Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Paying to Volunteer

Am I a guest, or am I a volunteer? Probably a little of both.

On one hand, I'm volunteering at Home & Life as a caregiver, teacher, assistant cook, nonprofit consultant, manual laborer, and odd-jobs man. On the other hand, volunteers have to donate a small amount of money for this experience -- and they're also outsiders visiting the family's home -- so both the adults and kids treat me as a guest to a certain degree.

Some of you may say "Wait, you're paying to volunteer?" The answer is yes -- and if you knew how many nonprofits get less out of their volunteers than the effort it takes to train and manage them, than you'd agree with me that requiring a donation is usually a sensible policy. There are exceptions, but that's another story.

And, since this is too serious of a post, here are some pictures of kids!


Friday, June 26, 2009


The spiciest food I've ever had, I've had in Thailand. By far.

We were eating dinner the other day, and there was an innocent-looking chili paste sitting in a small bowl on the far end of the table. I asked "How hot is it?" The reply: "Only a little hot. Don't worry." Like a fool, I put a medium-sized dab on a piece of fish and ate it. The world was instantaneously consumed in fire, and I began to shake and sweat profusely, and my eyes and nose started to expel all sorts of fluids.

When I came to, the Thais around the table were responding in that ways that Thais always do to another's minor misfortune: by laughing uproariously. Meanwhile, a 5-year old girl was calmly eating spoonfuls of the stuff.



Being a destroyer (an addendum to the last post)

One awesome moment during the construction of the kitchen: I had to knock down a section of brick wall with a sledgehammer. (I'm pointing at an open space where the wall used to be.)

I pray I get the chance to do this again, and soon. Nothing makes you feel more like a dude than breaking things.


Being a builder

Something I forgot while staring at a computer in an office for the last 2.5 years: the joy of working with my hands! (I used to woodcarve quite a bit -- maybe I should take it up again.)

So far at Home & Life, in addition to playing with the kids, Root has taught me some simple construction skills: bricklaying, cement mixing, rendering, and laying pipe. The goal is to build a new kitchen, since the current one is too small and inconveniently placed. The area in the picture below will contain two new sinks and a place to put a larger stove:

We've worked 8 hours a day for the past four days, covered in sweat, dirt, and hundreds of insects while being baked to a crisp by a tropical sun. I wouldn't want this to be my permanent day job by any means, but for a few weeks -- sure! It's been hot, hard, and amazingly worthwhile and fun to work with Root on this project.

After we put the finishing touches on the wall, I experienced a moment that was no less magical for its commonality: the satisfaction of seeing a tangible good come out of my efforts, that the work was well done, and that it will last.

Philosophical aside: I think it's a unique and fundamental human quality to fight inevitabilities like change and death (perhaps unwisely?) by constantly leaving markers of our passage in the world. That's why building this wall was satisfying for me: it felt real (in a way that generating a Word or Excel document is not); I can touch the wall, see it, and smell it, and when I leave, it'll still be here.

I wonder if this is a subtle-yet-important reason why people treasure their children -- in order to know that their lives can have meaning well beyond their brief lifespans, and that the impact of their actions and decisions will stretch out, like a long, thin, steel line, into the distant future -- one that they will be forever remembered by and connected to by virtue of their descendents.

In conclusion, it's now clear to me that I'll need a male heir. The House of Jang must not fall.


Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Painting Day

A volunteer group from the U.S. Navy (about 20 big dudes) came to paint! They did a good job, and the kids pitched in too.

I was struck by how willing and happy the kids were to help out.. I couldn't help but compare this experience with my year as a residential counselor at the Boys Hope group home, where getting the boys to do chores in any form was invariably difficult.


Sunday, June 21, 2009

The Kids

Sometimes, the kids' stories break my heart. I can't speak with most of them directly, but Root and Bebe (another staff member, a relative of Rasa's) have told me about their backgrounds and also translate for me on occasion.

In short, the kids have tragic histories. About half had their lives destroyed by the tsunami (some of the parents didn't make it; those that did still lost everything), and the other half come from families broken by abandonment, drugs, or grinding poverty. Some of the kids have been abused, and many have stunted growth because they didn't get enough to eat when they were children. I'm told that some of the kids, when they arrived here, were astonished to find that they got three meals a day for free, and they didn't need to scrounge through hotel or restaurant garbage cans for leftovers.

At Home & Life, although some of the kids undoubtedly don't want to be here and miss their families, they have caring adults around, good food, and they go to school regularly. These efforts are paying off -- the kids are happy most of the time, they love to play, and they get along with each other. Sure, they bicker at times, and they can be irritable and demanding, but no the whole, I've found them to be incredibly conscientious and helpful

The little guy below, for example, was my helper during Painting Day. We had some grueling work to do -- I stood on a tall, rickety ladder for hours washing dirt off walls with a brush, and Aum -- without being asked -- clambered up the other side of the ladder, the one without real steps, and held the hose for me while I vainly tried to scrub off years' worth of grime. He did this for an entire afternoon without complaint.

