Saturday, December 12, 2015

Octember -- The end has begun

My service in Thailand is winding down way too quickly! At this point, I have about 90 days of service remaining, and just reflecting on the past 90 days, it's so crazy and surreal, and almost scary  how quickly time has been flying! October and November seemed to be a blurry whirlwind of events.

The highlights of the past couple of months included assisting a friend with a Youth Leadership Camp in a nearby province, participating in Camp GLOW/BROS with six of my students and two of my teachers, along with several other volunteers and their students and teachers, and finally, the Close of Service Conference with all of the volunteers in my group. All this following the mid-year break for my schools. It is so good to be back to my routine, back in my community, and back in my schools with my students.

Here are just a few highlights of some of the recent highlights.

Youth Leadership Camp: I met with a few volunteers to help facilitate a Youth Mentorship and Leadership Camp where we led high school students in activities to help them to identify and develop their leadership skills. The highlight of the camp was tasking the highschoolers to plan a camp on their own camp and then bringing in elementary school students to participate in this camp, which was planned entirely by the high school students. As volunteers, we continued to lend support to the older students whenever needed, but they did a wonderful job. It was really impressive to see how their teamwork and leadership skills emerged over the course of a few days and how they were able to handle the task of planning and facilitating a two-day camp so exceptionally well. It was a tremendous experience for all involved.

Camp GLOW/BROS: Girls Leading Our World, (GLOW) is an event led by Peace Corps Volunteers in various countries around the world that promotes gender equality and challenges gender stereotypes, it is designed as an empowerment tool for girls to tap into and explore their great leadership potential. We realize that in order for girls to reach their potential, it is just as important for boys to receive this education so that they can be supportive of their female counterparts. Boys Respecting Others and Self (BROS) is designed to do just that. I'm really glad that I had an opportunity to participate in the first Camp GLOW/BROS hosted in Thailand along with six of my students and two teachers from my community.

Close of Service: The US Ambassador to Thailand, Glyn Davies, hosted all of the volunteers in my group for an early Thanksgiving Dinner at his residence to thank us for our two years of service. It was a lovely traditional meal with all of the fixings, and I felt incredibly blessed to be sharing it with my amazing family of volunteers. I was given the honor of representing my group in addressing the ambassador and I shared some of my thoughts and reflections of my volunteer experience and how thankful I am for the opportunity to serve in this capacity and all that it has meant to me. I was glad when other volunteers expressed that they shared similar sentiments, it reaffirmed our bond and the experience for me in so many ways. The next few days were a bit more solemn as staff prepared us for the inevitable end of our time here as volunteers in Thailand.

It has truly been a bitter sweet time. See more snapshots of my every day life in the videos below.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Lifestyle Thai-style (part 3)

When I arrived in Thailand almost two years ago, I didn't realize that every day life would present me with so many opportunities for me to teach and so many opportunities for me to learn. Among the lessons taught and learned are lessons about self esteem and image, personal space and temperament. 

Below is the continuation and conclusion....
7.    Verbal Observations… It is not uncommon or impolite for someone in this culture to make jokes, remarks, or ask pointed questions about another's physical appearance. From weight, height, and skin color to body proportions and acne, I've gotten it all, and it's quite a common practice. Sometimes when comments are made about my hair and skin color, I chalk it up to ignorance or lack of exposure/diversity; sometimes when comments are made about my weight, I feel perhaps they can be expression of care and concern; but sometimes it takes more effort to convince myself that some comments aren't born out of cruelty, insensitivity, and/or ill-humor. After 20 months, some of the comments aren't as frequent, and I'm not as sensitive to some of them as I had been in the past, but I'm far from immune and don't find it funny or pleasant to witness or experience this practice. The students that I work with definitely have tougher skin than I do, but I usually intervene when I see students making derogatory remarks towards each other, but most adults lead by example, reinforcing and encouraging this behavior.

I try to get students to pay three compliments for each of their insults, it's still all a joke to them. The students don't seem to realize sometimes that 'verbally observing' that someone is fat or clumsy is an insult ("but teacher, if she's fat, she's fat! isn't she fat?" "but he keeps dropping things, so it's true, he's clumsy!") but I hope that they would get into the practice of make positive observations of each other and building each other's self esteem.
The two girls in the box just had a lesson about saying nice things (one to the other)
The boy saw the whole thing and helped the offender to come up with compliments.
The little ones on the side didn't get it, but they will.

