Thursday, May 7, 2009

I'm back (but I'm mostly just musing about building my house)

This is said just to be safe, just in case anyone actually has been following this blog intensely (which I severely doubt considering how infrequently I posted): I’m back in the states and readjusting, trying to take stock of how I’ve changed and above all trying to keep walking forward. More fundamentally, though, I’ve been thinking about what it even means to say that one has changed. Do we ever experience true, lasting change, or is it possible that we sometimes just experience things without really changing at all? And, if you have changed, how can you tell when those changes are neutral or when they’re to be considered growth or back-tracking? All of these questions either caused me to jump a little too far for comfort from the shore or it’s all the kicking that I’ve been doing in trying to keep my head above that water that stirred these questions to the surface. I have no answers today; it would just be me typing to try and convince myself of ideas I don’t yet believe. I think that I need to has it out with God first before I start trying to placate myself.

You know the man who built his house on sand? I think that as much as that sand can represent how we often put false hope in worldly power and success to save us, it seems to me that we can also try and prop ourselves up on platitudes and half-truths that have the appearance of Godly wisdom, but are usually just a mix between conventional wisdom and our own musings. What about God’s word or genuine prayer or the words of wise saints before us? How often do I let those things influence my perception of any given thing? YES independent thought. But are we really so stupid to deny that being influenced by others in our beliefs is inevitable? Embrace it and be freed by it: we are created to live in relationship to others, their lives are meant to impact ours and ours theirs. This should check our extreme individualism.

More and more I’ve been seeing how there really is a legitimate need for some kind of sacred scripture in our lives. If I don’t turn to the Bible, then I find myself helplessly reaching out for some other source of guidance and wisdom in the form of written words. And I don’t think I’m alone in this, but it seems to be a common theme throughout history. Societies from time immemorial have valued stories and folklore as ways of teaching and preserving wisdom, and many of these societies have gone on to write their stories and codes down as sacred scripture. This is another case in life where it seems that a natural inclination or desire, like two pieces of a puzzle connecting, indicates the existence of something that is meant to bring fulfillment.

This is why, in our concern for the responsible handling of the Bible, Christians should be careful to not demean its sacredness and rightful centrality in the lives of those who wish to love and honor God. Why should we be so scared of Bibliolatry (idolatry of the Bible) that we take away what I think we somehow almost inevitably need? We need concrete examples of how to love and serve God, and maybe even more importantly, illustrations of who God is and how he has acted in concrete ways throughout history. Yes, he’s always acting and yes the Bible’s stories are culturally dated, but when one can see the truth as portrayed in a particular time and social situation, isn’t it eternally edifying, challenging, and revealing? And the fact is that I’m always going to be looking somewhere for this truth; why am I so eager to turn away from looking in the Bible but so eager to turn to Thoreau or Chaucer or Shakespeare? Maybe the reason is more sinister than being wary of Bibliolatry. Maybe I have an oh so subtle (wink) streak of pride that says “I’m ready to move beyond The Bible to something less fundamental.” And with the word “fundamental”, I’ve revealed myself for having fallen into the classic sin intellectualism. All the great authors, poets, and philosophers have much to offer in challenging and shaping one’s worldview and beliefs. But when you get right down to it, isn’t life make or break on the level ofisn’t life make or break on the level of fundamentals, the basics?

The hardest part of truth is that it is often abrasive to us on a very basic level, and our ineptness at living it out in word and deed should be what keeps us humble. It’s when we start trying to nuance our conceptualization of reality to the point that we think we’ve come up with formulas with which to effectively judge people and master situations that truth is most likely to escape us. I know now that I’ve got to watch this tendency in me, even as I do challenge myself by reading Sister Carrie (which I just picked up at the library). Yes, Dreiser, I’ll enter the world you’ve painted, attempting to be a good student. I’ll see the world you see in all its dark tones and sinister intentions. Just please don’t take offense when I hold up what you offer to what I think is a more accurate standard of the real thing (yes, I realize that faith has a role in this, and I’m perfectly okay with that). I want a house built on sand, not asphalt.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

