Saturday, June 6, 2009

Goodbye Training Center

Thailand, Day 7
hello air conditioning

Today we left for Chiang Rai, where we'll stay for the weekend before flying to Phuket on Monday.

Last night the students put on a little goodbye ceremony for us in the chapel. The Dean and the teachers said a few words. The students sang many songs. They presented us with a parting gift, a traditional Lahu shoulder bag, the kind they all wear on excursions into the jungle, or to class at the Training Center. They also asked us to say a few words each. I didn't really know what to say. I told everyone that I had come to the center as a teacher, and had a lot of fun trying to teach them the little bit I know (when it comes to civil engineering, that's one thing I can say with absolute confidence). But, I said, I felt like I learned a lot more than I taught.

What I said is completely true. I learned a lot about teaching and about working with interpreters (not to mention the little bit of civil engineering I had to learn before teaching it). I also learned a lot about a culture I didn't know anything about less than a month ago. Then there was some of the practical lessons we were supposed to give. We had some lessons planned that we were pretty sure the Lahu students knew more about than we did. Taylor for example had a lesson on trapping on Friday. Just as we suspected, he ended up being the student and the Lahu the teachers. They had some pretty ingenious traps set up. They also ended up teaching him exactly what every plant in and around the Training Center was and what it could be used for. This one's for upset stomachs. This one's for open cuts. This one is poisonous. Apparently they even have a plant to treat diabetes.

My last class ended up being a practical application class by means of bamboo construction, partially because I wanted to do something applied and partially because I was totally out of teaching material. I spent the morning scrounging up bamboo and some sort of rope for lashing. I ended up with meter-long sections of old, dry bamboo, which would have to do, and a ton of this plastic twine-like stuff, which was absolutely perfect. Like I said, I didn't really have much of a plan, so I ended up just bringing the class outside, showing them the materials and suggesting: "Ok, let's build something."

They decided on a table, and started to work right away. I gained a real appreciation for the awesomeness of bamboo that lesson. I swear you can build absolutely anything with a bunch of bamboo, a machete, and some string. A couple of simple machete swings forms the end of one piece into a perfect 90 degree joint, or splits it in half for use as decking. The stuff is sturdy too. The lesson turned out better than I could have expected. I got to learn a bunch about bamboo construction. I managed to throw in a few review pointers on the use of triangles instead of squares. And I taught them proper square, diagonal and continuous lashings, which were a significant improvement over their ad hoc versions.

So if I get marooned in the jungle anytime soon, I'll know how to build a hut, catch some food, and I have a sweet bag to keep all my jungle tools in.

I actually got to help out with the survival class on Thursday. We did a whole bunch of knots and shelter building. All these knots and lashings are making me feel like a boy scout again (apparently the Thai version of boy scouts translates directly as "tiger children"... awesome). I was impressed with myself that I remembered how to do them.

Towards the end of the goodbye ceremony, Ajan Marteen got up and said a few heartfelt words of thanks to us that changed my perspective on the whole thing a little. The way I understood it, he sort of expressed his thanks to us by explaining how grateful he was that God gave him the opportunity to get out of his village and study and make a better life for himself and the Lahu people. He said more, but that was the message I took away. Now, as much as I have mixed feelings about missionary activities (pushing a religion on people makes me uncomfortable), what they did here really seems to be a great thing. These people are immensely grateful for the opportunity to study. That was abundantly clear.

So, on the drive to Chiang Rai today we made two stops. One was a restaurant that makes the best pies in Thailand. The other was a Lahu childrens' home. This home was a bunch of bamboo huts more or less in the middle of nowhere. It was home to 20 school-age kids, 10 girls and 10 boys. Roughly half of them are AIDS orphans and the other half are from villages too remote for them to get to school otherwise. LTC Chapman had contacted them before the trip to ask what they needed. So we got the money together between the eight of us to buy them mats, blankets and mosquito nets. They were very grateful. We talked a little, and the kids sang us some Lahu songs. We played along and sang the Alma Mater to them... which I didn't want to do to these innocent children. Jeremy also threw in a frisbee to sweeten the deal a little. We threw it around for a while till some of them got the hang of it.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Ice Cream and Interpreters

Thailand, Day 6

last day of teaching today

So I’ve been procrastinating making another blog post. I do that. Anyway, here’s the collection of the interesting occurrences and observations over the last few days.

