Cho Cho Lwin is the co-founder and chairlady of Studer Trust, an organization dedicated to building educational facilities and providing proper equipment to schools in Southeast Asia, specifically in the remote regions of Myanmar. As the former Country Manager for Studer Trust, Cho Cho spent over a decade traveling back and forth from the United States to Myanmar every three months to oversee the school projects, a passion for education that stems from overcoming the cultural and societal obstacles in her own childhood in Mandalay, Myanmar.
Cho Cho has always been a revolutionary soul. Having grown up in a male-dominated culture and lived through several military government regimes, she rebelled against the traditional systems early on and paved her own life path—running away and marrying her high-school sweetheart, getting an education and growing a career in the travel industry then moving to the United States in 2006 to provide her daughters with the freedoms she desired and knew she deserved her entire life.
Her ties to the Feathered Pipe Ranch and to Montana happened serendipitously, as so many of ours do: Cho Cho was working as a travel agent in Myanmar when she met VJ Supera, India Supera’s sister, and John P. Anderson, a long-time friend of the Ranch and a resident of Missoula, MT. Meeting these two travelers rerouted her entire immigration plan, and instead of moving to New York City like she originally intended, VJ and John P. helped her move her family to Missoula with a warm welcome from the community and plenty of friends upon arrival.
Cho Cho’s life story is one of sass and stubbornness, courage and strength, mixed in with an endearing sense of humor that carries her through the hard times. We talk about her childhood heroes, the women who showed her it’s possible to rise above the stifling sexist rules, and taught her the importance of speaking up for herself and speaking out for what she believed will lead to a better world. We also touch on the current situation in Myanmar following the military coup a few weeks ago, an ongoing battle for power that Cho Cho is all too familiar with.
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Andy Vantrease 00:17
Welcome to The Dandelion Effect podcast a space for organic conversation about the magic of living a connected life. Just like the natural world around us, we are all linked through an intricate web, and never ending ripple that spans across the globe. Here we explore the ideas that our guests carry through the world, remember who and what inspired them along the way, and uncover the seeds that help them blossom into their unique version of this human experience. This podcast is a production of the Feather Pipe Foundation, whose mission is to help people find their direction through access to programs and experiences that support healing, education, community and empowerment.
Andy Vantrease 01:04
Welcome back to another episode of The Dandelion Effect podcast. I’m your host Andy Vantrease. And before we get into our guest today, I just want to thank you for tuning in week after week as we share conversations that aim to spark inspiration and really reach into the depths of the human experience. Please keep sending in your thoughts, feelings and feedback so we can know how this content is landing in your hearts. Today I’ll share a review from Carlos in Long Beach, California. He says, “It’s refreshing to listen to a podcast telling real stories of mindfulness making an impact on issues in today’s turbulent climate. The Dandelion Effect is raw. It’s inspiring, and I just love it.” Thanks so much, Carlos. And for all of you listening and sending in reviews, it totally lights me up to hear from you. So please keep sharing.
Andy Vantrease 01:52
Today I speak with Cho Cho Lwin. Cho Cho is the co-founder and chairlady of Studer Trust, an organization dedicated to building educational facilities and providing proper equipment to schools in Southeast Asia, specifically in the remote regions of Myanmar. As a former country manager for Studer Trust, Cho Cho spent over a decade traveling back and forth from the United States to Myanmar every three months to oversee the school projects, a passion for education that stems from overcoming the cultural and societal obstacles in our own childhood and Mandalay, Myanmar. Cho Cho has always been a revolutionary soul, and you’ll be able to tell this right away. Having grown up in a male-dominated culture and lived through several military government regimes, she rebelled against the traditional systems really early on, and paved her own life path — running away and marrying her high school sweetheart Bo Bo, getting an education and growing a career in the travel industry, then moving to the United States in 2006, to provide her daughter’s with the freedom she desired and knew she deserved throughout her life.
Andy Vantrease 02:57
Her ties to the Feathered Pipe Ranch and to Montana happened serendipitously as so many of ours do. Cho Cho was working as a travel agent in Myanmar when she met VJ Supera, India Supera sister, and John P. Anderson, a longtime friend of the Ranch and a resident of Missoula, Montana. I’ll let her tell you the story. But let’s just say meeting these two travelers rerouted her entire immigration plan, and instead of moving to New York City like they originally intended, VJ and John P helped her move her family to Missoula, Montana, with a warm welcome from the community and plenty of friends upon arrival.
Andy Vantrease 03:32
Cho Cho’s life story is one of sass and stubbornness, courage and strength, mixed in with an endearing sense of humor that carries her through the hard times. We talk about her childhood heroes, the women who showed her it’s possible to rise above the stifling sexist rules, and taught her the importance of speaking up for herself and speaking out for what she believed will lead to a better world. We also touch on the current situation in Myanmar following the military coup a few weeks ago, an ongoing battle for power that she’s all too familiar with. Without further ado, please enjoy this conversation and help me welcome my friend, Cho Cho Lwin.
