Friday, July 24, 2009

The Heat was Sweltering, The Insects Were Huge, and I Loved Every Moment.

Upon arriving home I’ve encountered the numerous expected inquiries about my summer. “What was the best part of your trip?” “What did you learn the most about?” “What was it like?” etc. etc. How one begins to accurately and articulately describe the last eight weeks they’ve spent on the opposite side of the planet, is beyond me. When trying to respond, I remember the first day of our class on immigration migration. There were twenty-seven of us seated in a circle, including Dr. Steiner and graduate student, Reed Wood. Nothing for me had really changed since the orientation to this program. I was still fairly shy; still struggling to remember all of the names of my twenty-four peers; and still questioning why I was chosen along with these students to sit where I was sitting at that moment: in Singapore, that small island I knew so little about thousands of miles away from my home.
The one part of that day that sticks with me is our professor’s introductory speech to the course. Not really the entire speech itself, just a piece. “I am not here to be your chaperone. I am not here to babysit. I am here to help foster your intellectual development.” This is the response I’d like to give to anyone who has asked me how my summer has been; how exploring a fraction of the continent of Asia was. My mind has been expanded and my intellect is surely developing.
Honestly speaking, after this summer, I am a better thinker.
Most people think of the other side of the planet as such a strange and different place than we are used to. There is no doubt that Western media tends to exoticize the culture of the east; usually by portraying ourselves as progressive, and the east as “traditional.” During only the first few days of our stay in Southeast Asia it was clear that this representation was inaccurate. Throughout the summer it was emphasized just how much the mindsets of Singaporean and Thai citizens were shaped by the culture that surrounds them. However, in recognizing this, I’ve realized how the same goes for me and the American culture that surrounds my peers and me. This adventure has solidified how observing other cultures causes one to reflect and better understand their own; due to this summer my peers and I have become more culturally aware.
Talking with locals in Singapore and Thailand was the greatest teller of what made these cultures, and its people beautiful. From the chatter of Singlish to the detail of a smile across a Thai student’s face, there is no ignoring the uniqueness of these countries and their people. Amongst all of our cultural differences, the Singaporeans and Thai, and Francis too, have accepted us and our curiosity.Our great friend Yong during our Homestay.

On a lighter note, I also will not forget my SEAS family; MUIC and NUS students and faculty, Reed Wood, and the Steiner family included. It has been a pleasure to have lived and traveled with you for these past eight weeks. Not only has the region of Southeast Asia broadened my horizons, but this truly bright and kind-hearted group has greatly enhanced my experience here, which I didn’t think was possible.
Trip to AyutthayaBike trails in Malaysia!

All I can say is thank you to the region of Southeast Asia for allowing us young Americans a quick peek. Thank you for allowing us time with your most generous of members. Thank you for our long sweaty bicycle rides. Thank you for our new familiarity with squatters. Thank you for your flavorful meals. Thank you for your golden Buddhas that towered over us. Thank you for your children by the border. Thank you for your plentiful and vibrant gardens. Thank you for cooking classes. Thank you for your waterfalls. Thank you for your boats and skyscrapers. Thank you for letting us haggle in your markets, no matter how successful we were. Thank you for letting us touch your ruins. Thank you for your welcomes and farewells. Thank you for allowing us into your homes.Sweets in Little India.

Thank you SEAS ’09, for a beautiful and certainly unforgettable summer.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Home Away from Home

Home Away from Home

What an unforgettable summer! Eight weeks ago, I waved good-bye to my family, boarded on a plane, and flew half way around the world to finally see, with my own two eyes, places that I had only read about in books and had dreamed of going to, but much later down the road, perhaps after finishing up with school. The SEAS program convinced me to stop waiting until later, and helped me to realize one of many opportunities that are open for me now. As a result, I can’t say that I’m the same person from eight weeks ago. I have a greater curiosity and respect for other cultures, food, religion, people, and lifestyles. Not only has SEAS revealed a different outlook of the world and of life, but it has also opened up doors for me to interact with different people and experience a mixture of excitement, confusion, paranoia, and other feelings from being in a foreign country.

