Things We Will Miss

  • Easy Thai, especially Rarn P Dam, where Kenny eats lunch every weekday.
  • Super spicy delicious Burmese ethnic minority cuisine.
  • Mango and sticky rice.
  • Now that I mention it, mango with anything. Or mango with nothing.
  • Lychees, rambutans, and mangosteens.
  • Free community yoga twice a week.
  • Riding my bicycle everywhere and never worrying about traffic.
  • The fact that the highway, which runs right behind our apartment, generally has more joggers on it than cars.
  • Our co-workers, who have also become good friends.
  • Swimming in the Nam Pai on hot days.
  • Eating delicious fruits and vegetables every day that come from our own farm.
  • Living the easy life in our peaceful town, nestled in a beautiful valley.
  • Frogs, geckos, roosters, and other fun neighbors. Well, maybe not the roosters so much. They are pretty, but it will be nice to sleep in past 5am.
  • Drawing on our software engineering experience to contribute to the fight for democracy in Burma.

Kenny biking to Nai SoiLake wat

Mango and sticky riceNai Soi

Gorging on fruitThe farm

The Next Six Weeks

We have only 10 days left in Thailand. I know it will be extremely difficult to leave. On the one hand, I do feel a bit ready to move on from our small town. It is lovely, but after three months I certainly feel like I’ve seen what it has to offer. On the other hand, it will be very hard to leave my volunteer assignment. Not that I didn’t accomplish my goals – on the contrary, the staff and I have accomplished a lot more than we expected. I just know that I will miss them horribly and I want to continue helping them work for democracy in Burma. The separation will also be a poignant reminder that while I’ve been here helping them voluntarily, this cause is their life and they can’t just leave. In fact, they can’t really go anywhere.

Here is our plan for the next six weeks. As usual, it’s ridiculous and it involves a lot of flights:

  • Thailand: We have one more week volunteering in Mae Hong Son, then we head to New York (via Chiang Mai, Taipei, and San Francisco).
  • New York: We’ll be in New York for about a week for Kenny’s sister’s wedding. We have a bunch of errands to run — AJWS post-mortem at their office, get new India visas, get yellow fever shots for Uganda, etc. — but we’ll also get to spend time with family and friends while we’re there. My parents are also coming to the wedding. I’m excited to see my Dad again so soon, and I’ve promised to take my Mom on the Jewish tour of New York (Lower East Side, Brooklyn, etc.).
  • Boston: We will have four days in Boston to visit our dear friends Julie and Damian, and their newest addition, Sophie. A few friends from Seattle will be joining us.
  • London: On our way to India for Sean and Archana’s wedding, we arranged for a four-day "layover" in London. Kenny has never been to Stonehenge, so we will probably try to squeeze that in too. It will be a weird, very first-world tourist experience in the middle of this year of Global South adventures, but hopefully New York and Boston will help with the transition. I expect that we’ll spend more money during four days in London than we typically spend in four weeks here in Thailand.
  • Delhi: Delhi always seems to be our gateway to India. Gio is meeting us, and we’ll spend a couple of days showing him the sights (and we need to take him for a celebratory meal at Indian Accent). Then we plan to make a day trip to Agra, since we promised ourselves we’d see the Taj Mahal this time. It’s going to be HOT, but I suppose it can’t be much worse than April in Northern Thailand
  • Bangalore: The main event for us in India is Sean and Archana’s wedding in Bangalore, which promises to be an all-out traditional Tam-Bram affair. After the wedding, we’re all heading to a Jungle Retreat in the Nilgiris for a few days.
  • Kampala: On June 11, we’ll fly from Bangalore to Dubai to Addis Ababa to Entebbe, in order to start our next volunteer assignment, which is a technology for agriculture project, based in Kampala.

Public Speaking and Private Emotions

The staff of my NGO asked me to provide training on public speaking, so I put together a four-part course for them. I included sections on “speaking style” – body, voice, eye contact, hand gestures – and “speaking substance” – how to structure the content of a presentation. In session III we added PowerPoint.

