Monday, March 29, 2010

Red in the Land: Sua Si Dang

"Have fun in Bangkok. Be safe and do not go to a red shirt protest. PLEASE," Mike and Miles both warned at some point before Leslie and I headed off on an overnight bus from Khon Kaen to Thailand's capital city. However, upon arriving at my hostel a bus and three- hour taxi ride later, I realized the impossibility of their urges. Niras Bankoc sat behind the gates that closed off the protest area from cars and other unauthorized vehicles. I was living about twenty steps away from the hustle and bustle of the protest at the National Stadium and Democracy Monument, and it was impossible to get a taxi from one side of town to my hostel without getting dropped off on Khao San Road and walking the length of the rally. 

Before moving on, I should probably give you background on the political situation so you have some context for what this rally entails. Firstly, since 1932, Thailand has witnessed 11 successful coups and 18 new constitutions, so political upheaval is not rare and the king actually approves of every coup before it occurs. Come 2000, or 2543 according to the Thai calender, a coup brought in a new Prime Minister, Thaksin Chinnovata, the first PM to ever serve a full term in Thailand. Thaksin concentrated his governance of alleviating rural poverty, by administering a universal health care program and a drug suppression scheme.  However, his government was also highly criticized of corruption, authoritarianism, treason, tax evasion, and many human rights violations. Thaksin's government was overthrown in 2006 in a bloodless coup and consequently accused of conflict of interests. The People's Alliance for Democracy, "Yellow Shirts", mostly composed of the middle class, military representatives, and Thailand's bourgeois, emerged first out of the Thaksin controversy, protesting his rule and attempting to upseat him. However, a group of Thailand's poor, mostly farmers and villagers from Isaan, the Northeast region of Thailand, where our program does all of our work, called The United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship, "Red Shirts," soon followed. They perceived the yellows as anti- poor and fought for Thaksin's amnesty from the charges against him. These groups have been in continuous conflict with one another, and currently, the "Reds" are conducting a  non-violent protest in Bangkok in hope of gaining a new election. They believe that true democracy was lost after Thaksin's rule and that the middle class bourgeois is not attuned to the demands of the entire country. 

Ajaan Dave taught our CIEE group about these recent political happenings back in February as a part of our background lecture series, and since, we have been reading about Thaksin's latest trial and the current Red Shirt rally in Bangkok through news sources such as the New York Times. However, many of us felt disconnected, as we were reading about the rally as anyone back home would. Even though our program has no emphasis on politics, it was strange that we were watching caravans of people dressed in red pass through Khon Kaen, leaving Isaan to flood the streets of Bangkok, without a mention. Therefore, I'd be lying if I said I wasn't excited when I realized the location of my hostel. 

There was red everywhere. On the streets, on the cars, on the motorcycles, at the temples; everywhere I went, there was someone who made the trek from their home province to Bangkok in order to show their support of Thaksin and demand a truly democratic government. Some street vendors, security guards, and taxi and tuktuk drivers, who had previously moved to Bangkok due to increased urban migration and fled the poverty of Isaan in order to attempt to make more money in the city, had now reunited with friends, family, and the like- minded and displayed their political tendencies through their daily work.

Understanding nothing about the American government except for the fact that we pride ourselves on democracy and recently managed to elect Barack Obama, the "Reds" I met were overly receptive to my presence, nevermind when I threw out a "Sawadika" ("Hello") or even better, "Sawadija," using the polite ending from the Isaan language, as opposed to Thai. Many asked where I came from, and when my response included that I was studying in Khon Kaen, I was immediately considered a friend. I asked what province they came from, and was often able to share stories of people I met and villages I stayed in Surin, Roi Et, Srisaket, and Yasothon.

I, of course, have no Thai political tendencies. I have nowhere near enough personal investment or familiarity with the issues to come close to siding with one extreme or another of this debate.  Had it been a peaceful yellow shirt protest, I probably would have addressed the protesters, asking them about the purpose of their rally, just as I did the reds. However, I could not guarantee that I would have been able to make the connections that I did at this protest, simply due to geographical location of my semester's studies.

Our group of 31 has recently been addressing issues of feeling un-immersed.  Although CIEE as a program is fully invested in the communities that we visit,  our time with our families as individuals is so short and we can't decide which Mae and Paw we feel most connected to or which community we'd like to help through our final projects. Additionally, at KKU, we sometimes spend entire days in a room with each other talking about ourselves as a group, when we could be getting to know local Thai's or exploring Khon Kaen. However, at the rally this weekend, in a completely different region of Thailand, I felt equally immersed in Isaan culture as I had all semester. Although the families I have stayed with may or may not have identified with being a red shirt or benefiting from Thaksin's rule, when I woke up to man's voice over a loudspeaker blasting "Pinong Chao Na" ("Brother and sister farmers") through my hostel window, I felt at home again. Granted, it wasn't exactly the sound of roosters, but all it took was a short trip to Bangkok to gain yet another perspective on life in Thailand's Northeast. 

