Category Archives: inspirational

Stand Alone: An interview with an indie rock band in Myanmar

I’ve been an expat of sorts for a number of years and consider myself to be well-versed in international travel—but I admit, if you had asked me to describe Myanmar as recently as a year ago then I would have replied: “Hot, dirty, poor and corrupt.”

And I would have been right.

imageIts borders have essentially been closed to foreigners for decades—and in that shroud of secrecy a military government with child soldiers to do its bidding stripped its citizens of their basic human rights and dignity. A lot of nasty stuff went on in Myanmar. But that’s not the whole picture, and for sure it’s not what I want to write about. In the last five years, elections have been held, borders have opened, and the military government has ceded most of its power. Economic sanctions have been lifted and for the first time in fifty years the people in Myanmar are optimistic about the future.

Yangon apartment buildingAs a point of fact Myanmar might be hot, dirty, poor and corrupt (though far less now than it was five years ago)—but that isn’t how I would describe its people. Not after being amongst them. They are kind, compassionate, and beautiful—and they are filled with passion and hunger for everything the past generations of Myanmar people were denied.

That includes dreams.

And that is what I want to write about.

Under the previous regime musicians in Myanmar had to submit lyrics to a government agency for censorship and approval—and if you dared to protest through song you’d wind up in the infamous Insein prison. But now its streets are filled with aspiring artists of every flavor—and that includes pop, rock, punk, rap … everything from one end of the spectrum to the other. It’s an amazing sight—to watch a society as it transitions from a nightmare to a future it controls.

imageAmong the many friends I made during my time visiting Myanmar are the guys that make up the indie rock band Stand Alone. They are Jun Ho, Zin Yu, Max and Young Woo. They live in Yangon but dream of touring the world. I did a pseudo-interview with them because we’re starting a GoFundMe campaign to get them a set of drums and into a recording studio. Below is the transcript.


TE: What are the challenges with being an indie band in Myanmar?

Jun Ho: The challenges, huh… The challenges vary. First of all, the type of music we mostly want to perform is not widely accepted in this country.

Zin Yu: And there is no top 100 Myanmar hits on iTunes.

Max: [thinking]

Jun Ho: People here are not as socially supportive of young people pursuing their dreams. They don’t have any experience with it.

Max: Practice space is hard to find for the right amount of money, and also financial problems make it hard for us to act.

Young Woo: Yeah, in Kazakhstan—

Zin Yu: This is Myanmar, bro. We know you’re not a native.

Young Woo: Oh, okay.

[laughter]

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TE: Why did you choose “Stand Alone” as a name?

[snickering]

Young Woo: Well, about that. It’s because our—

Zin Yu: We can’t mention them here.

TE: Even now? It’s not like before—

[nervous laughter]

Jun Ho: Stand Alone, as typical as it may sound, actually has a really deep meaning to it.

Max: We Stand Alone!

Jun Ho: Not really bro… Zin Yu, explain.

Zin Yu: Wasn’t Max the one who came up with the name?

Max: It is because the community we resided in was not supportive of us in any aspect. We were standing out from the rest, without any support. We were alone. We were standing, we were alone, we are Stand Alone.

Zin Yu: That’s some legit logic bro.

TE: Who are your musical influences?

ALL MEMBERS: ONE OK ROCKKKKKKKKK!

Max: And Idiots.

Young Woo: Who are the idiots? Even I don’t know who they are.

Max: You idiot. They are one of the most famous rock bands in Myanmar.

Jun Ho: Oh, and I love Ed Sheeran too. He’s not a rock artist in any sense but his songs capture my heart right away.

Zin Yu: And SPYAIR.

Jun Ho: The Japanese alternative rock band that sings in anime.

Young Woo: Yeah. We like anime.

TE: Tell me about your early successes with the band.

Young Woo: Would you call Waterboom a success?

Zin Yu: Let’s talk about the MMO event instead.

Max: Yeah, we had a bigger audience there.

Jun Ho: Yeah. The MMO event was big hit for us.

Zin Yu: It was basically a cosplay convention where we went to perform Japanese songs.

Jun Ho: The type we want to perform.

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Max: And also, our first ever performance, at the carnival, remember?

Young Woo: The carnival was a lot better than Waterboom, except for the fact that there were drums on the stage at Waterboom—which Waterboom provided us with for one show.

Max: You guys are forgetting the biggest one.

Zin Yu: Et Cetera?

Jun Ho: Shh… What Et Cetera?

Max: I mean our Bombs Away, our latest cover song with our first music video.

Everyone Else: Oh… right!

Young Woo: We only chose that because we don’t have a drum and the original acoustic version is performed with a Cajon.

