Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Unit 1: Agricultural Trends

We just returned yesterday from our first Unit. We spent a week visiting with and exchanging with organic farmers, NGO's, and community members in the Yasothon, Roy Et, and Kalasin provinces.

The majority of our time was spent in Yasothon where we spent 4 nights. My friend and classmate Dan and I had the priviledge to stay with a very good-natured family of organic farmers in the small town of Talah. This was a very inspiring unit, I learned alot and my perspective on food has certainly grown. Before this unit I considered myself pretty aware of the current problems with food politics, having read "The Omnivores Dillema", and other similar publications. I try to buy fair trade when I can and love farmers markets when they are in season. But this week has really opened my eyes to food systems and how closely related they are to many worldwide problems besides hunger, such as global warming, globalization, the loss of culture, and poverty. I will be unable to look at food the same way and I hope I can keep these lessons in the front of my mind.

The Green Revolution sweeped the world in the late 50's and early 60's. Praised as "the solution to world hunger" it implemented massive machinery and the introduction of genetically modified crops, chemical fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides, all designed to increase yields so that more food could be produced and more people fed. 50 years later hunger is still and problem, this is because narrowly focusing on increasing production cannot alleviate hunger because it fails to alter the tightly concentrated distribution of economic power, especially access to land and purchasing power. In a nutshell - if the poor don't have the money to buy food, increased production is not going to help them.

The chemicals we have poured into the earth to produce more food are destroying the environment as well as our food, eating fresh produce grown on large single crop farms are now nearly as harmful to your body as highly processed foods. And these methods are not ecologically sustainable, it depletes the land of its ability to produce food, as a result more and more chemicals are needed to produce food, this wil continue until the land is literally rendered useless as has already happened to 6% of India's farmland. Food is no longer a part of our culture the way it used to be. Many of these problems are encouraged by current financial systems that seperate the producer from the consumer. Organizations that have attempted to cut out the influence of middlemen have been degraded. I was shocked to learn that Trans Fair a fair trade labeling organization was pushed by Starbucks to lower their standards. It used to be that 5% of total coffee purchased had to be fairly traded, this has been lowered to 2%. These models keep small farmers all over the world perpetually in debt and in a state of poverty, they are controlled by corporations and more and more are being pressured to switch to chemical agriculture to increase yields.

There is so much more to this issue than I can elaborate here, I stongly encourage everyone to read "The Omnivores Dillemma" as this helps to illuminate some of the issues.

The first day I got to work on my host family's farm. My father Jong and his wife have been practicing integrated agriculture on their farm for 13 years and sell their organic produce every saturday at the Green Market in Yasothon. Before starting this unit our Thai Ajaans equipped us with a small arsenal of Thai vocabulary useful to the unit. We learned the Thai words for mono cropping, integrated agriculture, chemical free agriculture, compost, chemical fertilizer, duck, buffalo, sugar cane, and a variety other farm related words and phrases. I had learned from previous experience and through my own extracurricular pursuits that the word for "shit" in Thai is "key". I combined this knowledge with my new mastery of the word for buffalo "kwai", what resulted was a phenomenal example of my prowess as a linguist and an inherent need to be crass in as many languages as possible. This is how "key kwai" was happened upon; literally "buffalo shit".

It is true that I did not invent these words per se, but I discovered how to put them together for myself. Never has an invention been so celebrated, the closest comparison could only be cro-magnon man and fire. After countless hours spent hunched over, furiously rubbing two sticks together an ember is produced that he nurtures into a roaring flame; he stands triumphantly above his glowing creation howling wildly at the night sky and beating his chest in dramatic celebration; an epic achievement and testament to the human spirit. Such was my discovery of keykwai. I used this word with unmatched enthusiasm, used it when I could and even managed to discover new applications for it. My inclination to use the word was only encouraged by my Thai family who seemed to find the word just as hilarious as I.

"Dan yu ti nai?" they would ask -- where's dan?
"key kwai" I would reply cheekly (I didn't know where Dan was either, but I did know how to make these people laugh). They loved this and so did I.

This mutual joke was launched to a new level of hilarity the day I proudly announced "Pom chuh-len key kwai", "my nickname is buffalo shit". My parents froze with disbelief, their eyes lit up and they stared at me with raised eyebrows and gaping smiles for a long moment before errupting into a bout of uncontrollable laughter. Could it be that a simple farang had cracked the code of Thai humor? Yes, I was the apple of their eye. Modesty is not always my fortay and my success went straight to my head. I began to wonder if I shouldn't go national with my routine, such an act would surely make me a Thai sensation. This is still a work in progress, I have plenty of time to sort this out.

