Wednesday, May 2, 2012

gah sehd bload sahn pete means organic agriculture.

I'm approaching the TWO WEEKS NOTICE mark! I've absolutely adored my time in this beautiful nation, and I've recently started thinking a lot about what I'm leaving with... and I'm not referring to what chachka I'll be packing in my suitcase, which will be hopefully be zero. [Sidenote- "Chachka" is a phrase used throughout my life by my lovely mother Vicki and defined by Urban Dictionary as "an expensive and fairly useless trinket". Just to clarify.] What has been preoccupying my mind has been what lessons I'll bring back, and how what I've learned and experienced here will ultimately change my viewpoint, my actions, and my self back home in the States. I thought I'd share this newsletter piece I wrote about our organic agriculture unit, because being here has truly ignited a passion in me for caring about how to feed the world, where our food comes from, and protecting the farmers and families who grow the very food that sustains us all. Keep in mind one of my operative quotes here is "I'm not tryin' to be stressed in Thailand" so the writing is somewhat janky, but y'all get the point...

Eating From Around the Corner
By Molly Johnson

“My commitment to eating locally is probably driven by three things. The first is the taste of live food; the second is my relation to frugality; the third is my deep concern about the state of the planet.” Penned by Joan Dye Gussow, a nutritionist at Columbia University in New York, these words reflect exactly why I am becoming even more of a local food junkie on this trip. Over the course of our Food Unit, we stayed in two agricultural villages in Northeastern Thailand and learned from villagers, NGOs, hospitals, and even an herbal medicine man about the benefits of switching to organic agriculture. To be honest, I had never given too much thought to it. I knew organic avocados were usually about a dollar more at the grocery store near TCU’s campus, but that was the extent of my knowledge.

However, for these Thai families in farming communities, making the switch to organic is not simply some bourgeoisie attempt at jumping on the Go Green bandwagon. The chemicals previously used in their agriculture were showing up in their blood, causing skin rashes, and devastating the local soil. Going organic was not about paying a dollar more for an avocado, but it was about making a sustainable choice to benefit the family and the environment. The first few years of switching to organic agriculture can be more than a little discouraging as the soil works to adapt, but eventually crop yield can as much as double its original size. Organic agriculture may be caught up in legalities and hidden marketing tricks in the United States, but with a little research we can all start making informed decisions that are healthier for our bodies and for our planet.

From working at a farmer’s market back home in St. Louis, I learned the importance of local food. By supporting locally grown produce, the consumer provides an income to fellow community members, cuts down on the fuel and pollution used to transport food across the country or across the world, and takes pride in their neighborhood. Now when I return back to school in May, I plan on taking pride in my state, taking care of the environment, and buying that Texas-grown organic avocado on my first trip to the grocery store.

While I've been interested in Teach for America since high school, being here has also gotten me very excited about a new start-up called Food Corps that takes newly-minted college grads into elementary classrooms to help start gardens, teach nutrition lessons, and bring healthy alternatives into the cafeteria.  It's SOOO awesome!

Also, while we're on the subject of food, this is the aisle at the grocery store solely for rice and oil.
Classic. Thailand.

I guess it's a true sign you're becoming a local when you recognize people as you're out and about! As Brenna, Taryn, Hadley, and I were eating eggrolls at Walking Street (the Saturday night market in Khon Kaen), Brens and I heard our names from the crowd and our siblings from our very first homestay came running towards us! Seeing Kim and Po Neem again made my heart BEAM and it was absolutely precious to get to share ice cream cones with them while attempting to catch up in Thai. Further proof my Thai language skills still need a LOT of work...

 I am an emotional being and am not quite yet emotionally ready for my "goodbye Thailand" post, but I know it looms.... BAHHHH. Good talk. :)

Saturday, April 14, 2012

songkran means new year.

I've barely been back in Khon Kaen for 24 hours and over 500 people have touched my face. Um what?!?! That's because today, yes TODAY, is part of the Thai New Year known as Songkran! You see, here in Thailand, the year is actually 2555 (that's right, it's not 2012) and New Years is April 13-15 (not the last day of December). But it gets better. Instead of dressing up and gathering around the champagne and Dick Clark/Ryan Seacrest annual show like we do in the States, Thailand does it alllllll differently.