On Wednesday an old Thai man came to the Training Center with an ice cream cart to sell cups and cones of awesome Thai ice cream to the students for 5 Baht a serving (the exchange rate is about 34 Baht to the Dollar right now). So, the COL decided to go ahead and buy ice cream for the whole student body, it ended up costing Uncle Sam about 400 Baht and got great cheers from all the Lahu students. So we bought the United States Army a few awesome points with the Lahu people. Of course, the ice cream man also made about a half-week’s worth of profit in 15 minutes, so he came back yesterday and will be (I have no doubt) today.

All told, you, the American taxpayer, will have donated $35 and 210 cones worth of happiness by noon today, Bangkok time of course.

They don’t actually eat the ice cream in a cone though. It’s enjoyed in a hamburger bun with sticky rice, peanuts and sweetened condensed milk… it takes a little getting used to.

Other than the ice cream, which is delicious, were someone to ask me what I ate in Thailand, I would have to answer: “more white rice than you could ever imagine.” Breakfast, lunch, and dinner at the training center all consist of a generous lump of sticky white rice, two servings of unnamed boiled green vegetables in broth, and Lahu salsa (extra spicy). Oh, and the vegetables also reportedly contain bits of pork, but I’ve never brought a microscope to meals so I wouldn’t know. So, like I said, I eat a lot of white rice.

My experience with Thai food has been much better. We went to a nice place in Doi Saket Wednesday night called Sorn’s. Sorn had some of the best curries and pad thai I’ve ever had, absolutely delicious. You had to be careful about what order you ate the dishes in though, because if you had the huntsman’s curry too early in the meal you wouldn’t be able to enjoy any of the later dishes. You’d be too busy trying to extinguish the fire consuming your insides.

Concerning working with interpreters:

I’ve had a few thoughts about the experience of working with interpreters since I’ve started teaching at the Training Center. That experience is actually one of the major purposes of this trip, since it is something we will have to do very effectively come Afghanistan time, and it’s not easy.

The first thing I noticed with my first interpreter was that I would say a sentence, and he would say what sounded like three. I would take care to speak carefully and slowly so that the interpreter could properly understand me, but every once in a while a more complicated word would slip out of my mouth (“procedure” for example) and the interpreter wouldn’t skip a beat… which made me wonder whether he was even telling them what I was saying. This worry was only exacerbated by the responses I would get from the class, which almost never matched what I expected. When I asked a question I would get blank stares, and then have to reiterate that I was asking a question. Then, I would get back a response that about 60% of the time was completely unrelated to what I asked. That is, if the interpreter was able to relay to me what the students were saying in comprehensible English (which often wasn’t the case).

So you can see; there’s a plethora of difficulties in the process. It’s all made much worse with increasing complexity of topic (civil engineering was a bad one). You can’t realistically expect to communicate with more than 50% accuracy, and forget precision that gets totally lost in translation. Good practices to improve communication include using short sentences with simple words, speaking slowly and clearly, watching faces for appropriate responses, reiterating every concept several times in different ways, giving examples, and asking many questions to make sure the things are being transmitted well. Also make sure to get to know your interpreter personally, be amiable and friendly with him and he will go further to help get your message across.

Another problem I ran into teaching was Lahu competitiveness, or should I say the complete lack thereof. A bunch of my planned classroom activities included a competition between groups of students, which works great with a bunch of Americans, but with the Lahu… not so much. I guess it comes from the way they live in jungle villages. On Wednesday, my classroom activity consisted of building the tallest free-standing tower out of K’Nex. One team had a great one going—it stood about shoulder height on me—while the other team’s was significantly smaller. One would expect that team to start getting a little excited and working harder. Instead, they were completely unconcerned with the other team. In fact, some of the people working on the tall tower decided to move to the short team and help them instead. So, it ended up being a great lesson in social dynamics for me, but the towers didn’t end up nearly as high as I had expected.