"What Language are they speaking?" and comments on the weather

I'm sitting next to my host sister dancing along with a a video of a man dancing to a Korean song. "Pasa Thai" (speaking Thai?). She shakes her head no."Pasa Japanese?" Nope. "Pasa Korean?" third guess confirmed. This, along with listening to the popular radio on our drives to dinner, awaken me to the fact that I really am in a much more cross-cultural environment than I'm used to. In America is it just because we're across the ocean from a majority of the other major pop culture makers and shakers or that we're more autonomous in some ways, culturally than other nations who are closer geographically? Or is America not the factor, but my own location in America? I mean, more of the time I'm in Grantham, PA (not exactly a cosmopolitan center) or in Dayton Ohio (not much better). I hear Barbara tell her tales from Phili this semester and I am absolutely shocked at the cross cultural experience she's getting only 60 minutes from Grantham. Maybe I need to "get out more".
Today was Lent and I went to 7 fountains Catholic Church, the same place that I did the three day silent retreat at. The service was mostly in Thai with occassional interjections in English to explain what was going on. The Priest had an amazing Thai accent and when he spoke English he definitely didn't have an American accent. Actually, it almost sounded Spanish, though he seemed to be a slightly tanned caucasian. I was tempted to be frustrated at not being able to understand what was being said for most of the service, but then I realized how rediculously egocentric I was being. Lana, you're in freaking Thailand. What do you expect? In fact, how backwards would it have been if the sermon was predominately in English? What would that say about our presence there? If that had happened, I hope that I would've been partially inclined to walk out.
I've really loved going to a liturgical Church. Maybe the Catholic Church has a different vibe than it does back home, but I didn't feel like any of the liturgy or the ritual that was being done was being done simply out of habit or out of feeling of obligation. Whenever I go, I feel like the people who worship at this church genuinely want to be there and seek to worship God with lives of service, although I've never had many conversations with many of the church members to really know. Something just seems different. Although I was conviced before I came, I now know that I definitely have to read more from the Church Father and Mothers, starting with St. Ignatius of Loyola.
It's official: we've moved out of the "cold" season and into the hot. And boy is it hot! Every day I feel sticky and slick from sweat, which is not the most pleasant feeling in the world. Also, I realized, since my host family doesn't have airconditioning, that I've never had to live in a place where it's this hot without having the comfort of an airconditioner. Sure, in Honduras and Nicaragua we sometimes did without it, and there are always those occassional days or weeks when the air goes out over the summer. But I've never gone without it for such a long period of time. It's opening my eyes and making me more and more thankful and appreciative for those little comforts that I so often take for granted.

Oh, and I miss rain. Cooling, drenching rain. Rain that pitter patters, growing in intensity until it becomes an unignorable pounding. Let it pound away, I don't care, just let it fall! The clouds are all predictable here: all white and fluffy, offering no relief from sticky, sizzling skin. At least they're honest, I suppose: no teasers to be seen. Every single one of them bluntly shoots down all your longing thoughts: "Nope, no rain for the next few months. Just deal with it". But I...."Just deal." Urgg.. but I guess I've always been a bit too sensitive for full-out bluntness.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Bonding with "crop-krua khong Thai"

The last few days have been wonderful ones with my host family. Not that we've done anything extra special, but there have just been some good bonding moments. Two days ago, nan helped me do wash in their spring board (?) washer/dryer. For each load I did, I had to fill up this machine with water three different times: The first time with detergent, the second time just water, and the third with fabric softener. Each time required me draining all the water first and then turning this nob that made it go for 15 minutes. Then on the other half of this machine was the dryer, this container that you shove your clothes into and then compress as tightly as possible before cranking the nob to heat them. The first time I tried this I filled the container too full and nearly knocked the machine over, shaking itviolently off its wooden platform. oops. How do you say "I broke your washing machine" in Thai? One of my goals this trip is not to find out.
I've learned the hard way that washing clothes back home is a definite luxury which, if I may be blunt, I would be screwed without (granted I haven't had much of an opportunity to improve in my use of other methods).

