Tuesday, February 23, 2010

It's been a while...

but we've really just been hanging out at the office, I in many a bra choom (meeting). We started our first unit today (Monday, 22/2/10), and I am one of five facilitators for the unit. To explain, there are six process facilitators for the whole group, who oversee the group process over the course of the entire semester. The rest of us are unit facilitators and we are basically in charge of the content of each unit- we facilitate the briefing before the trip, the exchanges and check-ins while on the trip, and the reflection and workshop once we return to Khon Kaen. I've been working with Bijal, April, Barrie, and Maggie P. over the past few days to plan the briefing for tomorrow. As slightly nerve-wracking as it is to be the first facilitators, we have an amazing group and are really well prepared, never mind that agriculture is such a great unit. I will be able to work closely with Bennett, the Bowdoin grad who was the first and only Bowdoin rep for this CIEE program before Maina last semester.

We watched Food Inc. today- I highly recommend it, as it really does try to show many sides of the issues surrounding our food industry, a major requirement of mine for documentaries. I am quick to reject anything one-sided- too much manipulation. I am trying to commit myself to buying as many local, organic, or at least free range products as I can this summer, as I'll be cooking for myself at Bowdoin.

I just wanted to check in before I headed out, as the next post is going to be one of those 3- pagers once I get back from my trip, which I refuse to believe will be the day before March. What a tease the month of February is- where did it go?

The newsletter we wrote should be heading out soon, so if you are in NY check with my parents, if in ME, the Study Abroad office should be receiving one if you're interested.

I am excited to embark on our first full unit/trip with the group, 31 individuals who I have gotten to know on a much more well-rounded scale than prior to our two weeks in Khon Kaen. We’ve all gotten to know the campus and the city well, picked out our favorite restaurants (unfortunately, the group’s two favorite and most conveniently located restaurants are getting bought out for their land and will be bulldozed by the time we get back) and met a slew of Thai friends.

A shout out to my roommate who got a scholarship to go to China for the month of April (and I just watched her 30 min. movie for her English class- it was awesome.) Also, I’m learning guitar from Gianna’s roommate.

Oh and I played softball and bananagrams in the same day. Best ever.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

A Photo and First Impressions Entry

Make your own soup hot pot
Yummy, Healthy

 Rachel reads the I Have a Dream speech on a T-Shirt at the Night Market
American culture invasion?

Snake fighting at a "cobra village"
Cruel, but trying to see everything through a cultural lens

Trying out some snake charming
 Please, please don't go after my arm.

Buddha on top of a mountain
Wondrous, immense, impressive, peaceful

 The racing past off the back of a songtaew shot
That's a lot of stairs, I wish I got to run down them or slide down the dragon banisters

Monday, February 15, 2010

Harry Potter

has officially made his way to Thailand. In my Thai peer tutoring session with a student here, she asked me if my middle name was my father's name, as they don't have middle names here and she was wondering how it worked. I thought she was talking about maternity, paternity things, as in some cultures your mother might actually pass her last name down to you or something. I answered that most everyone takes their father's last name as their own, and some parents may make your mother's maiden name your middle name, or come up with some other tribute to a family member. She looked a tad confused, and then explained. "I thought that you all had your father's name as your middle name, like Harry James Potter- you know his father's name was James."

Most harmless generalized about all English speaking people ever. Love it.

Sunday, February 14, 2010


colloquially known as BAMFs, have invaded my learning these days. Nevermind that the head of my program is a major scholar of Thai history, especially lèse majesté (comdemnation of the king) laws and persecutions and just finished a book on the subject. He and another KKU professor lectured us on Thai history and politics and Thai social structure, respectively, which gave us a great context for the work we are going to be doing. Crazy fact of the day: Since 1932, Thailand has gone through 18 different constitutions and 11 coup d'etats. Constant fighting between two politically charged groups, the yellow shirts and the red shirts, has caused many shifts in political power.