How have you felt immersed throughout your study abroad program or culture at home? Do you think it's important to immerse yourself in current events of the country in which you are studying (even in the US) despite the focus of your studies or your own political beliefs, even if that requires putting yourself mid- political protest?

Most recent update of Red Shirt protest (30.3.10):
Original article on front page of NYT (14.3.10):

 Red shirts rallying at the National Stadium. Despite political tensions, everyone loves the king.

How red can you go?

 Reds and non-reds pray together at the Golden Mount Wat

 An array of red paraphanalia for one to choose from to show their support

 A red security guard at the gates near my hostel

If Thais love nothing else, it's dancing and music. Leslie and I with a Red Shirt woman at a concert at the National Stadium. 

The Democracy Monument. Earlier that day, the middle part was stone, not covered in red cloth. 

Monday, March 22, 2010

a small crisis of psychology conscious

So I was talking to my small WWA group after Unit 2, going off on my typical rant regarding the impossibility and non- necessity of building consensus amongst a group of 31 individuals and how we should not be suppressing individuality because 29 or 30 of us agree, so we might as well make that person or two people negotiate and cooperate for the sake of all of our sanity. I was saying how I think it's fine that one or two people have their own opinions and the group can work well with those varied views. 

This is where I started doubting my entire college career. If I am such an individualist, why do I love to study psychology, where we work to group people into categories and classify and describe people as if they're all the same based on certain characteristics? 

That lasted me an few mildly sleepless nights, or sleepful, but where I just dreamt of psychology backfires (analyze that, Freud) until I realized the beauty of psychology over dinner a few evenings later. I mean we're trying to classify people, but if it's done right, psychology is presenting theories that unify humans despite individual differences. If sampling is truly random and representative, individual differences, although endlessly important, will pale in comparison to what we can determine about the human race, as well as different groups within our species. Individuals can flourish within the framework of humanity. 

This was confirmed three-fold over my short trip for Unit 3, from which I just returned. These examples probably don't seem very direct to you, but I'm sure you know how my mind works in some pretty stretchy ways:

For just one night, I went to visit with Rasi Salai dam community to discuss possible next steps for project period for their community. A dam was built in Rasi Salai that is pretty useless - 400,000 rai of wetlands were flooded and destroyed for 10,000 rai of land to benefit from an irrigation system- and the villagers are trying to preserve their community, as well as fight for rights and compensation. we will be returning to work with them next unit, so more to come on their issues. (bee tee dubs, we stayed in a hotel because they couldn't accommodate us for a night or i don't really know, but we're talking continental breakfasts with eggs, toast, croissants and cereal, but a bummer that we didn't get to connect to a family). The villagers are interested in developing a Learning Center with CIEE students- they want to include spaces for agricultural experimentation, a nature walk/ description of local flora and fauna,  demonstrations of local crafts, skills, and traditions, a children's section, and education regarding the area's history, struggles, and legal rights. Hello, CMEE/ Junior Ranger Programs/ Carrabassett Children's Museum? This concept of Environmental Education, which I have now experienced in many capacities within the US, Canada, Costa Rica, and now Thailand, has somehow infiltrated beyond any international borders, and has seemed equally important to people who have never met or discussed any of these theories, and people who have most definitely not read the literature that formal educators may have. What is it in our human nature that makes these issues of preserving local history, tradition, and nature important? It may seem basic and obvious, but when you really think about it, culture and its preservation is an international human phenomenon, that other species really may not have and experience as universally. 