Monday, June 1, 2009


Thailand, Day III
teaching is rough

I taught my first "civil engineering" class today. I still have a hard time believing there isn't anyone on this team who knows more about that topic than I do (absolutely nothing), but I'll do my best staying a lesson ahead of my students. The real challenges are 1. teaching through a translator and 2. teaching engineering without math.

The K'Nex are a huge hit with the students. Living out in a jungle village, you don't grow up playing with legos and such like we all do. So, they had a great time designing things and trying to beat my bridge challenge.

The interpreter was 10 or so minutes late to class, which is not a problem over here. People work on "Thai time," which is essentially the same as "Middle Eastern time," "Indian time," or "Aloha time." A meeting at two o'clock means you will probably be meeting sometime between 2:00 and 2:30. For Thais, relationships are far more important than schedules. If you're having a conversation with a neighbor, you don't suddenly interrupt and say "I have to go to a meeting." That would be disrespectful. Instead you finish your conversation, say your farewells, and go to your meeting 15 minutes late. No one at the meeting will harass you about it.

Anyway, the interpreter was late and I can't speak ANY Lahu. So I had the students sit down and start familiarizing themselves with our chosen "building material", the K'Nex, which they loved. I also blasted Jimi Hendrix from my laptop... that went over well too ;-). A lot of interesting designs came out of my bridge challenge later in the class. The truss design I made was supposed to be the only one that could successfully hold the huge water jug I placed on it. In the first class, their prototypes failed satisfactorily, and mine held up like it was supposed to, to the awe of all the students. In the second class though, one of the students patched together a bridge that held the jug, and mine nearly broke... a little lesson in humility there.

The students were all dressed in their traditional Black Lahu formal atire, which was all hand made and very impressive. There are several different Lahu groups and they are identified by the color of their clothes. There is also the Red Lahu, White Lahu, and Yellow Lahu. The training center has a mixture of different Lahu groups.

At the end of the class the students stood up and gave a wai with a chorus of "thank you teacher," which was flattering if not a little over the top. It just goes to show how much people who live in third world conditions value knowlege and education. I saw it in India, and I see it here. Everyone who doesn't have access to it wants a good education above anything else. Maybe next time your kid doesn't want to go to school, bring him/her to a third world nation and have him interact with kids who can't.

I have a couple of great anectotes from other team members to share:

LTC Chapman told us a story yesterday of those same novice monks posing in a picture with me in my first post. Monks in Thailand are strictly forbidden from coming in physical contact with a woman. Even when the woman in question is making an offering, she must place it on an intermediary object before the monk can recieve it. so, LTC Chapman saw this giggly group of american girls who thought the little monks were just so cute and HAD to get a picture with them. They run over and ask the little monks who have to smile and politely oblige. The girls, of course, are crowding in and getting right up against the little novices who are still smiling tensely and allowing this all to happen like good monks. LTC Chapman said he could just see their skin crawling with the anticipation of the long and tedious cleansing ritual they were going to have to do later that day.

Taylor Minton is teaching a survival class this week. He had time at the end of his lesson yesterday to just talk for a while with his students. The first thing they asked him was if he had ever killed anybody before... I guess that's to be expected when we tell them we're soldiers. Then they asked him his age. When he told them he was 21, they all ghasped at him. Many of them are older than him, and they thought 21 was awefully young to be out and about in the world. Another great question was "do you have a girlfriend?" He was relatively sure the interpreter wouldn't know the word for "engaged" so he told them he was married. They where amazed at that because they thought he was very old to get married... apparently they had been married since age 16, 17, and 15.

