Part of discovering what it means to be a “global citizen” requires a deep excavation into the inner, honest core of our own intentions, values, and biases. It involves digging far enough to unearth the true way we wish to orient ourselves toward the world.
Several young leaders are increasingly championing the idea of linking our own cores to those of others. I admire them for acting with confidence and conviction as they reshape the philosophical foundations of poverty alleviation. Meaning, they are pushing to end the era of pity-based charity, and are instead trying to transition to one of respect, sustainability, and collective responsibility. While this may be an ambitious undertaking, it is a grand vision that can be progressively realized.
Yet despite these efforts and my personal desire to exhibit humility, openness, and mindfulness, I fail sometimes. Fail is a strong word. I catch myself. Just when I thought I had learned the small lesson that we learn in kindergarten, not to make snap judgments or assumptions about other people, I got a little refresher during my time in Burma. It was one of those moments when I remember that I don’t know anything.
Under East Meets West’s Breath of Life Program, my family recently traveled to Yangon/Rangoon. Myanmar, or Burma, has one of the worst human rights records ever. But recently a number of good things have happened, at least at the surface level. The Burmese government held its first fair democratic elections, in which the leading opposition party (the National League for Democracy) won 43 of 45 seats. The United States announced that it would ease sanctions against Burma earlier this year. Hillary Clinton paid a visit and schmoozed it up. In spite of the recent government reform, journalists have published various pieces about the persistent challenges the nation still faces. Some say, too much, too soon.
I read things about Burma more than other countries. It’s actually really odd. I have no connection to this place. It started with the book, Freedom from Fear, which later led me to take up a bit of an interest in the story of a place that the international community seemed to have abandoned. In the process, I began to develop a narrative in my head. I envisioned a land of destitution, corruption, AIDS, instability, and violence that I hoped would somehow inch toward a better future for its people. Yes, I admit that it had become some kind of mythical creature that I wanted to understand. As you can see, this already sounds very problematic.
Next thing I knew, I found myself standing face-to-face with a group of Burmese nurses looking at neonates.
Because my mom was going for work, our family was able to visit one women’s and two children’s hospitals in Rangoon. They were all government hospitals. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, I had developed preconceived notions about what a public hospital in a country with one of the most repressive governments in the world would be like. I didn’t even want my eleven year-old sister to come along, because I was afraid she’d get traumatized.
Turns out, I was very wrong. The health care was exceptional.
When we arrived at the first hospital, the Yangon Women’s Hospital, we were greeted by several doctors and nurses who emitted an immediate sense of warmth and kindness. The hospital was large and overgrown with mold like many other buildings in Rangoon. I was expecting chaos, for the halls to be lined with mothers in pain and kids without anything to eat. But no, everything was quite organized. They gave us a presentation on their region’s health status, the specific challenges, and how exactly they’d like to work together with EMW. We then toured the neonatal wards. (CUTE BABIES!!!) Everything was so sanitary that we had to remove our shoes and put on designated slippers before stepping foot inside the nursery. Charts lined the walls with details of each baby’s stats, and every room had at least a few nurses in it.
Baby getting treated with LED phototherapy
One notable quality of all three hospitals was the abundance of health staff. The nurses each had different color-coded outfits. The ones with red skirts were midwives, while green were another type of nurse. Something else that my parents pointed out was that each of the hospitals was run entirely by women. Wonder if that has anything to do with their success…
After spending more time with them, my parents could make the objective observation that the Burmese staff excelled compared to other hospitals in Southeast Asia. Whereas I could just feel that they did their job with pride and a commitment to high-quality health care. While everyone else from our group was talking or crowded around one bedside, I walked around to see what the rest of the nurses were doing. In the corners, they were attending to their patients when no other Westerners were watching, fixing the tubes and blankets and keeping an eye on the monitors.
Obviously, these hospitals still face significant obstacles that are far more complex than we could have understood in our short time there. That would probably take years to comprehend. These were not perfect sanctuaries. All in all, however, meeting some of the people behind Burma’s public health system inspired a lot of hope in me. I was reminded that a country’s health care is not its health indicators, WHO reports, or 10-page pieces in the New Yorker. Its life expectancy and infant mortality don’t really tell us anything. There are people working very hard, with no recognition, to deliver the highest level of care possible given their limited resources.
I wanted to share this story not because it’s anything new, but quite the contrary. It’s a complete cliche. American girl goes to poor country and mind is blown. What else is new. It’s these small moments that tap me on the shoulder and remind me to never forget to keep myself in check. To be aware of the ease at which I think I’ve grown out of certain things when I am really just skimming the surface.
I had spent so much time carefully thinking about how I wanted to (aka should) think about Uganda in preparation for my trip there. Put in the context of an adventurous journey to Burma, nothing seemed to translate. After all of this, I was ashamed of how much I had used my other experiences in poor countries to determine what Burmese hospitals would be like before even getting there. I am not immune to the cliche, or to the dangers that I myself often criticize.
The real take away is that there are some remarkable people in Burma’s hospitals. I’m honored to have met them.