Yesterday nan, nuu, now and I watched the movie Transporter over our noodles and french fries dipped in Thai ketchup (which seems to be much sweeter than the ketchup back home). Talking over movies doesn't always work out, but we like to do a lot of comparing cultures in our side commentary. For example, the other night we watched a movie that was made for a Western audience. This movie had Asian actors/actresses, and nan could tell that they were trying to pass Chinese actors off as Thai. Now whenever I watch this movie back home I can laugh along with others who have the same cultural insight (not that this makes us any better; there are plenty of generalizations made about Americans here in Thailand that simaltaneously make me want to hurl and die with laughter).
And did you know that people here can't tell our group of American students apart, even though some of us have blonde hair and others black or brown hair, some blue eyes and some green or brown eyes? And it's not that all Asians look alike; it's just that our cultures look at different characteristics to distinguish one person from another. Honestly, I wasn't really aware of this until I came here, and feel silly not that I see it. I hope that now I'll think twice before making generalizations about the looks of people with different nationalities.
Later that night I got out my Thai language book and had a very broken conversation with my 13 year old host sister named nuu. I know I must've sounded foolish, mumbling the simplest sentences, but I think we connected a little bit. I hope that even if she can't speak English or Thai with me that she at least feels more comfortable around me; naan says that she's very shy, which I think Thai children generally are in comparison to children in the U.S. (this does NOT mean that they're any less stubborn or rowdy, though). Nuu even went "running" with me today before dinner (although it was more of a trot for her; I don't know what we looked like in this culture, but back home we must've looked pretty silly since she was still wearing her school uniform, which is made of a thick green material, the skirt of which hangs below her knees).
Then tonight we went out to eat at another restraunt where everyone shares from a bunch of different entrees, a style of eating that I've come to love. I hate how when you go out to eat in America you're given a huge plate of food that your stomach, in act of black magic, somehow expands enough for you to consume. Even doggy bags usually don't take away from the fact that you will usually consume an unearthly amount of food. Okay, so that's probably being a little harsh, but only a little. It's also less common in America to share food since there's a definite sense of ownership that we (including myself) have over "our" plates. So I love eating here because everyone shares and I find it generally easier to stop eating when I'm full. And it's not that they're more altruistic than us, it's just that it's more of a group mentality, which has both its positives and its negatives.
The point of all this is to say that, through events none too extraordinary, my Thai family and I have gotten closer and I'm feeling immensely thankful.

Cliff note on culture: Our last few nights of eating Chinese food brought to mind some interesting notes on prejudices among the Thai people. There's a large Chinese population in Thailand and many of the wealthier business class have a Chinese heritage. For this reason, many ethnic Thais feel threatened by their success and have a prejudice against them. One of my Ajarns (Professors) told us a story of a brilliant Thai man who studied at a prestigious school in England but for whom it took nearly his whole adult life to accept his Chinese heritage.
There's an even stronger prejudice against those with Indian heritage, since they're the skilled silk makers and artisians, Thai trades that are world renowned for their excellence. We asked how such people remained in business if Thais were so prejudiced against them? Thais still buy their products because, well, they're the best, and even if they didn't, foreigners who come here do.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Lessons from a Kitten

This weekend I went on a Silent Retreat at the Chiang Mai Seven Fountains Catholic Church. The retreat wasn't mandatory but I had heard from some Messiah students last year who did it and said that it was one of the greatest times of personal spiritual growth from the whole semester. So though the idea of spending two and a half days in nearly total silence was slightly daunting, it was something that I wanted to experience. Plus I've read about different spiritual disciplines before and had always wanted to know why so many Church Fathers and Mothers saw silence as an important way to strengthen one's intimacey with God.