Andy Vantrease 04:11
So where I want to start with this Cho Cho is I really want to get into your childhood, as a woman in a country that is a very male-dominated culture in Myanmar, where women and girls were not allowed to do many things. I mean, I know you’ve mentioned not being able to tap your hands or feet to make music or…
Cho Cho Lwin 04:34
Andy Vantrease 04:34
Not being able to climb a tree are not allowed to go anywhere alone. There’s so many things that were built in when you were born.
Cho Cho Lwin 04:43
Andy Vantrease 04:44
And, you know, I’m really just curious of what your first memory was of realizing that you were girl and that with that came an entirely different set of rules for you in your childhood.
Cho Cho Lwin 04:58
I was born around 1975 and I grew up in Mandalay, which is the second largest city of Myanmar. And we have four siblings. I am the eldest daughter, and then my sister, and then my brother, and my younger sister. So most of the family in Myanmar the Buddhist family and husband is usually the head of the family and decision maker, where the woman usually mandate household and help their husbands. At a young age, I remember, there were many things that I won’t be able to do it because both of my parents they would say, “Well, this is not for you, you are a girl, you cannot climb up.” Sometimes even you cannot smile very openly, because it’s considered it’s not appropriate. So if I look back, all of my old pictures all my smiles were not very open. So the boys get the favor of the family. Example like when we were young at night, we won’t be able to allow play when my brother was playing with his friends, because that’s not appropriate for the girls to go out and play. Anyway, we, we have a bunch of girls group that at night we sneak around and then play in my father’s longyi because girl’s longyi are also again, considered not appropriate to be seen in the public.
Andy Vantrease 06:34
Do you remember having that feeling of rebellion pretty early on?
Cho Cho Lwin 06:40
At home, I get the most punishment because there are many times that I say no to my mom, especially. Because I said that’s not fair. Why Ko Ko — is my brother’s name –and he, he never get to do this. Example, my mom will say, “Oh, you need to clean up after everybody is eating, you have to clean it up.” Because I am the girls and I’m the eldest. And I will say, “No, that’s not fair. Why Ko Ko can carry his plate, and he should clean up his dish.” And then I would get punishment. And there were many times and many conversations that I against my, my parent, and very close to my mother, because she stayed at home and looking after the family. While, while my, my dad would probably go out and do a lot of his businesses. And my mom, most of the time, we always run into a very serious conversation. But you know, there are a few things, also. When I realized when I getting older, some of my friends, their parents were a little bit more than nice thinking way then especially than my mother. Because my mom’s education was very limited. She just finished the minimum elementary school level. She be able to read and write only. She didn’t even know all the English alphabet. So that’s also because of the education she received, she won’t be able to give us better judgment. And also from the protective way, she feels that the girls can be targeted very easily, if you go out or you do some inappropriate things because they can easily pick on you and then bully. But I wish I could get all, much freedom like my brother when I was little.
Andy Vantrease 08:43
Yeah, that’s such an interesting point about your mother. And I think that it sounds like as you got older and started to recognize why your parents were the way that they were. I mean, I think that’s something that we all go through as we grow up and trying to understand why our parents made certain decisions and did certain things. And a lot of times it’s out of protection, you know, or out of fear. And it’s interesting to hear that the level of education that your mother had gotten played a part in your view of her ability to really grant you that empowerment or that freedom that I’m sure she wanted for you but perhaps didn’t know how to give because that hadn’t been her life experience.
Cho Cho Lwin 09:36
Yeah. I mean, my my mother’s life was also very interesting. She grew up with, most of the time with stepmother [who] was very abusive. And also my mom and my dad marriage was arranged. They only got to know each other one month before their wedding day.
Andy Vantrease 09:58
Is that common?
Cho Cho Lwin 10:00
Oh it’s very common. Yes. I mean, when the girls wanted to get married is usually your boys, whoever you’re going to marry, it needs to be approved by your parents, especially. My parents had so much dreams about me and everything. But my mom always say, “You are a rebellious person that I ever seen, or the stubborn girl. Why don’t you just go and do when I requested?” And she’d say, “Why you have to challenge our authorities, or why you wanted to break traditional rules.” Like, oh, Cho Cho do this? Because this is a girl. And I said, “Why I have to do?” So these are the very often answers and questions that my mom received. And I think at that time, sometimes she’s getting tired.
Andy Vantrease 10:56
Do you feel that you were just born with that fire, that spirit of no, I’m going to do things differently? Was it just built in?
Cho Cho Lwin 11:05
I think probably I was born with that. But also, I mean, what I’ve seen throughout my life, and especially at a young age, of why we can’t go into that particular place in pagoda, because we are the girls. While this is a traditional beliefs, a norm, it doesn’t make any sense to me. So I think I was born with that, but building up by seeing a lot of things. These are to me unfair to a girl in Myanmar. And then why the boys usually get a lot of freedoms and why we will we’re not?