Throughout my journey, I read a book called The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind. True story, autobiography. William grows up in a poor farming village in Malawi, with no electricity, running water, and barely enough money to send him to school. When famine hits the country and the government does not respond properly, William must drop out of school because of fees and he must work on his family's farm. (sound familiar? sounds a bit like my last post regarding education in Thai landfills and slums...) Here's the kicker- what does William do once the famine has receded? Instead of getting involved in crime, drinking, and accepting his impoverished fate, he spends all day in a library teaching himself English, reading books mostly about science and electricity, and builds his family a windmill to generate power to provide electricity. Eventually, people in the international innovation community find out about his project, and William is provided with a higher education and the financial support to provide electricity and irrigation to his entire town. Sorry for ruining the book, but you really should all read it, because you need to experience the story for yourself. My point here is raw intelligence. No education after primary school, no opportunities or awareness of a life beyond poverty and farming, mid- famine ----> self- taught electricity lessons? windmill? There is some human capacity for us to acquire knowledge despite the circumstances in which we were born and the opportunities with which we were provided. Some of us have more of this capacity than others, and much more importantly, some of us have a higher motivation to promote this capacity than others. Whether or not we have the opportunity to attend school, the motivation to learn is going to play a role in shaping our future. What else could you say kept William in the library and fighting for his education other than a raw desire? His parents, although concerned, were not able to provide him with the education he wanted. His government, although able, were not concerned with providing him with education. I have a strong feeling that motivation is genetically- determined, and can be tampered with within environments. I remember having this hunch during Psych320 last semester, so maybe it's true. The nature/nurture debate can never be solved, I know, I know, but I think, because of examples such as this, raw motivation, desire, and intelligence may be leaning toward the side of nature. Nature vs. nurture is human psychology. 

Lastly, I've determined NO ONE can escape the basic psychology of the acculturation curve. Like any reaction range, you can either be mildly affected or you can get dominated by it, but I have just witnessed the accuracy of that specific psychological theory. As prepared as we were for the doom of day 45, as hard as we worked to avoid it's harm, day 45-60, pretty much on the dot, were just a wee bit harder than day 1-45 and day 60 on. Imagine 31 people just walking along on flat ground for 45 days, and all of a sudden they reach a small depression in the earth and walk along lower ground for 15 days before rising back to where they began. We all became snippier, more skeptical, harsher, more nitpicky, and quickly divided into smaller groups of friends in order to vent and complain. Just as everything was bubbling ready to pop into mass chaos comes a set of personal days, a one-night trip, and day 60, and things seem to be back to normal if not better. Our surroundings are not nearly as foreign and we've learned to work well with each others' differences as opposed to fighting against them. We've become much more understanding of how one another processes information, and the benefits of our program. Anyway, what happened doesn't matter; the fact that it happened to all of us, and Molly in Spain and Morgan in Namibia- psychology. 

Friday, March 19, 2010

The CIEE Sustainability Committee

Get ready- Green Study Abroad is going to be taken to a new level.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

The city, it keeps on going on

It's really difficult for me to relay my experiences of the past four nights to you over the internet, but I'm not as completely overwhelmed by thoughts of attempting to destroy global capitalism as I was after our agricultural unit. On the other hand, before living in the slums and landfill, before even coming to Thailand, I was much more aware of the issues surrounding rural poverty than urban poverty, and this is a whole new layer to be added to the picture. 

In the Nong Waeng slum, I stayed with a family of I'm not really sure how many people. People were constantly coming and going, there were not nearly enough men for the amount of women I was staying with, and I had no idea which of the children were actually related to one another.  (I need to have a conversation with one of my ajaans regarding slum dating culture, so my thoughts on that to come later.) Since school for most children is out for the summer, kids just played in the streets all day long paying no regard to dirtying their clothes or the train rushing past a few times every hour. Maggie and I had many a developmental psych theory on child raising here. Secure attachments look nothing like they do in the States, and parents provide the ultimate example of cultivating independence by not responding to a child's every tear, ever. If the baby I was staying with cried, people would just tell it to be quiet or ignore it, and soon enough, it would stop. If a car was coming and the baby was in the middle of the road, it was it's own job to get out of the middle of the road, although he was sometimes assisted by his 3 year old sister. At the same time, everyone was constantly looking out for everyone else, no matter who you were actually related to. Nothing would happen to that baby, because at least 15 people loved it as if it were their own child. Meanwhile, the baby's actual mother is off working in Phuket to help support her family. 

Since I spent the day with my family on a Saturday, my mae was not going to the school to sell eggs, and instead stayed home to run the noodle shop connected to her home. (Personally, I was given the job of crushing 60 cloves of garlic and deep-frying them to help make the broth of the noodle soup they made.) It amazed me the amount of people that need to be sustained by the few sales that are made at their store every day. The system is so unfortunately rigged so that the poor actually have to pay more for basic resources. Because rural poverty was so oppressive, people had to move to the city to find "better" jobs. However, these jobs weren't as readily available as one hoped, so people couldn't afford to live in the city. Consequently, slums formed on the side of railroad tracks on public land. Now because the villagers in Nong Waeng slum do not have land titles, they do not have access to government subsidized electricity and water, and they either need to buy it off their neighbors who do have land titles or pay continuously for temporary land titles, both options of which are very expensive. 