Yesterday, Friday, the most amazing woman came to speak to us regarding human rights. She is a professor of human rights at a university in Bangkok, the only university in Southeast Asia offering that area of study. Her thoughts and opinions, both sub- and objective, intrigued us all to the extent that we chose to limit our break to 3 minutes. She is a human rights consultant to ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations), and spoke on issues regarding the universality of human rights, conflicting "Asian Values", and rights that she believes are absolute and cannot be compromised, including the right to life and the right to torture. She defined humans rights as life, stating that because all human rights must be interconnected to one another, human rights is singular, and should be thought of as one entity as opposed to a list of separate statements. We prodded her for her opinions about what to do when rights are conflicting, such as the pro-choice vs. pro-life debate, so relevant these days in American society. It was such a great opportunity to be able to hear someone so revered in the academic world come and talk to us about a usually vague and broad topic, human rights. Somehow, the issues became so much clearer after she spoke.

Today, a journalist, orginally from Sri Lanka, who has worked in Mexico and currently, Bangkok, conducted a writing workshop with our class. We prepared by reading stories, news articles, and op-eds, the angle, theme, event, and conflict of each we discussed in class. We spoke about why we may have preferred one article over the other, which ended up being mainly due to the intrigue of events and personal stories as opposed to facts. We were then given an assignment for the day: to write 300 words about Thanksgiving. Since I have such strong feelings, memories, and traditions surrounding Thanksgiving, finding inspiration for my piece was no problem, controlling its length was a different story. He then asked a few of us to share our stories, so we could all hear the variety of different responses we all had to the same word. We were then all able to meet with him one-on-one to discuss our own stories, at which I received some criticism about making sure that I knew what I wanted to say and stating it clearly. I can see where he was coming from. This journalist will be working with us over the semester, helping us with and grading our op-eds and profiles.

After our writing workshop, we heard from a whole different professional entirely. Technology, Entertainment Designs (TED) Talks host conferences for thinkers with "Ideas Worth Spreading." Each speaker gives around a 20 minute talk on their area of expertise, and these talks are uploaded to ted.com for the public to see. This evening, over pizza!!!, we watched a Ted talk about synthetic happiness, which you all need to watch immediately:

We had an amazing day today with Nic Dunlap, a world renowned photographer who, through his work, addresses issues of oppression in Southeast Asia, especially of the militaristic government in Burma. After reviewing some of his pieces and discussing what makes good photographic stories, we were sent off to the streets of Khon Kaen to tell a story of a person, our subject. We had to get wide shots, close shots, details, portraits, but at the end of the day, we were only allowed to pick the five shots we felt best represented our story. Our subjects weren't allowed to be children or monks (too easy), and we weren't allowed to use a zoom lens. We had to get out of our comfort zone by getting up close and personal with our subjects. I chose to photograph a family who owned a Chinese noodle restaurant that Gianna, Ben, Cyril and I stumbled upon a few days ago. The father speaks great English which made it easier, but I found difficulties interrupting our conversation to take pictures. In all, I spent about 2 hours with the family and took about 200 pictures. I chose 5 that told the story of the restaurant, where the father is the social overseer, talking to everyone who walks through the door, while his wife and daughter run the kitchen and drink stand. Talk about gender relations. Anyway, below are the five pictures I chose to represent that. The rest of my pictures, edited, are in their own facebook album. I learned so much from Nic, especially about composition, as well as breaking out my comfort zone in an unfamiliar country and language.






Friday, February 12, 2010

Personal days: of day markets, potlucks, aeorbics, and court dates

Day Market:
So for our first personal day on Tuesday, Gianna, Becky, and I headed into Khon Kaen city to check out the day market. Despite getting off the songtao much too early, we were able to orient ourselves over sodas served in bags and made it to the market. They sell everything there from fresh fruit and meat to jewelry to used and new clothing. We attempted to check out the used clothing collection (I had been missing Emma and really needed my Salvo fix) but it was a huge unorganized mess and mostly men’s clothing, so we moved onto the new stuff. We sifted through cute shirts, pant-skirtish like bottoms, and each found a dress we loved. I can’t believe I didn’t get any pictures of the craziness of the market, but as it’s open every day, I’m sure some will surface soon.

