All posts by Catherine Solheim


How do we make a connection? How do we know and understand it as genuine?  Is a connection something that we choose or is it something that chooses us?  I have been thinking a lot about connection during this trip.  This learning experience has allowed me to more deeply experience and examine all the different connections that are created and maintained in a moment and in a lifetime.  My time in Thailand has been filled with connection to many different people. Some people I have felt the strongest connections with are the Thai students and our tour guides.
When I look back at my time with the Thai students, three college students just starting their second day interning at a school on the Mekong River, it amazes me to think of where our relationship began to what it developed into.  I can still remember our first day on the boat with them, having strong feelings of wanting to get to know them.  I would smile, and now looking back, this smile was part of the first connection we made together.  The last night together was happy and full of writing notes to one another and a few tears were shed.  The first day on the boat, Claire and I talked with Aek, transculturally interacting, sharing our languages and knowledge.  There were lots of miscommunications, but it was light hearted and I could feel the thirst for knowledge and connection.  After that first initial interaction, I think that a barrier was broken, and thus we began to become more comfortable with one another.  Often times in relationships when you connect, there is this metaphorical bump you have to overcome.  I view it as something you overcome together to understand that you both agree to connection.  A difficulty in this connection was language abilities.  There were often many miscommunications or loss of communication because of our inability to talk one another’s language.  I don’t think this hindered our connections, in a way it made it a more unique connection.   As Yer, one of my fellow students on the trip, would sometimes translate for me, the Thai students kept saying how they had never felt such a strong connection before.  It warmed my heart to hear that because I know that I felt the same way.  I think that connection feeds off of one another.  It’s give and take.  If I feed into the connection, then the other party responds with more connection and there is a common growth. 
Another strong connection I made on this trip was with our tour guide Eve.  It’s hard to explain how or why we connected.  Sometimes I think there is a lack of words and feelings to describe these sensations.  It just happens sometimes and there isn’t a need to explain it. 
In my life I have had some difficulties truly connecting with people on a deeper level.  I think I am afraid of what happens when it ends that I have a hard time focusing on the present.  Relating back to my previous post about expectations and reality, I believe that attachment and connection go hand in hand.  When you make a connection with someone there is some sort of attachment occurring.  What I have a more difficult time understanding is when you connect strongly with a person or a place, how can you say goodbye without suffering?  Or is suffering an initial part of the process?  I was talking with Acharn Cathy about connection and a point she brought up was that reconnection could happen.  This was an idea I had not yet thought of.  She stated that it might not necessarily mean you see them again but you will always remember the moments you had together.  I have a hard time with goodbyes.  I get overwhelmed in my emotions (and cry a lot).  It is hard for me to not think about the future and how this will never happen in the same way again.  I don’t want to lose the connection that was so strongly made in the moment.  I think I have this fear of letting go of something good because it will not be the same in the future.  I do not think that this means that the connection is lost though.  I think you carry these feelings with you for the rest of your life.  Connection is an essential part of being human.  We crave it, we thrive it and grow through it.  I believe that connecting with someone is one of the most rewarding ways to learn.  My experience in Thailand has been one that will never be forgotten.  Some connections may fade away with memories and daily life, but this moment right now will never be forgotten. 

Bright Lights. Busy Traffic.

Brights lights. Busy traffic. As a girl growing up in the city, all I’ve known of is the city life. Back at home, life is always busy: work, school, appointments, time, and money. Life moves fast in the city. So I didn’t know how prepared I would be for this Thailand trip. On our first night, we arrived in Bangkok. Bright lights. Busy traffic. Nothing too different. But as we flew to Chiang Mai and Chiang Khong, things began to change. 

I want to focus on the Mekong School we visited in Chiang Khong, which focused on educating people on the preservation and sustainability of the Mekong River. Hearing them speak about their purpose in life was inspiring. Back at home, I never truly appreciated the natural environment. Honestly I didn’t really know what it was. The Mekong School and people in Northern Thailand have a way of coexisting with the environment. They flow with the natural pace of mother nature. While I experienced a glimpse of their life, I felt a sense of freedom that I had never felt before. I felt like I could breathe for the first time. 

The same feeling overcame me during our 2nd home stay in Amphawa. During the night, we took a stroll on a boat to see fireflies. Naturally, I’d be freaking out about the darkness and bugs. As we drifted about the city looking for fireflies, I closed my eyes and simply listened to the music of nature. The sound of the paddle in the water… the insects buzzing around… the sound of my breath. This is what beauty is, and this is what’s missing at home. During this trip, I’ve learned to not only appreciate the the beauty and power of  the natural environment, but to find a way to show others that beauty. I’ve learned that bright lights can come from fireflies and the moon and busy traffic from all the animals and organisms colliding into each other. I learned how to breathe for the first time.


I can’t believe today is our last day in Thailand. It’s crazy to think that I’ve been here for three weeks and have seen and learned so much. Even though I loved it here, I can’t wait to go back home.

It’s been over twenty-five years since my parents immigrated to the United States as refugees from Thailand. They haven’t been back since. Though my parents still have friends and family here and in Laos, they haven’t found the time and opportunity to come back to the place they grew up, the place they once called home. Being assimilated into the American lifestyle, they still keep a part of Laos and Thailand with them through gardening, farming, raising chickens, going to local Hmong markets, practicing Shamanism, etc. It’s hard sometimes, but they still do.

Even though I am the only one here, I feel that this trip was also for my family; in every picture I took, my dad, mom, uncles and aunts would comment on the things: “Good choice to go as an American.” “Is it fun?” “The Mekong River is still big.” “Be safe and always be aware.”

I’ve always wondered about my parents lives before the United States – do they miss it? What did they do as kids, as teenagers? What kind of struggles did they have? What kind of environment did they grow up in? Even though the places we went were definitely not exact replicas of the way they lived, I’m truly grateful that I got to experience the things I did, such as sleeping on hard mats, squatting toilets and walking through the woods. Each time we went out and explored the city or learned about the environment and agriculture, I kept my parents in mind and connected it with them. In a way I did have this experience with my mom and dad, but I wish they could’ve been here with me to see everything. I know they would talk about what’s changed and what’s the same, and about how different the American lifestyle is from what we see.

It’s been three weeks since I’ve been home, and I miss it. I miss the beautiful lakes, I miss the view of the skyline of downtown Minneapolis and St. Paul, and I miss the businesses down University Avenue. It’s been over twenty-five years for my parents; I wonder what they miss?

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.