My Most Prized Souvenir

     During this trip, I have taken over 900 pictures, bought a handmade ring in Chiang Khong, stuffed my suitcase with souvenirs for loved ones back at home, and made connections with 19 other students and countless people we have met along the way. However, I didn’t expect to walk away from this trip with 19 new people I consider family, countless indescribable experiences behind each 900 of those pictures, a wicked sunburn (sorry Mom, I swear I put on sunscreen!) and an entire new perspective on life. Three weeks seems like too short of a time to consider people family and become a new person yourself, but there is something magical about traveling 8,000+ miles away from home and being pushed to your limits again and again. As I sit here and reflect on the past three weeks, I find myself dreading boarding that plane tomorrow and saying goodbye to Thailand and my new “Thailand Family”. As sad as I am to say goodbye (or as we say here in Thailand, “until we meet again”) I know there is a positive behind the sadness and the tears.

     After I arrive in Minnesota and the initial wave of sadness eases, I know my greatest souvenir will be the inspiration to improve my life. If I ever catch myself living in the future, I will remind myself of the moment we all danced under the stars together at the Mekong School next to the river and my entire being was living in that moment. If I ever feel like I’m at my breaking point, I will remind myself of the time we were in the middle of the Gulf of Thailand in a wooden boat during a storm and how I was able to laugh through the fear. If I ever feel like no one at home understands my experiences on this trip, I will remind myself of the 19 other beautiful souls (and two “mama bear” Acharns!) that were right by my side on this journey. If I ever feel like my life at home has become too repetitive, I will remind myself of the moment by the river that I promised myself I would travel the world. My life here in Thailand has been a work of art, so why can’t it be the same at home? There is no reason I can’t feel pure bliss and free at home. Sometimes we get stuck in the routine of being at home: schedules, work, school, success, materialism. And sometimes, we just need to board a plane and spend three weeks in a foreign country to be reminded of what is truly important. So Thailand, thank you for a souvenir no amount of Baht could ever buy. I am forever thankful. 

And finally, if I ever find myself missing the fresh air, mountains, rivers, and beaches in Thailand, I will remind myself that it’s not “goodbye”. Until we meet again, Thailand.

Connections Amongst Us

I genuinely believe that the people we become is made up of everyone we interact with. Whether that be through close relationships or just a passing on the street. Some of these connections are stronger than others, some more positive, some more prevalent, but no matter what.. I am a make up of everyone I have ever seen or spoken to. 

That being said, these last 3 weeks have had a HUGE impact on my life. I have grown to know my peers in a unique way of experiencing new and challenging moments side by side. I have come to learn from my professors who have guided me through my troubles and concerns. But most of all, I would say I am truly changed by the Hill Tribe Villagers, the Mekong River Organization group, the small boy I danced in the dirt with, the mother begging for money with her baby asleep in her lap, the Beyoncé performer at the lady-boy show and many (many many) more. Specifically, I have never interacted with so many people so different from me in this short of a time. Each day on this trip I have grown. I feel more sensitive to cultural differences, I feel more comfortable with working my way through language barriers, and I feel more confident in impacting others positively. I am so sad to leave, but I look forward to going home and making myself the best person I can be – for me, and for those around me. 

The Small Things

I have always wanted to think that I was a good observer of my surroundings, but I knew I was not. I am bad at crossing stop lights and go at the wrong times; I only look straight ahead when walking so I miss everything that is happening around me; and I struggle with seeing the small details of the things that I look at because I do not spend enough time examining them. Being in Thailand for three weeks, I cannot say that I have magically fixed all those things about me, but I can say that I have see improvements in my ability to be an active observer. 

When I first hopped on the airplane to Thailand, I did not know what to expect, but upon arriving I started to have expectations. Looking back, it is crazy to realize how fast I started making comparisons to the culture in the United States. Even now it is still hard not to make comparisons because the American culture is what I am so accustomed to, and it is difficult to fully observe the Thai culture when I am constantly comparing both cultures. Part of comparing the two cultures is that I was only able to notice all the most apparent things different: the bugs are much bigger and more obnoxious, the heat and humidity made me sweat like crazy every single day, and the traffic is terrible anytime of the day. I think that by only focusing on the most apparent things, I really prevented myself from observing and appreciating all the small things around me that will push me to think. 
Although I had noticed many things during my first week, I do not think it was until the group blog that I started to observe my surroundings more. I started noticing how the local people were using their natural resources in their everyday life for the purpose of the group blog, but was surprised that I continued to notice and learn of the other various ways that the Thais are using their natural resources after the group blog was over. In addition to the use banana leaves and bamboos, coconut leaves are also used for weaving baskets and making brooms, an amazing way of using parts of coconut trees. 
Aside from the natural things, I started noticing the waste around the areas that we traveled to and wondered how they came to end up there. In Chiang Khong, I had seen trash dumped on the side of the road next to banana trees and peoples’ gardens. Not knowing anything and only noticing, I had questioned how those trash were decided to be dumped there. Who made those decisions and why? In addition to noticing trash, I also noticed how in certain areas there were really modern buildings towering next to small shabby buildings. To me, it was a clear illustration of modernization and urbanization, something that I never really cared to see back in the states. I also noticed how people act and react to things and me here. Although it feels weird to be the outcast and having people stare at me, I think that the experience is valuable to have. It makes me think about the people back at home who are immigrants, refugees, or international people visiting and how I react to them. If I am feeling outcasted and uncomfortable from odd gazes, then those people may also feel the same way.
From my time in Thailand, I have learned to appreciate the small things that are around me. Although I am noticing my surroundings and questioning more, I hope that my ability to observe does not end here and that I can take it back with me so that I can become a more appreciative person back home. 

