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Madi Smith

Growing pains

By 2012, Asia No Comments

I now find myself having reached the end of my second semester in Southeast Asia. While my experience on the trip has been quite different this time around, being in a leadership position, I have enjoyed learning more in-depth about the cultures, watching the students expand their minds and world-views, and every moment of returning to the places I have come to love so much. It has been a challenge in many moments to find the balance in leadership within an SSU context, and though I have been far from perfect, I really do feel that I’ve done my best.

My world gets both smaller and larger with every step; as I become more and more comfortable with the places I’ve been, my mind opens up to new adventures and opportunities. At a critical crossroads, I find these new-found opportunities to be equally inspirational and frightening.

I’ve now spent 6.5 months abroad with SSU over the course of the past 5 years. The experience has been nothing short of incredible. As each trip has helped shape my views, each country – each city – has aided in the quest of learning who I am, and how I fit in to this huge world I am a part of. Learning to embrace the eastern world without abandoning my western foundation, and learning to see the value in every culture has shaped so much of my understanding. Learning to live and form lifelong friendships with people so different from myself is an experience beyond words. However painful and stretching some of these experiences have been, I wouldn’t trade my time with SSU for anything.

I’m taking a month post-Asia to detox from emotional buildup over the past month. I arrived yesterday in Vancouver, where I now rest with great friends, who consist coincidentally mostly of SSU alumni.

May the road rise to meet you.

The Universality of “Comfort”

By 2012, Asia No Comments

As we reach about two-and-a-half months on the trip, many are beginning to feel the call to head home; as easy-going as I am, I have found that even I have begun to sense faint inner aches for western comforts (which, in itself, contradicts my intentionality). This is not to say that I thought I was immune to being western, but rather that I don’t think of myself as being one who submits to western comforts.

SSU student Steven Barker enjoying a popular local food festival in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

It’s not the food that I miss; in fact, I like the food in Thailand more than anywhere else that I’ve been in the world. Anyone who knows me knows that I could easily eat rice every day for the rest of my life. Rather, once in a while I miss the comforts of my parents’ home, and the assuredness that I can be myself, relatively wholly, with no signifiant voice telling me that I should be, act, or do otherwise.

But I digress. What I have really been pondering lately are the little things that separate me culturally from Thais, particularly relating to personal comfort. My parents’ home has walls. It has an indoor kitchen, an indoor bathroom, and indoor living rooms. It is virtually weather-proof, in that the season outside is rarely wholly reflected by the indoor environment of the house. While home-life in Chiang Mai more often than not contrasts this quite dramatically, the real difference is impossible to ignore in some of the still-functioning hilltribes.

The Karen hilltribe in Chiang Rai province where our group stayed for two nights.

A voice may whisper deep and subconsciously inside the western visitor that the comforts of the western are universal: that any person would feel most comfortable given the escape of a nature-free, temperature/humidity controlled environment, hot food straight from the oven, washing machines and electric dryers, hot showers any moment of the day, and readily available toilet paper. While some eastern people would admit to enjoying some of these comforts, these values are really only embedded in those raised with them. While I could continue for hours talking on this subject, it is perhaps most easily summed up by an experience I fondly remember:

Two years ago, four months prior to my first trip to Southeast Asia with SSU, I moved into a motel room with my sister in North Dakota, where we both work. Our neighbours across the hall were two young Filipino men, who we spent quite a lot of time with. When the one clothes washing machine for the entire motel broke down one day, we and many of our coworkers were forced to find alternative places to do our laundry. A few days after this, I was walking past the Filipino guys’ room, and I heard splashing noises, and one of them singing pop songs at the top of his lungs. Since their door was slightly ajar and we were fairly good friends, I pushed the door open the rest of the way to reveal my friend squatting in the bathtub doing his laundry. He was happy as can be. When I asked him “Isn’t that inconvenient? Isn’t it strenuous and thankless?” he answered quite quickly and genuinely “No. It reminds me of my mom. She does our laundry like this at home. I miss my mom.”

The friend in question and I would often attempt to beat North Dakota fire laws by having small fires in a coffee can outside the motel.

