Growing pains

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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.

Who Am I When I Don’t Know Where I Am?

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How do we create our identities, or construct our self narratives? I am sure it may differ slightly from person to person, but a few general themes often emerge. Who are we? We are what we do: students, musicians, avid readers, cat lovers. We are who we love; we are sons and daughters, fathers, aunts, friends. We are what we love: painters, Smashing Pumpkin fans, fast drivers. We are who other people tell us we are. I think that is why so many of us chose to live in healthy communities, surrounded by people who affirm the good in us, strengthen and encourage us. We find our identity in the organizations we have chosen to associate with: schools, churches. And the places we both originated from and choose to live. I am not stating whether finding your identity in any of these things is either healthy or unhealthy, however, I was forced to examine how I create my identity when all of these things were striped away, when I left all of these things behind, as I traveled.

        Traveling to me meant that I was deprived of all the people and things which feed me emotionally and spiritually, the people and things who remind me of who I am. I felt empty sometimes and was left to wonder what was left of my identity when it was void of the people I love, as well as my independence and my ability to construct my schedule or life to include the things which I do to remind myself of who I am. For me these things that I do to ground myself range from talking to my mother, to playing music, to taking part in my community life through working with children, things I could not do when traveling. How do you hold onto yourself when your world is spinning?
          This is why this trip was challenging for me- I didn’t feel necessarily like me as I traveled. I felt lost (figuratively although literally at times!). However, I am grateful for the experience which made me examine these questions. I took a good long look at how I’ve created ‘who I am’ and the things which are important to my identity, the things which need to be able to travel with me and withstand difficult seasons. What are they? What was left over after the first few layers of my identity were striped away? I know I have an ability to connect with people, I long to be able to make people feel heard, appreciated and valued. I love to laugh, I love to learn, I have even written a little poetry in the absence of the piano keys I usually use for self expression. I have an ability to love. These are the things I found deep within myself when everything else was gone. Traveling was difficult for me, and usually all difficult experiences can act as a refining fire for valuable qualities in you (I’ve even been told that cold showers build character!). Not being able to rely on the things which in the past had provided me with my identity, I had to dig deeper and look at what parts of me withstood the chaos of traveling. Of course, I didn’t love everything I found when I dug, little girls are not made of cinnamon and spice! I found things like impatience, selfishness, pride, and feelings of entitlement in my identity, and despite being ugly, are a part of me as well. With what is left, I can choose to foster and develop the good and battle the not so good, but the point being, that I (I!!!) can do that, anywhere in the world! I can be me, I can find myself, I can embrace and grow in my identity even if I am far away from everything I know. -Crys

The Homestretch

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We are making our way down to Bangkok, we are on the final leg of the journey. It seemed so long ago that we first stepped off that airplane (hit by a wall of heat and humidity) and spent the day exploring Hong Kong. All of our anxieties of the trip have vanished and now we are left with memories. Some good, some bad.

Now we approach the end, and what have we learned? We’ve certainly learned some practical lessons, like always carry toilet paper with you, never leave food out because ants will find it, drink lots of water, and always be prepared to dance Gangam Style in any and all situations. And then there are other types of wisdom we have (hopefully) learned. Like how to live with 18 other humans beings of varying food preferences, ages, and personalities. And when we return to our normal North American habitats, what will we remember? Will we recall fond memories of the hospitality of the Filipinos, hiking through rice fields in the hill tribes of Thailand, and taking in the beauty of the floating mosque in Malaysia? Or will we dwell on the disappointment of not being able to spend more time in Melaka, how we were annoyed with that certain other person the trip, and having to sit through a lecture we weren’t particularly interested in?
You get what you want to out of travel experiences. As many have said, make this trip your own, and now as it is beginning to wind down, take what you want out of this trip. In my experience, there is no point in dwelling on what the trip could have been, it’s too late for that now. Instead dwell on what you learned (even if it’s that you never want to travel with 18 other people ever again, as some have hinted at). I hope that I have grown from this experience and will be able to tell my stories so that the things I have learned may be shared with others.

Cultural Empathy as a Passive Learning Experience

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Something that has concerned me since the beginning of the semester until now is the difference between active and passive learning. When we identify those things that we have learned we often think of the actively sought out ones, such as learning a language or mathematics. I think it is hard to identify those things that we learn passively ourselves, but these are just the things that others are keen to notice. These would be comments like ‘you have gotten so much better at speaking’ or ‘your powers of leadership have grown immensely.’ The reason for this is that these attributes are borne out of experience and not actively attained.

In the spirit of our travel experience I think I may have found a flaw in the program. Before and during this trip, as well as others, we have prided ourselves at SSU in being intentionally observant travelers. This is to say that we try to seek out the value in all experience and to broaden our worldview. However, there is a point at which I think this hyper-intentionality is counter-productive. We have spent so much time talking about the values and perspectives of Eastern cultures that I think many of us came ‘knowing what to expect.’ Although this is a false expectation, we have nonetheless given ourselves into it with the best intentions.

