The first time I stepped foot in a Thai village I felt a myriad of emotions: excitement to immerse myself in a different way of life (after spending the first eighteen years of it solely in the USA), nervous that I would be ignorant of the customs and language, and curious to see how my preconceived ideas of Thai culture would change after actually living in it. The second I met my host family I realized that everything I assumed about living in a Thai village was probably inaccurate. I decided to enter the situation with a blank slate. Instead of using my past experiences, opinions, and worldview to make a judgment on Thai culture, I chose to be an open book.
I did not know it then but taking that approach had a significant influence on how I would eventually work in village communities and other multicultural settings.
The more projects I worked on the more I learned which factors contributed positively to and which hindered a project. I found that often the most important role we can take as foreigners is being a helpful and supportive friend. We do this by building trust, identifying common goals with communities, and by not tricking ourselves into believing that the success of a project is determined by our own personal impact on the work, but instead as a result of the whole community’s efforts. I also learned that being able to operate in a foreign culture is a skill and the factors that go into it are overlooked by many people in international development.
1: Develop Cultural Competency
A culturally competent person is able to identify and develop an understanding of the unique aspects of the different communities with which they work This can be in the form of customs, linguistic backgrounds, social norms, religious beliefs, history, economics, gender roles, ethnicity, and age. It is an active process that develops the more you spend time in different places. Being culturally competent means that you are able to empathize with a worldview that is different from your own and be able to adapt to and sometimes even adopt it. You seek to understand instead of only being understood. You celebrate the differences in culture instead of expecting things to be done the same way they would be back home. The more competent you become the easier it is to contribute to projects that are culturally sustainable.
2: Understand Cultural Sustainability
Many people who work in development forget to ask if a project they are working on is culturally sustainable. Foreign aid workers visit a community and see something they might not understand and decide the people there are struggling. They think their job is to fix a perceived problem and introduce new technology, education, or social outreach programs without understanding why a community is experiencing that problem or being aware of the cultural implications of what they are trying to accomplish. This results in organizations spending time and money to fix something that is either not broken or introducing projects that would not work in that particular community. So what is a culturally sustainable project? It’s collaborating with local community members to implement projects that will be accepted by the larger community because it fits into their cultural context. You will accomplish this if you’ve developed cultural competency, listened and learned from local knowledge, and practiced humility by knowing that your contribution is a small part of a much bigger project.
3: Practice Humility
While it is important to be proud of the work you do in international development, some people get caught up and act like they are a savior to the people. Community-led development is not about foreigners going to a place where people are incapable of helping themselves, providing services from their home country and believing that it will instantly transform the community so they have all the comforts that the foreigner believes are essential because it is what they are used to. Instead community-led development is a collaborative effort and should be initiated by locals who understand the implications that the project will have on the larger community. Exercising humility leads to building friendships because you acknowledge that the work you do has value because it is contributing to a project with people who are often more capable than you to implement the project effectively and sustainably, not because you are providing aid to a people that cannot help themselves. Take the “you” out of a project and learn to recognize the goals of the community.
4. Know How to Support Community Goals
While a person might spend weeks, months, and sometimes even years working in a certain village or town, 99% of people will eventually go home or on to another project somewhere else. This leads some people to believe that the work they do might not have a long term effect. Those who have learned to be culturally competent and recognize the importance of cultural sustainability know that the impact of their work is a result of the greater community’s goals and it does indeed take a village. A project is most effective when a community identifies their own issues and goals and takes the lead on implementing a project. We as foreigners have the privilege of learning from local experts and as a result we should ask what the community needs instead of trying to take the lead. Our role is to be a helpful friend who supports local partners to achieve goals that they have already identified and begun to work on.
Community-driven development projects are successful when they are collaborative and the people involved are dedicated to finding sustainable ways to improve the lives of the greater populace. We can positively contribute to these projects by supporting local knowledge, advocating and spreading awareness, and acting as a helpful friend while knowing that our contribution is a small part of a larger process. Developing cultural competency, understanding cultural sustainability, practicing humility, and knowing how to support community goals are skills that will help you contribute positively to projects so that the small impact you do have is of value.
