Reflections on Australia

87 Commentsby   |  08.27.11  |  Uncategorized

My reflections on my trip to Brisbane can be found on my regular blog here.

Last Update

36 Commentsby   |  08.18.11  |  Salvador, Brazil

I’m sorry for not keeping this thing more up to date. I had an amazing trip and wonderful experience in Niteroi, Brazil! I tried to write a blog every week on this site http://ohkaiwhy.blogspot.com/. I really appreciate everything Larry and Gary have done for me and my fellow students as a part of World Wide Witness! Thanks for everything!

A Last Night in Bangkok

63 Commentsby   |  08.10.11  |  Chiang Mai, Thailand

Sawadee ka!

Almost ten weeks ago I wrote a post called one night in Bangkok. Last Saturday, I spent my second night there this summer, waiting for my 6:00 A.M. flight in the morning. Out of curiosity I read back through that first post. Coincidentally, maybe, I was sitting once again on my tiny balcony listening to the crickets and breathing the heavy evening air, even more humid after the afternoon rainstorm.

I’d just gotten back from wandering the streets near the hotel for a few hours, seeking out my final bag of saparote (pineapple) and moo satay (grilled pork in peanut sauce) and rotee (a crepe-like dessert from India). These all came from local streetside vendors, which I love more than any fancy—or as the Thais say, “high-so”—restaurant. It felt like the only way to conclude the summer here; any visit to a tourist site or other location would have seemed too un-Thai. And having left Chiang Mai and said many goodbyes, I was already missing it enough to want to cling to whatever moments of Thailand I had left.

Quite a lot was going on in the last couple weeks of our summer, and every time I would sit down to write a blog post I either had to leave soon or couldn’t decide what to focus on. So to summarize as a sort of farewell post:

Major Events and Memorable Happenings

– Taught English and Thai to some women and children at a camp for migrant Myanmar workers and their families, located just down the road from the Zone. We mostly played with some of the little girls, who were shy but beautiful just like the women. And it was an eye-opening experience for all of us to a reality of life for many people in the world that we usually only hear about.

– Spent several afternoons at coffee shops with some of our friends as they were preparing for midterms at Payap; I learned everything I never knew about linguistics and the English language in the process of trying to help them.

– Attended the 50th Asian Mission Forum and met nearly two hundred wonderful people from all around Southeast Asia. We spent four days at a hotel downtown, going to classes (including one taught by ACU’s very own Dr. John Willis), enjoying a traditional Thai dinner and cultural show (where we learned some Thai dances), and hearing some amazing stories about things going on all across SE Asia.

– Consumed large amounts of guay teoh (noodles) and saparote (pineapple) in anticipation of the lack thereof back in the U.S.

– Took hundreds of pictures as part of saying goodbye to everyone, a long and emotional process that lasted a couple days.

– Ended our summer appropriately just as we started it: with major flooding, this time even more substantial.

– Watched a stunning sunset over the Pacific from the window seat of an airplane while flying out of Tokyo.

Important Lessons and Interesting or Otherwise Significant Observations

-Remember all that delicious Thai food I spoke of so fondly all summer? Well, my midsection remembers it just as fondly and has a five-pound souvenir to prove it.

– Having now flown across the Pacific yet again, 10 hours is an eternity when you can’t sleep and the best movie option is Beastly.

– Thailand is beautiful, suuay makk. The Thai people are even more so, all incredibly hospitable, friendly, and jai dee (in Thai, literally “good hearts”).

– The things I’ll miss most aren’t all the tourist sites or elephant rides; rather, my friend Pii Oi the fruit vendor, playing games at the Zone and sitting with friends at the restaurant next door, eating together before Cell Group, talking with my English students about life and such when we’re supposed to be studying idioms; the list goes one.

– Welcome and inclusion are highly undervalued but incredibly powerful. Even taking 30 seconds to translate a piece of a conversation for a foreigner can mean a great deal.

– English is still a difficult language to learn, and we should be careful about how it’s exported. Granted, a common language is necessary, but we should be aware of the fact that we happen to have landed in the language of power—and be critical about and responsible in how we use that power. Going anywhere with English often gives you the upper hand without you even trying to take it, and we should try to occupy that position with understanding and equality in mind.