I have had an interesting opportunity to spend time with two other travel-study groups from American universities. What I have noticed is that their programs do not rely heavily on any sort of cultural empathy or enlightenment in this regard. That is not their main goal. At any rate, as this has not been their main goal their passive learning in this field has been tremendous. The amount of cultural sensitivity and the capacity to try new things in my new friend Jeff (from St Olaf’s University in Minnesota) has far exceeded my own. I have been so hard-pressed to seek this out that it has made me lose the energy for it.

I think that if we value empathy all we need to do is put ourselves in environments that we wish to understand, and we can trust that just by being there our values will rise to the surface. If we concern ourselves constantly with understanding the world around us we may just be losing what we might have gained passively.



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Now that I have all that awful angst-y nonsense out of the way-

Time for some more flora. 

I realized maybe five minutes after submitting my last post that I totally forgot some vital plants I’ve been digging up since coming to SEA, including the national flower of Hong Kong (the Bauhinia, which is the same flower you’ll find on their flag), large bell-shaped white flowers in The Philippines, and the small lavender colored buds which grow from several of the tree branches in Chiang Mai. More recently there have been these sponge-texture plants blossoming through the city which smell like citrus/herbal tea.

Slightly less related are the brown vines which dangle from most trees in this city. You’re a bit worried at the time that these vines might leave some sort of brownish, bleach-resistant residue on your white school uniform, or be teeming with foreign insects, but as far as I’m aware they’re only cool, dead vines which remind you of those beaded door-ways your friends used to have in elementary school.

Those were cool. Moving on, because I don’t have too much more to say about plants…

Let’s talk fauna 

Birds in this part of the world are rather impressive. Hong Kong and The Philippines have small brown birds which do not differ too much from the variety back home, but with different black wing patterns and maybe a higher pitch. I think I saw storks in Malaysia near the Malacca Strait, but they might have been pelicans since large birds don’t greatly impress me. Chiang Mai easily wins in the bird category; it has a sparrow-looking thing with a black hue and bright yellow tear-drop shapes around its eyes, as well as a bird with hipster-earring tail feathers which has a beat-box like call. You can’t make stuff like this up.

Reptiles have been scarce. I expected to see a few harmless snakes curled up Jungle Book style in a tree somewhere, but so far haven’t found one. There were these really cool lizards down in Malacca, which I found near the harbor. They were a bit bigger than a corgi, with a large flat torso and a dragon-shaped skull. They were totally not crocodiles; each one had a forked tongue, smooth leather skin, and patterns which you don’t see on crocs (yellow spots on black, desert camo, and cement white). Otherwise you have the infamous Jing-Jooks, which are little geckos that live everywhere in Thailand (and less commonly in The Philippines).

Dogs are funny in Chiang Mai. You can’t walk down the street without walking past at least three dogs in this city. I’ve seen a few of them form small packs and patrol around the CMU campus. There doesn’t seem to be any particularly strong breed. Relatives of my host-family had this mop-looking little thing with dis-aligned eyes which was the funniest looking dog I have ever seen.

Cats are less common just about everywhere except Malaysia, where I saw more stray cats than dogs. They meow in a different dialect (seriously) and tend to be skinny things. I happened to see one the other day with groovy blue eyes and a very serious face. I liked that cat.

DONE! Eight days until I’m back on familiar soil. Looking forward to English public library systems and pine trees covered in snow.

The Universality of “Comfort”

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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 Voyage Never Ends

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Time: 11:00pm
Date: November 7,2012
Place: Chiang Mai, Thailand

Tonight I lay awake, listening to the Thai performers play their music at a nearby festival. While the helicopters of the nearby army base fly by, I am struck with a thought: How will I remember this night?
For the past month and a half, I have traveled a good portion of South East Asia with my fellow students. As the end gets nearer, I remember the places I was a part of for a time: the cheap trains in Kuala Lumpur, the sunny beaches of Ilocos Norte. Now I shall place Chiang Mai among them. I want to make a point of keeping my memories about those places that are now starting to diminish as the days go by.
I remember the good times: the times when I was laughing with friends, when I wore a skirt, and most of all, the times with my fellow students touring magnificent museums and sites. Then there are the times when I felt like I would pass out on the spot from being overtired or the times when I was mad at a friend. Those times are almost nonexistent in my memory, or if they exist, will they be there in a month? In a year?
As time dwindles in Southeast Asia, I can only look back and remember the times I have had, good or bad (mostly good). May everyone on this trip step off the plane in Canada feeling a sense of accomplishment and pride for getting through both the good and the bad.
As for that band and the helicopters…they shall pass…
“Once you have traveled, the voyage never ends, but is played out over and over again in the quietest chambers. The mind can never break off from the journey.”– Pat Conroy

Thai Language

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“Past tense, present tense, future tense, even past perfect and present perfect! I don’t get it, why are foreigner so obsessed with time?”

