10 April 2009

Information Exchange

Most of my conversations in Thailand with homestay families have revolved around the fact that I come from America; I do not want more rice, and that I have a curious interest in integrated agriculture, all of which cannot be expressed in more than a few key phrases.

I have found value in unspoken connections and relationships, but during Unit 4, for the first time I had the privilege of making a spoken connection with a family. My first night in Bon (Pong?) I met Paw Boonkong.

Remarkably he can read English fluently. His aural skills are not as strong and most of the time he can understand a word if it is spelled out loud rather than spoken. While exploring the Mun River we had a conversation, in both Thai and English about how the Mun River floods. How it destroys the paa taam [community wetlands] yet increases the amount of fish in the river.

He asked if I knew about the Mississippi river and Hurricane Katrina. I told him I am moving to Baton Rouge in the fall. I told him that the Delaware River floods my home every year.

Through out the rest of the homestay our conversations were something I looked forward too, and judging by what he told the three students who lived with him, he enjoyed as well.

After swimming in the Mun River he brought several of us students to where a motor generates electricity. He told us about the negatives and positives of the dam. He talked about irrigation and how it helps the farmland, but the river flooding leaves no place for cows to graze.

I had read about these issues in my reading packets. Professors had lectured the group about these issues. But I had never experienced firsthand what it meant to hear it from someone who was living it. No translators. No formal exchange setting. To hear a villager explain the contradictions made my learning experience more real.

The last night I spent in the village, Paw came to my house and again we struck up a dialogue. I brought a reading packet over to him and together we read the human rights report for Rasi Salai, the dam that had affected his community.

He pointed at photos, and named the villagers. He knew everyone pictured. Word by word he read the report out loud, looking over at me for minimal clarification. Mainly I pronounced words, or provided synonyms.

The experience was powerful. The issue of water and development, and loss of livelihood had resonated so deeply with me, and to hear it read aloud from someone who experienced it on a daily basis was incredibly moving.

When he finished, Paw turned to me, “Kop kune kah Ajaan Melissa.”

For the first time since I arrived in Thailand I wasn’t just extracting information from everyone I met.

Melissa Garber -- University of Massachusetts


Julia said...

I completely agree that person to person conversations about these issues are some of the most powerful learning methods. I felt similarly to your post when I was living with my Meh in Na Nong Bong, the Gold Mine community.

Even though I couldn't always understand exactly what my Meh was saying to me, I strongly believed that I was making a difference in her life. She would tell me that she was so happy CIEE was in the village, because she needed help with the many problems surrounding her life. From the moment I walked into her house, she treated me as a daughter and trusted me with her personal experiences. She also taught me a lot, and helped me see the power of non-verbal communication.

In my experience I have learned the most from this kind of educational method. Learning from each other through open and honest conversations can really teach people a lot, even if they cannot completely understand each other all of the time. That way we are not just always extracting information.

Kim G. said...

What does "Kop kune kah Ajaan Melissa" mean?

Also, I completely agree that we are extracting information from the people we meet. I feel like we, as students, get a lot more out of our relationships with people than they do. It's still a little bit hard for me to understand why the speakers agree to come speak to us - and some of them travel as many as 4 hours! We learn so much from them, but what do they get out of it?

Even with just making friends, in a lot of ways it's easier for us to leave at the end of our semester because we have other lives waiting for us at home. But for the people here, what does it mean to them to invest in a friendship with a person who only has a limited amount of time here?

For one of our classes, we have to work on a community engagement project for a couple of hours a week. As difficult as it can be to organize this, I am glad we have this really small opportunity to give back a little bit. Even if we are just painting for an hour or so, I feel good that we are helping a little bit.

justin.crosbie said...


Having lived with Paw Kong, I know how inspiring it feels to sit and talk with him, both in broken English and broken Thai, about some of the most pressing issues to the communities in which we are staying in.

He certainly is one of a kind and is able to connect with people both through reading and talking but with his spirit and personality.

He is an extremely caring individual, the second day that we were there I did not eat breakfast, and slept through lunch. Paw thought it was because I did not like the food (which is not entirely incorrect) so he went down the street to a neighbor's house who is one of the best cooks in the village and had her come over to cook the rest of the meals during the homestay.

While this may be different from your experience with him, I felt very connected to him throughout the trip, especially when we would sit down and eat, in the yard, as the sunsets...just talking.

Eliza Leavitt said...

Human connections are some of the strongest learning tools. In my time here, I have felt similarly to all of you, my personal exchanges with Thai people have been some of the most inspiring and intellectually stimulating. The conversations I have had with homestay parents, my Thai roommate, and Thai friends have been some of the most informative in terms of my knowledge of Thai culture. In truly immersing myself I have found these times most invaluable. I have also found that in communicating even a little knowledge of Thai helps bridge both cultures together.

When my two friends and I traveled to Chang Mai for Songkran (the Buddhist New Year), with our limited knowledge of Thai we were able to create profound friendships with our trekking guides. Although, they were at first confused farang women were even speaking Thai, it allowed us to be welcomed into their world much more easily. Yet, communication does not have to only be aural, there are many forms of communication that I have also come to appreciate in my friendships with Thais. Just by actively listening to one another, we share culture and knowledge.

Perla said...

People always say that to put a human face to an issue will drive a point home. And while this sentiment is true, the human voice--true verbal communication--sometimes is the best way for an issue to resonate with us.

Although we are unable to communicate in more than broken Thai and English sentences, I find that this is a blessing in disguise. In being forced to ask only simple questions, we often get the most profound answers. As a result, we only speak that which is most pressing, the thoughts that are too important to shrug off just for the reason that we do not have the most eloquent wording.

Often, in homestays, I am glad that much of the conversation is about comparing Thai and American culture. In finding out that I practice similar daily activities, or have similar experiences to my homestay family I feel inherently closer to the family I live with and the issues they are facing.