For sessions II and IV, each member of the staff (and I) delivered short presentations on the topic of her choice. For the first homework assignment, we gave speeches without any visual aids, and for the second we used PowerPoint. Not only did these homework assignments provide great public speaking practice opportunities for everyone, myself included, but they also created a very safe forum to discuss deeply emotional topics. At first I wasn’t sure whether I should feel guilty that three out of the six staff members ended up in tears at various points during our practice sessions. But whenever we hit an emotional hurdle in a speech, the speakers showed great composure – they stopped, took a few deep breaths and maybe a drink of water, and then continued. After each of these talks, we were able to frankly discuss what had happened with the group, and I told them how impressed I was that they were brave enough to discuss such personal topics in front of an audience. None of the later presenters were deterred by the tears of her predecessors – on the contrary, the presentations got more personal as the week progressed.

One presenter spoke about her experience giving training in conflict areas inside Burma. She had to travel through the jungle by foot with a few members of an ethnic minority army for a month, watching Burmese Army movements carefully, and often rising in the middle of the night to retreat to safer cover. One member of their party stepped on a land mine and lost his leg. My colleague’s friend dressed the wound, but he was in great pain and they heard him crying all night.

Another presenter gave a talk entitled “Why My Life in Burma was So Hard,” in which she told us about leaving her family at the age of eight to move to a city and continue her education. While there, she performed domestic work for a family in exchange for room and board. When the head of the household died she had to leave, living with other families and in monasteries over a period of 10 years until she was finally so sick and malnutritioned that she was forced to quit school and move back home. Her father has been in Bangkok as a migrant worker since shortly after she initially left for school and she hasn’t seen him since.

One of the joint secretaries of our organization spoke about the needs of poor and orphaned children in the state where she grew up, citing statistics and sharing photos to illustrate her points. She made an impassioned pitch for a free primary school for children in the capital city, and presented her implementation plan for the project.

Not all of the presentations were serious. One junior staff member (who is 19 years old!) gave a presentation entitled, “Why Have All of My Boyfriends Left Me?” My PowerPoint homework assignment was about why I think my organization should have a website (we are planning to build one starting later this week, after I give a short Web Training course).

Through these sessions I learned more about my staff and their backgrounds, and I felt that all of us became closer as a result. So it was certainly a valuable experience for me, and they’ve asked me to give them a “training of trainers” (TOT) course next week, so they can teach public speaking to their students and interns as well.

The Prophet

One of the books on AJWS’s excellent Burma reading list is Finding George Orwell in Burma, by Emma Larkin, an American journalist. Larkin recounts her visits to the many places that Orwell inhabited while working as an officer for the British Empire in Burma. Orwell first entered the service in Burma out of feelings of patriotism, inspired like many of his countrymen by Kipling’s attitudes on empire and his poem “Mandalay” (interestingly, as Larkin relates, Kipling never visited the city; perhaps he just liked its poetic name). Over time, Orwell became increasingly disillusioned with empire, and many of his books and essays criticized it strongly.

In Burma, people sometimes refer to Orwell as “the prophet” because his writings about government abuses of power not only ring true but seem to have predicted many of the events that have come about. The Burmese believe that three of Orwell’s most famous books form a trilogy about Burma: Burmese Days, Animal Farm, and 1984.

Of course, it is said that 1984 was actually about the USSR, but many of its ideas couldn’t be more true for Burma. It is also quite telling that the book has been banned in Burma since shortly after its publication in 1949 (although Burmese Days, which criticizes the British occupation, is still widely available).

