Asia Archives - St. Stephen's University

Perspectives on Peace

By | 2016, Asia | No Comments

During a workshop with the staff from the MCC Xieng Khouang office in Laos, our group was asked to brainstorm some answers to the question “what is peace?” It seems like such a straightforward question, but it’s pretty loaded. I realized that I’ve never actually thought about this before. It turns out that the term “peace” can hold entirely different meanings to different people. MCC Laos’ Mittapab (meaning “friendship”) group even had to change their original name, which included the word “peacebuilding,” because the government claimed that the nation already had peace and therefore had no need for a peacebuilding group. Since the workshop, I found myself trying to define this crazy concept (I know that it’s already technically in the dictionary, but I don’t like the official definition. Peace must be more complicated than that two-line explanation).

I think that peace can look different within different contexts. It is bound to display itself differently as inner peace with oneself than it does as interpersonal peace in relationships, and even more so as peace on a national or international level. Anywhere on the scale, though, I’d say* that peace is not the absence of conflict, but having the ability to come together and listen to each other to come up with a cooperative solution when conflict does arise. Peace and conflict are not opposites. But that’s still pretty vague. Peace could be an environment of appreciation of differences, where a broad diversity of people and opinions is nurtured and can flourish. It could mean safety or refuge. It could mean the presence of a mutual understanding, or at least an active willingness to work toward that. Regardless, I think peace is a good thing and should be strived for.

I believe another big part of attaining peace can be found in the Zulu greeting “sawubona,” which is used as an equivalent of English’s “hello,” but translates into “I see you.” This is seeing a person’s soul, value, feelings– all that good human stuff. A deeper connection is made. It is saying you matter and are valid. To recognize this in a person is very humanizing and equalizing. After that, the response would normally be “sikhona,” which roughly means “I am here.” They exist after being fully seen by another person. Interconnection is important. When we take time to truly see, acknowledge, and appreciate others as humans with souls and stories, we can then learn and grow toward justice and equality, which leads to peace.

With our friends from the Mittapab Peace Group.

Maybe the concept of peace cannot even be encapsulated in a set of words or a strict definition. Maybe it just is (or isn’t). For example, I’m not really the city type. Smog gives me headaches, traffic baffles me, and I’m not a fan of having my butt accidentally and repeatedly touched while weaving through market masses. So Chiang Mai, as much as I loved it, was a bit much to handle at times. The Karen village that we had the privilege of visiting was precisely the breath of fresh air that I needed. It was totally non-hectic, both embraced by and embracing of nature, and had a small, flowy community lifestyle that just made sense to me. Peace was undeniably present when I was sitting under the tin roof of my host family’s house, listening to the pouring rain but seeing nothing but the pitch blackness of the uninterrupted night sky. It was there again as I stood at the highest mountain peak that we hiked, feeling emptied and breathless (due to both my being out of shape and the stunning view below) as I absorbed the wonder of what I was seeing. I knew that that was peace, even if I can’t define the word itself. I felt content and calm and rejuvenated and okay. Peace was present.

So, what is peace? I don’t know, but I want it.

*Disclaimer: I am no peace expert. I’m just spitballin, here.

A Continuous Effect

By | 2016, Asia | No Comments

War is a huge thing. It affects people from all over the world, including those who have not even been alive while it was happening. This is one thing I saw very clearly in Laos. There, people from all over the country still suffer from a war which happened over forty years ago, a war which very few people in the West know about today. I used to be one of these people. In fact, I knew nothing at all about what was happening in Southeast Asia.

What surprised me about going to Laos is how peaceful it seems, despite having had millions of bombs dropped over multiple years. This was most evident to me when we went to the Plain of Jars. Hundreds of jars were scattered everywhere, and people came from all over just to see them. At the same time, there were several large craters where bombs of some sort had fallen, and there were markings where the Mines Advisory Group had removed bombs from all over the place. I wondered how a place that is so beautiful and peaceful could have once been a place overcome with war.

Plain of Jars


The country itself was amazing. It looked like any other country, not like a country still suffering from war. Still, as I walked around and as we rode to different places, I thought about how it would be possible for a bomb to explode under us, and then I thought of how the people in Laos have to live with the possibility of that happening every day. So, even though it seems as though the war is past, to the people it is still seems very present, and it will be until the bombs are gone, which may not be for another 200 years.


By | 2016, Asia | No Comments

When I was on the 14 hour flight going from Toronto to Seoul and I was getting hot and cold flashes, I discovered a love for that little fan vent in the ceiling of the airplane. When I was throwing up in the Korea airport and there was a line outside the only working stall, I discovered a loathing for out of order signs.

