20 April, 2015

Communities that travel

Flor and her thai dress
Flor Castellanos is from Laverne, Oklahoma and a graduate of Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Texas. She graduated with a B.A. in German and International Studies before coming to Thailand and hopes to obtain a Master’s in Educational Psychology with a specialization in Culture upon her return.
Flor is currently an ETA in Mae Rim, Chiang Mai, Thailand where she has enjoyed building community. During her free time in Mae Rim, Flor spends her time volunteering at the Foundation for Highlander Educational Development and a hostel that houses Hmong children; and learning Muay Thai with locals in her community. With a passion for people, Flor focuses her narrative on the importance of community, and how the activities we enjoy can serve as a gateway for building a home away from home.

My vocabulary is limited to express my feelings for the many different places I have seen, and the many different moments I have experienced. However, though I travel miles from home, when I close my eyes and breathe in, grass freshly watered by the falling rain smells the same in Thailand as it did in Germany. When I dip my toes in the ocean and close my eyes, the waves sound the same in Thailand as they did in Cyprus. When I ride my bike and allow it to take me as fast as the hills will allow, the wind blowing past my face feels the same in Thailand as it did in Turkey. And when night falls and I stare at the moon, I know it is the same moon I saw in Jordan and will see at home when I return. Even when the coordinates change some things never do. I love the familiarity in the little things you can’t get away from no matter where in the world you are. These things give me the courage to walk through open doors that will change my surroundings. But it’s not only familiarity in what I feel, see, or smell that has brought me comfort in my transient life, but familiarity in the activities I’ve been able to engage in no matter where I’ve gone; activities that have helped me form supportive communities for a more positive experience.

I have realized that as long as I have community, I can endure the roughest of times. I would imagine this goes for anyone. For aren’t meaningful relationships and encouragement from other human beings something we all constantly yearn for? For this reason, it’s the community I leave behind that makes being away so hard. In the three times I have left America to live abroad, community has become a common denominator in what makes my experience positive or negative. Along the way, I have learned a lot about myself, and the things that help me cope with transitions. I have learned that to flourish I need community. I need it to keep my soul, mind, and spirit accountable to Christ, my body motivated to stay fit, and I need it to keep my heart light.

So what if I could take my community with me through every transition? What if I could pack it up and take it with me like I do my computer, wherever I go? Oh, but I’ve discovered I can! As crazy as it sounds, there are communities that travel. My traveling communities are, but should not be limited to: Church groups, Crossfit, and Salsa dancing groups. I have been able to find all three, or a variation of the three wherever I have gone. In my experience, all three of these communities have had very positive environments with people who have never failed to be welcoming. I have walked in beaten and discouraged, only to walk out feeling positive and happy to learn from my experiences. They love what I love and they help keep me accountable to who I am.

Salsa Dancing in Chiang Mai – Most of them are regulars and always eager
to teach each other new moves.

I recently read an article about community by Shaun Stevenson on relevantmagazine.com. I’m not a patient article reader, but as I was skimming yet another article on doing what we should already know how to do, be friendly, the last point really stood out to me. It was titled, “Walk alongside People, not at them.” Shaun continues on to say that “if people feel they’re going to be judged or ridiculed or ignored because of a life choice, they’re not likely going to engage in any community.“ There are many examples of traveling communities. I have seen people go abroad and get involved with jogging groups, biking groups, hiking groups, rock climbing groups, book clubs, and groups of people that get together to play Frisbee. Frisbee! I never even knew it was such a big deal, yet they have national ultimate Frisbee competitions here in Thailand! So as crazy as a traveling community may sound, it helps people bond and it builds community, because everyone involved is doing something they enjoy no matter where in the world they are.

Crossfit in Chiang Mai helped me start the day off with a positive outlook all through internship month. They also helped connect me with people in Mae Rim who get together to work out.