– Treat the foreigner as you want to be treated. Better yet, as the Thais would treat her. Better still, as the Thai Christians would treat her. Hospitality and friendship are profound.

– When in another culture the best position is an open, vulnerable one. You’ll learn more that way. And you’ll realize how much more you have to learn too.

– Realizing how much there is to learn and recognizing the potential in the relationships that you’ve created, ten weeks feels so insufficient a time to spend in another place. We felt on the brink of forming even stronger bonds with many of the students and the church members—and then we had to leave. Saying goodbye at our last Cell Group was difficult. Especially after they gave me, Mark, and Fish as a farewell gift our favorite dish, sticky rice with mango.

– That being said, let’s of course not avoid short-term missions entirely, but let’s be wary about their implications. They can very easily verge on colonial—we go in, have an experience that benefits us, and then leave. Part of a mission trip will and should be about the missionaries. In Thailand, I believe far more was ultimately done for us than we did for anyone there; it was incredible and I think made us want to do even more for other people. So while there’s nothing wrong with that at all, I only say all this to suggest we carefully consider our motivations and our impact in going somewhere to “serve.”

– And finally: when taken seriously, the way of Christ spurs people to love and create community that I just haven’t run into elsewhere. If you want to convince a questioning, logical skeptic like myself, then don’t necessarily answer her questions. Invite her into love and community like we were this summer, and while questions will still be important to consider, they will no longer take precedence. Though far from perfect, the lives and the relationships that can result from living inspired by the gospels are profound. I really can offer no other explanation for the church here or what we’ve experienced this summer except that the faith purported to stand behind it is real.

Korp kun makk ka for all for your love, support, and prayers. Should you ever get a chance, I’d highly recommend a visit to Thailand. And please take me with you if you go!

South Africa Update

15 Commentsby   |  08.04.11  |  Uncategorized

Well, our time here in South Africa is just about over. It has been an amazing two months full of adventures and surprises, but always with a purpose. We have had opportunities to learn and minister in ways that we never imagined before we got here. Yesterday we had the opportunity to do sports ministry at a prison. We helped coach their basketball and soccer teams and also got to just talk to them. It was eye opening in many ways. It was cool to find out that many of the guys are already believers and have regular Bible studies in the prison. As with most ministry opportunities, it was as much of a learning experience as it was a teaching opportunity. I am constantly amazed at the work God is doing here in South Africa, and I am honored to have been able to be apart of it if only for a short amount of time.

Oxapampa

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7 Commentsby   |  08.03.11  |  Uncategorized

Today is the 3rd of August, and I will be going home on the 9th, so my time here is just about done. Today I am pretty excited; I will be traveling to Oxapampa, Peru with Justin and Mark. We are going to check on a new member of the church who went to Oxapampa three or four months ago and seeing how he is doing there. I am a little nervous about going because in order to get there we have to go over a mountain, and the last time I was on a mountain I got altitude sickness really bad. Also, the roads are very narrow and we will be going on a double decker bus. While that doesn’t scream safety to me, these drivers have been doing this for a long time and I am sure that they know what they are doing. I am not really sure what we will be doing in Oxapampa, I know that we will be talking with Luis, but other than that, I have no idea.
There will be four new interns arriving on Saturday, so my bed will be gone after today. It is going back to the apartment it came from while I am at Spanish class today. I have really been enjoying the one on one Spanish lessons I have been getting at Ele Latina Spanish school. I feel like I have been learning better because where I struggle we can spend more time than if there were more people in the class. It’s just been good.
Gotta go, my laundry is getting done and I need to get packed for the trip.

