A Letter From the Editors,
Before you start to read the contents of this newsletter, the editors would like to give you a little information about the purpose of this compilation. Because going abroad is such an immensely eventful endeavor, we wanted to capture the highlights and standout moments from the perspective of the students. In these quick 500-700 word narratives, we hope to convey bits and pieces of our experiences here in Thailand. Our hope is that this collection will make you feel more connected and allow us to engage with our stories more in depth.
After a few days in Bangkok, students travelled to the Northeast (Isaan) Region. Students have been living in dormitories with Thai roommates on the campus of Khon Kaen University. Though the Public health program and the Development and globalization programs have diverged in schedules somewhat, both groups have started the academic process and are interacting with different communities. Each of the stories within this newsletter will detail some aspect of the last three weeks, and give a voice to the vast experiences we have had on this trip thus far.
As the editing group, we would also like to take this opportunity to thank those who have been instrumental in the completion of this newsletter. First and foremost, thank you to all of the Program Facilitators who have made this process much more comprehensible and have made themselves available to us whenever we get stuck. Thank you to the editing team for all the extra work they put in going over papers, formatting the layout, delegating roles, and organizing logistics. We would also like to thank our fellow students for submitting their articles in a timely manner and being flexible with edits and deadlines. Finally, we would like to thank you readers for having a vested interest in our endeavors and supporting us in whichever role you play in our lives.
That being said, we hope you enjoy our work and that you finish the stories with a better idea of our time in Thailand!
The Editing Team
Table of Contents & Thai-English Dictionary
Jacob Smith An Unexpected Twist
Katy Norfleet Welcome, Welcome
Sarah Eyman Lost in Translation
Yian Saechao The farang Excuse. Old Habits Die Hard.
Lucy Aranda Food in the Home Stay
Daniel Banh Non-verbal Communication: Sincerity and Respect
Laura Martel 7-eleven
Marissa Stanger The comforts of having Thai Roommates
Jacob Smith Full Immersion
Hannah Ratliff Smile, Breathe, Live.
Maggie Adams An experience at the hospital
Diane Jang Generosity (Homestay)
Lily McLaughlin My Personal Privilege
Anisa Sanghrajka Exchange Between Two Worlds
Emily Brincka Transportation
Desbelet Berhe Breaking the Ice with Thai
Jhane Mahoney “But Where are You Really From?”
Emily Parker A Lesson from MitroPop
Elsa Weltzien Different Ideas of Appropriate Dress
Jessica Dubow The Communication Challenge
Michael J. Marino Grilling at the Railroad Market
Jackie Ordemann How I Ended Up Biking Around Khon Kaen
Collin Boyer A Night Out in Khon Kaen
Justin Kiel Long Distance Relationships in Thailand
Zoe Swartz The Pull of the Traditional and Modern
Nessie Sax-Bolder Co- Existing with Animals
Katie Mathieson Investment in the Education of Others
Koby Caplan Foot Culture
Niyeti Shah The First of Many Trips to KKU Ram
Mackenzie O’Brien A Shared Meal
Mariah Philips and Rachel Buckner Two Villages, One Struggle
Sarah Wiant Hissss-teria: A Memoir of Cobra Village Struggles
Veronica Thao Being Hmong and American in Thailand
Austin Edy Sa-wah-dee-krap Ajaans
Maggie Adams Societal Roles in Khon Kaen
Robbie Kaufman “Small Talk”
Jane Okerman The CIEE “Setup for Success”
Hannah Thompson “Great Expectations”
Alain Kilajian Thailand: A Mosaic of Cultures
Kali Deans Value and Necessity across Socioeconomic Status
Jessica Dubow KKU Campus, Unlike Anywhere Else!
Maggie Adams Experience as an American Woman in Thailand
Joy McKinley Experiencing Difference
Marissa Stanger and Robbie Kaufman “Leaving the First Home Stay”
Emily Hoff Sixty-Two Ant Bites
Caroline de Bie Group Love
Mariah Philips Nong Weng Slum
Lisa White Finding Empowerment in Thailand, Embracing Humility
Rachel Buckner Learning through Love
Paw – Father
Mah – Mother
Song tow – two row truck with seats in back
Chan – I
Koon – you
Kit toong – to miss
Mai pen rai – don’t worry about it
Mai cow jai – don’t understand
Cow pbing – grilled rice patty
Chok dee – good luck
Ajaan – teacher
Mai ped – not spicy
Farang – foreigner
Tuk tuk – Thai taxi cab
Pi sao – older sister
Pi chai – older brother
Nong sao – younger sister
Nong chai – younger brother
Wat – temple
Wai – Thai greeting/display of respect
Yaiy – maternal grandmother
Guiy – chicken
Pok – vegetable
Saam – the number 3
-krap/-ka – polite sentence ending for men and women respectively
Sa wah dee krap/ka – hello
Sa bai dee mai – how are you?
Pood – to speak
Pood cha cha – speak slowly
Cow – rice, news, or color white (depending on the tone)
Kap koon krap/ka – thank you
Tha-lahd – market
Som tham – spicy green papaya salad
A roy – delicious
Caw toad krap/ka – excuse me/I’m sorry
An Unexpected Twist, Jacob Smith
As I sat on the plane on the final leg of my journey to Thailand, the nerves began to set in. There I was, hurtling towards a country that is about as far away from my home as possible to meet up with a group of thirteen other students. “Would they like me?” I asked myself, “Would I like them?”. My head was a whirlwind of questions, excitement, doubts, and fears (not the least of which being that my original flight was cancelled and I would arrive a day late).
I finally touched down at Bangkok International Airport at 8:30 AM local time and, with no small amount of difficulty, got myself a taxi to take me to the hotel where I was to meet my fellow students. I stepped out of the taxi, adorned only with the two backpacks I had brought, and, brave-faced, made my way to the orientation meeting I was now half-an-hour late for. As I stood in front of the door labelled CIEE I paused. What was once just speculation on a plane was about to become reality, for better or worse. I steeled my nerves and opened the door.
What I found shocked me more than I can possibly express. In front of me was not a room with thirteen students, but a room packed full with forty-two. I looked around, dazed and confused. “Am I in the wrong room?” I thought. I wasn’t. In fact, In front of me was not just the CIEE Development and Globalization students, but also the CIEE Public Health students, of which there are 29. It only took about ten minuets for me to get up to speed on the situation. Apparently DG (Development and Globalization) and PH (Public Health) would be spending the next two weeks together for our orientation and first four Thai Language lessons. Also, It turned out that everyone from the two programs would be living in the same dorm once we got to Khon Kaen University. Suddenly my fears melted away. I now had a group of forty-two, not thirteen, other students to bond, commiserate, and struggle with.
Over the next couple weeks our two groups grew closer than I ever could have imagined. I feel that I can comfortably count many of the people from both groups as my good friends. Having a large group helped me form friendships by allowing me to meet many different kinds of people. Having the PH students around has been one of the many great surprises Thailand has offered, and, although now we have slightly different schedules, we still get to hang out together a lot.
As someone who was worried about making friends during this semester, I was really pleased to find not just so many people, but people with whom I share a lot of views, values, and passions. So far this experience has been indescribably incredible, and I cannot wait to see where the rest of the semester takes us as a group.
Welcome, Welcome, Katy Norfleet
Two days following our arrival to Khon Kaen, the CIEE students received an official welcoming to the Khon Kaen University (KKU) community. Prior to the welcoming ceremony, Ajaan Dave, meaning teacher in Thai, provided foundational information by explaining that the ceremony would cast away any lingering evil spirits to support a safe environment in which we could academically challenge each other and expand our global knowledge.
In the area in front of the CIEE offices, we students arranged ourselves on straw mats in a horseshoe around an elaborate golden centerpiece embellished with yellow flowers and white strings. Our roommates positioned themselves behind us to create a second horseshoe. During the meditative ceremony, a monk, sitting behind the centerpiece, began a melodious chant and blessed the strings hanging on the centerpiece. Meanwhile, a spool of white string was passed along the formation until each student clutched a piece of the thread between our thumbs with our hands in the bowing position. The long, mesmerizing nature of the ceremony induced profound thoughts and created a serene setting. This peaceful occasion prompted me to consider what I hoped to gain from this experience in Thailand: engage myself globally, understand an unfamiliar culture, carry what I learn about Public Health in lecture to the surrounding communities, and accomplish all of these goals with great peers by my side. At that point, the students were all connected and the forty-three individuals became a single entity. I was moved by the ceremony and could not help but wonder if my peers felt the same.
After the blessing, the monk made his way to each student and upon offering a personal blessing, he tied a string around our wrists to ward off any evil spirits. As he continued around the horseshoe, we maintained our silence and I began to consider the rich culture behind the ceremony. Never before had I experienced a tradition quite like this, and I often pondered the exact meaning of the monk’s chants. When the monk had visited each student, we were invited to take strings for ourselves to tie around our peers’ wrists to wish them luck for the coming semester. Ajaans, roommates, and students alike sent their best wishes to each other for the coming months and created a true sense of a close-knit community.
The ceremony ended with a family style dinner. Groups of CIEE students and roommates arranged themselves in smaller circles and either continued deep discussions of the meaning of the ceremony or, on a lighter note, practiced speaking Thai while roommates giggled at our mispronunciations. No matter the dinner conversation, the aura within the CIEE gates promised a supportive and nurturing environment in which we will all come into our own academically and socially.
Even though several days have passed since the welcoming ceremony, the strings remain on our wrists displaying everyone’s admiration of the connectedness it provided us. I anticipate a wonderful semester here at KKU with an encouraging roommate, Ajaans, and peers by my side!
Lily, Me, and Jhanae at the Welcoming Ceremony!
Lost in Translation, Sarah Eyman
Thing tricky thing about communicating in Thai is you never know if you are complimenting or cursing someone, ordering a three course meal or a light snack, or if you are asking where the nearest bathroom or brothel is. As a foreigner (otherwise known as farang in Thai), it’s hard to tell if you are clearly communicating or speaking total gibberish. One of the biggest challenges I have come across as I try and get a grasp on the basics of Thai is the importance of annunciation and phonetics of each vocab word. Unlike English, Thai words could seem the same on paper but have a very different meaning depending on how the speaker pronounces the word or phrase. For instance the word for doctor sounds similar to dog, mom, cat and drunk. It’s always hard to tell if I am referring to a dog I don’t have, saying my mom’s occupation is a drunk or asking I should see a cat about the questionable bug bites on my legs. Navigating a new language is certainly one of the most understated adventures a foreigner will encounter throughout their time abroad.
I’ve quickly come to realize that mixing English and Thai words together doesn’t quite leave as much room for inference as mixing English with Spanish or French. In the past I have gotten away with speaking my version of Spanglish and Frenglish however my version of Thaiglish hasn’t quite been as successful. After reviewing my Thai vocabulary centered on food I was feeling pretty confident in my ability to order dinner. My roommate and I went to a noodle shop on campus where I spoke some broken Thai that was a blend of “guiy” (chicken),“uhhhs”, “pok “(veggies) and a “some” here and there. Right in the middle of me mentioning how hungry I was the server came over and set three full plates of chicken and vegetables down in front of me. My roommate glanced at me with a quizzical expression and I could tell she was wondering if American’s really did live up to their reputation for having insatiable appetites. Realizing my mistake, I tried to hold in my laughter while apologizing profusely as I handed back the two extra plates I had accidentally ordered. Looking back, I came to the conclusion that combining “some” to my Thai sentence was confused with the Thai pronunciation of the number 3 “saam”, classic farang mistake.
In the past three weeks I have had my fair share of miscommunication mishaps that have both humiliated and humbled me. I’ve come to realize though that those moments are all a part of traveling outside my comfort zone and that mistakes are inevitable when it comes to learning a new language. So the next time I accidentally tell my host mom that I want to cook her instead of wanting to help her cook, I’ll choose to learn and laugh. Mai pen rai!
The farang excuse. Old habits die hard, Yian Saechao
Farang- Thai word meaning foreigner
These past few weeks in Thailand have taken some getting used to. During the first week of the program, we were bombarded with intense Thai language classes and introduced to new concepts of Thai behaviors and body language. As we learned to act ways in which we could better fit into our new surroundings and gesture like the natives, I found it to increasingly hard to break my old American habits.
In Thai culture, it is believed that …
- The head is the most sacred part of the body; therefore, it is unacceptable to touch others on the head. (not including children)
- The feet are not as sacred. Feet are seen as the dirty; thus do not use your foot to point at things or at people.
- Men and women should not touch each other on the shoulders or show affection of any kind.
These were 3 rules that were introduced to us and although I understand and acknowledge Thai body language and behaviors, I still find myself stuck in my American mind set. For example, if I had said or acted in a way that may have not necessarily been offensive, but wrong, I would easily brush it off by excusing myself as a farang. I found many others in the program also reverting into their farang ways and not enforcing Thai manners with themselves.
The reinforcement and accountability of sticking to Thai ways are our responsibility; however, I can’t quite pin-point why we or I don’t follow the rules as much as I should. I believe that in order to immerse myself into this culture, I need to hold myself accountable for my actions and behaviors and push to adopt the mannerisms I learned about. However, because I am part of such a huge group of “farangs” I sometimes find it easier to just follow the crowd.
It takes a lot of courage to walk your own path, but if you decide to pursue it, it may bring forth unique rewards. As Albert Einstein has said “[t]he woman who follows the crowd will usually go no further than the crowd. The woman who walks alone is likely to find herself in places no one has ever been before.” On this trip, I hope to remind myself to keep up the Thai mannerisms we learned to further my awareness in the culture. The experience is definitely what you make it. It’s not up to others.
Food in the Home Stay, Lucy Aranda
We were anxiously awaiting our host families’ arrival in Lao Nadi with a variety of expectations and stirring anticipations for the next three days we’d be there. We had been quickly briefed on what life would be like in the village regarding the bathing and bathroom situation, the sleeping arrangements and meal times. After a short wait at a common meeting point in the village, our host mom had arrived to pick up my roommate and me. She greeted us with the warmest smile and a few words in Thai, and we were on our way to her small little home down the road.
Communication with our mother and her husband was an immediate struggle. Both my roommate and I and our new host parents found ourselves relying on head nods and huge grins to ease the awkwardness of the language barrier that confined our thoughts from transferring to understandable words. After a few hand gestures and jumbling of our two very different languages, we finally came to an understanding that it was time to eat.
We followed our host mom and who seemed to be her daughter (who was most likely in her late 30s) into a pickup truck and we drove for a good 20 seconds down the same road we had came in on, to a tiny restaurant. Our new family had courteously sat us down at one of the 2 tables in the restaurant and with eager smiles, brought out 4 bowls of foreign looking food. In extremely broken Thai, my roommate and I attempted to ask what it was that we were being served, and were more than overwhelmed when our host mother answered in rapid Thai. There were some type of vegetables and some type of meat along with something completely unidentifiable. As our host mother keenly grinned down at us, we took our first bites of a meal we may never know the true ingredients of. To my pleasant surprise, everything was delicious and I gratefully thanked her for the huge quantities that she had served to us after we did our best to complete everything on our plate. Meal one in the slum village of Lao Nadi was a success.
A few hours passed, and the 13 year old granddaughter of our host mother walked into our room saying something to us of which we only understood the words “walk” and friend”, so we assumed she wanted us to go for a walk with her to her friends house. We followed her down the long dirt road past about 8 houses until we arrived to our apparent destination. We walked into the small one story home and to our surprised saw our two friends from the program. Lost in translation…the young girl was taking us to see our friends. Their host mom was preparing a fancy meal of squid, liver and beef. After the initial preparation, she invited my roommate and me to eat with her family and our two friends who she was hosting for a second dinner of the day. We couldn’t refuse the generous offer so we all crowded around in a circle on the floor and devoured the shockingly delicious food. It was truly the best meal I had in Thailand.