Another great one about Taylor: On friday he got stopped in the Tokyo Narita airport because they found his leatherman in his carry-on bag... moron ;-). Anyway, they had to bring in a bunch of policemen, to ask some questions and such. All on the flight though, Taylor had been listening to a "learn Japanese" audio program available on our monitors. So, when the cops came to talk to him, he greeted them in Japanese with "Hello, my name is Taylor Minton, I'm very sorry," which they thought was just great. The policemen were all smiles and friendliness while they took away his leatherman and helped him along.

Goes to show, the smallest bit of effort goes a huge way when dealing with foreign cultures. Just saying sa wat dii khrap, smiling, and maybe giving a wai makes everyone in this country like you.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Off to Chiang Mai

Thailand, Day II
jeez we're traveling a lot

We flew up from Bangkok to Chiang Mai, the second largest city in Thailand, today. Thais like to think of Chiang Mai as the quaint cultural center of Thailand, though apparently it's a more modern metropolitan city than they give it credit for. It is still famous for its great traditional Thai crafts, hopefully I'll be able to head into the city tomorrow afternoon.

The training center is actually situated in a smaller town by the name of Dai Saket (Dai is Thai for mountain) about a half hour away. The area is a big valley, flanked by 6000' mountains covered in dense rainforest, way up in the north of Thailand. We'll be going even farther north next week, up into the jungle by Chiang Rai, on the border with Laos.

The center is actually a christian mission.

I'm glad to get away from the touristyness that is Bangkok. I think it definitely damages some of the cultural attraction. Even from the little I've seen so far the people up here are more like they are "supposed to be" in Thailand: irrepressibly friendly, smiling and welcoming.

A few cultural notes I've been wanting to make:

I see more Thai flags and flags of the King than there are US flags back home. Thais are apparently very patriotic.

Thais have a very strict hierarchy in their relationships. The elderly get a great deal of respect, monks get the most.

Depending upon the hierarchical difference between you and the person you're greeting, your wai changes heights. When greeting a monk Thais will hold their hands up by their forhead and bow low, whereas when greeting younger people they will hold it down by their chest. At first I thought this kindof ran against the whole Buddhist equanimity thing. It seems to work out ok though because they always show so much respect both upward and downward.

I see a whole lot of Johnny Walker ads over here, it makes me wonder about the fifth precept a little.

I start teaching my civil engineering (building bridges with k'nex ;-)) course tomorrow afternoon. We already introduced ourselves at a meeting in the chapel this evening. I'm a little nervous about getting useful information through to my students about a subject I'm barely familiar with myself through a translator in a language I don't know. It's not even Thai. The people we're teaching here are from the northern Lahu hill tribe and speak their own language. The students here are 17 - 30 something, but most of them seem to be about our age, 18-20. Nevertheless we are apparently worthy of great respect. Since we're Americans, teachers, and in the military we get a really high wai when they decide to do it (the wai is a Thai and not a Lahu custom, so they only do it sometimes).

The Lahu tribe is some 74,000 strong in Thailand according to Lonely Planet. They're mostly animist by religion, but a lot of the tribes up here have been converted by christian missionaries (one of which helped standardize a system of writing for the Lahu less than 50 years ago). That is what it is I suppose. Most of them are refugees from Burma where they are often persecuted, and over here it's very difficult for them to gain their citizenship. They live mostly through small-scale agriculture, though the opium trade is still a problem in some parts of rural Thailand. I don't know if the Lahu take part or not. I'll write a lot more about them later on when we actually go up and visit their villages.

That's all for tonight. On a final note, dinner tonight was traditional Thai at a little shack restaurant overlooking a lake nearby. It took a little courage on my part, but it ended up tasting pretty good. Here's a picture:

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Thailand, Day I

sa wat dii khrap friends!

We departed for our 25 hours of travel Wednesday morning, and arrived Friday night. The flight to Tokyo from JFK was relaxing, almost enjoyable since we all managed to get upgraded to business class. I watched a couple of great movies and spent a while practicing some vipassana techniques I learned from Gil Fronsdal’s podcasts on the drive down to West Point. I had a near-epiphany moment on that drive, a couple things he said helped me gain a much deeper understanding of the whole practice of mindfulness meditation.