After laboring in my family's farm all day we gathered vegetables and fruit for the Green Market the next day. My paw woke at 3 am the next morning and went to the Green Market to set up his stand. We privledged few, Dan and I, had the luxury of sleeping in until 5am and then caught a ride to join our paw. It is still unclear to me why, but all of Thailand seems to enjoy buying their vegetables at the absolute ass crack of dawn. We sat with our paw all morning and Im sure we helped him sell all his produce, he received extra attention because of the 2 farang seated next to him. I did this pro bono, I didn't even ask for a commission although I probably deserved half the profit.

I should really tell you about the exchanges we had with the Green Market members, the Alternative Agricultural Network (an NGO), the community of Tahlah, a small group of sugar cane farmers struggling to become organic, and P'Bamrung and P'Ubon - two extremely influential members of this green movement. Each exchange lasted 3 plus hours and we discussed in depth current issues and regarding organic farming, government corruption and disfunctional systems of production and distribution. These exchanges were taxing and we would sometimes have 2 per day. But they were the meat of this Unit and we have many more ahead of us. I learned alot experiencing but everything I learned this past week was a result of these exchanges. It would be very difficult to condense these exchanges into a paragraph or two. I hope to go sort through my notes soon, but I haven't the time now. As of yet everything is still fresh in my mind, marinating. I would like to revisit this topic at a later date as Im sure it will be a recuring theme in this semester and my life. Id also like to revisit my host family in Yasothon, they politely invited me back in mid-November to help with the harvest season. However,Im not sure if Keykwai will have the free time.

Also Id like to note that upon returning to KKU I have informed my Thai teachers and my friend Yay- the woman who operates the convenience store I frequent, of my new nickname. They all find this hilarious, I am a Thai John Belushi.

This educational experience is brought to you in part by...

I'd like to take this opportunity to tell you all about the fine people who helped me to get where I am today. The Gilman International Scholarship program offers grants for "U.S. citizen undergraduate students of limited financial means to pursue academic studies abrod. Such international study is intended to better prepare U.S. students to assume significant roles in an increasingly global economy and interdependent world". Scholarship recipients may recieve up to $5,ooo in funding and are selected on the basis of applicant diversity, a statement of purpose essay, a follow-on project proposal essay, academic progress and performance, fields of study, country of destination, length of study and lack of previous undergraduate study abroad experience. All students are encouraged to apply so long as they qualify for a federal Pell grant. Recipients are expected to complete a follow-on service project to promote education abroad and to help promote the Gilman International Scholarship program. One of the many reasons I decided to keep this blog.

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We now return to our regulary scheduled broadcasting

Friday, September 11, 2009

Week at KKU

The past week we have spent at Khon Kaen University. The days have been focused on various workshops and background lectures. The first day we had a writing workshop with Marwan Macan-Markar of the Interp Press Service. He has written about the Burmese military dictatorship, the Burmese cyclone tragedy and various other issues in Southeast Asia. He is a reputable journalist and an amazing writer. He tried to pass on some of his writing skills and interviewing skills to us so that we would be better prepared for the upcoming units. There are 4 units and in each one we will be participating in exchanges with community members, we want to get the most of these exchanges and Marwan helped to better understand what sort of questions we should ask when we are interviewing a subject and how we should ask them. His techniques are simple but direct; for instance its better to ask questions regarding facts and not how the subject feels about a certain issue. This seems like an obvious point but most people make this mistake. We got to practice our interviewing skills by interviewing a classmate, then we all got to compare our interviews and see where we could improve. The goal is to find an interesting angle to write about the person, it helps to have one before you start the interview but this doesnt always happen. This was a helpful class.

The following day we had a workshop with Nic Dunlop a freelance photographer and writer for a photography workshop. Nic Dunlop wrote "The Lost Executioner" a book about the Khmer Rouge war crimes in Cambodia. I had actually used excerpts from his book in a paper I wrote last semester about the Khmer Rouge. He is an amazingly talented photographer and we all enjoyed this workshop immensely, it was an honor to be in the room with him. There is a famous photograph of Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese activist, that he took. Also he is accredited with identifying and finding a Khmer Rouge senior member responsible for several thousands deaths. His trial is taking place presently. It was an honor to have a class taught by Nic.

He had us compose a photoessay that day and we all got to view eachothers work. He basically compressed as many photography lessons as he could into one day. This is to help us compose our own photo essays later in the semester. There are many talented photographers in the group, I however am not one of them. Photography is difficult and I have a pretty lousy camera as compared to most other people in the program. Im not sure having a better camera will help me however. I enjoyed this worshop and I think I learned alot from Mr. Dunlop.

