Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Orwell's Burma

I am planning my vacation, but I cannot decide where to go this December. I am spoilt for choice, except when it comes to Myanmar. There is only one tour agent advertising one tour package to Myanmar. I briefly considered that package, but put it aside quickly. What is it about Myanmar that makes it desirable on the one hand and undesirable on the other, as a tour destination, I wonder?

Perhaps part of the answer lies in the book "Secret Histories - Finding George Orwell in a Burmese Teashop" by Emma Larkin. This book is not a just a mere travelogue. It is this and more. Ms Larkin writes about her experiences traveling through Burma, the old colonial era name of what is Myanmar today, with reference to George Orwell's times and tales there in the mid-1920s. This is an interesting angle to base a book on, but as events in modern Myanmar would have it, Ms Larkin shows how prophetic Orwell is through his now very famous books, Burmese Days, Animal Farm and Nineteen Eight-four. George Orwell, or Eric Blair, his real name, worked in Burma for 5 years as an officer of the Imperial Police Force.

Through her recent travels around Myanmar, Ms Larkin shows how closely its politics and society today mirrors those described in these three books of Orwell's. Though not strictly communist, Myanmar society today is a closed one. Although it pretends to be socialist in leanings, it is in fact authoritarian and dictatorial, much like what the society depicted in Animal Farm turned out to be. The people of Myanmar do not have political freedoms, as demonstrated by the muzzling of its most outspoken daughter, Aung San Suu Kyi. There is no freedom to write and publish. Many who dared are today locked up in one of Myanmar's most overcrowded prison - Insein Prison. A native explained that they cannot speak or write about what is going on in Burma. People who do so disappeared, as happened to a most repected and prolific local historian, much like people in the fictional Nineteen Eighty-four. The education system has become so poor that there are all of 40 candidates for a Ph.D every year - Phoney Doctorates as they are more popularly known.

This book is filled with anecdotes about life in Myanmar and its ordinary people. The author has travelled from Mandalay to Delta, Rangoon, Moulmein and Katha to the places the Orwell once lived and worked to bring us a book full of sketches of its people's experiences, fears, jokes and, yes, laughter, if only of the bitter sort, that permeates life in Orwell's Burma today.

40 years of dictatorial rule has reduced Myanmar to a basket case, needing to import basic necessities such as rice to feed its people. This depressing list of deprivation includes those in knowledge and basic freedoms. If you have read any or all of those Orwell books, you will get a pretty good idea of what Myanmar is today. This is certainly a unique book written from a unique angle about a people which the world has almost forgotten.

It doesn't really matter if you haven't read any of Orwell's books, the stories are human enough for you to relate to immediately. Having a good background in Orwell's works gives you the icing on the cake, so to speak.

So should I visit Myanmar these holidays? Yes, if only to experience first hand what Larkin has written about, but certainly not if the family is coming along.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Ramp-up your brain season

This is examinations season in Singapore's. Its a country where the education environment is highly competitive, to say the least. The exams to be conducted in the next two weeks are also end of year exams, which, for some, will determine the next stage of their young lives, depending on how they perform. For the senior primary school students, their die have already been cast. Their PSLE (promotional examinations) have just ended. For the next three days, their papers will be marked and graded in this nationwide exercise.

Stressful times indeed, for students as well as parents.

Going by anecdotal evidence alone, the informal education market is huge. It seems like every student has a privately engaged tutor besides the school teachers they already have. And the private tutor's job is not for education, it is for drilling and making sure that students keep to their books, and their past exam exercises in order that they can score the best grade possible. You see, both parents have to work to earn a living in Singapore. So like many things in Singapore, and the world, outsourcing is the rule of the day.

But according to Pyschology Today (PT), there is one other source of help - the right food. In the article, A Taste of Genius in PT's July/August 2005 issue, Lauren Aaronson sets forth the good that some types of food can bring to the brain. Some of these may already be familiar to you, being the stuff of urban legend and mother's tales for some time now. First off, oatmeal works its magic through fibre, glucose, nutrients and acids of which it has in abundance, supercharging your brains in the process. Glucose-sweetened lemonade can also "boost recall of events, words, movements, drawings and faces, among other things, with effects lasting long enough to get you through a two-hour exam". Besides food, exercise is also just as important as it "improves the delivery of oxygen to your heart...", which in turn "pumps up your brain", and we are not talking about carcinogens here...

There are lots more tips on the beneficial effects of various types of food for the brain. It is perhaps timely reading in this examinations-laden season.