Non-verbal Communication: Sincerity and Respect, Daniel Banh
It can seem hard to speak without using words; a setting where one person cannot understand the other. Coming to Thailand has given me a chance to explore cross-cultural diversity and what it is like to live in a foreign country. I have tried to navigate each day without knowing the language or culture. Thai culture has shown me it’s own unique aspects that I was unaware of even with my Chinese and Vietnamese background.
Since my stay in Thailand, being taught how to pay respect to others has been an example of non-verbal communication and has also become a daily routine. Showing respect is done by doing a wai. Depending on the authority of the individual, there are three different kinds of wai. The wai of highest authority is for a monk and done by pressing your palms together, placing your thumbs near your eyebrows, and then bowing slightly and slowly. The next wai is for teachers and higher-ranking authorities. The same motion is done but instead of placing the thumbs near your eyebrow, they are placed right below your nose. The last wai can be to anyone older and again, the only difference is in the placement of the hands. In this case, they are placed near the chin. As a foreigner, I felt doing the wai right has brought many smiles to people in Thailand. It’s been a chance for me to show that I respect their culture and I respect them as individuals.
There have been situations in Thailand though, where non-verbal communication wasn’t as obvious. These specific situations were where those individuals were not aware of the feelings that they were giving off. I have noticed that body language can play a significant part in any culture. The tone of another can be expressed through facial expressions, shifts in the body and the overall mood of an individual. One situation in particular has happened frequently while I have explored Thailand. When upset and under the assumption that the Thai person would not understand English, I have seen foreigners talk negatively about a situation. Although the Thai individual cannot understand English, they can still feel the foreigner’s negative vibes. Situations are taken for granted where people can forget to show sincerity. While in a foreign country, communication can be frustrating, but showing that frustration in facial expressions or body language can give a negative connotation. In many situations where Thai people were unable to understand me verbally, they still communicated with me non-verbally by showing a smile and a shake of the head.
Showing sincerity should be applied universally. Respect comes in many forms, but the basis is, for the most part, similar. As I travel in Thailand, I will try my best to show sincerity and remain humble to those around me. This is the respect that everyone deserves.
Students and staff giving blessings during the welcoming ceremony.
7-eleven, Laura Martel
I assumed that studying abroad in Thailand for four months would force me to try new foods and expand my horizons. Never having been to Thailand before, I imagined an abundance of street vendors selling fresh fruit, meat, and rice. I also pictured there being supermarkets similar to U.S. supermarkets where people could buy dairy products, snacks, or ingredients to make homemade meals. Upon arrival to Khon Kaen, I learned I was indeed right about the street vendors but completely wrong about the supermarkets.
In these past three weeks I have yet to see a supermarket. Even if I found a supermarket, I do not have a refrigerator or a microwave in my room to store food in. So, I’ve had to learn to compromise and work with my surroundings by relying on one of the many 7-elevens in the area for my daily needs. When I arrived in Bangkok, the Program Facilitators mentioned the prevalence of 7-elevens in the area we’d be staying and that we’d soon learn about their handiness. At first I was skeptical, my prior image of a 7-eleven more closely relates to that of a gas station rather than a convenience store. However, this image quickly changed when I first walked into a 7-eleven in Thailand. I walked in one of them in Thailand, just to buy a water, and was shocked with the overwhelming variety of items and foods. For example, I can go to a 7-eleven here and buy everything from a calling card to milk to alcohol to toilet paper. Also, almost everything in Thailand is cheaper than it would be in the United States. For example, it is only about 25 baht (about 90 cents) for a candy bar here whereas at home it may be closer to $2.
The Program Facilitators words quickly proved true when I soon realized that there is a 7-eleven within walking distance from almost anywhere. The closest 7-eleven from my dorm is only a three minute walk down the street and 3 minutes farther down is another one. Every morning I walk to 7-eleven to buy a yogurt for breakfast. At first, I was shocked that 7-eleven even sold yogurt, but then my shock moved to the vast selection of Thai and American brands they offered in all flavors. The immense variety makes it hard to decide which one to get here than it would be at home especially because I can’t read the labels and I need to rely on the pictures for information.
Having 7-elevens around every corner has been extremely convenient and has provided more food options for me. However, I did not realize how big of an empire 7-eleven was and how it is even more dominant in other countries than it is in the United States. Part of that reason could be due to the fact that there are no supermarkets around. Another part of my fascination with 7-eleven could just be the name. In my mind, a 7-eleven is still a gas station, not a place to buy delicious food. If it weren’t for the name “7-eleven” I am sure I would not think twice about using it for my daily needs.
The different assortment of juice boxes available at the 7-eleven down the street. This is just one example of the variety of things that are available.
The comforts of having Thai Roommates, Marissa Stanger
All smiles after a fun night of Karaoke with our roommates.
After just five days in Thailand, a quick stay in Bangkok followed by orientation, we were finally on our way to Khon Kaen University (KKU). After a jam-packed afternoon of lecture, we would finally meet our Thai roommates, a moment we’ve anticipated since arrival.
Six hours later, the forty-three of us emerged from the classroom exhausted, only to be greeted by a mob of Thai students and their motorcycles, anxiously awaiting introductions. We were asked to stand in a long line, facing the Thai students. What happens next? I thought. It was unclear if we would have to pick out our roommates from the crowd, or just stare at each other in silence.
My name was one of the first to be called, and as I took a few hesitant steps forward I was greeted by a huge smile and a sign with my name on it. Mai and I hugged as if we had known each other forever. We were hurried on to collect my luggage and trek down the street to our apartment building.
What I knew about my roommate Mai was what she had told me in an autobiographical letter I received that morning. An English major in her junior year, she taught English to local children; she had studied in New Zealand; she was excited to meet me, and I was her second American roommate. Mai’s first impression of me was what I scrambled down in a survey months earlier, which I remember completing without much thought. Needless to say, butterflies zoomed around my stomach.
Stepping into my new room, I felt right at home. Mai immediately made me feel comfortable and accepted into her life. Since day one, Mai has been there for me. Whether I’m trying to catch a KKU bus or a song tow, or trying to order a dish mai ped (not spicy) at the night market, she always has my back.
Although there are sometimes challenges through language and culture, the Thai roommates that CIEE has picked out for us have been remarkable. Each one offers kindness, warmth, and laughs. Whether going out for drinks, dinner, or dessert, my best nights are those spent with the roommates. The language barrier makes for awkward but polite laughs; hearing the Thais pronounce “chair” as “share,” or “village” as “willage,” these conversations become the highlights of our time together.
One night last week, four roommate pairs headed out to a nearby Karaoke bar. It would prove to be one of the most memorable and fun nights thus far at KKU. Our roommates belted American songs proudly; some favorites belonging to Taylor Swift and Britney Spears. The four of us did our best to sing Thai phonetics, although my greatest contribution was as back-up dancer. Smiles were continuously plastered on our faces.
The only real barrier separating us from our roommates was language. Otherwise, I haven’t felt shy, uncomfortable, or out-of-place once when I’m with them. They have welcomed us mid-semester into their lives knowing well that we will bombard them with nonstop questions and force them to translate for us at any waking moment.
But who cares? The next four months are a chance to learn, grow, and appreciate so much about each other. As students, the greatest way to learn is to be thrown into something, and CIEE has definitely provided us with such an opportunity. I’m already incredibly thankful for the time I’ve had with my new Thai friends, even though we’ve been together for just two weeks.
Full Immersion, Jacob Smith
One of the things that I was really excited and nervous about when I found out I would be spending a semester in Thailand was learning Thai. I didn’t know what to expect from the classes or wether or not I would be any good. I really wanted to be able to succeed and, hopefully someday, speak conversational Thai. I knew that everyone in the program would have the same amount of proficiency Thai (practically none), but I still didn’t know how they were planning on teaching so many students an entirely new language from the bottom up. And so I walked into my first four-hour Thai lesson with an air of curiosity and an open mind.
They had divided the DG (Development and Globalization) and PH (Public Health) students into groups of around eight to nine kids into 5 different classes, each class with a mixture of DG and PH students. Each class had their own ajaan (teacher), and as we took our seats, the ground rules for the class were laid out. We were not to take any notes, speak in english, or ask any questions except during short five minuets breaks we were only given every forty-five minuets. These rules proved exceedingly hard to follow. The temptation to write down what you were learning or ask a question when you need clarification was excruciating, however, I believe that it was these rules that made us as students get the most out of our lessons. Without the intrusion of English during our lessons, we were forced to mentally work out any problems we were having, and due to the methods the ajaans used, we made connections to what the words meant, not their English counterparts.
The structure of the class was very straight-forward. The ajaans would hold up a picture depicting the word that we were to learn. They would then say the word in Thai three to four times. We would then repeat the word back to the ajaan as a group around three times, after which the ajaan would make each of us say the word individually. After one of us said the word individually, the ajaan would rate our pronunciations with a di ma (very good), a di (good), or a simple nod if it was acceptable. If one received none of these, the ajaan would repeat the word to you again until they deemed it acceptable. Once we had learned enough vocabulary, the ajaan would teach us how to ask and answer a question relevant to the words we had been learning. After the ajaan was pleased with our pronunciation of the question and answers, we would go, one by one, asking the person to our right a question, and answering the question of the person on our left. Then, during the breaks, we were allowed to take out our textbook and right down the phonetics of the vocabulary, questions, and answers. During the break we could also ask our ajaan questions in English if we were still confused about the meaning of a word or the inflections that we had to put on a word or phrase. During the last half hour of the class we studied the Thai alphabet.
The full Thai immersion tactic that the ajaans use makes one learn at a pace that I wouldn’t have thought possible. Even though my Thai is still fairly weak, it is still much better than I could have ever hoped. After only being in Thailand for two weeks, I can now order food at a restaurant, buy clothing at a store, ask people about their family, age, occupation, and whether or not they like something. I am extremely impressed by how effective the teaching methods the ajaans have used, and I am excited to expand my knowledge of Thai in the next coming months.
Smile, Breathe, Live, Hannah Ratliff
No matter how prepared I thought I was to embrace and experience a whole new culture, Thailand offered me many surprises, challenges and new perspectives during the initial part of my stay as visiting student from the University of Michigan. In a country where toilet bowls are replaced with squatters, toilet paper with water hoses, and mattresses with tile-covered beds, culture shock is inevitable. Not to mention, there is nothing like the challenge of navigating a language barrier with awkward smiles or the sounds of my embarrassing attempt to speak Thai. The culture shock, along with futile attempts at communication, and the fact that I was thousands of miles away from home collectively served in my dreadful experience of homesickness.
I have always been close to my family and friends, and the ability to communicate with them via phone, the Internet, or even a short drive was something I took for granted. My parents live merely an hour away from school, so I am able to go see them a couple times each week. In contrast, while in Thailand, Wi-Fi has felt like an unattainable goal, and the idea of visiting my parents is simply a dream. With each new experience I have been faced with the realization that this unfamiliar place is now my home for the next four months.
My homesickness reached its peak on the night of my first home stay in the railroad slum village known as Temperak 1. The family and community were very kind and welcoming, however the language barrier was overwhelming and I felt incredibly isolated while living with strangers in an unfamiliar environment. As I attempted to sleep on the hard tile floor that night, thoughts of flying home and ending this adventure ran rampant through my mind. The following morning I could not contain myself while everyone was speaking about their wonderful nights. Before I realized it, the emotion boiled over and I began to cry. In spite of my host family’s good intentions and hospitality, the anxiety of being away from my home and parents got the better of me. I had never experienced these feelings. They were completely new and unfamiliar. In order to cope, I talked to some of my peers that were experiencing similar circumstances. One of them offered a very comforting solution--to play with the children. The next evening, as I was still dreading the return to the community, I decided that playing with the kids was a much better idea then sitting at home in my own form of solitary confinement.
That night I arrived to the community still missing home, but ready to try a new approach to my home stay. Just like the night before, I ate dinner as soon as I entered the village. However, instead of sitting at home, I took my 4-year-old host sister down the street where we met a large group of other children and students. My experience the first night as compared to the second was like night and day. We played a makeshift game of monkey in the middle mixed with dodge ball, sung nursery rhymes, bonded over Justin Bieber, and made tons of crazy faces for the cameras. The energy, love, and acceptance that the children held was incomparable to anything else. Our interaction, relying mainly on playfulness and smiles, was effortless.
The children in these slum communities reminded me of the importance of human interaction and the development of personal relationships. They taught me that although there may be a language barrier, it can be broken down with smiles and laughter. I have developed a new appreciation for the luxuries of home. I had somewhere to sleep, food to eat, and an entire community full of endless love. The children in the Railroad slum community reopened my eyes to this beautiful world right in front of me. This adventure may only happen once in my life, and by looking at differences in a negative light I was only wasting valuable time. Positive thoughts, smiles, and open-mindedness allowed me to overcome my homesickness and make the most of both my community visit and my time here in Thailand. Thank you, children of Temperak 1.
“Sometimes your joy is the source of your smile, but sometimes your smile can be the source of your joy.”
- Thich Nhat Hanh
An experience at the Hospital, Maggie Adams
“Don’t be afraid of the hospital, you will probably end up there at some point.” This is what Ajaan Ooh and Ajaan Dave explained to us at the beginning of Orientation week. Everyone was squirming in the chairs; no one really wants to go to the hospital. Little did I know I would be the lucky one to take the first trip to the hospital out of our group of 43 students.
I am used to being allergic to a lot of things and tend to have a very weak stomach. At home I am at the University doctor at least 5 times a year for some kind of sickness. So I shouldn’t have been surprised when I started to develop a rash on my left arm. In a time period of 4 days, the rash spread to my entire body. It itched, it itched badly. Finally after the 4th day, I urged the Ajaans to take me to this hospital they had told us so much about. So I hopped in a van with Nà Am and Ajaan Poi and headed for the hospital.
The outside looked very similar to any hospital back home, but once you get inside you see a whole different world. All you do is walk inside and there are many different open sections of waiting rooms in the downstairs. Once, you move upstairs there are all different types of rooms. All within this one space there is a dermatology clinic, where I went, a pharmacy, some food places, an emergency room, and many other specific clinics.
The dermatology clinic looked just like a doctor’s office might at home. The only difference was that the doors were kept open during your appointment with the doctor. Also, two nurses just stood at the door and waited for commands from the doctor as she began to diagnose me. The language barrier was rough. Even with a translator, I had to explain to her a couple times that the rash came from what I thought was nowhere. She concluded it was an allergic reaction, asked if I minded shots, stabbed my upper shoulder with a shot, gave me a prescription and sent me down to the pharmacy. It was over in no time, I picked up my meds for a small price. Within the next two days, my rash was gone.
Generosity, Diane Jang
“Ahh….” That was the first word that came out of my mouth when my roommate and I arrived at our host mother’s house. The house looked way more rudimentary than what I was expecting. There were two tiny rooms, no kitchen, no dining table, one bathroom with no shower, and broken windows… Knowing that many of our friends are staying in “modern-looking” houses with hot showers and comfortable beds, I could not help feeling so miserable. Trying to take a cold shower in a bathroom with huge holes did not help me at all either.
However, as I spent more and more time with the host family I started to realize that it was their great sacrifice to host me in their home. After several daunting attempts to communicate with our host mom, we found out that our host mom is actually a grandma of our host siblings and that they do not have a mom living with them. My host siblings were only 9 and 7 years old. I felt really sorry for asking about their mom. Her dad lives with the family but he seemed to not have a job because he was in the house all the time. So, our host mom supported the whole family by selling fruits at the market.
