Friday, October 27, 2017

A glimpse of Vietnam: another young (yht & privileged) woman travel blogs

Many travel blogs focus on what the person did: Where they went, what they saw, and tips and tricks.  I have not been in Vietnam long enough to tell you what the country is like, or how the people are - and without speaking Vietnamese, I really have no way of knowing. My experiences have all been positive with the Vietnamese people I’ve met. The places I’ve seen so far have been beautiful, bustling, and confusing. Similar to Thailand, the locals who work in tourist zones speak some English and the Vietnamese people I’d really like to talk to, don’t speak much (or any) English. The cities are similar to cities back home, but with a more rustic feel and more pop-up shops. 

Some memorable experiences have been with Vietnamese university students who’ve stopped me on the street to ask me questions and practice their English (often recording it to show their teachers). Their most common questions are “Have you tried Vietnamese food?” and “How do you like Vietnam?”  They are a bit flustered when I ask them questions back in response. One evening I spent over an hour sitting on the pavement in a circle, with a group of 10 students who asked me to practice English. They took turns referring to their print out sheets of paper and asking me questions, sometimes answering mine. 

Getting lost, taking risks, frightening and/or frustrating experiences that turn into great stories later on - these are the things I think of when I am reflecting on these past few weeks in Vietnam. Many times when I’ve been lost, without data on my phone, I’ve pointed aimlessly at my phone maps in the hopes someone will point me in the right direction. It takes several people before someone even understands what I’m asking (and then I feel guilty for not speaking Vietnamese). Some days I set out purposely to get lost, believing I’ll find my way back. 

Pictures do no justice to the breathtakingly beautiful landscapes I’ve seen, (Sapa, Halong Bay, Cat Ba Island) nor do they capture the adrenaline rush  of crossing insanely busy streets with motorbikes and cars that don’t stop for you, but move around you in some sort of traffic dance.  


I have spent most of my time here in Vietnam walking the streets, from busy cities like Ho Chi Minh (Saigon) & Hanoi to the smaller (more scenic?) places like Cat Ba Island and Sapa. I have written every single day. I challenged myself to hikes I did not think I could do, only to succeed. I swam on monkey island and watched cautiously from the blue waters as the monkeys appeared to be planning an attack on our stuff ashore. Halong Bay, one of the natural wonders of the world, was simply inexplicable. My favorite experience there was kayaking in the bay with towering rock islands above me and blue green water below. There is something about realizing how small you are in comparison to great world wonders, that somehow makes me feel full. 

Mama Mao’s Homestay in the Hâu Tháo Village
By far my most memorable experience was a three day trek into a Hmong village in the mountains of Sapa in Northern Vietnam.

As I stumbled off the overnight bus at 6am, Mama Mao greeted me and asked if I had already booked a tour. Having done some research, I had discovered that booking through a hostel meant they paid the local people minimally. The best way to do a home stay was to meet someone like Mama Mao when you got off the bus. 

Mama Mao showed me the trail we would go on to her village, to waterfalls and rice paddies. We agreed to meet the next morning at 9am so that I could have a day to explore Sapa’s little town. 

Mama Mao picked me up the next day as agreed and with my small day pack, we headed out. The first day was mostly uphill, muddy and slippery. At one point the downhill parts were so steep and slippery that Mama Mao and Mama Mae were both holding my hands preventing what they told me was “death time” if I were to slip down the steep hills with drop offs on either side. They also requested we take a selfie together. (#globalization?)

                                          (Mama Mae on the left, Mama Mao on the right) 

Mama Mae appeared out of nowhere when I was about to fall, gripping my hand and guiding me through rocky, muddy downhill paths. Though I later found out that really she just wanted me to buy something from her, (and after saving my life on the nearly vertical hills I obliged). She followed us for a few hours of the trek back to Mama Mao’s home. Though foggy and the rice had been recently cut, the views were still beautiful and I know it is a place I will to come back to. 

Mama Mao is 30 years old. She has 4 children and married her husband when she was 15 years old, having her first child at 17. Her husband doesn’t work, and their families income is dependent on her doing these tours.  She was kind and patient as I stopped to take pictures or catch my breath. We hiked many miles that first day and then arrived back at her home. I could only see two or three other houses nearby. 

Her home was two large adjoining rooms with cement floors and walls. There were several beds with mosquito nets, a room with a plastic table and then the kitchen - which had a small cement cut out in the ground where a fireplace was that cooked the rice, spring rolls and tea. There was a small hot plate in the corner where the rest of the cooking was done. 

With the trekking over, as the only person joining her that night, I read and wrote. I played tag with her four year old son and helped shuck corn to feed the pigs. The next day we trekked again from 11am to 5pm. The day after that, from noon until 4pm. My legs ached but I valued the solo meditative walking time to be in my own head. 

In the evenings we would sit around the fireplace and her family would all speak Hmong while pausing to tell me to eat more, eat more - in between lively conversations. 

I loved seeing the way Mama Mao and her family lived, and I was welcomed into her home as she does to everyone she brings there. New foods, such as fried maggots, also added to my interesting experience. A homestay is a must do!  


When I’ve tried to start this blog entry several times, this is the sentiment I keep coming back to.