Liam’s roommate invited us all up to the 3rd floor of our dorm for an amazing dinner party, very much reminiscent of my favorite Bowdoin tradition: pot lucks. His roommate and a bunch of friends had small grills and cookers and made us the most amazing Thai food, including eggplant? tempura, morning glories, some noodle dish, and an amazing soup with vegetables and pork. They had a whole fruit spread with even ripe mango which we haven’t seen but have been craving so intensely since arriving. Gianna’s roommate Sax played Jason Mraz, Colbie Caillat, and that Oreo commercial song “I’m just a little bit caught in the middle...” and more. She has an amazing singing voice and I can’t wait for her to bring us to karaoke down town. Great night, great food, all around really freaking awesome.

So remind yourself of my trip to the Baw Kaew village where we spent a night with the protestors who got kicked off their land with minimal or no compensation so the Forest Industry could build eucalyptus trees for profit. As these villagers are farmers, without land, they have no livelihood and no access to food or profit. They have been fighting for their land back for 30 years, but until recently, were not aware of the rights they have according to the United Nations Human Rights Report, of which Thailand is a signatory. They have been working closely with NGOs who have educated them about their rights and aided the villagers in securing their land and livelihoods. Currently, the villagers are being sued by the FIO for trespassing, as they set up a protest village on the land that was once theirs and is now covered in a eucalyptus forest. However, if they can prove that the land was taken from them illegally, they eucalyptus project will stop and their land will be returned to them. Granted, in many meetings with multiple committees and subcommittees, the Thai government has already declared that the project should stop and yet it continues. The villagers are hoping that through this court case, they will get their land back for once and for all. As we conveniently had a personal day on the first day of this last part of trial, a group of seven of us decided to go and show our support. Although we could not understand a word that was going on, the villagers were adamant that our presence alone was exceedingly beneficial to them. Having foreigners showed the court that the issue of human rights is an international concern and that this village case is a big concern attracting people from all over the world. We felt like celebrities endorsing a cause. We stayed to watch the first witness (of 31) get questioned by both the defense and the prosecution. According to our translator, they were just going over basic details of the situation, such as dates, number of people affected, rai of land used, etc, things we have already learned through talking with the villagers and reading the Human Rights Report that last semester’s CIEE students created for the village.

My most distinct impressions of the court, besides how western it was, were the immense differences between the two lawyers. I mean take every stereotype you might have about a people’s lawyer vs. a corporate lawyer and it’s all true. The representative of the villagers and the NGO, who was working for free btw, was this thin, tiny man who was swimming in his shirt so much that his pocket was as long as his torso and his tie took up half his width. He was dressed in a suit, but of no special quality, and he wore his silver hair long to his shoulders. When his partner spoke, he asked very open-ended questions, in clear speech, and let the witness speak as much as he felt was necessary to answer the question. The FIO lawyer was quite fat (a Mr. Bumble from Oliver! type), dressed in a beautiful Japanese suit, with a purple pinstriped shirt, and a tie held to his shirt with a sparkling tiepin. He wore a gold watch and two huge gold rings with gemstones, one on each ring finger. He was so loud and abrasive, and asked only yes/no questions, worded in very formal Thai that the witness would never understand. He would only wait for the yes/no answer and wouldn’t allow the villager to say any more. I couldn’t understand any Thai but I could read the dynamics of the room perfectly. I may not have been able to understand the content of each question, but I was able to recognize the question words that were being used by each lawyer. I felt like I was watching some Hollywood version of court, since stereotypes were so blatantly followed.

I was so glad that I went to support the villagers. They thought that the trial was going well, though slowly, and that the FIO wasn’t trying to take advantage of them yet. The NGO lawyer recounted that he didn’t believe that his opponent didn’t have a strong argument as he was using misleading evidence and language. We asked in the court was corrupt and therefore, whether or not the case was already decided before it started. We were assured that the Thai court, especially in more rural areas, tend to be honest. Random fact, but the hardest part about court was not being able to cross my legs as I sat on the benches. It must have something to do with the way your feet are pointing, but I definitely had to make a conscious effort to keep my leg on the ground.