The more I learn about Burma, the more I think about Orwell and his prophetic commentary. Especially with respect to 1984 and to a certain extent Animal Farm, I often wonder: did he simply predict the events that would take place in Burma, or is the junta using his manuscripts as their playbook? There are countless examples, but here are just a few scary things that seem too Orwellian to be coincidences:

  • The names and acronyms of many of the junta’s departments seem just too deliciously Orwellian to be true. It’s almost laughable that the regime decided to name their propaganda wing the Ministry of Information. The Press Registration and Scrutiny Department is responsible for censoring books and other media. Best of all, of course, is the State Law and Order Restoration Council, or the SLORC.
  • Last month, General Than Shwe sent a letter to the “esteemed peasantry” touting many of the regime’s accomplishments and urging them to elect representatives who will continue with the status quo. The entire letter is shocking, and reminiscent of the Party’s announcements in 1984, but here’s a money quote: “Now, the nation’s rice supply has far exceeded the demand of the growing population.” Of course, as the international community is well aware, most people inside Burma face poverty and malnutrition. Many farmers have lost most of their land and are forced to buy rice on the black market in order to sell it back to the regime at lower prices in order to meet their quotas.
  • During the Ne Win period in Burma, a ubiquitous propaganda phrase expressed the fact that loyalty was valued above education: “lu gaung, lu daw.” Translated as “good man first, smart man second,” to me this just sounds too terrifyingly similar to “four legs good, two legs bad” to be coincidental (from Living Silence, p. 39).
  • In 1984, the Ministry of Truth takes on the difficult task of trying to rewrite the history books to paint a more favorable picture of the government. Similarly, the Burmese regime has been trying for years to erase independence hero Aung San from history, in order to devalue his daughter’s ties to him. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, and to a certain extent her father Aung San, have received similar treatment to Orwell’s Emmanuel Goldstein in 1984.
  • The Ministry of Information publishes books about the country’s impressive “progress” and development, like building hospitals that don’t have doctors or supplying schools with computers but no electricity to operate them.
  • Although technological advances like 1984’s telescreen haven’t come to Burma, a low-tech Big Brother is certainly watching, through Military Intelligence spies planted among the population and the regime’s insistence that ordinary people spy on their neighbors.
  • Just as in Oceania, the Burmese regime promotes nationalism and general fear of foreign influences to an extreme degree. The size of Burma’s military (half a million people, or one per cent of the population) is incredible for a country with no external enemies.
  • The Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA), formerly the BSPP, is basically a political party with compulsory membership  – if people refuse to join, they don’t exist and are barred from most jobs, especially in civil service. The USDA rallies don’t seem all that different from 1984’s daily televised Two Minute Hate.

The Four Week Countdown

With exactly a month left to go, we’re definitely in the home stretch of our volunteer assignments. Songkran festivities will consume most of next week, so we only really have three potentially productive weeks remaining. I feel like I’ve accomplished quite a bit, but I have so many things left to do: helping the staff finish creating (and start using) the project plan for their school; developing the 2011 funding plan and tackling a few of the biggest 2011 grant proposals with the staff; a four-part public speaking training that I’ve been developing; and a few working meetings and trainings to teach the staff how to create a website for their NGO. Where did the time go?

I have enjoyed myself immensely here, and I am truly grateful that AJWS found me an assignment where my skill set has been so needed and appreciated. It’s difficult to imagine a better fit, as the capacities that this NGO needs to develop are the same activities that I practice in my job at Microsoft ever day.

One of the warnings that was reiterated a few times at AJWS orientation was that giving and receiving feedback is not easy in Asian communities, and that we would need to be careful about suggesting operational improvements because our staff might feel like they were “losing face.” It could be that this issue is more prevalent in Thai culture than Burmese, but it could not be more untrue with my NGO staff. Perhaps the fact that we are all women makes a difference as well. Contrary to the warnings, my NGO’s staff members crave feedback and are extremely receptive to learning new concepts and tools to run their organization better. Most of them are very young (the staff range in age from 18-28), and have been doing their best to run this organization without much training (only one completed university back in Burma, and a few did not even finish high school). Fortunately they’ve all had access to excellent educational programs for Burmese activist youth here in Thailand, and a few have completed internships with other organizations. They’ve also figured out, by instinct and experimentation, the basics of managing projects, including using their social networks and coming up with extremely creative and resourceful solutions to problems when resources are very limited. It’s very mature work for 18-year-olds!