Mai, Honey, Em, and I play outside our houses 

The other side of the tracks: My house, a few others, and the noodle stand my meh(s) own

The majority of my Nong Waeng family

The landfill, the community I visited first, presented related, but also very specifically different issues, from Nong Waeng. These villagers have a 'secure' job, but it is unsustainable, dangerous, requires extremely long days and nights, the list goes on- these people are sorting through every piece of trash that any resident of Khon Kaen disposes of. "We are proud of our work, because we are doing society a service through cleaning the landfill of recyclable trash." The scavengers have already extended the life of the landfill by 7-8 years, because of all the space they create through their work. The villagers have been stabbed by medical needles, opened a box that contained a grenade, and are inhaling smoke from a fire that combusted within the trash mountain. 

What can you do? Never ever use a plastic bag ever. It is completely unnecessary, not recyclable, and they literally sit in the landfill for the rest of eternity. 

Youth and Education were themes that kept on emerging over the course of the unit- I could not stop thinking about the fact that my privileged upbringing were the reason that I am able to learn and address these issues in my studies and my work, whereas the people who are experiencing them every day may never get the chance to have the opportunity to change their situation for themselves. Additionally, education isn't necessarily about gaining more opportunities, as people tend to see it. Education gives you the opportunity to be self-reflective, to understand yourself, your interests, and your potential, no matter what job you occupy in the future. Education allows you to find a passion that you choose that gives you a lens through which to view yourself, the world, and the rest of your experiences. It's hard to separate these goals of education: the educational system has set us up to believe that the ultimate goal of your schooling is to raise you out of poverty and get you the best job opportunities, and I don't know how to escape that, even personally. I think it's important to separate the skills you gain from education that lead you toward a specific future from the consciousness you gain from education that leads you toward awareness and achievement of your needs and rights. 

Sorry this is long, but the rest of this post is going to be the profile I wrote of two 13 boys who are currently working full time at the landfill and not attending school. Most children living at the landfill stop going to school in 6th grade, like many of their parents did when they were young. I know it's long, but I think it's important for you to see the different angles of this issue. We all had to do a profile, and as a child junkie, I of course didn't care nearly as much about the adult's views on living on the landfill as I did about the childrens.

13 and Employed: The Life of Children at the Landfill 

Oat and Not, 13, rest atop the "Trash Mountain" from a long morning scavenging 

Like most 13-year-olds I know, Warawut “Not” Jungwaq and Rittidet “Oat” Maochaisong have been to the mountains. They’ve climbed and conquered their peaks, and have found treasures as they’ve explored.

However, the mountains Not and Oat climb daily are not made of rock nor covered in snow or trees, but are composed of plastic bags, glass bottles, old shoes, and food scraps. Where one might expect a biker to be following a rocky trail, a large yellow dump truck rolls up the “trash mountain” toward a line of scavengers awaiting their daily income as it pours out of the back of the truck.

Not and Oat are the most eager among them. “Every time the truck comes, I get really excited,” Oat explains, as I could tell as he rushed to secure the most strategic place behind the incoming dump truck. “I like helping my parents scavenge and find more money- even at night, I come out to help. We don’t really have to buy anything, because I find all my toys here.”

Not and Oat began scavenging in 4th grade, but only on school vacations. Now that they have completed 6th grade, they no longer attend school, and scavenge with their parents full time. Both boys expressed that they miss school and want to go back, and Oat has not relinquished hope that one day he will. While Oat wishes he could still play soccer with all his friends on the fields at the school, Not, who had forgotten how to write his name in Thai since leaving school, misses math class.

Mae Sawat “Wat” Sriboonroung, Oat’s aunt, responded when I asked them why they left school in the first place. She explained that “tuition is still free until 12th grade but families need to pay for transportation, uniforms, and other costs, so it is still expensive for children to go past 6th grade.” In a different exchange, Not’s mother, Meh Pen, emotionally articulated a strong desire for her children to continue their schooling and have more opportunities besides scavenging. She explained that children face discrimination in school because of their upbringing, and lie about attending, which “makes me really sad and upset, because I want them to have a good education.” Paw Come, the village leader believes that education will lead the children away from the landfill, and “when we [the adults] can no longer work, someone else will have to come in a do the work; the government needs to figure it out. I will live here for the rest of my life, but my children can send money back to me to support me because they will have a better job.”

Not believes that he will scavenge for the rest of his life, while Oat has other aspirations. “I want to be a famous soccer player, but if not, I want to go into the city and find a job there, not on the landfill.”

