Saturday, July 30, 2011

Lessons from Living Abroad

I think the term “studying abroad” is a little bit misguided. Yes, you are enrolled in classes and yes, you have assignments and deadlines, but the courses and books are not what truly teach you. Experiencing everyday life while walking the streets of Bangkok or buying from food vendors in Salaya, that was where the greatest learning took place. And the biggest lessons that came back with me across the wide expanse of the Pacific are the ones I literally picked up from the streets. I could list approximately two-dozen of these life lessons; lessons about time management, about balancing taking a lead and taking a step back, about appreciating differences, and the list goes on and on. But there are two learned lessons in particular that have taken effect immediately and consistently.

Melissa and I went to the night market in Chiang Rai and we watched as, around midnight, the vendors packed up their carts and tables. We observed people who had been trying, often unsuccessfully, to sell shirts or ties or watches to passersby for hours upon hours. They most likely received rude responses to their sales attempts throughout the evening as they stood in the 400% humidity that is persistent in the rainy season in Thailand. And as the complicated process of folding, packing, hauling, and folding some more continued, we wondered how soon they would be back to unfold, unpack, haul, and unfold some more. But as they finished up, they began to congregate. Someone arrived with beers and they sat around long after the packing of carts was finished. There was talking, laughing, sharing of food, and not a single face lacked a smile.

This impromptu “living abroad” experience gave me a massive piece of mental luggage for my trip back home. Why do I take myself so seriously? The pressure I put on myself to live up to something each day, something that I haven’t even really defined, is absurd. Each day cannot be earth shattering. And what defines something as earth shattering anyway? The vendors in Chiang Rai were living their lives of unpacking, selling, and repacking and history was most likely not being rewritten on that street corner, but they were happy. In Thailand it really hit me that nobody can save the world, and putting world-changing goals on your to-do list can do more harm than good. If you do what you love and if you’re happy, that’s earth shattering for you. And that’s what matters. And most likely, you will have a greater and more positive impact than if you keep “saving the world” on your bucket list.

This lesson entwines itself very tightly with another Pacific-traveling tidbit I now possess – living in the moment. Being in Thailand, this lesson hits you over the head about a hundred times a day. You planned to be at dinner at seven? Well Bangkok traffic is unbelievable and none of the taxi drivers want to take you all the way to the Mahidol campus. You planned a session for a group of preschool-aged children? Well you have a four year old and a ten year old so figure out how to include them both in your session. You planned to write down ideas for research or your philosophy statement while in Thailand? Well you barely found time to jot down what you did each day and a month passed like weeks usually do. Life has to be lived in the moment in Thailand, so why not live each moment happily? I find I often live in tunnel vision with only my plans and expectations in view. Thailand gave me peripherals, the ability to see and appreciate my surroundings in that moment. Of course you want to have aspirations and set yourself on a path to achieve them, but each moment on the way to that tunnel’s end is just as important as the moment you get there.

For these lessons I need to thank Dr. Register for the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and the incredible and unwavering guidance. I need to thank my peers on the trip for their eye-opening perspectives and unconditional love. I need to thank all the Thais I interacted with for their graciousness and, often unwarranted, acceptance. And finally, my greatest thanks is to Thailand, the nation that stole all of our hearts and gave them back to us as something with a little more happiness, a little more acceptance, a little more love. Essentially, a little more Thai.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Every Day We Grow