Andy Vantrease 11:45
A huge topic of conversation now is representation and the idea that if people can’t see people that look like them that are part of their community, doing certain things, it’s really hard to imagine yourself able to do those things. Was there anybody that you looked up to or admired or thought she’s doing that? Maybe I can do that? Or just those little sparks of inspiration along the way that could be very influential for a young girl?
Cho Cho Lwin 12:19
Yes, yes, I have a few heroes. So there is an auntie who live across from our place. And she was educated. And she graduated with a Bachelor degree. And she was working as a government staff [at] that time. Every time my mom was spanked me, the lady that I told, her name is Antie Newal, which we, I call it. Antie Newal and her brother, who is also a teacher at that time, and they would take me to their house, and they would talk to my mother like, this is not a right way to punish the girl. And, you know, she also should have some freedom. And they encouraged me in many ways. And so Antie Newal was definitely one of my first very hero because she was educated. She was walking that time. She got her freedom. She rode her bicycle alone to the office, you know. And so she was definitely my hero. And then our, another neighbor a little bit older than me. Her mother was a teacher. Her dad was the university teacher at the University of Mandalay at that time. They’ve got quite a freedom than me. You know, they have to do their chores, but it’s not really like majority of the mothers at that time. They were a little different. And I saw the freedom that they got. So those were the people that I looked up to. Antie Newal died 10 years ago, but the other girl that older than me, I mentioned. Now she become a professor at medicine school.
Andy Vantrease 14:07
Yeah, I’m always so curious. And nobody is self made. Each generation. That’s how culture is created. That’s how all traditions are created. It’s just people doing certain things. And if you want to change it, you are that change. So it’s really interesting to hear who gave you this spark.
Cho Cho Lwin 14:26
Yes, yes, definitely. These are the people. And of course as I get older, and our lady Aung San Suu Kyi, who got arrested two weeks ago. She was our State Councilor and had been fighting for freedom and democracy for our country. So she is my lifetime hero. And after I moved to United States, I really like our Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and I really like her very much too.
Andy Vantrease 14:57
Definitely. It’s fun to have those people in your life who you are in relationship with, but then also those bigger figures who are doing work on such a high level that we can all admire from afar, because it’s so relevant to our lives.
Cho Cho Lwin 15:17
Yes, and make a lot of important changes for the people and majority for the woman. So…
Andy Vantrease 15:24
I want to talk about your relationship with your husband, Bo Bo, because I think that this relationship is kind of a revolutionary love in the way that it has transpired, just the conditioning that you were born into. And having been a part of a culture where arranged marriage was very common. And you did things much differently in that arena of life as well…
Cho Cho Lwin 15:51
Yes, I did.
Andy Vantrease 15:53
Knowing that you met Bo Bo in high school. And just tell us a little bit about what that relationship was like when you were still living in Myanmar. And perhaps, what did all that mean for you in your lifetime of kind of rebelling against these larger systems?
Cho Cho Lwin 16:13
Bo Bo and I have been married for 28 years. I met him at one of our out-of-school classes in around 1990 and 91. When we were still in high school. And I went to all girls’ school. I mean, it’s no wonder my parents put me in all girls’ school. And they put our brother in all boys’ school. Not in our normal school, but it is a tuition where we need extra help with the teacher. So we went to this tuition. And I met Bo Bo there. And of course, when my parents found out that I was in a relationship, they got furious. And I remember that many times my mom told me I could only get two dress because if I had money, dresses that I can change, I would probably have ego and pride. And then this is what made me to have boyfriends.
Andy Vantrease 17:22
Cho Cho Lwin 17:24
Yeah, they were very conservative.
Andy Vantrease 17:26
Cho Cho Lwin 17:27
That, I will not be very attractive, or you know, and I will not look good. And I will not get boyfriend or that will probably lower my intention of having boyfriends. And every time I wanted to stand next to the window also. They think I’m trying to lure the boys, that I want to do have a lot of boyfriends. Yeah, there were many funny things that my parents thought in that time. I mean, one Bo Bo and I were in relationship, of course, we didn’t have planned to get married right away. We had our plan. And I was very keen to be educated person because of the people that I have seen, my heroes are when I was young. So I wanted to get graduated. I wanted to get degrees from the university. And I wanted to work and I want to have a life and family, of course. But then married at a young age wasn’t my first choice. But my parents put me into it.
Andy Vantrease 18:34
What do you mean?