Whether you study abroad in a remote Nepali village on the Biocultural and Diversity in Nepal trip or camp in a Thai National Park on the Elephant Conservation in Thailand travel program, integrating into the local community will have a significantly positive effect on your overall experience abroad. As students, travelers, and mindful global citizens, it’s our job to be open and embrace the cultural and social differences we encounter. We are guests in the communities that help facilitate our experiences. Integrating into local communities is an essential step to build lasting friendships, which is often overlooked in sustainable development.
Getting A Running Start
The first step in integrating into local communities starts before you ever leave home. While preparing for your trip, watch movies, cook a meal, read books, listen to music, or use youtube and language websites to learn a bit of the language from the country you will be visiting. Get excited about your trip. Find things you are intrigued by that you can explore more once you arrive in country. This will help you build relationships with people if you are interested in parts of their culture they would not expect general tourists to care about.
Upon arrival, begin to engage with the local culture. The best way to do this is to take part in the community-driven development projects and cross cultural-education activities in each village. While working with locals, begin to build relationships and learn about each other’s cultures and customs. Not only is it important to show interest in other peoples’ way of life, but to share your culture and experiences. While in your homestays, practice the local language and continue to learn it. Don’t worry if you don’t pronounce words correctly. People will appreciate the effort you are making to speak with them in their tongue regardless. Also share English vocabulary. When your family is cooking, cleaning, going to the market, or doing any other family activity, join them and contribute however you can.
Sometimes it’s necessary to overcome some hurdles when you first arrive in a new village. It’s understandable to feel nervous or unsure of customs or social norms. This can cause people to worry that they are going to do something culturally disrespectful. Consequently, they try not to impose on people and keep to themselves. Part of learning in any environment is about making mistakes and growing from them. It’s no different during a study abroad or travel program. It’s ok to make mistakes. People will understand you didn’t mean to, especially when they know that your intentions are good. Have a sense of humor and be willing to put yourself out there. It will make the whole experience fun and enjoyable.
Being able to integrate into different communities helps teaches you to work in a diverse range of environments, heightening empathy and cultural competency. Ultimately, if you are open to experiencing a different way of life by embracing the things that make it unique, the relationships that develop as a result will be meaningful. The connections and friendships that we make in the communities we visit are the foundation for long lasting partnerships based on mutual respect, shared visions, and support of community-led development.
We were just featured on a Thai PBS TV program! The segment was highlighting the Moklen community in Southern Thailand we are working with on sustainable tourism. The community is trying to build a model for tourism that shares their traditional culture and its emphasis on environmental conservation.
After staying in Kanchanburi and doing home stays, we departed for Bangkok to catch the night train to Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand. While on the train, we watched the progression of Central to Northern Thailand, past many picturesque villages and got a look at the countryside. 16 hours later, we arrived in Chiang Mai. We settled into our guesthouses and were feeling grateful to have hot water and western style toilets. Compared to Bangkok, Chiang Mai was much smaller, less overwhelming, and considerably more hospitable.
On the first day, we split off into groups and went on a scavenger hunt throughout the old walled city and surrounding area in order to familiarize ourselves with Chiang Mai. We looked at Wat Chedi Luang in the center of town, the four gates to the city, and various other landmarks and sites. Through this activity, we interacted with locals to learn more about the history of Chiang Mai and how to navigate the city. This activity was also a perfect opportunity to practice our Thai in a practical way. Additionally, the scavenger hunt enabled each group to get to know each other better and complete projects as a team.
One of the many temples we visited was Doi Suteph located on the hills of the western side of the city. It overlooked Chiang Mai and gave us a sense of the size of the city. We visited and explored the famous Wararot Market, which is called Kad Luang in Northern Thai, which is filled with exotic foods and handmade crafts. Many merchants were selling food and merchandise specific to Northern Thai culture including Khao Soi, a Northern Thai curry, and vibrant colored clothes. Chiang Mai has many markets that change from day to night, veering from flower markets, the Sunday market, and the Night Bazaar.