My time in Singapore and Thailand has been nothing shy of amazing, especially since I traveled with a diverse group of some of the most awesomely fun, bright, and energetic people I’ve ever met. I honestly think that I wouldn’t have gotten to know many of them, if it weren’t for this summer program. I am forever grateful for having had this amazing opportunity to see parts of the world that are, in some ways, different from mine, but in others, quite similar. Thailand is a much different place than the United States in that it is heavily influenced by Buddhism and built upon a constitutional monarchy. But I found, through my interaction with locals and MUIC students, that Thai people and Americans have quite a few similarities in values and interests. At our last farewell dinner, I saw how much we had grown together since day one of this trip. Everyone pitched in their efforts to make spring rolls, decorative fruits, green curry, Tom Yom soup, and Pad Thai, while sharing inside jokes and laughter. There was not only a close bond among the SEAS group, but also close ties between UNC students and MUIC students. The MUIC students had been so welcoming since the first day we had met them upon our arrival to Thailand. They had graciously guided us throughout our time in Thailand without holding our hands the whole time, but rather lending us a helping hand whenever we needed one. I will certainly miss all of them and hope that I might see them at UNC, as some of them expressed their interest in going to UNC.

Another thing I took away from this trip, aside from learning from and about my peers, instructors, and local people, was a greater understanding of this gray world that is far from perfect, which helped me gain a greater appreciation for the part of world in which I live and also think about how I, as a student and an individual of both the American and international community, can get involved in many of these difficult, complicated, and emotionally painful issues that we learned about in class. From Dr. Steiner’s class and outside-of-class activities, we learned a great deal about issues on refugees, legal and illegal migrant workers, and guest workers, especially in the context of Singapore and Thailand. These issues dealt with exploitation and abuse, separation of families, ineffective policies, and many more tough matters that didn’t have clear-cut solutions. Often times, I felt so confused that it was frustrating, but it made me think more deeply about problems in this world and also to discuss it with my peers not just in class, but also over lunch or when we get on an hour long bus ride. Visits to organizations such as the Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2), Thailand Burma Border Consortium (TBBC), UNHCR, and Tham Hin Police School, revealed the deep realities of these issues and gave me a chance to meet the people working for justice and human rights.

On Thursday, we visited the Tham Hin Police School near the Thai-Burmese border area. This police school enrolls Thai students as well as some refugee students generally from 1st through 6th grade. It’s not like a typical American school, because the classes are taught by qualified police officers and the students learn more about what they could do to survive and provide for their basic necessities. They learn more about growing agriculture and raising animals rather than how to do algebra or understand chemical reactions. The sweetest and most special moment of the day came when the kids stood in front of their school, smiling and waving at us until we were at a distance. On the same day, we had the pleasure of meeting Bola, a UNHCR field officer who gave us interesting insights in her field of study and how she was working on behalf of the refugees. Someone like Bola made me realize the potential that each of us can have in at least minimizing these problems and to really make this world a better place for all of us, using our positions and access to resources.

I’m writing this as I fly back home to the States. I’m so excited to see my family. I can’t wait to share with them every little detail about this trip from the places I visited to the people I’ve not only met, but got to know fairly well. Although I might have been away from my home for eight weeks, I pulled through at my temporary home in Singapore and Thailand with my one, big happy SEAS family. I think it is about time to go back home, but at the same, I can’t help but feel sad that all this is over, or perhaps this is just the beginning, as many of us want to visit Thailand again sometime in the future and also go beyond Thailand to other countries not just in Southeast Asia, but in Europe, Africa and other parts of the world. I’m quite pleased to have been the first experimental group to spend four weeks in Thailand. Every week in Thailand was a blast with trips to see the Grand Palace, temples, ancient ruins, museums, and all these places that taught us about Thai culture and history, and with non-stop shopping adventures that eventually turned most of us into shopping addicts or bargaining experts.