Grateful for the privilege to be able to travel to Vietnam. The United States passport privilege, English speaking privilege, can quit my job and spend my savings privilege, sublet my room privilege — Privilege coats my experience in daily life back in the states too, but here it’s a different awareness.  As I navigate a relatively homogenous country with rich history and a new culture, I am aware of my otherness and the privilege I have to be here - when many of the Vietnamese people I meet have never left their cities, towns or villages. 

I am grateful for my two feet and able-bodied self.
These feet have traversed the globe. Walking up mountains I didn’t think I could summit, but listening to me when I say “I am going to try this.” These feet of mine help me see new sights. They help me take in breathtaking beauty in nature and bustling cities. From the rolling hills and rice paddies of Sapa to Halong Bay, one of the natural wonders of the world.

I am grateful for the kind, warm hearted Vietnamese people I have met who have brightened my days.  Grateful for the delicious Vietnamese street food that fills my belly after easy days and tough ones alike. Grateful for the few fellow travellers who’ve made lonely evenings more fun. 

I am grateful for this experience. Though I want to say it is “once in a lifetime” - the more I travel, the more I know this is going to be something I do for my entire life. As long as I can, I never want to stop exploring. 

Solo Travel: Lonely & Empowering 
Most of the experiences I’ve had thus far, from trekking for many miles in the mountains of Sapa, to walking around West Lake, to swimming on Monkey Island, to just daily adventures around the cities, museum trips — etc - I have been solo. Solo travel to this extent is new to me. 

Though I spent a year alone in Thailand, and many evenings in solitude, I had my Fulbright and Sansai community and a home to come back to - and I could speak a bit of the language - and I had purpose and a job to do. 

Now, each day is up to me. It is a daunting task sometimes to figure out what it is I want to do, how I want to do it, for how long. Free of responsibilities and lost in my overactive mind, I find myself thinking constantly about the world, politics, travel...I write stories in my head, analyze my life, make plans for the future, recall memories — all while taking in the vastness of the new place I’ve put myself in. 

Some days are lonelier than others. There are other travelers I’ve spent evenings and days with, no one consistently but someone here and there. While it fills the void for a day or several evenings, it lacks the depth and vulnerability of a friendship in which you know someone deeply. This I miss. 

However, I have enjoyed these lonely days in a new way. Pushing through them is a triumph. I am learning to enjoy those times when pleasant aloneness transcends into loneliness and back into pleasant. 

I am the only person I have to spend the rest of my life with, so I must learn to love my own company and depend completely and solely on myself. This is my ultimate goal - to be able to battle everything on my own, hold my hand, be my own best friend. 

Of course, FaceTime and some texting here and there keeps me afloat sometimes, but it’s briefly in the morning or at night - the days are just me - while my friends and parents sleep. 

So each day, I adventure, learn, grow, write, read, drink coffee, eat, walk, bike, jog, swim, kayak, hike and more. I do it by myself 90% of the time. It’s invigorating. 

This weekend my friends Anna and Alicia will join me as we head to a beach in Southern Vietnam, followed by Thailand next. Stay tuned! 

Monday, September 18, 2017

Quit job, will travel: my next liminal phase

Pain has a way of causing us to re-evaluate what we want from life - and where we are headed. The recent ending of a long-term relationship and the realization that I was also unhappy at work, led me to feel I needed to get away for a little while, to reclaim myself as Jessye, just Jessye.

Against social norms, or rather against the so-called "responsible" route, I decided to take a leap of faith, quit my job and travel around the world. It is something I have been wanting to do for a long time - and finally have the means, the freedom and the privilege to do so. Emphasis on privilege, I am very lucky.

Since January of 2015, I was dating someone I loved deeply. When our relationship came to a close, my patience was waning at work and my boredom level was growing. Eager for a new challenge and adventure, I realized the time was now. I have been working for this agency for 2 years, 9 months - in two different positions, with a supervisory role as my most recent. Ever the wanderluster, NEW felt important and so...

With those realizations, I gave notice to my job. Put my own mental health first. My last day is September 29th.

I bought a one-way ticket to Vietnam, leaving October 10th.
Two friends join me at the end of October then we go to: Thailand, India, and Sri Lanka. 
Dec 13th I fly to my first alternative home, Ghana, for my dearest friend's wedding.

 I don't have a return ticket yet. I'm not sure of my plan.

So, here I go. Enjoy the updates.

Picture from my last adventure - Colombia - July 2017

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

From Teaching in Thailand to Case Management in Cambridge

*Was Thailand a dream?*  My mind seems to revert to this question often. Despite abundant memories, photographs and lasting friendships, it feels as though Thailand did not happen. As though it just a dream or a very distant memory. It was a shock to the system when I returned home, where I was once again in a liminal, unstable phase. My heart felt divided between Thailand, Ghana, Kenya and the USA, between the dozens of friendships I've made that have manifested in a variety of flavors, abilities and intensities all over the world.

After Thailand and saying goodbye to my Fulbright gang, I backpacked through Thai beaches, ancient kingdoms and genocide memorials in Cambodia, flew to my friends Peace Corps village in Indonesia, and gallivanted around Zhubei, Taiwan with another friend. It was another time of exciting travel and backpacker privilege. Then Boston welcomed me home with the frigid hug of a very snowy winter, complete with one too many snow days and public transportation crises.