Sarah and Shayne were going to aerobics. Gianna and I decided to join. Best decision. Ever. Besides thinking I was going to collapse for moving for an hour straight in the scorching heat, I had a great time, and realized this is one of the few places where no language barrier is existent. It reminded me of two things: 1) playing DDR as my soul source of exercise and 2) finishing up physical therapy at the hospital in Maine and going downstairs to find my shoes, and instead came across my mother, sister, and Spanish friend Jenny doing water aerobics in the pool with about thirty 80-year old women.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Had a small cultural crises

So I just got back from going out with a bunch of my friends from the program as well as our program facilitators and had an amazing night. To preface the rest of the story, however, I want to let everyone know that we spent all day looking at fundamental cultural differences in values between Thais and Americans through mechanisms such as Geert Hofstede's culural dimensions and the cultural spectrum. At the last bar we were at, Funky Villa, a live band was playing until 12, and we loved listening to them. However, at midnight, they turned off the lights, and American pop/dance music started playing. We were all so excited to hear the songs we love to dance to and we haven't heard since we left the states. The group of us were jamming and rocking out, but I realized that grinding isn't exactly part of Thai culture, where close bodily contact even amongst friends is not as acceptable as it is at home. Despite the switch from live music to a DJ, most groups kept chatting as opposed to dancing. I was trying to adapt myself to this cultural boundary while still having a good time and accepting the fact that I am American and that I have my own culture that I feel like I should be allowed to express. I so badly wanted to have a dance party, something so inherent in many American's social experiences. We learned today that in order to avoid conflict, Thai's will tend to tell you "My ben ry" (Everything's OK) even when they don't believe it is. Therefore, I'm always hesitant to take their word and believe that they aren't offended because unless they are joining in with you, they probably are. I think everything worked out OK, and I had an amazing night out with my friends, but I'm glad that I'm conscious of the fact that we're another culture and need to respect them while integrating our own tenets and traditions.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Two quick things...

1) I am gaining a newfound admiration for people who actually think before they speak. It seems like they take a while to say something because they pause and make sure that what they are going to say is exactly what they want to come out of their mouth. However, I probably take the same amount of time trying to say something because I ramble about nonsense before I actually get to my point. Ajaan Deecha, a mentor of the program, led us through a meditation exercise yesterday and I'm blown out of the water every time he speaks.

2) I had my first Thai theater experience. Wow. The Foreign Language Performing Arts Society did oh some short, small no big deal show, that a few of you may know as Wicked.... Never ever does anyone have an excuse for not knowing their lines. Could you imagine doing a 3 hour musical in a foreign language? So impressed. Granted, the students weren't actors or singers so the theatrical quality was a bit slow and lacking, but I was so happy I went and I'm pretty glad I knew the show before hand as it was sometimes a tad difficult to follow and they didn't exactly portray the correct ending to the show. Overall though, I was really impressed with Elphaba, Galinda, and especially the Wizard, whose rendition of "Wonderful" was pretty top notch. I wish I had parts of it on video so I could show you all a clip or two.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Being alone in a Thai homestay for four nights really makes you realize...