This World is Not My Home

8 Commentsby   |  07.30.11  |  Kenya

We are coming to a close of our eighth and final week in Kenya. The last week at Sam’s Place proved to be somewhat typical: teaching, playing and enjoying African life. The Friday before last was overcast, suggesting a much needed rain which unfortunately never came. The majority of the night was spent with Elphas, the oldest boy at Sam’s Place, spinning the kids around and around by their hands. I’m not quite sure how he managed to maintain the velocity, but the kids were spinning so fast that I thought I would be sick from just watching! Saturday finally brought rain so we played with the children inside and later that day Savannah got a weave, just a typical day in Africa! It took 6 hours for them to braid hundreds of fake hairs into Savannah’s real hair. The result was extremely interesting to say the least but all the women, including Naomi and Nancy, oohed and ahhed at the result, trying to convince Bonnie and I to join the club (after much debate we declined the offer…it just wasn’t for us). Our final Sunday service was spent at a newly founded church of Christ in Kisii and it was apparent that Simeon saved the best for last. The singing was absolutely life-changing and of course the trilling was unrivaled (a major determinant for me obviously). A couple of the members even sang us songs in English, one of which being “This World is Not My Home.”

Monday was the coldest day yet (maybe it was 65 degrees but in my book that constitutes as potential hypothermia weather). There’s a boy at Sam’s Place named Geoffrey who gives the greatest hugs and has the biggest smile in the entire world. He’s one of those people that lights up the room when he walks in. His smile literally consumes half of his face and is absolutely contagious. We knew something was wrong when, for the first time since we arrived, we didn’t see his teeth all day. It started off as a limp and the teachers assured us it was a pulled muscle. As the day progressed, so did the pain. By the end of the day, Geoffrey was admitted to the hospital because he couldn’t move his leg without enduring an outrageous amount of pain. The doctor said he tore part of his muscle and he was able to came back to the orphanage the next day. We didn’t see much of Geoffrey after that and the absence of his smile made the already tough last days of our stay even tougher. Please pray that Geoffrey heals fully and his smile returns two-fold!

In addition to Geoffrey’s return to Sam’s Place on Tuesday, it was also the last day of school! In Africa, children have a month off every three months of school. Although the children at Sam’s Place do not have parents, some of their relatives are still alive and come to get them for their breaks. I’m so glad for the children that have family to spend their vacation with, but it’s the children that either do not have relatives or whose relatives choose not to return to Sam’s Place to get them that I truly feel for. Three children were left behind at Sam’s Place last break, one being the most precious little girl in the world, Emmaculate. She’s one of the two girls in my class and she has the most energetic and outgoing personality ever. However, her usual eagerness was absent the last week of school, knowing that her family wasn’t coming to get her. It breaks my heart that children who have had to endure the deaths of their parents as well as the loss of their hearing have to experience unnecessary hurt and abandonment. I ask that you include Emmaculate in your prayers too!

I realize that this blog seems to be a bit of a downer, and perhaps that’s partially due to the fact that we’ve been pretty down ourselves ever since we left Sam’s Place on Thursday. But, there’s one more day to discuss that exceeds all other days spent at Sam’s Place combined. On Wednesday, we woke up to a schedule of events, or as we understood it an entire day dedicated to our departure the following day. So after packing, we played with the children while the teacher’s and staff cooked and prepared for the party. We weren’t allowed to help (however, not without continuous persistence) but we inconspicuously watched them make all of our favorite African foods such as chipati, rice, and cabbage. We all assembled in the dining hall and the children surprised us with dances that they’ve been practicing! We were so proud to see them perform amazingly after only a couple of weeks of dance classes! Then Simeon introduced the guests, two of which were preachers from churches of Christ’s we’d visited over the summer and one being a complete surprise; Nancy took a mutatu all the way from Kisii to be their for our party! After they each spoke and prayed, the teachers and staff were introduced and they each spoke briefly and then gave out awards to the children for academics, athletics, and overall character. Then Simeon and Naomi stood up and, in shaking voices, spoke to Savannah, Bonnie, and I about how we are the daughters they never had and how proud they were of us for everything we’ve done this summer. I’m not a big crier, never have been, but here’s the deal, I love Simeon and Naomi more than words can describe. They were literally our adoptive parents for the summer. They protected, helped, but most importantly, loved us for the entirety of our stay and I will be eternally grateful for their hospitality and Christian spirit. But anyways, I might have teared up when Naomi presented us each with traditional African congas. Lastly, Savannah, Bonnie, and I each spoke (signed) to the teachers, staff, and of course, the children. I had a hard time finding the right words to express how extremely blessed I have been for this opportunity. If memory serves me right, I said ,“I love you more than you will ever know,” probably a hundred times and, “I will think about you each and every single day,” possibly another hundred. But the thing is is that it’s completely true. Not a day will go by that I don’t reminisce on this summer, not a minute will pass that I won’t wish I was back here, and not a second will escape that I don’t think about every single one of these children. I’m full of cliches today but I’m serious when I say that I left a piece (I would say a good 50%) of my heart in Rongo, Kenya.