These are the words of my frustrated 16 year old Thai sister Pim, as Laura and I attempt to prep her for her upcoming English exam. We sit at the dining room table, dishes pushed to the side, books spread out before us, suffocating both the table and Pim with English verbs, nouns, adjectives, and of course, those dreaded tenses.

I have no answer for Pim, who struggles to master a concept nonexistent in her own language. Yet it’s more than this, it’s not just the Thai language the paranoia with time is devoid of, it seems to be the culture here in Thailand as well. During one of our first lectures here in Thailand, our Aa-jaan (professor) spoke of the way in which Thai people do many things at a slower pace of life than the rest of the world; placing less emphasis on deadlines and meetings than us in the Western hemisphere. Perhaps this is due to the heat in Thailand, a stalwart attempt to remain cool despite a very strong and persistent sun that calls the sweat out of your body like a bingo announcer on redbull, but perhaps this slower pace of life is also due to the lack of past, present, and future tenses in the Thai language.

…I think I like this startling lack of time… in fact, it’s quite refreshing. Bring it on Thailand, let’s live in the now!

*Some Pretentious Title*

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The Thai approach to life is to roll with events as they happen, and the circuit for our bathroom has blown. So last night I took a cold shower by candlelight.

The reason I am telling you this story is that I didn’t realize the situation was at all out of the ordinary until I was struggling to light the candle with a cigarette lighter– the second time I’ve ever used one. I had to use two hands and hold the candle in my teeth. It was only as I was performing my awkward ballet of fire (naked, in the dark, on a slippery floor), that I decided that back home, this probably wouldn’t be considered a normal evening. (Probably. I mean, I don’t know for sure what you do with your evenings, and I’m in Thailand– we don’t judge.)

You see, I normalize to a place very quickly. Possibly because I moved a lot when I was little, or possibly I just burn through my “I Am In A New Place Oh My Gosh” fuel very quickly. Usually it takes less than 12 hours to adjust to the ethnicity and dress of people around me. Within a day I’m used to the available food. Four days will accustom me to the sound and sight of a language, and two or three days after arriving I’m used to the architecture. I can still be struck by the beauty (or horror) of a sight or experience, but the newness or strangeness of a thing will rarely register.

Basically, everything I was warned about in terms of culture shock has not been an issue.

However, unexpectedly, other things have been very hard to adjust to. I am still not used to being cut off from family and friends because of time zone and lack of internet access, and the draining isolation it brings. I am not used to the language barrier, which has strengthened in each country. Here in Thailand, where I can’t make jokes and I can’t even comment on the weather, the language barrier feels like sensory deprivation. It’s like my eyes are missing, or my tongue has been cut out.

In her first blog entry, Kailyn said that people travel to– in the end– know the place they came from. On side of external geography, this is certainly true. It is very difficult to see your own culture unless you can stand outside it , and travel is very nearly the best way to gain a foothold outside your culture. However, (see, there was a point to this too-long blog post), knowing the place where you stand is also true of your internal geography.

What this trip has taught me about myself is that food is interchangeably delicious, and differing crowds of people are easily adjusted to, but I am at heart a creature of language-based communication, and my relationships are not interchangeable.

Ketchup is not Tomato Sauce…

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Carly and I decided we would share a little bit of home so we planned to make dinner at our home-stay one evening. After class we waited for Khun-ma (our home-stay mother) to finish work, we picked up Tanya from school and then went to the supermarket to pick up the ingredients for spaghetti, caesar salad and apple crumble.

We got to the supermarket and walked through the aisles looking for everything that we needed. It didn’t take too long; however, parmesan cheese was hard to find and I think the cheese we got was not parmesan. As I was shopping, Khun-ma noticed a few things in my cart and said that I did not need to buy them because she had them at home. The tomato sauce was one of them. I asked her a few times: “Are you sure you have this? Because if you do not, I cannot make the dinner.” She was sure. O.k. then– perfect (so I thought).

After a long day: up at 5:30 am for a run, university from 8:30 am to 4:30 pm, the supermarket and traffic jams, we finally got home sometime before 7 pm. I unpacked our groceries and began to cook. Khun-ma came in and handed me a bottle of ketchup– a.k.a. tomato sauce. I wanted to cry… in fact I wanted to scream. I explained this was not tomato sauce, and she apologized. I know she felt terrible. I went upstairs and told Carly. Then I went back down and continued to cook. Khun-ma said she could go to the 7/11 to get some tomato sauce. I said o.k. and thought to myself, should I go? No, surely she will know what to get. About 10 minutes later she came back… with two bottles of ketchup…

In conclusion, I made the spaghetti without the tomato sauce. It turned out alright although it did not meet my personal standards of spaghetti making. Khun-ma and Tanya thought it was delicious… Carly was satisfied. We had no oven to make the apple crumble in so I made it in a frying pan and topped it with vanilla ice cream. Now this was excellent, however, it wasn’t really crumbly. Anyway, just a heads up that if you ever come to Thailand, be aware that if you ask for tomato sauce, you may get ketchup.