I believe that is the moment where I realized that comfort is not a universal concept. We may find our convenient ways to be the most comfortable, but everyone will always find the deepest level of comfort in the pleasant familiar ways of their upbringing: from their mother hand-washing their clothes, to showering with cold water pumped straight from a well, to their care-givers’ cooking. Our ways – however practical, however efficient, however systematic – are not necessarily ‘right’. I believe that in recognizing this, we can begin to understand the world around us in a new, beautifully human way.


The Filipino Condition

By 2012, Asia No Comments

Our time in the Philippines over the past few weeks was much like I remember it to be in 2010; the weather was hot, the locals were almost distractingly interested in us, and our friends at Northwestern University (students, staff, and faculty) showed us unmatched, limitless hospitality and treated us as family.

SSU student Nicole Leger daily built relationships and played with the neighbouring children near her Laoag home-stay.

I find myself particularly emotionally affected by Filipino social conditions. The Filipino culture is, comparatively, a ‘halo halo’ – a mix of bits and pieces of many cultures – as a result of the many previous occupations and colonizations. What has resulted is a nation confused about its own identity, and about what it truly means to be Filipino. However, this does not limit Filipinos from some crucial identifiable cultural identity.

As I blogged in 2010 (“Poverty and Pamilya”), the Filipino culture is very much centered on closeness and loyalty to family, which means that much of the time one’s extended family can expect to be found living in close quarters. Along with this, when a Filipino takes a guest into their household, that guest is truly treated as though they were part of the family; if the guest becomes sick, they are cared for. The guest is constantly fed and offered food, regardless of whether they are hungry. Filipinos go above and beyond to provide for others, especially those who are entrusted to their care.


Our dear friend at Northwestern University, maam S, who daily looks after our team’s needs and cares for us.

Jen Obokata (a fellow member of the S.E.A. 2012 leadership team) and I often discuss the selfless nature of our Filipino (and Filipina) friends in Laoag city. Since the two of us are not in home-stays on this trip, most of our evenings are spent entertaining ourselves, and exploring the city on our own. However, one of our friends on staff at Northwestern went above and beyond out of her way to care for us during our stay in Laoag. She would often call us and ask to take us out, or would sometimes just show up. Regardless of her own needs or anything going on in her life, she made countless genuine efforts to make sure we experienced Laoag, and to keep us happy.

What genuine, beautiful friendships SSU has built in Southeast Asia. In spite of all the demands we might make, in spite of all of the times we are blatant and outspoken, our Filipino friends are constantly there for us: willing to serve, and offer us their genuine friendship.


Villicationis et amor

By 2012, Asia No Comments

Kuala Lumpur is a city rich with culture and people groups. The campaign “1 Malaysia” encourages these groups to live in harmony and unity throughout the city. One group that I find to be particularly beautiful in the way they care for each other is the blind community.

Much of this community is centralized in Brickfields, now known as Little India. One might miss out on this group if they don’t spend much time in Brickfields. Home to a school for the blind, one can expect to see people wandering the area with walking sticks, and some with friends who lovingly guide them. Crossing the street in KL can be dangerous even for those with perfect vision. Graded sidewalks act as a guide for the blind, letting them know where there are steps up and down, and where there are crosswalks. Local traffic also seems to keep watchful of them. Though these are simple actions to ensure their safety, they speak loudly to me.

The Brickfields area provides employment for the blind as well, with dozens of blind massage. Employment extends to the deaf community as well, with a deaf-mute laundrette just near the local YMCA. These communities are made up of Indians, Chinese, Malays, and I even noticed albinos on a couple of occasions.

parlours A moment that particularly touched me in regard to these communities occurred when I did a favour for a staff member at the YMCA. When he thanked me verbally – most beautifully, I might add – he also said it in sign language. I can only assume that because of the deaf community in the area, he learned at least some sign language to communicate with them. The fact that it was such a natural reaction for him to sign to me shows that this is a common occurrence.

This kind of stewardship and caring for those with ‘disabilities’ is a beautiful example for all of us. These intentional actions keep groups from feeling marginalized or neglected. While no culture is perfect, each does something right. I believe the care for the blind and deaf in Brickfields to be a grand example of something done right.

Intimacy with earth: Creation and Awe

By 2012 - Scotland No Comments

The Celtic way of life, especially early on, was largely based on connection and respect for the earth; it could almost be said that the druids had a healthy ‘fear of nature’ relative to the Christian concept of a ‘fear of God’. Keeping this idea in mind, one can see how nature is a tool for communicating the mighty power of God. To be in awe of the created order is to be in awe of the creator. In connecting and allowing ourselves to become intimate with the created world, we can find deep spiritual connection.