Cho Cho Lwin 18:37
So one day in fall day of July 1992. My parents and a few of our relatives went to a monastery and make a donation of offering food to a lot of monks. And that time I, I sneak out and then I was just sitting and talking with Bo Bo, like for a few hours. And then my parents at some point, they noticed that they could not find me. Then they started looking for me which I didn’t know that. When I went back to the monastery, I noticed that dad was very angry and my mother too. So they actually took me to a corner place and then my dad was really angry. He questioned me, “Where did I go?” We went home because the monastery was in Sagaing, which is about one hour drive from Mandalay. That evening, my dad and my mom, they tore my clothes, and they slapped me. And again they got me the punishment with this two dress again. They said you we’re going to put you again with this two dress rules. And you’re not allowed to wear any valuable things because the boys might think I’m rich, and this is…I become a target. This all kinds of things, they making that talking to me again. And I was so afraid, of course. I’m tried to lie that as much as I could, that no, I was out with my friends, girlfriend, who was in this place of who was in that place. And my parents didn’t buy my lie. So they said, “Okay, tomorrow morning, we’ll go into pool and check it out with your friends.”
Andy Vantrease 20:26
Cho Cho Lwin 20:26
Then, yeah. Then I said, “Okay.” And with the clothes that, it was tore, I actually went to my friend’s place where I mentioned her name earlier to my parents, saying that I was with her. And I went to her place, which was about five blocks away from our house. The reason was, “Okay, the next morning, if they showed up, you say I was with you.” But then by the time I reach to her house, and already had a conversation, which she agreed to say any way, if they showed up the next day. And I thought, and it was too late. and I actually came back, but I saw there were so many things happening, means a lot of people, my religious nearby our house, and I knew that they probably notice again that they could not find me. So what I did is I went to a Bo Bo’s place. He was staying at his friend’s house. I just wanted to tell Bo Bo what’s going on. Then when I reach to Bo Bo’s place, and we were talking different things and of course, crying and… They, he saw me with in the clothes that was already tear apart. Both of us at that time was, “Well, what should we do? We will not be able to see each other again, for the rest of our lives, you know?” So then Bo Bo said, “Oh, let’s go run away.” And I, then I said to myself, “Yeah, why not? Maybe I can just get some freedom too.” So this is why we ran away to Pyin Oo Lwin, which is a hill station, about an hour drive from Mandalay and with his motorcycle. And we got all together that time, money we got in hand was about 10 cent in US dollar money, 11 kyats. And when we were started to climb up at the hill station by motorcycle, we usually a traditional way of believing, we needed to offer a spiritual house of flowers. So we offer flowers for 10 kyats. And we have the bill of 1 kyat in Myanmar currency lab, which we bought signed with the date, and we kept it until now.
Andy Vantrease 22:59
Wow! What a story.
Cho Cho Lwin 23:01
Yeah. Oh then ceremony for boys for my brother and us too it is called ??? or Buddhist initiation ceremony was held three months before I ran away. Me and my all my sister will also be we became nuns for a month, which means I shaved my head. So when I eloped with Bo Bo my hair was very, very short. So after I’ve been with Bo Bo for a little bit over a month or two months, my hair grow a little bit longer. But I remember I told Bo Bo that I wanted to ??? my hair I wanted to make ???. And he said it was not look good on you. And I said, No. I am going to do it because every time I requested to my mother to cut my hair or do however I want it, she said, “No, I’m not allowed. So this is my freedom. If you say I can’t do it, and I’m not going to marry you. I have to do it. I must do it that I did it.” And I look very ugly too.
Andy Vantrease 24:19
It didn’t even matter. It was just the act.
Cho Cho Lwin 24:21
Andy Vantrease 24:23
So it’s really interesting to me because wanting your freedom and wanting to just have the autonomy to live the life that you wanted to live as a human and as a woman and how you found that through a union with the man.
Cho Cho Lwin 24:43
Bo Bo, he was such a…yeah, my sweetheart and he allowed me to do everything that I wanted to do since day one. He supported me in many ways. Yes, I wanted my freedom, but I also love for very, very much. And I did not believe in an arranged marriage. I don’t want to be a person who were told to do things. And I wanted to contribute something into an a ??? or in the life together, Bo Bo was able to come to United States, as legal immigrant. Also we did it together. So every step since then, we did it things together.
Andy Vantrease 25:32
So yeah, tell me about what that transition was like, I’m curious of how your family accepted or didn’t accept what you had decided to do together. And then how did you have the opportunity to come to the US?
