if we had), but our passions, our personal interests, and our choice of career as well, if they could not support the nation’s interest.
Every time I face the conflict between my interest and other things I should do, the famous quote by the U.S second president, John Adam, always help me out.
“I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce, and agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain.”
One day my children will have the right to study poetry or music, or to pursue the fields they can follow to their hearts. And they will have a life of dignity in their chosen field. I live by that hope. Until then, for the land of Burma, at any given chance, I will need to study politics and may have to get involved in politics, or I may still need to tell the stories (to pass the experience I go through as stories) to my children – like my mother, my grandmother, and many mothers in the world did to educate their generations.