Wednesday, May 26, 2010

A Final Post and A Big Thank You

As my flight descended last night into JFK I spent the last half hour in the air sifting through my brain. As we approached New York I saw the oh-so-familiar sight of the Empire State Building and of course it felt like I had never left. And so I sifted. I treated my brain like flash cards calling up a place and then forcing myself to think of a corresponding image. Burma - picture the first guesthouse I stayed in in Yangon. Chiang Mai - picture what my classroom looks like when the students are going crazy. Sirimankalajarn - my street in Chiang Mai, picture the turn onto my lane. Rinsuk Place - my apartment building, picture the laundry man downstairs hanging his wash out for the day. New York - picture this. As we got closer and closer to New York I was of course overjoyed but also worried that my past year would slowly disappear and so I recalled as much as I could as fast as I could. Just to make sure it was still there. Just to make sure I had done that.

It's strange being home. In many ways it feels like I never left. But then, I find my head filled with people, thoughts, memories that could never have existed in my life here before. It feels as if everything has more depth, like there is now a new dimension to my experiences as I am suddenly able to see my life here and my life there as just one combined life.

I have been thinking a lot about labels for the past few weeks. How quick we are to classify and box. When you are young the labels are smaller. There are the kids with brown eyes and the kids with blue eyes, there are the righties and the lefties. But, you are all from the same city and probably even from the same neighborhood. You leave home, you go to college and suddenly you are labeled as the place you are from, "oh you are a New Yorker." Am I? I mean I know that I am but I have no idea what that means to you. You leave school, "oh you are a Princetonian." That's true, but I don't know what box of yours that puts me in. And then you leave your country and you are suddenly representing an even bigger pool, "you are an American?" I'd never really thought about that part before, but yea I am.
I have brown eyes, I'm a rightie, I'm a New Yorker, I went to Princeton, and yes I'm an American. They're all boxes and labels, ways of simplifying a person down to sound bytes. But yes, they are truths and when pursued they are important. Now that I'm home I have a new label. "You lived in Thailand." Yes I did. But I have no way of ever knowing what that means to you.

After this year of exploration, self discovery, serious personal growth and pushing myself beyond any of my known limits the one hard and fast truth I have left with is that there is no way to box people. That we are all more similar and more different than anything we could ever imagine. While I type these words there are people in every single country in the world typing words. Different words, but we are all typing and expressing. As I breath we all breath. There is much to be shared and only the structure of boxes to keep us from sharing.

The perfectionist within me wishes to wrap up all my experiences in one tidy post. The realist knows that that is impossible. I am still frayed at every edge, the country I was living in is still devolving into complete civil unrest, my luggage is strewn about the house. Nothing is tidy.

But everything is full, and interesting, and filled with questions.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010


I just received a facebook chat from one of my students, "I'm scared." She wrote. "And I'm so embarrassed." Facebook has been the only way for me to stay connected to everyone in Thailand now that I'm gone. "What is happening to our land of smiles?" One student wrote. "Peace when?" wrote someone else. "Thailand needs peace!" "Oh, Oh, I'm so embarrassed."

The shame and embarrassment that they are expressing speaks volumes about the Thai people. When I first arrived in Thailand every person I met was concerned with whether or not I felt safe. "We take care of you," they always said. "Tell your parents that we take good care of you." You took excellent care of me and now I just wish that I could take care of you.

The fighting has spread to Chiang Mai and I received various emails from students with photographs of a central Chiang Mai bridge on fire. Currently spray painted across that burning bridge are the words, "UN help please!"

The US consulate sent an email warning of "burning tires and firecrackers" being thrown in front of the Chiang Mai governors home and all I can think of are the millions of people who feel "embarrassed" and "scared."

There are countless ways to say you are sorry and countless ways to say you are sad, but those assertions won't change facts and unfortunately, unless somehow monumental, won't do much for fighting.

Red, yellow, or whatever color shirt you wear, it is really only the heart beneath that can spark actions which will give peace a chance and answer the calls for help. Please.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Beginning the goodbyes

I left Chiang Mai yesterday. I refuse to say that I left Chiang Mai for the last time. Instead I will say that I left Chiang Mai for the last time on this Asia stint.

As for now I am in Indonesia for 2 weeks. Spending time with family on this side of the world before I make my way over to the other.