Cho Cho Lwin 25:47
Of course, my parents, especially my dad, they didn’t accept my marriage. He actually told everybody, as soon as I ran away that I died. He was very upset. I mean, I understand because he was arranged already for me to be a university student to attended in university. I was a very bright student, I passed the high school with what we call three distinctions. So he was very upset. He did not even talk to my husband until our first daughter was born in 1994. After I think more than six months, I was living with my in-laws…
Andy Vantrease 26:35
Cho Cho Lwin 26:35
With my husband, then, my mom actually wanted me to get back to our house. But my father, he did not. But anyway, my mom was really worried about me being in another place. And she’d been convincing my dad to take me. So she was talking to my dad, and he accepted on one condition that me and my husband won’t be at his sight. He didn’t want to see us. He loved his first granddaughter very much, but he still could not take it, my husband as his son-in-law. After our first daughter was a year or so old, I got my very first job as a bar hostess at the very first international hotel in Mandalay. My working hours was very late hours. You know, sometimes we had to walk, walk until midnight, or after midnight. And I remember, you know, how in Myanmar, that traditional norms and belief of, well, if you see a woman after midnight, that she will not be a good woman. It is a loose character is only the woman who has a loose character can stay up until midnight or odd hours. I was earning a lot of good money. And my husband was at that time studying as an engineering student. I wanted to support and I wanted to get some income. So I walked there and happily, and it was a good paying job. But one day my mom told me that I should quit my job because a few women from our community [were] concerned about what I’m doing. They thought that I was a prostitute. I earning money on that. So my mom that maybe you should quit the job. Because I don’t want to be seen as a mother of loose character by my community. And I was, “What?’ Told my mom that, “No, I will not quit my job. This is my job. I like it. And no matter how other people think I like it, and they support my family.”
Andy Vantrease 29:01
And it’s not what other people think.
Cho Cho Lwin 29:03
No, yeah, exactly! Yeah. And my mom was, you know, she felt so sad about the whole thing. Even a few of our relatives, they came to our house whispering to my mom, that she should convince me to quit my job. So my mom felt that she wasn’t a good mother because she won’t able to convince me as usual. And from there, I just built up my career as a travel consultant. And this is how I met VJ and John P Anderson from Missoula. And from there, I become a country director of Studer Trust, a nonprofit organization. And I strongly believe that education can change one person life. In the, this is also is the very reason that me and my husband, we moved to United States, here as a legal immigrant, because of our daughters’ education.
Andy Vantrease 30:16
Mm hmm. Wanting to give them that opportunity.
Cho Cho Lwin 30:19
Andy Vantrease 30:20
Yeah. Will you tell me a little bit more about meeting VJ Supera and John P Anderson.
Cho Cho Lwin 30:28
It was sometime in 2005, where I was working as a travel consultant at a company in Myanmar. And my husband at that time, we knew that he was one of the winners for the US Green Card Lottery program. And we were in preparation of getting into United States, the whole family. And of course, we didn’t have no friends or family members here in the States. Except for me, the rest of the family never been out of the country. I was that time already involved with the nonprofit organization, which building schools and promoting educational opportunities in Myanmar. So because of this organization, I was invited to go to Hong Kong for a few days, so I had a little bit of international experience, but the rest of my family, they had none. And so our plan was we got this New York address through one of our mutual friends, but the house owner, we didn’t really know. But we used her address for the correspondent for our green card application and program. So when VJ and John P actually came to the office, they wanted to make the payment for the service through our company. And when they showed up, it was really funny that I let them sit down and talk through it. And I was needed a copy of the passport, and I found out that they were Americans. And we started talking about our plan of going to the US. And we said, “Oh, we probably said my husband to New York first and then we will follow. And this is where VJ said, “Oh, no, no, Cho Cho, you don’t want to send your husband alone. And my husband was in my office [at] that time. He did very little communication with VJ and John, and they know that it wasn’t a good idea for my husband to go to a big city like New York. And without knowing anybody there, or no family. So we just started the conversation. And at some point, John P said, “Well, why don’t you go and stay in our family place in Missoula, Montana. It was just like that.
Andy Vantrease 33:12
Were you like, Where is that?
Andy Vantrease 33:14
Yeah! No. Yeah, exactly. We’re like, what Montana is it a place in US? Does it exist. Because yes, we we heard about New York or California or San Francisco or something. Montana? No. This is how we came to Missoula, Montana. And we really liked it very much. People are very warm welcome. And we got a very overwhelming support from the friends from VJ and John P, family friends, everyone. Because of them, it, we be able to make a small settlement in Missoula. And we like it very much.
Andy Vantrease 34:04
How old were your two girls when you came over?
Cho Cho Lwin 34:08
They were 6 1/2 and 12 1/2.
Andy Vantrease 34:12
Cho Cho Lwin 34:12
And they are already 21 and 27?
Andy Vantrease 34:16
Hmm. It’s such a different upbringing for them and a different life for them. What has it, what has it been like for your family since coming here to the US, just in a sense of changing those generational patterns and allowing your daughters the freedoms that you wish that you had?
Cho Cho Lwin 34:39
Oh, yes, definitely is an eye opening for everybody. I will say it’s a good change for the whole family. You know, when we came we had only 1300 US dollar. That’s all we had at that time. And me and my husband Bo Bo, we work very hard, and as the girls too. They supported us in many ways, because we moved here it’s totally different traditions and the cultural norms. But it’s the very best thing that we could do it for them and us too. They are now educated women, very independent. We don’t have to worry about anything at all, because we know that they are very strong, and they can take care of themselves. And our elder daughter is graduated from University of Montana, and she is now working at the Missoula Development Services for almost three years. And Su Su is studying pharmacy at the University of Montana. So we’re very proud. And because of here the society and freedoms and rights for the girls, they be able to become who they are now.