Because my roommate and I had to use one of their rooms, all of the families slept in one tiny room together. They even made us use their new fan so we could stay comfortable for the nights. Despite all these, one thing that struck me the most was the food. Our host mom would cook pork or chicken for me and my roommate but she and her family would only eat a little bit of vegetables and rice. We tried so much to share the food with the family but they would never sit down with us to eat. Only after we were finished with our meal would the host mom give the leftover meats to the host siblings. So I learned to leave the meats for the family.
On the second day, I started to be conscious of my behaviors: I made sure to turn off the lights, to use minimum amount of water, and to not waste toilet papers, etc. I was so thankful for my host family’s sacrifice and generosity toward me. I could do nothing to repay the kind generosity other than handing my host mom a thank you card. If I were them I would have been very hesitant to host an American stranger when going through hard financial times.
However, our host family welcomed us with genuine hearts and warm smiles. Their unconditional generosity opened my eyes to see how we can all treat others with sincere kindness even during difficult times. With overflowing love of the family, the small, humble house remains so bright in my memory.
My host mom preparing her granddaughter before school. My host mom and her granddaughter in front of their house.
My Personal Privilege, Lily McLaughlin
The Mitrapap Community, the most welcoming and generous people I have ever met.
I’ve worn red, white, and blue every Fourth of July. I recited the pledge of allegiance every day from the age of four to seventeen. I have stood and sang the national anthem at sporting events. I am an American. But never had I truly known what this meant until I traveled to a country so different from my own: Thailand. It’s true how they say you don’t know what you have until it’s gone. The simplest things, which are necessities in my country, do not exist here; a toilet that flushes, running water and proper sanitation are a privilege here. For all of my life I had taken such things for granted. I had always seen on the news or in the movies people living in unfathomable conditions but it had never been a reality to me. I had always been so removed from this world in my little bubble of Montclair, New Jersey. I have now been living in Thailand for three weeks and am adjusting to this different way of living. I never expect air conditioning. I expect to always be surrounded by bugs. I carry a roll of toilet paper around in my bag at all times. To quote the eloquent Ralph Marston, “Being truly thankful makes you infinitely more resourceful. By sincerely appreciating what you have, you find new and valuable ways to make use of it.” I don’t take things for granted anymore. I appreciate the little things in life which so many privileged people overlook. Having a lease to one’s land, a bed to sleep on, a door that locks, and three meals a day is not common for most families, especially in the railroad slums where a majority of families live. After just completing my first homestay in the Mitrapap community, I can attest to the poor conditions in which these people are forced to live in. Yet, they are the happiest group of people I have ever met in my life and by far the most generous. One can learn so much from these people who have so little, yet give so much. Each morning the villagers wake up as early as 3:30 am to go to the market to sell their goods. Each morning they give alms to the monks. Every second in which I lived in the community I was overwhelmed with warm greetings, smiles, food, and gifts. My own host mother, brother and sister slept on the floor so I and my two roommates could sleep on their only bed, a mattress on the floor. It’s so humbling to be surrounded by people who though they have so little, they share it all. While in the U.S., people have so much, yet give so little. I’ve learned so much over the past three weeks from a people who value the important things in life like family and friends, education, and health over the materialistic values which are so revered in the United States. Thus far, Thailand has proven to be a very special place full of new experiences and important life lessons which I know I will cherish forever.
Exchange Between Two Worlds, Anisa Sanghrajka
Dinner with my Mithraphap family
My experience in Thailand thus far has been almost indescribable and has far surpassed any of my prior expectations. One of the main features that draws me to the CIEE Community Public Health Program is the ability to experience life outside of our campus “bubble”, specifically the community visitation opportunities. I experienced this side of learning during my first home-stay. I was placed into a family of six people in the Mitraphap railroad slum in Khon Kaen. The experience was extremely enjoyable and I was able to reflect on the experience internally as well as with my peers. The community exchange, facilitated by CIEE, was extremely beneficial to my understanding of the community and its members.
Having only learned basic conversational Thai vocabulary during our first few weeks, I found that it was sometimes difficult to communicate with our host families to the extent that I wanted to: for this reason the community exchange was helpful. Every student was engaged. Some of the topics covered included history and information regarding the overall community, positions of power, occupations, education opportunities for the children, health status and threats, financial issues, safety, and future plans of action. When living with the families for three nights, it was evident that the community was extremely close-knit, and this observation was further validated when asking the community what they are most proud of, to which everyone responded that they were proud of the support network that has been created over the years. The financial, physical, and moral support that each community member gives and receives is incredible and their willingness to let foreign students not only stay with them, but also be embraced as a family member was heart-warming. At times it was even difficult to tell who were your “family” members, because everyone was so warm, receiving, and helpful. The main concern of the community was receiving the lease for their property, to avoid being evicted due to railway construction for the high-speed train to Bangkok. Based on the mood in the meeting room, you could tell that this was definitely a large concern for the people of Mitraphap and that they were afraid that they will be uprooted like they were years ago. Another concern, surrounding Public Health specifically, was the drainage of sewage and likewise the proper flood protection plan. Due to the community stays being a success, the head member of the community asked all of us CIEE students to one day return to Mitraphap to work with the children of the community and teach them English.
The community exchange was a great way for me to personally hear the concerns of a group of people and then be able to think about and address them in a way that was productive and possibly beneficial in the future. I am thankful that we were able to have this exchange, due to the language barrier that became bridged, allowing for a wholesome understanding of the issues that face Mitraphap.
Transportation, Emily Brincka
In the United States, I am accustomed to catching a train on the Washington, DC Metrorail or hailing one of many cabs in the city to get from point A to point B. During my first two weeks in Khon Kaen, I learned that getting a taxi or tuk tuk (a motorized, small, open taxi) from one part of the city to another, or from the market to the apartment complex is quite the challenge.
I encountered the language barrier between Thais and myself upon arrival in Khon Kaen. My first three days of ordering lunch in Khon Kaen each had an element of surprise. I never knew what exactly would be in the soup I ordered, what was in my pad Thai, and my friends and I could not quite understand what was so unclear about wanting to try five different, random dishes off the menus of local restaurants. I thought situations involving Thai communication could not get much worse than the daily challenges encountered simply ordering lunch. However, the failed attempt of myself and three friends to get a taxi from the Saturday night market back to the apartment revealed the complexities in communication when requesting transportation in Thailand. My friends and I were truly humbled when our arrival back to the apartment was purely due to a lucky encounter with several middle schoolers who understood our English well enough to order us a taxi.
My friends and I had spent the evening at Central Plaza mall and figured out how to get a tuk tuk from there to the night market. We struggled to fit four people into a tuk tuk comfortably, but managed to safely arrive at our destination. When we left the market, the language barrier between ourselves, tuk tuk drivers, and the police, jeopardized our ability to return to the apartment in a reasonable amount of time. First, we asked for a tuk tuk. After ten minutes of muddled Thai dialogue, we finally learned that we could only take a taxi back to the apartment. We wanted to hail a taxi, but we were told that we would need to call a taxi. Being unable to speak Thai made this task impossible. When we showed the policeman an emergency card we had with the name of the apartment, numbers of taxis to call, and a map of the area we lived in, he did not understand our request to call a taxi. Instead of calling the taxi number, the policeman began calling the program director and he expressed serious concern that my friends and I were showing him a card with the name and number of the local hospital on it.
Finally, a group of junior high girls who could speak Thai and fairly good English were able to understand we needed a cab back to our apartment. Soon after, the taxi arrived and after forty-five minutes of trying to get transportation back to the apartment complex, my friends and I arrived back at the apartment.
One week later, we encountered similar transportation issues. At the bus station en route to Phu Wiang National Park, the site where dinosaur fossils were discovered during the 1970s when scientists were conducting uranium research in Khon Kaen, we inadvertently hired a tuk tuk driver for the day. To our surprise, the driver drove for an hour on main roads and highways in a tuk tuk, vehicles designed for shorter commutes. During the hour long drive, the wooden lid of the tuk tuk threatened to fly off. The driver also would randomly stop to pour gasoline from a water bottle into the tuk tuk. To the surprise of my friends and me, we managed to make it to and from the park back to the bus station, and we arrived back in Khon Kaen in the early evening.
Hailing transportation has never appeared on my radar as a potential challenge of spending a semester in Thailand. These experiences have made me appreciate the small accomplishments of arriving to the apartment safely or getting to where I need to be in a reasonable amount of time. I don't think I will ever be able to communicate with a taxi operator in Thai before I leave Thailand, but if hailing transportation ever goes smoothly in the course of the next three and a half months, that will be a moment to never forget.
Tuk tuk transport from bus station to Phu Wiang National Park
Breaking the Ice with Thai, Desbelet Berhe
Ajaan Nidnoi happily displays the vowels and consanant chart often used during our Thai lessons.
Upon our arrival to Bangkok I knew just one word in Thai: sa wah dee, which means “hello.” Little did I know, my knowledge of Thai would double over the next weeks and I would soon be able to carry a basic conversation in Thai. On our first Thai lesson our ajaan (which means ‘teacher’) taught us short, but important phrases that we could tuck under our belts for the time being. We learned Sa bai dee mai? which means “How are you?,” as well as pood cha cha (speak slowly) and Mai cow jai which translates to “I don’t understand.”
Although our Thai is minimal in comparison to natives and farangs (foreigners) who have lived in Thailand for years, it has been especially useful in situations like ordering food, asking how much an item costs, or even describing your family members. Ajaan Poi, Nidnoi, Jeab, Jhoon, and Peach do a great job in emphasizing pronunciation and sentence structure in our classes, giving us a better understanding of Thai. The more we practice in class, the more comfortable we are to use our basic Thai outside the classroom. Having a Thai roommate has been resourceful and helpful in Thai language. My roommate, for example, enjoys asking me simple questions that she knows I can answer, like “what time is it?” or “what do you like to eat?” Not only is it is fun to answer, especially since I know enough vocabulary to answer, but I also find our Thai conversations a confidence booster. What better way to practice Thai than with your Thai roommate, who will offer support and laughter even when you mispronounce a word. If you ask a CIEE student what has been the hardest part of Thai language I’m sure one of their responses will include the tones. In Thai language there are five tones that can be very difficult to comprehend at times. You have the word cow: which can mean rice, news, or the color white. It all depends on how you pronounce it based on the tone. In this example, cow has three translations: ‘news’ when using a flat tone, ‘rice’ when using the up tone, and the color ‘white’ when using the down tone. This introduces difficulty in learning Thai, surely, as it can also leave plenty of room for mistakes in translation. You may want to order rice, and instead you ask for news. These simple mistakes can go unnoticed, but we do our best to practice our Thai down to the knuts and bolts, which is in this case, the tones.
Overall, Thai language is not easy, but I can honestly say that all of us are making good progress. We can use our basic level of Thai to order food, ask how much an item costs at the nearest 7-11, as well as start a conversation with another Thai student.
Kap koon ka!
“.. But Where are You Really From?”- On being a woman of color in Thailand, Jhanae Mahoney
Me right before dinner at my host family's house at the Mittrapap Village in Khon Kaen, Thailand
When I made the decision to come to Thailand to study abroad for the semester I was looking for a personal, academic, and spiritual journey. After spending 3 years in a university setting and growing tired of “traditional” education, I decided that I was in desperate need of an adventure, and thus hopped on a plane to travel 9,000 miles across the world to Southeast Asia. Although I spent months saving and planning, I hadn't really prepared for my trip here with my own race or ethnicity in mind. Growing up in the United States, I looked at people of Asian origin as persons of "color" who shared a similar experience as I. However, I still feel my “otherness” here, but in a different way than at home.
The minute I landed in Bangkok, I became aware of said “otherness”. As I got off the airplane and carried my bags to the taxi station, I was greeted by a man who took my bags to the taxi and drove me to the orientation hotel. While talking to him in the cab, my explanation of being American fell on deaf ears, when asked "But where were you born?” “America,” I said. “But you are so dark, that's not possible” he responded. I could hear the confusion in his voice. Little did I know that this would be the first of many times that I would be asked where I was “really” from during my stay in Thailand. It seemed as if I was having interaction after interaction in which I had to convince people that I was, in fact, American.
In cultural discussions that we had with the CIEE staff, we talked about how in the U.S. you might be classified by your ethnicity, but abroad, you may be identified first as an American. Because of the media, Thai people generally singularly associate “American” with “White” and see that as the standard of beauty. We read articles titled “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack”. But what kind of knapsack was I, a woman of color in Southeast Asia,unpacking? And more importantly, in what ways do I (if at all) experience national privileges as a result of my citizenship in the United States if on sight most Thai people classify me as something other than American? I don't know the answers yet to either of these questions, but they are something that I am definitely looking to further explore during my semester abroad.
In the short amount of time that I've been living in Thailand, I'm starting to come to terms with the fact that most people mean no harm when asking about/making comments about my race or ethnicity. I'm also realizing the extent to which “political correctness” is a U.S phenomenon. I was initially taken aback by the blunt way that Thai people address race. However, rather than considering my uniqueness a burden, I think of it as a chance to facilitate conversation and share my culture. It's just important to realize that it is a learning experience for the people of your host country as well. Sure the extra attention is going to be uncomfortable and at times very frustrating, but with that small sacrifice comes a once in a lifetime opportunity.
A Lesson from MitroPop, Emily Parker
A morning market find
Tastes like fried chicken
It is barely 5AM as Nessie, Lily and I trail my host mother Pom up and down the dynamic tha-lahd alleys. Vendors and shoppers alike have heads turned towards the three farangs as we are captivated by the sounds, sights, and smells of the animated morning market. Among many, an eccentric meat stand has caught the eyes of us foreigners, a table of meat piled high with obscure body parts - chicken necks, hearts, intestines, and feet galore. By some cruel misinterpretation, my Meh is suddenly ordering a bag full of bare chicken feet. It doesn't take much to predict what will be on the table for tonight's last dinner.
The day passes quickly, and soon we are back in MitroPop greeted with dinner on the table - a feast of fried egg, fried fish, som tham, and a mound of fried chicken feet. Both slightly nauseated and humbled by the specifically chosen delicacy, Justin, Lily and I dive into dinner while our Mah and siblings sit beside us politely observing. Dinner is indeed a roy, and besides the obvious difficulties of eating meat off of a foot for the first time, I am pleasantly surprised by the familiar taste of fried chicken. Feeling accomplished in completion of this exotic dish as well as the polite 'thank you' we have now non-verbally communicated to our Mah, dinner is finished.
It is 1:00 AM and I am sure it must be at least 3:00, for I have been laying awake in a hot sweat for what seems like the entirety of the night. No ease of my nausea or aching stomach comes.
1:20AM: I am violently ill in the bathroom. No need for detail, but neither end of me are being very modest.
1:30AM: I have awoken my Mah. She rubs my back and hands me a bottle of water of which I am unsure about filtration status. I gargle each sip I take in my mouth and spit it out; 'caw toad ka' is all I can make out in between purges. She says things I do not understand and cannot hear over my vomiting.
1:50AM: I remember I forgot my toothbrush when I brought it back to campus today. I officially hate everything.
3:30AM: I sit vertically for the rest of the night. I luckily need to make no more bathroom visits, yet cannot sleep either. The fan does nothing for my hot sweats.
8:00AM: Wishing I hadn't been sick on our last night of my host mother’s humble and gracious generosity, I do my best to continually state my gratitude. Meanwhile I can't help but think of what exactly has gotten me sick, but I suspect it to be unfiltered water or one bad piece of chicken foot. It is hardly a way to thank my Mah for kindly opening her home, yet an interesting public health topic at the least.
