Monday, December 9, 2019

Dealing With The Cultural Bubble That Is An International School

Modernization ad Infinitum

Tiffany Fan, a Canadian student who finished her sophmore year at an international school in Yangon, struggles to connect with the culture and values of Myanmar. 

Listening to the drill of jackhammers and the droning heavy machines while sitting through Algebra II class has become routine for my classmates and me. The noises of construction aren’t exactly conducive to a learning environment, but an awkward transition should be expected as much of our campus is being renovated.

The new facilities are scheduled to be finished next school year. Hand in hand with the push for modernization are some slight shifts in the school’s appearance, as scuffed wooden tables and chairs are phased out for shiny plaster furniture, and the red and grey bricks in some pathways are replaced in black and white. But the International School of Yangon (ISY) isn’t only losing colour on the outside. The transformation of the school’s physical environment arrives at the same time as a change to the faculty. We learned that three ISY veteran teachers would be retiring at the end of the year – three teachers with some of the most experience teaching at the school.

Three teachers didn’t seem like too many until I grasped that this would leave only one first-generation Burmese teacher still working full-time at ISY, and less than ten Burmese teachers in the secondary school. But of course, I don’t know who will be replacing them next year, whether they are foreigners or Burmese nationals. Maybe this is just me being unaccepting of change, but it’s undeniable that the absence of some of our most familiar teachers will leave a void in the school-wide culture. These were comforting faces that provided us a certain humble wisdom and kindness that seems to only come naturally with experience and age. They connected us to older, timeless Burmese values, which I’m scared that as a school and as a community, we’ll become increasingly out of touch with in the coming years.

I’ve only been a student at ISY for two years, but I used to believe that what made this place different from other international schools was the acceptance and foundation of our host country’s customs in the school’s own traditions and principles. But now, looking back, I realize that maybe I shouldn’t jump so quickly to conclusions. An overwhelming majority of my non-Burmese classmates can speak an average of ten words of the local language, including the ones that have been here for over ten years. We often spend our days sheltered in Golden Valley, and I’ve even had a Burmese classmate (born and raised in Yangon) tell me that they had never been to the parts of Yangon outside of Bahan.


An after-school activity fair at the school gym was the most indicative of how removed ISY can feel. Just as I was about to write my name on the signup sheet for the Burmese language (101) extracurricular, I noticed that the list was completely empty while the other students flocked to the Model United Nations table. In a moment of weakness, I, a spineless invertebrate put down the pen and even had the nerve to walk over to the MUN crowd to see what all the commotion was about.

Right before I exited the room in a blaze of self-contempt, I saw another kid picking up the registration form, only to look around himself as he set it back down. I wasn’t alone. Maybe if I had written my name there he would’ve signed up as well, or maybe he was simply not interested in the class. Either of those two possibilities means the same thing, and satisfies my point. On one hand, maybe he was too conforming and reluctant to be the only person to take this class like I was, but on the other hand, he could have considered learning the local language not being worth his time (of course, it was probably some third reason that I am completely overlooking for the sake of the anecdote). In the end, we were both succumbing to a growing hive-mind at the school that can be subdued by even the smallest things like signing up for that Burmese class.


Many of my classmates and I are hesitant to explore the huge city surrounding us and experience all the sights, smells and sounds of one of the most interesting places in the world. We tend to complain that Yangon is boring and uneventful compared to neighbouring Bangkok and Singapore, citing their huge shopping malls with big brands and better movie theatres but completely skipping over what makes those cities unique as well.
Next year, fresh faces will replace more familiar ones, bringing about change to the school’s personality whether for better or for worse, but all in all, it’s a good thing that ISY is updating its campus to match the times. As the most experienced staff members retire and the school undergoes renovation, it’s a given that some more older traditions will be lost as the school steps into a new era. One of the departing teachers likes to say that “ISY is just a big family”, but if that’s the case, then there’s going to be an empty seat at the dinner table next year.

Tiffany Fan
Tiffany is an intern for MYANMORE who is interested in the intersections of expat and local culture in Yangon


  1. A wonderful read. Thank you for the insights. My family and I arrived in Yangon recently, two weeks to be more accurate. And we have children already in an international school. As were have been trying to understand our surroundings, we realise we reside where there are big gates on the doors, shop at Citimart, and mostly find ourselves in “expert” restaurants and shops. Just wondering how we can break this cycle. Sigh, one day at a time. I guess.


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