I agree, not every community is going to be for you. Who knows, it might take you moving to a new place to figure out what traveling community best helps you cope through a transition. But don’t wait until you get to that point to find a community of people that will walk along your side. I know, I know, there are other ways of making a transitional move positive. Many people outside my own “traveling communities” have positively influenced my level of stress due to transition. I have been blessed with a great family, and great friends at home and abroad that have gone above and beyond to be there for me through my many moves. However, making friends in a new place takes time and effort. So a little help through group involvement can only help. Focusing momentarily on my Church community and a conversation I recently had with a couple of friends in Thailand, Paul paints such a beautiful example of God’s love and push for community in 2 Corinthians 1:3-5, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too.” Something I love about allowing Christ to pour into my life is getting to pour out His love for me to others; such a beautiful picture of community. That we would do things we love together so to bring each other support and comfort despite our current sufferings. Allowing something to pour into us, so we can pour into others in our daily social settings. Thus, making transitions actions that grow, as opposed to destroy, our definition of “home”.

My Church Community in Mae Rim has brought such joy into my life.
My experience would definitely not be the same without them!

What types of communities help you find peace and fill up your poured out mind, heart, and body? Sometimes specific communities are hard to find in certain corners of the world, but if a variation is also not an option wherever you may find yourself, start sharing a bit of what you love. Try starting your own version of a community that has potential to travel with the people around you. Whatever new environment you find yourself getting ready to enter, don’t forget your community! 

02 April, 2015

How to “Change the World” from a Bus Station

Krista Mangiardi was raised in the farmlands of Pittsfield, MA. She is a recent graduate of Hampshire College in Amherst, MA from which she received a BA in Liberal Arts and a certification in Teaching English to Speakers of Others Languages (TESOL). Her Division III thesis concentrated on Journalism, Cultural Studies, and Literature. She is currently teaching English in Ubon Ratchathani, Thailand. After she finishes her Fulbright grant, she will continue trying to change the world whether it be from her hometown or from a yet-to-be discovered island. 

"Finally, the Program aims, through these means, to bring a little more knowledge, a little more reason, and a little more compassion into world affairs and thereby to increase the chance that nations will learn at last to live in peace and friendship." – Senator J. William Fulbright [From the Forward of The Fulbright Program: A History] 

Change the world

Well, this is a confusing, intimating, and challenging phrase if there ever was one. I have never changed the world, but I am guessing that doing so requires a direct line to the President of the United States, fluency in Russian and Mandarin, and funding from a celebrity like Angelina Jolie. I do not have any of these things. I have never changed a law or saved a life. I have not changed the world. I have, however, changed, impacted, and left infinitesimal marks on a microscopic slice of the world. Mostly, I have accomplished this during my time with Fulbright in Thailand.

Before I departed for Thailand in September of 2014 I spent my summer in my hometown of Pittsfield, MA where I had a lot of time to think about what I wanted to accomplish in Thailand. I had graduated from Hampshire College where themes of social justice were constantly integrated into my education. I had just returned from a 3-month stint teaching English in Bolivia where I became hooked on the international life. With these experiences in my background and with a Thai textbook in hand, I dreamed up scenarios and projects that would eventually alter the courses of lives and schools for the better. I knew that I wouldn’t have the time to realize all of my ideas – but I had plans.

Teaching English in Thailand for a year, however, is hard. It is wonderful and frustrating and life-changing and amazing. It is an emotional roller-coaster and is something that I would do again and again. The more I learn, the more I enjoy my role here. Some parts become easier and some parts become more difficult. I love what I am doing in Thailand– but I am not achieving the plans I made last summer.

Steve Jobs said that “the crazy ones” can change the world. Nelson Mandela believed that education is the most powerful tool for the job. Rumi wrote that it is wiser to change oneself than world. All I know is that I want to do something positive. I am probably at least a little crazy to do the work I choose I to do, I certainly see the power in education, and I have changed quite a bit lately. My time in Thailand has taught me that my positive actions might not be moving glaciers (or in Thailand’s case…islands), but they do exist. I am not changing the world right now, the world is huge. Instead, here, the moments of change are small but important.