The following 2 days we met with Ajaan Sulak a Buddhist grassroots activist and social critic. He taught us about Thai history, politics, and social structure; specifically the role Buddhism had on their development in Thailand. These were incredibly interesting and dense days, it difficult to cram all of Buddhism and its impact on society into two days but Sulak did a good job. We could all agree that he was an enlightened being and that we could all learn much from him. I bought one of his books and hope to read it one day when I have a free moment.

The next day we had whats called a "Thai Fun Activity" in the morning and it was alot of fun. We were split into groups of four and brought to the downtown market. Each group was given 300 baht, a list of about 20 items (in Thai, we had time to translate before) and 45 minutes to get all the items on the list as well as a photograph and autograph with a Thai policeman. This was a competition and we all knew it. I felt bad for the unsuspecting vendors at the market as 30 farang (westerners) were unleashed upon them with limited knowledge of the language and a desire to win a questionable prize (Japanese dinner with the Ajaans). If invited to dinner with the Ajaans I would probably have an ambivalent reaction, I just don't feel it would be SUCH a priviledge, we spend all day with them, to eat dinner in their company might be nice but nothing I want to do a backflip about.

Despite this fact I took to the competition eagerly and ferociously bargained with vendors for the lowest price possible for pink sandals, orange nailpolish, and yellow t-shirts. I suddenly needed to have dinner with the Ajaans more than anything else in the world. A vendor with broken teeth told me that the green plate I now needed to possess cost a staggering 15 baht. I laughed in his face. "5 baht" I barked insolently in broken Thai, "No" said he. I paid the 15 baht and moved on. I have not yet mastered the art of bargaining and I had only one succesful negotiation, paying 6 baht for an 8 baht dark blue pen. My partner Kati and I had gotten everything on our half of the list except for the Hello Kitty Notebook, I desperately called Jon and Liz, the other half of out team to check on their status and if they could find one quickly. But time was up and we all rushed back to the meeting spot knowing that being late was a penalty.

Groups were scored on whether or not they got the items on the list, how much they paid for them, timeliness, and if they succesfully got a photograph and autograph with a police officer. My group got all items except for the Hello Kitty Notebook, we were timely, and we got the photograph, however we were about 20 baht over the 300 baht limit. When results were tallied and the winners anounced I was astonished to learn that my group would be the privlidged few to enjoy japanese noodles with our professors. Other groups had not found the notebook either but most of the other groups had money left over unlike us. It was a relief that we won and my poor bargaining skill were not realized. I am sorely embarassed by my lack of bargaining skills for some reason, its almost an attack on my manhood. In reality it is a pretty useless skill, but I have a penchant for collecting useless skills and this one evades my grasp. I blame this on my lack of profieciency in the Thai language just like I blame my poor photography skills on my old and battered Cyber Shot camera. It only has 7.2 pixels, how can I work with that? Did they tell Picaso "no brush"? Its easier to blame.

At 1pm I have a Human Rights Workshop, tomorrow is my Thai midterm, monday the last orientation and Tuesday *gasp* a "personal day"!
"Personal Days" are described in the course outline as days where students are free to enjoy their time in Khon Kaen and to do whatever they might like. Feel free to enjoy the city, go to a market or see a movie, just relax, it is YOUR time.

"Whatever will you do with all this free time?" you might ask. "Why I will spend it writing the 5 page reflection paper that is due on wednesday" I would reply. I love "personal days", they always provide me with the opportunity to reflect, to take a proverbial "deep breath". I get to sleep in, laze in bed, lazily sip a cup of coffee and talk about something other than school with my friends over breakfast. See you then.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Nontan and Hospital Visit

I just got back from my second homestay a couple days ago. Its been difficult to get these blogs done and alot has happened in the past 8 or so days. The group was split up into 3 groups and each group was sent to a different school. And then each person was assigned to a different student around 9-11 years old to spend 5 days with their respective families. My group was sent to the Nontan School not far from Khon Kaen University, only about an hour away.

My little brothers name is Tang, hes about 10 years old and a really sweet kid. My mothers name was Nok. And her husband ran a chicken rice stand not too far away from school. I stayed with them for about 5 days, each day I would ride on the moped to school with my host father. Buy breakfast at 7/11 and then walk to class. Each morning we had 4 hours of Thai followed by an orientation activity in the afternoon. Afterwards I would ride home with Tang, Ab nam (shower) and then go to the chicken stand to eat dinner. Often I would try to work with my host parents at the stand, they didnt allow me to do this the first day, but after I kept asking "Pom choy" (I help?) enough times they allowed me to work a bit. I was often very tired at this point of the night and waiting table was the last thing I wanted to do but I still wanted to experience what they did. They wouldnt let me work for more than an hour or too and then they would send me home with Tang so that I could "tom gan bang" - do homework.