It has been nearly 5 months since I left Sansai and almost 4 months that I've been back in America.  My new and current adventure does not have the same exotic appeal as motorbiking through the mountains of Thailand, but it is its own kind of adventure.

After the holidays, in early January, I moved into an apartment in Davis Square with a childhood friend, her college friend and a British guy (we found him on Craigslist). The day after I moved in, I got a job offer. 
Everything was falling into place. After turning down several job offers for teaching in November and December, I was determined to have a job by February. Mid-January, I was offered a job as a Client Advocate / Case Manager with AIDS Action Committee (AAC) at their Central Square office. (Essentially a coach/advocate/social worker for HIV+ clients in the Greater Boston area)

The job:
The past month has been the intense learning curve I was craving. Thrown directly into the chaos of human services, my caseload grew quickly and I began to find my groove as a case manager. Serving as a case manager (client advocate) for AAC means coordinating care for HIV+ clients, everything from referrals for different programs, to housing, to insurance, to food, clothing, jobs, education and everything in between (plus emotional support). The work is fast-paced, engaging (and sometimes enRaging), and interesting. Though sometimes the intensity of the stories/pain are heartbreaking and stay with you past the 9-5 office hours, I feel fulfilled at work. It's a perfect fit for me for now. It is an action-based work environment, while it simultaneously utilizes my inherent counseling skills gleaned from years of spending time with my family as well. Self-care is my biggest obstacle right now, in separating myself from the difficulties of working in direct service positions and all the challenges it brings.

My co-workers (and clients) make me excited to come to work every day. I look forward to work and feel motivated by their wonderfulness. They are exactly the type of energetic, sarcastic, humorous co-workers I was looking for. There is a liveliness to the office that is unparalleled in other communities I've been a part of and I feel incredibly lucky to be a part of this community. My sassy nature easily slipped into their already goofy, teasing vibe. I look forward to getting to more adjusted to my work life here and building up my case load even more.

Last week I turned 24 and celebrated with my family and the most amazing of friends. I cannot express how much gratitude and love I felt. I feel incredibly lucky to have so many connections around the world and to be so loved. I miss traveling often, but am very happy with my new job. It was about time the US got some of my humanitarian energies. :-)  I am enjoying this new adventure, but I'm sure the cabin fever will kick in soon and I'll need to have an international endeavor...or go into a Phd program...

Until that next trip,
Thanks for reading.

Angkor Wat in Cambodia

Tomb raider temple!

Hanging out in Indonesia!


Seattle Glass Garden

Sam, Charlie, Ruthie, Anja, Jessye and Anna - Friendly Toast brunch

Anja, Molly & Jessye in Seattle

My bestest roommate Anna and friend since 2000

Friday, September 26, 2014

It's a lizard, not a gecko: 9 appreciations of Thailand

As I express my emotions best through the catharsis of writing, I decided to post this collection of reflections on what is special about Thailand. Thank you for following my blog over the past year plus. Thailand has been quite the adventure, now it’s time to travel and then return to the US. I have two days left in Chiang Mai, then Bangkok for a week (Fulbright disorientation) and then some country-hopping in Asia with friends - November 6th I fly to Amurika. 

In honor of my departure from Sansai, and completing this Fulbright grant, here is a collection of the unique aspects of Thai culture that I will miss and have appreciated. If you don’t have time to read them all, read the last one :) 

1. Thanksgiving for all meals: Communal eating brings a community together. My often experiences with it in Thailand will be greatly missed as it is very common in Thailand.
Imagine about 7 different dishes or assortments on a table. Instead of filling your plate to the brink, you take a few bites at a time, mixing with rice or sauce or curry. Eating is a slow, social activity. Many times I enjoyed these communal meals over an evening of karaoke in Thai and English or with high-spirited conversation in the English office. Along the lines of families who eat together, stay together – eating together not just in the same room, but eating the same food in a shared style allowing us to try many dishes and flavors, brought me closer to my Thai community.

2. Social Experiments through Nationalism: Imagine thousands of people walking up and down a few streets (that are usually busy with cars but shut down every Sunday night) with vendors selling everything from pad thai to wooden elephants to clothing to lanterns and every other kind of food and souvenir possible. Imagine most of these people are tourists with (often) little to no knowledge of Thai culture. Now, picture the loud speaker beginning to play the National Anthem. Suddenly 50% of the people stop dead in their tracks and stand still. The other 50% keep walking for a moment until they whisper to each other noticing people freezing and then they also stop.  Slowly only 5% is still moving and they eventually stop too. Everyone is silent and frozen for a moment as they respect Thailand, the King and the National Anthem. The music stops and everyone continues walking as normal. It is one of my favorite parts of the famous Sunday Walking Street in Thailand. Every day at 6pm the anthem is played, but here on walking street it is the most dramatic to observe how people react to something new and foreign.