I often travel back to my apartment from an adventure in my host city on a songthaew. A songthaew is a little red truck that one can flag down on the street, hop in the back, and ride to wherever for about thirty cents. I take the songthaew to the bus station and then walk ten minutes back to my apartment. One day, when I arrive at the bus station, I decide to buy something for dinner from the station vendors to take back with me. As I start to wander through the stalls, some vendors ask me if I would like to buy from them. I respond with a short “no thank you” in Thai and continue looking. The vendors, however, are shocked at my three words of Thai. They look so pleased, even though I said I didn’t want to buy their food. We engage in a broken conversation in which I explain the basics of what I am doing in Thailand. They get so excited. They start to point to their food and ask me if I could teach them how to say the names of their wares in English. They carefully practice repeating the words back to me. Grilled pork, grilled pork, grilled pork. They give me a hug good-bye. Two weeks later, I pass through. I get another hug as they proudly point and pronounce: grilled pork.

Even the act of buying meals in Thailand provides opportunities for small, meaningful interactions.

Sometimes, I ride my bicycle a few minutes down the road to Sabaidee Coffee. The only café on my road, it is also the only place I can be assured wifi and air conditioning. I often bike or walk there for an iced Thai milk tea and little bit of conversation with the kind owner, always greeting me with a smile. Sometimes her little nieces and nephews are around. They run around, hide from me, and occasionally come out and bravely declare in English, “hello!” One afternoon, after I get my fill of stable internet, I start to ride my bicycle back to my apartment. I only get about 5 feet away from the café and my bike chain clatters to the road. Next door to the café, however, a new little convenience store is opening. Two men are outside building shelves. I hardly have time to realize what happened to my bike before they wave me over, tools already out and ready. They don’t speak English, but they greet me with the ever-ready Thai smile. They offer me a seat and proceed to spend 15 minutes not only fixing my bike, but making every adjustment possible to make it better. Through a combination of gestures and my little Thai I explain who I am and where I am from. They finish my bike, hand it over, and proudly declare what is probably the only English they know: “Nice to meet you. Welcome to Thailand.”

At Big C, a popular Thai department store, the salad bar lady recognizes me even though I only visit every few weeks. I hand her my bag of salad to weigh and she puts on a sticker with the price based on the kilograms. Then, she smiles, and sneaks more veggies into my bag – especially the heavy ones.

A tuk tuk driver in Bangkok spots me, the lone foreigner in a non-tourist area and starts to follow me as I walk down the sidewalk. “Tuk tuk! Tuk tuk!” he yells. He tries to convince me to pay an absurd price to ride in the back of the three-wheeled contraption at an ungodly pace. “Mai ao ka!” I say back, no thanks. “Oh! Speak Thai very good!” he says back in English and finally drives on. This happens at least once a day.

As I explore my host city, Ubon Ratchathani, and the rest of Thailand, I collect more and more of these stories. The Thai people are incredibly kind and welcoming. They teach me about the country, the culture, and the language. They teach me about generosity. Along the way, I teach a few words of English. I give them a chance to see and interact with someone from far away. I try to show that Americans can take an interest in their language and their food and themselves. We each walk away from a very short interaction with a slightly new interpretation of each other and each country. This is powerful. This is how we create peace. These interactions may not be immediately changing the world, but if we have enough of them, maybe one day they will.

I approach my work in school with this in mind. Yes, I teach English. Hopefully, I motivate students to learn the language and give them a bit more confidence to use it with foreigners, and with strangers. Maybe after I leave, a few will go on to study English or use it in their future careers or travels. The real impactful interactions at school, however, are more than language. They are no different than my interactions with street vendors. They simply provide two-way access and understanding about Thailand and America.

The Thai teachers and training teachers at my school help me celebrate my birthday.
They teach me about Thailand, and I teach them about America. 