After a bumpy and fumey song tow ride that I am certain at multiple points should have me hurling onto the Khon Kaen highways, the rest of the day consists of bad sleep, bathroom visits, and hot sweats. The most dynamic my day gets is when the Sprite + ORS combo Ajaan Jeab insisted on explodes all over my dorm room. Sleep and charcoal pills do wonders for my digestive system, and after a good nights sleep I awake in the morning feeling nearly 100%, grateful and refreshed by a feeling of good health I so often take for granted.
I think of the privilege I have in my freedom to oscillate between different worlds. MitroPop slum village sits just behind the central mall complex of Khon Kaen city, yet lives many worlds apart. Half of the 14 of our students who visited the community experienced a similar sickness to mine, a few landing in hospital beds. Despite this, I have taken much more from the villagers than a bout of sickness. The humble generosity and extreme kindness I received within three nights in the modest slum of MitroPop will last with me much longer than the unpleasant consequences of a bad chicken foot.
Different Ideas of Appropriate Dress, Elsa Weltzien
Before coming to Thailand, I never understood how casual the United States’ view of appropriate dress was. The first clue I got was my attempt to pack and purchase clothing to bring for my semester abroad. I realized all the dresses and skirts that I owned did not cover my knees and therefore were too short, even those that could be considered business casual. So I went from store to store trying to find items that met all the requirements and were still stylish. Dresses were especially difficult to find because most either reached all the way to the floor or far above the knees. They also do not cover the shoulders; yet, many of these would still be considered “polite” by American standards. I came to the conclusion that in the United States, appropriate seems to be more defined by looking nice than covering up. For a special event or occasion, skirts or dresses should not be especially short but definitely do not need to reach the knees and at least slightly low-cut necklines are acceptable. In casual settings (especially in hot weather), females can easily wear short shorts and a tank top out in public without being stared at by others.
Thailand holds appropriate dress to a much higher standard, since looking put-together is a sign of respect. Therefore, the amount of skin showing is a measurable sign of such respect. So, even while wearing casual clothing, knees and shoulders should still be covered in order to be “polite”. An interesting component of “polite” dress is a back strap on shoes because the heel is still visible and toes do not need to be covered. The clothing that I struggled to find in the United States blends in very well in Thailand and demonstrates our awareness of traditional Thai customs.
However, in my experience thus far, there seems to be a double standard for how foreigners need to dress in casual settings versus what Thais can wear. There are a good number of Thai people, especially women, that I’ve seen on the street and out at night wearing shorts or short skirts that might even garner stares in America. But since there is a certain idea about the loose behavior of Americans that is present in media, for us to wear similar clothing brings many stares because it fulfills a preconceived conception of what Americans are like. Although there are some contradicting ideas, the wise choice is to dress more conservatively than less so.
Guys appear to have a much easier time adjusting to what is “polite” in Thailand. From those in the program I’ve talked to, they have mentioned that they haven’t changed the way they normally dress very much. A t-shirt and long shorts are already a standard combination in America and so style transfers well for the most part, with the addition of long pants for formal settings. It will be interesting to see if students have more critical awareness of American appropriate dress upon their return home.
The Communication Challenge, Jessica Dubow
Diane, Nessie, and I play with kids by the railroad tracks in our host community of Mittraphap.
I’d never been illiterate before coming to Thailand. While I’ve been fortunate to travel internationally, those trips have always been to countries in Latin America and Europe where a Latin alphabet shared with English allowed me to at least somewhat discern signs and menus. After three long-term solo trips to Latin America to volunteer and study abroad, I viewed my next excursion to Thailand with the nonchalance of an experienced traveler. Naively, I underestimated the impact that now seven years of Spanish classes had on those experiences.
The nineteen hours of intensive Thai instruction we received during orientation immediately proved to be tremendously helpful. When I for the first time successfully ordered exactly what I wanted for dinner, I felt very confident. And though I did accidentally order three plates of the same meal, I’ll still call it a win! By the time we moved into our first home stays, I was limited to phrases like “I am a student” and “There are three people in my family,” but it had to be enough. Together with thirteen other public health students, I headed to the railroad slum community of Mittraphap not far from the heart of Khon Kaen. Two teachers accompanied us, but they soon departed and I was left blankly staring at my host mother with no real idea of what to say. A group of villagers stood outside my door, staring back. After cooing at a baby (a universal language!), I found the word for “tour” in my Thai-English dictionary and gestured widely at the community while asking “dai mai?” or, “can you?”
As my host brother showed us around, a growing group of children followed curiously observing the foreign visitors. We bonded with them quickly because we didn’t need to understand Thai to understand their games. We could toss a ball or let them style our hair without speaking each other’s languages. In the evening, they helped us study Thai and we helped them with their English homework.
The following two evenings, we bee-lined for the children as soon as we arrived in the community. Playing with them was incredibly fun and a great way to practice Thai, but it was also the safe option. When I ate dinner with my host family, it was in silence—partly because they watched a Thai soap opera and partly because I was able to exhaust my vocabulary in just a few minutes. I wanted desperately to ask questions and actually get to them, but even when I managed to ask I could hardly understand the answers. I felt frustratingly stunted, resigned to the status and intellectual ability of a child.
In “The Land of Smiles,” as Thailand is called, I found myself trying to build relationships with almost nothing but smiles and wais (a hand motion to greet someone and show respect). I didn’t know how to convey my overwhelming gratitude at my host family’s generosity and my appreciation for their patience while I looked up almost every word in my Thai-English dictionary. I didn’t know how to express my complete regret that I couldn’t communicate better. All I could say to articulate complex feelings was a simple “Thank you” or “I’m sorry,” and I continue to feel that same disappointing limitation countless times a day when a stranger goes out of his or her way to help me.
Experiences like these provide incredible motivation to learn Thai, but in the meantime I’m not sure how to build profound relationships. I depend on others speaking English and understanding me. And I think that’s part of the reason why we, as a group of CIEE students, tend to stick together. I have a new understanding and respect for non-English speakers in the United States, be they tourists, recent immigrants, or exchange students.
That’s not to say I didn’t find the host family experience incredibly valuable and fun. But I’m disappointed because I feel like while I learned a lot, I offered very little to the community. I hope that despite the limitations of verbal communication, I will still find ways to develop meaning relationships with locals.
Grilling at the Railroad Market with my Home Stay Father, Michael J. Marino
The first community homestay was the perfect place to practice my newly acquired Thai vocabulary. During our delicious dinner, I successfully asked my parents what time they went to work in the morning. My dad left to sell food at a market at 4:00am and my mom was in charge of running the convenience store located in their house. Even though the thought of doing anything besides sleep at 4:00am makes me cringe, I decided I would ask if I could go to work with my dad in the morning. My parents were in disbelief that I would voluntarily wake up so early, but I was able to convince them that I really wanted to go help out.
I decided to go to bed early at 8:00pm, so I did not accidentally sleep through the alarm that I set for 3:30am. Waking up on time was imperative because during the briefing for our homestay, we learned that our parents would treat us like honored guests and be more likely to let us sleep in even if we asked to be woken up early.
It felt like my alarm was going off as soon as I had closed my eyes, but I sprang out of bed and got ready as fast as I could. My dad was already sitting on his motorcycle when I walked downstairs. I ran over, hopped on the back, and we rode into the darkness with a pot of hissing coals bouncing on a table attached to the back of the motorcycle. The ride to the market took about 10 minutes and when we turned onto the market street, I was astonished at what I saw. There was a huge crowd of people walking around, setting up tents and tables full of fruits, vegetables, clothes, and more. My dad instinctively drove his motorcycle to a spot halfway down the market street, parked it on the side of the road, and got right to work. He pulled out a metal grate and tied it to the top of the pot of coals. Then, he reached into his motorcycle sidecar and took out 5 different Tupperware containers full of different skewered meats, placing an assortment of the skewers onto the grill. I was still very tired, but the sweet smoky smell and loud sizzling jolted me awake. My dad must be the best cook at the market, because people started showing up before the meat was even finished grilling. We were selling the skewers as fast as they were being grilled. I helped turn the skewers over and pulled off of the grill. I also helped to shape sticky rice into circular patties to be grilled. I like grilled sticky rice more than normal sticky rice because it is dipped in a salty egg batter and becomes crispy on the outside. All of the sights, sounds, and smells were making me super hungry and luckily I didn’t even have to say a word before my dad started putting skewers in front of me and telling me to eat. I felt so bad because my dad could have made a profit on all of the food he gave me. Every person who came up to order asked who I was and why I was there. I could barely understand what was being said but I was able to recognize that my dad kept telling the customers that I was his son. I made me feel incredible when he called me his son because all morning it felt like I was just bothering him and slowing him down. I am so glad I decided to get up early and go to the market. It was an incredible experience seeing how hard some people work to make a living.
My homestay dad showing off his grilling prowess
How I Ended Up Biking Around Khon Kaen in a Chicken Costume, Jackie Ordemann
When I received a letter from my roommate, Yok, at the beginning of the program, I could never have imagined what a fun person she would turn out to be. In her letter, she wrote about cooking, playing the guitar, going to the symphony orchestra and the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine. Based on her writing style and the content of her letter, my first assumption was that she would be a very practical, down to earth, and studious roommate. However the reality is that she has a great sense of humor, she is creative, she is incredibly disorganized, and that last weekend she led me on one of the craziest and strangest adventures of my life.
Last week Yok asked me if I would like to go biking around Khon Kaen with her. Being an enthusiastic biker back at home and being eager to explore Khon Kaen, I immediately agreed to go. At this point I made several incorrect assumptions regarding the upcoming bike trip: 1) That we would be biking on quiet streets or on a bike path on the outskirts of the city; 2) That we would be wearing athletic attire; and 3) That it would only be Yok, a few of her friends, and me who were biking. Biking day came and all of my assumptions proved incorrect. We biked through downtown Khon Kaen on four lane roads, we wore animal costumes, and there were over 30 men, women, Khon Kaen University students, and young children biking with us. My first fear upon finding out that it was an organized event was that it might be politically oriented, but I later found out that we were helping to advertise for her friend’s car company. And that was how I ended up spending my Saturday morning biking around Khon Kaen in a chicken suit.
This is just one example of the interesting and odd things that Yok does. In fact when I asked her, “Have you ever done anything like that before?” she said “Yes!” I expected her to be calm, studious, and tidy but she is quite the opposite. For example: she painted her own shoes in wildly different colors for each foot; she leaves her homework until the last possible moment; she oversleeps through her classes almost every morning; and most of all, she did not find it unusual to bike around the city in a frog costume. So really she is disorganized, very social, and extremely quirky. If you had told me that my roommate in Thailand would take me biking around Khon Kaen wearing a chicken costume I would have laughed. However, I am glad that I went and I am glad that Yok is my roommate. My experience in Thailand will be better because she is so much fun.
Figure 1 Yok and I dressed in our frog and chicken costumes before the big bike ride.
A Night Out in Khon Kaen, Collin Boyer
Nightlife isn’t one of the first things that come to mind when thinking about studying abroad in Thailand. In our first few weeks in Khon Kaen, most of the CIEE students, if not all, have been spending our free nights traveling about the town, around campus, and hanging out at the various night markets Khon Kaen has to offer. Right down the road from our apartments is Khon Kaen University’s notorious party street. With about twelve to fifteen different bars, you can find almost all of this semester CIEE students on this street on a Friday or Saturday night between food stands, and live music around every corner.
I thought I had a good understanding of international nightlife is after backpacking through Europe for three months. . However, from the very second my friends and I entered the bar I realized I was wrong. The first apparent difference is that the bars in Khon Kaen have restaurant style service. You and your friends sit at a table and you have a server who takes your drink orders and brings them to you. When I first arrived I walked straight to the counter to order a drink where I was quickly told “no” and shown to a table.
Table service, iced beers, and the lack of a dance floor are all the little things that surprised us at first, but it’s relationships with the Thai people that really throw you for a loop. You see, here in Khon Kaen, my American friends and I stand out like a sore thumb, being that we are “farangs” or “westerner” in Thai. Many times during the night we are approached and asked to have our picture taken. In fact, just last night someone made their way across the entire outdoor market to snap a photo with us claiming, “farangs look like movie stars”. Every interaction so far has been welcoming and encouraging. Throughout the night we are offered drinks from other Thai students who want nothing more than a new friend. As time marches on I have been able to see that the people here have their roots in the same intrinsic human principles. We make friends for the same reasons, and long-term relationships with other KKU students require the same amount of respect; there is no long-term privilege for being a farang. Although initially the social relations with the local students seems overwhelming and uncertain, you will find that it becomes a highlight of the trip and really makes for a fulfilling experience.
Long Distance Relationships in Thailand: Perspectives from Buddhism, Justin Kiel
At some point for most study abroad students, being away from family and friends for months at a time will cause difficulties. “Culture Shock,” “Homesickness,” and “Separation Anxiety,” are all commonly referenced phenomena with students adjusting to new environments and. For students who are in relationships, being half a world away can be difficult, and it takes patience and practice to be able to manage the long distance.
Thailand is much farther away from the U.S. than the more traditional study abroad locations in Europe. This can be frustrating for students who wish to contact family and loved ones back home. It usually requires sacrificing sleep by staying up late or getting up early to account for the eleven hour time difference. Communication is key to a long distance relationship, and it takes some adjusting to realize most communication will be through emails rather than phone calls.
I have lived internationally before and my time in Thailand is my second semester studying abroad, so I consider myself to have a lot of international experience. However, it has not been easy adjusting to this time difference with my girlfriend of almost two years. It is hard to want to be close to someone you care about, and not be able to. Thailand has offered some unique perspectives on how to better manage a long distance relationship. For me, being apart from someone you love creates a sense of sadness and loss, but the rich cultural tradition of Buddhism in Thailand helps deal with this is a positive way.
For those unfamiliar with Buddhism, one of the main tenants is that life is suffering. To take this literally, one might conclude that life is only suffering. However, that is not the tenant’s message; it is simply that suffering will always be a part of life. There is no way to live without experiencing hardship, without trials and tribulations, without sadness and loss. These are as much of a part of life as are joy and happiness.
Peace of mind comes in accepting this, and not letting suffering rule you, accepting the things that cannot be changed, and adapting. For students like me who often feel homesick and wish they were with the ones they love, the best thing to do is not dismiss these feelings. Accept them, understand them, and embrace them. When you have done that, you can move beyond them. Realize that these feelings can and will coexist with the positive experiences abroad: the discovery of new cultures and places, of the once in a lifetime opportunity that you are part of.
No matter where I am in the world, I would be forced to deal with hardship of some kind. Suffering is an inherent part of life; we just have to find those who are worth suffering for.
The Pull of the Traditional and Modern, Zoe Swartz
When I step outside of Mah Bai’s home I take in the rice fields, illuminated bright green by the morning sun. This scene could easily be the rural Isaan countryside. However, as a high speed train rumbles by and cars zoom over the highway overpass at the end of our dirt road, I am reminded that I am in Nong Weng, an urban slum community of Khon Kaen.
Being in the greater city of Khon Kaen, it is sometimes easy to forget that I am in Thailand. There are coffee shops, shopping malls, and movie theaters that would not seem out of place in the US. However, when I ride in the back of a song tow, an open truck bed with two benches, and see street vendors selling skewers of liver, encounter a squat toilet, walk by small spirit houses and shrines to the Buddha on the way to class, or order noodle soup so spicy that I tear up, I quickly remember that I am on the other side of the world.