The view from a hilltop in the Scottish highlands, south of Oban.

It’s no wonder Iona is considered to be a thin place. For myself, heaven felt closer because of how truly elemental the experience of Iona is. I have rarely felt so immersed in the natural world as i did on my afternoon hike on Iona with Charis and Cara. The further we walked south from town, the less signs of man there were. From paved road and farms, to dirt road and pasture fences, and finally to a simple mud path and terrain. We eventually got to a point where even the grass-beaten path disappeared. With no real destination, i was able to truly experience the journey. In silence, we traversed outwardly, and looked inward.

Traversing the rock and mud terrain on the southern tip of Iona.

Tangibility and Symbolism: a Celtic tradition

By 2012 - Scotland No Comments

Humans are born with an inherent belief that there is something that exists that is greater than themselves: whether it be a god, science, or simply a greater ‘goodness’ (or evil). Many have trouble grasping, or putting a more tangible face to this presence. In the case of the druids, the simple beauty and power of the natural world proved sufficient in finding a real sense of deep spirituality. It allowed them a physically tangible front to their spiritual connection.

Cara Thiessen experiences a nesting ground of dozens of great herons in Kyleakin, Scotland.

And it’s not difficult to see why the druids connected so deeply with their natural world. Scotland is crowded with absolutely gorgeous, untouched scenery. While it may seem strange that the pagan druids worshiped trees as though they were gods, it makes perfect sense: God is within and without his creation. As a Christian, I personally expect to find spiritual connection within the natural order. There is almost nothing like feeling the love and power of God in a sunset.

A completely untouched photo of the sunset over Oban's seaport on an April evening.

One of the arguably most consistent and beautiful pieces of Celtic culture is the art of symbolism. Symbolism, much like the natural order, provides one with a physically tangible front to their spiritual or emotional connection. The Celtic Christians used their pre-established connection with nature as a basis for early symbolism, borrowing from the pagans and often placing their stone cross carvings into the very surface of mother earth. Eventually the crosses stood erect, but maintained a natural beauty. Today, the ancient Celtic stonework blends beautifully with its surrounding natural world in a harmonious union of tangible spirituality.

A Catholic graveyard on the banks of Loch Lommond. Note how the stone only continues the appearance of natural order, rather than taking away from it.

Banderas y mi origen verdad

By 2011, Europe No Comments

I’ve been back in North America for almost a month now. From busing across Europe, to the flight to Toronto, to my train ride home to Ottawa, and my flight back out to North Dakota, I’ve had quite the whirlwind adventure. Through the hustle and bustle of constantly moving from place to place, I have adopted a mentality I have never before found myself able to grasp.

I’m not a patriotic person. In fact, as a dual citizen, the concept of being patriotic becomes both more diluted and more complex. Which country do I identify more with? What is identity in culture? How can I be proud of coming from a first-world country? The latter question is the most troubling to me in the question of patriotism. However my mentality, as aforementioned, has come to a heightened state of existence.

Throughout our travels in Europe, I found myself captivated by flags. When we landed in Spain it was hard to believe we were in another country. Obviously it looks nothing like New Brunswick, but it doesn’t look entirely foreign either. It wasn’t until I saw the Spanish flag blowing in the wind that I fully realized we had made it. This theme was consistent for me on the trip. Each new place was made real to me by each new waving flag. Each culture, beautifully unique and captivating in its own way. Each place diverse and rich in history. Each place worthy of its identity as a nation. Though much was good, taking in so much culture slowly wore on me, and throughout the travels, I grew a little more weary day by day.

Something about traveling in Europe really brings out the beauty of calling Canada your home. Everyone there seems to have such a strong respect for Canada, such a strong sense of friendship. It wasn’t until Canada day in Paris that I found myself actually homesick for Canada. The real shock came to me in the homeland.

After returning to Canada and staying with Liam’s family in Kitchener a couple of nights, I began my trek home by train to Ottawa. I was in a sort of traveler’s shock. I was tired, but not worn out. Content, but ready to be home. Alongside my train, about two hours into the ride, a Canadian flag was waving in the wind atop a pole to the west. This moment was the most Canadian I’ve ever felt in my life. The peace dawned on me that no matter where I go, Canada is back home waiting for me. A strong, secure nation where I have family and friends. A stationary place to rest and regain myself before traveling again. For the first time in my life I think I truly understand the concept of national pride, though my version is without any sense of supremacy. I am simply thankful to have a home like Canada.