It’s Not a Goodbye, It’s a See You Again, Thailand

For the past three weeks, this experience of studying abroad in Thailand has been life changing. As a first-time traveler abroad, I really didn’t know what to expect except to keep an open mind as much as possible. From riding in a plane for 16 hours to reconnecting with my roots and being educated on Buddhism, the amount of knowledge and wisdom I have learned and gained has impacted me immensely. Every day has taught me something new and has opened up my eyes to really see the world. I still think of how lucky I am to be able to have gotten the chance to study abroad and experience what life is like outside of my own. The friendships I have made and amazing peers I have met throughout this experience has really made this trip worthwhile aside from being immersed into the beautiful culture of Thailand. I hope that in many years down the road from now we will all be able to look back on this opportunity and smile with joy from the unforgettable memories we have made. 

While this experience has been life changing, as a foreign student studying abroad in Thailand, there have been many realizations I have struggled with. Like I said, since I have never traveled abroad before, I didn’t really know what to expect at all. I grew up living a comfortable life, one that I was used to; however, this experience in a foreign country has really made me step outside of my comfort zone and challenge me. It has also allowed me to be vulnerable without feeling weak and brittle – a different kind of vulnerability. From realizing that in Thailand not all children have access to a good, quality education, how not everyone has access to clean water, the lack of resources for the poor and uneducated, how human trafficking is a real issue this country faces, and the amount of pollution there is from the poor sewage system has all played a major role and affected the culture shock I experienced here. All these realizations have made me come to see the amount of privilege I have as an American, and that too, is something I most struggle with as well. From observing how hard the people of Thailand work to earn a living to learning how little they earn in a day has made me be more appreciative as a foreigner. This  experience has taught me to be humble and learn to put aside my privilege, especially during all those times while squatting in the bathroom.

“Who I really am”

Before applying to the Thailand study abroad program, my expectation was to take the traveling opportunity to discover and identify my true self-identity. After 6 years of leaving home, Laos, I have been adapting and associating with American culture that has shifted my way of living life in two different world. For instance, I have to speak English most of the time when I am in school and outside my house. The only time that I can practice Laos’s language was at home and surrounding by my sibling and family members. I eat American Food instead of Laos’s food in majority time of life that living in America. I used to just walked to school while I was a kid in Lao, but now I have a car for my own and can go anywhere I want. The whole theme of my life has been moving from local way of living to the industrial that is giving me so much of resources and opportunities in life. So,
            Coming to Thailand was the greatest opportunity for me to explore how Thailand people living their life locally in order to help me fine my root and heritage identity. Especially living in homestay with the Thai local family helped reminding me so much how I used to live my life in Laos. For instance, the family served me meals that locally simple and delicious, which I haven’t had for so long. I had “shrimp paste paper” with eggs that reminded well of what my parents used to cook for me when I was a little kid. At night, I got to sleep on the hard floor with a thin mattress and cover by a mosquitos net which helped me thinking of how I used to sleep at home in Laos. Even though using squad toilet has become my biggest concerned and challenge, but it made me realized how much I am slowly losing and forgetting my self-identity.

            Also visiting different local places in Thailand has helped me realized where I came from. Especially when we went to visit Mekong village at Chiengkong province. At Mekong village, I have seen a river that symbolized how my family used it to escape from Lao communist soldier to Thailand. My auntie has told me how she fled from Laos to Thailand through Mekong River in order to come to America. It was a painful and memorable experience of our family generation that neither of us will forget. If it were not because of my auntie I wouldn’t have the opportunity to come to America and earn a higher education. Looking the Mekong River today and then, I was seeing the mother river that is so valuable and resourceful to all Lao, Thai, Hmong, and other countries a long the river. But knowing how dams creation is destroying our mother river has made feel emotionally hurtful and useless. As one of Laos younger generation who have a better opportunity in education than other Laos people, what can I do to help preserve this river and our country. This is my journey that I have to continues discover and un-wrap in order to see who I really am.