For example, the hardest part about my job is teaching my youngest students. In my case, my 11 and 12 year old students are in the biggest classes, have the lowest levels of English, and are often difficult to manage. I sometimes feel like the students do not remember what I teach them or do not care to learn. Then, some small interaction will happen. It will prove me wrong. The last day of the semester that I taught my most difficult class, I got a lot of hugs. I got asked to be in a lot of selfies. Then, an entourage of 10 students followed me all the way across our large campus back to my office. They would point to something if they knew the word in English and scream the word, “flower!” and then laugh hysterically. They tried to talk to me. They tried to learn about my favorite Thai foods and places and whether or not I would be teaching them next semester. I could see them really searching for the English words. Then, they would resort to gestures. They would speak Thai slowly and with simple words. My students may not remember the prepositions of place I tried to teach them, but they absolutely learned how to interact with a foreigner. They learned cross-cultural communication. 

My students attend an event for girl and boy scouts. They often teach me just as much,
if not more, than I teach them.

Before the end of the year, I will return back to America from Thailand. I will try to change the world from other places, and in different ways. My students will most likely still be in Ubon, and maybe they will be trying to change the world too. Scholars and poets and philosophers and scientists will continue to debate the nature of change and impact. Maybe I will keep trying to get that direct line to the President in between studying Arabic letters. Maybe someday I will change a law. Here, though, it isn’t important that I didn’t change the world or Thailand or America. I had some pretty cool thought-provoking interactions that I will take with me. Hopefully some of the people I crossed paths with will take those moments with them too. Then, if we each keep having more of these cross-cultural moments, eventually they may add up to a change in world – all starting at a bus station.

01 April, 2015

Bridging Cultures Through Music

Erin McAuliffe is a native of Boston, Massachusetts, and graduated from The Ohio State University with a B.A. in Political Science and German and a minor in International Development. She is a 2014-2015 ETA in Chiang Saen, Chiang Rai Province. Post-Fulbright, Erin will complete an MA in International Affairs (Southeast Asian Studies) under a FLAS (Foreign Language Area Studies) Fellowship at the University of Washington and will subsequently pursue a Ph.D. in Political Science and hopefully enter the world of academia as a professor. Her professional interests are in the role of the civil society, particularly educational institutions and student movements, in democratic transitions in mainland ASEAN countries. She hopes to use her Fulbright experiences teaching to assist her in successfully engaging and collaborating with young Southeast Asian professionals and students in future research.

“Where words fail, music speaks.” – Hans Christian Anderson

Music has always been an important way for me to express myself and communicate with others, both within my native culture and cross-culturally. Learning instruments came easily to me and I was always eager to learn about the different ways that certain sounds and certain instruments were used to represent different feelings or express certain types of people, emotions, or movements. I formally have studied the trombone and violin for over 10 years and have training in music theory and composition. As a result of these skills combined, music has become the most powerful way for me to communicate in personal, cross-disciplinary, domestic, and international realms.

During high school, I used music to work on confidence building with young middle school students by working one-on-one with them during their music class periods. I also used music to cope with the buildup of emotions I experienced after my younger cousin died of cancer. I compiled my emotions into a string quintet composition that expressed my memories of her, her inner beauty, and my grief through musical harmonies, dynamics, and rhythmic segments.

Usually the biggest crisis I face when going abroad for a significant period of time is whether or not I can or should bring an instrument, considering it normally counts as a second piece of luggage or my hand carry-on when I am lucky. While packing for my Fulbright year to Thailand I didn’t even consider bringing my trombone or violin because I didn’t think these types of instruments, orchestral instruments popular in European and North American cultures, would be very popular among children in a rural area of northern Thailand. Instead, I expected many people to be learning and performing traditional Thai instruments, Lanna instruments in the case of my geographical placement. Lanna is the term used to describe cultural aspects of the area of northern Thailand that was historically the Lanna Kingdom. It was this music culture that I desperately wanted to experience. 