Andy Vantrease 36:07
I know when we talked last you, you were telling me about some of the ways that your daughter’s have been teaching you. And being the reflectors that children can be just showing you some of the ways that those generational patterns, the more of the fear-based living, you know, that you grew up with, how that still lives in you. And so this next generation that you are raising, is responsible, just as you were for pushing you outside of your comfort zone. And for saying, “No, Mom, this is how it has to be.” Can you give an example or just talk a little bit about that?
Cho Cho Lwin 36:53
Yeah, definitely. We were, grew up with this uprising in 1988. And there was many crackdowns, and many people got arrested and tortured by the system. For some students more than two decades, they were in prison. So I myself, I, not all the time, but at some point, I grew up with some kinds of fear, too. I got involved in uprising. But there was a time that I was so scared of speaking up, even [about] a little things. Example if they wanted to get a conversation about the news of our radios just announced in the evening, about a little political stuff, I would not be able to comfortable about talking it because I was too scared seeing that some of my cousin’s got arrested, and they were put in jail for many years, or some of the businesses who, they got involved also shut down by the military government. So after we moved here, there were a few times that, you know, I just assumed that, “Oh, you can talk about this.” I would ask Su Su a lot of questions, or my daughters, but especially to Su Su, because she got involved in many activities. And sometimes I was scared. A good example would be when she got involved with speech and debate, and there was many times they would change, some system that they change. And they said, “Oh, we’re going to talk to the board.” And I was, “Oh, well, do you think it’s a good idea that you can involve?” Su Su would say, “Oh, it’s okay, that we can speak it up.” And one time, she said, “Oh, Mom, you might want to speak with other parents to talk about–that was in ??? school when she was in, in elementary–want to get involved of something about the classroom management and things like that. I was a little skeptical about getting involved because I thought, maybe it’s not a good idea to speak about it. But Su Su would say, “No, you can get involved.” Or sometimes I say, Su Su, you should not go there.” And she would say, “Mom, remember, you didn’t like what you were told not to by Grandma, but you have to let us do it.” Some of the stuff. Example she would say, “Oh, I wanted to go out with my friends, or sleep over.” Sometimes I was a little worried about her, which I should not be. But it just comes I think as a traditional ??? cultural. How can I say? The ??? way of thinking. It just comes out, but then Su Su would remind me like, “No, you don’t want to be like Grandma, right?”
Andy Vantrease 39:57
That’s probably a really easy way for her to, to allow her to do something.
Cho Cho Lwin 40:02
Yes. But there were many things that we learned about American culture and the family values. And what you do as a family-time fun, playing games, because in Myanmar, we don’t usually play games, or singing together because they were not in our traditional way. There were many things that we learned through our daughters. And I think, remember one time Su Su told us, “Maybe you should get parenting classes.” And then we went. Bo Bo and I went there, once Su Su was already, I think 10 years old. And we were sitting with a bunch of parents, their kids were two years or five years. But you know, the parenting in Myanmar, I mean probably now today through internet, the young generation, they probably learned a lot. But when we were, I never heard about parenting tips, parenting classes or book about parenting. No, you were told what the parent wants you to do. Su Su will say, “This is all? No, I don’t want to eat broccoli.” And my parents would use, “This is what we cook. This is what you eat.” Something like that. But in America…we use in Myanmar manners. And we learned you can have a good principle, but this should be in a good conversation with your children, which we learn a lot through our daughters, from their school, and through their friends that they hang out a lot of the one for our sleep overs. And they learn a lot. And they will say, “You can say no, but in such a nice way.”
Andy Vantrease 41:58
Cho Cho Lwin 41:58
And yeah, that we learn. And I wish my mom could have that too.
Andy Vantrease 42:04
Is your mother still alive?
Cho Cho Lwin 42:06
Andy Vantrease 42:07
Is she in the States with you or she in Myanmar?
Cho Cho Lwin 42:10
She is now in Myanmar. But she came to US and live with us for already three or four times. It was eye opening for my mother too. She changed a lot. And there were many times that with her granddaughters, she said, “No. Su Su, you cannot go.” And Su Su say, “No, Grandma, I can go. This is just play date. I can go and I can play whoever I wanted.” Something like that. And my mom say, “No.” And then she learned a lot too about how here in US or in western country that how they raised their kid to be independent. But there are certain things that you can say no, in such a good way.
Andy Vantrease 42:55
What are some of the things that you carry over from having grown up in Myanmar, some of the cultural traditions that you respect and want to instill in your daughters or preserve?