It's hard to know what exactly to say as I think about Chiang Mai. I don't think it has sunk in that I don't live there anymore. I am no longer Ajarn and my apartment now belongs to someone else.

Leaving is bittersweet. In one sense I am ready to go home. To speak English, to see all the people who have over the last year only become voices via skype or words on my gchat. On the other hand it is hard to say goodbye to the first place you felt like a grown up, the place you first had a job and a rent to pay on time, electricity bills and work clothes.

I will miss ancient women Thai dancing in the market place, the smell of dessert waffles coming from ever street stall, fried eggs on all my food and driving my motorbike through crowded streets. I will miss countless things that I won't even realize I miss until some March morning in New York City when it's 33 and raining and all I want is noodles from a street stall and a morning hot enough for 3 showers before noon.

The idea that Chiang Mai is now just a memory does not sit easy. But at some point everything becomes a memory and the only agency we are left with is the ability to live, in those moments, as if all of it is forever.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010


My mother asked me why I haven't been blogging. The reason: My life has been reduced to hours of watching Glee and putting my belongings in ziploc bags.

My days in Chiang Mai are numbered to 5 and as my Monday morning move out gets closer and closer the hours I spend sending pictures of my shelving units to interested classified ads readers only grows.

I'm not yet ready to wax poetic about the wonder that is Chiang Mai so instead I will tell you that I am safe and sound. Happy and healthy. Exploring the weird fat deposits that have accumulated on my body after a year of eating rice, and enjoying the new Asian mullet that was cut into my hair today.

Consider this post a warm up. More to come but for now I have more band aids to put in baggies and enough backlogged episodes to get me through the next few days. So hello America. I will be with you before you know it.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Long Winded

Oh Little Blog I have neglected you. But not out of lack of love, or stories. Simply as a result of the thick Bamboo Curtain that has shielded Myanmar from the modern world for the last few decades.

Right now I sit in the military occupied city of Bangkok. This is not the country I know. But this morning I sat just across the border in the former Myanmar capital of Yangon.

Helen and I (for those of you who don't know, Helen is one of those spectacular and irreplaceable friends I've had since babyhood) traveled through Myanmar/Burma for 10 days. I wish you could have been there. I wish everyone could be there.

I could fill this post with countless of those classic "traveling through Asia" moments. Bus rides I wish had never happened, scorpion filled roads, rats in places you never want to see rats, the calamity of miscommunication. But what my trip to Myanmar deserves is an attention to the people who live there.

Crash history courses (and Lonely Planet "background" sections) will tell us that the people of Myanmar have lived with what can only be described as a military dictatorship for the last two decades. Their elected leader, The Lady as she is called, has been put under house arrest by the government essentially for winning the election and so the people of Myanmar are forced to endure communism and a military presence that threatens their very existance. Their is extreme poverty, which sadly becomes routine as you travel, but their is also extreme oppression and humanitarian crises which under no circumstances ever become routine. A few examples. The countryside is ripe with unfound landmines. The military will take villagers and have them march through areas of suspected landmines, so when the villager blows up the military will know where the landmines are. People are killed and captured on a routine basis. Speaking out against the government is not an option. And years ago when a democratic political party was elected to office the current leading party had all of the newly elected officials either captured or killed. There is nothing fair going on here.

The people we met were often ready to talk. A local man who we met in a restaurant called "Pancake Kingdom" began a conversation with us saying, "perhaps one day our government will be as intelligent as dogs." He then went on to tell us about the Burmese's record for zero political prisoners. "This is not true," he said. "In our country you are not allowed to own a television. But if you obey the leaders no one will disturb you for owning one. If you speak out against the government you will be arrested and imprisoned for 7 years. But not for speaking out against the government, they will say it's because you own a television." For this reason the Burmese government is able to tell institutions like the UN that they have no political prisoners.

Even with this as their life backdrop the people of Myanmar were some of the warmest I've ever met. To give you a visual the land is virtually untouched. Or, as it seems, forgotten. Men and women all wear skirts, and everyone walks around with a thick layer of face paint in a multitude of designs, triangles on the cheeks, stripes by the eyes, which they use as sun protection. Electricity is scarce and I will say there is nothing eerier than walking through a huge metropolis at night in pitch black. As soon as you leave the city all homes are thatch roofed huts. And everywhere you turn are people bathing in the street. Using the only water they can find. Lathered from head to toe and always laughing or singing.