3. You mustn’t watch a movie without respecting the King: Similar to observing walking street, directly prior to a movie beginning in a movie theatre, everyone must stand up for the King’s ceremonial song. To be played before every movie in every movie theatre in Thailand and when the King is around/entering somewhere. Watching people new to Thailand observe this and eventually stand up is always amusing. J It’s these little things about Thailand that I’ll miss most. These type of unexplainable ‘quirks’ that have become so familiar.

4. Unpacking the Foreigner-Abroad Privilege Backpack: There are many complicated aspects to being a foreigner abroad, and imposing the hegemony of the English language on a school, or just my general status as a foreigner in general. However, through this, I have found ways to make it count through mutual understanding, reciprocal learning and kindness. I will miss being a ‘regular’ at certain places. Sitting down at a tiny shop in my town where I don’t even have to order because as soon as they see me, my same-as-always order is being prepared. I will miss being able to wave and smile to anyone wherever I go, something that if I did in America would be seen as strange.  These are privileges that are complicated but that I’ve come to cherish in their sweetness.

5. Be outside: Life in Thailand is outside or with open windows and doors. Yes, there are many times where I wanted to retreat behind closed air-conditioned walls when I had the ability too (which wasn’t often), but more often than not the rain and sunshine were just steps away from me. The air circulating in the room came from the windows and I could see mountains from my classroom window.  I walked everywhere. I walked into town. I walked to the 7-Eleven to get phone credit or snacks. I walked to get food or go to the market or go to school. And everyone was outside. I was able to meet people in my community in Thailand because people weren’t inside their stores or restaurants, the restaurants were tables outside and the shop fronts were huge open walls where store owners hung out on the front steps enjoying the fresh air. There was a beauty in this I will miss living in the Northeast of the US – a friendliness and openness to living.

6. Convenience: 24-hour 7-Eleven shops with snacks, phone credit, ice cream, frozen meals, beer and strong air conditioning. Concord certainly doesn’t have a 7-Eleven within walking distance, and in Thailand there is a 7-Eleven almost every kilometer in my town and in the cities. Also, the affordability of eating deliciously and freshly prepared Thai food will never be readily available. I will miss $1.00 USD plates of piping hot pad thai, stir-fries, fried rices and a million other dishes I’ve tried and loved. As well as the 15 cent bags of sticky rice, a delicious addition to any meal that is time-consuming to make and will be greatly missed by my stomach.

7. Disconnect to Reconnect:  Though Thailand has been introduced to Facebook and Instagram and I’ve never taken so many selfies in my life, there is also an aspect of presence I was forced to have here. I did not have a smart phone with 3G here and there were many times the wifi was out and I had no credit on my little Nokia phone. There were nights when I would sit in my room and be reading or writing and thinking about nice it felt to sometimes be completely disconnected from the world, from other people, and be only focused on being alone and by myself. It was a unique aspect to this year in Thailand, my excess of alone time and time without connecting to people – but it was oh so wonderful. It’s indescribable the amount of self-growth I had to go through during the long alone nights or times where I didn’t speak Thai, but was with Thai people and didn’t have my phone as a distraction. I just had to sit and be present. Observe. Engage when I could. Mindfulness was certainly practiced to it’s fullest extent here.

8. Prickly Heat Powder: Take tiger balm and baby powder, then mix it together (mentally) – this is the effect of ‘prickly heat powder’ one of my new favorite aspects of Thailand. Covering my body in this baby powder substance, but feeling the cooling burn similar to tiger balm kept me cool (or at least distracted) on those 100+ degree days. Oh how I’ll miss this strange powder.

and last but certainly not least:

9. It’s a lizard, not a gecko.  Lizards in Thailand are small, harmless little creatures whom I shared my bedroom with. Geckos are over a foot big, are territorial, frightening and they bite. Luckily none lived in my house, though there was one who occasionally knocked it’s head against my window trying to get it. I used this phrase “It’s a lizard, not a gecko” to elucidate this connection to Thai culture. When I first arrived, Kru Dang said to me when I was freaked out by the lizards, “don’t worry, lizard, not gecko!”  This was the ultimate philosophy needed for this year. Along the lines of the American common phrases “it could be worse” and “it’s not so serious” – I used the mindset of ‘it’s a lizard, not a gecko’ to get me through failed lesson plans, broken printers, rainstorms that flooded my house, wifi out for days at a time, ant farms setting up base in my house, cockroaches invading my house by the dozens, disruptive classes, lonely nights, fears of my future, no food or water in the house and dozens of other relatively small inconveniences or concerns. I hope if nothing else from this year I can take the ‘sabai sabai” (laid back/ relax / it’s okay) attitude back to my hectic lifestyle in the United States. It isn’t to be used in an invalidating way, but a way to remind you that it’s okay – and it doesn’t matter as much as you think it does.

These beautiful unique aspects to Thailand are what I will cherish most in my departure, although obviously it is the relationships and little moments of love that are held high above everything else. I know I’ll be back to visit someday, for now I have five homes. Concord, Brandeis, Ghana, Kenya and now Thailand.

I love you Thailand. Thank you for everything. :) 
To my students, community, and dear friends: ja kitung tuk kon mak mak & ja mai luum khun tuk kon!! I will miss you and will never forget you.

PS See all you East Coasters in early November!


Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Remembering the little things: Why it wasn't about the teaching.