We spent the remainder of the night eating the AMAZING dinner they prepared for us and drinking sodas (a huge treat for the children…I’m not even sure when the last time they had sodas was…maybe 6 months ago?) and taking pictures and laughing and crying and hugging and trying to soak up every perfect second of our last day at Sam’s Place. We stayed up much past the childrens’ bedtime, unwisely giving them full reign over our hair (let’s just say I spent the remainder of the night picking out miniscule braids and icing my sore scalp). We agreed that a great farewell surprise would be to make everyone pancakes, so we woke up early and got to work flipping jacks. All morning I was secretly plotting on hiding in the choo until the driver of the mutatu gave up looking and left without me. However, somehow I made it through the hugs and goodbyes and ended up in the van.

It’s a surreal feeling sitting here writing my last blog. Saying this summer “flew by” is an understatement. It literally feels as if I arrived here yesterday, yet somehow I find myself leaving tomorrow. When the realization hit that my days here were dwindling, I found myself viewing the scenery with more appreciation and eating the pineapple more slowly, trying to enjoy everything Africa has to offer just a little longer. Before I left for Africa, people constantly told me that I would come back a different person, that this experience really puts one’s life into perspective. I didn’t understand this until now. The lifestyle I use to enjoy, consisting of an overload of shopping, a reasonable amount of eating out, and frequent visits to the salon, is hard to envision after what I’ve witnessed. In a country where the clothing is tattered, soda is a luxury, and a bathe consists of a bucket of river water every other week, how can anyone come back to America and live the same life? How can you experience absolute poverty and be the same person before you came? It’s just not possible. God has blessed me abundantly. I have an amazing family, devoted friends, and a lifetime of opportunities. God placed these blessings in my life so that I could, in return, bless others in His name. I don’t know who or how many people kept up with this blog, but if I have a purpose in writing it would be this:

“Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality. At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need. There there will be equality, as it is written: “He who gathered much did not have too much, and he who gathered little did not have too little.” 2 Corinthians 8:13-15.

For those that have followed this blog, I hope you were, in some small way, able to live this amazing experience through me. I hope that you have grown to love Kenya as much I have and I hope that you will pray for and think about these children often. Thank you for your support, prayers, and continuous love. May God bless you abundantly, and in return may you bless others!

Bethel Week 8 – What would be the song we sing to them when they’re in need?

7 Commentsby   |  07.30.11  |  Beijing, China, Uncategorized

It’s Saturday afternoon at Bethel.  Sam walked by at lunch today and reminded me that tomorrow is my last day.  I love how good he is at rubbing things in.  I love that kid. :) I’m trying so hard to process right now.  The last two months (and especially the last week) have been hard and exhausting, but they have also been my greatest joy and some of the most fulfilling times of my entire life.  I’ve taken this song as my theme for the summer:

What would be the song we sing to them when they’re in need?
Would it be an empty Hallelujah to the King?
Turn down the music
Turn down the noise
Turn up your voice oh, God
And let us hear the sound
Of people broken
Willing to love
Give us your heart oh, God
A new song rising up

And I think that’s the best way I can explain it.  This summer I have been surrounded by music.  It has been my gift to these children and their gift to me.  I can see how the songs I have taught them have brought them such joy, helped them to open up, and given me an opportunity to show them that they are loved and that someone (and Someone) cares for them deeply.  I have always known and believed in the power of music.  I have always known that I love music, but this summer I have seen it in a different light.  Music is my life.  There is no doubt about that, and I have often made these words the cry of my heart in the times when life has grown chaotic and busy, unfulfilling and stressful, the times I have wondered what it is I’m doing and why.  This summer has shown me that God heard those cries.  He has turned down the music and the noise and taken me straight to the heart of it all.  He has given me a little bit more of His heart.  He has made me more and more willing to love truly and deeply, even though that love so often brings me to tears.  I’ve sung a lot of songs to those in need this summer, and by God’s grace, it was not an empty hallelujah.  A new song is rising up in me.  I am going home broken as a jar of clay, and yet God has filled my words and my songs.  The things that seemed so important to me are suddenly not.  The reason I sing is now so different.  Everything that I do is an opportunity for God to move.  Everything in my life is about God equipping me to better serve Him.  Every moment prepares me so that God can use me to give gifts to others.  Everything is deeper than it appears, and I am making a choice to see that.  At least, I am right now.