For me, the idea of Khon Kaen as a city of contrast solidified during our first home stay in Nong Weng, where I stayed with Mah Bai, and her granddaughter. In many ways, Mah Bai’s granddaughter is a completely modern twenty-something year old woman. She wears fashionable clothes, does her hair, and drives a motorcycle to her job as a barista in the city. However, when she comes home from work, the first thing she does is lead the family cows from a small field to a pen behind her house. After that she heads into the house, takes a seat on the cement floor, drinks some sweet iced tea, and turns the TV on to a Thai soap opera. Mah Bai takes a seat as well and is right away hooked. Again this could be a scene right out an American household: a family sitting down together to mindlessly watch TV after a long day.
However, as much as Mah Bai enjoys the drama of her soaps, traditional Thai practices are still prevalent in her daily routine. As we watch TV, Mah pulls out a small wicker basket, filled with different herbs and salves that she carefully prepares herself. I help fold small yellow-green leaves into packets to dry. I then watch Mah crunch on a previously dried leaf and rub one of her salves onto her ailing knees. It seems that in her old age, herbal medicine is Mah’s primary solution to health conditions. I don’t see any prescription bottles that one would typically see dotting the home of an elderly person in the US.
Eyes still glued to the TV, Mah continues to diligently fold the small leaves. Then, at the commercial break, Mah stops and retreats into the bedroom shared by all members of the household. Soon I start to hear singing and chanting in Thai. Curious, I step into the doorway to observe what is happening. I see Mah, in deep concentration, kneeling before an altar to the Buddha. Her head and palms are to the floor, and incense is burning. Not wanting to intrude, I return to the TV. Mah soon joins me without a word and continues to watch as before.
The pull of traditional and modern is ever present in Khon Kaen. Although Nong Weng has many characteristics associated with a traditional society such as cows, rice fields, village head people, it is not isolated from industrial Khon Kaen and western influence. The way of life in Nong Weng is quite different from life at Khon Kaen University, but both neighborhoods, which are only a ten minute drive apart, are very much connected components of the same city.
Co Existing with Animals, Nessie Sax-Bolder
Coming to Thailand, I knew that there would be many things that I would miss about America. On the top of that list was animals. Saying bye to my sisters two adorable cats was hard to do, knowing that I would probably not interact with many animals for the next four months. Little did I know, I would soon have daily interactions with animals all over Thailand.
It all started at our orientation site where our rooms were surrounded by lizards. I was shocked by how casual this was. It took some getting used to, but once I found out that the lizards killed the mosquitoes, they became cool in my book.
It was also a big surprise when we got to our apartments in Khon Kaen and realized how acceptable it was to have bugs in our rooms. At home if there was a spider in my room I tended to freak out and then kill it. However here, it is against most people’s religion to kill animals, so people learn to live with them. As my friend Sarah puts it, we now co exist with these creatures that in America we would probably kill.
The most shocking discovery was that most animals that are domesticated in America are strays here. You will find cats running around like you would squirrels at home. It took me by such surprise that I accidentally stepped on one in the cafeteria! I was ordering my food and turned around and a cat just appeared under my foot. I squealed because I was so surprised and all the Thai people immediately started laughing at me. I made such a scene, but thankfully, I didn’t hurt the cat. I was just not used to having cats running around in buildings, especially cafeterias. Afterwards, I made the mistake of feeding the cat some rice because I felt so bad that I had stepped on it, so for the rest of the meal it was following me. Lesson learned.
One overall theme I have noticed in Thailand is that the people here really do co exist with the animals. They may not belong to one person in particular, but the community as a whole takes care of them. You will often find a community member feeding a cat without a collar just out of pure generosity. That is a concept that I have found spreads over all sectors of Thais life. I have experienced a level of generosity here that I have not experienced in America, and for that, I am thankful.
Investment in the Education of Others: The Importance of Group Facilitation, Katie Mathieson
Study abroad is often considered to be a time of “intrapersonal” development, a time to grow as an individual separate from the comforts of friends and family at home. I have found that one of the most surprising pieces of CIEE Khon Kaen Development and Globalization thus far is the program’s emphasis on student investment in the learning and growth of others. That’s not to say we won’t all experience “intrapersonal development”, but we as students are responsible for the development of our own and each other’s education for the next four months.
With specific sessions dedicated to WOLF (Workshops on Organizing and Leadership in Facilitation) we were introduced to the history of the psychology behind group dynamics, and discussed the potential impact of one individual on a group and the potential impact of a group on an individual. We created group goals and ground rules, and we analyzed and improved upon the ways our group communicates. Some struggled through long discussions on the differences between leadership and group facilitation and others loved it. We reflected on our own personal learning styles as defined by the Kolb Learning Styles Inventory (LSI) as well as which Buddhist “Elements” we identify with--earth, water, wind or fire--and we took the time to think through the possible strengths and weaknesses of each element or learning style in terms of personal development and group building.
With the help of these theories and tools and the support of program facilitators and ajaans, we face the challenge of creating a functional group of fourteen. The functionality of that group plays a major role in the intellectual growth we can get out of the 6 academic units. We strive to reach a shared goal, create a safe space to express emotions and discomfort, hold each other accountable academically, and keep each other open-minded.
While in comparison to the current challenges we face it may seem trivial, the group can trace its first success as a group back to an activity called “the cloth flip.” Confined by only two rules: 1) we all had to have at least one foot on the fabric at a time, and 2) no one could touch the floor, we took on the challenge of flipping over a 6 x 12 piece of fabric while we were all standing on it. For me this moment is not only our first group success, but also a big step in the closeness of our group as we broke physical barriers and quite literally kept each other standing.
While maybe not the case with every study abroad program, this program believes that global civic engagement begins with peers learning to work well with others who have different views than one’s self. As we dive into the core of our four months together here in Thailand, with unit one this coming week, we look to our peers to facilitate our learning and embrace the importance of group dynamics in our success. Each of us will function as a unit facilitator for one of the first four units. Our study abroad experience and intrapersonal development is in the hands of our peers, and with our definition of success constantly changing it will be exciting to see how our group of fourteen performs in our short four months together in Thailand.
Foot Culture, Koby Caplan
It is a common practice in Thailand to remove one’s shoes before entering a local shop, temple or residence. And yes, those are my cowboy boots.
“Everything is universal,” I thought to myself as I passed by a group of Thai students studying in the Complex at Khon Kaen University. The four girls that made up the group frantically read over their powerpoint slides, six to a page–my preferred method of cramming at home. After multiple lectures and discussions concerning Thai societal roles and cultural norms, I find that my conclusion from the Complex was false: Sure, in an increasingly modernizing and connected world Thai culture has come to incorporate Western elements–which I mistook for universality–but for the most part, the Thai lifestyle remains unique due to a characteristic balance between the virtues of hierarchal respect and cleanliness.
What plays a monumental role in developing these virtues is feet.
I believe that the treatment of feet embeds the respect of hierarchy into the minds of the Thai people. I hail from America, where our lifeblood of “all men are created equal” flows through our veins. There ain’t no underlying hierarchy. In my culture it is reasonably kosher to fist-bump Grandma goodnight or to call my dad “Richard.” Yet, in Thailand, several aspects of life manifest a system of hierarchal respect: the different levels of wais (bows) depending on seniority or status and the -krap or -ka said after each sentence to indicate reverence.
It has been difficult for me to constantly keep foot culture, the notion that the feet are the lowest level of the body, in my thoughts. On two separate occasions, I have accidentally let my feet point in the direction of an authoritative figure: an Adjaan (lecturer) and then even worse, my Ma (Host mother, (the a sounds like the a in apple)). Having not taken Yoga since my 4th grade elective, my hip joints have become rigid and inflexible. When I force them into a crossed legged position, they respond with a dull pain that grows with time. Consciously or not, I extended my legs; I gave in. I lacked physical discipline, which broke foot culture and resulted in a lapse of respect. In my experience, the Thais I have met know how to sit and coincidentally constantly seem to display respect, a penultimate virtue in this kingdom.
Feet oddly also assist in the development of the Thai virtue of cleanliness (another palpable one as I compare my roommate’s half of the room to my own). Because feet are viewed as the dirtiest parts of the body, our shower comes equipped with a separate foot washer. Also, before entering the CIEE classrooms or wats (temples), the adjaans demand we remove our shoes (violators pay a 10 baht fine to feed the local stray cats). It seemed strangely informal at first, forming a sea of shoes outside the space and tiptoeing to knowledge. But, as monsoon season dwells upon us, the cleanliness of place remains a high priority. We remove our shoes and become clean.
I have much to learn about becoming Thai. I’m still riding the waves of culture shock, and I struggle with the language. Yet I feel the most efficient way to immerse myself into this gloriously different and non-universal society is to conquer foot culture. In theory, the respect, discipline and cleanliness will follow.
The First of Many Trips to KKU Ram, Niyeti Shah
I should start off by saying that I was forewarned this would happen. I was told very bluntly at orientation that we would all be taking a trip to the lovely KKU RAM hospital at least once during the semester. However, like many twenty year olds, I believed I would be the one to escape that fate – so naturally, on my very first weekend at Khon Kaen University, I was sent to spend the night at the hospital.
KKU RAM hospital is a beautiful hospital. The foyer is large, clean and well organized. There is a specific section for every part of your stay - checking in, nurses, doctor’s appointment, choosing a room (which is exactly like booking a hotel room), getting your medication, checking out and going home. The nurses who only speak Thai were incredibly sweet and tried their hardest to explain what was going on through an interesting game of charades. The rooms have a personal bathroom, shower, TV, refrigerator, and water. It’s definitely not a bad place to spend some time.
To the side is the pricing card for an overnight room – I wasn’t kidding about the hotel room comparison!
However, I had mixed feelings about my trip to KKU RAM. Falling sick the first week at the university is an uncomfortable experience. I had only just met my roommate before I starting getting sick with frequent trips to the bathroom and then being sent to a hospital. An ajaan (teacher) for CIEE accompanied me to the hospital for the first hour, helping check me in and translating for the nurses as they drew blood and set up an IV. After the ajaan left, the nurses attempted to ask me a series of questions and explain to me medications they wanted me to take, but my best defense was to fall asleep as I was unable to understand them. Later I was moved into a private room for the night after failing to communicate with them. Thankfully, CIEE called my roommate to spend the night, making check out the next morning much easier.
There are a few ways to look at my experience at KKU RAM. One could say that it’s an opportunity to force yourself to use the little Thai that you do know. Unfortunately, at that point I only knew yellow and goodbye words, along with ways to order food. One could also say that it is a great learning experience for a language barrier, which is completely true. Failing to communicate your feelings while in a foreign country’s hospital makes you appreciate being in an English speaking hospital, or finding someone who speaks English. Truth be told, I felt a bit lost. It was very hard to understand what was going on and being allergic to medications, I did not feel comfortable taking the medications given. Overall I was overwhelmed, weak, and homesick. The experience did show me how grateful I am for the other CIEE students on this trip. Only knowing them for seven days, I have never felt more supported by new friends. I came home to a flood of people willing to help, spend time with me, get me food, remind me to eat, and be my family away from home. I am only one of over fifteen students who took a trip to Khon Kaen Ram in these past two weeks and I cannot say that my experience was the same as everyone else’s, but knowing that I will be so supported during my time here made the entire endeavor worth while.
A Shared Meal, Mackenzie O’Brien
A community meal during a homestay.
As I reflected on my choice to study abroad in Thailand, I knew that I was traveling to a country full of great food, as well as, a deep community spirit. Unbeknownst to me the two are richly tied together in the Thai culture. I had my first experience with this during a homestay in Lao Nadi, a small village in Khon Kaen. I found that dinnertime was both a moment to eat, but also to offer the excess food people had to their surrounding friends and neighbors. I loved how uniting each meal was to the community. One night, as I helped my homestay mother to prepare dinner, I watched as she split the food we had made into thirds. Once I understood her intention, we delivered the two other shares to her neighbors on either side. We were rewarded with a variety of plates full of fresh fruits and meats they had prepared for us in return.
In my experience, a similar type of bonding happens in the United States when new families move into new communities. New neighbors greet the old with plates of baked goods. Births and tragedies are other instances in which prepared meals are passed on from one family to another. All in all, in the United States there is usually a powerful reason behind sharing what you have with someone else. I believe this is because the United States is much more individualistic than how I perceive traditional Thailand. From my experience thus far in Thailand has shown me that communities will work together towards their goal. In contrast, the United States lays focus on individual success.
In Thailand, it seems that collectiveness is ingrained in the culture. Their sense of community is fostered in spirited acts such as this simple exchange of food. I really love how there was no expectation in my homestay that the other family would have to return the favor. My host mother personally fulfilled this without knowing for certain that others would come through. I value the selflessness in Thai culture since I personally do not often see it in the United States.
In summation, what I have found so far in my travels is that even though the food is always delicious it is the mealtime atmosphere that I favor. To know that neighbors are supporting each other when there might not be enough on the table is very unique, yet this is just the culture of food here. It is more than the actual food you eat, but who you are sharing it with. I hope to witness this community spirit on my many other homestays. One day I hope that this level of community is a widespread norm throughout the United States.
Two Villages, One Struggle, Mariah Philips and Rachel Buckner
Accustomed to the hustle and bustle of campus life, the slum village of Nong Weng was like a breath of fresh air. The simplicity was refreshing, as was the vibe of the community as a whole. Carefree and happy, the villagers seemed to love their community and general way of life. It was infectious. An outside eye could never guess that these same village people have had to fight for the rights to their land. Recently being displaced from their old homes, the villagers moved due to the construction of a new government mandated railroad track. Getting the chance to hear the villager’s stories, with the help of a translator, was certainly eye opening despite several interruptions. As we sat cross-legged on a concrete floor just a few feet from the tracks, we struggled to catch fragments of the villagers’ voices. The train roared by, the loud rumble completely drowning them out. Their stories were silenced, and their words were forever lost in the cacophony of the screeching metal.
In another community similarly characterized by resilience, love, and compassion, Temperak 1 is a slum village in the province of Khon Kaen. This community’s strength is being tested as the State Railway of Thailand (SRT) plows a train track through their village, potentially displacing generations of people out of their land. Facing incredible odds and a governmental agency that neglects the lives and livelihood of the marginalized, the people of Temperak 1 remain hopeful, acutely aware that giving up hope risks the disestablishment of their deeply connected community.
Temperak 1 community members face a culture of neglect and betrayal from the SRT. Currently, SRT is spearheading the “Double Track and High Speed Train Project.” This project requires that houses—many of which have been there for generations—will be moved out of the area. As of now, the SRT considers the people of Temperak 1 to be “trespassers.” Some communities, Temperak 1 included, refuse to lease their land, for fear of the SRT’s unlimited access to their property. In essence, villagers have little, if any say in the outcome and rights to their land.
While tensions are high in Temperak 1, the inconveniences of the train are far from the minds of the Nong Weng village people. Thanks to an allegiance with an NGO called the Four Regions Slum Network, The Nong Weng village people feel that their needs and voices are well represented to the Thai Government. Perhaps this advocacy is instrumental in the villagers’ undoubted belief that they will remain unified no matter what land they live on. Their present concerns are vested in waiting for their housing registration numbers, essential in gaining legal access to water and electricity (a process they are sure will be complete soon). When this will happen is unclear, but one thing that has been blatantly obvious is the community’s adamancy that they will remain a unit and no governmental force will tear them apart.