While there were many things I could share about the retreat, I'd love to share a lesson that I learned from none other than a cat that was roaming around the church garden. I'll just write what I wrote in my journal:


Today as I was walking on the garden path, I saw a beautiful young looking cat attempting to pounce on bugs. I gasped and lurched to a stop at the sight of him: such a clean and beautiful cat (which seemed rare for what I had seen in Thailand).! His silver coat and bright green eyes were captivating and I beckoned him to come to me. As soon as he saw me he began meowing. His meow was as much like a child's cry as I think I've ever heard from a cat. My heart instantly softened towards him and as he rubbed up against my legs, letting me stroke his fur, his purring persisted. He seemed pretty thin and so I gathered that he must be hungry. I had great compassion for him and was filled with a sense of urgency to find food for him. Lunch wouldn't be for another hour, so no meat was around and all I had was a banana. Then, remembering the milk in the snack area, I set off on my quest: I was going to feed this cat.
After getting a cup from my room I rushed to get the milk and then rushed back to the garden, all the time thinking of how his aching would be soothed as soon as he got that milk in his belly. I imagined him eagerly running toward me, gratefully lapping up the milk from my little cup. But when I arrived back at the garden he was no where to be found! I looked all over for him and even retraced my steps, but there I stood with a full cup of milk and saddened over the thought of him going off hungry, completely ignorant of what I had brought him.
As I had been getting the milk, I began to think about the intensity of the compassion that I had felt for the kitten, although I had never seen him before and nor did I know if he was in fact starving. After all, such a clean and shiny coat was rare for any stray animal in Thailand. Then I had a strange epiphany, which I guess you are more open to having when a thousand thoughts from a busy, talkative day are filling the space in between your ears: If I was so moved by compassion for this kitten when he cried out to me, think of the immensity of the compassion that God must feel towards his children when they cry out to him! How could I give myself more credit than God for being compassionate? Wasn't it he who created me? If I have that kind of capacity for compassion, his must be overwhelming.
Sometimes I think we see God as this task master who coldly distributes supplies based on quotas and all kinds of facts and figures, not open to hearing any personal "sob" stories as to why someone might need something. But I think that I saw today how beautifully eager God must be to meet all our needs. If we would only cry out to him like that little kitten did to me!

Oh, and p.s. to all you little kittens out there: don't go running off before He can feed you. Wait-He will provide! Because, unless your grasshoppper hunting skills are better than my grey little friend's, you'll probably go off needlessly hungry otherwise