Coming at the beginning of the hottest part of the year, Songkran is celebrated with a giant NATIONWIDE water fight! As we drove from a small village six hours away back to Khon Kaen last night, our van was constantly pelted with water and baby powder by kids, teenagers, and adults alike all out on the streets. Khon Kaen (where I live) is one of the most popular Songkran destinations for Thais from all over and today I learned why. Non and Nampeung, two of the Thai students I became close friends with over these past two weeks at English camp, took us downtown to Cow Neyow Street (which means sticky rice, fun fact) and we got to celebrate like Thais do! Nampeung's uncle drove a pick-up truck while 15 of us -oops, don't read that Mama and Daddy- rode in the back with two giant trashcans of water and tons of buckets. We rode around the street for hours, throwing water on others and having water thrown on us!! Along every single road there was bumper to bumper traffic of trucks just like ours and literally the entire CITY was celebrating. I don't think I saw a dry person all day. Dozens of people were selling buckets and baby powder and these ginormous blocks of ice so you can make your water icy and elicit shrieks of surprise from the unsuspecting people in other cars. It was so COOOOOOL.

Our group of four American college students and four Thai college students after we had a mini Songkran water fight with the kids at English camp!

One of the most interesting things is the baby powder. People walk around with containers of baby powder and wipe it on the faces of complete strangers all day long. Literally. Someone you don't even know walks up to you, puts both hands on your cheeks, and rubs baby powder on you while saying "Sawatdeeka!" or "Happy Songkran!" or, if you're clearly a foreigner like we were, saying whatever English phrases they know, usually including "I love you" or "Hellooooo". It was a hilarious and insanely strange experience all at the same time.

Some of the major companies in Khon Kaen (cell phones, alcohol, soda) set up this big festival with about a dozen concerts and foam machines and I got to attend this celebration with thousands of people who speak a language I barely even know! Mindboggling. I'm beyond happy to say I got to ring in the Thai New Year just like any other Thai college student would- by being pelted with icy cold water and having baby powder rubbed on my face by strangers. Casual. With all of this being said, I want to wish a very happy Thai New Year to everyone back home in the States! May 2556 be a wonderful year for you! Pretty crazy to wrap your brain around, huh? :)

PS... I couldn't bring my camera due to the extensive water factor of the day, but I found this video on Youtube that captures pretty much exactly what my day was like. Check it outtttt...

PS PS... Thai students LOVE to take selfies. I just spent two weeks with Thai students. We took a lot of selfies. Judge if you must. #livinthethailife

Saturday, March 31, 2012

maikhadfan means unexpected.

I have a confession. I have now seen The Hunger Games THREE times despite the fact I am living in Thailand. And cried twice. Each time. Real or not real? It'll be pretty weird seeing the movie once it comes out on DVD back home and not seeing Thai subtitles along the bottom!

But now to the important schtuff. Today, the rest of my program left for a 6 day homestay in a dam-affected community while myself and three other girls stayed behind. Why oh why? For the next two weeks, we are going on a special project with an NGO on the Cambodian border! Working with four Thai students (who are AWESOME ps, I cannot wait to be best friends with them), we will be teaching six days of English camp and spending six days working on the construction of a bathroom for one of the families in the community. While there, we are sleeping on the floor of a local school and that's about the extent of details that we know. I'm so stoked for this crazy adventure! After our two weeks in Sisaket, we have a few days before we return to our normal program and we're hoping to catch Songkran, a nationwide Thai festival that is essentially a HUGE water fight to cool the country down as summer kicks in to the max. After spending two and a half months eating, sleeping, and breathing with the same 20 people, it's pretty insane to think about being away from most of them for two weeks, but it will just make our reunion in two weeks that much more sweet!

Kind of like another homecoming I know that is fast approaching...

I can't even describe how quickly this semester is going and how much I love it here. Today, I got to join the Community Public Health program on their Thai Fun Activity with the Ajaans (teachers) because my Development & Globalization program left for the aforementioned homestay. We created pottery at the Faculty of Fine Arts and then Ajaan Jeab took us all to the first European looking coffeehouse I've seen in months, I felt like I was in Latvia again. Ajaan Nidnoi, Mava, and I played Jenga and drank lattes and had what can only be described as a lovely day. It was wonderful to spend some time with the other program while also pretending I was far greater at pottery than I actually am and mentally envisioning I had some great art studio like Rachel McAdams in The Vow. Hey, a girl can dream. As for me, I've got to go pack for two weeks of unexpected adventures and new Thai friends! Sawatdeeka and may the odds be EVER in your favor.

Monday, March 19, 2012

bokatee means normal.