Hi viewers! I am Sarah Novotney and am posting my last blog about our marvelous Thailand adventure. As many of you know, we are all back in the US now, adjusting to our American lives again. It has certainly taken some time not only getting used to the time difference, but simple things such as having to put on lotion again every day, remembering to actually have to drive places, and not being able to simply walk across the street to the 7/11 for a chocolate bar. However, I must say, my first day back it felt wonderful to have real toilet paper, a flushing toilet, a hot shower, mom’s food, water from the sink, and a squishy mattress! I really didn’t realize how often we drink out of the sink or use tons of toilet paper until I was faced with some differences in Thailand.
Although it is great to be home, it has been somewhat emotional and difficult at times. As much as I explain my experiences over in Thailand, no one lived through this with me for the past two months, and will sadly not know everything that had happened every day. I feel like I have grown as a person much more than I expected, and pictures and stories simply don’t explain that. I can show my family and friends pictures of the marvelous temples, of the huge bugs, or the tuk tuk’s, the Thai people, the street vendors, and the oceans we swam in, but I can’t explain all the knowledge, feelings, emotions, and friendships I acquired during those times. I honestly miss the Thai culture, the Wai, the Sawadee’s, the practicum’s with the elderly, the laughter surrounding every inch of my body, the questionable food, the strenuous hikes, and my friends. I think because every day in Thailand was such an adventure, it made life that much more exciting. Even finding a taxi, telling him where we were going, figuring out the cost, and maybe trying to engage in a few words of conversation broken up by nervous giggles was an adventure! But, it made that moment so much more exciting than what we could have experienced in a taxi ride here at home. I have learned to take in more opportunities in my life that I would normally think are exciting, but opt out on. For example, I went belly dancing with my mother last night, something I have always been interested in but never had the guts to get up and go do. But the opportunity was available, so why not experience it?
Another challenge and change on this trip was overcoming some fears that I have. From the moment my first plane departed from the United States, I have had re-occurring thoughts and dreams of myself dying. Still having these thoughts and dreams back home, I decided to mention it to my mother. She sent me an e-mail explaining what these thoughts meant by Kaine Anderson’s description saying,
“To dream of your own death, indicates a transitional phase in your life. You are becoming more enlightened or spiritual. Alternatively, you are trying desperately to escape the demands of your daily life. To dream that you die in your dream, symbolizes inner changes, transformation, self-discovery and positive development that is happening within you or in your life. Although such a dreams may bring about feelings of fear and anxiety, it is no cause for alarm and is often considered a positive symbol” (Anderson 1).
This response made me feel secure and excited for everything I have experienced and learned in Thailand. It reminded me of my “enlightening” experience on the top of Tiger Temple which triggered my consistent laugh every day after that. I realize now however, that being engulfed in a culture that is so different than what we are used to can really face a person with challenges and almost a different reality. I have learned as a person to be more patient, whether it is through a conversation, waiting for a meal at dinner, or even while driving behind a slower car. Time is constantly moving, so instead of being impatient during that time, try to enjoy the moment as it is.
In all, I believe Thailand has made me a more well-rounded person, presenting me with challenges, allowing me to meet different people around both the US and Thailand, that I normally would not have consistently hung out with, that have helped me grow with new opinions and beliefs, and have helped me find myself, pushing me in the direction I need to be going. I learned to never judge, that people and cultures can be so different from yourself or what you are comfortable with, but in all, every person and every place will have something marvelous to offer to you that you can learn from. I will never forget this adventure and I thank everyone that has come into my life in the last two months. There was a reason each of us received the opportunity go to Thailand and I hope everyone can share their stories as well.
Since this is my last blog I want to say thank you (kop khun kaa) readers for keeping up with all of our journeys, and if any of you have the opportunity to do something you think would be wonderful, my advice is to take it, because it will be more than worth it.
Sawade ka!

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Life Is a Highway

Hi, my name is Rianne Matthews and I am a music therapy student from Colorado State University. I play the piccolo and my ambition is to work with music therapy in neuro-rehab. And – up until just a couple of years ago – I had a severe fear of driving.

It took me a long time to warm up to driving a car. Hurtling down highways would make me very nervous and even simple stop-lights could send me into fits of anxiety. It wasn’t until more recently that I was able to suck it up, put the keys in the ignition, and get going. Traveling to Thailand has brought me an even greater appreciation of American roads.

Pigs on a truck-bus

Most of us are used to traveling by car in the United States. Many of us keep our own personal motor vehicles ready to travel at any given moment. On the other hand, modes of transportation are much more varied and often you must leave things like departure time to chance. Odds are that if you are in a car it is a taxi that you must wave down. Otherwise, you may be in a van or a city bus or a local “bus” (essentially a truck with

a bench in the back, surrounded by a metal cage). Then there’s the motorbikes and mopeds, which travel in every open inch of road and often on sidewalks. Most unusual perhaps is the tuktuk, a form of taxi that is similar to a motorcycle.