When I was sick for my first three days in Chiang Mai, sleeping all day on a bed as soft as plywood, watching while everyone else was out exploring an entirely new and different world, eating new food and seeing amazing sights; I discovered a deep longing for my home, for my family, for a hug. When I finally felt better, just in time to move into my homestay, when I managed to eat a plate of my homestay mom’s food and I didn’t throw it up right after, I discovered a sense of gratification, of relief, that I could eat her food and see the smile on her face when I told her it was aroy (delicious)!

I discovered my vulnerability while sitting in a songthaew, watching as the perilous traffic moved around us and scooters zipped in and out of any space they could find. I also discovered bravery (or stupidity, I haven’t quite decided) watching those scooter drivers zip through traffic with no regard to their safety.

Wonder was discovered as I walked around thousand year old ruins and temples, as I looked up into the eyes of a 15 meter tall Buddha statue and felt so small in comparison. I discovered disappointment when I discovered the muffin I’d been waiting all day to eat was already being eaten by an army of ants.

I discovered true friendship every day, when we were out listening to live music and having fun but also when we were stressed and knew we could lean on each other. I also discovered a strength in the others and myself during that time; when we were on a bus for 12 hours, all car sick and grumpy but still holding on, still there for each other.

I discovered God on that trip too; in the busy market full of people shopping and vendors selling food; in the people I met who were so genuinely kind and compassionate. In the biggest and most busy of cities and in the remote jungle with no internet or phone signal. In Thailand and in Laos, I saw Him everywhere. I discovered a lot on my trip, but most importantly, I discovered myself.

Europe is a whirlwind kaleidoscope

By | 2010, Europe | No Comments

I guess the predominant thought on my mind recently is that I’m currently a skipping stone across the enormous ocean that is Europe. I’ve realized that in every city we’ve visited, there is enough history, culture and just stuff to do that we could probably spend the entire trip in that one location. In Barcelona there’s the Sagrada Familia, the Barcelona cathedral and a whole Catalan culture to be explored and learned. In Carcassonne, there’s the fortified city (I wanted a horse and a suit of armour to fill out the experience). Florence: the Santa Maria del Fiore, the leather market and hey, it’s Italy! Rome…ha. It’s Rome.

Therefore, this entire trip so far has consisted of me agonizing over which places to visit. I’ve had to pick and choose in order to adequately (not properly) experience a location and get even a basic understanding of something I have never experienced before. This is not the Asia trip at all, which was like being dumped into the deep end of a really unusual pool (with a life jacket, but it was still challenging). This is Europe, and I’m just skimming along, making notes in my journal about where I want to go again, when I’m all grown up and not paying off student loans.

By the way…as cool as Rome is, I don’t know if I want to go back. There is waaay too much traffic, too many vendors and too many kitschy tour guides demanding my attention. Wait, I fib. I do want to go back…way back, like 2000 years. In that sense, I’m a little sorry we’re not going to Pompeii. I’d forgotten that Rome was a modern day city with real people still living in it. And there are a lot of people in Rome, although St. Peter’s Basilica, the Vatican (totally crowded), the Forum, Pantheon and the Coliseum were all awesome experiences.

Europe is a whirlwind kaleidoscope with me hanging onto the edge, taking a zillion pictures and marvelling that all these people can live in such close proximity and not drive each other all insane. Divine intervention, I think that’s what it is.

Oh, and no matter which way you slice it, the traffic circles were scary. We’re not even in France yet!

Katie A.

bus rides and bobby pins

By | Uncategorized | One Comment

Shortly after returning from the recent Asia travel study term, Nicola had an experience with someone that impacted him.  His blog entry below speaks of the importance of the travel study terms for both our students and the people they interact with.


Nicola Gladwell gave me a bobby pin.

During a long bus trip this April, I got out the handwritten draft of a short story and my AlphaSmart Dana word processor.

I balanced the Dana on my lap, then realized there was no comfortable–or even uncomfortable–way to prop up the sheets so I could type them. On the back of the seat in front of me was a tightly screwed-on strip of plastic that held the chair cover in place. I tried forcing the edge of a page under that, but had no luck.


It was then that Nicola, seated across the aisle from me, came to the rescue. She removed a bobby pin from her hair and handed it over. I was at a loss what to do with it.

“What do you suggest?” I asked.

She took the flat prong and worked it under the strip of plastic, creating a clipboard. I slid a few pages into the bobby pin and they held.


Later on, we introduced ourselves and chatted a bit. She asked what I was writing.

“A newspaper column,” I said.

This was a lie.

The short story was an early draft, and I never talk about writing so new. It wasn’t much of a lie, however, because I planned to work on a column later on.

“May I read it?” she asked.

“Uh . . . no.”

I know better than to lie and was embarrassed that I have been instantly, though unwittingly, caught.

There was wireless internet on the bus, and she had her laptop open.

