Born in Kan Noug, a small town in the state of Mandalay, Tun Lin Aung (nicknamed Tony) moved to attend the monastic school in the city of Mandalay two years ago. He is currently a Buddhist novice and next year, on June 1st (his 20th birthday), he will reach the age where he will have to decide whether to become a monk or not.
The reason he is a novice now is that, in that way, he can attain an education and live inside the boy’s dormitory (which is reserved for novices) at the school grounds. Otherwise, his family would not be able to afford to send him to school. His mother is a teacher at a rural school in his village. His father passed away years ago during the times of military control in Myanmar, leaving behind a family of six children to be cared for and supported by the mother. Two of Tony’s younger sisters also reside in the school, while his older brother moved to Japan after finishing his education.
Tony stands out from the crowd, he is taller than the average Burmese and his face hardly goes unnoticed. His elf-like ears, almond-shaped eyes, and protruded cheekbones are hard to bypass. I cannot tell if it’s the language barrier or else, but Tony’s quirkiness is otherworldly. For example, whenever he is faced with a slight danger (i.e. a car passing by), Tony will keep a neutral face while loudly exclaiming “WAWA!”.
I first met him one night, when Mary and I were walking out of the school grounds and he approached us saying “hello”. We found it hard to converse with him in the beginning, as he only started studying English a few months ago.
The Nickname Tony: No matter how many times he repeated his name (Tun Lin Aung), we simply couldn’t pronounce it. Burmese language is very nasal and Mary and I, as native Romantic-language speakers, find it incredibly hard to imitate. Mary and I concluded that the name “Tony” was a close bet and it became his new nickname.
We became good friends. Each day and night we’d hang out with him and his friends. Tony’s English got better as the day passed (or we grew accustomed to his accent, who knows). Our conversations transformed from simple “where are you from”s into talks about our dreams, futures, questions of life and whatnot. We all became a sort of “gang”.
Tony’s living conditions are less than ideal. He sleeps in the 8th room of the first floor in the building allocated for novices. Shared with 16 other boys, the beds are cramped into a smallish room. I write the word “beds” quite aloofly, as it’s rather a wooden board sans mattress, pillow or blankets – just nothing, not even a bamboo matt. On that wooden board stands a tiny desk, which he uses to do his homework on. These small 4×4 space, his saffron novice robe, his brown flip-flops, the wooden “bed” and the crumbling desk are all that Tony owns.
Tony doesn’t have a phone but he sometimes borrows one from his friends to listen to music – namely Burmese rap and hip-hop. He enjoys dancing (I mean awkwardly squirming his stick-like arms). Nonetheless, he keeps this “talent” a secret, because dancing and enjoying music is not allowed when you lead a monastic life. He does it inside the school (as it promotes free-thinking and individualism), but never when he’s out and about on the street.
Tony began teaching me the language of Myanmar against my will. It began with him testing me out on a few words here and there, but it quickly turned into daily one-hour lessons. I never thought I’d learn Burmese, as it’s a language that doesn’t come too useful unless you actually move to Myanmar, but when faced with the opportunity, I took the chance.
Whenever you find yourself in Mandalay, search for Tony. He is not hard to spot – just watch out for the saffron-robed, 1.70 cm tall, clueless-looking guy with the gracious (yet slightly cheeky) smile on his face.