Catching a ride on an open-air tuktuk

Not only are the forms of transportation varied, but you must also allow plenty of extra time as you cannot always dictate exactly when you leave. For example, Sara, Sarah and I were attempting to flag down a taxi one rainy afternoon after we had hopped off of the skytrain (yet another mode of transport). We had assumed that, due to the large number of people wanting to catch a ride from there, finding a taxi would be easy. It wasn’t as quick as we had hoped, though. We waited almost an hour before finally finding a cab that was available and that was willing to take us back to Salaya. I’m just glad we weren’t on a strict time schedule that day; we almost certainly would have been late for any concrete appointments that we could’ve had.

Working with varied modes of transportation has also brought to light the importance of being an informed traveler. If you need to get to the other side of Bangkok, for example, the Skytrain or the Underground may be much cheaper and quicker than hiring a taxi. Understanding prices can also be crucial. A group of us were near a very tourist-heavy part of Bangkok for lunch the other day and every taxi we found wanted more than 200 baht for a trip that shouldn’t have cost more than 50 baht. Having an understanding of what prices were normal was crucial in this instance. As it was, we had to overpay a tuktuk to get us where we wanted to go; he was the only one willing to go where we wanted to go without charging ridiculous fees or making an “extra stop” in which we agree to go to someone’s shop and in exchange the driver gets gas vouchers.

Aside from the modes of transportation, I can also appreciate better the relative sleepiness of American roads. Although there are some drivers who do not often follow traffic regulations, generally people keep to their lanes, look before they merge with traffic, wear seatbelts, and keep some distance in between themselves and the other vehicles. Thai roads seem to have all these things as general ideas rather than as actual rules. It is not at all uncommon to see someone halfway across the lane or move from one place to another on the highway without even a glance at a mirror or a touch of the blinker. Cars are often very close together and sudden stops are commonplace. The good news? I feel like even the toughest Denver traffic couldn’t phase me much now.

A tuktuk's-eye view of (mild) Bangkok traffic

Have you ever had an alarming experience with transportation while traveling?

Monday, July 18, 2011

Ring, Ring

Ask yourself: “Can I survive 12 hours without my cell phone?” Think about it… What about a day? A week? Five weeks?

Simply put, cell phones have, for many Americans, become integral to our daily functioning. According to CTIA – The Wireless Association, as of December of 2010 American’s have 302,859,674 wireless connections. Given that the population, as of the 2010 census, is 308,745,538, there is about 99/100 of a connection for every person in the USA. A source of security in travel, it has come to the point that many people feel uncomfortable to simply leave home without their cell phone. Not only a telephone, mobiles are multi-purpose computers; they act as game consoles, still/video cameras, e-mail systems, carriers of business and entertainment data, nodes of commerce, and, due to “apps,” seemingly unlimited other uses. This is not even including one of the largest uses of modern cell phones: text messaging. There is an estimated 187.7 billion text messages sent monthly in USA alone.

Let’s go back: “Can I survive 5 weeks without my cell phone?” For this blogger, the answer is yes!

As some background, I have been a Blackberry user for approx. the last three years, and use my phone to keep my life in order. My calendars are packed, my emails are almost primarily handled by smart phone, and my social life is always a text message away. I had every intention of renting a cell phone upon arrival in Bangkok, but I quickly realized that it would not be necessary. One by one, I learned the pros and cons of living in a cell-phone-free community of nine, in a totally different country:

Electronic communication (E-mail, Facebook, etc.): I often find that when I do electronic communication on my cell phone it can be rushed, shorthand, and not as well edited. The solution? Actually using my computer as my only source for text-based communication. As much as I use text-messaging, I find that it is (with exceptions) an inefficient form of communication, and I was happy to not deal with it for the duration of the trip.

Social Life: This was the most obvious difference between having and not having a cell phone. How does one make plans with others? How does one tell others when one is leaving, or arriving, or if something comes up? With only a handful of exceptions, not having a cell phone made everyone much more accountable; we made plans, and everyone made sure to stick to them. There was a situation in which a partner of mine and myself were about to do a presentation, realized (in the first minute of presenting) that we did not have the password for a computer, and the only way to get that password was to walk five minutes in each direction to ask for the password from the owner of the computer. This would have been a wonderful time to have mobile communication, however, another team member offered to make the trek, and everything worked out fine.