When the mayor of Khon Kaen was confronted with Not and Oat’s situation, he emphasized the importance of education and described the government’s free tuition until twelfth grade, but although he encourages families to continue sending their children to school, the government does not force their way into people’s personal lives. If children would rather work with their parents, or families need more hands in order to sustain a higher income, the government does no more than encourage. He is upset by how many young children are no longer in school, but seemed defeated by the prospect of getting them back in the system.

If the children, the parents, and the government all want higher education for the future adults of Khon Kaen, one would think such a goal could be accomplished. However, the precedent is so strong that hope is waning from each end.

Both boys have older brothers who work within Khon Kaen’s waste system; Oat’s brother drives a dump truck, and Not’s brother finishes the cycle through his work at the scrap store where trash is sold after it is sorted at the landfill.

Talk about a family business.

Not cannot remember how long his family has been working at the landfill, but “it’s been a long time.” Oat scavenges for his parents, but “everyone feels like family.” He laughed when I told him I could not tell who was related to whom.

This sense of community became obvious when I was invited to play with many of the community children on the rice field that afternoon. If Oat was shy to be interviewed, he had no fear to challenge anyone’s soccer skills. Fully accessorized with a Hello Kitty purse, no one dared to attempt to beat his dribble down the field. As Oat shot goals at his brother Jack, some girls pranced through the rice patty ponds or played clapping games, older teens chatted and took pictures on the sidelines, and oblivious babies risked their lives by sitting down mid soccer field. “All my friends are here.”

Not and Oat’s energy never falters although they spend the majority of their days sorting through trash produced by all of Khon Kaen’s residents. The coolest things they’ve ever found? Not responds: “a cell phone that still worked,” and Oat: “200 baht.” “Oh, I found 4B today,” Not concludes. 

Shompoo and Paw, best friends

My Mae Wat hard at work scavenging recyclables 

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

What will your role be?

Leslie's dedicated to global causes and not having kids. Emily focuses on agriculture. Becky has the Marxist politics all worked out, although I am well aware she's not going to be a politician. 

Many of the people I am meeting here, not necessarily all or limited to those listed above, have strong beliefs, tenets that are so intrinsic in who they are that may prevent them from ever being able to embrace someone else's point of view. It's amazing the conviction because its so enabling to envision a cause that you can work toward, that you believe is truly right, and sacrifice so much in order to see it through without being swayed to change your mind or your focus.

I don't have that - I mean there are things I care about, obviously- I'm an environmental studies major because I care about the environment and I'm a psychology major because I care about people, but within those disciplines, I am constantly weighing pros and cons of every decision and every action, attempting to get a look at the overall picture, trying to see every angle and every side of every issue and never isolate one from the other. The cause I am most passionate about is open-mindedness- I believe in the power of education, not necessarily through a classroom, but by just talking to everyone you can, to get a better understanding of where everyone comes from and the stories behind their beliefs. This makes me very ineffective in some ways, because I can never see myself really insisting on changing someone else's philosophies, although I hope to contribute to their own education by sharing my own stories and morals. Politics obviously not my scene because I have no way of wrapping my head around and reconciling every single person's beliefs and agendas well enough to stay as open-minded as I want to be. In local, grassroots situations, I can handle taking into consideration all sides of the issue, and truly coming to the most beneficial consensus for all parties involved. That's where I'm effective, but I'm not enacting change on a huge scale like some of my friends. I can't even enact change on an individual level sometimes, because I never feel like it's my place to make people change their behaviors according to my beliefs because I think they're more correct and more beneficial for the world at whole. What if I'm wrong?

I feel wishy-washy and like a sell-out and I am constantly playing devil's advocate in conversations such as the above. Here's one, Emily and I have dubbed "radical drain." So everyone hates the system so much that's the cause of all this oppression and corruption- I'm so there, it sucks. But what happens when you "screw the system," isolate yourself from it, and fight against it, as so many of my generation of progressives are doing? You leave all of the conservatives who love the system as it is to run it and you're still getting nothing done. However, as soon as you try to work with the system in order to change it, you have a slew of criticisms from your seemingly like-minded friends for selling out, copping out, and giving in to the big bad man at the top. Do I have an answer to this crisis of conscious that young people go through daily? No. But I understand it and I deeply get both sides.

So this is my crisis of conscious. Is it beneficial to have such an open- mind and be accepting of all viewpoints or should I be trying to formulate more concrete tenets that I will carry throughout my work always? For me, the latter is a way of selling out to the former. 

