12 June, 2017

The perfect, imperfect, and everything in between


Jessie Durning is a 2016-2017 Fulbright-AMCHAM English Teaching Assistant (ETA) at Ban Kumuang School in the Ubon Ratchathani Province. She is originally from Winnetka, Illinois. Last May, she graduated from Connecticut College with a B.A. in American Studies and Human Development as well as an elementary education teaching certification. In her free time, Jessie enjoys visiting with local friends, exploring Ubon on foot or by bike, traveling around Thailand to meet up with fellow ETA’s, and staying connected with family and friends from home. After the completion of her Fulbright grant, she plans to travel for a few months learning about other cultures and return home ready to work in a field that helps to promote cross-cultural understanding. 

Ring ring. Ring ring. The first alarm of the day goes off. I quickly reach for my phone and without even opening my eyes, turn it off. I fall back asleep for just five more minutes as I wait for the second alarm to go off. Ring ring. Ring ring. I slowly sit up in bed and turn off my alarm. It’s still dark outside as I walk across the room to turn the light on. “You ready?” I say to my roommate before turning on the bright fluorescent light. “Okay yes, go,” she responds timidly. After the light is on, we both scurry around the room quietly to get ready for the day. The songtao, a truck with bus-like seats in the back, leaves in 20 minutes from the staff compound to the hotel and if we miss it, we would have to walk, which neither of us wants to do at 6:00 am. I cover my body with sunscreen, put on my mahout uniform, grab my hat and sunglasses, and I’m ready to go. My roommate and I head outside and say hello to the driver. If we’re running a few minutes late, he knows to wait for us because we are the only ones on this early ride.

My roommate, Laetitia, during our early morning commute.

This is a typical morning during my internship at the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation (GTAEF). The elephants start their day bright and early, so we do too. My roommate and I eat breakfast while watching the sunrise over the mountains and trees filled with mist, just spotting Myanmar in the distance. We load up on coffee and black tea before heading down to the elephant camp to begin the work day.

The Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation is a non-profit organization that aims to provide a safe haven for rescued elephants, while also helping the wild population thrive and grow. The foundation currently has 24 elephants from all over Thailand with a variety of backgrounds. Some elephants were once logging elephants, while others were taxi or show elephants. The foundation works hard to ensure that the elephants live a happy and healthy life which is not an easy task. It takes space, passionate and flexible employees, and lots and lots of food. Luckily, the foundation works directly with the Anantara Golden Triangle Resort, which helps provide a beautiful and appropriate environment for the elephants to roam. The foundation staff consists of seven members as well as 32 mahouts. For food, elephants eat about 10% of their body weight a day, which roughly equates to about 200 kg of food every day. The foundation hires local farmers to bring in large bundles of grass, pumpkins, sugar cane, and bananas to feed the elephants.

One of my favorite elephants, Beau, eating some tall grass. Not as tasty as sugarcane, but still pretty good

The foundation strives to treat the elephants kindly and ethically. It also works to bring in enough donations to feed and care for these magnificent animals. Asian elephants have been captive in Thailand for thousands of years. However, it was not until relatively recently that true conservation efforts began to save and care for these important animals. All over Thailand, you can find sanctuaries and foundations with one single goal: to help captive Asian elephants. Despite this common goal, every sanctuary and foundation has different methods and opinions on the best way to protect and help these animals.

Throughout my time as an intern, I have learned how to assess an imperfect situation and to look at it from all angles and perspectives before making a judgment. The GTAEF believes in protecting the elephants, while also ensuring the mahouts, guests, and elephants are safe. Domesticated elephants are no different than wild elephants, except for the fact that they are more comfortable around humans. That does not mean, however, that they might not unpredictably resort to their more “wild” ways. Ultimately, this means that some practices used at the foundation are arguably controversial and difficult, at least for me, to accept. The mahouts use bull hooks. At the foundation, these hooks are not used to harm the elephant, but rather to guide the elephant using the wooden end (non-hook end) of the stick. These hooks are a part of mahout culture and the mahouts feel strongly that they need to have some way to protect themselves if something were to go wrong. In a perfect world, the mahouts wouldn’t need these hooks. However, as long as humans are interacting with elephants in an intimate way, the hook is perceived as a necessary precautionary measure. Another uncomfortable practice is that at some points throughout the day and night, the elephants are on chains and prevented from roaming freely. While the chains are extremely long and give the elephant plenty of space to roam, interact with friends, and forage for food, they also prevent the elephants from fighting or hurting each other and from crossing the border into Myanmar and finding themselves in a less safe situation.

A 26-year-old female elephant, Jathong, at the end of the day.

In a perfect situation, these elephants would be able to roam freely around Thailand without fear of abuse or being killed. At this point, however, that is simply not possible. Therefore, foundations such as GTAEF work tirelessly to provide a home for these elephants, albeit imperfect, but away from abuse and harm. Initially, I was uncomfortable with this imperfect situation. I had researched about hooks and chains and I made a snap judgment about the “best” way to treat elephants in captivity. After working at the foundation, I learned quickly that there is no “best” or “perfect” situation because the perfect situation would be that all elephants live in the wild. I learned that an imperfect situation isn’t always a bad situation. GTAEF makes active choices to protect and care for their elephants while continually researching and learning more about alternative methods to better provide for the elephants. The organization has taught me to research thoroughly, all sides, not just the one I think I might agree with, before making any decisions or judgments. I am reminded to be critical of a situation, while also keeping an open mind.

These lessons will stay with me throughout my time in Thailand because, truly, no situation is ever perfect. The Thai school system, like any school system, is not perfect. During my first six months teaching in Thailand, there were many times when I expected a situation would be “perfect” and then I would be disappointed when something went wrong. I found that I often needed to improvise or change my lesson plans on the spot usually because of circumstances beyond my control. Sometimes I would find out minutes before a class that those students would not be coming. Other times, because of a mandatory assembly, students would show up to class 40 minutes late giving me just 20 minutes to teach them a modified lesson. Throughout my time in Thailand thus far, I have been given the opportunity to observe teaching methods and discipline strategies. I don’t always agree with these methods and strategies. My internship at GTAEF taught me that instead of placing a judgement on these methods, I should try and look at them with an open, yet critical eye. It is impossible to make any judgements about the school system before learning about how it relates to the history and culture of Thailand. It has taught me to look at an imperfect situation, such as the Thai school system, from a broader perspective first in order to understand the cultural context before narrowing in on specific issues.

Walked outside my classroom to find every female student being treated for lice...
a less than perfect situation indeed!

I must admit that these imperfect moments still shake me up a bit. Yet, my time at GTAEF has taught me to view these situations differently, with an open mind and a flexible attitude. I’ve begun to realize that there is no such thing as a “perfect” situation. There will always be multiple sides to complicated issues. There will always be things that go wrong, materials that are missing, miscommunications. I’ve begun to believe that these imperfect situations are what make life interesting and I look forward to many more during the rest of my time in Thailand.

Can't think of a better way to end my day than bathing elephants and getting muddy.

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