Schedule: I failed at this one. I learned very clearly that I need to have a calendar with me at all times if I am to know anything that is going on, any day of the week. Luckily, our schedules were very team-oriented, so I seldom (if ever) had to figure out where and when I was supposed to do something without the company of others.

I am assuming that most of our readers remember a time when cell phones were not in every pocket, or capable of what they are in 2011. What have we lost through the abundance of cell-phones? Is it worth the gains? Why is it that we remember surviving back then, but now it seems like if one lost their cell phone it would seem like the world was ending?

Friday, July 15, 2011

Balanced Risks

My name is Kim Davidson, I am going into my senior year at KU studying music therapy, and I have never been a risk-taker when it comes to safety. I take risks in other areas of my life, such as picking a college in a city where I didn’t know a single person for over 500 miles, but if something could cause bodily harm? Absolutely not. I can recall being seven years old and pointing out possible consequences of the semi-dangerous behavior of my fellow second graders. But I quickly learned that this precautious thinking is quite rare in Thailand. (Artists blowing glass without gloves or masks)

In America, we feel a need for control at all times and in all situations. So we make rules and fashion long lists of prohibitions, thus making our world more predictable and safe. We are so cautious that when an accident occurs, the exact protocol break is pinpointed and a lawsuit or new bill comes into play. The amount of control we crave and create in the United States is not a possibility in Thailand. In a developing country, safety codes are not at the top of the list of issues to be tackled. And the result? Less fear.

Surrounding every pool we visited was the slipperiest tile imaginable. We crossed bridge after bridge that lacked guardrails and were constructed of boards that felt as if a few more passengers would do them in. When we were in Krabi, one of the boatmen on our island tour would move about the outside of the boat while we sped through the water at max speeds. When we climbed 1,237 steps to the top of the Tiger Cave Temple, railings were scarce and some of the steps were almost two feet tall. Did we sign a single waiver? Not a one. Were there signs with phrases like “at your own risk” or “ we are not responsible?” If so, they went unnoticed, which completely counteracts their existence.

Is this lessened regard for safety a good thing? Arguably not. According to the Public Health Ministry, motorcycle accidents alone take the lives of 27 Thais and injure 438 more every single day. And approximately 80% of those involved in accidents are not wearing helmets. How many lives could be saved with stricter traffic laws, including seatbelt and helmet laws? Countless. But on the flip side, is the level of caution we have in the United States a good thing? Antibiotics are prescribed to children for the slightest of illnesses and a new lawsuit is filed in our nation every two seconds. There are so many rules that it’s difficult to live a life within them all.

(Rock climbers without helmets or spotters)

Both nations have their share of problems; there is absolutely no doubt about that. Simple regulations and standards could save the lives of many Thais and prevent horrible injuries. But the control we infuse into everything in the United States eliminates any level of risk-taking and spontaneity. I think we often forget to live in the moment for fear of the retribution of our actions down the road. Enjoying life should not take a backseat to planning and preparedness. The Thais seem to understand this, even if they have room for improvement in some other areas.

How do you feel about the difference in caution and control between the United States and other countries?

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Ying and Yang

Hello, readers! I am Amanda Wiggans and I am from Macon, Missouri. I just finished my first year as a graduate equivalency student in Music Therapy at the University of Kansas.

A couple of weekends ago we traveled to the northern provinces of Thailand. We spent 2 nights in Chiang Rai, and 2 nights in Chiang Mai. Between sight-seeing at temples, meandering through the Queen Mother’s giant flower garden and elephant rides, the group was kept very busy the entire time.

On this trip we visited several interesting and unique temples. We were introduced to what I now know as my favorite temple that I’ve seen in Thailand; Wat Rong Khun or “The White Temple”. It was designed by Chalermchai Kositpipat. Construction began in 1997 and building is constantly ongoing. Wat Rong Khun is different from any other temple in Thailand, as it is designed in white color with some use of white glass and mirrors. The white color of the structure represents Buddha’s purity, and the white glass and mirrors stand for Buddha’s wisdom that is said to "shine brightly all over the Earth and the Universe."

The bridge leading to the temple represents the crossing over from the cycle of rebirth to the Abode of Buddha. A small semicircle before the bridge stands for the human world. The big circle with fangs and hands reaching upwards is a representation of the mouth of Rahu, meaning impurities in the mind. This area is a representation of hell or suffering.