Jun Ho: But that was good.

TE: Five years from now what will people think when they hear Stand Alone?

Zin Yu: Hopefully not “never heard of them.”

[laughter]

Jun Ho: Ah dang… this is hard… hopefully we’ll stick around a while. I hope the name Stand Alone sticks in people’s head for years to come!

Zin Yu: But you and Young Woo are going to Korean military service for two years.

Young Woo: Then they’ll know Stand Alone as two Korean soldiers.

Zin Yu: But Seriously, I hope people remember us by our new debut album coming out soon.

Max: Bro it’s not time for advertisement.

TE: Well, self-promotion never hurts. And something you guys have going for you is your varied backgrounds. How many different languages, collectively, do you guys speak?

Jun Ho: Max, you’re Shan right? Do you speak Shan?

Max: No bro.

Jun Ho: Then what do you speak?

Max: Myanmar. Is Zin Yu Japanese?

Young Woo: No he’s Korean.

Jun Ho: Psshh. No he’s not.

Zin Yu: Yes I am. Remember the time someone thought I was Korean and not you? No seriously though. About the question. How many languages do we speak collectively? By the way I’m Chinese.

Max: Oh, that means you speak Chinese?

Zin Yu: Wo Bu Zhidao.

stand3 (1)

TE: I’ve learned in Myanmar that everyone is “something” else.

[laughter]

Jun Ho: All of us speak English for sure. Me and Young Woo speak Korean.

Zin Yu: No kidding.

Young Woo: And I speak Russian and I still have to tell you guys to stop speaking in Burmese in front of me.

Max: Too bad bro, deal with it or no drum for you. That’s what you get.

Young Woo: [mocking gasp]

Jun Ho: Zin Yu, would you consider yourself fluent in Japanese?

Zin Yu: If you consider broken Japanese fluent, then sure.

Jun Ho: I sing Japanese.

Zin Yu: But do you understand the lyrics?

Jun Ho: Next question.

TE: You’re currently running a GoFundMe campaign. What do you hope to achieve?

Young Woo: Drums!

Zin Yu: Drums.

Jun Ho & Max: Yeah, drums.

Jun Ho: We call ourselves a rock band, but we don’t have a set of drums. To become a full-blown rock band, we need a drum. So, we decided to come up with a way to fund it.

Max: Once again, our community is not supportive.

Young Woo: Drums are the soul of rock music.

Zin Yu: This year, we get drums. Next year, debut album. Another year, we are a well-known rock band.

Young Woo: Yeah, in other words, we need 1.5 grand for our drums and studio time.

Max: I hope Bill Gates notices us. Notice us Bill Gates.

TE: Tell us something about each band member that even your friends might not know or realize.

Max: Do you have a love life?

Young Woo: Who are you asking?

Max: Who knows? For me I’ve found the one.

Zin Yu: Me too.

Jun Ho: [points] Her?

Zin Yu: Yes. PRS limited edition. Baby is worth $3000 or more.

[laughter]

Max: My baby’s Ibanez Prestige.

Jun Ho: Oh, you think Young Woo’s introverted. Wait till you visit our band practices. He’s our drummer so he makes our eardrums bleed… love you bro.

Zin Yu: Did you know our vocalist lost 20 pounds?

Max: No way, I didn’t even know that.

Zin Yu: He’s spending our band budget on gym membership fees.

Young Woo: Just kidding, bro.

TE: Any final thoughts?

Zin Yu: Check out our video on YouTube and check out our GoFundMe campaign.

Jun Ho: Please support us! And like I said over and over, any donation will help and will be appreciated by the band. Until the time we become a legit rock band and everyone knows us by our names. Thanks for interviewing us!

Max: We really appreciate your support.

Young Woo: Ciao!

Stand Alone on GoFundMe

Stand Alone on Facebook

Stand Alone on YouTube

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A thank you to military brats, and a diatribe for arrogant athletes …

For fifteen years I taught military brats on overseas installations for the Department of Defense Education Activity (DoDEA). It was the greatest honor of my life to teach the sons and daughters of the courageous men and women who make up the United States Armed Forces.

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My duty station on Nine-Eleven was in South Korea.

The first wave of heroes in the aftermath of Nine-Eleven was brave men and women in New York, Washington, D.C. and Pennsylvania. Office workers who refused to leave colleagues behind as they evacuated the burning towers. Police officers and firemen who must have known that rushing into those buildings and climbing those stairs meant a certain death – and they never hesitated.