My view

I am proud to be Hmong even though we have no country of our own, but we have a strong culture. We are able to maintain the culture and pass on to generations to generations. Hmong people live around the world. Each country has their own rules and laws. Hmong people are able to adopt the new culture and the societies in the country that they live. I hear stories about Hmong and study about Hmong history. Personally, I think that a person should know where their ancestors are from. I feel privileged that I know Hmong once has a kingdom of their own in China, but because of the world is changing, everything has to change, too.  
Before coming to the Thailand I thought I know a lot of things about Hmong people. I felt ready and excited, but I was wrong. I assumed things too soon and still kept my thought of ten years ago. I forgot that the world is changing. Life will never be the same. I recalled the first time visiting the Hmong village. I was amazed to see Hmong Thai in the mountain. They still maintain their life style, but they adopted their way of living such as farming by using the royal project. I thought that this is a really smart way to continue living. I never knew anything about it. I felt lost, but somehow I was happy to see that Hmong people are able to live their life no matter where they are. 
I have learned that I still have a lot to learn. I might know one thing, but doesn’t mean that I know a lot. Coming to Thailand, I have open my mind to learn more about what is really changing to Hmong people in other countries and in the U.S. I no longer want to keep those memories. I should have realize a long time that I shouldn’t stick with only one thought. Experience life with your own eyes would defiantly change your mind. 

Integrating into the Thai’s Way of Living

Being in Thailand for the past three weeks had taught me a lot about being open to new challenges and not take things for granted. The two home stays were the best experiences because it made me go out of my comfort zone in order to fully communicate with my host parents. My host parents knew little English, so I had to learn how to do hand gestures and body movements to get my message across and they had to do the same too. Although, I couldn’t speak fluent Thai I felt a strong connection between me and the host parents through the body gestures. The most frustrating part about the home stays was sleeping on the floor with insects coming out at night. It bothered me a lot because I was never exposed to anything like that, so it was difficult for me to sleep throughout the night. Then waking up early to cook with the host parents for the monks and breakfast taught me how precious time can be. I love to sleep in but by waking up early in the morning I felt like it made a difference in my day because I can get so many things done.
            The one activity that challenged me the most was hiking and going up the stairs to get to the top of the waterfall. I thought the hike was only an hour or so, but it took about two hours and by the time we reached our destination everyone was drained. All I remember was complaining about the insects and how hot it was. But after the hike I reflected on it and realized that the whole time the tour guides never complained once or said that it was too hot for them. During the hike we saw some people working and picking out tea leaves to sell. I envy them because they’re able to work hard under the hot weather and the insects didn’t bother them. I wish I can fully immerse myself into their way of living and not complain about it.
            All my experiences so far are just a little taste of how Thai people live. I still have a lot to learn about the way of living in Thailand. But the one connection I made while being in Thailand was how my parents lived here. The night of the hiking trip I called my mom to tell her that I finally knew exactly what she was talking about when she said she used to walk hills after hills on dirt road to get to the garden. My parents used to live in Thailand and they would tell me stories about walking on steep hills and having to hike to get to places. Now I’m finally experiencing the same things my parents did when they lived in Thailand. I’ve learned to go out of my comfort zone and see a new way of living.

What I’m Thankful For

I was talking to my dad earlier and he told me: “Tonight think about all the things that you have seen and ask the things you can be thankful for.” So I’ve decided to use this last blog for that reflection.

A lot of this trip has been firsts for me. I’m the first one in my family to travel over seas, I went on my first hike, and I used my first squatting toilet, just to name a few. In the moment, these were hard for me. I experienced homesickness, I sweat and climbed up more hills than I ever have, and I envied men’s ability to pee standing up. However, even though I might have been frustrated in the moment, I am thankful for each one these experiences because they are mine. I think it also made me realize how privileged I am. In the U.S I don’t have to worry about using a squatting toilet or having to walk for an hour in extreme humidity. I have all these convinces that are at my fingertips, and the fact that I was able to adapt and accomplish all of the things on this trip makes me unbelievably proud of myself.

I am also thankful for all of the things I’ve learned. I feel like I’ve stepped out of the western bubble and can begin to understand things on a global level. I will use human trafficking as one example. I don’t think I was even familiar with the idea of human trafficking before I moved to Minneapolis for school. Suddenly this idea was on my radar, but I’m not sure I even grasped the magnitude of the problem before I came to Thailand. Now I understand this is truly a problem on a global scale. I think hearing Eve’s story helped me ground this large idea into reality and I now know someone who has lost friends and family because of this. I remember telling my parents about this and they didn’t even know the term human trafficking. It made me so frustrated, not at them, but at the fact that this worldwide problem isn’t being talked about. Everyone says even one person can make a difference, and I know I’m going to spread what I’ve learned to my friends and family. My hope is that this will at least make them familiar with the idea. Of course, human trafficking is just one example of something profound that I’ve learned here in Thailand. There are so many things I’ve learned, whether it be about the Mekong River or opium, and I will never forget any of them. 

Finally, I am thankful for the opportunity to be embraced by a new culture. Everyone that I’ve met in Thailand has been helpful and friendly which makes saying goodbye so hard. I remember getting choked up after the first home stay because I thought of how little they had in comparison to what I have in the U.S. and yet they were willing to share it. They fed us, gave us a place to sleep, and even gave us their mosquito netting. I want to believe that I would be that generous if someone came to stay in my home, but I don’t know if that’s realistic or not. I think of all I have and I feel like I don’t give to others enough. I think giving back to others is a new goal I have for myself after this trip.

Thailand has been amazing and I have so much to be thankful for not only when it comes to all the experiences I had, but also when it comes to the life I have in the U.S.. I hope one day I will be back to experience more.