... how much Spanish you know. I mean if someone's speaking in foreign tongue, you immediately jump to the one language you speak best. Unfortunately, Spanish doesn't work nearly as well in Thailand. Miraculously, I just survived a four night homestay with a 10 year old girl and her father and had an amazing time. Her father, or "paw" in pasa thaiee (Thai language) is a soldier so I was staying in free military housing, which was quite nice for Thailand, I guess. We had two stories, tile floors, a real shower head as opposed to a large tub of water with a bucket, and an indoor bathroom and kitchen. I got sent upstairs with Fern after dinner each night (paw needs his alone time), and was in bed by 7:50 my first night there. That night, Fern and I shared her huge king sized mattress on the floor, but after we rolled together and she swatted me away, I'm pretty sure I got demoted to the small mattress next to her own for the rest of my stay. Fern is such a sweetheart; we played snakes and ladders, listened to her favorite song by Gee over and over, watched both Thai and American TV, did really cool arts and crafts that I had never done in the states before, practiced our English and Thai together, and managed to communicate. The first night, Fern, Paw, and I had dinner together in their living room. Paw had bought moo (pork) and  green curry from the market and made cow neow (sticky rice). In Thailand, most families eat on the floor and with your hands using the sticky rice as a sort of scooping utensil. Trying to fit in, I did so for the curry, but got corrected and was told to use the spoon; they looked at me as if I was a savage and for the rest of my stay always motioned for me to use my fork and spoon, as if that wouldn't be my first instincts... Our first day at school, we had to introduce ourselves in Thai in front of all of the students and faculty. They had exercises as part of their morning ceremony, a dance I will never forget and will demonstrate the next time I see you. Hysterical. That evening, the school threw us a welcoming party with traditional Thai dances and music, and a monk who said a blessing. He would also not stop talking to me in Thai, but would get really upset when I just smiled and nodded at him and said, "My cow djai" (I do not understand). The ceremony was really nice and it was cool to see that part of Thai culture. I was thinking of the equivalent "ceremony" in the states. To welcome someone, we would throw some burgers and corn on a grill, hopefully have a pool or a beach nearby, and stay up late with loud music playing. Just as traditional...So I think this takes me to Thursday. We were all transported to another school, where 1/3 of our group was staying. Here we played with 30 of their students and they kicked our butts in a game called duck walk where you need to keep "the duck" off of the extra space in the area. We shared a bit about our culture and them about theirs, and exchanged paintings. I painted a mountain and snow scene, since a lot of the children said that if they went to America, they would want to see snow. We then were briefed for Thursday's exchange, a visit with an HIV/AIDS hospital and successful support group, TNP+. TNP+ works to help People Living with HIV/AIDS (PLWHA) gain access to healthcare and acceptance into their communities, as well as educating community members so as to break down stereotypes that only bad people get AIDS and that HIV is an untreatable disease. We conducted a dialogue with a group of TNP+ workers who explained how their organization operated and functioned within community settings, and then broke into groups and did home visits of four people living with HIV/AIDS. We were able to hear personal stories and ask whatever question we'd like regarding their situation and feelings regarding living with HIV. My home visit was quite inspiring. I talked with a woman who has combated both HIV and cancer, both of which are currently in recession or completely treated. My group was taken aback when she said that of her two illnesses, she was more scared to hear she had cancer. We all felt the opposite, but couldn't decide if that was because one was actually scarier than other, or if we just knew more people with cancer and therefore it was more familiar, or if we still had a stigma associated with getting HIV even after our exchange today. She spoke of how she functions happily and successfully in her community and has a healthy relationship with her new boyfriend. She asked us for our impressions of HIV/AIDS in America, and we responded that from what we could tell, it's quite invisible at home, in that we're sure it's there, but it is thought of as global, as opposed to American issue. I added that the people I know with HIV/AIDS are/were loved members of their communities, and their illness never affected their relationships. We debriefed with the group and talked about sexuality cross-culturally, and learned about the difficulties Thais are having with getting the second line of HIV meds, because the American pharmaceutical company that makes them will not open a FTA with Thailand because of their lax intellectual property rights/ copyright laws. More on this issue that can be fought in the states to come. I'll post the newspaper article that someone in my group will right on the topic. It was an amazing day, and in our workshop Saturday, we talked a lot about pity and whether or not pity is the appropriate response for PLWHA, whether or not they have appropriate access to medicine. I said that pity is a stereotype something that we apply to someone who we believe is in a worse position that us, a place that we are glad we are not inhabiting. You pity someone based on hearing a short snippet about their hardships, before you gain the knowledge regarding the rest of their life story. Once you meet someone in a "pitiful situation," that feeling turns into a much more constructive emotion, maybe inspired or respectful, or maybe something that evokes you to help as opposed to pity.

Monday, February 1, 2010

My first Thai disaster

Just attempted to do my laundry. Failed. The clothes went in and we left. The washer machine broke when it still had 49 minutes left to go. Unknowingly, the laundry room closes at 5, so we got called to pick up our things, and discovered them still soaking in filthy water with 49 minutes left to go. Getting kicked out, we hung up all of our filthy soaking wet clothes outside the laundry room hoping that they will be dry by the time we have to leave for five days by 8 am tomorrow morning. Going to hand scrub my underwear and hang them inappropriately on my balcony.  I knew there was a reason I only did laundry over school vacations last semester. Also failed miserably to speak to the woman at the pharmacy. Did drink a wonderful oreo milkshake. Day of mundane adventures continues. Loving it.

So mountains are mountains are mountains...