Helen and I were novelty items. Western faces are definitely new, (even though I saw more Ah-Nold movies in Myanmar than ever before in my life.) Everywhere we went mothers woke sleeping children so they could see us, entire families would crowd around us for photographs and this was always followed with "hello!" "what country you!" We would say "USA." They would say "Obama!" or "good country!" and then give us presents. Food, little stones, hats. Anything.

A rickshaw driver asked me where I was from. When I said "New York" he looked at me very solemnly and said, "I'm so sorry for 9-11." When you are standing in a blacked out city in the midst of men bathing in the streets and barefoot babies playing with whatever they've found, that condolence means more than I think it ever has before.

One night we went to see a comedy troop which has been repeatedly imprisoned and put on house arrest for speaking out against the government. As the group of 60 year old brothers who comprised the group made jokes in their front room (no they are not allowed to leave their house) it was impossible to ignore the reality of the situation. Here are people, performing by the light of a generator, on house arrest, forgotten by the rest of the world, physically, financially and even emotionally oppressed by their government. And all they really want to do is laugh.

Sunday, April 11, 2010


In Thai the word for peace is santiphap. At this point it is something that everyone here is wishing for.

If the news is something you avoid the headlines here are the red shirt protests in Bangkok. Sparknoted to it's most vulgar simplicity the Red Shirts (a group of Thais mostly comprised of the lower and middle classes) are unahppy with the current prime minister and are holding protests until he steps down, or a fair election is held. Their foes are the wealthier and more elite Yellow Shirts. The current prime minister is supported by the yellow shirts, the previous prime minister (who was ousted and fled the country) is supported by the red shirts. Over the last few days the situation has escalated more and more. Over 900 are wounded, 21 have died and the red shirts have taken over numerous buildings, streets, hotels, malls in Bangkok and government buildings even here in Chiang Mai.

From where I sit in my apartment things appear normal. Bangkok is a 12 hour drive away and the streets of Chiang Mai are bustling as this week also happens to be the biggest festival of the year, the Thai new year. However, it is impossible to avoid the truck loads of red shirts barreling through the city, or the red flags waving from car and taxi windows. Chiang Mai is comprised almost exclusively of red shirts and although they won't shout it from the roof tops they will quietly wear a red wrist band, or red bandana to show their support.

Thailand is usually a place of such softness and peace that this new current feels unsettling and wrong. All we can do is hope for a resolution.

So, paix, paz, pace, peace, ukuthula, hedd, damai, ashtee, santiphap.

In whatever language you've got, please ask for it.

Sunday, March 28, 2010


Greetings from Saigon.

In Thailand if you are in someone's way they smile at you without saying a word for about 25 seconds, then maybe they will giggle softly into their hands, then they will bow deeply and finally you will notice their presence and move to the side so that they can pass. You will both giggle in embarrassment and nod in respect to one another.

I knew I wasn't in Thailand anymore when after only 10 minutes in the airport a security official physically pushed me over for standing in the wrong customs line. Culture schumlture.

So far my time in Saigon has been completely dominated by my realization of what was actually happening during the Vietnam War. In school we learn about the war very scientifically. We study leaders, and planning failures and treaties signed and ignored. After only a few hours here I saw it from a very different angle. Babies are still born here disabled and disfigured from the effects of Agent Orange spread by our army. Fields are still ruined for farming. And obviously there are the cemeteries filled with headstones from that fateful decade. Sadly our country has those too. Being here with this history hanging in the background has actually filled me with a tremendous amount of shame. I feel sorry.

The day before I left Chiang Mai I went to the American consulate for passport upkeep. After going through security I saw the new trio hanging on the wall for the first time. Obama, Biden, Clinton. What a relief. No vacant Bush, no creepy Cheney, no psyched up Rice. I felt proud to see my president's face hanging on the wall. I feel proud in Thailand everytime someone asks me where I'm from and then they respond with a shout of joy, "Obamaaaaaa!"

But now I'm in Vietnam and when I say I'm American they say, "ok."

So hats off to the three new faces on the wall. Here's to a future that always remembers mistakes of the past.

"1, 2, 3 what are we fighting for?"