Kelsey Lee is from Lincoln, Nebraska. She received a bachelor’s degree in Anthropology from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in May 2013 and has since served as an advocate for refugees in her home state. Kelsey is a 2015-2016 Fulbright-AMCHAM English Teaching Assistant at Chiang Saen Wittayakom School in Chiang Rai Province, where she is teaching Mattayom 1- Mattayom 6 (grades 7-12).
Lincoln, Nebraska is my home. I was born there and lived there with my immediate family up until moving to Thailand last fall. Lincoln has always been a stable place that offers me a safe and comfortable life. It’s no wonder that this midwestern city is a site of refugee resettlement – the cost of living is low, the public school system is solid, and job opportunities are numerous. A good number of these resettled refugees represent various ethnic groups from Myanmar (formerly Burma). Over thirty years ago, these communities began fleeing armed conflict and human rights abuses for camps along the border with Thailand. My privileges, a few of which include an American passport and being a native English-speaker, have allowed me to leave my home by choice. Not only is it a privilege to move willingly and freely about the globe, it feels rather unfair that I’ve moved to a part of the globe displaced people call home, and that I am confident in my ability to return to my own home. A central purpose of a Fulbright grant is to promote mutual understanding across cultures. As I learned over the course of this year, such mutual understanding is a continuous effort.
“Miss, swim in the river if you can.”
Paw Spai Moo was thrilled when I told her I would be going to Thailand in the fall. She knew that I had applied for the Fulbright grant and was anxious to hear news. It was a Thursday after school and I was meeting with her and other high school students for our digital storytelling program. Paw Spai Moo is Karen and was born in Myanmar but grew up in Nu Po refugee camp along the Thai-Myanmar border. Her peers in the room are also refugees who grew up in camps in Thailand. I had been acting as these students’ mentor for 2 years - running youth programs and assisting them with schoolwork. These students never ceased to act as cultural ambassadors, eagerly sharing all they could with me about Karen, Karenni, or Zomi culture. They invited me to their community celebrations and to church services. They took me to the Karen grocery store and played Karen music for me. It seems impossible to have not taken an interest in their home and I’m sure I wouldn’t be in Thailand now if it weren’t for their teachings.
Karen Dance: Karen youth perform a traditional dance at a Lunar New Year event in Lincoln, NE.
After I shared my good news that Thursday afternoon, Paw Spai Moo and the other students wasted no time pulling up pictures on google images, trying to find accurate depictions of the camps they lived in. They told me to swim in the Moei River when I go to Thailand and to play in the rain, because that’s what they used to do. They spoke with a kind of nostalgia that you would only expect from people who’ve lived challenging and eventful lives – indeed their lives already had been.
In the months leading up to my departure, Paw Spai Moo would often say that she wished she could travel to Thailand with me. I started to regret that I couldn’t simply send her or any of my Karen, Karenni, or Zomi students in my place, so they could visit places connected to childhood memories and family members who remained in the country. To reconcile self-doubt I had to remember my intentions. My students had motivated me to pursue this grant so I could understand them better – where they have come from and what circumstances led them to Lincoln, Nebraska. My role in Thailand would be as an English Language instructor, through which I had many opportunities to seek greater understanding of a home other than my own.
Listen and Learn
Far north of the refugee camps where my Lincoln students grew up, about as far north as you can go in Thailand, is the small town of Chiang Saen. In the early morning, young students squish themselves into vans and commute from surrounding villages to attend Chiang Saen Wittayakom School. Often, the villages they reside in lack schools that instruct beyond Matthayom 3 (equivalent to 9th grade). They are on their way to school long before I even get out of my bed and prepare myself to teach them.
In May, I was invited to join the teachers as they conducted home visits with their homeroom students. We followed the routes of those vans after school, driving along rice fields and through mountains. The purpose of these home visits is to gain a sense of what the students’ lives are like at home. What is their financial status? What family members are they living with? What did they do during the summer break? How do they spend their free time? Some of these conversations happened in spacious homes at large wooden dining tables. Other times we would sit with legs crossed on concrete floors. Some students live with their grandparents, some with other extended family members, others with a single parent.