So, what’s next when I get back at home? I’ll definitely spend a lot of time with my family before I go back to school, and in my spare time, I’ll be thinking about this summer and everything that has happened so far. I’m still in amazement with what the SEAS program has provided for me. The study abroad program is one of those things that you have to do in order to truly understand its effects on the individual. Fortunately, I had gone on one of the best study abroad programs UNC could offer to a student. A great, big thank you to Alston and Barbara for funding this program and to all the people who have spent considerable time and thought into making this summer one of the best and memorable events in my life.

Because pictures are really worth more than a thousand words, I posted some of my favorite ones from our last week in Thailand below:

The SEAS Iron Chefs at work

This was taken at the Tham Hin Police School.

The SEAS and MUIC family

SEAS '09 rocks my socks!!!


Friday, July 17, 2009

Because I knew you, I have been changed for good...

Our last few days in Thailand were jam-packed with things to do, see, and experience! We had a free day on Wednesday, and many of us spent it in Bangkok, trying to see as many things as possible. Thursday, we had a Thai cuisine and dining class, outlining many of the techniques used to prepare a traditional Thai meal. This was followed by a trip to the market, where we purchased the items needed to cook our own farewell dinner! Going to Thai market is always an interesting excursion. This particular trip involved live fish jumping out of bins, the chefs purchasing random desserts for us to try, and the students trying to decipher what they were eating. After the market, we came back to MUIC, where we assisted the chefs in making an AMAZING farewell dinner. Some of us chopped vegetables, fried egg rolls, prepared mango sticky rice, and mashed garlic. Somehow, with way too many cooks in the kitchen, we ended up with a fabulous meal to close our time together. However, the food was quickly overshadowed by our various efforts to say goodbye, through the Paper Plate Awards, a wai beauty pageant, and group pictures. Watching View and Obb do a catwalk is definitely one of the highlights of the trip. We had an absolutely fabulous time, just sitting, laughing, and talking together.

Wow. Our epic journey through Southeast Asia has come to an end. It’s hard to believe that just two months ago, we were all meeting in Hong Kong for our first group adventure! We have all grown and learned so much, both academically and otherwise. I believe that each of us has discovered something about ourselves, and we have been heavily influenced by this amazing opportunity. And though the program is over, for some of us, our travels continue. I’m heading off to China for ten days, Peter is off to Cambodia and Laos, and several people are spending the weekend in Hong Kong. For the rest of us, home is just a plane ride away. Even though we all are somewhat homesick and ready to return home, the last two months has impacted our lives in so many ways, many of which we do not yet recognize the significance. This program is extraordinary, and we have been forever changed by it. Thank you to all who helped put this trip together, for we will never forget SEAS 2009!


Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Winding to a Close

Our trip to Kanachanaburi has come and gone but this entry is about the time at Mahidol the week before our excursion. Our time is coming to a close but we’re making the most of every moment we have left in this beautiful country. This past week we have had plenty of free time to explore the city. After class on Wednesday we headed for Suan Lum, a night market in the city of Bangkok. The cab ride into the city was characteristic of traffic in Bangkok. Drivers weave through traffic with motorcyclists zipping in between the cars. Stop lights can last up to six minutes halting the flow of traffic for extended periods of time. Needless to say gridlock is common! Cab rides into the city from Mahidol are easy to obtain and cheap especially when you share the cab with others. It is nothing like a taxi ride in the States but they will get you where you need to go! There are a countless number of vendors and fantastic food in Suan Lum that it is quite easy to get lost in the environment. Our goal for the day was to secure (among many last minute gifts) these spectacular Thai boxing shorts for loved ones back home. Bargaining is an art and one girl in the group was able to negotiate the best possible price for a large selection of shorts for everyone. If you ever have the chance to get out to Suan Lum definitely go for it. After shopping for souvenirs and gifts head for the outdoor canteen. The food options are endless and you can eat under the stars while watching superb performances and listening to soothing music.