The people on the streets of Lower Manhattan, in the debris, rendering aid to strangers – this after having seen two planes crash, and not knowing if other planes were on the way. A mayor who went to Ground Zero with a bullhorn, in harm’s way but leading in a crisis. The news personnel that documented the tragedy but did so with humanity.

The first wave continued – flight attendants and passengers who fought back, and soldiers and civilians who never hesitated to enter the burning wreckage of the Pentagon to reach the injured and dying.

The first wave was the men and women who went to Wall Street to reopen the Stock Exchange. It was the teachers who welcomed students back to school when smoke from Ground Zero could still be seen from classroom windows. It was the people who stood in line to give blood. It was the medical personnel – doctors, nurses, paramedics, mental health professionals – who were the first responders on that Tuesday in September, and it was the ones who in the days that followed worked tirelessly around the clock in hospitals, parking lots, on the streets.

It was the single mom store clerk in Times Square who might have been afraid but she went back to work anyway. The transit workers who got a city moving again. The rescue and construction crews that breathed contaminated air and would forever suffer physically and emotionally from digging through the wreckage, looking for survivors, recovering remains of the people we lost, cleaning up the debris, and rebuilding.

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It was the airline industry and its employees that held their own grievous loss in check so that they might fly again – not just for commerce and free markets, but so a way of life could get back on its feet and give the finger to a group of radical terrorists.

It was the guardsmen and women called to duty from states all across our great country – the weekend warriors had a mission unprecedented in our nation’s history, and they committed to doing their part, and doing it well.

It was normal, everyday Americans, from all walks of life, doing what they could, where they were, no matter how big or small.

It was our military. Courageous men and women who would fight and die for an idea – that life, liberty and the ability to passionately chase our dreams still matter.

They were the first wave of heroes.

The 9/11 terrorist attacks were a national tragedy for America, but for the men, women and children who lost family and friends on that day it was incredibly personal. We really had no choice, though. We had to stand back up. We would grieve, but we’d do so on our feet and moving forward.

In Korea, our soldiers began deploying. People think first about Afghanistan and Iraq – but in reality the first battles in the war against radical Islam were fought with training exercises in the Philippines, Japan, Thailand, Indonesia and countless other places across South and East Asia, Central Asia, Africa and the Middle East.

The result?

Only a few days after Nine-Eleven and already our military exchanges and commissaries were virtual ghost towns – as for the military spouses who’d brought their families to serve in a foreign country for a two or three year deployment, well, suddenly they were single parents.

It’s hard enough to do a tour in Korea away from all your family and friends – but can you imagine a twenty-something spouse overseas for the first time and with a kid in kindergarten and suddenly her husband is gone for who knows how long?

Alone at night I imagine most of those kids and newly single parents were afraid. It wasn’t just being stranded alone in a foreign country – it was not knowing if mom or dad would make it back from their deployments.

But the military spouses stayed in Korea with their military brat kids even as their dads and moms left for war zones in the most hellish places on earth. They didn’t run to the airport and fly back to the states. And here’s why: they understood every decision they made would have real and far-reaching consequences.

They stayed.

They came to school with brave faces – spouses and kids – and they were resilient in the midst of a crisis unlike any our country had faced since Pearl Harbor.

I had a student, Sami, who shouted with pure joy when she broke her arm in a car accident.

The reason?

“They’re sending my daddy home!” she cried.

She was eleven years old at the time. That’s what Nine-Eleven did to our military brats.

For a long time Sami and I lost track of one another. But recently we’ve reconnected. Now she’s in her twenties and we talk a lot by email. She told me about the first time her dad went to Afghanistan, and the first time he went to Iraq, and about the time he began hanging pictures of soldiers on the wall in his study back in Florida. They were men and women, black and white and Asian and Hispanic – but Sami’s father didn’t see race or gender. They were soldiers, all dead, all heroes, and all personally known to Sami’s father.

Sami told me about the fifth and ninth and eleventh times her dad went to Afghanistan. Not full deployments – he was a leader, who frequently had to go to hellish places – but bad enough. And she told me how after his eleventh trip to Afghanistan he had come home and hung another picture on the wall.

The seventeenth.

It was too much for Sami’s mom, because she knew the seventeenth wouldn’t be the last. When Sami’s dad came home from Afghanistan for the twelfth time, the only things left in his house were the pictures on the wall.

Sami and her mom had left.

That’s what Nine-Eleven did to our military families.

But it’s not where this story ends.

There is a second wave of heroes.

They came much later – but they’re the ones I want to tell you about today, fifteen years after that Tuesday in September.

I had a student whose father died in Afghanistan. Today she is a soldier.

I was athletic director at a DOD school in Korea. No fewer than seven of my student-athletes would later serve in Afghanistan.