8.   White Beauty... In Thailand, white skin is the standard of beauty. Every skin product, from face and body wash to powder and deodorant, contains skin whitening agents. In blazing sun and 99ºF heat, Thai people would wear long sleeved jackets so that the sun doesn't darken their skin. While in some other places in the world it is considered a luxury and privilege to lay in the sun and have bronzed skin, in Thailand, it is quite the opposite. Bronzed or darkened skin is frowned upon and considered ugly and undesirable because of the perception that farmers, “peasants” and those of lowest social status are the ones out in the sun with darker skin. Many Thai people have naturally brown skin, not necessarily darkened by spending countless hours farming in direct sunlight, but the standard of beauty is to have white skin so people often go to extreme lengths to achieve this standard. 
As a foreigner, I've been told that this standard of beauty doesn't apply to me, all the same, I've heard countless comments referencing my dark skin. Some complimentary, some polite, and some are none of the above. Kids joking and jeering with each other that if they spend too much time in the sun they'll get as dark as I am, or at a food stand with a darker skinned vendor hearing the adjacent vendor commenting "Is that your sister? You both have the same black skin" and of course, there is "She has black skin, but isn't she pretty?" I try to respond with grace and poise and use these opportunities to assert that beauty has no color.

White  Beauty, Pure and Flawless (Face Wash)
Body White UV, Light Touch White, Ultimate White, Healthy White
Whitening Anti-Perspirants
White Perfect. White = Perfect. 
9.    Value of Privacy… One of the major differences between Thai and American culture is that Thai is more of a collectivistic culture, and Americanism is more individualistic. When meeting someone in America for the first time, you'd likely be asked about where you're from, what work you do, and what you have accomplished. When meeting someone in Thailand for the first time, you'd likely be asked if you're married yet (if not, why not, followed by an offer to help you find a mate), how old you are (to determine if they should refer to you as an older sibling - pii or younger sibling - nong), and what foods you like to eat (for a dinner invitation likely to follow). 

There's a sense of community that I like - sometimes. Anytime I ride my bike or walk anywhere, I'm greeted by several people asking me where I'm going, where I'm coming from, and if I'd eaten yet. Sometimes, by the time I get to where I'm going, the people there already know where I'm coming from and where I stopped on the way. Today, for example, I spent my morning at school and on my way to the government office where I am spending my afternoon, I stopped at a little neighborhood shop. When I got to the office, I was met with "So what did you buy at the shop?" by an officer who was having lunch nearby. 

One of the challenges of being an individualist in a collectivistic community is the value of privacy. I've become pretty immune to the questions about where I'm going or coming from, and why I don't have a Thai boyfriend yet, but ever so often I feel challenged when my privacy is compromised. There are times when I get annoyed when someone asks me why I'm smiling at my phone, there are times when I feel violated when someone peeks over my shoulder at the ATM and remarks about my balance, there are times when I just have to laugh when someone joins my family video chat without invitation, and then there are times when I feel overwhelmed with love and care when I'm sick and the whole village responds with well wishes, advice, and home remedies. Sometimes, at the end of the day, I realize that's all it is - expressions of love and care.

10.   Sabaai-Sabaai…. This is the pace and the way of life for most of Thailand. Very relaxed and easy going, to the utmost degree. Jai-yen, which means cool heart or calm spirit, is an aspect of Thai culture that goes hand in hand with the notion of sabaai-sabaai. Together, these concepts encourage and enable a chilled and laid back attitude, mannerism, and lifestyle. I usually describe myself as a very calm and easy going person, I'm pretty adaptable and not easily stressed, but adapting this lifestyle has actually been stressful and a challenge at times. I've been told countless times in the workplace not to think so hard and not to be so serious. I find comfort and calmness in order, knowing what's happening when, having a schedule, making plans, noting the details. Now when I try to focus on and try to clarify these things, I'm met with: mai bpen rai (don't worry) and jai-yen-yen (calm your heart). This is still a work in progress, but over the past twenty months, I have become pretty sabaai/relaxed, more adaptable and able to go with the flow, not feeling the need to plan and control every aspect of my life and my day, and trusting that things will work themselves out, as they usually do, so I've become okay with that. Almost to the point where I worry about my return and transition to the demands of the American workplace. But mai bpen rai, I'll deal with that when the time comes. But for the next six months, sabaai-sabaai!

The Sabaai Life
See the video below for snippets of my everyday life.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Lifestyle Thai-style (Part 2)

I am now 75% through my time of service in Thailand. This country has grown on me in so many ways, and I feel as though I am a part of it, I know for certain that it has become a part of me. There are parts of Thai culture that I absolutely love and that I have embraced and adopted, and there are other parts that just are what they are. As my time here is winding down, I realize more and more the many, many aspects of this lifestyle that I've become accustomed to that will be no more when I get to the other side.

To continue from my previous post, here are just a few more examples.