While the optimism of the Nong Weng village people prevails, the same luxuries do not apply to the Temperak 1 community. These villagers have pressing demands to make: (1) That the government and SRT begin to think of them as Thai People deserving equal rights and (2) If residents are going to move out, then SRT must pay both for the new land and rebuilding. They hope, with all that they have, that the government will help. Moving out of their present community would result in children changing schools, residents moving further away from their work in the city, and—perhaps most importantly— cause a splintering of relationships that have been fortified by long years of struggle.
The Nong Weng villagers look onward with hope and excitement, thankful for the representation they have received. Though the people of Temperak 1 have a much bleaker outlook, they remain incredibly strong and resilient, devoted to keeping their land and keeping their community together as one. As one villager powerfully states, they are “trying to exercise our rights as people.” In the face of governmental silencing and adversity, they refuse to give up, and will continue to fight for their political and personal rights.
Three members of the Temperak 1 Community. Photo features Meh Wan and her daughter and niece.
Hissss-teria: A Memoir of Cobra Village Struggles, Sarah Wiant
Nessie and Katy at the gas station where the bus dropped us off.
Saturday was the first day I felt out of my comfort zone and noticed how frightening language barriers can be. My friends and I heard about King Cobra Village. Located an hour away from Khon Kaen, it is known for being home to hundreds of snakes of different varieties. We wanted to get off campus and this seemed like a perfect excursion. Katy made a detailed itinerary of how we were going to get there.
We were able to find the song tow, or truck taxi, stop and successfully got to the downtown bus terminal. Once at the bus terminal, we told the clerk we wanted to go to “Ban Kok Sa Nga.” We repeated this several times but he didn’t understand. Katy had written it down in her phone and we showed it to him. However, since it was in English, this didn’t help much. Katy’s phone was passed to many clerks before a consensus was reached of where we were trying to go. He repeated the name of the town and it sounded right. He pointed to the bus and we got on. Unbeknownst to us, this could later be referred to as the quintessential struggle bus.
After about an hour, we expected to be close to Cobra Village. Every time the bus stopped we showed our tickets to people around us. Each person assured us to stay on the bus. After doing this several times we presented our tickets to the bus driver and he also told us to stay on the bus.
At this point, the supposed hour ride was approaching two hours. The bus comes to another stop and literally everyone on the bus, now aware of which stop the three farangs, or foreigners, wanted to get off at, told us to get off. Our excitement to get off the bus faded quickly when we stepped off in the middle of the highway next to only a run-down gas station. Two women working at the station thought we were hilarious and asked to take a picture with us. We attempted asking them where this mysterious Cobra Village was but made minimal progress. They eventually directed us across the busy highway to a street that looked somewhat promising. Once there, we were stopped by some Thais who could speak some English. They seemed to have a vague idea of where these snakes were, said it was 20 minutes away, and directed us to a taxi that could take us there.
Approaching the nondescript white car that would serve as our taxi, I heard my mom’s voice in my head telling me that this car looked minimally like a cab and was probably not trustworthy. However, we got in the car in hopes that the phone number on the back window was legitimate and corresponded with a cab company. After 30 seconds of being in the car with visions of Taken running through my head, I decided that this definitely wasn’t smart and I told the cab driver that we would walk (+2 responsibility points for Sarah).
People on the street then ushered us back across the moving traffic to a supposed song tow stop. A man making vivid hand gestures at us was sitting at the stop desperately trying to communicate something. A song tow came and the man followed us on. There was one middle-aged woman who was already on and we explained where we wanted to go by moving our hands like snakes and repeating the name. She didn’t understand but generously called a friend who spoke English. I explained to the man on the phone where we wanted to go and he seemed to understand. We wiggled our hands some more to confirm that everyone was on the same page. As the woman got off at her stop, she told the driver our destination and we felt good about the situation.
The man got off at our stop and pointed us towards a building and wiggled his hands back and forth as we had done. Relief overcame us all as we were excited to finally be at our destination after spending almost three hours in transit. We were pretty confused when we entered the building to see huge tanks filled with fish. In our naivety, we said, “Maybe the snakes are AFTER the fish…” After completing the aquarium tour in under a minute, we quickly realized that there were no snakes in the building and that the people on the song tow interpreted our hand motions as fish, not snakes. After looking at a city map we found on the street and not seeing the Cobra Village anywhere, we decided lunch was a priority.
We found an Italian-Thai restaurant with free wi-fi; all of the above spoke to our souls. Taking advantage of the wi-fi, we brought up Google maps to find out where exactly we were. Cobra Village was 50 km north of Khon Kaen. We were in the city of Roi Et and were over 100 km southeast of Khon Kaen. After processing what this meant and trying to figure out where we went wrong, we decided to make the most of our situation. After devouring delicious bruschetta and spaghetti, we determined that we would explore a nearby park and temple. At this point, it started downpouring. Given our preceding luck, we were not surprised and this was almost comical.
After exploring the town, we took a tuk tuk, or cab, to the Roi Et bus station with limited struggle. We found the bus heading home and made sure that the bus clearly said Khon Kaen and confirmed the final destination with multiple people and the driver. We were NOT taking any risks. Two hours later, we arrived in Khon Kaen and were elated to be home.
This experience taught us to triple check your bus’ destination and bring maps, travel guides, and dictionaries everywhere you go. Furthermore, no matter how much you plan, things can always go wrong and you have to be flexible when travelling. All in all, despite some scary moments, we made the most of our adventure and have already begun to joke about it. Demonstrating our resilience, we have plans to go back in two weekends.
Being Hmong and American in Thailand, Veronica Thao
Two black and white photos were placed in the crease of my passport to aid me in finding cousins that I had never met. During the Vietnam War, my family fled Laos in order to escape political persecution from the Pathet Lao government. In the process of my escape, my mother and aunt were separated and did not find each other until years later. Today my aunt lives in the United States while my cousins are still in Laos. In my journey to Thailand, she provided me with photos, phone numbers and messages to deliver to family members. Jet lagged, exhausted, and sick—I ventured Khao San Road with little intention of finding an unknown cousin among the thousands of tourists bustling through the area.
My decision to come to Thailand was not only for the purpose of understanding health issues specific to Southeast Asia, but also to explore a country that my family once called home. The Hmong are an ethnic minority of Southeast Asia. After U.S. troops withdrew from Vietnam, Hmong families fled from Laos to Thailand’s refugee camps. They remained in Thailand for years until gaining access to the United States. Many Hmong families, like my own, were faced with political persecution from the communist Pathet Lao government as a result of their assistance to the United States army during the Vietnam War.
During the first weeks in Thailand, I realize that my identity as Hmong-American woman sets me apart from my group; and ultimately, provides me with an experience that is shaped by my familial ties to Southeast Asia. Although my Caucasian peers are immediately regarded as farang or American, my ethnic background often causes more ambiguity for those that I come across. It is clear that white people are more likely to be referred to as Americans than people of color. In the first week of orientation workshops, I began to question how applicable the information would be for a “Hmong”-American student. Additionally, these questions helped to breakdown the larger dichotomy of racial and ethnic diversity in the United States. More importantly, it affirmed that the ideal portrayals of Americans are typically those of Caucasian background.
During these encounters, I began to assess the difference between my Hmong and American identity, and the situations I would inevitably face because I am Hmong-American. While my American identity allowed me to experience the grave differences between Thai and American culture and the excitement that comes along with embracing those differences; my Hmong identity keeps me wondering about my family’s culturally rich history in Thailand.
In all, I continue encounter situations that challenge self-growth. While I have come across several challenging situations, it was my first meeting with my cousin that ultimately pushed me to remain open-minded throughout this journey. After my first day of orientation in Bangkok, a young boy approached me. Holding a black and white photo folded in the crease of his hands, he mumbled his name. I pulled the photo my aunt gave me to make sure it was really my cousin. Although we struggled to communicate, we were content in knowing that we had found one another. My cousins and I spent the next hour making up for lost time. This was my first step to understanding how my Hmong-American identity is core part of journey throughout Thailand.
Sa-wah-dee-krap Ajaans, Austin Edy
Ajaan Jeab, Interview
Q: What is your full name?
A: Jintana Rattanakhemakorn. Jintana means thought.
Q: What is your nickname? How did you get it?
A: Jeab. It means little chicken. She received this name because she was little when she was a baby. An interesting fact: Many Thai people get their nickname right when they are born, even before they get their first name.
Q: Age? Where were you born? Where did you grow up?
A: She is 42 years old, and was born in a small town called Suphanburi. She moved to a boarding school in Bangkok from grade 2 through high school. She was essentially raised in Bangkok.
Q: Relationship Status?
A: She has been in a Domestic Partnership for the last 13 years. The lucky guy is a carpenter from Khon Kaen. She claims he is a “MacGyver”. In other words, he is a handyman who can do everything and fix anything, including making furniture for their home. “MacGyver” was a scuba instructor and they met in the late 1990s when she took his class she took his class. The relationship blossomed and she moved to Khon Kaen in 2000 to be with him. The rest is history.
Q: Do you have any pets?
A: She really likes cats and even has 3 of them. She also has one dog that is half golden retriever that is well trained due to her animal training skills (So she says).
Q: What is your official job position?
A: Language Director. Her responsibilities include, but are not limited to, overseeing the Thai language course for CIEE – Khon Kaen Programs.
Q: Where did you go to college?
A: Chiang Mai University.
Q: What was your major?
A: She received her bachelor’s degree in Thai in 1992.
Q: How long have you been studying English?
A: Her school started English class during grade 3 of boarding school, and taught it every year after that.
Q: Have you ever been to America? Where and when? What is your favorite state, why?
A: She has been to the US on four separate occasions. In 2007- Wisconsin - Attended an education conference for language. 2009 - Washington D.C. - Attended the same conference then flew to Tuscon, Arizona for a language-teaching workshop. 2011 – Seattle - Attended a one-month class through Seattle University on teaching English as a second language, she earned a certificate for this (TEASL). 2012- Philadelphia – By submitting her abstract, she was chosen to give a presentation at the American council of teaching foreign language (ACTFL). Her topic was about the effectiveness of teaching Thai language to American students in Thailand, something she knows a lot about! She says Seattle was her favorite city.
Q: What other countries have you been to? Which country is your favorite?
A: She has been to New Zealand twice, Australia, Bali and Indonesia, Singapore, Japan, US, and China. She has never been to Europe but that is the next place she would like to go. Her favorite country she has been to is New Zealand because it was easy to travel, quiet, and pretty. She likes the quiet and outdoors.
Q: What do you enjoy doing in your free time?
A: She goes to the gym four days a week. Her favorite class is step aerobics. She enjoys running too, which she has been doing for 3 years; she runs 11K races. She also enjoys hiking, is a certified rescue diver (she has been scuba diving since 1997), and just recently began mountain biking.
Q: What kind of television do you like? Favorite show?
A: She likes watching series, but does not watch them religiously. For her TV is more for background sound rather than entertainment. Her favorite show is “Will & Grace” but she also likes “Two and a Half Men” and prefers Ashton Kutcher over Charlie Sheen.
Q: What genre of movies do you like? Favorite movie?
A: She likes drama movies, and enjoys American movies because they allow her to practice English. Her favorite movie is the classic, “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape”.
Q: What kind of music do you like? Who is your favorite artist?
A: Rock, Metallica when she was younger, Bon Jovi, U2, and Foreigner are also some of her favorites. Her favorite artist is Lenny Kravitz.
Ajaan Jeab looking fantastic, as always
Societal Roles in Khon Kaen, Maggie Adams
A man in Thailand as far as I can see, can do just about anything that he wants. For instance, at our time in the home stay in the slums of the city, roles were very apparent. My, mah, mother would wake up every morning around 5:30 to go to the market. She would return from the market and cook a good meal for not only my immediate family, but a couple of the families across the street. She would make sure that her two kids were awake and ready for school every morning, including me. She even did her best to help with homework that the kids had from school each day. I, even as an adult, wasn’t allowed to help her do the dishes or cook the meal, despite my insistence. She would sweep the floors multiple times a night. If anything ever looked out of order in the house, she was sure to clean it. On top of all this household work, she had a food stand outside of her home that she also cooked chicken and eggs for to sell. I don’t think she left that area often. She was the mamma bear of the community.
My paw on the other hand, played a very different role. Every morning, he would wake up at about the same time as I would. He would shower, grab his bag of food from my mom, and leave for work. He never once sat down to eat a meal with us, but would peer in from time to time during our meal time. He would come home from work and sit outside with his friends and chat. My paw was one of the vice leaders of our community, so everyone wanted to talk to him. He was so friendly and always seemed to be cracking jokes. I just wish I saw him interact a little more with my mah and the kids. Every night after my mah would shuttle me inside at 9 o’clock sharp, paw would stay outside and drink with his other community friends. I often wandered what went on out there. He would come into bed late, and most of the time would say goodnight to me, but I didn’t really see him kiss or hug is 4 year old son before bed. One night, after hearing him come in late, I was sure that my mah had gotten up to cook him yet another meal.
Now I don’t want you to think I am attacking the male hierarchy here in Thailand. I loved my paw and he taught me a whole lot during my stay with him. I communicated with him and got much closer to him then I did with my mah. I just noticed that there seemed to be a structure for how the day went between the husband and the wife. A traditional family model isn’t bad; a lot of people prefer it. I’m not sure I am one of those people. Then again, this was just one house in the slums out of thousands of families living in Thailand.
“Small Talk”, Robbie Kaufman
Only when my mah closed the door of the pickup truck and my paw shifted into gear did the reality of the situation sink in. I was setting off for night one of a three night home stay with a family that only spoke Thai, a language I barely knew. I looked out the window as my mah and paw chatted with each other. I jumped a little when my mah suddenly raised her voice and spoke very slowly, eliciting no response from my paw. After a few seconds, my mah turned in her seat to face me, and I noticed my paw’s eyes looking at me in the rearview mirror. Oh, I thought, that was to me! My mah repeated herself louder and slower, but with the same unfamiliar words, and after a few tries and many mai cow jais from me, we moved on. We managed to make conversation using the vocabulary I’d learned in Thai class and filled the ten minute drive with slow, broken Thai.
I quickly learned that in my home stay anytime I heard loud, slow Thai it was directed at me. By the end of the first night I was exhausted from trying to communicate, and navigating unfamiliar cultural territory. The idea of flipping through my Thai-English dictionary, stumbling over foreign sounds, and trying to mentally translate the few words I did know for two more nights was daunting and, to be honest, unappealing.
When I was picked up the second night, I sat in the front with my paw and my mah sat in the back. Before we pulled away my paw said something to me in Thai. He spoke faster and softer than what I had grown used to the previous night. He pointed to me and then to the steering wheel. “Drive?” I said, confused and subsequently surprised when he nodded. “You want me to drive?” Another nod. He must not have understood me. I could barely manage a stick shift in America where the wheel is on the left side of the car and you drive on the right side of the road. “Oh, no. I don’t think so.” The serious look on Paw’s face slipped into a smile and I heard Mah chuckle from the back. I couldn’t quite tell if they were laughing at me and I hadn’t understood, or if it had all been a joke. I decided to laugh a long and just hope it was the latter.
That night as we were cooking, I told my mah that I don’t like spicy food. “Mai ped, mai sai preek!” I repeated to smiles and nods from the women I was cooking with. When we sat down to dinner Paw pulled out a small plastic bag of chili peppers. “Gin” he said. Eat. “No, no, no,” I said. “Ped!” He offered again. “Mai ped,” he said. This was a bag of chili peppers, how could they not be spicy? The furrowed brow and stern look in his eyes nearly convinced me and just before I reached for one I heard Mah on my other side: “Ped! Ped!” As the other family members began laughing, Paw couldn’t quite keep the serious expression on his face and broke into a smile himself.