Cho Cho Lwin 43:11
We really wanted our daughters to carry on [with] respect. In our country when having a dinner, we usually offer the first food to the elderly people who sitting in the dining table. So we told our daughters that they should carry on because they were like, “Oh, I’m the youngest. You should give me first the best food.” Because the youngest is kind of the weakest person, you, we should be looked after. But in Myanmar way is we give a respect to elderly people first. Because of them, because of what they support it to us, we be able to grow up. And this is how we give a respect. So this one thing that we strongly firm. So when we eat our daughters say, even with their boyfriend, they will say, “Oh yeah, put it to our dads plate first.” Yeah. And also there were many things that in Myanmar when we grew up, it was not available, so we have to use whatever we could.
Andy Vantrease 44:20
Cho Cho Lwin 44:21
Not, I mean here in US it was great that we have available many things. But sometimes I think we easily wasted, because of in Myanmar there were times that container of milk we, we use it but the container we still carry using for measuring cup. So…
Andy Vantrease 44:48
Cho Cho Lwin 44:50
Even if it’s something very little, appreciate what you have.
Andy Vantrease 44:56
Yeah, so just taking the things from your upbringing that you want to preserve and that you feel are positive values, but then changing and being open to other ways of doing things in other aspects of life.
Cho Cho Lwin 45:10
Andy Vantrease 45:10
Yeah. And so you came to the US in 2006. Were you working for Studer Trust when you came here?
Cho Cho Lwin 45:19
I was working for Studer Trust, part time in 2006. It’s, Studer Trust is a nonprofit organization that is registered in Hong Kong. And primarily we’re promoting educational opportunities in disadvantaged area and communities in Myanmar. At this moment, we already built almost 70 schools, building in Myanmar along with other projects. And we received many support from Hong Kong and also from Missoula, Montana, and also from other countries. Studer Trust is founded by a gentleman called Peter Gautschi. He is a Swiss nationality, but he had been living in Southeast Asia, particularly in Hong Kong for many years. And the idea was he wanted to give back, empower the young people with better education for them. And I met him accidentally in 2004, while I was working as a travel consultant in Myanmar. And later, I got very much involved with Studer Trust, and I became a country manager. And I managed until up to 2018. I’m still getting involved as a chairperson and co-founder, and I wish to continue to do in it. So the education is very important. And I believe in myself. And the reason we moved to United State is for our daughter’s better education. This is why I wanted to get involved in Studer Trust. In 2015, a group of volunteers from Missoula, Montana through a Episcopal Church we organize it with Studer Trust, they went to Myanmar for two weeks, and they lived in our monastery, monastic schools. And they help students and teachers teaching English. And they stay, supported other projects like getting electrical power at one of the monastic school, dental clinic at one of the monastic school, and sponsoring a few girls to continue their study.
Andy Vantrease 47:49
Before 2018 you were going back and forth to Myanmar quite frequently, right? Every three months or so.
Cho Cho Lwin 47:59
Yes, yeah, I commute a lot.
Andy Vantrease 48:02
Yeah. I imagine that where you were building the schools and where you were doing the projects were in more remote areas.
Cho Cho Lwin 48:11
Yeah, I was traveling a lot because all of our projects are all over Myanmar. To go and visit that project, and me and my team we would need and see with a lot of communities, especially in a remote area. In past three years, we decided to focus on an area which needed the most in Myanmar. Before we build school all over Myanmar, but past five years, our focus area is the poor state of Kayah, ???, Chin State, Nagaland, Shan State, and so on. And especially when I travel, and of course, I see a lot of poor communities that needed help with education and many basic infrastructure. Well, what happened now in Myanmar is also not helping at all, to those people living in poor condition.
Andy Vantrease 49:19
Yeah, I was gonna ask just what that feels like to you, to go back and then now to see what’s going on in your country. I’m sure you have a lot of relatives still there and things are getting dangerously close to what you grew up under. As far as military regime.
Cho Cho Lwin 49:38
You know, since Monday, the February 1, including our State Councilor, and many civil political leaders, they were arrested. And believe it or not, she was arrested and charges for having walkie talkies.
Andy Vantrease 49:57
Cho Cho Lwin 49:58
Yes, that’s what military government usually what they does. They always came up with this stupid reasons when arresting people. What’s happening now in Myanmar is getting back to the control. And the military government is not going to help the people at all. And this is where a lot of demonstrations and protests are happening on the streets and is increasing every day. And I heard the, as we speak, a few hours ago in Mandalay, two people got shot and killed. And I hope they stop and that they returned the power back to our elected government. I witnessed what happened in 1988. And again, in 2007, we call it a sovereign revolution. And there were many corrupted system. This is why we built many schools in remote area. With the team they would scout what school needed. And before 1994, the only place that we could get the education was in public school.