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Laura Bush visited our installation to speak to the troops in Germany … and one of the men that made up her protection detail was my former student from a DOD school.

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Two of the most outstanding nurses who serve at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany – the place that saves the lives of countless wounded warriors – once sat in my eighth grade history classroom.

I am named for my uncle who died heroically in Vietnam. One day I got an email from a former student at my DOD school in Germany. She was in Washington D.C. and had made a paper engraving of my uncle’s name on the Vietnam Memorial. She sent me the picture by email with a simple message: “I wanted to honor your family and your name.”

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Her own father had flown countless missions in support of Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom. Her own family had been uprooted countless times. You would need a map of the world and a carton of pushpins to track the places she’d gone to school as she, her mom, brother and sister served alongside her military dad.

It goes on and on. I could cite another fifty examples.

I don’t need to. Here’s the point: the military brats that came of age in the aftermath of Nine-Eleven have become our best, brightest, and bravest.

They are the second wave of heroes.

For the brats who know me, that once sat in my classroom – I feel so privileged and blessed to know you. Thank you for your perseverance, resilience, and service. I follow you guys online and see what you’re doing in life, and I am overwhelmed with pride.

I have one last message on this day for remembrance.

Winston Churchill once said, “Courage is rightly esteemed the first of human qualities, because it is the quality which guarantees all others.”

I’d like to add a corollary: “Arrogance as a human quality doesn’t make you right, it only reveals you for the ass you really are.”

I think arrogant people are the worst.

It’s strong to use the word hate, but I won’t shy away from it today: I hate arrogance in all its forms, and I have no use for and refuse to associate with people whose character is arrogant.

I used to be close to someone who has an arrogance problem. I honestly believe his goal in life is to be a narcissist. The only problem is he lacks the mental acumen to achieve such a lofty goal. That doesn’t stop him from trying though. No matter the conversation he has an opinion that will differ from everyone else’s – and even on the rare occasions when you can irrefutably prove that he’s wrong or has made a mistake, his lack of any meaningful character traits compels him to rationalize the situation.

Not too long ago he accused me of not sharing anything important with him in years.

My god, but he’s slow. It’s been longer than that. And why would I share anything important with someone who values nothing aside from his own inflated sense of importance?

Arrogant people are the worst.

And now we see it with our National Anthem.

Here’s what I know: I am not in the United States as I write this. I’m in a Third World hellhole where eighty percent of school-aged kids have no opportunities to attend school. If you are gay, you will likely be arrested. If you are female, your career opportunities are to strip, hook, give massages, or some combination of those three – unless of course you win the lottery, which would be to marry a seventy-year-old divorced westerner with money so you can get the hell out of your own country as fast as you can.

I found out from someone I met on my travels recently that at least one Central Asian country instructs its doctors to implant women with devices to prevent pregnancy against their wishes and often even without their knowledge.

I recently visited a school where all the students had textbooks written in Russian. The school was in Vietnam – and no, none of the staff or students could read or write or understand anything from the books. But it’s all they had, so they showed up anyway and studied the pictures.

In Laos the men all want to be police officers so they can get a gun and legally steal from their peasant neighbors. In Laos the women all want to be flight attendants so they can get the hell out of Laos.

In Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Indonesia the public school teachers tell parents “give me money if you want me to teach your kid” and that’s the best opportunity that the small minority of students who get to go to school will ever get.

I delivered school supplies with an NGO to an orphanage in Indonesia. An orphan girl sat alone, off to the side. I walked to her and asked, “What’s your name?”

“AIDS,” she replied.

“What do you mean?”

“I have to tell everyone that visits. I sit alone because I have AIDS.”

I shrugged. “I’ll sit with you.”

The girl gave me a timid smile, and said, “No one will hold my hand or hug me. No one will kiss me or give me candy.”

All around us the NGO workers were freely giving hugs and kisses and candy to the other orphans. But this girl wasn’t the fault of the NGO workers – they were merely following the instructions from the people who ran the orphanage.

I held out my hand. “Let’s take a walk.”

“Really?”

I nodded. For a few minutes we walked hand-in-hand. And when it was time to go, I gave her a hug and kissed her forehead.

“No one has ever kissed me before,” she cried.

I thought, I know, and I’m sorry.

The girl was eight years old.

I didn’t say anything else. I just left.

And you know what? All those countries have national anthems, too. The governments are rife with corruption, the people live in extreme poverty, and the ability to improve your life is nearly non-existent.

But in America, we have second-rate, second-string, soon-to-be has been never-to-be-heard-from-again football players who think it’s okay to not stand for our National Anthem.

