Wednesday, February 18, 2009

kao neeow

Kao neeow is amazing. It is a sticky rice that is used basically for every meal up in the Isaan region of Thailand. It was especially abundant in this past unit and homestay focusing on sustainable agriculture!

This homestay was a really amazing and completely different experience than i have ever had. I had a family with another girl on my program in this small village, which had never had any farang before. They had seen white people previosly, but had never had them stay in their houses. Our family consisted of our mom, dad and little sister (cutest 4-5 year old EVER.). However, kit took us awhile to find out that this was our immediate family because the community ties were so strong where we were staying. Everybody was related in some way, and if they weren't related, they acted like they were! the first night we got there, there were about 10-15 people all sitting on this little platform where we eat dinner. They all were talking to us, asking about our families, where we were from, how old we were, etc. WE finally had to ask who our mom and dad were, because there were so many people! Sarah (other CIEE student in the homestay) and I slept in a room with our mom, dad, and little sister, but their space was separated from ours by a big dresser. 

The families that we all stayed with were part of the AAN, the Alternative Agriculture Network. this is a NGO which helps farmers switch fro mono cropping, and using herbicides and pesticides, to organic farming. The whole unit exposed us to the harms that the Green Revolution had on these small communities, because it switched the culture form one which supported integrated agriculture and self-sustaining farming, to one that relied on mono cropping in order to produce yield for exporting to other countries. Mono cropping made the land less fertile, because it got rid of a lot of native plants and species, and put herbicides and pesticides into the soil. These families are now trying to revert back into self-sustaining ag through organic farming and the formation of a green market. 

It was really amazing to see how strong our parents were. Sarah and I helped them herd cows (where I got licked by one of the bigger cows), and organize vegetables to sell at the green market. The market happened on Saturday, where we got up at 2 am to drive to a neighboring city and set up the stalls for the market, which went from 6-9 am. I usually end the day around that time, so it was definitely a change to have my day start at 2 in the morning! The green market is a combination of different farmers in the AAN, who all grow different vegetables organically. All of the families support each other in different ways, and our parents said that they have become a lot more involved in the community since they started organically farming, because they now worked with and relied on other people, instead of competing against them when they were producing for yield. 

In addition to the AAN, we had exchanges with government officials (who said that they supporting organic farming, even though they do not fund families like the ones that we were staying with...that exchange was kind of frustrating..), families in the AAN, consumers and organizers of the green market, an herbal healer, and two men who have been working on promoting sustainable agriculture. All of the people that we met really made me think about the way that I view food in the states. Is it better to buy from a large organic company, where you do not really know where your food is coming from and how the farmers are being compensated, or from a farmers market, where food may have been grown with herbicides or pesticides? I went into this unit thinking that the first was better, and came away with the opposite answer. I think it is really important to know WHERE your food is coming from. When we walk into a grocery store, and see the little organic symbol, how do we know who grew it? We don't know anything about that food, other than its status as organic food. However, when you buy food from farmers you know who you are supporting. It is incredibly important to support small-scale farmers, and you can do this through buying local. In addition, we read some really interesting readings that said it is worse to be a vegetarian and eat mass-produced soy and beans than to eat locally organically farmed meat. Food for thought..(haha)

My family supported this saying, "We grow what we eat, and we eat what we grow." These families in the AAN are living from the food that they grow and the food that their family members and neighbors grow. We would go down the street and pick some plants up from a random house's garden and then come back home and use them in our food. Really makes you think about what you eat in the states. 

This unit was really amazing for me, because I had never felt a personal connection to food and agriculture before. Even though I have had family members interested in the topic/who are farmers, this opened up a new window to look at the issues. Some of the people that we talked to had been really sick when using chemical farming, and as soon as they switched to producing organic food, no longer have to go to the doctor. We also got to see families who are now finally getting out of debt because of the AAN and their self-sustaining philosophies.

On a different note, the family that we stayed with was hilarious. They would make fun of Sarah and I allllll of the time, because we talked so slowly. They were originally from Laos (as a lot of the NE of Thailand is), so they spoke mostly Lao, or Thai with a Lao accent. This one woman (who hung out at our house a lot, but I don't think is a family member) would say "faaarrrraaang" or "kaaaiiiii taaaaaaahhhhd" to make fun of how we said "farang" or "kai tahd." Kai tahd s fried eggs, which we had every meal because they were SO GOOD. She was pretty hilarious. 