I feel like my job is to tap into the talents and instincts that they already have, and offer them a few refinements and tools to make their jobs easier and help them work more efficiently. They have learned quite a bit already about project management, strategic planning, and fundraising, and we’ve been able to put some of the new concepts into practice. My biggest fear is that none of the lessons will “stick” without enough time for practice and coaching. I wish I could return in six months, like Alvin from the BBC, to check in and see how things are going.

It will be an exciting and busy four weeks. I know that I will never forget the time I’ve spent with this inspiring group of women, and I just want to give them as much as I can before I leave.

Hot or Not?

My memory of April 6, 2010 will be dominated by one thing: heat. The kind of heat that burns your nostrils when you breathe and dries your eyeballs to a standstill in their sockets.

Today's weatherThis morning I arrived at my NGO’s office at 8:45AM, just in time to run into my co-worker who was leaving for a staff meeting in Daniel’s village. I was told that meeting was to start at 10AM, everyone would be there for the day, and I should come. One small hitch – the village is about 20km away and AJWS has a policy banning motorbike rides for its volunteers (regardless of policy, there were already two riders on the outgoing motorbike). While I wasn’t expecting my morning bike ride to be any longer than five minutes, plans change.

The last time we biked to the village it took us about an hour and a half. My biking muscles are much better conditioned now, so I was hopeful that I’d arrive on time for the meeting. After a short stop for water and peanuts (a nice kosher for Passover snack), I was on my way. This time I made it in just over an hour, arriving just as the meeting began. I also arrived right after the motor-bikers, who had been heavily delayed by a huge felled tree that blocked the entire two-lane road.

During the meeting, the room got progressively hotter. Even the Asians were fanning themselves. The village had no electricity due to the aforementioned felled tree, and so our fans were kaput. Lauren just told me that she had fans today and all they did was blow hot air, so I guess we didn’t miss out too much.

At 3:30PM it was time to head back. The return route is easier and faster, with more overall downhill stretches. Not today. My return trip was close to 1.5 hours. The day’s heat was in full force, and without electricity none of the shops even had cold water. However, I was getting all sorts of encouragement from the locals – constant thumbs ups, smiles, and words of encouragement from motor-bikers and shop owners.

I arrived home exhausted, but proud of my journey and very happy that we have air conditioning at home. A cold shower never felt so good.

At least I won’t be doing that bike ride later this week. As a reminder for our American readers, 43°C = 109.4°F.

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Global Hunger Shabbat

Last night, we had a special Friday meal at my NGO office to participate in Global Hunger Shabbat, an AJWS initiative to raise awareness about hunger around the world. Back when we were at orientation in Chiang Mai we received a booklet with articles and pictures for discussion, and they asked us to organize a local observance for our friends or co-workers once we arrived on site.

We decided that the event would be a fun opportunity to introduce my co-workers to challah, and to the classic Shabbat rituals of wine, candles, and family. Kenny and Daniel spent much of the day baking challahs in P Nik’s kitchen. P Nik has a big propane-powered oven, so to maximize their propane utilization they made triple the normal recipe – 11 in all! They left three loaves for P Nik to sell, and brought the remaining eight over to my office. They also picked up a huge bottle of white Italian table wine and a bottle of red Chilean wine (the best we could do in these parts), a whiskey bottle full of local honey for challah-dipping, a couple of candles, and a few Asian desserts that offered pretty good approximations of hamentaschen and rugelach!

It didn’t surprise me that the challahs were a big hit – we were a group of almost 15 people, and had no problem finishing all of them. We also polished off all of the wine, which was a bit more treacherous than we had anticipated, as a few of my NGO’s members are a hair under 18 and are still learning how to moderate their alcohol consumption. ;) The best discovery we made was how well the challah paired with the spicy mango salad that a few staff members had taught me how to make earlier in the day – yum! We made our way through some of the Hunger Shabbat content as we ate, although much of it was quite difficult for non-native English speakers to read. The photos at the back of the booklet were the most accessible tidbits for this audience, and made for some good discussion.