I pray that I will remember that throughout the next school year and for the rest of my life.  I pray that I will remember the faces of these kids.  I pray I’ll remember Qing Lian and Le Dong and Pan Pan and Vincent and Ming Ming and Michael and Fukai and Li Long and Miao Miao and Rongyuan and Rhi Zhiu and Lily and Tracy.   When I have to deal with busy work and write reflections on teacher observations and practice my music and deal with rough voice lessons and face my imperfections, I pray I’ll remember that God uses it all for something more.  I’m a mess.  I’m not perfect, but He works through me in ways I can’t even fully grasp.  God has taught me that this summer.  He orchestrates everything for His glory.  He is forever faithful, forever true, forever good, and forever gracious.

God has broken me and softened my heart this summer.  He has taught me on a deeper level how to love.  He has given everything in my life new meaning, all because of these kids and all those who serve them.  I know what I want my life to be about.  It’s funny because I thought this summer would solidify my calling.  I thought I would go home knowing exactly what God wanted me to do, but in reality, I have no idea.  I know He’s called me to Love and to serve.  I know He’s called me to music and to share that gift with others so that He can work through it. But I don’t know exactly what He’s calling me to do.  I’m okay with that though.  Because it’s not about what I do or what my actual job is; it’s about my heart and Who I’m following and opening myself before Him to be poured out as a drink offering.  It’s about living given over.  It’s about being broken and willing to love, really love, no matter the cost.  It’s about giving the orphan a home and feeding the hungry and being faithful in the mundane tasks and loving little kids and loving adults who are a total mess.  It’s about singing songs to those in need and letting God fill them up with His Spirit of Love and Caring.  And we are all in need.  We all need to see God, every child and every grown man and woman.  We all need to feel God’s love.  We all need to sense and learn His joy.  We all need an embrace and an outlet.  We all need songs to sing.  And as I enjoy my final days with these kids and try and process all that God has done these last two months, before I get on a plane and go back to my “real” life, these words ring in my heart and bring me comfort.  And I hear the voices of the Bethel children singing them, and I know that they are true, and though my eyes are full of tears, my heart is peaceful and full of joy, for God is faithful, and His grace is sufficient for me.  These kids will be okay.  Even as I face the struggles of trying to leave these kids (like Michael who told me he wanted me to stay for a thousand million years and never go back to the States) and readjusting to life back home and trying to figure out what I’m going to do with my life, I know I’ll be okay.

Through many dangers toils and snares
I have already come
‘Twas grace which brought me safe thus far
And grace will lead me home.
   

 

Lima

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10 Commentsby   |  07.29.11  |  Uncategorized