Another activity we did in Chiang Mai was conducting brief interviews with various locals in the city. This activity challenged our Thai language skills, which are improving rapidly, and offered a first hand view of the diversity of the Thai people. Additionally we were assigned independent research projects to conduct on our own and then present to the group. We were each allowed to choose our own topics of research based on our whatever we personally interested in finding out in Chiang Mai. Topics ranged from bartering, college student life in Chiang Mai, spirit houses, and lives of expats. We were encouraged to conduct our research by interacting with locals as opposed to using academic literature or the internet.
We were extremely fortunate and thankful to have a guest speaker from the NGO KESAN who talked to us about the current political issues surrounding Burmese refugees along the Thai/Burma border. The displaced Burmese face a number of options if they decide to leave their homes because of ongoing fighting and instability currently happening in their home country. Some choose to stay in Burma and essentially become nomads, moving from place to place, hiding from the authorities, and making ends meet any way they can. Others choose to enter Thailand as migrant workers or seek shelter in refugee camps along the border. There are many political and human rights issues surrounding these populations. Some refugees have been living in the camps for up to 30 years with little to no other option. Many nations are unwilling to accept Burmese refugees into their borders and relocation is becoming less and less common. As a reaction to the recent democratic election in Burma, Thailand is pressuring the refugees to return to Burma and is also cutting the amount of rations given to the camps. Migrant workers face the possibility of being trafficked and becoming part of a massive slave labour population. KESAN works to improve conditions in the camps and to provide aid to people living along the border. The talk was very informative. It helped to prepare us for our upcoming experience along the border.
When we had free time, we were left to our own devices to explore Chiang Mai. This experience helped us to feel more comfortable navigating an unfamiliar city. The group was able to see live music, enjoy a delicious meal of Thai barbecue, and to become more comfortable with each other. Chiang Mai wa sa fun and interesting city, but we are all very excited to continue our adventure in Mae Sot and the Karen villages.
Vivian, Molly, and Tyler
Five days, six planes, three countries, and one twelve hour taxi ride later, we’ve finally made it to Dharamsala. The town is set high in the Himalayan hillside and strung together with colorful prayer flags and beautifully constructed buildings. So far we’ve seen camels, elephants, and some giant monkeys. Today was our first full day here and so far we have experienced the abundant culture, awesome views, and delicious cuisine. Although most of the day was spent in line to get IDs to see the Dalai Lama, we got to see a glimpse of His Holiness and the next three days we get to attend his teachings. We also start our Tibetan language classes tomorrow as well as meeting our home-stay families.
Although we have had an exhausting last few days, we have so many adventures ahead of us and we look forward to sharing them all with you!
Shawn, Vindy and the IVS Team
Tomorrow morning we begin our incredible two-day jeep ride through the Great Himalayan Range. We will be traveling over five mountain passes, with each pass being higher than the previous, and culminating with Taglang La at 17,500 ft – the second highest road pass in the world!
During the journey we will be leaving behind the lush green landscape of Manali, giving way first to the high Tibetan plateau and then eventually the alpine deserts of Ladakh.
Manali has been a wonderful respite; a chance to recover from the plane, train and bus rides…and to fatten up with delicious Tibetan food before heading to the high altitudes. Last night, good friends of ours invited us over to dinner, and with customary Tibetan graciousness, stuffed us with endless servings of mutton stew, curry chicken, vegetables, Tibetan steamed bread and chai tea. We’ve also had the amazing opportunity to take two hikes to two different waterfalls right outside of town, providing an opportunity to move our bodies before we begin the long journey ahead.
We will be out of email contact for the next week. Hope everyone back home is eating as well as we are!
Charlie, Liz and the IVS group
Juley Juley –
We are on the third and final day in Leh, the capital of Ladakh, after an incredible week in the eastern plateau of Changthang where we tented alongside nomads, who gather on the side of Tso Kiagar (Kiagar lake) – at 15,000 ft! – once a year to honor the birthday of the Dalai Lama. Horse racing, traditional Tibetan dancing (most of the people in this remote region are refugees from Tibet), and vistas that seem endless due to the thin dry air were unlike anything in the US. And at night, when temperatures plummet, the stars emerge and the Milky Way seems
close enough to touch!