Of course we had to try on the shorts to test out our purchases!

Thai dancing was the activity scheduled for Thursday after our class with Dr. Copeland on the History of Thailand and Kevin Hewison, our guest lecturer. In traditional Thai dance there is heavy emphasis on hand movements. The movements are representative of various facets of Thai culture. One dance originated from the image of planting flowers, another mimics the elegant action of a girl applying powder. It is a partner dance performed in a circle with other couples. Two teachers of traditional Thai dance showed us three of their native dances. We watched and attempted their graceful motions. Each action holds meaning which is why the hand movements are intricate and difficult to grasp at times. Nonetheless, the experience and chance to learn this aspect of Thai culture was irreplaceable and we all had fun trying our hand at the art of Thai dance.

I am incredibly appreciative of this opportunity to explore Southeast Asia, thank you!



(Photos courtesy of Peter)

The final section of our journey in Southeast Asia is quickly coming to an end, but instead of dwelling on all that we will miss, I know that our SEAS group will look towards the future with confidence about who we are and what we have learned. Last weekend’s excursions around Kanchanaburi and Ratchaburi were a contrast to the comfort we have become accustomed to at Mahidol. On Monday the 13th, we visited the floating market not far from Ratchaburi. Naturally, everyone was thrilled to put to use our developing bargaining and basic Thai language skills, so we spent time around the market talking to people and buying souvenirs for family and friends. Of course, it wouldn’t be a floating market without some boats involved, so some of us took a boat ride and marveled at all the fruits and goods that were sold on the canal. But what was most important about that visit was not what we saw there, but the difference we noticed in ourselves. Admittedly, the market was a tourist area, and it was clear that the people there expected little from us in terms of knowledge about Thai culture. However, our growth over this trip made us more than tourists and allowed us to experience more. For example, something as simple as saying “No Thank you” in Thai or properly doing a Wai elicited a smile and an acknowledgment that we were not your typical traveler.

Later that afternoon, the final group presentation summarized and elaborated on what they learned about refugees and asylum-seekers in Thailand. Our academic activity was complemented with a cultural one; we traveled to a museum and school to see a shadow puppet presentation. The amazing thing about the show was not the spectacle or the fact that it was students who were performing, but the narration. Even though it was completely in Thai, I felt I could understand the story because of the expression and raw emotion. Even though we have focused so much on the differences of being here in Thailand, I feel that, in the end, it is acknowledging our similarities that helps us to understand ourselves and how we fit into society.