After this I realized just how much of a jokester Paw was and that, despite the verbal language barrier, I was able to joke around with him and Mah a lot. I only learned one or two new phrases, but my ability to communicate increased drastically from the first night to the last. Until I was thrown into a situation where language essentially was not an option, I hadn’t noticed how much communication relied on non-verbal actions and understandings.
The last morning before the song tow picked the students up, Mah and I went for a walk in the village. It was a moment that easily could have been tainted with awkward small talk, but seeing as that wasn’t an option for us, Mah linked her arm with mine and we walked in comfortable silence until it was time for me to leave.
The CIEE “Setup for Success”, Jane Okerman
Throughout our schooling careers, classes take many different forms. We go from full scheduled days of class to the ultimate freedom: college, where we have the flexibility to choose when and how often we want to have class, while still meeting a basic requirement of credits. After being fully used to this format it was definitely a shock when my fellow CIEE community members and I arrived in Thailand for our study abroad program.
The CIEE Thailand programs, both development & globalization and public health, have been mentally, physically, and intellectually intense, and that has required a certain amount of adjustment time. A typical day for CIEE students includes: three hours of Thai class in the morning, one hour for a lunch break, followed by 4 hours of critical lectures, ending our day around 5pm. However “intense” my fellow community members and I feel this program is, we are eternally grateful for this unique program. After hearing stories of other people’s study abroad experiences in different countries it is almost certain that they are not receiving anything close to CIEE’s detail and specificity regarding crucial cultural and location aspects of Thailand, such as Thai social structure, or a full program on U Life here at Khon Kaen University.
This intensity has also helped us overcome jetlag. For all of us students it is a 12-hour time difference from Thailand to the United States: literally night and day. This drastic lifestyle change has been aided and comforted by being busy all throughout the day, however physically draining it may be. Our Ajaans, which is Thai for “teachers,” and program facilitators keep the energy high throughout long lectures especially when we hit that afternoon drag at 3pm, which is 3am for Americans. When it is finally time to hit the sack after a long day, everyone is sure to fall right asleep, which makes it a no brainer adjusting to a completely opposite time zone.
Being busy has drastically reduced many instances of homesickness too, which is almost inevitable when being away from your typical abode. There is quite physically no (convenient) time to be constantly “plugged in” to our lives at home or being jealous of what friends and family are doing at our favorite places in the states. The phrase “out of sight, out of mind” really runs true here, which is in part due to CIEE’s program intensity.
Thai class intensive every morning during orientation has especially served as an adjustment and benefit of this program’s intensity. None of us actually realized just how crucial it has been. Our first day when we arrived at Khon Kaen we were finally out of our orientation “bubble” where most of the resort staff spoke English and everything was provided for us. Being on our own, without any language help from our teachers, we really had to utilize the basic Thai that we have been forced to learn at orientation. For example, we knew how to order most food, something that is a necessity when living on your own in a foreign country.
What’s also interesting here is lack of a “weekend.” We do have free days, usually two a week, but they don’t necessarily fall on what we would consider a traditional weekend on Saturday of Sunday. However far and few between are our free days, that will only make our 7 day break even better, especially with travel plans already amidst.
I’m already starting to reflect on these past few weeks and really come to appreciate having such a structured program here in Thailand; it has really made my settling in process much smoother.
Great Expectations, Hannah Thompson
If you had asked me three weeks ago about the university I would be spending the next four months at, my answer would probably have sounded like something out of a Paul Theroux novel. I had a romantic image of walking through rice fields on my way to class and living in a traditional Thai Community. Fast-forward to August 21 where that biased illusion was shattered. When we initially pulled in to the grand entrance of KKU I knew I had been way off with my idea of college in Thailand, this campus is huge. Hearing that the student body was around 30,000 was such a shock, especially after having studied abroad in a small college of 200 my sophomore year. Khon Kaen University instead appeared to be more similar to the campus of Ohio State than a country village. There are huge academic buildings, multiple dining plazas, a student center that’s 4 floors, and whole streets that are devoted to student nightlife.
While its difficult to admit, I can see why I had such a different image in my mind of what my life here at Khon Kaen University would be like. I had a blissful, but ignorant idea that anywhere outside of Bangkok was beautiful countryside. This stemmed from my first time studying abroad, where the region of India I was living in was a rural mountain town with a university that was smaller then my high school by a long shot. Because of this experience in a country not too far from Thailand, I allowed myself to fall prey to making generalizations and assumptions about what Thailand would be like. Instead the vibrancy of this campus and the huge size has made me able to realize that there are some things that 20 year old college students want no matter where in the world they are. I can walk to a fitness center on campus with my roommate, see all the different faculty buildings, or even just go out for dinner and dancing. These are things that I was not expecting but have only enhanced my time studying abroad here. I am really looking forward to getting to explore this campus more, and I hope that at the end of these next four months I can consider myself a real student of KKU.
Thailand: A mosaic of cultures, Alain Kilajian
“Sab Lai” or “Aroi Mak”. During my first community visit to Theparak 1, a railroad slum community, I attempted to tell my homestay mother, Mae Ee, that the food she cooked was delicious. In Thai class, I was taught to say “Aroi Mak” for very delicious. However, she did not seem to understand what I was trying to tell her. After a few more feeble attempts of communicating my message, I just gave her a thumbs-up. Finally, she understood. She said “Sab Lai” making me understand that those were the words that actually meant “very delicious”. Confused, I assumed what I learned in class was wrong. Later, I came to realize she was speaking to me in “Isaan”, not traditional Thai.
Similarly, my Thai roommate speaks to me in both Isaan and Thai. As a foreigner trying to learn a new language, it seems I am actually learning two of them. To make things even more complicated, in the North of the Northeast, the Isaan language is a mixture between Lao and Thai while in the South it’s a mixture between Cambodian and Thai. And both languages are quite different. I can only ask myself “what and who is Isaan?”
Well, to begin with, “Isaan” is the Northeast region of Thailand. Made up of 20 provinces, it represents the largest region of Thailand. Sandwiched between Northern Thailand, Central Thailand, Laos and Cambodia, Isaan is a colorful and jubilant mosaic of cultures. One single face cannot be used to identify the diverse world of Isaan. Throughout the streets of Khon Kaen, musicians play the traditional Isaan flute Kaen, singing only in Isaan, filling the air with a joyous and melodious tune full of serenity, love and compassion. Despite still being within the borders of Thailand, it feels like an entirely new world. Consequently, I began reflecting on the identities of the Isaan people. Do the Northerners identify more as being Lao? The southerners as being Cambodian? These are the questions I asked my roommate and his friends, as well as the villagers of Theparak 1. A common answer echoed from the mouths of the Isaan people I questioned; “We are Thai”.
“We are Thai”. Within the diversity of Thai people and culture, there remains a strong unity. Thailand is the sum of its parts. Languages, habits, traditions and beliefs might differ from region to region but an overarching sense of being Thai prevails. This idea can be easily related to the United States of America. “Is there one face to the USA?” The answer is an easy no. Like Thailand, the US is the sum of its parts. Each region is specific to its culture. The South, the West, the Northeast and the Midwest are just some examples of the diversity of the American people. However, when asked, “where are you from?” most Americans will proudly say, “I am American.” A strong unity across cultures is a difficult concept to fathom. Yet, it provokes a deep sense of belonging and acceptance. Hopefully one day this idea will be elevated to the global stage.
Map of Isaan. Sandwiched between Northern Thailand, Central Thailand, Cambodia and Laos.
Value and Necessity across Socioeconomic Status, Kali Deans
A blessing from Lao Nah Dee in moving forward as students of Public Health in Thailand
Following the first overnight in our first community, Lao Nah Dee, we had what the program called a “Railroad Community Exchange Plan”. Lao Nah Dee is a community that dug roots into railroad owned land. The exchange with these villagers was an opportunity for us, students, to learn about the public health issues surrounding temporary housing, unclean water, and borrowed, overpriced electricity near a dangerous railroad. The headman of the community was the spokesmen for most questions, but other villagers chimed in when appropriate. Few of the villagers spoke English so one of our Thai language teachers, or Ajaan (Thai for teacher), translated questions and responses.
Despite thirteen long years of neglect, the morale of the community was strong and optimistic. When asked what happens in the community to bring everyone together, the headman responded saying, “We have to stay together in order to live and survive here. In order to fight we have to stay strong and unite. Help each other. Donate and collect money to fight for our right to the land.” Though, these are poor individuals within our global community fighting with few skills and poor literacy, they never stop trying.
While well overdue, the Lao Nah Dee fight has finally been acknowledged by the government and Railroad Company. After standing powerless for 13 years, one month and a few sheets of paper with some signatures will finally grant them their first legal lease for the land. Once the lease is finalized, the villagers look forward to two basic needs: affordable electricity provided by the government, and filtered water.
When reflecting on this intimate exchange with the villagers, I was reminded of the different context of my immediate values and the values of the community. Upon first thought, I value family and education. While I value food, water, and shelter, they are not immediate concerns. At most times, these three basic needs a distant from my mind. Likewise, it was apparent that the villagers demonstrated a close bond with a value for family and education, yet it was clear that electricity and water supply were of greatest concern. As I analyzed the similarities and differences between myself and the villagers that may contribute to our hierarchy of values, I was struck by the discrepancies in socioeconomic statuses.
Being a young American from a middle class background, I took for granted the satisfaction of basic needs as my parents have always been able to provide my basic needs. Now that I am a college student with little to no income of my own, the satisfaction of my basic needs has become more apparent, but in harsh times my parents are able to support me. However, this privilege is not shared with poor communities like Lao Nah Dee. Many children are juggling school with work in an attempt to help their parents satisfy the family’s basic needs opposed to the parents solely providing for the children. Unfortunately, work sometimes becomes more important than school leaving young adults with little education. Meanwhile, my parents work to provide me with opportunities for success through higher education and beyond. Due to a higher socioeconomic status, my parents’ support has extended beyond nurturing my basic needs. With the help of my parents, I have the opportunity to focus on my education. As I did not have to worry about my basic needs, over time, my value for education and family became primary concerns. Therefore, socioeconomic status is highly influential in developing a hierarchy of values, and socioeconomic status is strongly associated with access to resources and basic needs.
Lao Nah Dee has provided me with a greater sense of awareness of the social aspects that contribute to what we value in life. We may be of different socioeconomic statuses, but there are many more things we share such as value for family, compassion, and love for each other. As stated by the villagers of Lao Nah Dee “put their heart into your heart, care what they feel…sacrifice yourself…have a strong mind and heart…think about the group and people so that the group can go forward”.
KKU Campus, Unlike Anywhere Else!, Jessica Dubow
Niyeti, Katy, Sarah and Laura pose in front of the fruit stand we visit daily.
With almost 40,000 students, Khon Kaen University resembles a small city more than your average college campus. Most students get around by motorcycle, though some have cars and others take advantage of buses and songthaews (covered flatbed trucks with seating in the back). Even on foot, you can get pretty much everything you could ever want within a few blocks.
Since we do not have access to a kitchen, we eat all of our meals out, as do most KKU students. The result is a campus covered in innumerable food stands and small restaurants that sell pad Thai, grilled pork and chicken skewers, bubble tea, noodle soups, spicy curries and much more. My personal favorite is a fruit stand just a five-minute walk from our apartment building where I can sample inexpensive mangosteen or get apples cut up fresh for me. I never expected I’d ever spend so much time at 7/11, but we frequent it daily for yogurt, crackers and loading minutes on our Thai phones. In the evenings, there is a Night Market on campus where you can get anything from pasta made of papaya to fried insects while walking through rows upon rows of food and clothing stands. The Night Market is a fun place to spend time with friends, as is a street lined with bars only a couple minutes from our apartment building.
The campus structure, the low cost of meals cooked to order, and the constant humidity requires us to buy food as we eat it. This facilitates a very communal culture, as we go out to eat with each other, our Thai roommates, and our Thai peer tutors for all of our meals and snacks. It integrates us into campus life, as we’re encouraged to try new things and go new places every day. In this KKU “city”, we’re completely surrounded by other students, and this helps us to meet people as well as understand the daily life of people our age in Thailand.
Personal Experience as an American Woman in Thailand, Maggie Adams
It’s Friday night, I get ready to head out with my friends for a night at the bars just like I do in the states. I have to be sure that I look good, but am also not wearing shorts despite the 90 degree weather in order to respect the Thai culture. Drinking a beer or two, I naturally do my best to scope out the guy scene around me. There is a table full of good looking men, and they are staring at me. So naturally, I walk up and ask their names and where they are from. Next thing I know, my roommate grabs my hand and pulls me away. “Maggie, you don’t approach boys here, it’s not okay in Thai culture.” She continues to explain that the boys must first approach me, or I will seem like I am ready to go home with them. Being a very independent woman in the states, this shocked me. Most of the time, at home, I am just trying to get a free drink and move on or hang back with my friends. If every guy at home thought I was seriously interested in him if I just say “hey” to them, I would have some serious issues. It’s definitely taking some getting used to, but I know I can manage. Being a woman is tough here, but in order to get the full experience I want, I want do it right.
My challenge to be a respectful woman only continued at our first home stays in the slums of Khon Kaen City, My paw, father, of my home offered me to drink a beer with him on the first night, being the beer connoisseur that I am, I accepted. I enjoyed my time hanging out with him and learning new Thai words from him. Later on a couple of friends stopped by to meet me. They were all friendly, but spoke Thai to me that I couldn’t understand. After a while, a few of my fellow classmates in the slums joined me for a glass of beer. Within no time, their mahs, moms, came up grab them and take them away. My friends later told me that their mahs said it was not okay to drink beer there with my paw. The next day, I return to sit with my paw outside and I didn’t have a drink this time. One of his friends from the previous night starts pointing at me and calling me moon. I tell him mai cow jai as he continues to point and say the word. I finally ask my little sister what the word means, she looked it up in her dictionary and showed me that it means “mischievous, naughty”. We have heard many stories about past students drinking with their families. Yet, clearly it wasn’t okay for me as a grown 21 year old woman to be drinking with my family. I don’t want to be called naughty by and older man who I can’t communicate a word with. I felt slight discomfort towards the males in the community after this point, but not too much. I wanted to be able to adapt, but constantly I felt contradicted on what was and wasn’t Thai appropriate. It’s going to be a challenge, but hopefully soon I will be an expert on what to do and what not to do.
Experiencing Difference, Joy McKinley
Before coming to Thailand, I didn’t have a very good grasp on what my experience would be like. I was told I would experience culture shock and I was told it would pass, but no one who had previously been was able to tell me what I would experience when I got here. I understand now that this is because each person’s experience of Thailand is a little bit different. I’ve only been here for two weeks but already I feel entrenched in this new world of places I’ve never seen, sounds I’ve never heard, and food I’ve never tasted. My experiences are, of course, informed by my own personal perspective. What has been especially difficult for me, though, has absolutely nothing to do with the changes in environment, and everything to do with a shift required within myself.
One of the biggest culture shocks for me was coming into a country in which everyone looked the same. This is not to say that all Thai have the same features, or even that there aren’t ethnic differences among Thai people, because as we have been learning here at CIEE, this is not the case. However, many people do appear ethnically Thai, and only ethnically Thai. America, the “melting pot”, has many people of many different ethnicities and races. Where I come from, I’m invariably going to walk by someone who looks different than I do the second I step out of my front door. It isn’t a shock to me. It isn’t a shock to them.