Such arrogance.

Do you really believe our National Anthem has no more value than the hellholes that still exist on this earth?

A last story:

I had a parent conference with a military family in Germany. The kid was black, and had been abandoned by his biological father at an early age. Now his single mom was serving her country on a military installation for three years in Germany.

The teenage boy rarely did his work. He made excuses every day. He was a behavior problem.

And then on conference day the single mom showed up with a woman at her side that I’d never seen before – and in the category of “didn’t see this coming” she introduced this woman as her life partner.

You know what happened?

This black, female, gay sergeant in the United States Air Force told me: “My son likes to blame his father. He likes to blame my gayness. He likes to blame white people. He likes to blame the military for forcing me to live my life in secret. My son is wrong. He is an irresponsible teenager who has treated you poorly and I apologize for his actions. I have raised him better than this, and with your support I will work even harder to see that he matures into a God-fearing man with strong moral convictions.”

Here’s a truth people need to understand: for all the problems that do in fact exist in America, we are the one freaking place on earth where that sergeant and her son have the God-given opportunities to dream and work hard and live free and achieve greatness.

The orphan with AIDS?

I felt good about myself when I visited her. But her life, in all its shortness, is still hopeless. If only she’d been born in America. You see that, right?

What do these arrogant athletes think they are doing?

Go ahead and give a million dollars to a few charities.

Then go online and Google “Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston enter the Palestine debate.” In 2004 they were going to achieve peace in the Middle East because “we’re celebrities and damn it we’re important” – but yeah, that worked out real well.

So take a knee during the National Anthem before a football game.

If you are arrogant enough to believe that is what’s needed to “start a conversation” or “bring real change” then you and the arrogant wanna-be-narcissist I used to be close with can start your own club for people who are never going to be relevant.

If you want to help fix the problems we have in America, then be courageous in a meaningful way – go into our schools and implore our impressionable kids to be men and women of character and morals. Lead them by example. Respect the people who made your life possible. Respect the flag. Respect the anthem my uncle died for, my father fought for, and my students like Sami suffered for.

Your arrogance does not make you courageous, relevant or right. It only reveals you as an ass.

But for the military brats who became the second post-Nine Eleven wave of heroes … you are real, and courageous, and everything that is right and honorable about our country. As we commemorate Nine-Eleven fifteen years later, thank you to all the military brats who served our country alongside your military parents.

 

Relentless: The Ryan Rossano Story

A cancer diagnosis midway through his junior year baseball season could have derailed his dreams and aspirations – but with his faith, family, and the support of his coaches and teammates, Ryan Rossano chose instead to be relentless. This is his story.

Full excerpts, release date, and ordering information to follow soon.

My (restored) faith in humanity

I took a walk last night and it put me in a terrible mood. It’s my own fault, really—because I intentionally went to a part of Yangon that would never be recommended on a tourist map. The sheer number of kids that were naked on the sidewalk and bathing in dirty water just pummeled me emotionally. I’ve seen that sort of thing in Indonesia, Laos and Vietnam, and it never gets easy.

But last night was the worst.

I felt helpless, and it made what I’m doing here seem pointless. It simply doesn’t matter how much good you try to do—there is so much misery in this part of the world. There are so few people who are willing to do anything about it.

And then this morning I got an email that really restored my faith in humanity.

A former student of mine is going to Thailand this summer to do missions-oriented humanitarian work for a month. It’s amazing and inspiring and extraordinary—and I am so freaking proud of you, Babo.

Here is the link to her GoFundMe page.

If you can help by posting her link to social media, then that would also be extraordinary.

 

Book Review: Suck It Up, Princess

This is an easy review to write: buy and read this book. It’s an extraordinary and inspirational true story. Perhaps the most remarkable aspect is that the author, Dahlia Mikha, does not seek to inspire or motivate—and she refuses to accept the fact she’s also a role-model—but with humor and humility she is all of the above.

Dahlia’s life changed forever while still a teenager. Diagnosed with Wilson’s disease—“your social life goes down the toilet”—it would have been easy to simply give up on life. Instead she shunned sympathy “because it made me feel weak” and “hated pity” and “hated people feeling sorry for me”—and she decided to suck it up and confront her disease with unbelievable amounts of wit, sarcasm and grace.

If you or someone you love has ever struggled with a medical diagnosis, this book will inspire you. It’s laugh-out-loud funny even as it is heartbreaking and gut-wrenching … but most of all it is a poignant account of what it means to be human.

This is one of the best memoirs I’ve ever read and I highly recommend it: 5/5 stars. You can use this Amazon affiliate link to read more about the book.