Monday, January 26, 2009

The Lahu village

This last weekend our SST group traveled 3.5 hours into the Northern mountains of Thailand, just a few hundred kilometers from the Burmese boarder, to spend the weekend with a Lahu village. There are many different tribal groups in Thailand, the largest of which is the Karen (the group we'll be staying with in April); the Lahu make up a smaller percentage of the remaining tribes. Ajarn Ann and Ajarn Mike have been connected to this community for years and have helped fundraise for several community projects there, like a waterline for the village, a community center and community kitchen, fencing, as well as plans to build a village school in the near future. To get an education, the children have to leave home at around 4th-6th grade, which not only separates families, but also keeps children from learning their own Lahu culture, which is rich and worth perserving.
From what I could see, the village has a strong community focus and everyone helps the others out. Though it might not happen every night, every day the village pulled t ogether to help prepare our meals and to accomodate us. We even went fishing with the village while we were there (which was much different than my idea of fishing, which is either to use a pole or to use a net. The Lahu set up barriers to drain a small section of the river, a team effort, and then search under rocks and debri to find the hiding fish. If you don't find any individually, the whole community starves).
Ajarn Mike told us that the way they did butchering here was what you might label Socialist: each family would take its turn killing a pig to share with the village. Whoever kills the pig gets to choose their own portion but then gives the rest to everyone else. This way, people have incentive not to be greedy when it's their turn to kill the pig and to share with others as that's the only way they can all be able to eat more than just a few times off their own pigs. Communal sharing works so well here, though, because the people see it as a necessity to surviving and it's been a tradition that's kept them alive for generations. To say that the ugly aspects of human nature aren't present here, like greed and selfish hoarding, would be to idealize them.
I say that just as much for myself as anyone because I had a sort of revalation while in the village. Jen and I were talking and she shared an experience she had in Honduras. She was supposed to be making baloon animals for a village but there were only two people making them. People shoved and pushed and hoarded, grown women edging out the kids that surrounded them. "And I was supposed to love and serve these people?". Her sharing that demonstrated that human nature can be just as ugly in a small village in a developing country as it can be in the wealthy U.S., something that I acknowledged in my head but never really had seen neccesarily played out. Maybe it's just a question of how much a society's culture nourishes or fosters those attributes. For instance, the Lahu's culture used sharing as a tool for survival. This didn't necessarily make them more egalitarian, but it did effectively use the human desire to keep one's-self alive to ensure the whole community's welfare.
We did homestays there too, this time 2 to a house. My friend Z and I stayed with a woman named Happie who really seemed to live up to her name. I think some people had it rougher than us, but our house was fairly nice, meaning that there was a big open space for a living room, a spacious kitchen, an "American standard" indoor toilet, and we had plenty of blankets to sleep with on the floor at night.
On Saturday we went to an orphanage where abandoned, impoverished, and/or kids whose parents were killed by AIDS go. They performed songs and dances for us, all decked out in their tribal outfits. There were 2 different tribal groups there, one of which was Lahu. After they performed, we handed out Christmas gifts that we had helped buy but most of which Ajarn Mike had fundraised for back home by being Santa Claus at different places (and really I've never seen a man look so much like the traditional picture of Santa). We then sang some worship songs with hand motions in English. One little girl just latched onto me during that and cuddled up next to me during the whole meeting with the managers of the orphanage. She was the sweetest, most loving little girl and I'm going to miss her. I'm just glad that I got to meet her even once.
Their stories were so encouraging and inspiring: the kids apparently, without aid from Ajarn Mike and Ann, would have only 2 baaht a day to eat with. I can't even imagine what that could buy, considering 33 baaht= $1. After they fed us a wonderful lunch, we played with the kids, and Jen had a sort of cathartic moment: while she was making the animal baloons, instead of pushing and hoarding, the little kids were helping each other make them. That was healing even for me.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