...but these mountains have temples where one might expect a ski resort. As we left Bangkok in our double-decker bus, after having to make 4 U-turns and getting pulled over 3 times, we realized more and more that we were in Thailand. So get this: there are these arches just over the highway every few kilometers and flags everywhere with pictures of the king, but they change the pictures every time a member of the royal family comes by. Since the princess was in Laoi province, where we were going, as we got closer to the resort, the pictures were all of her. Could you imagine if your job was to change all the flags on a member of the royal family's route? This country pays so much reverence to their royalty. So we made it to the beautiful resort where we spent a week. We had Thai class every morning, which is so cool- I know all my numbers, how to tell time (which is the so confusing), the words for typical Thai foods, occupations, and family members, as well as basic conversations like "What's your name?" and "How old are you?" I've even managed to turn my trademark "No No," into "Mai Mai." In the afternoon, we usually had some "orientation activities," group bonding-type games to help us work on our group process, a very integral part of our program. We ran into some issues when we spent 10 hours attempting to fit every member of the group through a volleyball net-like structure, and some of us had to tape our boobs down and such in order to get through. However, the discussion that followed brought up a lot of useful points regarding body talk sensitivity and we got a lot closer after it all. On our last day at the resort I was able to go on a hike up a mountain which made my week- I loved seeing all of Thailand's flora and fauna. We saw a huge millipede and something that we're not sure if they were giant caterpillars or moldy tamarinds... Check out the facebook picture and maybe you'll have an opinion on the subject. They cooked us an American bonfire on the last day complete with hot dogs, french fries, beer, and corn on the cob. In addition the resort employees were cooking cow livers and intestines and we spent all night getting to know the cuisine and our new friends. The resort was amazing but we were in for a drastic change when we left for the Baw Kaew village about an hour away. The Baw Kaew villagers were evicted from their land in 1973 because the FIO decided they wanted to use their land to cultivate a huge eucalyptus forest. For these villagers, land is everything, as they support themselves by eating the food they grow and selling it to others. Without land, they have nothing. For 30 years, they were living without means of supporting themselves. However, they got in contact with an NGO who taught them their rights and started helping them fight to get their land back. They set up a protest village, where we stayed for a night. Although many governmental subcommittees have determined that the eucalyptus project should be stopped, nothing has happened so far. The villagers have a court date in February that they are certain they will win, but if not, they will not stop fighting. This was our first human rights lesson for the semester, with many more to come. It was amazing to stay in the humble village, help them build bricks and make clay for the meeting room they are making, and eat their wonderful food "family style." The villagers persistence, support for one another, and willingness to fight is so inspiring. We left Baw Kaew and headed to KKU finally! Of course the first thing I do is accidentally flush a gecko down the toilet - I swear I didn't know it was there until it was gasping for its last breath as I watched it drown (nooo gooood).  After receiving our cell phones, motorcycle helmets!, and learning a bit about how to orient ourselves in this crazy campus/city (it's huge!), we met our roommates. As expected, my fears were met. Tik doesn't speak much english and she is smaller than my suitcase. However, she is so so sweet and we get along really well, so I'm excited to spend time with her this semester. She brought me out to dinner where I had the best Pad Thai ever, and then we went to this agricultural fair, it kind of reminded me of Common Ground... I ate a grasshopper, which was actually really good and salty. My CIEE friends and I went out to bars afterwords and drank Thai whiskey and danced to really Thai music sang by young Thai bands. Today is our first personal day since we've arrived, and I need to do some pretty mundane things like laundry and pharmacy shopping. I think the funniest thing about school so far is the inability of anyone to say my name. Everyone here has a nickname (a chu len) so I guess I'm going to have to find one. They don't have R's so Riss isn't even going to work.... I'm sure I've forgotten a ton trying to fit a week into one blog post, but I hope it holds you over until the next time. More pictures are up, and at some point in the next 24 hours I will learn how to connect my photo albums to this blog. To everyone at home, I miss you a whole lot. It has definitely hit me that I am here for a whole semester. I have loved talking to those of you who I have gotten a chance to call, and I will do my best to contact others. Please keep me updated as much as you want. Anyone abroad, I hope your experiences are amazing, and I would love to hear all about them. Oh btw, my phone number here is country code, 66, then 0878580972.