Tuesday, May 11, 2010

chai encounter

Today I finished my third 300 plus page novel in less than a week. Although I feel like a proud daughter when I find myself in a ferocious reading spree as my mother put all other casual readers to shame, I am feeling a bit nervous because I only have one book left and I have 7 days to go before I head back to Chiang Mai (the travelers book exchange heaven for well-read, well-traveled paperbacks). I decide to head down the road for a Chang, the local brew, in the service of creating something else to do, and maybe to slow down my reading spree. Last night I taught English to a group of three young ladies and one young lad at the local noodle shop. This has been a SalusWorld tradition in this project and at first I didn’t want to disappoint the consultants who came before me. Twice a week for eight months visiting consultants have been holding English classes at night in a noodle shop that sprang up a few short months after our arrival in this displaced Shan village in northern Thailand.

To be totally honest I didn’t really want to do it. I’m a psychologist for goodness sake. After spending 10 minutes with these kids I realized it was the best guilt based decision I had ever made. They were sharp and sweet and keen to learn. I pray I teach them as much English as they have taught me Shan, but I doubt it; one of them busted me last night for spelling Wednesday wrong. Based on the fact I so enjoyed myself with them and because they asked, we upped the evening classes from 2 to 4 times this week and I am stoked. My best lesson to date has been to teach them the alphabet in American Sign Language, the first foreign language I studied. The lights went out during our lesson and I heard them correcting each other practicing the signs as they walked home from escorting me back to my abode with candles.

I have a day and night free and I have no idea what to do with my time. Last month I was training, frantically prepping for a pending training or engaging in delightful supervision sessions with amazing team of coordinators. The sudden slowdowns in life have unfortunately never been easy for me. It seems I feel more balanced with a check list of activities to get done rather than relaxing in one of the most sought after travel destinations in the world. For some reason I can’t warm myself to Thailand. It is beautiful no doubt, but I find myself agitated whenever I am here, longing for other less developed and much less tourism savvy environments on the planet like Lofa, Yelwa and Dagon Plaza.

As I saunter down the street to the market to buy my Chang and some snacks of dried fish and rice cakes I see a guy from a distance. The first thing I notice is that he can squat on his hunches Third World-style, indefinitely. For some reason I find myself longing to speak Thai so I could saunter up to him and strike up a conversation. As I draw near, I realize I know this guy. It is Chai. Chai is a whisper of a man but hip in his own way and not in the slightest way anachronistic. Berkley cool in worn out clothes, wiry, muscular, flip-floped, well over fifty but doesn’t look a day older than thirty-five. A week of acclimating to the land of maybes and half-smiles, longing for a place and it’s people just across the border, I find him, or he finds me, sauntering down the road sweating and somehow fearful of the motorbikes coming at me on the empty paved road. For some reason I have this nagging feeling that a few of my local passer-byers have a itch to hit me and might even consider doing it they could be assured they could get away with it. He greets me kindly and I tell him I will be right back as I notice they are closing up the market and I want to get the treats I had been planning for (God forbid I skip the beer and barrel through my last novel). As I walk back I am given another chance to watch him and I am struck by how much I like this guy, given I know so little about him. The last time I was here I had asked after him and I had been told he was nowhere to be found and that maybe he had returned to Shan State. 14 months later, out of nowhere, there he is smiling at me, as engaged as I remember him. We smile and shake our heads in that this is unbelievable kind of way and then he moves towards his motorbike and says “home?” At first I baulk and refuse because that is what “we” should do when an oppressed illegal immigrant on a bike offers a ride to a privileged white gal in fancy sunglasses sweating along the roadside. He turns his head like a trusted dog does paying attention to you when you are telling them a story, trying to make meaning out of the nonsense coming out of your mouth. I quickly realize I am being foolish and awkwardly jump on his bike because the pegs are not out and I unconsciously have the residue of a long forgotten bike trauma (a burn on the leg from a Harley that was only slightly more dangerous than it’s driver) burned into my memory and my calf. Chai’s English ranges from profoundly good to non-existent; so, I chat away on the back of the bike showering him with genuine compliments based on what I remember about his participation in my first 2 week training on basic counseling and I ask him how his trip to Shan State went. I have no idea what he understood as he only grunted and then dumped me in front of my house, smiled, and turned around and left. He has an idle power I envy and I remain hopeful that is not the last of our ever so random encounters.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Saying all that cannot be said in words

They each step down from the truck taxi to say goodbye. The one driving suggests a group hug and we all quickly form a circle. They each place their hands on my back and I on theirs and we lean forward so that our heads meet in the middle, resulting in us each looking at our sandaled feet. Between telling me thank you in the most genuine of ways and asking me if I am packed, they manage to be truly genuine and in the moment as well as active and forward thinking. I like the way they each can fluctuate from a mindful relaxed presence to a multi-tasking high speed processor; I have yet to figure out how they do it, when I try I just look flustered. I want to hug each one of them but I can’t, I’m not sure if my newly acquired comfort with embracing and being embraced will translate here. I smile and think of how proud my friend Jules would be if she could see me now. Her relentless persistence gradually desensitizing me to touch has worked. I used to be awkward and uncomfortable with gestures of intimacy and would get confused with the three cheek kiss greeting of Europe, finding myself head butting unprepared recipients. I like the way I have changed and have learned to appreciate everything from a wink to fingers dancing on my arms to a warm embrace fluttering over my shoulders, to a gentle touch on my back. Saying all that cannot be said in words, the nonverbal world of communication has transformed my experience of the world and its people and I feel my throat get tight and my eyes get hot and I know it is once again time for me to cry the honorable tears of loss. It is only those meaningful relationships that we grieved when lost and I know deep in my heart and soul that the meaning I have found here has been deep and profound.