I went for a run tonight. Normal, right? Turns out this run was in the pitch dark in this massive spread of fields about a stone's throw away from my dorm. I ran past palm trees and these wonderful smelling flowers and I ran on gravel and I stumbled and I just kept going. And I know it sounds cheesy, but I couldn't help feeling like this run was a strange metaphor for my experience here so far. I ran into the dark and it felt strange, but it's turning normal. I've stumbled, but I kept going. For the first portion of my time here, I felt like my emotions were guitar strings that just kept vibrating at this insane rate, but now everything is just... settling. It's given me hope that no matter where I end up after I graduate, no matter how different or foreign or lonely it feels at first, normalcy will return and I will feel at home in my new space. The people that I've met here.... BAHHH I don't even know how to express how much I love them. They're changing my life one conversation at a time and I'm learning more about myself than I even knew was possible.

But just in case you thought otherwise, none of the above means I have forgotten about my beloved home-and for me home will always mean both St. Louis and Texas, they are inextricably linked for me. The giant TCU flag above my bed, pictures of friends and family, even my Flintstones Sour Gummies made the trek to Thailand. I snapped a few pics of my room tonight just for grins... Note the "Don't Mess with Texas" postcard above my desk. Casual.

I'm still processing from our past two units of Land and Food, each with a six day homestay that rocked my world, but I can share this and promise more updates on those later... The Hunger Games turned me into a reader (READ IT IF YOU HAVEN'T) and last week I finished reading "Teacher Man" by Frank McCourt of "Angela's Ashes" fame. This quote stuck out to me and wouldn't leave my brain...

"You do not have to respond to every stimulus in the universe. You are not a weather vane."

If I had to sum up the biggest lessons I've been learning about myself while here, I would just recite this quote. I've learned I am a person who tends to get passionate about whatever I am involved in, but also it's okay if I'm not. It's okay if after every unit I don't feel this overwhelming passion for that topic. I feel strongly about education and that is a passion of mine that I hope to pursue after college. I can't, and shouldn't feel that I have to, do everything. When I'm in a weird mood or things are not going well that day or a room isn't clean, I don't always have to react to those things either. Being mad is a choice, and I can choose my reactions. I'm more consciously in control of my decisions and actions than I ever even realized! There is a saying here in Thailand of "Sabai, sabai" which means "Fine, fine." It's okay to be relaxed, and it's okay to live and learn and realize what you're passionate about and what you're not. When the program interns had an interest meeting tonight, I didn't go. I absolutely LOVE being here and this experience has changed my life, but I don't want to come back for a year after college and do it again. And that's fine. I will be more effective as a human and as a friend if I don't feel this constant need to please everyone and take on every responsibility for myself. Because frankly, there are lots of other people who are better at lots of other things than I am. And that's "sabai, sabai".

“Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive, and go do that, because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” -Howard Thurman

Sunday, February 19, 2012

chiang mai (should) mean WONDERFUL.

Being a part of a program with no weekends is rough. Honestly, I've been struggling with the lack of independence and freedom we are given, and I'm still not sure how that will all pan out. But I know one thing- taking advantage of the personal days we were given last week was a decision I'll never forget.

With only two days off from classes, five new friends and I took an overnight bus last Thursday to Chiang Mai to experience what is arguably the second most popular and bustling city in Thailand. Overnight buses are LEGIT. Here's a quick iPhone snapshot of our bus: double decker, air-conditioned, free snacks and drinks, a movie, reclining seats, the works! Coral and I were able to snag the seats that were on the second level at the very front left, which meant I was sitting in what would be the driver's spot in my good ole Tribute back home in the States. But I got to sleep. Weeeeeeird feeling. Oh and I got to laugh with Coral into all hours of the night as we couldn't sleep and just shared our lives back home at Georgetown and TCU! While our bus driver drove what I'm pretty sure was at least 80 mph down a winding highway. Get it, bus driver.

That first morning in Chiang Mai, after rolling in around 8 am and realizing we were 12 hours from "home" and it was chillyyyyyy, everything got real. We were 6 girls who didn't know each other a month ago, now exploring freaking Thailand. Insane. Our little environmentally-friendly guest house was owned by the most precious Irishwoman who gave us all the low-down to make the most of our less than 48 hours on Chiang Mai soil. And did I mention said guest house is 6 bucks a night when you figure the exchange rate between the baht and the dollar? Heck yes.

