When you look up the word “open” in the dictionary, it is defined as “to allow access and a passage”. After being closed off from my native land for more than 20 years, going back to Burma (also known as Myanmar) with the Open Hands Initiative (OHI) and GlobalPost not only gave me the chance to reconnect with the country where I was born, but provided me access and a passage to see Burma and its transition from two perspectives: as an insider (a Burmese) and as an outsider (an American).
In 2013, I went to Burma with nine other American journalists to participate in OHI’s media reporting fellowship. In Burma, we were joined by ten local journalists. Together we would investigate, capture, and share the political transformation taking place in Burma, while building greater cultural openness among these two cultures.
Seeing other young journalists from my newly adopted country mingling with vibrant journalists from my native land showed me how pivotal it is for people of different origins to be exposed to one another. Young people—literally living half a world apart from each other—sharing their thoughts about food, fears, careers, politics, religion, and clothing, reminded me that we are all much more alike than we are different. American foreign policy has become so black and white and over simplified; we are constantly bombarded with “US vs. THEM” rhetoric. Yet the journey we shared inspired new possibilities of change to break down barriers and old stereotypes; and we were catalyzing this change at the root: the youth.
For decades, Burma suffered under a military junta. To make sense of the politics, religious tension, and all of the challenges that Burma is facing, is complicated to say at the least. During the years of dictatorship, there was no freedom of expression in the country and journalists were regularly imprisoned. Up until our fellowship, people could be arrested for simply carrying a camera on the streets. However, our team of 20 journalists from Burma and America worked to demonstrate the importance of a free press to democracy. Through peer to peer teaching and collaboration, we connected a plethora of muddled dots to create bridges that connected people to events on the ground and to each other through words and visual storytelling.
As journalists, we gave witness to Burma’s oppressed society and the great possibilities of this beautiful country. With the support of my team, I helped shed light on the complex story of Inle lake and its environmental issues. Openness means to share knowledge, and we wanted to know why the lake’s water was dwindling. For two days, I stayed with a family in Inle Lake to learn why. I got to tell the story of the Intha, the sons of Inle Lake, and saw how the lake was being polluted.
If we want to know more about the world and its countries, we need to know about its people and their cultures. The Western World sometimes seems closed off because of its reputation for thinking it is culturally superior to others and for its seeming unwillingness to understand the nuanced cultural idiosyncrasies of societies outside their own (such as humility and a profound respect for elders). In the Western World, “being open” is often thought of as being weak and unprofessional. To be friendly becomes synonymous with being easily manipulated and unambitious. When you’re open, you’re more susceptible to being taken advantage of. However, I believe that being open makes someone more approachable and relatable.
We build trust by being open. Going to Burma with OHI helped me become more open and free, and to realize that others were just as willing to be open and connect despite our supposed differences. I was so amazed to see others who welcomed my colleagues and me with open arms.
One of my favorite books is the Art of War written in 5th century B.C. China. In the book, the number one rule is to do all you can to never go to war – to negotiate and to understand your enemy. If we allow ourselves to be open – to let go of our fears of the unknown so that we can understand one another more and break down walls – the world would be full of people who seek justice, equality, and fairness, which would lead to less war, more peace, and greater opportunities for everyone.
This is extremely vital, especially in Burma’s case, a country that has been isolated from the world for so long and is now beginning to embrace its many ethnic groups and religious diversity. Programs such as those put on by OHI, with its aim to dispel misunderstandings and enable tolerance through open dialogue, are instrumental in promoting greater cultural appreciation and international friendship among people and cultures in our multilingual and multidimensional world.
Burmese and Americans can learn so much from each other. For example, when you ask American college students what their dreams are, their answers are often to own their own companies, become CEOs, achieve more, and get more. Americans dream big. My hope is that Burmese people learn to dream more – to build companies that enrich themselves and their societies – and to have the confidence and determination to realize these dreams.
On the flip side, Americans can learn how to cultivate better well-being like the Burmese. For example, the Burmese believe in surrounding oneself with healthy and positive relationships both at work and in their personal lives. In Burma, people strive to keep good company, connect face-to-face with friends and family, and live healthy, happy, and grounded lives.
During my trip to Burma, I think I’ve done a bit of both. Working with such incredible mentors and thoughtful co-fellows, I’ve learned to dream bigger. Immersing myself into the Burmese culture, I’ve learned to open myself to new friends and build great relationships that have lasted through years.
The views expressed in this post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the Open Hands Initiative.
About the Author: Kaye Lin is a multimedia journalist. Her work can be seen in Voice of America, Global Post, Huffington Post, and Asian Fortune. Kaye came to the United States at age 6 from Myanmar. Kaye was one of 20 emerging journalists from the United States and Myanmar who participated in our “Myanmar: Telling Its Own Story” fellowship, a cross-cultural media training program.