Home Visit: Sitting with my host teacher, a student, and his father in a village near Chiang Khong.
A week or two after these home visits, I taught Matthayom 1 students about family. These home visits revealed to me that relevant vocabulary must include “grandpa,” “grandma,” “aunt,” and “uncle,” rather than strictly teaching them vocabulary for a nuclear family. Furthermore, my coteacher reminded me that an appropriate context in which to anchor family vocabulary was the home. It was easier for them to answer “what family members do you live with?” rather than the broader question of “how many family members do you have?”
I can’t be a successful teacher in Chiang Saen without understanding who my students are. Like my students in Nebraska, they have been excellent cultural ambassadors. Yesterday afternoon one of my Matthayom 5 students visited me in the office after school. She had just traveled to Chiang Mai and needed to catch up on the lesson she missed. She sat down and pulled out her phone, wanting to show me a video of an Akha dance performance she saw on her trip. She herself is Akha, an indigenous hill tribe, and lives in a Catholic boarding house in Chiang Saen so she can attend school here. While watching the video, she told me about traditional Akha clothing and her family back in the village. The English lesson could wait – to listen and learn from my students is always just as important.
I knew we were getting closer to Mae Sot, as the narrowed road carved tight corners around the mountains, which the bus had entered so seamlessly and without warning. Mae La, Umphiem Mai, and Nu Po refugee camps are all located in Tak province near Mae Sot. As I looked out the window into the densely covered mountains, I wondered how close we were to any of these camps - how close we were to things Paw Spai Moo had seen in her youth.
A sign outside an administrative office in zone C of Mae La camp.
I was traveling to Mae Sot to begin a 6-week internship with The Labor Law Clinic. Mae Sot is directly across the Moei River from the Karen State in Myanmar, so many ethnic Karen have migrated to the city directly from Myanmar or from a nearby camp. Pieces of their identity have migrated with them, just as cultural traits accompanied refugees entering Nebraska, which offered unexpected familiarity in Mae Sot. As I biked around I saw the Karen flag printed on t-shirts and traditional woven bags looped from shoulder to hip.
One day I was able to tag along with some University students from Bangkok as they visited Mae La camp – the birthplace of many of my Nebraska students. Mae La is just 10 kilometers from the border and has 3 zones: A, B, and C. We visited zone C where various centers and administrative offices are located. Thailand refers to the refugee camps on their soil as “temporary shelters.” Yet, they have been in the country for over 30 years and continue to host refugees by the thousands (Mae La’s population is over 40,000). As you approach the entrance to zone C from the main road, the sight of densely packed houses constructed of wood and banana leaves, are evidence of this massive population.
In a Mae La office, the university students and I were able to learn about the camp and ask questions. Much of the conversation centered around repatriation, or the return of refugees to their home country. For advocates of refugees, the idea of repatriation is met with extreme hesitancy, as several issues remain unresolved across the border.
After a couple hours, we drove away from Mae La. I had visited the place many of my students call home – granted only a very small part of it. It was a goal of mine, yet it would be irresponsible to see it as something I check off a list. There is no moment where mutual understanding is completed. Visiting my students’ homes in Chiang Saen helped me better execute one lesson, which had to be followed by many more lessons and interactions. My students in Nebraska are not solely defined by their lives in the camps they grew up in. Those camps are the sites of their childhoods, and certainly hold much of their identities. Still, they’ve experienced much more since then and have many years to continue living. In Nebraska, they wear their woven Karen shirts and go to American high schools and universities. They place stickers of the Karen flag on their car bumpers. They are holding on to their homes, while also making Nebraska their home. So, in October I return to a place both my students and I call home. There, it is my job to listen and observe who they are in that context, remaining aware of what they’ve taught me and what I’ve learned along the border.