“Take a look at my website,” I told her. “There are things there you can read.”

I gave her the web address and she sampled a poem and an essay and said some very kind things about them.

“Now that I’ve read something of yours, you should read something of mine,” she said.

My Dana isn’t wireless, so I asked her to email me the link and promised I’d read it when I got to my hotel.

I have something to confess. Because Nicola is a college student–an undergrad, in fact–I had low expectations. Whatever it was she had written would be, I was sure, devoid of serious thought and lacking in decent craft.

The internet, as is often the case, had a surprise waiting for me.

Nicola wrote about a recent trip to Asia, telling how things that are of small consequence here, are valued and used there. Redeemed, if you will.

She gave as an example, painted car tires being used as plant pots in the Philippines.

She gave as an example, the Asian practice of eating all parts of a beast, including the snout and feet.

She gave as an example, a dollar-store toy that we would scorn in the west, having value in the hands of a Filipino girl.

She gave as an example, the scrap tin that is used in many huts in Manila and Bangkok.

I could appreciate what she was saying, for I’d seen the same thing in Africa.

In Kenya, a dirty, twisted piece of wire is not trash, it is something that can be cleaned and carefully pounded into an attractive pair of ear-rings, often with no more tools than a flat rock for an anvil and a discarded engine bolt for a hammer.

A useless piece of wire redeemed.

I could follow the path that her examples laid down, but was not prepared for where they led me.

“I loved Thailand,” Nicola wrote. “I could live in Chiang Mai.

“I would ride to work on an elephant and guide rafts on mountain rivers for a pitiful living, seeking wisdom from aged monks and taking a masters in sustainable living or linguistics at CMU.

“However. I have a problem. I can’t get it through my head — you have to help me.

“There are over two million prostitutes in Thailand. In [the province of] Chiang Mai, all of them are brought from destitute Burmese villages and trafficked through the village of Ma Sai on the border.

“I was in Ma Sai. I bought a pen. And a necklace.

“All Burmese teen girls traveling through Ma Sai leave without their virginity and thus their hope for a future and marriage, and almost half leave with an AIDS death sentence from their first few weeks in the industry.

“What does redemption mean to a sex slave in Japan, in Bangkok, in Kuala Lumpur?

“If I see so much of what we call garbage being redeemed throughout Asia, isn’t there a way to redeem the consequences of societal chastity, idolatry, obligatory merit-making, hierarchical systems, and poverty?”

I still have Nicola’s bobby pin. I am thinking of framing it and hanging it on my wall.

This will remind me not to judge the abilities and motivations of others.

This will remind me that the life we are blessed with here is not the life most people enjoy.

This will remind me that redemption is everyone’s responsibility.

This will remind me that Nicola, who was her way home for summer break, planned to visit with her family for a couple of days then head north to Ontario.

Ontario, you see, has set a goal of planting 50 million trees by 2020, and Nicola was going to help plant some of them.

Is becoming “green” a global idea?

By | Uncategorized | No Comments

As a “Westerner,” I thought I knew so much about the importance of global warming to governments, schools, businesses and organizations in Canada. When I came to SE Asia and saw smog, garbage-filled everything, unnecessary burning, and just nothing noticeably “green,” I couldn’t help but think that “Westerners” were on a better track than SE Asia when it comes to “green” issues. Don’t get me wrong; coming here I did not expect SE Asia to be completely out of the loop when it comes to green issues, just not practising everything to the degree the “west” has. I have seen so many people, promotional commercials, ads, and articles telling the people of Thailand the importance in changing or learning how to adapt to these global issues. But are these ideas being embraced and practised? Just like in the west where we decided to make a change in our lives to help out with these issues but don’t really act on our words, the same applies in Asia.  But when I am here seeing countries that are economically not even close to Canada (like the Philippines and Thailand) doing what they can to try and improve the awareness that this world needs to change environmentally, I am encouraged.  For examples, in the Philippines we visited a beach that was dotted with the most beautiful and enormous wind turbines. North Western University has a green campaign. In Thailand we learned about the harmful effect that dams will have on water supplies and the whole country. We also learned about ways Thai farmers can adapt to the new changes in the weather. One of our guest lecturers, Jeff, who has an experimental farm, had a great answer to face this critical issue – learning to change the way people farm and view the land that will actually help the earth and environment heal itself. He does this by acting green and helping locals understand the issues at hand.

These sights and ideas have had a huge impact on me because if they take the first steps in their situations why can’t we help bring more awareness to our part of the world and to our daily lives at SSU. But there are huge issues that really hinder green movements from being more widely spread. Brianna and Lindsay did a news presentation about the upcoming world meeting on climate change. Thailand’s stance is not a very good one because they say they will not follow recommendations until the major first world countries do their part. Due to political instability in many SE Asian countries, I fear that there won’t be anything put in place by the governments that will help regulate the greenhouse gases or put in place any green movements.