(Note: some of you may ask why I let a little kid put himself in a clearly dangerous situation where if he slipped, he would have fallen hard to the concrete floor below.It's a good question -- one I'm still sorta asking myself.)

I'm still an outsider and more than a little ignorant about Thai culture, but to me, Home & Life genuinely feels like a big family. There's a sense of community here that Root and Rasa have carefully cultivated here over the past five years, and it shows in the kids' level of comfort with each other as well as the adults. Whenever they can, they go out and have low-cost fun. Here are the kids filling up the back of the truck: it's Sunday, and we've just come back from a trip to the local waterfall.

Root and Rasa used to have solid, well-paying jobs (as an engineer and a government employee, respectively), but they've given them up to do this instead. Moreover, the 3-4 other staff members are working without pay as well; or at least, much less than they would make in other jobs.

For example, take Bebe, the volunteer coordinator and all-around troubleshooter. He's Rasa's nephew once removed, is only 20 years old (see the photo above, far right) and I've found, is something of a genius. Bebe speaks 5 languages, learns at a tremendous rate, and could easily be working for the tourist industry, but hey, he's here, and the kids adore him. He's like a big brother to the lot of them.

You can tell that I'm impressed with these people. They're smart, dedicated, and passionate about making this a real home for their kids. I'm glad to be part of their work, however briefly.



A few days ago, another volunteer and I baked rolls, cakes, and cookies for 7 hours. His day job happens to be as a chef for a 5-star hotel, so I more or less followed his lead. =P

Here's a sample of what we produced.

1/2 of the batch ended up as treats for a big volunteer group from the U.S. Navy that came by to paint several of our buildings, and the other 1/2 we sold at the local market. Home & Life, like many nonprofits, is trying to generate income in any way that it can, and at the same time, teach its kids some useful life skills.

If you had an extra $20 in your pocket, you could do a lot worse than donate it to an organization like Home & Life. In the States, $20 will get you a meal or two. Here, you can stretch it into a meal for 25 kids and 5 adults.


Home & Life

The Home & Life Orphanage in Thai Muang (near the touristy island of Phuket) is an amazing place. In contrast to some of the other group homes I've worked or volunteered at, this actually feels like a home. here's the website: www.homelifethailand.net

A Thai couple -- nicknamed Root and Rasa -- started it 5 years ago to take care of kids orphaned by the tsunami, but now they're taking in other impoverished kids as well, for a total of 24. When I arrived, Root gathered everyone to welcome me to their home.

Even though it's only been a few days, I already feel that this will be one of the most rewarding experience I'll have during my time in SE Asia. The reason is the kids -- their smiles are incredible. Here are a few little dudes who climb all over me when they get home from school:

I already wish I could stay longer.


Trekking in Doi Inthanon Nat'l Park (near Chiang Mai)

Treacherous paths, hanging out with local villagers, and incessant, pouring rain made this one of the best backpacking trips I'd been on for a long time. (At times, it would rain so hard that our path became a stream, and we found ourselves trekking through a foot of water.)

My guide and I were walking along, when he yells "Ai ai ai!" and runs forward. He proceeds to beat the crap out of this snake -- laying in the rice paddy, minding its own business -- and then stuffs it in a plastic bag, where it wiggles a bit and then gives up the ghost. He grins and says, "Dinner."

Teetering bridges: these were some of the most treacherous bridges I've ever walked across. (Trust me, the pictures below don't do them justice). Most were nothing more than fallen trees that had been placed across a variety of gorges, rushing streams, and steep ravines. Also, they were slippery from the moss and rain, and me than a little shaky.

Rice planting: I stayed the night in a Karen village, and the next day, we all went out into the fields to plant rice. It was a little humiliating -- the first thing I did was slip and fall down this muddy slope as the local women giggled at what i clumsy doofus I was. Also, I would no sooner begin planting when the villagers around me would blaze by and plant 10 rice seedlings in the time it took me to plant one. It was like being on a racetrack, only I had a tricycle while ervyone else had racecars.

Smoking: I don't smoke, but in this sort of situation, how could I refuse? My guide insisted on rolling me a cigarette, and I said yes. He put some tobacco in a dried banana leaf, added some crushed tamarind shell, and then lit it and handed it to me. To my surprise, it was delicious! I'm not going to start smoking, but I'm glad I had that one.

This was a great night all around. Me and three other Karen villagers stayed up late smoking banana leaf villagers and drinking their local moonshine. (Yeeeech -- but good in terms of the experience. It tasted like paint thinner mixed with bug spray, only worse.)