Monday, March 8, 2010


So it's taken me a bit of time to write about my second personal day, but before I embark on my next journey to the slums and landfill of Khon Kaen, I wanted to get this out. The day started with my urgent need to get a new camera, so I trekked up to the sixth floor of the Central Plaza, the mall in the city of Khon Kaen. The electronics store was bigger than any I have ever seen, and there were at least 80 cameras for me to choose from, in all forms and colors. I came to a mildly fast decision (faster than usual) and was sat down at the cash register where my purchase was gently taken care of before being escorted to a stand at the front of the store. There, an employee took the camera out of its box, assembled the necessary parts, and made sure it was functioning and that I liked its quality. He went through every button and every step, and I was shocked at the amazing customer service, nevermind by my lack of aversion to it. Most people know that when I step into a store I want to spend as little time and talk to as few people as possible there. Maybe a lesson for American salespersons, maybe not.

Gianna and I then found our way to the Pullman Hotel, a very nice, expensive hotel downtown. There's a rooftop pool, which is the attraction for CIEE students on their personal days. As I walked through the beautiful lobby complete with plants and a fountain toward the glass elevator, I started becoming uneasy. I'm in Thailand to immerse myself in Thai culture and issues of globalization and development, and I'm spending my day paying to swim literally above the people I'm supposed to be learning from and about? Nevermind that I generally despite sitting out in the sun for no reason, as opposed to being active. Granted, I didn't change my mind, although I was compelled to. I sat, very productively, and read my reading packet about the slums that I was going to visit on my next homestay. I wouldn't say I tried not to think about the fact that I was sitting next to, above, within the slums that I was reading about - I was very aware of it. I went to the edge of the pool deck and looked at the slums, and then uneasily sat back down in the pool and continued reading. But I didn't leave.

As my friends got up to leave and return to KKU, I felt very unsatisfied with my day, as I usually do when I am as inactive as I was that day, no matter where I am. Days of sitting always make me uncomfortable and uneasy (I'm working on it, promise). I didn't know where I was going to go, but I had an intense desire to wander the city streets, just make right and left turns as I saw fit. By some twist of fate, the left I decided to take landed me in the slum I was just looking at from above. I looked at the street sign and it was the only one I had recognized in the past six weeks, because I had been reading the name "Theparak" all day long. The compulsion to enter was overwhelming. There were just four kids playing along the street, and I bought a candy for 2B from a man driving a candy cart alongside. I'm not sure I would have known I was in the slums had I not recognized the name, although I knew something was different as soon as I turned. The sounds of the city were completely eliminated as soon as I walked off the MetroPop (the main road in KK). You'd think sound would travel far enough to make it past the first stand, but nothing. I wonder what weird vacuum is responsible for that, because I don't have a clue. I looked up at the huge mall from where I had just acquired a camera, and remembered how many people had been kicked off their land for its construction.

In a week, I'm sure I'll inundate you with the details of these issues. I just needed to get this experience off my chest before hand, before my crude feelings are invaded with facts and lose some of their purity. I don't believe that I regret that trip to the castle of a hotel- in order to get an understanding for any issue, you need to get a sense for every player involved. I am excited that I was able to see Thailand, and Khon Kaen especially, as every other American would on vacation or a business trip. Bi-racial children played in the kiddie pool, European families lounged under sun umbrellas, and old white men bought young Thai women drinks at the bar. This is not the experience I am having, but in order to completely immerse yourself in a culture, you need to see it all at some point. I am equally grateful to myself for roaming around the city, landing myself in the slums without the help of my program- I would never have realized how close to home these slum issues really were to residents of KK if I hadn't. Getting more than the progressive, environmental, grassroots side to every story is actually quite difficult on a program like mine, but every opportunity I can take to see the other side, to get a more complete picture, I will seize with great appreciation.

the Pullman overlooks the city

Walking back to the mall to catch a shuttle home, a train passes the slums. 
Slum villagers are having problems securing rights to their land because development projects of the State Railway of Thailand threatens eviction. More to come on this after my unit.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