After we ate, one of our joint secretaries and her friend pulled out their guitars, and they started a group sing-along session featuring many of the Burmese pop songs I’ve been hearing around the office for the past few weeks. It actually reminded me of many guitar-led song sessions from Jewish camp back in the day. It was a fun celebration and the food and music were fabulous!

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Daw Aung San Suu Kyi overseeing our Shabbat spread

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Kenny and me enjoying challah with spicy mango salad

Living Silence

One of my favorite sessions at AJWS orientation was titled “Human Rights and Democracy in Burma.” The speaker, Christina Fink, was engaging, dynamic, immensely knowledgeable, and very down to earth. None of the background reading we had done on Burma covered the time period since the mid-90s, and Christina’s talk helped fill in the important historical gap of the past 15 years.

After hearing Christina speak, I was inspired to read her book, Living Silence. Unfortunately it’s not yet available on the Kindle, so I thought I was out of luck for the moment. However, it turns out that Lauren’s NGO has a copy (of the 1st edition), and I was able to borrow the copy for the past week. Christina’s writing style is much like her speaking, and although Living Silence is a historical, scholarly work, it reads closer to a novel. There are countless personal stories of Burmese nationals, and this montage of viewpoints paints one of the more comprehensive pictures I’ve seen about the situation in Burma. The title aptly describes a recurring theme in the book, which is that for most people in Burma the dilemma they face is how to live within the parameters of an oppressive military regime. As the wrong action or voicing of opinion can land you in jail or worse, living silence is the norm.

If you want to get a grasp on the past and present situation in Burma, I can’t recommend Living Silence enough. When my Mom asked how she could learn more about the issues we’re facing in our NGO work, I told her to start by reading Living Silence. It provides a solid backdrop to understanding the current events in Burma and along its borders.

Burning Season

We had been warned that March-May was not a good time to be in northern Thailand, due to the combination of the extreme heat and the smoke that fills the air from the slash-and-burn agriculture practiced in these parts. Too bad AJWS didn’t get that memo. ;) Today was quite foggy and the air quality was particularly bad – I don’t know if it’s something about the combination of smoke and fog, but I was short of breath and even nauseous for much of the afternoon. Hopefully it won’t be like this every day for the next two months…

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It’s My Life

As promised, here’s a description of my typical day volunteering in Thailand. My day starts in very much the same way as Lauren’s typical day, though I leave the house 10 minutes after her for my 2 minute “commute” around the corner.

One of my NGO staff lives in the office (seriously, his bedroom is upstairs), so he’s always there when I arrive at 9. The rest of the staff trickle in over the next 1.5 hours. The first thing I’ll do in the morning is check the latest Burma-related news. The rest of my morning is spent working on English lesson plans and helping my co-workers create English content for the paper. Their budding webmaster lives in the next village and often works remotely, but if he’s in the office I’ll help him with the current overhaul of their website (actually 3 websites once you include all the different languages).

Often, one of my co-workers will make “breakfast” between 10 and 11:30 (today “breakfast” was at 14:45). These are rice-based meals that include lots of vegetables; usually a soup, a stir fry, and a spicy dip/chutney/salsa. Sometimes we’ll have lunch in the office as well, otherwise I take a walk down the street and grab a tasty Thai, Burmese, or Shan meal for about 30B (< $1). The afternoon is similar to the morning, except hotter.

On Monday and Friday I’m out the door and heading home by 17:00. The rest of the week I teach English class to five of my coworkers from 17:00-18:00, which usually runs a little over, and I’m home by 18:30.

Unsurprisingly, I spend my evenings in a very similar manner to my wife. We’re managing to keep each other entertained, and it’s quite relaxing being in a small town for a few months.