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.