The official premier adventure of the non-official CIEE Outing Club

I just made that club up PS, but I felt like I was back in BOC- mode going on my first non-CIEE sponsored adventure today. Ten of us met at the office to head to the bus station via songtao. Easy enough. Luckily, Ann had her roommate write out "Can you help me get to Phu Wiang?" in Thai to show people once we arrived at the bus station so we could be directed in the right direction. We were led to a  bright orange bus, non-airconditioned, which was fine, until the man in front of me, dressed in a straight-up coat, with whom I was sharing a window, decided to close that window. It blows my mind the Thai's resistance to heat- I mean, I know I'm more resistant to cold, but I still get cold. I don't wear a tank top and open the windows when driving to Sugarloaf in the middle of December. Anyway, sweltering. Although we thought the bus ride was 50 minutes, it was an hour and a half, but no complaints besides the heat. We were told to unload, and were led to a few TukTuk drivers who were going to take us the last leg of the trip. Unaware of the length of the trip and attempting to save some money, we tried to fit all 10 of us in one TukTuk despite resistance from the drivers. When the TukTuk refused to go because of the weight, we caved. Thank god we did- the ride was an hour long, uphill through the middle of nowhere, and even with only five of us the TukTuk was dragging on the ground, only going 12 km per hour, and screaming of pain with every turn. We stopped at a dinosaur museum first. Khon Kaen province and all of Isaan are very well known and proud of their paleontological history, so we learned about some of the dinosaur fossils that were found here, and also got a twist on the Thai version of evolution. rats--mouse lemur--lemur--macaque--ape--human. Also, their timeline of human evolution with Lucy and the neaderthals and all that, ended up with a human female in a belly shirt and a short skirt and lipstick. Our TukTuk driver pointed at her, gave a thumbs up, and said "Suai, suai" (beautiful). After we had our fill of the dinosaur museum, we piled back into our TukTuks and were taken to a beautiful national park to eat and go on a hike. Not exactly knowing what was on the menu, we managed to order about 6 plates of vegetable fried rice and 2 omelets - so much for diversity. After lunch, we started up a steep hill to a view point- it felt so amazing to be in the outdoors hiking again, and although I had to turn around early because some of us had to catch a bus in order to meet our roommates to see a movie in time, just climbing and being surrounding by trees was worth every minute and baht of the trip. Unfortunately, my camera got stolen, so I have no pictures for you, but I'm off to replace that, so next personal days, I'll document my adventures. The TukTuk ride back to the bus took half the time that it did to get there, since it was downhill the whole way. The bus ended up being so late that the half of the group that finished the hike managed to catch the same bus anyway. We all passed out on the way home, Gianna on a Thai guy's shoulder... and I headed straight to the mall to catch Alice in Wonderland with my roommate and other Thai friends to celebrate their last exam.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Food Glorious(?) Food

I have made it back from our first Unit trip of the semester, which focused on rural and agricultural trends and issues in Isaan (northeastern Thailand). There are two aspects of this trip to analyze and reflect on, as it was a powerful unit content-wise, but I was also in the position of one of five Unit Facilitators, so my role was different than the majority of the group's over the past week.

We spent five nights in 3 different homes in 3 different provinces. In Roi Et province, we stayed with sugar cane and casava farmers who were transitioning (or already transitioned) away from chemical farming to organic methods. Megan, Maggie, Barrie, and I stayed together and our Pa drove us tuk-tuk style to his farm where we took his buffalo out for some play time in the water. 

I adopted a new nickname, La, in my next homestay in for three nights, spent in Yasothon province. There was no way April, Bijal, and Larissa were going to fly so we became known as A, B, and La, collectively ABLA. We had a huge family; it took us our whole first night to figure out who was who. We slept in the house of Pa Wan and Me Meow, and their 26 year old teacher daughter, whose name I never really got. We also spent our time with our aunt, Me Gao  (kind of pronounced like Gail, without the l), policeman uncle Pa Gon, and their children, 11-year- old Om, and 7 year old Im. Additionally, there was Tha and Yai, our grandparents. Yai was a crazy, making huge fires with this absurdly long knife and talking to herself without end. She always seemed to be everywhere, when I thought I just left her in the kitchen, we'd go to the farm and she was already herding some cows. Grandmothers in this country are incredible people. 

Me Meow and Pa Wan started growing organically 9 years ago, and have become well-known proponents and advocates of the cause in the area through the AAN (Alternative Agricultural Network). Pa went to Khon Kaen to give a presentation of the health benefits of organic farming while we were there, and he was heading out to Laos the day we left with Bennett, a '08 Bowdoin grad who came on this program his junior fall and has lived in Yasothon and has been working with the AAN every since leaving Maine. 

While in Yasothon, we had exchanges with our families, a young farmer and engaged Buddhist who is the quintessential model of self-sufficiency, a specialist in herbal medicines, and leaders from the AAN (all within 24 hours, btw). The role of small scale farmers such as our families in the global food system was beginning to become clearer. Over the course of this homestay, we began to all be more conscious regarding our own consumption, and everyone we heard from was another piece of the puzzle. 

We received the last piece of the puzzle from P'Thoy and P'Ubon in Mahasarakham Province. However, think of it this way: the puzzle is comparable to a puzzle of the Beatles' White Album (which is just a white square, ps) and all these white pieces are still all scrambeled in the box, never mind that the Beatles have many more albums and without puzzles of the rest of them, it's not really complete. I mean what's the point of doing a puzzle of the White Album if you can't do Rubber Soul, Sgt. Pepper's, Magical Mystery Tour, and Revolver. Everything needs context. Confused? That was the point.

