AJWS did its best to prepare us for culture shock, culture differences, work cultures, social cultures, and how not to embarrass yourself when eating with a spoon and fork. Some of the most memorable moments:
NGO site visit
Perhaps the most powerful afternoon at orientation came when we visited a refugee camp. The residents are primarily ethnic Burmese people from the Shan state, escaping a military government in Burma and not recognized by the Thai government. The issues in Burma are more complex than I’ll go into here, and absolutely worth learning more about. The people living here are safer than they are in Burma, and can apply for permanent residence in Thailand; for now, though, many are working in construction and earning about half of what their Thai counterparts bring home.
One of AJWS’s partner NGOs works with this community and provides education, community development and organization, youth empowerment, and more. And in addition to language skills—Burmese, Thai, and English—children learn about the Shan culture so they’re connected to their heritage.
It’s hard to write about something like this: I can tell you what I saw, but it’s nearly impossible to describe without coloring the experience in a way that feels unfair. And adjectives like sobering or moving leave too much out. I can’t tell you about the experience of someone living there, because I don’t know what it is. I also can’t share any pictures as they asked that we not take photos. Our group walked through, greeted residents, met with one of the youth leaders from the NGO, and learned about the work they’re doing, which has been quite successful. What I can say is that it was a meaningful experience to see, and it was important to see how the work we may do in an NGO office is carried out in the field. The visit was also a reminder to stay away from making assumptions: just watch, listen, bear witness and let people be heard.
Cultures in translation
Differences, similarities, what to do, what to avoid:
- Sit back, listen, observe. Build relationships. This will pay off far more than galloping in with big ideas, ready to change everything.
- Emphasis is on the collective, rather than the individual.
- Sharing food is important. Meals, including workday lunch, are often communal.
- Crossing your legs can be perceived as standoffish, so try to keep both legs down. Don’t show the bottoms of your feet to someone, it’s offensive.
- Streets have a logic of their own—and it may look like no logic. Look both ways, even on one-streets. Then, look again. Keep your head up. Bolt.
- To eat: use the spoon as the main utensil—the fork helps move the food into the spoon. Ideally, the spoon is in your right hand, but this lefty hasn’t made the switch.
Songthaews: Chiang Mai’s party bus
Not everything at orientation was work. When we left the hotel, we rode in this, a songthaew. It’s a combination of open-air taxi and bus: it picks you up and drops you off at your destination, and you can hail it on the street, but it also runs on a particular route and may take other passengers along with you. Imagine sitting in this with nine friends as you careen along the streets.
Chatting with monks
One evening, a few of us rode a songthaew to a temple to meet up with a group of Cambodian monks studying in Chiang Mai. (Our AJWS country rep knew one of the monks and his brother.) These monks shared the stories of their daily lives, their studies on a range of topics, Buddhist philosophy, talked about life in Thailand and Cambodia, and played with the stray dog who had adopted them as his pack.
Also, they cracked jokes—
Co-volunteer: “How has your perspective changed since you became a monk?”
Monk, gesturing toward his compatriot: “When he started, he was young. Now, he’s very old!”
Laughter and groans from all.
I’ve tried three new fruits—mangosteen, rambutan, longan—and one was more delicious than the next. If you haven’t seen them, take the 7 seconds to follow these Google image links; each looks like something Hello Kitty would eat.
… is how you remember the name of my new favorite Thai noodle dish, khao soi. I ate it five days in a row and didn’t remember to photograph it once. Google images will help me out here. This bowl has springy egg noodles, spicy-but-not-too-spicy curry (red-curry-esque, but different; that’s not helpful—just find yourself a bowl and dig in), your choice of meat. It’s garnished with fried noodles, pickled greens, cilantro, a squeeze of lime. Slurp, slurp, slurp and be happy. It’s soupy, it’s noodley. It’ll probably splatter a little on your shirt. Don’t worry, it’s worth the mess. Already I’m sad that it took this many years to discover khao soi. Now I’m making up for lost time.
This dog and his driver were in the lane next to our songthaew. I can’t decide which is more impressive: his balance or his obedience.