I have really been enjoying my time here in Lima, and I have been slacking in the posting part of the summer. Well I have about 12 days left here and leaving will be sad and joyful at the same time. I have missed my friends in the states so much over the summer, and them asking me all the time when I was coming home did not make it any easier to be here. Having said that, I wouldn’t change this summer for the world. I have had a great time here and have learned a lot of things that I would never have learned in the U.S.
I think one of the biggest things I will take away from here is how to treat new people, or people new to the area. (Be that new to Abilene or Katy, or new to the United States.) I have been greeted with smiles by everyone here, and they have all been gracious to me, inviting me to go eat or see movies or to do a great number of different things.
There is though, one man who I have a tough time being around. I speak to him and he does not listen, I believe he thinks I cannot possibly know what he is trying to express because my Spanish is not as good as his. It is really frustrating when he tells me the same thing over and over after I tell him I understand. I explain it back to him and he says yes, then proceeds to tell me again, and usually it is over trivial stuff. (Something like that he has no spouse, or that he goes to a Pentecostal church.) I don’t say these things to rag on him, but to say that I know how it feels for people to assume you don’t know anything because you are new or foreign. I hope to never treat others poorly because they are not normally around me or don’t speak the same language as me.
I have been going to a Spanish school here for the past few weeks, 5 x’s a week, except this week was only for the first 3 days. The 28th of July is the Peruvian Independence Day, so there was no school Thursday, the 28th. I surely wasn’t complaining about that. It has been really interesting to live here, and observe/help the team that is here. There are Bible studies or times of Prayer just about every day here, and it’s been great to be involved in those, even with the language barrier.
Next week we will be traveling to Oxapampa to see a young man who I believe a year ago was baptized. His grandfather passed away a few months ago and he has not come back after the funeral, and has almost cut off all communication. The team is worried because he told them while in Lima that if he were to go back to Oxapampa that it would most likely lead to a poor life style, and him running with his old friends who didn’t appear to support the new life that he had chosen. I am excited to go and meet him, I’ve heard a lot about him, and I am also excited to see some other parts of Peru.
Sorry about the delay between posts, I’ll try and get another post or two in before I leave talking about some of the other stuff that we have done here.

We Teach English Many Time Last Weeks

9 Commentsby   |  07.27.11  |  Chiang Mai, Thailand

I would venture to say that everything is going infinitely better even than when we first arrived because we’ve really adjusted to life here and have been able to make it more like home—at least for a little while, of course. The language is still a daunting challenge for all of us, but then again English is quite the struggle for most Thais. So we’ve all figured out how to better communicate with people in a mix of broken English and the occasional Thai phrase, since we’ve picked up quite a few in our last eight weeks of semi-immersion. Also, as a warning to our friends and family back home: we’ve become more accustomed to speaking simplified English even among ourselves, so be prepared for a lack of conjugated verbs and strings of very simple sentences. Expect phrases like this: “Yesterday, I buy some pineapple from the store.” Since there are no conjugations in Thai, saying things like “I bought” or “We taught,” produces in people who are just beginning to learn English those same blank stares we give when people ask us anything in Thai.

Speaking of English, we’ve been teaching quite a bit more lately, and as an English major, I think it’s fascinating. I’ve gotten to work with a range of English levels and have probably learned as much about English as my students have. Two of the students, Shell and Nam Fon (“rain”), speak very, very basic English. Let me say that again: very basic English. Similar to my level of Thai. So we’ve conjugated the verb “to be” as a starting point, then gone through things like basic greetings and adjectives, which they can use with “to be” and actually say quite a few things. Feeling accomplished is always a good sense when learning a language. But without a Thai-English dictionary and with only my charade skills at my disposal, it’s actually quite a challenge explaining what words like “embarrassed” or “lonely” mean. Or when I said, “Fantastic job today,” they thought I said “Atlantic,” and an inside joke was born. We’ve all laughed a lot and been very patient, and become friends who communicate mostly by laughing and smiling.

Then there are those like the three Chinese students who come to study vocabulary for the TOEFL exam. Melody, Celina, and Lohm usually come twice a week, and we go through a workbook that I’ve copied for them (see the previous post about the copy shop for more information about that). Yesterday we studied idioms. Strangely, I found that in defining idioms you often use other idioms, which produces the same blank stares and smiles. For instance: explain “that’ll teach you” without using phrases like “serves you right,” or “what a drag” without defining it as “that sucks.” Other idioms elicited some good laughs; after all, imagine not speaking English and hearing that we say “a little birdy told me” when we know someone’s secret, and “gesundheit” when someone sneezes. And I never did figure out how to explain “knock on wood.”

As much as we’re teaching English, we’re also of course learning a lot more Thai and learning 1) how it feels to not be in the dominant language group, which is a good perspective; and 2) how to communicate without language. So we can go like we did last Saturday and just spend an afternoon with children at an orphanage, which was fun for everyone I think. A little girl named Nuna held my hand nearly the entire time and became my friend for the day. If I may digress on a tangent for a moment: at one point, she led me into their bedroom area and through where the children eat—the rooms were dark and stuffy, and the beds were so close together you could hardly move. Thankfully they’re currently building a new facility, but I can’t imagine even one kid getting sick without all the others being sick, and with one hundred little kids and only about 15 adults, it was no wonder all the kids were just wanting to hold our hands and be close to us.