Self Awareness and Self Identity Guided through Buddhism

Self Awareness & Self Identity Guided through the Buddhism Religion
Life has a funny way of bringing people together. As we humans come from all different walks of life, it is amazing how we can unite on such valuable life experiences. Being all female and all college students in a large and diverse city, we are presented with many “ways of life,” and have deeply rooted internal and external experiences that shape who we are as young adult women in this very society. Though, the five of us come from very different histories, experiences, and families, we have all found ourselves traveling to Thailand together. Having some idea of what the Buddhist religion entails, we all have a common interest in how self awareness and self identity plays out through Buddhism. Here are our stories: 
Jessica’s Story:

As a recent undergraduate student from the FSoS major, I have spent the past few years learning so much about families including their likely rituals, rules, dynamics, beliefs, and outcomes depending on the world around them. While the primary focus of my studies has been narrowed down to families, there are endless scenarios which each unit of people may face. I have learned to be sensitive, think critically, and remember that no two families are the same. With that, one lesson I would like to draw attention to is “the stages of life” taught in a family psychology course at the U of M. For the purpose of this assignment, I will relate the ideas surrounding expected stages of life with the beliefs taught from a Buddhist perspective as I have come understand more throughout my journey in Thailand.
I find the connections between our created expectations, our reality, and our feelings very unique and certainly interdependent. For starters, the “stages of life” concept draws a map through one’s life and lists typical ages in which events would occur. Usually, the events are seen as great milestones. For instance: first communion, sweet 16, high school graduation, moving out, 21st birthday, first serious relationship, graduating college, getting married, having children, living after children move out, potential divorce, potential re-marriage, old-age, and near death are a list of common experiences amongst Americans. As discussed in the psychology course, the list above is often the order in which the events are said to occur. 
As of last week, I have gained more knowledge about the Buddhism religion and the perspectives provided by Pra Acharn Jolee through our amazing Monk Chat. During our time together, Jolee provided creative metaphors to help explain the religion. I can remember feeling at ease with his conversation flowing between some explanation, some story telling, and even some demonstration. Jolee was very wise, but let us know that he too is still a learner. Everyday we are learning and knowing that while focusing on the moment we have now is very important in the Buddhist religion. The chat provided me with some peace in my heart. I felt emotional as Jolee mentioned some of the most important factors are to be kind and live simply. How delightful! While this concept may seem clear cut, it can be so hard to grasp when wondering if our reality is “right” or how others would like it to be. 
Some drawbacks from the “stages of life” concept may be focusing useful energy on areas that sometimes are out of our control. And then, when things are out of our control, we may feel anxious or sad. While I know Jolee had a dream for a life ahead of him it didn’t seem as though he had strict expectations. Just having ideas in our heads about ways we think we should be living can pull us from the true moment we are in. Having a new outlook through the Buddhism perspective and balancing that with my FSoS knowledge, I have found some common ground. I know I want to continue my studies on families as well as my personal self and I think this is an exciting start to a beautiful adventure!
Kya’s Story:

“Live not as though there were a thousand years ahead of you. Fate is at your elbow; make yourself good while life and power are still yours.”
     Our last activity as a group for the day was a monk chat, or a chance to learn about Buddhism and Thai culture from Pra Acharn Jolee, a Master monk in Chiang Mai. I was exhausted from the Thai sun and jet lag, but we pulled onto a gravel road and suddenly my senses came alive and my exhaustion faded. I was suddenly on a university campus for monks and I did not know what to expect. There’s a certain image I had of monks before arriving and quite honestly, I found them intimidating. They didn’t seem human and I was terrified I would offend them in any way. We walked into a smaller room and were all seated as we waited for the monk to arrive. We were all quiet, the air was still, and there seemed to be a feeling of nervousness surrounding us. However, we were quickly put to ease as Pra Acharn Jolee cracked a joke within thirty seconds of entering the room. Then, towards the end of the chat, Pra Acharn Jolee began to de-robe himself, I vividly remember being consumed by the present. My entire mind, body, and soul were in that room, in that very moment. I was absolutely amazed that a Master monk stood before me and demonstrated the different ways of wearing the robe right after sharing bits of wisdom I will certainly never forget. During the monk chat with Pra Acharn Jolee, I was not consumed by the future. My mind did not drift to my plans for the evening. I did not worry about my family or friends at home. Paying bills, doing homework, and cleaning my apartment were not on my radar. For the first time in a very long time, my entire being was engaged in the present. I felt at peace.
    I remember being told to plan my future out from a very young age. American culture thrives off punctuality, planning everything out meticulously, and most importantly, success. Naturally, I was raised to believe that planning my future out in detail was the only way to become successful. I suppose I never thought a way of life could be any different until I arrived in Thailand. Although I do not know the exact details of how Thai children are taught to think about their futures, the general pace of this country is slower and more at ease. I fell in love with the vibes I felt from the Thais: why be stressed and high-strung when the present is so beautiful? But, as I reflect upon my high school days, I remember how the future started to consume me. My first week of freshman year I was assigned to fill out a “Five Year Plan”. At the age of fourteen, I was already stressing about college and my future career. Where would I go to college? What type of career would be a good fit for me? What do I see myself majoring in? Did I want to stay in Minnesota or move out of state? My fourteen year old brain was not even fully developed but was being forced to plan out my life. This time in my life was a time of intense anxiety for me and I thought certainly the other kids in my grade knew what they wanted their future to look like. I felt alienated and became completely consumed by the future. Even my family began to ask me questions about my college and career plans. It became impossible to enjoy the present because I strictly lived in the future. And the worrying about the future didn’t end once I graduated high school, it only worsened. College is a time of planning: studying for tests, building our resume for the future, and striving for graduation day. 
    Pra Acharn Jolee told us in the monk chat that the three basic precepts of Buddhism were: abstain from bad, do good, and clean the mind. While all three of these are important, I really resonated with the third one. Clean the mind. Something clicked when he said those words. How could my mind be clean when I am living in the future? Living in the future leaves my mind in a state of anxiousness, confusion, and worry. Of course, having goals and dreams are great but just like all aspects of life, there needs to be a balance. Aside from the monk chat, I witnessed an incredible sense of balance from the teachers at the Mekong School. The leaders all had incredible goals on how to save their beloved Mekong River, but were also able to live in and enjoy the moment as we all danced under the stars next to the river. I have missed out on so much because my mind was running towards the future instead of enjoying the now. This trip to Thailand has been the beginning of my goal to clean my mind and that starts by thriving and engaging in the present. 
Julia’s Story:

My name is Julia Rodman and my journey with Buddhism began in middle school. One experience I had was the day my dad told me, immediately after attending church, that he was a Buddhist.  I could not comprehend how he could attend a Lutheran church and be a Buddhist. I was flabbergasted, frustrated, you could even say betrayed.  There was not much explanation as to what my dad being “Buddhist” meant.  Through the years I learned that it meant he practiced meditation, read about Buddhism, and enjoyed the ways of Buddhism.  Another experience I had was a few years later in high school when I read the book Siddhartha for an English class.  For some unknown reason, this reading deeply resonated with me.  I felt a connection to what I understood as the Buddhist ways. I loved the idea of not having a so-called “god” to look to for guidance.  It was a practice that focused on the self and doing good – something so simple, yet so vital to life. 
I believe that there is a strong connection between suffering as humans we experience, mental health, and Buddhism.  In my world, suffering goes hand in hand with expectations and reality.  This is a phenomenon that I, along with many others, have experienced many times.  As humans we are constantly preparing for what is next to come, along with having visions of how things will play out.  Is there a way to lessen expectations and live in the reality? From the monk chat, Pra Acharn Jolee stated that, “Everything doesn’t belong to you.  You should not suffer because you attach.  Don’t attach.  Use it, but if it goes away, do not suffer.”  I understood this idea as not to abstain from attaching, which is something that I have often done, but rather find a way to connect, but also maintain your individuality.  In my life I have suffered many times because when I attached and the source of happiness went away, I felt the pain very deeply.  Opposite of what Acharn Jolee said, I did suffer because I attached. 
I have struggled trying to find a way to find a connection but not suffer if things do not go the way I expect them to.  This is something through ideas of Buddhism I hope to better myself.  I have practiced meditation from time to time and after I walk out, I feel refreshed, like I have been born again ready to live in the present again.  That is not to say that meditation is an easy practice.  In meditation, you are to focus the mind.  My teachers and my father have told me that when your mind drifts away, do not get upset, simply bring it back to where you began.  This is easier said than done and only improves with practice.  I am taking a Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction class in the coming fall and will spend several weeks studying and practicing meditation and other things. 
My time here in Thailand has been testing my interactions with expectations and reality.  In the beginning I had more expectations.  I think as time has gone by on the trip, I have begun to expect less and truly experience everything for what it is.  Often I would find myself in an unpleasant experience, sweating more than I would like, for example and my mind would be complaining.  In that moment I would change my thoughts and say “yes, you are sweating, you are hot, and that is okay. You are also alive, thriving in the jungle of Thailand with a group of wonderful people.”  Other moments of initial unpleasant experiences include eating strange and different dishes and being unable to speak to people in their language.  Walking through the markets I was often overwhelmed by the foreign smells and sights of raw meat and flies swarming around the food.  In the initial moment I wanted to walk away and escape from the moment, but through personal practice, I have begun to embrace the moment, no matter how unpleasant my thoughts make it seem.  I believe that a mindset can change the reality of a situation.  If I change my negative thoughts to positive ones, my experience will be truly present thoughts.  By manipulating the mind, eventually you will become happier and more at peace.  With the language, my thoughts were often sadness that I could not participate or say as much as I wanted to.  I think that this experience has been the most difficult for me.  I have never experienced this sensation of not being able to communicate through language before.  Initially I would feel sad and then frustrated because I felt like I was missing out on connection.  With the Thai students I had a desire to say so much more, but lacked the ability.  But rather than avoid, I would sit and absorb the language.  This experience tested my ability to live in the present.  At one dinner I was the only non-Thai speaker.  I found myself focusing on more than just the language.  I watched the ways their body moved, the expressions that their faces showed, and when I was addressed I would smile and attempt to guess what they were trying to say.  Sometimes I was correct because context gives many clues to what is being said, and sometimes Yer or Mongkon, two students on the trip that speak both English and Thai, would help translate for me.  These feelings have allowed me to experience the reality of the situation and focus on the present.  
Cecilia’s Story:

“Our prime purpose in this life is to help others. And if you can’t help them, at least don’t hurt them.” -Dalai Lama
“Every time you are tempted to react in the same old way, ask if you want to be a prisoner of the past or a pioneer of the future” – Deepak Chopra
    Written above are two of my favorite quotes. I find myself often reading inspirational and meaningful quotes day to day because they keep me going, and they give me hope. Over the past few years, it is safe to say that I have not been dealt the fairest hand and have been left to tend too many feelings of sadness, pain, and disappointment. To combat all of those negative feelings, I have also had to acknowledge my extreme moments of success and happiness. Has the balance always been even? No. Do I wish some things could have been different? Absolutely, but what is life without lessons? What is life without both good and the bad interactions shared among family, friends, and lovers? How do we forgive each other for the pain caused to one another? How to we be present in a world that is filled with deadlines, appointments, and high structure? Most importantly, what can we take away from everyone and everything that comes in and out of our lives? A good friends once told me, “Every relationship, friendship, and brief encounter with another person offers us an incredible opportunity to learn more about ourselves if we choose to do so. All of the “good” and “bad” that we can perceive in others is a reflection of a similar aspect that we share somewhere within oursleves.”
    Spending the past two weeks in Thailand has allowed to me really reflect and unpack some personal emotions I’ve carried with me for awhile. Thus far, this trip has been absolutely amazing. I have had extremely memorable experiences and most of those experiences will be with me for life. Specifically, there is one experience that resonates with me the most and I cannot seem to get it out of my head; visiting the Monk Chat in Chiang Mai. Pra Acharn Jolee took time out of his day to speak to us about the history, evolution, and meaning of Buddhism and his personal experience of becoming a monk. 
Buddhism is a way of life; how to be happy. It is about finding a balance between the body and the mind. Pra Acharn Jolee captivated my attention immediately. He was soft with his tone and genuine with his speech. He was comfortable with who he was which in turn made me comfortable with who I am. Listening to him was easy and his presence was confident. I thought to myself, “this is someone who inspires me and this is someone who is honest and true with themselves. I want that. I aspire to be like that.” 
There are two topics that were discussed in the Monk Chat and both topics have stuck with me. The first topic being karma – action vs. reaction and the second topic being purification – how to forgive and forget. As I have both personally struggled with the idea of how to forgive and forget and work through action and reaction, my time spent in Thailand has forced me to really reevaluate both ideas. Reflecting on both good and bad interactions I’ve had within the past few weeks, I know I was not always fair towards others, and I know I could have reacted differently but in that given moment but my emotions were all I knew and it generally left me feeling more upset than before. But what about the reactions and actions people put forth towards me? They were not always fair and some of them left me emotionally distraught and stressed. Then I realized that those individuals acted in a way that was familiar to them and their emotions were all they knew. I can pinpoint a certain moment from a few weeks ago when promised myself I would change the narrative around action, reaction, forgiving, and forgetting. Pra Acharn Jolee simply clarified what I could not put into actions and or words for that matter. 
I am a firm believer of the golden rule: “do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” and I also believe in, “what goes around comes around.” In a sense Karma. I have made it a point to acknowledge and understand that my many daily interactions with people happen for a reason. Now, everything happens for a reason but I can change my reaction and actions towards others. I can also find a way to forgive and forget those who have hurt me. Having a strong understanding of my behavior, thoughts, and feelings towards others have pushed me towards the ultimate test of remaining as positive as possible in times where I feel like I cannot. Lastly, I have been forced to really self reflect and be aware of my presence in the places and people I interact with. 
Experiences and learned behaviors shape who we are as humans. Along with the influences of family, friends, and so many other life contributions it is so easy to fall into patterns and “a way of life.” With that said, I am so proud to share with you all that my short yet life changing time in Thailand has helped me become more aware of who I am and who I want to continue to be. My hope is to continue to abstain from doing bad, keep doing good, and really clean my mind. Finding peace with oneself and coming to an understanding that no one is better than the other, will ultimately create a positive “way of life.” 
Zang’s Story:

“Keep what is good and leave the bad behind”     -Pra Acharn Jolee
“Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall”    -Confucius
One of the most memorable experiences from this study abroad course has been the Monk Chat we attended in Chiang Mai from our first week in Thailand. I can recall that it was the day where we visited temples then went to a Monk school to participate in the Monk Chat. It was a hot day with the sun shining brightly as we walked around everywhere. Upon entering the room where the Monk Chat was located in, I was sweating, tired and didn’t know what to expect; I had never participated in a Monk Chat before prior to orientation. When Pra Acharn Jolee walked into the room, there were multiple thoughts going on in my head. For some strange reason, I had thought that monks were not allowed to speak because of the rules or guidelines they must follow. There was this perception I had thinking that monks were someone high and holy (which they are) that I was not allowed to converse with them. Learning that monks are not allowed to stand close to women and vice versa, this may have contributed to it. I wanted to not only be respectful of the country and culture, but also be respectful of the Buddhist religion as well. After hearing Pra Acharn Jolee speak for a couple of minutes, I was so relieved to know how down to earth he was. I almost forgot he was even a monk because of his humor as well. What additionally amazed me was that he was a Hmong monk. I had always heard of Hmong men becoming monks from my parents but never thought I would ever encounter one in real life. This experience was very personal for me as I not only learned a lot about him, but also became enlightened on Buddhism, too.
I have always heard of the Buddhist religion, but never really resonated with it until now. Recently within the past year, I have decided to embark on a journey of soul searching. This journey is a path to becoming a better person, learning how to be at peace with my own being, and overall, finding myself. Growing up, life has always been a constant struggle for me both internally and externally. Internally, I have continuously put myself down through my own words. Words like “You’re not good enough,” “You’re not smart enough,” or “You won’t make it in the end” have all crossed my mind. Like the quote from Buddha, “Your worst enemy cannot harm you as much as your own unguarded thoughts,” this quote is indeed true. On the outside externally, I have body shamed myself because I don’t look like society’s portrayal of the ideal female body or don’t have perfect white, straight teeth. The expectations and standards I have built up for myself have made me my own worst critique. Leading up to my decision to embark on this journey, I have realized that “No one saves us but ourselves. No one can and no one may. We ourselves must walk [our own] path[s]” (Buddha). During the monk chat with Pra Acharn Jolee a couple of weeks ago, he mentioned the three core points of Buddhism: Be aware of doing bad, do good and clean the mind. While I do believe in these three points and have always followed them, I find that the third quote most relates to my well being. The ideals of Buddhism have guided me towards enlightenment and finding myself.

Community engaged approaches to sustainable living along the Mekong River

Mongkon Cida, Emily Huff, Mai Xiong, Claire Kurschner

As American students from the University of Minnesota, it is important for us to understand the effects of global change in regions of the world besides our own. While in Thailand, we have been learning not only from our professors but also from local villagers, students, and organization leaders. This experiential learning has helped us to draw connections between the decisions of superpowers, the environment, and the impacts on local people.


The fish in a river depend on the biodiversity and stability of the ecosystem in which they live. The people that live along the river depend on the fish and vegetation for survival, and individuals depend on their communities for living fulfilling lives. A nation, in turn, depends on its communities to grow into a strong and unified country. All hangs in the delicate balance of sustainable interactions – the interaction of humans with their environment, and the interactions of individual people within both small and large communities.

Importance of the Mekong River
By Mongkon Cida

The Mekong River is a friendship boundary river in Southeast Asia that flows through six countries including China, Thailand, Lao, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Myanmar. The river is a central ecosystem consisting of rich food resources and fish habitats that connect people with the river. 50 years ago, the Mekong River used to have everything that people needed such as food and income resources. The Mekong villagers fished for food and sold them to their country neighbors for business exchanging. In the past, Thai villagers lived their lives working hard simply and happily until they were introduced to the new age of industrial era. A number of changes have had negative impacts on the lives of local people and their food resources in the Mekong River. One of the most notable sources of change is China’s creation of large-scale hydroelectric dams along the Mekong, with plans for many more. While China has reaped the benefits of the dams, the impact south of the dams has been extremely negative.  For example, the water levels used to change with the seasons – high in the rainy season and low in the dry season.  Now they are unpredictable and can occur without any warning.  The rapid water level changes also cause erosion of the Mekong River banks. The dams have also caused flooding and damaged fish habitats, which decreased the population many fish species that live in Mekong River. The changes in Mekong have negative impacts directly to local villagers whose lives depend on the Mekong and the food resources. It has become a huge issue to Mekong local people, but the Thai government is either unaware or simply does not pay attention to this dam building project that is slowly destroying their peoples lives and environment. Therefore, several Mekong local villagers took the initiative to stand up for their people to fight the Dam project in order to preserve and sustain their community resources.
        The Mekong School worked with several other organizations to build a network, to preserve and protect the Mekong River and revitalize local history, culture and the arts. By doing this, they create hope and pride among community members. 

Kru Tee is the organization’s founder who is extremely passionate and connected with the Mekong River. Kru Tee works to protect the Mekong River by helping local villagers

understand the history, culture, and ecosystem of the river that has such a big impact on their lives and the environment they live in. To do this, Kru Tee’s strategy is to visit villages along the Mekong River to interact and exchange conversation with the villagers in order to understand each other and find the solutions to preserve their food resources. One of the organization’s successes has been their protection of the Ing River, which is one of the Mekong River’s tributary. Their solution to the disruption of balance in the ecosystem is to sustain the water and forest along the Ing River. Since trees are the main source of water retention, the organization helps the villagers understand the importance of the forest to the river. This in turn reduces the rate of cutting trees along the Ing River. In addition to preserving the forest, the organization preserves trees that have been affected by the flooding and allows them to re-grow naturally. By collaborating with local volunteers and villages, as one community, they re-plant trees that have been destroyed. To help maintain water levels, they built small restoration dams along creeks in the forest to store water during the dry season. All this work to protect the Mekong and its surrounding environment is being done at a grassroots, community level, which is part of its success.