Through my drunken haze, I had a moment of clarity., which i'll share with you now: that dudes everywhere talk about pretty much the same stuff. Take 4-5 dudes from anywhere, put them in a room with alcohol and cigatrettes, and they talk about what dudes all over the world talk about: girls, their shitty jobs, sports, and exagerrated stories of times that they were awesome.

Waterfalls: who doesn't like a good waterfall? This one was extra special b/c we could swim and go behind it and watch the water come down.

Elephant riding: we went on an elephant ride, and later on, I got to meet a baby. He was super cute.

Finally, another guide and some of his relatives. I had a number of long and enlightening conversations with this man about the Karen culture and its relation to the tourist trade.

Ok, that's it, now I'm on to Phuket and volunteering at the orphanage!


Friday, June 19, 2009

Haggling and the Profit Margin

I have a new policy when it comes to haggling. Basically, it boils down to not being as much of a tightwad. My old goal used to be to get the best price possible; now, I want both parties to leave with a smile (or at least contentment) on their faces.

I came to this conclusion after talking with lots of different individuals, such as store owners, fruit sellers, taxi drivers, tour guides, and the folks running the NGO I'm volunteering with right now. The one recurring theme is that at this moment in time, during the low tourist season during an economic downturn, profit margins are incredibly thin, if not nonexistent. People aren't turning down any work, even if they make just a dollar a day. At least it's enough to buy a bowl of noodles and a bunch of bananas.

So, do I really need to pay 10 baht ( 30 cents) less to a tuk-tuk driver to take me to the airport, taking advantage of the moment and their precarious circumstances? No, not really. I can afford it, even though I pay the tourist price rather than Thai price. This concept is making more sense to me now -- I'm not Thai. I'm a tourist. I can afford far more than the average Thai person, and now I'm beginning to feel embarassed when I see other tourists haggling like madmen over 5 or 10 baht, especially when they'll drop 150 baht on a Western breakfast and a mocha latte without blinking an eye. (Thai breaffast = 20-25 baht.)

So, I'll haggle enough to ensure that I'm not getting completely ripped off (and by now, I know what things should cost), and then stop there. Who knows, maybe it'll leave some good karma behind me when I go.


Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Old white men with young Thai women

I'm trying not to be judgmental, I really am.

First, who can truly know the workings of a relationship between two people other than the two involved? Second, we've all experienced those moments when we've realized that age doesn't necessarily correlate with maturity. Finally, differing cultural assumptions/expectations and financial imbalances (read: power imbalance) are never insurmountable when two poeple are willing to compromise, be open, work together, blah blah.

All that said, it still feels a bit icky to me. I've seen dozens (at least) of older white men walking around w/ young Thai girls, so many that it doesn't even surprise me anymore. I'm not sure who is taking advantage of who, but it seems to me that the chances of some sort of exploitation happening are much higher in this situation than at times where the two individuals are of similar cultural backgrounds, financial positions, life stages, etc.

But then again, since I don't actually have any real information, nor have I spoken to any of these couples, maybe I should say that I don't know that I'm talking about, and then shut up. After all, who's to say that other, "normal" relationships are really that successful after all? (50% of U.S. marriages end in divorce.) Don't exploitation and power imbalances happen to some degree in any relationship? Who's to say what works and doesn't? (The answer: not me.)

Finally, what business is it of mine who others choose to love, or what others do in their private lives, as long as nobody's getting (seriously?) hurt? (The answer: none?)

(How complex human relationships are!)



When I went to go see Terminator Salvation in a movie theatre in Chiang Mai, a video clip came on saying "Please pay respect to the king." Everyone stood up quietly and respectfully, and of course, I stood up as well and folded my hands in front of me. The following video was a montage of the king's life, accompanied by inspirational-sounding music. Here's what he looks like:

Thai people truly revere their king. Insulting the king or speaking ill of him is one of the worst things you could do in Thailand, and there are some pretty hefty lese majeste laws to back it up.

Reflection: I wonder if my generation is more than a little over-infatuated with Barack Obama....it makes it easy to support him when he's right, but hard to oppose him when he's wrong.


Sunday, June 14, 2009


I'm getting mighty sick of being illiterate everywhere I go. I can't read a thing, and the only things I know how to say are "Hello," "Thank you," and "How much?"

My illiteracy especially hits me when I go to my favorite type of restaurants: those sidewalk cafes where nobody speaks English, everything is super cheap and delicious, and locals crowd the tables. In these sorts of situations, I usually point at what I want and grunt, which is effective but humiliating. I've decided that if I ever live in a foreign country for a longer period of time (say, 1 year or more), I'll study the language intensively no matter how difficult it is.