Anyway, we taught them the hokie pokie, and they (mostly the little girls) showed us some Thai dances and what we’d call “playground rhymes.” Then I pulled out my camera and all they wanted to do was take pictures with us, which was fun. But then it was time to leave, so with all the kids following us we got in the car and left–just like that, probably to never go back again. And we’re not the first to have done that, and I doubt we’ll be the last. So if you’ll allow me on a soapbox for just a minute, I think we all should be careful about how we approach things like missions and volunteering and understand that we’re creating relationships wherever we go—and be very aware and very cautious about how those interactions affect the other person, not just the rich farongs who have gone to have a new experience or whatnot.

“You’re Not Tourists Here”

12 Commentsby   |  07.27.11  |  Chiang Mai, Thailand

We’ve known that this whole time—we’re not here to be tourists. That’s what we told all our sponsors while we were fundraising, that’s what we tell our students when they ask why we’ve come to Thailand, and I think that’s what we tell ourselves even as we’re climbing up a mountain to a famous temple, going to movies and eating out with our students, or spending a day riding elephants through the mountains outside of Chiang Rai. By the way, riding an elephant might be one of the most “suhtyaaht” (awesome) experiences in the world.

So we’re here to build relationships, work with the church, teach English, organize events to involve the university students, etc., etc. So we’re told. And for the most part, I think we’ve done that as best we can all summer, though we’re always learning more and finding ways to do things more effectively. Lately, especially, having seen most of the tourist attractions here and become accustomed to life in Chiang Mai and met more and more people, it’s been a lot easier to really focus on things like teaching and encouraging relationships.

But there’s a different point I’d like to make about this tourist vs. intern conundrum, and it’s one that a church member articulated over dinner one night during our weekend away in Chiang Rai. A few of our friends from the Pepperdine group were leaving the next day to spend time on the beach in Phuket before going back to the states, and one of them said that he was really going to miss Chiang Mai. To this our friend Oi, one of the church members, said, “That’s because in Phuket you’re just tourists; here, you’re family.”

That sounds cheesy—like a low-budget advertisement for a family-style restaurant or something. But at the moment, over a bowl of traditional Northeastern Thai soup that she’d bought specifically to share with us, it wasn’t.

And it still doesn’t feel trite or cliched or oversimplified or tag-lined. If anything, I think it’s been the most compelling—and surprising—aspect of our summer here. We were given the warmest welcome both by the Thais and the church when we arrived, and since then we’ve been more and more included, more and more a part of things. More loved, even.

What I find most remarkable is that they really have no reason to befriend us: we can’t order our own food except by pointing, we can’t drive anywhere, we can’t speak Thai even to the people who try their hardest to speak English to us, we’re completely oblivious to our swelling noise levels and the positioning of our feet (which should stay on the ground pointed away from people), and I’ve spit out an entire chicken foot while sitting next to a judge at a table with ten government workers.

Part of it, I know, is that many want to learn English and create connections that will get them to America one day. There’s also a fascination with “farong culture,” which we’ve tried to avoid encouraging and inadvertently promoting over Thai culture. And we’ve also experienced a willingness among Thais to bend over backwards for farongs, which I think goes beyond even the friendliest hospitality into a misguided glorification of the “farong visitor.” I don’t, however, want to discount the sincere friendliness and genuine hospitality among the Thais. It’s certainly not just because we’re Americans.

That spirit is even more evident within the church community. They invite us to their homes for dinner, or throw a birthday party for a young Thai man whose family never celebrated with him for the last twenty-four years (the picture above and at right). I could go on and on with examples.

The point: I’ve taught English classes, we’ve tried to include and invite as many people as we can, and we’ve tried to serve in many different ways. But we’ve been served much, much more than we’ve served. We’ve learned more than we’ve taught. We have ended up being neither tourists nor interns, but something else entirely that we never would have expected.