All the paintings inside the temple have golden tones. The four walls, ceiling and floor contain paintings showing an escape from the defilements of temptation. On the roof, there are four kinds of animals representing earth, water, wind and fire. The elephant stands for the earth; the naga (snake) stands for water; the swan's wings represent wind; and the lion’s mane represents fire. On the walls on the temple at each side of the entrance are images that I was very surprised to see! There were painted scenes of the 9/11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, battle scenes between George W. Bush and Osama bin Laden. There are also scenes from the Predator, Spiderman, Batman, Keanu Reeves character in the Matrix, covering the walls, as well as Avatar characters along side of other sci-fi images such as rocket ships and UFO’s. While these murals were initially strange to me, I soon began to understand what I was seeing. I believe that these paintings are significant because it portrays some of the famous battles that are significant to this era, whether it was an actual battle or cinematic portrayal, there are important lessons to be learned from both.

After we finished touring the White Temple, we set off to visit the Black House. Thawan Duchanee, who happens to be the mentor of the artist who designed and built the White Temple, built this structure. Though very different in actual structure, they are similar in that both artists have created very large, “living” works of art. Both artists are constantly building, constructing and adding to their works. The outside of the main hall is constructed of teak wood and is mostly painted black. The inside of the central building is decorated with several different animal skins, horns and skulls displayed on the walls and tables. There were also smaller, abstract structures on the property that was will filled with various black wooden statues and other exotic animal furs and bones. There was even a full elephant skeleton on display. To me, this place definitely had a darker feel than the white temple, but after seeing the both of these places back to back, oddly enough, it seemed to balance out. The White temple was more representational of a celestial experience and is more focused on anticipation of the afterlife. The Black House was more representational of the earthly world and is ground in day-to-day experiences.

After observing the similarities and differences between these two structures, I began to make transfers in my own life, and in music therapy. Experiences or even clients may appear to be one way, but upon closer inspection can be viewed at in a totally different light. Are things always black and white in your life? Is there a balance that you strive to achieve? Is there a time in your life when you realized that things aren’t always what they appeared to be?

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Let the Music Work

Hi, my name is Amanda Wiggans and I am from Macon, MO. I just finished my first year as a graduate-equivalency student at the University of Kansas.

Last week was the start of the second full week of clinical practicum for us in Thailand. Though it may sound silly, looking back to the first week, we have greatly improved as a whole. Last Monday we sat in a weekly class meeting with Dr. Dena with wide eyes and frightened faces. She promised us that it would be okay, but I don’t think any of us fully trusted her until we actually got into the clinic with clients. My first session was last Wednesday at the Sirindhorn Rehabilitation Clinic in the Adult Day Care PT group. This group consisted of 10-15 older adults, usually accompanied by their caretakers. My group and I had an organized, tightly scheduled session ready to execute, but it was apparent that we would have to either cut applications short or adapt applications in order to fit the client’s needs. Applications are short musical interventions, which are used to achieve non-musical goals. For example, these interventions may include song writing to encourage self-expression, movement and music to improve muscle tone or endurance. This spontaneity combined with not knowing much Thai made us all very nervous and apprehensive about directly interacting with the clients. The session ended up being very successful and fun for the clients, but from the therapist point of view, we knew we very lacking in some areas. As a group, we were more focused on ourselves, executing applications and we were basically running around like chickens with our heads cut off. But what for? In retrospect, we realized that clients did not care if we sang a phrase a little flat or if an applications did not go quite as planned. They were simply happy we were there with them, engaging with them.

Later in the week I had another group session with a different adult group at the PT school on campus. For this session, we planned applications but left room for serious adaptations or changes to the musical interventions if need be. We also didn’t stress out about it as much and went into the session with a more relaxed point of view, ready to sincerely engage with clients and “go with the flow”. I individually interacted and assisted an elderly client during the whole session, which initially made me feel a little nervous. The client was able to speak English rather well, and was very happy that I came to sit with him. As soon as I sat down, my nerves faded, as did the need to use verbal language. For the first time since we had been doing sessions we let the music do the work. It was amazing to see how easy it was to facilitate a session when we allowed the music to do the work instead of us trying to make everything work in a way that we could control. Even the patients in the treatment room who were not participating in the session became very interested in what we were doing, and some patients even began to move to the music and sing along with us.