There's a mouse in the room

There really is.; I just saw it scamper across a barrier and am now hearing it rustle in a plastic bag. WHat am I supposed to do about it though? Naan (my host sister) warned me that I might see mice and Geko's downstairs. One of which I'm obviously more okay with than the others, but even those green little guys I think are hiding out in my bedroom because I've heard their shrill singing at night, and it almost sounds like they're saying "nanny-nanny na-na, you can't find me". But I"m too pacified to actually seek them out to kill them or remove them; they're going to have to attack me in my sleep or get annervingly close to my bed in order for that to happen.
I'm living with my host family now and having the first thing I say about my living conditions be about mice and Geko's is probably unfair and deceiving in the sense that those things are a reality for many people here but I'm not living in squalor or anything. First off, materially, Thailand's really developed over the last decade and is considered a developing country (not developed but not undeveloped). It's a land filled with smiling faces, of easy going people who are patient with your butchered or non-existent Thai, who in fact praise you for speaking "very good Thai" when you can say as much as "Can I have fried rice" (which by the way is difficult for English speakers because the word for Can I.. and rice are almost identical save their tones. The 5 tones of Thai make things pretty tricky). Plumbing isn't as good here, but it's not unlivable and there are porcelain, Western style toilets and/or squatters everywhere. Just don't try to flush toilet paper down them, if there is any toilet paper to be found (many Thai's use a, as Ajarn Mike said, "vegetable sprayer").
I love the way meals are done here! It seems that most people eat out for dinner, unless they enjoy cooking and/or have a maid to cook for them. But their eating out isn't the fast food that we typically eat or the huge portion sizes at dine in restraunts. All over Chiang Mai there are thousands of street vendors and restraunts where you can get plates of fried, plain, sticky, and any other kind of rice there is mixed with vegetables and sauces and whatever kind of meat you'd like from whatever part of the body you'd like it from (if it's edible, they'll eat it here. My host sister just ate a little squid out of a plastic bag the other day and, as my experience with pig's blood tells us, there are even more things that American's would never think to eat). I love it because each shop is so different and each person selling the various foods have a story and here we all are on the same street for dinner. I'm still fascinated, thouh alternatively disgusted at times, at all the different kinds of foods. They loved jelly filled/based deserts here and seem to be more into candy selling than into chocolate. Portion sizes are a lot smaller too, which I love; it's so much healthier. At home, I usually just eat the whole thing of whatever size I get because it's there in front of me or I feel guilty for not finishing it when I would've been satisfied witha much smaller portion, but ehre I don't really have to worry about the portion on my plate being too big. For an example of a portion size, the one night that I got ice cream for dinner, the two scooped cone I got was no bigger than the size of a one scoop back home (if that).
One thing that does annoy me about portion sizes are their drinks; they have these really good fresh fruit drinks that are probably neutral for you considering how much dreamer and/or sugar they put in the base. The only thing is that they fill the cups up to the brim with ice and so it doesn't seem like you get very much at all. Again, maybe that's a good thing and maybe I need to adjust myself because it's healthier to drink less of that kind of thing anyways. Besides, comparatively everything's so cheap here that I really can't complain about being served that amount of drink for say 6 baht (33 baht is $1, so much less than $1).
I'll have to write more about my host family and about Ban Phansuwan later. I have class in 40 minutes and need to get ready. Every time I sit down to write things down I feel that I've only begun to scratch the surface of what we're experiencing here. It's frustrating, but not that frustrating; I guess I kind of expected it to be that way, though I didn't know that there could be this much to process or even basic things to share.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Thailand!!! Culture shock 101

It's only been 9 days since we've been in Thailand and already I feel stretched beyond what I thought I would be. I've always considered myself easily adaptable to new situations, but I don't anyone who develops any habits or preferences in life can cross the globe and not be shaken up a little bit. Mostly I'm talking about changes in diet and cultural customs that make up our everyday but often go un-noticed. For instance, I didn't know how not having cheese at least every once in awhile effected my mood or how I rely on something like pb&j when I"ve had a rough day to comfort me.
There was one day in particular here where I tried ordering something in quasi Thai and was given something completely different. Not knowing what it was and being suspicious of its looks and smell, I tried communicating to the lady that it wasn't exactly what I had in mind. Obviously she couldn't understand me, so, feeling helpless and frustrated, I gave in. Here is where I learned traveling rule #1: If something looks like it's going to taste groose, don't necessarily avoid it, but beware, because there's a good chance that it might (if for no other reason than your body's up-chuck reflexes have been culturally conditioned to think so). After forcing down a few bites of this brown tofu looking stuff emersed in brown juice, I knew I had to find out exactly what I was eating or I would see it again very soon. Ajarn Ad, one of the Thai professors who's helping out with the program, looked at my bowl and with a smirk (which I think with Ajarn Ad can mean many things), kindly informed me that it was pigs blood.

Standing there, knowing that that stupid pigs' blood had weaseled its way through my esophagus and was at that very moment defiantly sloshing around in my stomach made me feel helpless and defeated. I tried to stop it but couldn't and was now experiening my first real case of culture shock. I wanted to cry. Thankfully, there is chocolate in Thailand, and so I fixed myself up with a little box of a chocolate stick snack to comfort me and had only two unadventurous scoops of ice-cream for dinner that night.
Okay, so I just shared probably the worst experience for me so far in Thailand, but over all it has so far been an amazing experience! I guess I didn't know where to begin with all the good and so I just shared the "bad".