I also got to do a profile of the Herbal Healer, P'Klaengsak. We each have to do a profile piece of one of the people that we meet in the first 2 units, so I chose him. He runs this Herbal Medicine Center in the province, and has a really interesting history. One of the coolest things about him is that he doesn't make his patients pay him. He doesn't want to see his center as a business, so he has his patients pay him in plants instead of money. He accepts donations from people, which is how he is able to live well, but he won't make people pay what they can't afford. I had my interview with him at his house, which was really sweet because it had all of these different plants, roots and herbs all lying around. He gave me different things to eat before and after the interview, so hopefully i'll remain healthy. He also said I looked like Brooke Shields, which is completely not true and kind of funny.

Alright, now that I have written a long essay, I will just conclude that the homestay was completely amazing, and really changed the views that I had on organic food and different forms and effects of agriculture. Good times!

Tuesday, February 10, 2009


I just finished my orientation paper, reflecting and analyzing different things that we learned throughout the lectures that we had last week. These lectures were done by visiting professors and were about Thai history and politics, Human Rights, the Livelihood Model, and Thai Social Structure. I'm glad the paper is finally done, and now I have a day of preparation before I head to a homestay for our first unit on food and agriculture.

The Thriller performance was awesome, although I didn't perform because I missed some of the rehearsals since I was visiting friends in the hospital. We have now had three people in the hospital - one with salmonella, one with food poisoning, and one with appendicitis. It's good that the health care system here is so good and cheap! Here, people do not go to doctors for minor things, they always just go to the hospital. So our Ajaans keep having to remind us that even if we are having a stomach ache, we can go to the hospital and they will take care of us. It is a hard thing to understand, because we all see the hospital as such a serious place to go. 

I am also getting closer with my peer tutor, and am not surprised anymore when she shows up at our apartment and expects me to go out with her. We can never really understand each other on the phone, so she just shows up sometimes in her bright blue pick-up truck, and we all hop in the back. It is so nice to always have open-air transportation here - in the states we would never just ride in the back of a truck with 10 other people. She really wants to take a few of us shopping before we head to the homestay, which should be amusing, since her and her friends are so much more fashionable then we are. I feel like I am going to come back to the states with a lot of collared, frilly, and patterned shirts. She also got really excited when I told her that I liked to sing, and mentioned that she LOVED kareoke. So she is going to take me out to do kareoke with her friends and sing her favorite two songs: As Long as You Love Me by the Backstreet Boys, and My Heart Will go On by Celine Dion. Should be a pretty amazing time!!

I am on the editorial team for our combined blog with another study abroad group called CGE in Mexico. We had a meeting about it today, and I am really excited to get going with the process - I set up a link to our blog on the right side of this page. Our two groups have similar focuses of development and globalization, so we are going to blog back and forth to see the similarities and dissimilarities of our experience. As an editor, I edit the blogs and help find other programs throughout the world that we can hopefully connect with in the future. We are trying to make the blog into a space where people can discuss the issues that we are learning about/experiencing. In addition, it will be a place where past CIEE students can write about how they took what they learned in Thailand and applied it to their lives at home. Should be really interesting, so check it out if you want!

P.S. "BAHHHG!" means "OH MY GOD!" in Isaan (the type of Thai that we are learning). You have to scream it with your eyes wide open. Our peer tutors taught us this the other night when we were all out at a bar, and it is basically the funniest thing I have learned here. You say it when you are extremely friend Justin said it today in Thai class and my Ajaan fell on the floor laughing. She is usually pretty strict, so it was a really, really funny thing to see!

Friday, February 6, 2009

End of orientation

This week in Khon Kaen has been a lot of fun, yet really busy at the same time. Our group has class from 9-12, an hour for lunch, and then class from 1-5. In addition, some nights we have extra work or Thai lessons at 6. Therefore, we have a limited amount of free time to go explore the city. But at the same time, the classes that we are attending are really interesting.

We have had two more academic lectures this week - one on Thai history and one on human rights, mainly focusing on SE Asia and Thailand. In addition, we have had some Thai classes, and are now preparing for our Thai midterm on Sunday! It is kind of weird to have a midterm not even 4 weeks into the program, but as we progress throughout the months, we have less and less Thai classes, so it is proportional. The Thai history class was really interesting to learn about, especially when talking about the important role of the King and the Les Magistrate law. In addition, we talked about Buddhism and cultural values in the country and how they have been influenced by different regimes. 

Occasionally for Thai class, we have a thing called "Thai Fun Activity." These are amazing - the first one was spent drinking and learning numbers with our Ajaans (professors), the second was learning songs and body parts with children during our second homestay, and our third (which happened yesterday) included a scavenger hunt in downtown Khon Kaen. All of the items that we had to purchase were written in Thai, so we had to come up with their translation in English, and then get all of the items within 45 minutes. For example, one of the requirements was to get a signature and a photograph with a policeman. Another was to buy a yellow shirt. We have been learning how to read and write Thai in class, but it was still hard to figure out what the clues actually were, let alone find them in 45 minutes. The winning team (which I was not on, unfortunately) got a free dinner with the Ajaans. Our Thai Ajaans (there are 3 of them) are all really funny and friendly, so a lot of us were jealous that people got to have dinner with them!