Looking back, I can see how important surrendering a certain amount of control can be in a music therapy session. Once we gave up preconceived notions and expectations and went with the flow, the music therapy session began to take shape in a much more relaxed and positive light. It became clear to us that non-verbal behaviors were as important as verbal ones, and that an important and valuable connection between the client and therapist can still be made. What is an area in your life where you think giving up control and expectations could work positively for you? How do you know the difference between being unprepared and going with the flow?

Thursday, July 7, 2011

A Run-In With the King

Hey, my name is Daniel Goldschmidt. I am entering my final year of my music therapy undergraduate degree at the University of Kansas. I am originally from Minneapolis, MN, and I am interested in studying the growing connections between music therapy and music theory.

It is 7:30 AM. You just woke up to go for a run before your 9 AM class. You sleepily throw on a pair of black shorts and a yellowed v-neck, the groaning ceiling fan periodically reaching you in its circular oscillation (quite different than the stationary fans of America), persuading your hair sideways for a moment as you tie your Nikes.

You stash a 100-Baht bill, bearing the face of the king, in your waistband to buy some post-run breakfast across the highway from your hostel; you secure your room key inside your right pocket. You step out the door, a damp heat overcoming your body, and start running.

You bank westward at the main road, overtaking a crowd of undergraduate students in their black skirts and white button-up shirt uniform, and you accidentally drop your 100-Baht note. Be careful with your next few strides, as you do not want to commit lèse majesté; due to it bearing the face of the king, you can be arrested for stepping on the bill. Note in hand, you continue to run past a sports field as speakers begin to play Sansoen Phra Barami- The Royal Anthem. People solemnly stand for the duration of the anthem, and you awkwardly half-run half-walk deciding whether or not to join in (you observe some folks continuing to walk, so you keep running).

Twenty minutes into the humid workout, already drenched with perspiration, you curve onto the main road: home of breakfast. Breathlessly jogging up the flight of stairs to the bridge, you admire the decorations depicting the king and queen on a balcony, regally acknowledging the cars passing below. You see another overpass in the distance, solely a vignette of the king’s countenance illustrating its face. Reaching the next staircase, you descend, dodging two students sharing a brief meal, and spot your stop for breakfast: a petite local restaurant.

Lightly panting at the counter, you muster up a little Thai, along with your mastered form of international sign language, pointing, and order fruit with sticky rice. You glance above the teenager behind the register, again seeing the façades of the royal family on trading-card sized photos. Clutching breakfast with your right, the left meets it in front of your chest for a quick waai (bow), you diffidently say khop khun khrap (thank-you) and begin walking home. Between sweet bites, you consider the relationship this country has with the royal family, and how it compares to that of the US.

Here, one can be arrested for even speaking badly of anyone in the royal family; in the US we pride ourselves on “freedom of speech,” millions of dollars spent on t-shirts, websites, and bumper stickers bearing messages of disappointment regarding our political leaders. Preceding any film the screen indicates everyone should stand to honor the king, and a majestic arrangement of The Royal Anthem plays over a montage depicting the king’s various contributions to the country: cleaner energy, jobs for families, and many more. One can only joke about this being done in America; a screen depicting “Please stand and honor the president” followed by a video montage, to put it lightly, would displease many people (regardless of who is currently in office).

In my opinion, it is very nice having a people united by love for a politician and their country, regardless of the family’s involvement in various government positions or community cultures. However, of course, the beauty of one’s love for anything is the choice to love in the first place. Luckily, in my brief experience, the king of Thailand has made wonderful contributions to the country over his reign (since the 1940’s!) and deserves the respect he is given. What are your feelings on the power of patriotism? How would you feel about having a political leader that is the face of your nation, even though he rules mostly as a figure head?

Sunday, July 3, 2011

English as an Only Language

In Thailand, my main cultural concern is my lack of Thai language skills. Lucky for me, I am able to survive in this country largely because Thai people know English.