I came to learn that my host parents worked incredibly hard. In the morning we all woke up around 630am. Then my brother would go off to school and my father off to open the chicken rice stand. My host mother would go to the local hospital where she worked mending laundry and scrubs. She would work there all day and then go to the chicken rice stand and wait tables. They would both work until 1 am everynight. Then come home to sleep only to wake up and start it over 5 hours later. This broke my heart, they were such sweet people, my host mom and Tang had a really good relationship. And they were always so good to me. Tang was very well behaved and worked very hard at school, at night he would often help me study my Thai and help me with my pronounciation.

I was just starting to become very comfortable with my new family when we were scheduled to leave for KKU. The house was alot more comfortable. I shared a decent sized bed with Tang, it was inside! and we even had a fan. The toilet and water buckets for showering were even inside as well this time. Life was pretty easy and I am not being sarcastic when I say that I was very comfortable there. Dousing oneself with cold water in the morning is not fun, but it gets easier, and with practice one can even learn to enjoy the process.

We came back to KKU, and the following day in class I was dismayed to realize I was not feeling terribly well. During a break a classmate felt my head and informed me the my skull was frighteningly hot. It turns out that I had a fever of about 103 degrees as well as a bowel infection (which explained the awful diarea). I was admitted to the hospital and was in a state of delusion on set by the extremely high fever. I dont speak much Thai but insisted on speaking as much Thai as I knew to all the doctors and nurses. I named my doctor Dr. Maw, Maw means doctor in Thai. I thought that Dr. Doctor was an appropriate name and made sure that everyone got to hear it and how funny I thought it was. Also for everyone's personal enrichment I decided it was my responsibility to list all of the colors in Thai as well as ask most of the nurses and attendees what they liked to do in the morning, "Don chao, wanee kun chu tom arai krap?". Answers were varied and I didn't understand them anway. My delerium quickly faded along with the notion that everyone was enjoying my antics after I was placed in a room.

I didnt have a very good time at the hospital. I guess Im just not much of a Hospital Guy. Also I dont speak much of the language, which makes very simple requests such as "may I please have another blanket? I am quite cold" and "may I have some water?" very difficult to communicate. The IV drip they put into my hand quickly irked me, its very difficult to get comfortable when you have something in your skin. Also I have seen many movies and episodes of CSI where people have died because an air bubble in the IV was passed into their veins, air in your blood is apparently fatal. So when I noticed air bubbles in my IV the next morning I became a little concerned. I flicked my IV tube a little to try and coax the bubbles up to the surface and away from my vulnerable veins. This backfired as the bubbles congregated into one large bubble that began moving swiftly towards my arm. I hurriedly pressed the button to call the nurse but decided she would not arrive in time and took matters into my own hands. The nurse opened my door and got to watch me pry the IV from my arm in a rather dramatic display of twisted tubing and spraying saline solution. I tried to tell her that I was about to die, that I had been in mortal peril. Air had been inches close to entering my veins where it would travel through my arteries up to my brain inducing a fatal stroke. I told her that I had just saved my own life. These words all fell upon deaf ears and my nurse quickly and quite curtly, I might add, replaced my IV and reprimanded me in Thai. I won that battle.

Every so often a team of nurses would enter my room, take my blood pressure and temperature and say nothing to me. I was quite feverish and out of it and never enjoyed these cold and informal encounters. Also the food was awful, I don't consider myself a picky eater and I genuinely enjoy Thai food. But when you have a 103 degree fever you are not always craving boiled rice, jellied mushrooms and steamed fish soup. I knew it was possible to get "western food" it was clearly labelled on the menu, and I very clearly indicated my desire for such items by pointing to the "fried egg" and "slice of bacon" on the slip of paper attached to my meal tray. My requests were always ignored without explanation, or at least without an english explanation. No one spoke english except Dr. Maw, but he was rarely seen. So when he came to see me the next day and my fever had gone down I knew it was time to negotiate for my release.
He agreed that if my fever didnt go back up in the afternoon I could go home. My temperature remained normal and I was free to go. This was a relief and Im sure it was also a relief for the hospital staff assigned to my room. Im still not sure if they allowed me to leave or if I was kicked out, Im happy either way.

The next week or so will be spent in Khon Kaen working on orientation for the upcoming units and classes. We have alot of assignments and projects to do and our days are all scheduled from 8 am until 6pm. Free time is a luxury we dont have right now, Im tired but happy.