It is just over a week ago that I landed in Yangon, where I will be living for the next five months. It is a warm Sunday morning, and I am in a crowded restaurant that is noisy with families who have come out to eat Sunday breakfast together and to chat. And after a week, I have shaken off the jet-lag, and am beginning to adjust to the rhythm of life here.
I am in Yangon to teach a course on the humanities and global cultures at the Parami Institute — an impressive project that aims to introduce liberal arts education to Myanmar. It is exciting to be here at a time of such enormous change. And after eight years in the increasingly dispiriting British University system, it is good to be doing something where ideas feel more important than brand identity, where concern with genuine intellectual engagement is prized over the blandishments of the ‘student experience’, and where thinking through what education actually means is the priority, and not the attempt to skew university league tables. It is also a luxury to be working with such a small and committed group of students — there are seventeen of them, with five in my little global cultures research group, and these seventeen are shared between us five members of the faculty.
I have already taught my first week of classes, and it has gone well. The students — drawn from across all sectors of Myanmar society — are intensely politically, socially and intellectually engaged, as well as being extremely interesting, highly entertaining, and lots of fun to teach. I am going to learn a lot from them. The course I am teaching for the coming four months is on the idea of hospitality as an overarching concept for exploring aspects of global culture — the business of welcoming and being welcomed, being a guest and being a host, working at the borderlands between being a stranger and being at home. I’ll be drawing from across the arts and humanities, and straying into the social sciences as well with some anthropology thrown in for good measure. As Derrida says, hospitality ‘is culture itself and not simply one ethic among others’. He may or may not be right, but as a way into exploring global cultures, hospitality seems a promising theme.
But there are other, more personal, reasons that I am glad to be here. I flew out here from Yangon to London on the twentieth of January, a date that I fixed largely for practical reasons. But I realised last night that quite by chance, on this same date exactly one year ago, I was catching a flight in the opposite direction, home to London from Sydney, having received the news from Elee that her cancer had metastasised and spread to the liver. It has been a painful, bruising, difficult year. I first saw this opportunity in Myanmar shortly after Elee died, and it seemed like auspicious timing — the chance to reorientate myself a little, to put myself in a different context, and to rethink who I am and where I am going. So as well as the teaching and the pleasure of being somewhere new, and the delight of working in such a fabulous educational context, there is something about being here that seems to be important part of making sense of all that has happened over the past months.
Perhaps — to return to the theme I am going to be thinking about over the coming months along with my brilliant, engaged and funny students here — it is a matter of hospitality, the negotiation between being at home and being elsewhere, between familiarity and strangeness, maintaining an open door both to the sadness and to the joy, finding new ways of living here in a world where, it seems, we are always simultaneously at home and strangers.