Until coming to Thailand, going to school in the United States has comprised most of my academic experience. Despite a few visits to schools in Japan and Ireland, I have never before seriously endeavored to study at a school abroad. Among the many differences between Thailand and my home country, the key difference that has affected my experience has been language. In America we are taught how to read, write, and speak eloquently in English. In Thailand students learn how to read, write, and speak English and Thai. English is a requirement for all Thai students. It is considered the international “scholarly language.”

I feel lucky to be in a country where people frequently can speak and understand my native tongue because I only speak English fluently. I would like to blame this on my education, or lack thereof. In my public school system, my first memory of learning another language is a single monthly class in French and Spanish in fourth and fifth grade. Our teacher traveled from class to class with a cart holding her teaching materials. With this method, I learned hardly enough to say hello in both languages. In middle school, I did not take any language classes and in high school I took the maximum amount of classes one could take in foreign language, which was four semesters in Spanish. Spanish being our only option, I decided I would take the opportunity to learn some basic conversation skills. But after going into my AP Conversational Spanish exam with only a handful of classroom experiences in conversing, I failed the test miserably. I assumed I would attempt another language in college, but the language of music took over my life; I only took one semester in Italian language and culture. This class prepared me to order a coffee and ask for directions in Italian. So, what does one do with a little book learning in Spanish and a few conversational skills in Italian? Go to Thailand, of course! I have to admit: I am jealous of the Thais for being required to take another language in school until they are competent in it. So many opportunities for communication come from knowing two languages.

Even though my education is of a high quality, I often feel very ignorant and illiterate here. I do not know more than a few words in Thai, while most Thais with whom I speak know how to converse in English. The Thai people I have met seem to expect me to converse with them in English, yet they sincerely appreciate my attempts to speak in Thai. It is common to ask someone their name in Thai and receive the answer in English after a giggle. Apparently, the giggle means that they like that we are trying their language, and think our accent is funny. So far, I have had one compliment on my use of Thai. Once, after saying “sawadii-ka” to a shop vender, she asked me in English how long I had lived in Thailand and told me I had “natural pronunciation.” Sadly, I believe the shop vendor might have been trying to flatter me in order to make a sale; I can only wonder how far my Thai would come after an entire semester of being here. I have a hunch that, after being immersed in the culture, I could probably ace a conversational exam.

My wish, in the future of American education, is that children will be required to learn a second language starting at a young age. Perhaps at that point the American people can show the world that they are willing to reciprocate communication with other nations of the world.

What do you think about language barriers? How do you feel about language education in the United States and elsewhere in the world?

Hui (to the right), our guide, speaks fluent English as well as Thai.  Also, Bing (to the left) knows fluent English and Chinese. Being bilingual allows them to work with the many other people in the world who also know English, and make good friends along the way!

Do You Know How Important A Piece of Tissue Is?

Hello! My name is Bing Li, from mainland China. I am a music therapy student from KU and will enter my senior year this coming fall. I’ve been to Thailand during the first study abroad program in the winter of 2008, and this is my second time visiting this amazing land. As the only person in this group who has grown up in an Asian country, thankfully, I had less difficulty accepting the life style in Thailand. I’ve seen my peers talk about culture shock and life changes; here, I would also like to share an experience about adjusting and readjusting between western and eastern life styles.
My deepest thought about the difference between daily life is: in US, it is possible to go out with an empty pocket; but in Asian countries (I’m mainly talking about mainland China and Thailand), you’d better to be a Doraemon (a famous Japanese cartoon character; a robot cat with a magical pocket full of interesting tools) to prepare for all kinds of situations. The number one thing that I always put in my bag is tissues. As some of my peers described in previous blogs, restrooms in many Asian countries, including China, Thailand, Japan, and Korea, are quite different from western countries. In my hometown, western toilets are more common to be used privately in houses, but less common to be found in public facilities, especially restaurants and hospitals. We believe that it is not clean or healthy to share sitting toilets with other people; indeed, some people would even squat on a sitting toilet when squat toilets are not available in public restrooms. Even though I’ve been living in US for three years, I still have difficulty accepting sitting toilet and need to put a lot of tissue on the toilet seat when using a public restroom.
On the other hand, when I began to adjust to American life, I found that it was nice to have a good and clean sitting toilet with flushing water and toilet paper aside. One thing I felt a little bit awkward about this Thailand trip was that many toilets in rural areas have no water flush system. Many times, we had to scoop up water from a tub aside and flush all by ourselves after using a restroom. However, compared to the tissue problem, this is not a big deal. For some unknown reason, people would not prepare tissues in most public restrooms (unless in some fancy places); I’ve seen that a lot in both China and Thailand. More interesting, in some places, they will put a tissue case in the bathroom but with no tissues in it (for example, the Sirindhorn Rehabilitation Center where we’re currently doing practicum at). This is something I could not understand but could accept; because that was the environment I grew up in. However, after going to US, I forgot the habit of keeping some tissues in my pocket all the time. The cost of forgetting this habit was huge; after having experience of squatting on a toilet for thirty minutes to wait for someone coming in with toilet paper, I decided that tissues would be the most important thing in my life.