We are stocking up on many good meals, as Leh is a destination for trekkers from around the world, and have visited various NGOs including those relating to environment, tourism, and women’s empowerment. Tomorrow early we embark on another two-day jeep traverse down the Indus valley, making a sharp right turn and up the Suru River – one of the most spectacular watersheds imaginable, between the Zanskar and Himalaya ranges. This will bring us to the Zanskar valley, where we will be in home stays in small and remote villages, and working on an artificial
glacier project, staying also in monasteries or nunneries, and trekking through rugged terrain.
Everyone is well, acclimatizing to altitude, getting along as a team, and learning so much. Thank you all for your continuing support! We will try emailing from Zanskar when possible.
Charlie and James
Julley and Greetings from Leh!
After a grueling two-day jeep ride through the Great Himalaya range, we have reached Leh, the capital of Ladakh. The trip covered 473km and went over four high-altitude passes, including the Taglang La at 17,582 ft.! There was a dramatic change in ecosystems – from the lush, coniferous forests in Manali to the grass lands of the Tibetan plateau and finally the alpine desert in Leh. We saw the nomadic herders tending their goat and yak herds, wild horses and one student is convinced that she spotted the elusive Himalayan Yeti! The combination of high altitude, long days and rough roads tested us all, but the group dealt with the adversity admirably.
Tomorrow we will be going to the Changtang region to meet the nomadic communities of eastern Ladakh and join them in the celebration of the Dalai Lama’s birthday. We will be out of email and phone contact for one week, and will send another update when we arrive back in Leh.
Charlie and James
Julley, Julley (Ladakhi for hello, please, thank-you) – and Tashi Delek (hello in Tibetan) –
We are back from an incredible week in easternmost Ladakh, Changthang, which is geographicallly and culturally Tibet. We camped for five days on the shores of Tso Kiagar (tso=lake), at 15,000+ feet, pitching our tents alongside those of nomads who had gathered from around the area in honor of the birthday of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. needless to say, our time these was unlike anything any of us had previously experienced.
Getting there (and back) meant 7 hours by jeep up the Indus River, through canyons of thousands of feet of orange, purple, red, and brown walls, interspersed by thin green strips of agriculture – the highest in the world – where glacial melt enables irrigated terraces of barley. We were hosted by the teachers of a tiny Tibetan Children’s Village school in Sumdo, serving 37 nomadic children ages 3-7, who stay at the school and occasionally return to their families, where they are able to continue to acquire the skills of herding yaks, sheep, and goats (including those yielding the incredibly soft, and lucrative, pashmina wool). Nomadic headmen provided some of the meals, of mutton stews, milk tea, butter tea (note: not tea, but high-fat drink that provides sustenance in such a high desert environment. One day was taken up by many horse races, with rugs serving as saddles; exciting! Two days saw us at another lake, Tso Moriri, where earth meets the sky. We tested lungs and limbs, climbing to 17,000 ft, with the clear blue lake far below, the crystal blue sky above, and snow-capped peaks all around – including Chinese-controlled Tibet in the distance.
Today we are back in Leh – traffic, tourists, and welcome beds and showers – where we have wonderful hosts at the summer residence of the Dalai Lama, a wooded oasis next to the isthmus. Everyone there, and throughout our journey, has been generous beyond measure. We have also been accompanied by Lotan, whose name means intelligent and kind-hearted, perfect for someone who exemplifies kindness, humor, wisdom, and living simply. He, and so many others teachers (men, women, children, the glory of nature), have been models for each of us – humbling us, and challenging our sense of what is necessity or normal.
Tomorrow, at dawn, we set out for Zanskar (two 10-hr jeep rides), a valley that has been called the last Shangra-la. While there, we will be in homes in remote villages, in monasteries and nunneries, working alongside families – and communicating as best we can: limited common words, as well as through smiles and shared activities. The anthropologist in each of us is sure to continue to thrive. We are also seeing culture change – nomads in yak tents, with a motorcycle outside, for example. So it is possible that internet has already reached Zanskar; if so another communication will be forthcoming during the next two weeks. If not, we will be back in touch after a 6-7 day trek out of the valley, literally over the Himalaya range.
To all, greetings & reminders that each of us keeps different ones of you in our hearts & minds –
James & Charlie (et al.)