03 August, 2016

Borderless Friendship Foundation Internship

Polly Woodbury is a #Khmerican born and raised in Tacoma, Washington. She recently graduated from Western Washington University with a double major in Psychology and Communication Studies, and a double minor in Political Science and Diversity in Higher Education. Polly is a 2015-16 Fulbright-AMCHAM ETA at Yangtaladwittayakarn School, Kalasin province in northeastern Isaan Thailand. In her free time, Polly enjoys traveling and exploring as much of Southeast Asia as possible, especially in her mother’s homeland of Cambodia. She is passionate about working with the immigrants and displaced communities, especially those suffering from war trauma.  After Fulbright, Polly hopes to live in Cambodia to study the Khmer language and intern at a mental health clinic before applying to graduate programs. 

Nine months into my Fulbright grant and the time I spent interning with Borderless Friendship Foundation (BFF), a nonprofit working to enhance the lives of hill tribe communities in northern Thailand, holds some of my fondest memories of Thailand thus far. My internship went beyond volunteering at an organization, I gained a Thai family, friends, and memories for a lifetime.

TUSEF Fulbright AMCHAM is special as it is the only English Teaching Assistantship (ETA) program that requires an internship portion within our grant period. This provides an opportunity for the ETAs to delve deeper into Thai society and culture while finding an internship that satisfies our interests and needs.

Taking a break from working at the Half-Way House worksite on Doi Chiang Dao with Pramote Eua-amnuay, the founder of Borderless Friendship Foundation.

For five weeks, I lived in Chiang Mai with the founder of BFF, Pramote Eua-amnuay and his wife Krongjit, who treated me as a daughter in their home. Most of our hands-on work did not happen in Chiang Mai, however; it occurred on Thailand’s third tallest mountain, Doi Chiang Dao. This mountain, located about 2 hours away from the city center of Chiang Mai and less than 25 miles from the Burmese border, is culturally rich and populated with a number of hill tribes that have origins in Myanmar, Laos, and China.

My schedule was sporadic and I learned to be ready at any momentfor anything. On occasions, I’ve spent up to four days at a time on Doi Chiang Dao, living similar to others on the mountain; cooking over an open fire and sleeping in a bamboo hut with nothing more than a mosquito net and a couple of covers. I learned to befriend the geckos that made their way into my hut, and found comfort in the almost silencing buzz of the locusts. I also worked from home on improving BFF’s social media presence, applying for a Rotary International Global Grant, and creating presentations alongside Mr. Pramote.

Below are some of my highlights working with the Borderless Friendship Foundation.

The Halfway House

By the end of my five-week orientation, two Halfway Houses were built on Chiang Dao; students were selected to occupy what we dubbed “the leadership house” and caretakers will live in the second house. This is one of the completed houses.

Educational resources are limited on Doi Chiang Dao, and students wanting to pursue secondary or higher education often resort to attending school in the city. The city, however, can be difficult to access from the mountain; therefore building a “Halfway House”is crucial for assisting a new generation of hill tribe students as a place to live halfway between their home and school. The Halfway House was my main priority during internship. I also assisted with outreach to potential sponsors for students to live in the Halfway House with the use of presentations and promotional materials complete with student interviews.

As my host dad Pramote would teasingly say, “Pailin (my Thai nickname) you bring the labor, the locals have the skills.” His reasoning being the local hill tribe people use traditional engineering techniques with strings and bamboo, a skill passed down from generation to generation. Almost all the materials used for production were local to the mountain and everyone who helped plan and build the houses—with the exception of me—were Lahu.

By the end of my five-week orientation, two Halfway Houses were built on Chiang Dao; students were selected to occupy what we dubbed “the leadership house” and caretakers will live in the second house.

The Annual Thailand Lahu Baptist Convention

An estimated 8,000+ people from the Lahu hill tribe camped out and attended the 3 day event which concluded on Easter Day. Lahu tribes from China, Myanmar, and Laos were all present. Lahu is one of the largest hill tribe populations within Thailand with a number of subgroups within, all having unique languages and cultural customs respectively. An example being the largest Lahu subgroup, the Black Lahu, whose language is considered the core of all Lahu languages.

Originally, Lahus practiced a polytheistic religion and during the 17th century Buddhism became widespread within the hill tribe. Missionaries (many of whom began their work in Myanmar) later spread to northern Thailand, reaching the Lahu hill tribes. Today the impact of the missionary presence is evident as they developed a Romanized phonetic alphabet for the Lahu language in the early 19th century. I was humbled by my host family’s invitation and eagerness to allow me to attend and witness their event as an outsider.

On the second day of the Lahu Baptist Convention, women of the Lahu hilltribe gathered around a pile of donated clothes and distribute the offerings from their church.

Shehleh Lahu Convention

With two elders of the Shehleh Lahu tribe wearing traditional garments (to the right) and a local woman as we prepare lunch for hundreds of people.

Perhaps the most memorable moment of internship was partaking in the annual Shehleh Lahu hill tribe gathering with members from China and northern Thailand. The convention was a three-day event located in the Mae Hong Son Province (also home of the popular tourist destination, Pai).

My host dad and I were invited to attend the event and spend the night at the mayor’s home.

Throughout the day, I enjoyed learning how to prepare food fresh from the mountain because the act of community style cooking— with all hands on deck and massive cooking equipment— is a valued part of their daily life. Although it was difficult to verbally communicate since I cannot speak Lahu and many cannot speak English or Thai, I felt a human connection through warm smiles and body language.

In the evening, lively entertainment commenced with a mix of traditional customs such as dancing in a large circle, hand-in-hand with the person next to you, to the rhythm of traditional instruments. The convention also incorporated more modern festivities such as comedy skits and dance performances. My host dad and I stayed up late, enjoyed the performances, and chatted with the elders of the tribe while drinking tea from the mountain with flakey coconut crackers.

Rotary International
My host dad, Mr. Pramote, is a member of the Northern Thailand, Chiang Mai District Rotary International Organization. Alongside hosting me at his house, he also took in a Rotary Youth Exchange student from Mexico. I learned about Rotary International as I attended weekly meetings. I also had the opportunity to speak at a meeting about my experience teaching English in Thailand and interning with BFF.

Speaking about my experience teaching English in Thailand and interning with BFF
at a Rotary International meeting.

Final thoughts

In addition to interning with Borderless Friendship Foundation, my time in Chiang Mai was invaluable as I gained a Thai family and made Thai friends that allowed me to practice (and butcher) Thai. I learned more about the Thai language, culture, history, and politics than I could've expected and I fell in love with Chiang Mai as a city. I hope to take the lessons I’ve learned with Borderless Friendship Foundation and apply it to future cross-cultural work.

My lovely host mom teaching me to how to cook pad thai, a popular Thai dish in both Thailand and America, at our house in Chiang Mai.

My Rotary International brother, Atit (Thai nickname meaning the sun), to the left and my Thai host brother, Thak, to the right at my host brother's university prom. Thak completed his BA in English at Payup, a private university in Chiang Mai and hopes to start his own travel business and become a tour guide!

1 comment:

  1. Thank you Polly for your passion for your work with the beautiful hill tribe children and hill tribe communities. I agree - Yadaw, Pramote and Thak do so much for their people.
    Regards Dr Lorel Mayberry, President, BFWA