Citizen Diplomacy Story Challenge 2016 Winners: Linda Austin, Second Place

by Linda Austin, Fulbright U.S. Scholar to Burma, 2015

Let me tell you the dirty secret about the Fulbright that no one wants you to

know:

It will break your heart.

Downtown Yangon is an in-your-face kind of place, where muggy river breezes compete with diesel exhaust. The first few days of my Fulbright, I was battling an upset stomach and adjusting to the sweltering heat, which made me wonder if I would survive four months there. I went nowhere without an umbrella, fan and wet washcloth to cope with the humid heat that would melt my makeup.

Now that I’ve come home, I fear I’ve fallen in love with a place that teems with life — cars clog the streets, and vendors overflow the sidewalks, and 180,000 stray dogs patrol both. Wearing a longyi (traditional sarong) and repeating just a few words of Burmese, I prompted smiles from locals and sometimes much more. After one taxi driver didn’t know my destination — the house museum that celebrates the life of Burma’s independence hero, Aung San — another car pulled up. I explained where I wanted to go and asked, “Belaule?” or “how much?” The driver said in English to get in, and he would take me there for free. He wasn’t a taxi driver, just a kind Yangon resident who wanted to help out a confused-looking foreigner.

I miss breezing into the lobby of my hotel and being warmly greeted by the bellhops with “Mingalaba, sayama,” or “Auspiciousness to you, teacher.” While taking goodbye photos of the restaurant staff — who fed me so well that I gained five pounds — one noted that I was tearing up.

But most of all, my journalism students at the National Management College stole my heart. Watching them ask a thoughtful question in a mock press conference or discuss whether The Washington Post should have published the Pentagon Papers made every weekend creating lectures, exercises and quizzes — while battling sporadic Internet — all worthwhile.

At the end of the semester, I received a note from a quiet freshman in my reporting class: “At first, I say honestly, I’m not interested in journalism. For me, news writing is a big scare.” She continued that her first writing assignment made her disappointed, and she cried in class.

“But cause of your advice and comments,” she said, her last assignment went more smoothly. “The words I wanna say to you are ‘Thank You’ and ‘Love You’ for pulling me from my weakness.”

Yes, buyer beware, the Fulbright will break your heart.

I take solace from one of my favorite social media accounts: Burmese Girl’s Diary by @IngridIngyin. She captures the beautiful spirit of her country in photos and posts to Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

She wrote recently, “We are all travelers of life somehow. At some point, we come across each other and then we have to say goodbye again.”

With Burma, I just hope it’s not goodbye for long.