We spent that first day exploring Doi Suthep, a temple 45 minutes up a mountain with a view of the entireeeee city and chock full of visitors from every country in the world. That might have been my favorite part of all. We met people from Poland, Switzerland, an island off the coast of Africa I had never even heard of. Crazy cool stuff. The rest of that day consisted of an awesome museum and stocking up on all the American food we don't have back in Khon Kaen. Think cheeseburgers, quesadillas, margaritas, bacon. Chiang Mai knows what's up.

Da grouppppppp!

Lest all this Western food make you forget I am still living in Thailand this semester, please observe Coral and I's experience at Starbuck's. Yes, I ordered my favorite coffee and yes, the baristas still wear green aprons and write on cups with Sharpies, but I'm pretty sure I've never seen a monk at the University Starbucks. Oh how I love the surprises around every corner here :)

Disclaimer: The following will most certainly not do this experience justice.

On Friday, February 17th, 2012, the following most EPIC of all epic days occurred in the life of Molly. I've never felt more refreshed and cleansed and connected to the earth, probably ever in my life.

-Most delicious pancake with banana baked in, enjoyed sitting in the garden of the eco-trekking guest house where we stayed in Chiang Mai.
-Hour and a half ride into the heart of Thailand, with the misty hills and rice paddies I've always imagined visiting (probably due to my overexposure to the Rodgers & Hammerstein classic "South Pacific" as a child....)
-Getting to be about a foot and a half from a baby elephant
-Riding a full-grown elephant up a hill and across a river
-Taking in a waterfall
-Walking through rice paddies and over rickety bamboo bridges
-Swimming in a freezing yet mind-blowingly refreshing river
-Eating rice wrapped in banana leaves with potatoes fresh from the ground
-Seeing a Karen hilltribe village
-Watching a puppy trudge through a rice paddy
-Bamboo rafting through the jungle RIGHT PAST two elephants bathing. I'll never forget that as long as I live.

All. In. One. Day.

This day made me beyond grateful for my experience here. Yes, it's been really, wait no incredibly, hard to be away from TCU. Yes, I did really question my decision to study abroad for a while. Yes, there have been tears shed and frustrations expressed. But I know God has me here for a reason, and I know that reason is even bigger than riding elephants or smiling for pictures. I know He has a bigger purpose behind every single step of the way for my life, and I couldn't be more grateful to be along for the adventure of a lifetime.

Friday, February 10, 2012

dee chai means happy.

Today. ROCKED. After a few weeks of dealing with the to-be-expected ups and downs of starting a study abroad program, I can truly say today was the best day yet. I know, I know, I'm an exaggerator and I've used the phrase "best day everrrrrrrr" more times than I can count, but I really mean this one.

Don chow (in the morning)- Brenna and I met up at 8:15, which obviously turned into 8:30 given my timeliness or lack there of, to go to the gym together. Yes TCU folk, I did say "gym". Every time I say "Rec" here, I'm met with endless teasing. Apparently that's not a thing in the North?! Crazy. Over an hour on the ellipticals, Brenna and I discussed our transition to Thailand, loved ones back home at Providence and TCU, and just generally dived into some deep life stuff. Heart to hearts never fail to make my day. From 10-12, we all had a review for the upcoming Thai midterm on Monday. Believe it or not, we are THIRTY hours in with our Thai language learning with only 30 to go. Our class kept cracking up as we struggled to ask each other questions in Thai and our Ajaan (teacher) surprised us with Dunkin' Donuts halfway through class!

Don bai (in the afternoon)- Fay and I went to the vegetarian restaurant down the street and I FINALLY got to hear the incredible story of her life. With two parents working for the UN, I'm pretty sure she has the most internationally diverse background of anyone I've ever met. We had an incredible time and again, this heart to heart pumped even more happiness into the day! An Ajaan from Khon Kaen University spoke to us all afternoon about Isaan (Northeast Thailand), Buddhism, and Thai culture. Over a 2 hour 15 minute lecture, I didn't zone out once. Put that one in the baby book, folks. That never happens for me. She was incredibly sweet and I really learned a lot about the cultural landscape I'm living in this semester. After class, Alex, Brenna, and I went and got Thai hour long massages for the equivalent of $6. Followed by the most delicious dumplings in the world for the equivalent of 15 cents. I'm currently in the post-massage, post delicious food, stress-free zone and lovin' it.