M5 student, Erin, Kru Peter, and a recent alumna perform at the abbot's birthday 
at Wat Phra That Pha Ngao near Chiang Saen.

Fortunately, I have been successful in learning a traditional Lanna instrument and performing; however, my initial views on music culture and education here in Chiang Saen were far off as I realized how prevalent orchestral instruments, marching bands, and jazz music were and how endangered traditional folk music is becoming. I was, however, pleasantly surprised with the interest in these genres of music and pleased that, like with other experiences abroad, how surrounding myself with music, both familiar styles and new styles, opened numerous doors for me to build relationships at school and in the community. 

I didn’t have to look very hard to find the opportunity to learn a Lanna string instrument. Having written about this desire in my Fulbright personal statement, the head of the foreign language department at my school, who teaches traditional Lanna folk music, was aware and eager to help me learn. He started by showing me the salor (pronounced: sah-law), a small, two stringed bowed instrument that is played upright while typically sitting on the floor. It is also known as the “northern violin.” 

Kru Erin and Kru Peter perform with an M6 student at open house.

After showing me how to properly hold the instrument and the bow, he demonstrated the notes by playing a simple major scale. At that moment I realized that the strings and finger positions are roughly the same as two of the strings on the violin. I quickly played a simple “ode to joy” on the instrument and surprised everyone in the room as my violin experience was previously unknown. Even though the hold of the instrument and playing techniques are very unique and these aspects would take me time and practice to master, producing the correct sounds came easily. News that I had played the violin spread quickly throughout school and by the next day I had a few students asking me if I could help them with the violin and the music teacher offering me a spare violin from his house to use for a few months. I never expected to find eager, young violinists here in Chiang Saen but was excited that the opportunity to engage with some students one-on-one in their comfort zone had presented itself to me.

Through meeting students to play violin, particularly one who I work with twice a week, the music building has become my second home at the school. Additionally, a week off from classes due to an unexpected administrative occurrence at the school allowed me to frequent the music building during that week and play trombone with the band students using the time off to practice. My attachment to the music room has further allowed me to establish a friendship with the band teacher, a teacher I otherwise may not have gotten to know easily. Although he knows a few words in English and I have a basic ability to communicate in Thai, establishing a relationship through verbal communication would have been difficult; music, however, has filled this gap. Typically, he will show me the music of a march or swing piece that he wants to work on with the students and ask me to play or sing the rhythms while he plays the drum-set. Not only do we both enjoy communicating this way through music, but it is also a lot of fun for both of us and allows me to share what I have learned growing up in interpreting and playing these popular American styles of music with my host community in Thailand.

Teachers from various departments play together during a day of class cancellations.

“Where words fail, music speaks (Hans Christian Anderson),” is the best way to describe how I have overcome language barriers in Thailand to develop relationships with teachers and students. Through music we share a passion and through music we can fill the silence that would otherwise exist, effectively communicating in this universal language. Most of the students I encounter through music are not students I regularly see in class, as most are not “English track” majors. Therefore, music has given me the opportunity to immerse myself deeper into the school’s culture, getting to know a wide variety of students and allowing a larger number of students the opportunity to work with and develop a relationship with a foreigner. 

Although many of these students are limited in their English abilities, they are learning how to effectively communicate through various means, mainly a combination of simple English and body language, when additional communication is needed to supplement music. Although I would love to see these children develop stronger English skills, I think it is valuable that these students are still learning several ways to communicate and are becoming comfortable engaging with a foreigner. Given that I never expected to be playing violin duets, brass band marches, and popular concert band arrangements in Thailand, I have been pleasantly surprised by the manner in which it has facilitated my integration into the school and allowed me to develop relationships with a variety of the students.