So what's going on? Don't actually think I can answer this before you start reading.

Huge transnational corporations are exploiting all of these small scale vegetable, rice, and fish farmers in northeast Thailand, and all over the world really. They come in and convince farmers that growing with conventional methods will give them higher yields and therefore, higher profit. In some cases, the former may be true, but the latter, rarely. The farmers become so in debt to the companies because they need to buy so many inputs in order to grow their crops. Additionally, as they are growing cash crops such as sugar cane, cassava, and GM rice for the company's exports, as opposed to a variety of integrated crops that they could eat, they now need to buy food in order to sustain themselves. As you might have guessed, they don't make nearly enough money to pay for all of these things, while with every kilo of crop they sell to the factory, a multi-millionaire is making a huge amount of money. Never mind that the chemicals are causing many terrible health problems, soil and water degradation, cultural destruction of certain foods, and labor shortages. The fish farmers we visited were so in debt to CP, an Asian company that owns all the 7-11s here, because they had to give their land titles to the store who sells the fish feed as a downpayment for the food. We visited them around 9 am and they had been up since 8 pm the previous night harvesting thousands of fish from these small nets in a river. In order to stay up, they alternated beer and red bulls, so they were trashed by the time we got to them. For all that, they make $120 dollars per net every four months.  

The Thai's have this value of self-sufficiency, as do Americans, but in this case, they have the compete opposite meaning. Self-sufficiency to us is being able to monetarily support yourself, to have the ability to choose where you want to live, what job you want to have, and what you want to eat, no matter where it came from. If you want broccoli from the farmer's market, you can have it, but if you want McDonald's, so be it, too. To Thais, self- sufficiency is the freedom from reliance on anyone else. The main goal Alternative Agriculture Network (AAN) is to get farmers to farm organically so they don't ever need to buy anything especially food related, and can supply their family with whatever needs they might have. Try to get those on the same page.

Now here's just the beginning of my issue, what I'm really trying to wrap my head around. So this is a huge injustice obviously and what do I do about it is the obvious question 31 American students over in Thailand are struggling with as I write. So we protest 7-11 or we refuse to buy CP fish at restaurants or Jasmine105 rice at the supermarket. But then what happens? Those companies don't need as many products from the Thai farmers and prices drop and farmers lose even more money. When we asked one exchangee how we could help the system, he said "Support Thai products." Now I'm sure he was talking about organic, fair trade Thai products, but still- why am I going to demand organic Thai products if I can get say the same organic product from the states, that didn't have to travel halfway around the world? Now the kicker: What if I'm posed with the option of choosing organic/ fair trade or local? That brings in a whole other climate change debate. Is it better to use your dollar vote to support soil erosion in your own community because you're demanding local products or greenhouse gas emissions globally because you're demanding fair trade products from countries such as Thailand? And a slightly less related issue but still important... Let's look at WalMart, a terrible huge company that treats its workers like crap and is very exploitative. However, WalMart, to respond to the demands of consumers/ the market, really just another way to make an extra buck, sells organic labels, such as Stonyfield yogurts. Every time you buy a Stonyfield at WalMart, you are yes, shopping at WalMart, but you're also dollar voting for this huge company to use more of its share of the market for organic products. There are WalMarts everywhere, farmers markets, not so much. Look at Starbucks - 4% of Starbucks coffee is Fair Trade. That 4% is responsible 10% of THE ENTIRE COFFEE INDUSTRY. Every time Starbucks introduces a new fair trade coffee product, the percentage of fair trade coffee in the industry skyrockets. However, this pushes out all the little guys, but unfortunately or fortunately (I still can't decide), more people buy coffee from Starbucks than from the little guys, and therefore, their campaigns can me more widespread.

I'm sure I've stopped making sense, and you think I've completely lost it, but just beginning to think of the complexities of the global food system will drive you insane. As a unit facilitator, I am planning our concluding workshop for the unit, and we're attempting to use a variety of activities to clarify many of these complexities. I really want to make sure we get a grip of what we can do as personal consumers, and then as activists. People spend their lives on this issue- it's nothing we can fix on a global scale over our two-week project period in May. However, we can make better consumption choices, and really try to understand where our food is coming from every meal. We can know the difference between organic, fair trade, and local labels, and realize in which context it is appropriate to buy one versus the other. We can make individual choices regarding where we will shop and what we will buy when we shop there, but we must also understand the limitations of the system and of ourselves, and hopefully work to overcome both.

P.S. Watch Food, Inc.