The Effects of Globalization on Community Living
By Emily Huff

In a world that is becoming restructured by globalization, both practices and values, it is easy to look past the strengths of communities. Being in Thailand has been a reminder of how strong communities can prosper, but also of the threats they face by industrialization and globalization. What I have observed frequently in Thailand is community efforts taking place, and the value placed on communities thriving as a whole. Living in the US, where we value individualism, it is easy to forget the importance of community. I have always been interested in how communities can be more independent and sustainable. The Hmong village in the Chiang Dao District, the Mekong School, and especially our home stay at Mae Kampong were influential examples of how communities are staying intact despite the pressures of globalization.
        The Mae Kampong village had three main sources of income: tea, coffee, and the homestay program. The homestay program was generating the most money. I believe by creating this eco-tourist attraction, it is allowing them to remain more of an independent community because they do not need to seek government support. Having two specialized products, coffee and tea, generates jobs within the community allowing them to work close to home; this is important because when you work within your community you value the space in which you work in. Mae Kampong also collected, filtered, and bottled their own water, which allowed them to be self-sustaining and not rely on outside sources for water. The three meals that were prepared for us were (most likely) primarily made from produce grown within the area as well.
        Besides environmental sustainability, Mae Kampong also focuses on sustaining an educated community. By offering monetary incentives and community celebrations for each degree obtained, students strive to do better and are encouraged to continue their education. They see the benefit in educating younger generations to better the community as a whole. What is important about living in a strong community, is people are less likely to take on the values globalization creates, such as consumerism, because they find value in sustainable living.

Hill Area Development Foundation
By Claire Kurschner

The Hill Area Development Foundation (HADF) is a community-based organization in Northern Thailand. One of the main objectives of HADF is to educate and encourage hill tribe people to take pride in their environment and value sustainable living. This nonprofit group works to build and maintain the heritage of the Hill people and ensure their involvement in community decisions, which is even more important in such a quickly-changing society. Their mission is to include people “…in all stages of a development process leading towards the goal of idea exchange, experience and potential to create our committed society. (HADF)” They do this by going to the different villages and talking with villagers, educating them on the events happening outside of their small community and how the actions of others impact them. In this way, small, separate communities can be connected in one larger, stronger network where all can understand and create shared goals.

Physical Use of the Environment
By Mai Xiong

        While sustainable living can be viewed in the context of community initiatives and interactions, it is also important to examine the seemingly small everyday ways that people interact with the environment around them. In the United States, we lack the use of our physical environment since the convenience of using readily available materials such as ceramic cups, plastic containers and roof tiles manufactured by big companies makes our lives more comfortable and easier.  Sometimes our habits of only using items manufactured from big manufacturers causes us to live unsustainable lifestyles that may potentially harm our earth in the long run as we constantly deplete natural resources to make those items. In Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai, I’ve observed that the hill tribe people and local Thais make efforts to utilize the physical things in their natural environment for everyday life as an initiative to being more sustainable. Even though we do see people becoming more modernized in Thailand and using manufactured goods for everyday use, there are still people who still make use of materials from their environment.
                 To be sustainable, the hill tribes and Thais use various natural resources in everyday use. Banana leaves are one example of a natural resource that they utilize very well. They are very versatile and sustainable, serving as packagings for food, much the same way that we use plastic containers, wraps and aluminum foil in the U.S. At almost all food vendors that I have seen thus far, I’ve been amazed to see the various ways that banana leaves have been used for food packaging and serving! In addition to banana leaves, bamboos are used in various ways too. Two such things include its use as small cups and food packaging. I have also seen empty coconut shells used as flower and plant pots at homes along the Mekong River and as ladles for water. At the Mekong School, the roofing tiles were also made out of large dried tree leaves, a very fascinating use of the natural environment which makes me wonder how rain proof it is. In the Hmong village, we saw hemp used to make clothing, strings for bows and arrows used for hunting and various tools. Elephant poop is another natural thing that is used to make paper. Furthermore, the natural vegetation in the community such as in the wetlands that we visited provided various food opportunities for the locals such as fiddle heads and roots of plants that naturally grow in the area. While the use of these natural things in the environment may be small, they are sustainable to the local people and promotes the idea of using what is available versus buying things.


        The pressures of globalization have encouraged industrialization and commoditization of natural resources throughout the world. This can be seen in Southeast Asia, in particular through the interaction of those in power with the Mekong River. The building of hydroelectric dams by China, Laos, and Thailand negatively affects all the life in and along the river south of the dams, altering ecosystems and harming communities. Organizations like the Mekong River School and the Hill Area Development Foundation are working to educate and collaborate with communities in the area to create a strong voice – a voice that can stand up to those who are damaging the balance of sustainable living, and one that can encourage others to come together and do the same.