This week has been tough for a lot of people, because it is our last week of orientation. Since we have all been here for 3 weeks now, there is a general consensus that we want to get out into the communities and learn more about the issues pertaining to NE Thailand. So orientation activities on group building and goal setting can be a bit long, but all of us are psyched to be here and can't wait to start our first unit next week. Our first unit is focused on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights: Rural and Urban Trends. We are doing exchanges with Green Market Organizers, and doing a homestay as well, so I am really looking forward to get that going. 

One thing that did go really well this week was our first meeting with our peer tutors. These are students from Khon Kaen University, who are paid to come in and basically just have conversations with us. Going into the tutoring section, I was really nervous and kind of just didn't want to be there, because we had been in class for more than 8 hours that day, and we were doing the session from 6-8 pm. But my tutor was AMAZING. She was hilarious and really honest with me the entire time. She helped me a lot with my tones, in addition to getting my phone number so that I can go out with her and her friends this weekend. I met a couple of her friends, who are also peer tutors, and they were very interested in getting all of us to "try out Thai guys." Kind of funny, but really in line with how American girls are perceived here. We are thought to be extremely easy, which is difficult to deal with sometimes. It is just weird to not be able to walk around alone after 7, or to not be able to talk to guys, without people thinking that you want to sleep with them. Kind of different than the US!

We are about to head over to an "International Night," where a bunch of us are performing Michael Jackson's "Thriller" dance. Should be hilarious, and I am really excited to see what people's reactions are!

Sunday, February 1, 2009

One more thing...

I forgot to include one experience in the post I just wrote...

One day, instead of Thai class, our whole group met up to do an exchange with an HIV/AIDS organization called Ban Rom Yen. We met them at a hospital about an hour away from Khon Kaen, and got to learn about their organization and their hopes for the HIV/AIDS situation in Thailand. They told us that it is a really hard to promote safe sex here, because of a lot of relationships between husbands and wives. Although this is not the situation for all Thai marriages, one of the women we talked to said that a lot of the time husbands will have girlfriends on the side, get infected by HIV/AIDS and then pass it on to their wives. She said that some women have no control over their husband's sexual partners, so they are trying to campaign condom use, so that husbands will use condoms when they go outside of the house for sex. It was kind of surprising to hear that, although we know that many Thai women nowadays have more control in their marriages than before. We also talked to a few volunteers in the organization who have HIV/AIDS, and got to hear some of their personal experiences - how they contracted the illness, how their communities reacted, and what their hopes are for the future. 

After the exchange, a couple of the volunteers had us participate in activities and then gave us one of the sex talks that they do around the region to promote safe sex. This talk was pretty funny, especially because it was being translated by one of our Thai teachers, and was highlighted by one of our guys being asked his penis size, to which he replied, "Um..I don't know it in metric."

We then went on home visits to people who have been helped by this organization. We went to two different houses, the first one being to a woman who was blind and had a VERY drunk yai (grandmother), who kissed one of our guys fully on the lips. It was a weird experience, because there was the funniness of the drunk yai mixed with the very real and sobering conversation with the woman with HIV. The next house had a man who was all skin and bones - maybe 80 or 90 lbs - and couldn't sit up without help from the volunteers who were with my group. He was also blind, but gave us a much less hopeful portrayal of the illness, which was hard to hear at points. The whole day made me want to get involved in this struggle to help PLWHA (People Living With HIV and AIDS), because it is something that is very real and present in Thai society, but is hard to deal with, because of the blame that comes with the disease. A lot of the people we talked to did not contract HIV from sex, and many of them talked about being shameful, because they did not want to be seen as prostitutes. Anyways, I really hope to become more involved with the movement as my time in Khon Kaen goes by!

Back in Khon Kaen

I am now ending my second "personal" day of the program, and I feel like there is so much to say since I last posted! My homestay this past week was amazing. I had a little sister named Bem, and I went to school with her every day this week. Her family was really large, compared to my experiences in the US. She had two older brothers, one older sister, mom, dad, and the moms parents all living in the same house. The house was converted into a convenient store, with a screen between the store and the living space, so that is where I spent most of my time. She was really shy, and couldn't speak much English, but she was the cutest girl EVER, and we became pretty close over the week. We slept in the same bed together (ie mat on the floor), and she helped me learn and study Thai. The family was so incredibly warm and friendly, and we spent the majority of the week laughing at our inability to communicate. It was so refreshing to not have any control over what I was doing as well. Since I couldn't understand almost anything they were saying, I just had to go with the flow and go on bike/motorcycle rides without really knowing the destination. It was amazing!