Flying into Tokyo was an experience. We had to fill out a quarantine form, confirming that we didn’t have [animal type here] Flu. The number of people wearing face-masks was a little unnerving, but Doctor Weg seemed to think we probably weren’t going to die. A bunch of inspectors had to come through the plane before we could get off though.

The Engrish to be found over here is hysterical. That quarantine form had a footnote that claimed: “this for protection to you and a family.” And prominently displayed in the terminal of the Tokyo airport was a tech firm ad touting their research of “electronics insurating matierials.” The Engrish jokes went on for the rest of the day.

We got into Bangkok near midnight and went out to find a metered taxi, which involved dodging through a crowd of non-metered taxi and tuk-tuk (Thai rickshaw) drivers who also wanted our business. I immediately noticed the difference in attitudes from my previous experience in India. The Indian cab drivers were prone to grabbing and raised voices to get your attention while their Thai counterparts spoke quietly, bowed, and held smiles on their faces. It’s more pleasant, but also makes it a little harder to have to say mai chai (no) over and over again.

I used the cab ride to the hotel to try out some Thai (MAJ Sowers taught me well). I attempted sa wat dii khrap (hello), sa bai dii reu (how are you), khun cheu a-rai (what’s your name), phom cheu Kris (my name is), maa jaak nai (where are you from), and kawp khun khrap (thank you), and met with mixed success. I had to say most of them repeatedly because my pronunciation was apparently abysmal. This language is hard.

We spent most of Saturday hitting the tourist sites around Bangkok. This city is interesting. I was a little surprised at how clean and organized it is. From what LTC Chapman had told us I was almost expecting something along the lines of Delhi, a hot busy mess of humanity, stray animals and trash. It turns out there is some of that, but Bangkok is as a whole a lot cleaner and more civilized. I suspect it’s largely because we’ve stuck to the touristy areas so far though.

The view from our hotel says volumes. You can see big shiny new high-rise buildings dropped sporadically in the middle of slums.

The Wats (temples) are fascinating. We hit three of them: Wat Phra Kaeo (The Grand Palace), Wat Pho (The Reclining Buddha), and Wat Arun. The palace and temple complex at Wat Phra Kaeo is huge. It contains the Emerald Buddha, a 75 cm tall Buddha statue carved from a single piece of jade that’s apparently been shuffled around the various dynasties in Southeast Asia for over 600 years now. The symbols and art in these Wats are a jumble of gods, demons and stories from Buddhism, Hinduism, and ancient China. The Thai people apparently still revere many of the Hindu gods. My limited reading on Theravada Buddhism had led me to believe that it was more or less ‘pure’ Buddhism, devoid of a lot of the extra dogma that Tibetan Buddhism, for example, is full of. I seem to be wrong about that. Thailand is VERY Buddhist though. 95% of the population is Theravada. Buddha statues hold the most prominent spots in every hotel and business.

It’s apparently illegal to export Buddha statues without a special license, which is very disappointing. I would have liked to bring a few more back with me.

Tonight’s dinner will go down as one of the most bizarre I’ve ever experienced. We were supposed to meet with an old West Point grad, class of ’58 who is now a special advisor to the King. Instead we also met a classmate of his, both of their wives, a third graduate whose year I didn’t catch, and two ’95 grads, now majors in the Thai army. Slowly, over the course of the dinner, we found out that the general’s classmate was the retired minister of defense. His wife, who I was talking to most of the evening had been a senator, president of their committee on education. She incidentally insisted that I, my family, and my fellow cadets were all welcome to visit her on her island home anytime we pleased. We then learned that the third old-grad was the retired “supreme commander” of the Thai military forces (the chief of staff), and had led all of UN security forces in East Timor.

So a casual dinner with an old grad turned into a party with half of the Thai government. We all made sure our wai's (hands held up like in prayer accompanied with a bow) were extra deep when they left.

Tomorrow we fly up to Chiang Mai, where we will be teaching for the next week.