The salor has also opened many doors for me to become an integral part of my host community in addition to my school community. Coming to Thailand, I expected folk music to be very prevalent, particularly in a rural part of the country. The reality is that very few students know how to play these instruments and very few have an interest in learning. To many, it is a piece of the past, something considered “backwards,” and is not in line with the more modern, popular, and hip music cultures of both greater Asia and the entire world. In agreement with the head of my department, I believe that it is vital to preserve these unique cultural components of a society and I am hoping through my presence with the salor in the community and school to facilitate a desire to learn the traditional folk music. 

So far, I have been able to play with teachers from various departments during lunch and free periods and have been asked to play during school events with these teachers and the few students who do play. Hopefully, this will ignite a desire among current and incoming students to learn these instruments. The mentality of the head of my department is, if the foreigner can learn and play, why not you!? I hope that by playing both the violin and salor in the school with the students I can initiate and drive an exchange of music cultures and encourage students to become more involved in music, both traditional Thai folk music and Euro-American orchestral music.

Having previously only played traditional orchestral instruments in orchestral based ensembles in America and Europe, I will admit that I held the naïve belief that all aspects of the musical language were universal. The language that music speaks and that one hears is universal; the sounds produced remain the same across cultures, allowing people of diverse backgrounds to interpret them as a language. What I did not expect and what I was surprised by was that the written language of music, music notation, is not universal. During the first few days of learning the salor, I learned through listening and reproducing sound. After listening to the various teachers gather in the office and play together, I naturally wanted to join in and asked for a set of music notes so that I could read along. I was surprised and felt initially defeated when I was handed a book of sheet music with music notation that was written using the Thai alphabet and had no obvious distinctions between octaves, note length, and style.

At first I thought I would simply learn the songs by ear and write them out using the orchestral notation that we Americans are all taught in school. This, however, became tedious overtime and made me feel like an “outsider” in a culture I was trying so hard to be on the inside of. Even though I was learning the folk instrument, I was writing and reading in a “funny” script, to quote the Thais I played with, that was foreign and unfamiliar to my fellow musicians. In a sense, I was distancing myself from the culture by doing this. Eventually, I realized that not only would taking the time to learn to read the music help me advance in my ability to play and perform but it would also help me be fully on the inside of this art.

Learning to read the music was easier than I initially expected as I quickly realized the Thai characters corresponded to seven familiar scalar notes: “Do-Re-Mi-Fah-So-La-Tee.” I learned that the octave the notes are played in could be figured out through familiarity with the folksong or could be based on the preference of the player. The head of my department helped me decipher the other markings, such as note length, which is dictated through the use of dashes following a note. Now I am able to sight-read any piece in the book with few difficulties, which has allowed me to perform with groups in the community. 

Chiang Saen Wittayakom School's marching band in the Sports Day parade.

To me, cultural immersion and awareness is the act of learning and allowing oneself to be taught a particular aspect of a culture. In order to fulfil this while abroad, I desire to do more than have a presence in a community; I desire to become part of the community. The salor has facilitated my ability to do so given my limited Thai language skills and the cultural “shy-ness” of many Thais towards foreigners. Through performances at the school and the temple I have become a familiar face in the community as a foreigner who has genuinely cared to learn an aspect of Thai society. Not only are people intrigued by my ability to play the salor and my desire to learn, given that it is an endangered art, but they are also impressed that I have taken the time to learn their written script and music notation. The respect I have gained through music has helped me to establish a positive position as a foreigner in my small host community.

Even though I completed a semester abroad in Chiang Mai, Thailand, a few years ago, integrating into a small, rural Thai community has been more difficult than integrating into student life in a Thai city. However, similar to other international experiences, music has been my key to unlock the door to the heart of society. Not only have I been able to share my love for and expertise in music with students and teachers interested in Euro-American orchestral music, but I have been able to let myself be a student of music, learning a traditional folk instrument and becoming more aware of how diverse the language of music really is. When I return to Chiang Saen in May for the new semester, I hope to become more involved in making the traditional folk music more appealing to the students at my school.