Andy Vantrease 51:15
Cho Cho Lwin 51:16
If your area, they don’t have public school, and your children won’t be able to get education. So the monastery and the monk, they stepped in, and they give this free education, mainly is the children be able to read and write and learn a simple, or basic mathematics subject. And from there, 1994, the government legalized the monastic school, and from there is growing. And when we built our first school in 2004, this is where I learned the real situation of the education status in the villages. Most of the monastic school [at] that time, I was talking about back in 2004, they didn’t get any support from government. They were just relying, heavily relying on the donations from community. Today, we had about 1800 ministry schools across the Miramar. Yeah. Of course, since the Ladies Party, people got the NLD party got elected in 2015. And they got into the office. And their things were much improved. There were many public schools that have been built in remote area. And this is where now today, we work also closely with Ministry of Education. And I had a one experience, one, we were doing school opening ceremony at one of the monastery school at the northern part of Mandalay at a village called Changi. And it was in 2006. I was with two foreigners from Hong Kong. One was our donors. And one, he was our executive officer of Studer Trust. And then immigration officer came. And for no reasons, they just wanted to get some money. Because they question me giving me a very, I mean, stupid and very hard question, which is not, nothing related to our project or me. But they thought [if] they give me very hard questions, I would probably give him a lot of money, and then you know, just to keep them shut down. But instead, I did not do I just sat down and then I talk with them for almost four hours. And they were like, “What was the reason you build the school? What is behind it? What’s your organization doing? Did you wish to do businesses at this village? Who gave you the permission?” Of course I answer all those questions and I said, “Well, this is for the people and we have no intention of doing businesses.” And me, we also brought dentists from Mandalay, gave free dental treatment to everybody who came for the opening ceremony, because in Myanmar when seeing, or having, or getting to know, or touching the foreigner is also a privilege. So there was a lot of villagers came just to see the foreigners. So we give a free dental treatment on the opening ceremony day so we have no intention. The only good intention is to help and uplift community by providing a proper school building because the children were studying under the rain. You know, in Myanmar is once they squeeze and give a very hard questions, people easily got fear and they will say, “Okay, what should I do officer?” It just simply we always give a “tea money.” in Myanmar we have a say, “If you just give them a tea money, everything is fine.”
Andy Vantrease 55:28
So it’s just all bribing.
Cho Cho Lwin 55:30
Yeah, it’s a bribing. Yeah, yeah. So because of instead of I’m not showing any tea money I just giving them, or answering every questions, they giving me a very hard time. So I had a fear, because I had a similar experience after 1988. But then I thought, well, we didn’t do nothing wrong, I should stand up. And in fact, we’re helping. So I mean, with the help of internet these days, people seeing, international community are seeing what is happening in Myanmar. And I wish for the best for the country. What happened to you right now is not right. There’s no justice at all.
Andy Vantrease 56:21
You know, with all of this going on there, and just all the work that you’ve done and the things that you’ve overcome in your life, like where do you find the courage to live the life that you’ve lived? And to continue to do the work that you do? What is keeping that flame that you were born with? What’s keeping that alive today?
Cho Cho Lwin 56:44
Yes, you you need your stubbornness, persistent, but education. One thing that I’m very fortunate, and I’m grateful for what my parents did to us, was they sent us to a very good tuition or schools. And because of that, we be able to get good education. Education can keep your eyes open. It will also help you gain more knowledge to decide what is right and what is wrong. Freedom is very important. And in my experience, I’m stubborn in some ways, because I want what I believe, and I stood up for my freedom. I never regretted what I did, or against my parents when I was young, because I was strongly believed, I should deserve the same like my brother. So these are the keys then you need to stand up for yourself. And also once you have a good education, you can help your family, your friends, from there, your community, and everyone.
Andy Vantrease 58:20
Cho Cho Lwin, what an amazing conversation for women everywhere to recognize our power and remember never to give up on what you believe is right, for yourself, your family, and for the world. Cho Cho is one of those people who inspires so many just by living her authentic path, staying dedicated to that fire within since she was a little girl and allowing her own experiences to translate into the work she does today. Fighting against the injustices that she’s been subjected to and changing the generational patterns for her family and greater community. I know I’m walking away inspired to stand up for myself to link hands with other women and keep questioning and pushing back on cultural and traditional norms that promote fear and separation. Although my childhood was much different than Cho Cho’s, there is room for improvement here in the US when it comes to honoring and respecting women to the degree that I’d like to see and experience. So how do I carry that responsibility? And what does it feel like to be dedicated to my own liberation as well as the collective liberation for women everywhere.
Andy Vantrease 59:23
To learn more about Studer Trust, visit studertrust.org, where you’ll find the latest about international education projects and ways to get involved to support the work.
A special thank you to Matthew Marsolek and the Drum Brothers, whose music you hear at the beginning and end of this podcast, as well as Dr. Jean Shinoda Bolen, who first turned us on to the phenomenon of the Dandelion Effect and how ideas move through the world.
This podcast is a production of the Feathered Pipe Foundation, a 501c3 dedicated to healing, education, community and empowerment. If you’d like to help support this project, please visit FeatheredPipe.com/gratitude or leave a review on Apple podcasts and share with your friends. Be sure to tune in to our next episode in two weeks. We cannot wait to share another amazing conversation with you. Until then, have a beautiful day.