So here I find myself back to working in a western-themed town in North Dakota, located in my birth country. Back to being known as ‘the Canadian’, and for the first time with a sense of national pride without arrogance. Each morning at work, just after raising the American flag, I get to raise the Canadian one and remember what flags represent.

Traveler’s blessings,
– Madi Smith

Saint Judas

By 2011, Europe No Comments

An afternoon stop in Colmar, France led our group to see Grunewald’s beautiful rare altar pieces, which featured (among other things) a diseased crucified Jesus, and a tormented Saint Anthony.

What I was far more interested in, upon taking notice of them, were a series of panels done by Martin Schongauer on the life, betrayal, and death of Jesus. In his portrayal of the last supper, I noticed that the disciples were adorned with golden halos of sainthood- all except Judas. Of course, that would seem initially reasonable. We recognize Judas as a traitor, somehow worse in his sin than the others. His betrayal was perhaps more tangible to us. So why does Peter get a halo?

The bible says we all sin and fall short of God’s glory. Maybe we need to take a step back and reevaluate how we look at Judas.


My pilgrimage through Assisi

By 2011, Europe No Comments

Today I roam Assisi alone. The city is on a mountainside, overlooking miles of farmland. After our visit to San Damiano church, where St. Francis himself first took up his ministry, we individually began our hikes back up to the city of Assisi. For the first time on this trip, I truly felt my pilgrimage coming to life. As a descendant of both German Catholics (mother’s side) and French Huguenots (father’s side), my journey has been one of truly attempting to dissect identity, specifically my own.

During my journey through Assisi, I encountered three South Korean girls about my age, who were self-proclaimed tourists. Through conversation and sharing with the one who spoke English, I learned that she too was a Christian, and we connected on many levels. I spent about half an hour with these tourists, and what I found changed much of the way I view tourists. They took their time everywhere they went, and were in awe at the beauty they witnessed. They greeted every nun they passed with respect. Though they weren’t on a proclaimed ‘spiritual journey’, they too are finding parts of themselves in travel; enjoying the world. I find that many of us, in travels, come to despise tourists.

Just as I can be both a descendant of Huguenots and Catholics, we are all inextricably bound in each other’s humanity. Just as St. Francis knew: we should learn to love, and not to judge. Where there is hatred, let us sow love.

– Madi

Post-Asia Withdrawals

By 2010, Asia No Comments

It’s been nearly two weeks since our time in Thailand ended. We parted ways in two groups in Hong Kong, and slowly lost each other on connecting flights along the way home. Instead of going straight home after Asia, I opted to first stay for a couple weeks in British Columbia, as i’ve never been before.

One of my first experiences in Vancouver was figuring out the transit system with Nygel. It is quite similar to Kuala Lumpur’s, except that it costs nearly 14 x the price. We payed $7.50 each to take the skytrain into Vancouver city from the airport. In our Thai pants and t-shirts, transfered from train to train to bus, and walked in the 5ºC weather another few blocks to Sam and Megan Wollenberg’s. I crossed a high-traffic road, dodging around cars, completely forgetting how things work in Canada. I am so accustomed to darting across traffic that i didn’t even give it a second thought.

One of the most immediate differences here in Kelowna is the difference in poverty. Though there are homeless people living here, they are living in different conditions. There are food and sleeping shelters, along with street churches geared toward the homeless. Though not all of the needs of the homeless can really be met, this system is much more helpful and considerate than anything i ever witnessed in Asia. It also pains me deep in my conscience to see teenagers spending $15 to go to a bar show, and choosing Starbucks over the rampant cheaper local and fair trade shops.

The open nature of the Thai (and Lanna) people, combined with their desire to share their culture with us, were drawing features to cause someone like me to want to spend an extended amount of time there. Think about it: If you asked a SEAsian immigrant living in North America why they moved here, would they have the same impression of North American people?

Southeast Asian people have something real good going on. Watching their interactions amongst their families, and how close they hold each other to their heart (and very being), has really made me miss my family. I can’t wait to fly home to my family tomorrow.

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