By being in these countries where “green” thinking isn’t totally noticeable, I have been proven wrong. By having the chance to see many people and countries doing their part, I have learned that a part of my duty is to help spread the word about what we can do to help make our communities aware. If cause and effect actually works, then green issues can be spread around the world.

Conversations and “Conversations”

By | Uncategorized | No Comments

We are down to the last few days of our long trip in Southeast Asia and I honestly cannot say that I’m glad to be leaving.  I am looking forward to some of the comforts of home. The stability of staying in one place. Familiar foods. A place to take a rest from the realm of moving,waiting, engaging and engaging again with moments of cultural elation and cultural frustration. Though I’m not looking forward to completing the coming assignments I do look forward to the prospect of gleaning from my experiences.

There are a lot of things I could say stand out about what I’ve experienced of Asia: Bartering. Food. Interesting lectures on culture, politics, and contemporary issues. Rain forests. Mountains. Rats… the list can go on. I don’t want to sound idealistic or cliche but one of the best parts of this trip has been the relationships made with the local homestay families and local students. I’ve been invited into people’s homes, into their family and their everyday life. I’ve shared in their wealth or their lack of what my North American self would think of as normal standard of living. There is nothing else that has broken down my feeling unfamiliar with my surroundings like the genuine welcome and friendship of people I have met in the Philippines, Malaysia or Thailand… and it happened for me in each of these countries. The sharing of a name, a meal, of a conversation or the struggle through a conversation.

I’m becoming a greater believer in the idea of the “conversation”. It seems ironic to think of “conversation” when you have two people who are trying to talk to each other slowly and dumbly in two very different languages. But it’s more that we were there, we may have been laughing at each other but we were trying. Barriers seem to break down when people allow themselves to be vulnerable and open-hearted. The best conversations I had were simple. But they happened when I was willing to say “hello” or ask a name. Looking back, I hope that I will remember the hospitality and openness of the people who took care of me while I was a stranger in a far away place, and how even simple smiles and hellos can break barriers as wide as the ocean.

The Game

By | Uncategorized | No Comments

I should start by saying that I really love Asia. I mean what is there not to like, the food is great (even if i can’t quite imagine what it is), always an amazing landscape of ocean and mountains, the most amazing climbing trees only imaginable in my most euphoric dreams. And of course, the cheap everything that surrounds you on every side. At the market you can engage in a wonderful game they call “bargaining”. This includes many tactics that have been learned through on-the-street-practice and passed down to me through word of mouth by fellow bargainers.  I will say outright that I have never been a fan of shopping, but when you make it a game with some type of competitive edge, I’m all in! I can recall a few nights where some friends and I would spend a significant period of time haggering down some eager vendor to sell his or her goods for ridiculously low prices, not with the goal of getting a deal but just to see how low the price will go. That may seem like the same thing, but if I really don’t want to buy a noisy wooden frog, what the heck, “I’ll give you one Baht for that whole box”. They laugh at you and tell you they’ll give you a good deal, a “special price just for  you- 40 baht!”, 1 baht, 30 baht, 1 baht, “25 baht- no lower!”, ” ok, 2 baht”. No deal, they laugh and walk away realizing that they have been wasting their time. But it’s all in good fun, and even more so when I really do want to buy a certain item. It always involves a ritual, and both players know that for the most part its simply a formality. I ask the price, he/she gives me a ridiculously high starting price, and then the real game begins. I need to figure out its general worth and I need to play it smart and not ask too high a price. I usually start slightly lower then half the asking price and go from there. Here is where the seasoned veteran shines. The vendor offers me a special deal to which I will say “too high!” and complain about how poor I am. This usually brings down the price considerably, but that’s not enough for me, I’m in the game to win. I remind the vendor that every other stall offers the same thing and they will surely give me a better price. The price goes down again. My competitive edge has kicked in and I start to walk away pretending I don’t care anymore.  The vendor comes after me pleading and begging me to buy their merchandise, they have had a change of heart and will give me another deal. I have suddenly regained my interest at a much lower price, if they give up on going lower it is often possible to ask the vendor to throw in another item to make it worth while for me. Or, in some cases it works to hold out an amount of money just lower then what they ask for and sort of taunt them with the immediate cash waving in their faces. This is pretty much victory for me, I have explained the ideal game play. But it doesn’t always go this way, sometimes I win and sometimes I may be taken in for an extorted price. But that is the nature of the game, and you get better at it, you trade secrets you have learned and learn new ones. Who knows, maybe I’ll come to Asia  someday and join the other team, see what it’s like to be a vendor. Man, shopping is so much fun : )