4.    Culture of Rice... Rice is engrained in many aspects of Thai culture, economy, and overall lifestyle. Up until recently, Thailand was the world's largest exporter of rice, now second to India. One informal way to greet someone is to ask "Gin kaao ru yang?" (Have you eaten rice yet?) in lieu of the more standard "Sabaai dii mai?" (Are you well?/How are you?). The general term for eating (gin kaao) literally translates to "eat rice" and the terms breakfast, lunch, and dinner, literally translate to morning rice, noon rice, and evening rice. To ask someone what they've eaten, one would say "Gin kaao gap aria?" (what did you eat with your rice?). As you may have guessed, rice is not only a part of everyday conversation, but the central part of every meal, and many desserts. It was quite the interestingly pleasant surprise the first time I bought  ice-cream in Thailand and found rice at the bottom of my cup.  At most meals, each person is served a bowl of rice and a variety of dishes are placed in the middle of the table for everyone to help themselves. It is considered disrespectful and unacceptable for a person not to finish their serving of rice.
Kaao niiao mamuang -- Sticky Rice and Mango
My  new favorite dessert! (next to cheesecake)

A rice coconut snack

Learning to make a dessert
rice cooked in coconut milk and a small slice of banana
wrapped in banana leaf
Fun for everyone LOL
Not too shabby, eh?

Blue Dyed Rice

Can you tell what's missing? 
I've been asked, "Do you ever eat rice in America?" and I'm sometimes met with a shocked response when I say that I do. Some Thai people tend to think that the equivalent to rice in America is bread. I've had to explain on many occasions that Americans don't eat hamburgers and subway sandwiches for every single meal. In fact, I recently developed a sensitivity to gluten (found in wheat, rye, and barley) and my host family's initial response was basically, "how will you ever survive when you get back to America when all they eat over there is bread?" Sure, we have terms like "bread winner" and "daily bread" but we don't have national holidays and ceremonies to commemorate the plowing of wheat.

Celebrating Father's Day with Rice Games!
We change it up occasionally. For my host mom's birthday, we had hot pot!.
5.    Alcohol… Many Most social interactions in this region of Thailand include alcohol, specifically beer and whiskey. There are areas of Thailand where it is not customary for women to drink alcohol, but where I live, everybody drinks, all the time. There is no such thing as waiting until five o’clock. At dinners and social gatherings, the host takes pride in making sure that each person’s glass is full for the duration of the event. The usual options at such gatherings are beer, whiskey, and water, so I drink lots and lots of water. Sometimes there is Coke, but I don’t drink caffeinated drinks either. There is hardly ever any sort of juice or non-caffeinated drink option, so yes, lots and lots of water. Being happy and having a good time is very important in this culture, and although there are the negative social, domestic, health, and safety implications of this manner of alcohol consumption, they don't seem to weigh as heavily as the importance of having a good time. 

Lunch-time with the teachers at school.
We had a visitor, so the good stuff was brought out.
6.    Motocy… The motorbike, or motocy as the Thais say, is the main mode of transportation in most communities throughout Thailand. It's not unusual to see a family of three or four sitting on a single bike, I see pre-teens riding motocy's full speed throughout the community, the older kids ride these bikes to and from school, I've seen people carrying live chicken on their motocy's, I've seen dogs of all sizes driven around on these bikes, people load their motocys with small and medium sized pieces of furniture, large water jugs, tons of shopping bags, parcels, luggage, and just about anything that you can imagine putting in a car. Some motocy’s even have baby seats, and I'm almost positive that I saw a mother nursing her baby on a moving bike. 

Taking a ride with the dog. Why not?
It's amusing, even awe-inspiring sometimes to see how creatively people are able to arrange and maneuver themselves and their belongings to get from point to point. It's disturbing though, to see that many riders do not wear helmets or exercise much caution when riding. I've seen people talking and texting on cell phones, riding shirtless at high speeds, dangerously weaving in and out of high traffic, I've seen both passengers and drivers eating and drinking while riding, then there is also the issue of drunk driving. My own little community has seen a handful of bike accidents and fatalities during the time that I've been here. This is a huge issue country wide, especially during times of festivities and merriment. 
Peace Corps prohibits volunteers from operating any motorized vehicle, and from riding (even as passengers) on motorcycles. Doing so can result in immediate termination or expulsion from service. I do my part to set a good example to my students and community by always wearing my helmet when I ride my bicycle (regardless to the fact that not wearing a helmet can also result in immediate termination of service). I teach my students bike and helmet safety, and even though many of them may not be able to access or afford helmets, I've taught them other ways that they can be safe and cautious on the road. I hope that my students, and everyone else for that matter, can avoid the tragedy of motorcy injury or fatality.

Students riding to school
Some people attach carts to their motorbikes to carry crops and produce. 
And sometimes, children.
What is a culture without quirks? Sometimes it seems like there is a YOLO mentality at play - you only live once, so have fun, be merry, take risks, enjoy life. Interesting twist though, Thai/Buddhists actually believe in multiple lives through reincarnation, and that each life should be lived fully and well. Here are a few snippets of how I've been living my life...