Question for all my readers: Is there anything that you don’t feel important in regular daily life, but might be painful to lose it in some particular situations?

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Reptile Recollections

While pondering about which topic to write about in my blog, I wanted to find something that would be unique to Thailand. I decided to recount my visit to the Crocodile Farm last weekend with Rianne, another member of our program. I’m so glad we went, mostly because it was such a unique (and un-American) experience. The best way I can describe it is in the college student vernacular: it was super sketch…Which made things interesting!

Although the name suggests “farm,” in reality it’s a zoo with a heavy focus on crocodiles. Upon entering we saw a few typical exhibits including an aviary with all sorts of colorful birds. Everything seemed similar to an American zoo – the air smelled of some combination of nice breeze with a little animal mixed in, there were zig-zagging paths around the various exhibits, you could hear small children excitedly chattering and snack vendors popping popcorn. All this was going on as Rianne and I examined our zoo map and attraction list. “Big cats area, Dinosaur Museum, Monkey Island, Aquatic species, reptiles, Crocodile Wrestling Show…wait, what? A crocodile wrestling show?!” We knew instantly we had to go see such a spectacle.

We found the arena shortly after, walked up a flight of stairs to our seats and waited for the show to start. In the middle of the arena was a 100 foot long concrete island surrounded by a mass of crocodiles in the water. An announcer began speaking, music began playing, and two men in red and gold sleeveless vests and cropped pants walked into the arena. They began splashing as they circled around the island. They then wet the concrete down and pulled up the first crocodile by its tail. (At first I was concerned about this being painful on the crocs but they really didn’t seem to care so I suppose it is not!) They shouted a few commands at it and tapped some sort of pattern around its face with a stick. The crocodile opened its mouth and then snap! As soon as it closed its mouth we all got the idea of how powerful its jaws were. Already my stomach had knotted up in stress and Rianne and I were commenting to each other how crazy it was. Yet somehow we still felt compelled to watch.

After a few rounds of having the crocodile open and shut its jaws one of the men tapped it on the face again and the croc held its mouth open. So, when you run into a crocodile with its jaws open toward you, what is the next logical step? Why, to stick your arm in of course! Or at least in a Thai show you would. The man pulled his hand in and out, then his whole arm, and then his head. No joke.

The show proceeded with similar stunts for a while, all of which were extremely risky and dangerous, not to mention stupid, but somehow entertaining in a twisted way. As I said before, definitely something you would NOT see in America. To end the show they brought out a boy, dressed in matching attire, who dragged up his own small crocodile and did similar stunts. As the big finish, he collected the money that audience had thrown into the ring, put it in his mouth and did a running slide on his stomach right up to the crocodile, throwing the money into its mouth from his.

After the show we wandered for a bit looking at the different exhibits. Everything was fairly standard except for the last one, the crocodile pond. (When I say “pond,” think more like small lake.) Onto the crickety old walkway we walked, over the water and over the hundreds of crocs looming just ten feet underneath. Near the end we saw a crocodile pileup, about a hundred of them in a tangled mess, some snapping, some napping, and some eating. We exchanged nervous glances hoping that the walkway was sturdy because we probably wouldn’t have lasted long had any boards given way and sent us crashing down. Yep, definitely sketch. We took pictures and videos to remember our adventure and proceeded to leave the zoo. Thus concluded our epic Crocodile Farm adventure, one we will never forget!

Have you had any unique experiences abroad that you couldn’t find in the US?