Knowing how to read and write are amazing skills that I think are often taken for granted. If I didn't know how, I think I'd feel like Kate Winslet's character did in that movie The Reader -- embarrassed and disempowered.


Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Signs around town

Some interesting signs I've come across:

  • This was taken in a pharmacy within a night market that's patronized mostly by Western tourists. (They sure know their audience.)

  • Guess the price of waxing depends on how hairy you are and how much of it you want to have painfully ripped off your body.

  • Noodles?? with stuff on top?? That sounds great! Sign me up.

  • I kinda like durian, actually. But they ban it in a lot of enclosed spaces where can really stink up the place, like this elevator.

  • This NGO's credo (they fight HIV and also provide sex ed) was that they want condoms to be as prevalent in Thailand as cabbages; hence, the "Cabbages and Condoms" slogan.

  • Aww. The dragon's name is "Mom."

  • No girls allowed. They have cooties.

More to come, I'm sure. :)


Monk at an ATM

Thought this was a striking sight -- a monk getting money out of an ATM. Guess the alms-begging that morning didn't go so well. Now he's probably gonna go get himself a big fat steak and a shot of whiskey.

I also like the color contrast in this photo of the purple ATM and the monk's orange robes. Lovely.


The hollowness of advertising

These series of advertisements graced the walls of a fancy-looking pharmacy in the mall I recently walked through. For some reason, the manipulative, at-any-cost tone of these ads made me sad, as if the average person doesn't already have enough real concerns in his or her life to worry about.

To think I'll soon be going to one of the best marketing business schools in the world to learn how to convince people to do things they wouldn't otherwise do or buy things they wouldn't otherwise buy.

I hope to use these dark side-ish powers for good, but who knows. Luke Skywalker barely made it, and I think the Force was stronger with him than it is with me.


Free Show

There aren't that many tourists in Chiang Mai right now, b/c it's the low season and the monsoons are nigh. This makes tourism-related businesses, such as the alley full of nightclubs and bars in the picture below, ever more desperate for customers. (The photo is bad, but trust me, this alley is full of bars, thumping music, dozens of bar girls, and hardly a single customer.)

I'm not ashamed to say that Thai bar girls scare me. They've followed me for a block or more, saying, "Come to my bar" and "Let's have good time" while grabbing at my arms. The girls are invariably cute and dressed in skimpy little dresses (neither of which I'm opposed to as a general rule), but I can tell that their smiles aren't genuine. Their eyes are seasoned, a little stony, and above all, predatory. Makes me shudder. They -- I can tell -- are sizing up me and my spending power in a single glance. In most cases, I say No while walking away with a brisk, confident-seeming stride. In reality, I'm nervous and uncomfortable.

(**Tangent: I wonder if this is how attractive women feel when they walk down the street minding their own business, and strange men bother them? If so, I have a whole new respect for the downsides of being hot.**)

Here's the flip side: I've been told that many Thai bar girls are from poor families, often rural ones. Some of them are supporting other family members in addition to themselves, and their desperation rises in proportion to the declining numbers of tourists spending money on booze and food.

The moral of the story is that life is hard -- especially right now, with the global economic crisis -- and everyone is trying to do the best they can.


My walk in the Mall

The modernity of this mall in Chiang Mai left me reeling. Here's a series of semi-unrelated things that caught my eye:

  • This band played a strikingly bad cover of Eric Clapton's Tears in Heaven. It was so bad that I truly enjoyed it. And, they played in the middle of this techno-wizard-themed food court, which made the moment all the more surreal.

  • Look! Pizza with noodles on it! (This was taken at a Pizza Hut.) As an aside, I don't understand any dish that tops starch with another starch. For example, Ethiopians eat spaghetti and red sauce with injera (a spongy, sourdough-ish bread). Talk about overloading on the carbohydrates.

  • Look! A Sizzler! Who knew?? I had expected McD's, Burger king, KFC, and Starbucks to be well-entrenched in Thailand, but Sizzler was a new one on me. I would eat there -- just to say that I ate at Sizzler's in Thailand, but it was unfathomably expensive. (i.e. roughly the same price it is in the States.)

It's a strange, strange world we live in, my friends.


Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Being a monk

Had an interesting conversation with my guide, the man who had arranged my trip on the Mekong River boat.

His name is Pon, and before joining the tourism industry in Laos, he was a monk for 6 years. When I asked him whether or not he had become enlightened during that time, he laughed and said "Yes. A little bit."

When I asked Pon why he decided to start/stop being a monk, he said it was because as the 6th of 9 children from a rural family, he needed an education and wasn't likely to get it any other way. As for why Pon quit, he said that it was time to get married and have children. (I get the feeling he thought I was silly for asking.)

Pon also gave me some advice: never marry an attractive woman, because they're lazy.