In America I am a minority in a sea of other minorities. Here in Thailand I’m a minority in a sea of homogeneity. I don’t belong anywhere. I’m a black woman within a group largely made of farang students (farang being a word that describes foreigners, generally presumed to be white). I am not farang, and yet, I am not Thai. I am visibly darker of skin tone, with different features, and different hair. I am a marker of difference, and everywhere I go people stare. Everywhere I turn there are dark eyes boring into me, people piecing me apart, cobbling me back together in their mind to fit whatever preconceived notions they might have. Everywhere I go I am the reflection of every black person a Thai has never met. Everywhere I go I am a spectacle.
I’ve had to adjust my thinking and my own reactions to the pressure that comes along with such constant vigil. I have to remind myself that the looks aren’t attached to any negative or positive emotion necessarily. That even if they were, they wouldn’t be mine to change. I have to remind myself that I am still me, still an individual, and that I cannot possibly carry the weight of all black people on my shoulders here in Thailand. I cannot educate every person I meet who has never, and may never again meet a black person. I am not expected to do so. I have to acknowledge my difference, accept my difference, and allow it to be something that I let inform, but not color every experience here. My experience in Thailand is my own, and I am trying every day to soak it all in and grapple with the changes that come with travelling to a country so distant from home. There is so much to learn here, and there are so many ways to grow. I refuse to let my own insecurities and assumptions make the curiosity and open attention from Thai people into something that makes me hide away from all there is to find here.
Enjoying the breeze, the laughter, and love as I sit back and enjoy the ride; the journey is what’s most important here.
Leaving the First Home Stay, Marissa Stanger and Robbie Kaufman
After an hour long briefing about our community home stays we were shuffled off to our communities. We walked down the train tracks overlooking the numerous villages lining the water’s edge. We walked through the former community that was filled with abandoned homes due to plans for a future high-speed rail.
We then took another song tow ride over to the village where residents had relocated. We were split up and our families took us back to their houses.
Essentially, we had three meals with these families. Each morning we returned to CIEE for the day and would return to the village around 6 at night, greeted by the aroma of Isaan cooking. We always ate dinner together, but because of conflicting schedules, we usually ate breakfast without the company of our families. We didn’t speak the same language and we led very different lives. Needless to say, we weren’t expecting to form any sort of deep bond with our families.
By the morning we left the communities, our outlooks had completely changed.
Somehow on my last night there, after the community exchange and a village dinner, I found myself sitting on the floor relaxing with my mah and nong sao. “Chan kit toong koon”* my mah said to me. I recognized Chan, meaning ‘I’ and koon meaning ‘you’, but I had never heard kit toong. Often when there was a gap in understanding, we would just try to work around it or brush it off with a mai pen rai, but this time my mah motioned for me to look it up. I rifled through my dictionary to look up what it meant. I finally found the phonetic translation. ‘To miss’. I responded by flipping back and forth through pages in my dictionary in order to find these simple words: “I happy here. I sad leave”.
In the morning, as we prepared to leave, our families sent us off with bags of cow pbing. The community had prepared this as a treat for our departure. “Chok die,” Meh Ee whispered into our ears one-by-one. With tears welling in her eyes, she was wishing us luck on our four months ahead. At that moment we were overcome with joy.
As we took off in the song tow we spent some time reflecting on the past three days. Not even days, just the past three nights. How did this bond grow so strong? It couldn’t have been the conversations, but it was the laughter, the smiles, and the hugs that brought us so close to these families, despite our expectations. After having learned so much from the community exchange, we left with a sense of family, familiarity, and most importantly, comfort.
Sixty-two Ant Bites, Emily Hoff
I clenched my teeth together as I worked to suppress a scream. I quickly grabbed the bucket and started pouring bucket after bucket of water over my head. Cold relief hit my body as the water washed away the little black pinpricks all over me. A few days ago, a bucket shower sent chills down my spine every time I experienced the sensation of an entire bucket of water falling over my head. Now, I wished it could never end. I had just realized that hundreds of little biting ants were crawling all over me, and that my towel was the source of these ants. When my initial freak-out passed, I discovered there was no way for me to get from the downstairs bathroom to my clothes upstairs without subjecting myself to further ant bites.
On my frantic run/walk upstairs, it hit me. Up to this point, I only saw the endless love and touching community atmosphere in the railway Khon Kaen slum in which we were staying. The villagers immediately accepted us and the communication barrier did not prevent the villagers from conveying endless gestures of compassion, generosity, and kindness. I grew up plane flights away from extended family, so a deep, strong community feeling was relatively foreign to me. Needless to say, after a few days, I had begun to romanticize our community. However, at this moment, my image of the community as an incredible place to live shattered and I became abruptly aware of my privilege. It was not the creepy-crawly insects all over me; in fact, I have single-handily removed forty-six leeches from my right foot while backpacking alone, so I am not a stranger to creatures feasting on me. Rather, I had the ability to leave and return to my comfortable, mostly insect-free, air-conditioned apartment the next day. In my temporary stay, I mainly experienced the positive aspects of the community, while not quite imagining what my life would have encompassed if my greatest possible educational accomplishment was finishing high school. (To date, no one from the community has gone to college according to the village headman).
My last night at my homestay was incredible. Our host family hired a tuk tuk and with four on a motorcycle and six on a tuk tuk, our family took us on a tour of Khon Kaen at night. At each stop, I was greeted by a hug from one of my young host sisters, who refused to leave my side for the night. My ant adventure merely put my entire experience in perspective. The village taught me about gratitude. Gratitude for where I come from, for my opportunity, but also for all the villagers gave us without an expectation of anything in return. The villagers taught me about the ability of love and community to create happiness regardless of wealth. They mentioned that they were poor, but rich at heart. I quickly perceived that sentiment within a few hours of entering their community, as a guest. However, I cannot begin to imagine my experience if I did not have a departure date when I would return to “comfort” as I know it.
**The terms community, village and slum are used interchangeable in this article**
My host sister who refused to leave my side for my final night of the homestay.
Group love, Caroline de Bie
If you told me 2 weeks ago that I would have 43 new best friends, I would never have believed you. Within the first 5 days of being in Thailand, I felt like I had already been here for a month. Our schedules were jam packed with get-to-know-you activities, city tours, and information sessions to make us feel more comfortable in our new home. I expected to learn a lot about Thai culture and social etiquette during those sessions, but I had no idea how much I would learn about my fellow classmates.
Before we arrived at the orientation site outside of Khon Kaen, we did a few activities in and around the city. On our first day in Bangkok, we took a tour of the king's Grand Palace. Each one of us was in awe of the incredible detail and somewhat mystical quality that each of the buildings held. One of the structures had hundreds of small Buddha figures all around it, each Buddha figure covered in tiny jewels. If I understood the guide correctly, one building took 18 years to construct!
The next day, we all went on a “leisurely stroll” in a gorgeous national park. And by leisurely stroll, I mean expert-level muddy trek through a leech-filled natural obstacle course. I felt like we were on the show Wipeout. At least half of us slipped and fell in the mud, got whacked in the face by a branch, or both. Seeing each other being so clumsy and laughing at ourselves really helped us feel more comfortable around each other.
After a 7 hour drive, we arrived at our orientation site. Many of my classmates have said that the activity they thought helped us bond the most was the cloth flipping activity. All 29 Public Health students had to stand on a big piece of cloth and flip it over while still standing on it. Each time we completed this activity, the cloth would get cut to a smaller size. By the end of this activity, we were crammed together on that cloth like a can of sardines. Nothing helps people get to know each other faster than having someone's sweaty armpit in your face for half an hour.
Now that we've been in Khon Kaen for about a week, the original honeymoon phase of being in Thailand is slowly starting to wear off. But our friendships with each other continue to grow stronger. I feel like this support network that we share is extremely helpful in allowing us to comfortably talk with other Thai students. We've all been in the habit of being really open with each other and that has definitely carried though in my interactions with the students here at Khon Kaen University. I am so excited to take part in this 4 month long adventure, and there is no other group that I would rather experience it with!
Everyone's all smiles at the Grand Palace. Photo credit: Koby Caplan
Nong Weng Slum, Mariah Philips
Concrete walls and a tin roof. This is what awaited me at the Nong Weng village. I felt lost, equipped with only my duffel bag, a motorcycle helmet, and a meager idea of what a slum looks like. This was probably my first problem, having the misguided belief that all slums are the same. That being said, I feel the need to introspect into my own thought process and upbringing. What could have facilitated this false ideology? I may be off base, but I feel that there is a common notion in the West, especially in the US, that the people of the slums are unintelligent, disloyal, morally subsidiary, and altogether lesser. This belief largely prevails because of the deeply entrenched American belief that you earn your fate. If someone is poor it is because they are lazy and did not work hard enough to make any money. If someone else is wildly successful it is because they are a self-made man (person), pulling themselves up by the bootstraps and rising to the top of the food chain. Whether or not this is an accurate representation of wealth accumulation and success is another story. But what is relevant is how this notion has influenced Westerners (or farang as they are referred to in Thai), and their perceptions of the slums.
My assumptions of dilapidated, poverty stricken buildings as well as my ideas about the moral integrity of the people living in the community could not have been more inaccurate. I realize I am a product of the society I was raised in, but in no way does that pardon me from my own ability to think critically about these values. Yes, I am influenced by my upbringing. That is inevitable. But my failure to recognize the vast stereotypes that I thoughtlessly bought into is a point of disappointment in myself. Meritocracy and American ideals, as well as the privileged confines of my childhood are the only cultural values I have ever known. That I cannot escape, but I can control my criticism of these values and biases. The Nong Weng community provided me with more than warmth and a roof over my head; they also provided me with a critical lens of the mantras of my culture, and my own mindless consumption of those beliefs.
Now, back to that tin roof, and newly cemented brick walls. It was the first thing I noticed when we pulled up to the village. I remember being surprised by how well developed the homes were, and even though luxuries like doors and mattresses were few, the homes themselves were strong, sturdy, and, most impressively, jubilant. The people in these homes are the antithesis of my socially engrained notions. Pleasant, kind, smart, and incredibly loyal I found myself being accepted wholeheartedly into a complete stranger’s home. Though they had no reason to trust me, they accepted me with open arms. Despite the lack of doors I never once felt that my physical safety or my property was in danger, contrary to what slum stereotypes may have me believe. In fact, I felt safer in that village then I have felt in my own apartment complex in California. That same tin roof that I was so wary of initially would come to protect me from the monsoon rains that pounded down on the house the first night of my stay. As one villager recounted, his three words to describe the slum are: “unity, consensus, power”, a power untainted by money and fostered entirely by community; A community that I am proud and humbled to be accepted by.
The Throne of Privilege: Finding Empowerment in Thailand by Embracing Humility, Lisa White
My authentic study abroad adventure did not really begin until I was in a toilet stall at a bus rest stop about three hours outside of Bangkok. Just like at home, I succumbed to wait in the line for the women’s restroom that was at least five times the length of the men’s line. The line quickly shortened, however, after several of my fellow female colleagues described the toilet as simply being ‘a hole’. I too came to ask myself if I really had to go that bad.
Finally, I stepped inside to get a glimpse. I found that the ‘hole’ is actually made of the same familiar white ceramic material as a western toilet. To flush, If I ever got to that point-I thought to myself, I inferred that I was to pour buckets of fresh water into the ‘hole’. I go to the 7-11 to buy a 5 baht package of tissues. With tissues in hand and my arsenal fully loaded I now return to the mission at hand. I assume the position of a plié squat and end by finally dumping several buckets of water to flush.
I exit the stall grinning in a state of euphoria. In my own mind I have conquered the enigma that is the Thai toilet – the first of many challenges that would come my way this semester. My Thai language teacher asked almost incredulously, “Did you go?” I learned that I was ahead of the game because later this skill would be included in orientation material. I am giddy and exclaim to my peers, “I can do anything! I feel so empowered! You should go too! Here’s some tissue,”
I had never thought of a toilet as a crutch-something to literally hold me up during an unpleasant task. Am I really so noble that I must have a throne to go to the bathroom? Without this support I must be strong, and self-reliant and in the end I feel a sense of control and self-confidence. This, to me, is true empowerment, and also serves as a model for how I approach new situations here in Thailand. Instead of resorting to my throne from home, or comfortable ways of doing things, here I must consider new alternatives. Of course it is sometimes challenging to get off my throne and do something new and perhaps uncomfortable, like trying new mystery meat or waking up early to offer food to a monk. Humbling situations, in which I must get off my throne, have turned out to be empowering. These challenges, however, are no longer obstacles, but rather adventures. I have come to consider new perspectives and learn more about myself and abilities. In the end I have gained a strong sense of self-efficacy and I have become empowered.
My first glimpse of a Thai toilet...
Learning through Love, Rachel Buckner
I spent my first homestay of the semester in a slum community of Khon Kaen—Temperak 1. On our last night in the village, my peers and I engaged in a Community Exchange with local residents and Temperak’s Village Headman. During this exchange, I gained knowledge about the institutional struggles faced by the Temperak community, and how this village is fighting for their rights, their homes, and their livelihood.
Temperak 1 consists of a group of people with an incredible heart, spirit, and love for their community. As people who face persistent discrimination, they have found ways of maintaining communal hope and determination in their struggle for equality and justice. The villagers of Temperak 1 offered some powerful words of advice to the CIEE Student Group about the core elements of a strong community. They are as follows:
First, we need to Love Each Other.
Second, if you have conflict with anyone, just approach them and work that out.
Third, keep smiling—No matter what you’re feeling. Smiling is the only thing that can bring your hearts together.
Fourth, having different opinions is good.
Fifth, put problems on the table, don’t keep them to yourself. You need help from others. Being unified makes you be successful.
Sixth, sharing ideas is so important. Putting ideas out there will eventually make you successful because your ideas can be critiqued and heard by many people.
Seventh, it is important to step back and reflect.
I find these words of wisdom could not have come at a more pivotal time. I am surrounded by so many incredible people, whether they are community members, CIEE peers, staff, roommates, etc. In each interaction I have, I am met with a feeling of interconnectivity. I feel that somehow our stories of pain, struggle, and triumph are all connected. I believe it has something to do with the first word of advice: to love each other. When we love each other we are able to care about and hold the struggles of others as if they are our own. Loving each other builds a community, for without love there is no investment in the livelihood and growth of other people.
Love is at the crux of the educational journey I am embarking on. Though rather corny, love is never easy, and it often requires being challenged, hurt, and shedding a few tears. Though love can be painful, it also helps strengthen, enrich, and make wiser an individual’s life. This, at least, is my philosophy on love.
Throughout this semester I am going to be forced to challenge others and, perhaps equally difficult, be challenged right back. Though this will be uncomfortable, it will be a necessary agent in facilitating a healthy learning environment where people can discuss and work through different paradigms and ideologies. Because challenges aren’t easy, people (including myself) are going to be upset. As I anticipate these moments of conflict, I reflect on the villager’s words of advice: (1) Different opinions are good; (2) If you have conflict with anyone, just approach them and work that out; (3) People need to put problems on the table and not keep to themselves. We need help from each other—this unification will lead to success; and (4) Sharing ideas is of the utmost importance and will assist in making ideas successful through constructive critiques and brainstorming.
We can’t grow without criticisms and without the contributions of other people. As I listened to the villagers of Temperak 1, I had the deeply important realization that I have so much to learn from everyone around me. My thoughts and ideas are made all the more powerful when it is joined by the thoughts and perspectives of others. I know that being challenged will be hard, but I am comforted by the important truth that challenges made through genuine love and compassion are some of the most powerful and effective in inspiring growth.
This semester is most probably going to involve a great deal of intellectual, personal, and communal hardships. As I anticipate these struggles, I am brought back to the inspirational third word of advice: No matter what you’re feeling, keep smiling. Smiling is the only thing that can bring your hearts together.
Me and Meh Wan at the Community Exchange