Wind blowing around me, whizzing down the road, re-writing the lyrics to songs and singing them to my friend and co-worker, Bouquet who was driving the motorbike we were whizzing by on - it was a moment. One of many. A fleeting, yet warm and fuzzy moment of pure happiness. No cares in the world and presence. I was there, present and connected in that moment. On the bike with Bouquet, singing, laughing and ignoring our hungry bellies as we soared down the road in search of a Monday market - I remembered why I was here.

I did not come to Thailand to change the educational systems and change English in Thailand. I did not come to Thailand to revitalize English in my school and impart English knowledge on my students (although I may have at first thought that was my goal). I did not come to Thailand to become fluent in Thai, to run away from something at home or to be a representation of Americans. 

I came to Thailand to experience and be involved in a new community. To invest myself in a new culture by making new friends and participating in reciprocal learning. To observe a new culture. I came to Thailand to engage in cross-cultural exchanges and enhance mutual understanding. To use teaching English as a way to connect to students and learn myself. As always, I have learned and gained more than I could ever hope to serve my host community and I am forever grateful for being hosted here.  

I realized riding the motorbike with Bouquet that I have accomplished these goals. Fulbright goals and personal goals. In teaching English it became quickly apparent I would not be able to in the same way I hoped. I adapted and realized my goals had to be different. Accepting differences did not mean defeat, but it did mean changing my outlook. For every moment of frustration or loneliness or fear (of which there were many) there have been equally amazing moments of inspiration, beauty and simplicity. 

There have been a thousand moments like this one. Sitting on the pavement playing duck, duck, goose with students, cooking an elaborate Annie's Mac n Cheese meal with my Thai friends and watching a movie together, playing ping pong with my host teacher, eating lunch with my students, laughing hysterically, blasting music in my home and dancing around my empty house, visiting beautiful temples and candle sculptures, riding my own motorbike along windy roads, learning Thai with friends, exploring new areas and growing - always growing.

It is easy to forget in the times of Syria, Israel & Palestine, Ferguson & systematic racism, (and the multitude of other issues not cluttering our social media today but just as critical) that these little moments exist - that people are doing beautiful things and that little moments of happiness are okay to accept and appreciate. With my Facebook newsfeed being overrun with the drama that is our chaotic, broken world today, I remind myself of these small things that make my life, my time in Thailand, so incredibly special and one of a kind. I am lucky to have such privilege that allows me to be here and I can not take it for granted.

Today marks day 326. I've now lived in Thailand for nearly a year. Nearly a year of memories. Though for some fleeting moments I wish I had taken more pictures, learned more Thai, spent more time with xyz or done xyz - I have no regrets. I lived fully, I grew, I learned, I laughed and I was here. 

Though I am eager to return home to the US and begin my next adventure, here are some of experiences I've had that I will miss. 

I will miss:
  • my incredible student teachers/co-workers, Bouquet and Paranee who have given me friendship, love, knowledge and so much laughter  - these moments I can not begin to explain, but will stay with me always. From cooking together, to riding bikes, to movie nights, to endless meals together, to deep conversations and beyond, they have undoubtedly been my rock this semester and have made my experience so wonderful
  • delicious $1 plates of Pad Thai and $7 massages 
  • a variety of flavorful foods easily and affordably accessible 
  • duck, duck goose and indian chief with groups of students
  • Pa'Tong, a woman of incredible strength who works as a janitor at our school, who speaks no English - our communication is limited to Thai and body language
  • copious amounts of alone time to reflect, read, write and relax
  • hearing another language / learning & speaking another language 
  • riding a motorbike along windy, mountainous roads in Pai  - free of traffic 
  • having an office with open doors and fresh air
  • being a 'regular' and being served before I order because they know what I want
  • connections made with students and teachers 
  • an excessive amount weekend trips with Fulbright friends in which we could debrief about our placements and grow closer as friends
  • Thailand. 

This semester, though still teaching, my main job was learning and laughing. My students are wonderful and teaching is challenging and exhausting. Some days were harder than others. Currently, my students are creating their own countries and will present them at the end of the semester. What a whirlwind of a year it has been. 

Time is going by quickly but I still have 5 weeks left of teaching and 1 week of saying goodbye. 

On September 26th 2013, I left the USA and I will return in early November. Sep 29th 2014 I will depart Sansai for Bangkok, say goodbye to my Fulbright family and meet the incoming Fulbrighters, travel with friends in Thailand and Cambodia, visit a Brandeis friend in Indonesia and return home. Only to be greeted with yet a new challenge and exciting adventure: getting a job.

Thank you to everyone for your never-ending support and love. 

With love and hugs,

For the visually inclined * None of these pictures are my own  & all are from Facebook * 

Fulbright Love with Anja Leene, my neighbor and friend!

Riding that motorbike!

Visiting Bouquet's Grandmother and Cousin

Visiting another school! :) 

Anja and her neighbor, Kru Patchy! 

Before a fun night of dinner and shopping

Part of our Fulbright group in our classic awkward ways

Sunday, June 1, 2014

White Tourist Privilege and Other Thoughts on my Vacation to India & Bali

Here are some thoughts on backpacking! I am back teaching in Sansai and will write more on that later! Much love and apologies for the long hiatus in blog writing!