Don yen (in the evening)- In 20 minutes, we have our second meeting with our peer tutors. My peer tutor Yui, pronounced U-E, is fluent in Japanese, Spanish, English, and obviously Thai. Um, what?!?! I'm lame. To the max. She's awesome and the environment of laughter and smiles and language struggles that ensues when all the peer tutors arrive is just great. Afterwards, I'm pretty sure we'll all head to the night market. Each night from 6 to 11 an entire market sets up shop on campus! Over the past two nights, I've purchased a dress (no surprise), high-waisted jorts (a staple of Thailand), and absolutely perfect sushi and strawberries. I think a couple friends and I are going to try and have a Bible study afterwards tonight as well. I couldn't be more grateful.

As some of you know, I had reallyyy been struggling with being away, and while I still literally think about TCU allllll the timeeeeee, I'm really grateful that this is starting to feel normal and comfortable. Just to prove I do indeed have the ability to be a student of 2 universities at once, here's a pic of my new KKU ID, juxtaposed of course with my TCU one. Oh btdubs, the background shows the CIEE office where we essentially eat, sleep, and breathe. Skype me and I'm sure you'll get to see it! Working on getting the walls painted. Much needed. Anyway, as the always wonderful Laura H would say, gotta go live the Thai life!

Buckets of love from halfway across the globe, Mol :)

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

krob kruwa means family.

And family means nobody gets left behind. Lilo & Stitch reference, anyone? I know Em Waye understood that. But seriously. Stitch is HUGE here! I'm pretty sure I've seen more Stitch stuffed animals than I've seen slices of cheese. Oh and did I mention cheese isn't existent in Thailand? Thank you to my new friend Brenna for bringing me Brie cheese all the way from the Central Plaza last night after I got out of the hospital. I had a brief stint in Khon Kaen Ram Hospital with severe gastroenteritis, but thanks to some IVs and antibiotics, I'm feeling better than ever now!

Last week, I spent 5 days living in a railroad slum community called Theparak Nuhng with the sweetest little brothers and sister in the world. Despite the language barrier, we formed incredible bonds through drawing, laughing, and playing charades in order to communicate :)

My 12 year old brother (nuhng chai in Thai) named Kim, 5 year old sister named Po Neem (nuhng sow), and my other nuhng chai Hok Seh, who is 26 months.

I don't know that I can even fully explain everything that went through my head over those 5 days. First of all, this homestay challenged me to deeply analyze the way I view slums and poverty. If you said the word slum to me in the States prior to this trip, my pre-conceived notions would have been VASTLY different than they are now. I saw in this family so much love, SO much hard work, and an unbelievable sense of community with their neighbors. Poverty isn't faceless to me anymore- I've seen a human side to it. Considering how much I want to work in the non-profit sector in the future, this lesson is invaluable.

Believe it or not, my host meh (mom in Thai) was the community librarian at this brand new book hut! I loved it, especially since my Mom- shout out to Vicki :) - is a first and second grade reading teacher. It was precious seeing Eric Carle's "A Very Hungry Caterpillar" and many other childhood faves in Thai.

There was this one moment where I FINALLY realized I'm in Thailand. Huddled on the back of a Honda motorbike with my host meh, little sister, and baby brother. Nighttime and lanterns strung across the street with a festival blaring on nearby. Wind whipping my hair and I look up at this huge moon, realizing it's the same moon all of the people I love back home in Missouri and Texas are seeing too. And that's when it hit me. I'm living in Thailand, and I want to soak up every moment. Every single moment.

This photo is of us on our way to go fishing (hah pblah in Thai) and yes, it WAS the first time I've worn a PFG while actual fishing was involved. Go Frogs.

The day we left Theparak Nuhng, my little brother Kim cried, and so did I. As an only child, I've never had a brother. Each night when I went to bed, I would always wait at least half an hour to change into my PJs because Kim would come up without notice at least 3 times to tell me something or show me something. I remember being a kid and stalling to go to sleep, and it was precious to be on this side of it. The very last night, he came upstairs and invited me to watch a movie with the whole family. The whole family sleeps in the same room and this was the first time they had invited me to join them there. We spent a few hours laughing at the TV (ummmm... Trey Songz music video?? What?!?!), using the Thai-English dictionary to communicate, and playing with the baby. By the time I left, this family had welcomed me not only into their humble home, but also into their hearts. In the free days to come, I fully plan to go back and visit my new Thai krob kruwa- I won't ever forget their smiles, their warmth, and the way they always pronounced my name Mah-leee. It's still ringing in my ears.