The approximate wetness of hope

What is the proper number of kisses
For a man to leave this world?
The average depth of melancholy?
The approximate wetness of hope?
~ Max Garland

Thingyan, which translates “transit of the Sun from Pisces to Aries” is the Local New Year Water Festival and usually falls around mid-April, the Local month of Tagu. It is celebrated over a period of four to five days culminating in the Local New Year. The days are filled with loud music and truck loads of giddy young people tossing water and singing. The nights are filled with musical performances on stages that sprouted up like weeds overnight in the cracks of a sidewalk. In every neighborhood mandats or stages, with festive names, made from bamboo, wood and beautifully decorated paper mache and merrymaking and general gaiety are the main ticket items, day in and day out.

During the first two days of Thingyan, I saunter the streets of Y and got absolutely soaked by passing celebrators with buckets of water, modern day squirt guns and a keen eye for foreigners. On the third day I stayed in as I discovered I was quite sunburned on every patch of skin I missed applying sun screen to the day before and I was tired of being such an identifiable target. I also knew I would be out all day the following day as a group of my first training participants invited me to an event called Heaven and Hell which was an amusing surprise given I was at that time residing in a majority Buddhist country that finds the idea of heaven and hell to be a bit comical. The plan was they would pick me up at 7 am and we would be out all day dancing, singing and engaging in the collective merrymaking.
Around 6 pm I got the call. There had been a bombing and the location of the explosion was the very stage that we had planned to go to the following day.

According to the news media:
“three bomb blasts rocked a park in M's main city Y on Thursday as thousands of revellers celebrated an annual water festival, leaving nine people dead and at least 75 wounded, officials said. The blasts occurred near Kandawgyi Lake in the military-ruled country's commercial hub, where thousands of people had gathered for water-throwing festivities to mark the Buddhist New Year.

"Nine people were killed -- five men and four women," an official told AFP on condition of anonymity, adding that a fourth bomb was found and defused. State television gave a slightly different toll, saying eight people had died and 94 were injured. The blasts came as the country prepares for elections planned for this year that critics have dismissed as a sham.”

Over the course of the next few days the numbers varied greatly and reports of suggested perpetrators covered the whole continuum from hunches to conspiracy theories.

I missed the event and felt the heaviness of having planned to be in a place that happened to have been bombed 17 hours prior to my arrival but I also felt the hope and collective ability to adjust, regulate and normalize an existence that has rarely in its recent history been delivered to such an oppressed group of people.

“Hopenmar” – An environmentally friendly visit from twelve guys and a girl

I returned to the unspoken city 2 weeks ago. A few short hours after I arrived I was invited to the closing ceremony and celebratory dinner of a motivated group of young local and Chinese activists. The topic of their shared interest: the environment and global warming. All I have to say is that, “Hopenhagan, you should be ashamed.”

As soon as I arrive I discover two giddy groups of participants, one group local, one group Chinese. They were truly enjoying each other and excited about their shared vision – green living and sustainable green development. I observe playful yet serious dialogue, and it was clear they all have deep respect and admiration towards each others plight. While the Chinese activists struggle with an all powerful controlling administration that the world fears and obsesses about, they and their hosts quickly realized their struggle pales in comparison to the plight of the local activists in attendance. One Chinese activist takes care to express just that in his farewell speech. According to him, while it is frustrating to be living is such a controlled country; at least the rules and regulations are clear and transparent. In this place, it’s an altogether different game and a much more confusing existence. Nothing is clear and the word transparency is only spoken in whispers.

For those of you who haven’t heard me say it a hundred times already, it is important to note it has been very hot here; and, when I say hot I mean it has been 100 degrees plus every stinkin day. One Chinese participant also made note of the heat during his speech but he added one important fact to his observation: “The weather here is very warm, but the people are warm too.” If you asked me, I would say the people of this place may be the warmest people on the face of the planet but, that’s just me and although I have visited many places, I haven’t quite visited them all.

By the end of the event I realize that I (an American who has been indoctrinated with fears of pending Chinese takeover of the planet and some underlying stereotypical beliefs that environmental concerns take a back seat to currency control and exports and falls just ahead of human rights concerns in China) have fallen victim to a tremendous amount of misinformation. The reality is China is as diverse as a New York City subway and if this passionate young group of students represents even a small part of their rather large Republic. We my friends, are greatly mistaken.

The accomplishments and concluding thoughts of this youth initiative focused on global warming thought up by and accomplished by two groups of what many in the west would all assume to be disempowered and uninformed group of civilians, blew the events in Copenhagen a few short months ago out of the water; and, if Obama were smart, he would come here and meet with this group and learn a few lessons on international engagement and strategic green development.

I will end this train of thought with another quote, this time it was from one of the local participants to the China team which happened to be made up of a dozen men and one lone woman: “As we are living under the same Sun and walking on the same Land, we are together in our heart to act for our environment. We love you, brothers and sister.”

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