Privilege and Reciprocity:
It seemed ideal: travel through India for 2.3 weeks and Bali for 1 week - it was a dream life. Yet, I found myself thinking "do I even enjoy traveling?" more than once during my trip. Now, I do not mean to discredit the privilege of being able to travel for an extended period of time, as I know that puts me in an extremely privileged category - nor will I discount the amazing experiences. However, I found that I much prefer living abroad than just passing through. For me, connections made and relationships built make traveling (or living) abroad meaningful, exciting and interesting. As a backpacker, those interactions are limited and instead I am just the tourist, seen for what I am: a white privileged female who can afford to traverse around a foreign country on a vacation. 

Although aware of my privilege back in the states as well, it does not hold as stark a role as my skin color, citizenship and privilege do in my experiences abroad. No matter how 'ethical' or conscientious I attempt to be, these aspects will always play a significant role while I'm abroad (as they should). 
Wherever I was in India or Bali (just as I am in Thailand), I stuck out like a sore thumb, radiating privilege. With fleeting time in each place, connections made were minimal and my abroad skills of building relationships were nearly useless. Keenly aware at every corner of all the other tourists and how we (and I) were being perceived and observed, I wondered what it meant to be a sustainable tourist. Seeing another culture and world was thrilling and wonderful, but comes with a great deal of baggage - all too often ignored I think. What is the value in a few weeks in India or Bali? How could I be an ethical consumer while in these tourist locations? Is the only value in tourism an economic gain for the host country? Is there any way for reciprocal tourism?  What is the value of travel? Questions I do not have full answers for, but am certainly wondering about - among others. Any thoughts appreciated. 

And I did, of course, have a wonderful time and am truly blessed to have been able to see both Southern India and Bali! 

Upon first arrival, into the small south eastern city of Chennai, I was a bit overwhelmed. Though the city reminded me of Accra, Ghana - the attitude of hospitality, speed, smells, and exhaustion caused me to be tense and nervous, as they were unfamiliar. After a nights sleep we were on our way to the next city, with not much to do in Chennai. Unsure where we were staying night to night or what our exact itinerary was, my friend and I were able to change original outlines of plans and do what we wanted to. 

We were in Southern India - Kerala (Munnar, Kollam, Kochin) and Goa (Anjuna, Baga). The south is much slower than the north, which was a good introduction as it was not quite as overwhelming to the senses (I believe, based on hearsay). Honestly most of my thoughts on India, the things that stuck in my mind, are the people I met. That is what matters to me. Food was tasty, places visited were beautiful, site seeing was site seeing...and then there were the brief encounters in which I shared moments with people and stories and that is what made these trips more powerful.

Highlights from the trip (pictures at the bottom for the lazy or time-crunch readers)
  • Kollam: Riding in a houseboat in Kollam for 24 hours, with a 2 hour canoe ride in a river village. This came with a delicious meal and a hilarious cultural encounters.
  • Trying out all kinds of transportations was a fun, exhausting aspect - we saw much of the countryside this way. From taxi rides, to trains, to buses and planes - we covered a lot of miles across southern India. Though buses with open windows up windy roads were not my preferred choice of transport. 
  • Munnar: Probably the most beautiful place I've ever been in my life. Munnar was rolling hills of incredible mountains and tea plantations. Pictures do not even do it close to justice. We happened to be stuck in Munnar an extra day because there was a strike and no buses were running back to the city that night. 
  • Kochin: My favorite part of Kochin was Tia! Tia was the 9 year old girl who lived in the house we stayed in. When we booked our sleeping place, we didn't realize it was a homestay, but I was so glad for that experience. Immanuel's Homestay, was Immanuel's house, and downstairs lived him, his wife, his mother and father, three children and an aunt. Tia, the middle child, was bright and full of energy. Her English was fantastic and she would always follow me and my friend after we left calling out to us "Goodbye!" or "Ohh have a good day!". One morning we had breakfast with her and she told us her favorite subject was "English, of course!" Her energy was infectious and getting to know someone was great.
  • Goa: Twice in Goa in found myself paying for a service (nails and henna) that ultimately was not great quality - yet, each was performed by a young woman who shared her story with me and that made it much more worth the cost. These are two of my favorite experiences from Goa because they allowed me to understand more about the culture and connect with someone.
    • Lolita, a 19 year old young woman on the beach, approached me and asked if she could paint my nails. After deciding to go ahead and do it, she sauntered off to get her 'supplies'. A plastic shopping bag with a few nail polish shades. Filling my water bottle with ocean water, she washed sand off my feet and painted some haphazard polish on my toes and then convinced me to do my fingernails as well. During this encounter, I asked Lolita about her life. She revealed to me that she was married and six months pregnant. We spoke about what her husband did for work, if she was happy and if she was excited to have a baby. It was minimal, but made me so grateful for sharing stories, giving voice and connecting to people. I wished her luck when she left and enjoyed a great red colored manicure and pedicure for a day or so.
    • Sar, a 24 year old young woman who worked at the market, was trying to get me to look at her clothes. Most market hagglers were pushing me to look and she was no different. I said, "I'm just looking for henna". "I do henna!" she exclaimed excitedly. After agreeing on a price, she did a beautiful henna job on my hand and foot. Her younger sister threaded my eyebrows after they convinced me it absolutely had to be done. As I sat with Sar and her sister for over an hour during the henna and threading process I came to know more about her life. She shared with me that she married at 14 years old, had 3 kids, a 10 year old, 7 year old and 4 year old back, with a husband whom she was ambivalent about. "He drinks too much and then is not nice," she told me and then asked about my husband. I told her I didn't have one and she said I better get on it because I was getting old. These are the experiences that make me desire to travel and connect to people. Sar explained to me that she lived 26 hours north of Goa but traveled for market season and stayed 45 minutes away.  She and 7 others rent a small cement room in a large compound of many market sellers. Her smile was warm and the henna art was absolutely beautiful. I felt blessed to meet her, if only for an hour. 
Both Sar and Lolita re-affirmed my desires to helping give voice to those not often heard. Where ultimately I wanted to instill a love of learning in as many people as possible, giving voice is part of that process. The reciprocity in telling each others stories back and forth was so important to me. 
    When I am back in Sansai, Thailand and enjoy a meal with P'Oh, the woman at the ice cream store, even though her English and my Thai are very limited, we find common ground in discussing heartbreak, love, relationships, body stigma - a lot of times its through a few words in each language and the rest is done by body language and gestures. All of these make me so glad for connections and so passionate about continuing to connect to so many different people around the world. 