Tuesday, July 7, 2009


This week SEAS visited TBBC (Thailand Burma Border Consortium) and listened to a presentation about the organization itself and the situations that it deals with. TBBC is an NGO made up of several smaller organizations that helps to provide humanitarian aid for refugees in Thailand, namely those housed in the refugee camps along the Thai-Burmese border. TBBC has been my favorite organization that we have visited so far, especially since our presenter seemed so enthusiastic.
Her name is Sally Thompson and she is the Deputy Executive Director for TBBC. She has been working with the organization for years, and she had a lot of information to share with us about how the TBBC has grown and adapted to meet the needs of an increasing number of refugees that have fled Burma over the years.
Sally Thompson was knowledgeable and passionate about the objectives of her organization, and it showed in how animated she was about answering our questions and providing anecdotes to further illustrate them. She told us of her work with resettled Burmese refugees and their cultural difficulties in resettling. I especially found interesting her story about an extended family of several generations who all wanted to either be resettled together or not at all; this story just served to illustrate that there is no set family unit when it comes to resettlement. Some people resettle by themselves or with one other family member, or they may travel in large groups. She told us some heartbreaking stories of families prepared to resettle that have had to return when one family member became ill.
Even in addition to these compelling stories, we were given a good foundation for discussing the current situation in Burma and what organizations like TBBC and others are doing or should be doing in order to assist in providing refuge for the refugees produced by this conflict. One of the poignant and sensitive points that Sally Thompson touched upon was the question of how comfortable to make the camps for refugees. This question has since been discussed in our class on migration issues and nationalism. While the goal is to provide some place that is comfortable for these people that have been run out of their homes, there is also a need to ensure that these populations do not become dependent upon the aid that is provided. Thailand as a government tends to take the approach that the refugee camps should be made as temporary as possible, and Sally Thompson told us about the positive things that TBBC does to try and foster a level of independence in the Burmese communities in these camps. To provide one example, to supplement the minimal rations that camp residents are given every month, seeds are also distributed so that refugees can plant food. The seeds given are selected because of their sustainability. TBBC distributes seeds that will grow seeded plants so that the seeds of harvested crops can be replanted to provide a predictable source of food.
TBBC was more or less our introduction into topics of refugee issues. This visit to TBBC and the articles we have read provide an excellent jumping point from which to begin discussing some of the more sensitive questions regarding issues of humanitarian aid, politics, and asylum. All of the questions regarding migrant issues and nationalism that we have dealt with in class thus far have interested me, personally, and I am even more excited to now be digging into refugee issues and learning about what is being done by state and non-state actors to define what a refugee is and how to best aid them.
It is wonderful to be here in Southeast Asia and to be able to visit places like TBBC to learn about what real people are doing to deal with some of the things that we are learning about in class. When we are able to have conversations about migrant issues or nationalism with locals, government officials, and NGO employees, it really brings the material to life.
I honestly couldn’t be more grateful for having been granted this amazing opportunity, and I want to thank you to everyone who has made this possible for me!

Monday, July 6, 2009

Lost in Translation...Found in Bangkok

Thailand has been an exhilarating and whirlwind experience thus far. The wonder in this trip has been in discovering a whole new world so culturally different from my own. Even amid the many language barriers and cultural differences there has been beauty to be found in every nook and cranny of Thailand.

On Friday we visited the Grand Palace which proved to be a feast for the eyes. We began our tour in the galleries, which had exquisite and intricate representations of the legends and history of the Ramakien. This same level of workmanship continued throughout the Palace in the elaborate and colorful mythical figures that lined the buildings and monasteries. It was even interesting to observe some of the western influences in the buildings in which later renovations had occurred. There were detailed frescoes on the ceilings and plush furniture imitating the royalty of European nations. The Royal Monastery of the Emerald Buddha was one of the most intriguing places in the Palace. Housing a solid jade Buddha, it is still used today to respect Lord Buddha and His Teachings.

Later, the group escaped the early afternoon heat in the cool air conditioning of the Siam Museum. It was a fun and quaint museum that had several interactive features. The short videos throughout that kept all of us engaged and tried to help elucidate the idea of a Thai identity that we have been studying in class.

After the museum a small group of us decided to visit China Town. This proved to be a mini adventure in the heart of Bangkok. Venturing to China Town by a short boat ride along the city, we landed on a street lined with markets. Going in further we were overwhelmed by the sounds, smells, and traffic that are Thailand. After walking around for a little while we decided to go to a mall in downtown Bangkok. Unfortunately we were unable to catch a taxi out. Thus began our trek through China Town in search of different means of transportation. We asked local shop owners and locals on the street and finally we found ourselves at our desired destination. A few in the group managed to flag down a taxi, while the rest persevered through the MRT ride and harrowing and crowded sky train. Yet thanks to the group’s determination and Lucy’s skills of map reading we somehow found ourselves at our destination.

After having had a long and hot day we enjoyed traditional Thai massages that helped us to relax and forget our tired muscles.

Such adventures make this trip an unforgettable experience. It is rewarding to see the rich culture and history embedded in all of Thailand. Our experiences here are reinforcing what we learn in class outside the classroom. I just want to thank Alston and Barb for the opportunity to have such a life changing trip with amazing sites to see and wonderful people who inspire me to be a more global and active citizen. Thank you!