There a couple of things that stood out during the week. First was a night when I was playing outside of the store with Bem. We were just hanging out, and then two of the girls from my program rode by in a song-taew (which my friend Melissa's host dad drove for his job) and they stopped when we saw each other. Melissa's host dad called out if Bem and I wanted to go to "Big C" and my host mom just went "Ka! Ka!" (yes! yes!), and we piled in the back. Song-taews are basically pick up trucks with benches in the back, so they are completely open-air, like most transportation here. Our host kids were SO excited to go to Big C, and kept screaming the  name for the entire car ride there, so we were trying to guess what it was. Turns out it was their version of Walmart. Except it has a ton of fresh food and free samples, which Bem decided that I should try. So she ran to every stand with a free sample, and by the end of our tour through Big C, I had two handfuls of free samples, ranging from squid bites, to bread, to dried up papayas. It was a good meal!

The next night I went bike riding with Bem, and ended up at Melissa's home stay house, picked them up and then rode to the school we all went to during the day. At the school we did two-by-two bike races in the lawn of the school, which was hilarious and completely terrifying. The kids would ride the bikes, and Melissa and I were standing up on the back wheels, trying to hold on as our kids raced down the rocky terrain. Then, we got back to our houses, where I was told we were going to a "Soy Festival," but instead ended up at the agricultural fair again! It was awesome to experience the fair in a completely different way than the first time. This time, my host mom and sister brought me to certain parts of the fair, and taught me Thai names for things. At one point we walked past the insect stand, where I ate the cockroach before. Melissa and I were trying to explain that we had eaten the insects before, by my mom thought that we wanted them, so a half an hour later she showed up with a bag of cockroaches, scorpions, and crickets. Since it is incredibly rude to refuse food here, we ate them all again! It was also funny to see our host siblings, who ate an entire bag of crickets as a snack. I now think that I have satisfied my bug appetite for awhile!

During the week, I walked to school with Bem, and then had Thai class at her elementary school with the other CIEE students who were at the same school. Our study abroad group was split up between two schools outside of Khon Kaen (where my dorm also is) - Nong Waeng, and Nonchai. Nong Waeng, where I was staying, was lower class and only had 10 students staying in host families, while the other school catered to more upper class students, and the other 20 CIEE students went there. It was weird to compare our experiences at our school to those of the students at the other school, because of the socioeconomic differences. They got huge presents from their families, and had more western appliances, while our homestays were more like the first homestay that we all went on. All in all, I am really happy that I was at Nong Waeng, because my sister was so friendly and her family was incredible. At the end of my stay with the family, they told me that I could come back for dinner or for a night of sleep whenever I wanted to, so I will prob go back and visit soon!!

Although I really loved the homestay, I am happy to be back in my room at Khon Kaen, where we will have a week and a couple of days before heading off to another homestay. We went out the first night back to downtown Khon Kaen, which was a lot of fun. We went dancing at a bar around 6 pm, then had dinner, then went to another bar, and then went to a club, where they had random American Top 40 hits, which were kind of funny to hear. Then last night we went to a Khon Kaen University production of West Side Story. It was maybe the funniest thing I have ever experienced. The girls in it were really good (one of my friend's roommates was Anita), but overall it was just hilarious. It was all in English, and they tried to mimic American mannerisms, mostly just having the girls act really ditzy and stupid. Also, the singing was kind of intense and one of the actors kept making eyes at audience members. It was put on in a classroom, and our CIEE student group was the core of the audience, which made it even more amusing. Some of the parts were really good, but it was completely over-the-top which made me laugh A LOT. 

Today was our free day, which I used to visit Melissa in the hospital, since she has Salmonella and is staying there. Getting to the hospital took a lot of time, since our tuk tuk never came. So three of us wandered around to find a Song-taew, which we took downtown, and saw a hospital (which we thought was the one she was at) and got off. Turns out it wasn't her hospital, so we found another song-taew until we saw a tuk tuk, and got on that. I feel like I am always having crazy adventures to accomplish basic tasks, which makes this trip all the more exciting and funny to express in words. My friends and I are going to go back to the agricultural fair again (for the 3rd time!!) for dinner, since it is the last night of the fair, and then going to go out because our friend Justin turns 21 tomorrow! I will write soon with more updates!!