Bali was a bit too touristy for me, but I filled my belly with delicious food and my time with dear friends, laughter and conversation. My favorite day was a trip we took to a beautiful rock temple and coffee plantation. The coffee place has civic cats that eat the coffee beans and poops them out - that coffee is some of the most expensive in the world! 

And now for some pictures!

Oh ya, and my parents visited and that was AWESOME! :) Matching shirts

A Southern Indian Meal! :) Much different than Butter chicken!

Munnar, India 

Munnar - with friend, Cody Gohl

Still Munnar, India

Tea Plantations are what make these bushes so cool!

more tea plantations!

Rock Temple in Bali!

Viewpoint in Bali

beautiful day in bali!

Bali with Molly!

Seeing my parents was absolutely amazing. As you can see these places were absolutely stunningly gorgeous. My happiness is very clear in all the photos!

Much love to everyone. Will write more on getting back into teaching and last semester goals. Started back at work two weeks ago. 

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

The 6-month mark: a reflection of 1st semester teaching & my internship

Today, Thursday the 27th, marks the 6-month halfway mark through the 12-month Fulbright program. I write to you from a coffee shop in Chiang Mai city, the smog from burning ash hangs low in the sky and the traffic is heavy; I am enjoying a fruit smoothie in all its ‘Western’ food glory. In these past 6 months, I have finished orientation in Bangkok, successfully completed my first semester of teaching, and lived and worked for a month inside Chiang Mai city with a plethora of Fulbright friends, while interning for Urban Light. Wow. What a whirlwind of adventures. Throughout incredible moments of immersing myself in Thailand, there have been equally wonderful moments with my fellow Fulbrighters as I have deepened relationships with them and opened myself to new experiences. As always, thinking (okay, worrying) about the future is a constant for me; but I am eager and excited to be living this year in Thailand with less responsibilities and more free time than I will ever be able to indulge in again. Self-growth and learning about myself has been a daily aspect of my time in Thailand, as for once I am not the busy-bee I was in high school and college. I have given myself time to breathe (or at least I try to).

(I did get bitten by a dog and had to get a lot of rabies shots, but that holds little importance to my experience here J )

Now for some thoughts on my semester of teaching and my internship with Urban Light:

Reflections on a semester of teaching at Sansai Wittayakom School

Teaching here has confirmed my desire to work in education, in many different facets (direct service, policy/politics, internationally, philosophically). My students are a source of joy, frustration and laughter. Though teaching ESL is not a discipline I see myself pursuing long-term, the relationships I was able to build with the students, the (albeit minimal) progress I saw, the shared laughter, and the lesson planning all provided me with insight into why I love teaching and education, and for what more I need to do next semester and in future teaching jobs.

In November and December, my teaching was still timid. Though enjoying it, I did not have a ton of faith in my ability to connect to the students. By January, I felt very differently. At least with the three classes of students that I saw twice a week (where as other classes were once every 3 weeks) I had established a rapport; enough that kept them quiet when I needed them quiet and had them participate in activities when the lesson called for it. Though the English level is low, I was able to cover a fair amount of topics, but most importantly there was laughter every class as I encouraged students to not worry too much about their ability and to just give it a try. Often just being able to convince my Thai students to attempt speaking English aloud is hard enough, let alone in full sentences or in response to a topic. January and February flew by, with teaching and weekend adventures combined.

Though some days were harder than others, and there were definitely days where I wished I could explain a game without flapping my arms around and translating into Thai or getting help from a teacher, my experience was overwhelming positive. The bad days gave me time to reflect on what could have gone better or in what was getting in the way of it being a good day.

Cheater, Cheater, Pumpkin Eater? Or Communal Learning?
Toward the end of February it was time to give exams. I decided upon giving oral exams, since my job description is technically listening and speaking, and because most of my teaching is auditory and spoken. To keep the students busy who were waiting for their orals, I provided them with a written final exam, that ultimately only counted as a worksheet. Though I had been warned about cheating, the written exam was the first piece of work I gave that there could have been any cheating on. Despite explanations of what I would do if I saw cheating, there was still, a great deal in all my classes. Balancing calling up students one by one to do the oral and supervising the exam at the same time was a challenge. I was frustrated and wished they were listening to my instructions (though there were many who did not cheat, and who did great on the exams).

I wondered if it was my US education perspective that was frustrating me in their cheating (or maybe the rise in temperatures and the heat settling in much heavier?). US students are (stereotypically) very individual and self-focused. You do your best, for you. Thai schools appear to have a different approach, one that revolves much more around helping one another. After the first exam my frustration turned more into a teaching moment. Perhaps students were not going to show me what they knew in the way I expected, but instead were going to share their knowledge. Students with much higher ability passed notes and whispered to their lesser ability friends nearby, or even several desks over. Not giving them full answers, but hints, or key verbs – or translating the questions. It was communal. They all wanted to do well and wanted their friends to do well too. Of course this was not universal, nor is it necessarily in every Thai classroom, but it opened my eyes to yet again more cultural relativism.

Though yes, important to assess a student’s ability, the communal ‘cheating’ culture in my classroom that I experienced may not be so bad after all. They still needed to do the oral exam, in which I assessed their individual ability in speaking. Though the written work was hard to grade – not knowing what was copied and what was remembered – in the end – of my 89 students that I see twice a week for their full elective class, only one student failed and he had come to only one class the whole semester. Cheating seems to be more of a US concept in these schools and in some ways it can be detrimental to a students learning, for sure – but I think the community ideology behind it is sort of beautiful.

Urban Light: Interning with Boys in Chiang Mai

I am unsure how to summarize, explain or explore my month long internship with Urban Light.  A reoccurring topic of conversation amongst my close friends here, this internship has been rewarding, troubling, frustrating and inspiring. As perhaps, maybe it should be. It begged me to ask ethical questions, reconsider the non-profit world as a career, redefine my own personal ideology and worldview, and allowed me some wonderful experiences as well. I have yet again (as I always should) struggled with my ‘role’ as a white woman not fluent in the local language, trying to ‘make a difference’ in the lives of marginalized people.  I suppose the problem is maybe in ‘wanting’ to ‘make a difference’ because at the end of the day what does that even mean? Additionally, as always with these short-term projects, consistency is an issue I worry about greatly. Though eager for the opportunity, one month making connections with these boys is simply not enough. More is needed, especially long-term volunteers.

Do not get me wrong, the work I have done has been heartwarming. The relationships I’ve built with the boys at the center, albeit short-lived, has been inspiring.  Some days are filled with interactions with the boys and other days revolve more around various tasks, attempting to push Urban Light forward toward their mission. Some days are filled with activities, like baking or museum trips or pool days; others are filled with laughter on the 2nd floor as we make up new rules to the classic UNO game. I have never played so much UNO in my life.  The boys, staff and volunteers come together for a hot meal at 1pm every day. Holding hands and giving thanks before every meal, I am always reminded that I am thankful to have this experience, despite the challenges. Hearing the boys laugh is my favorite part of the day. Whether it is from a slip up in an UNO game, or finding out a volunteer is ticklish, or just generally teasing each other, when the boys laugh – the frustration I feel of being useless and out of place falls away and I’m just purely happy to be connecting with these young boys.

Despite my own internal questioning, the work Urban Light is doing provides a safe space for boys who are being trafficked, subjected to exploitation, living on the streets, and others in need. Beyond a safe space, Urban Light aims to empower and rebuild the lives of these boys – and they take many steps toward these goals with education, health services, housing and beyond.

An additional, really wonderful part of my experience thus far has been sharing it with a group of students at Concord Carlisle High School. Through connecting with my long term mentor and high school teacher, Johanna Glazer, I have been assisting a group of CC junior and seniors in an ‘internship’ type experience labeled ‘Outreach to Thailand.’ On the ground at CCHS, the students have raised awareness about Urban Light through posters, and are working to create fundraisers and raise even more awareness. Interacting with them has again reminded me of my desire to raise global awareness amongst the youth of the USA through the education system. Their surprise, eagerness, passion and excitement about this project has been so rewarding – and reminds me how important it is for young minds to open themselves up to issues worldwide at a young age.

I am very thankful for the internship experience and as always opens my mind and heart to many more questions. As it well should.

This whole month has been a social overload as I’ve been living in close quarters with Fulbright friends, as well as sharing meals with friends almost every single night. Though enjoying the stock up on social time, it was a strange transition from so much alone time to massive amounts of social time.

In just one week from today my mother and father will be visiting. We will travel together for 8 days. Then, I will celebrate Songkran, the Thai new year with a massive 3-day water fight. I’m a little scared. On April 16th, my friend and I will depart for India. Backpacking for 2 weeks there, followed by a week in Bali – then Bangkok for 5 days. On May 19th I will return to Sansai Wittayakom to teach for my final semester.

Talk to you all in mid-May! J Sorry for no pictures...


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