DisconnectedBack from a week in Northern Thailand where I took twenty-one 10th and 11th grade students on a week long journey into manual labor, teaching, and self-reflection. We arrived on Sunday afternoon and the first order of business after arriving at the lodge was to disconnect. As promised I made the students turn in all electrical devices. Cellphones, iPods, etc. The only thing they were allowed to keep was a camera. Nothing with earbuds, nothing that could distract them from each other.

I made the theme for the week Disconnect to Connect and then challenged the students with the following: 

By the end of this week have one meaningful conversation with every other person here…..including me. 

It wasn’t a big task…after all we were going to be spending every waking moment together over the next 5 days. Four of the days consisted of the same schedule. Half of the students would teach English to the students in K-5 while the other half built a new cafeteria for the kids and school. Wednesday would be a team building activity that included building your own raft and rafting down the Maekok River and hiking to a hill tribe village.

I had an opportunity to talk with the principal of the school (via a translater) about living in Northern Thailand. Basically there are hill tribes in Northern Thailand some of them Thai others refugees from around the region. Cambodia, Burma, Tibet, and other parts of Asia as well. The Thai government allows these tribes (villages) to operate in Thailand but does not officially recognize them as Thai citizens. Unlike in the U.S. or other countries where if you are born in that country you are a citizen of that country, Thailand does not follow this same rule and therefore some of these tribes are generations old and yet not Thai nationals. 

Because they are not Thai nationals they do not receive any funding for things like education. For example, the school we were working at (Mae Sa Lak School) there were 160 students K-5, however only 50 of the students were actual Thai nationals, meaning the school only got funding for 50 students to teach and educate 160. To put this in perspective…the Thai government gives the school 10 Baht (32 cents USD) per child for lunch. So instead of having 500 Baht ($16.25) to feed 50 kids. They get 500 Baht to feed 160 kids. The same goes for school supplies, materials, etc. So you can see why this school and many like it in the region are in need of any help they can get. The tribes themselves get some support but it seemed to me to be sporadic in nature. One tribe, tibetan origin, that we visited on our hike on Wednesday had recently received two solar panel power converters to charger their car batteries that they use for power during the night. A huge step forward from having to take the car batteries into town to get them charged. 

An ex-international teacher and his wife set up the MRV Educational Project about 12 years ago and work with local schools like the one we worked at and with schools around the world to come in and help where they can. 

buildingOur students donated 75,000 Baht ($2,437) to build Mae Sa Lak School a new multi purpose building that would be used for a cafeteria, a stage for plays, and just a shaded area to hold class and other gatherings. Mae Sa Lak has been working with MRV Educational Projects for awhile and different school groups have already built a nursery center (for kids 2-5 to go when parents work), a dormitory (so kids didn’t have to walk the 15km round trip to school every day) two sets of bathrooms, and repainted the classrooms. 

I’m proud to say in the four days we worked on the building we completed the foundation, poured a cement floor, and started working on the brick wall. Because it’s so hot in Thailand and because they don’t have air conditioners the main part of the building was to remain open to the elements to allow for ventilation. 

Each day after working on the project and teaching students we would come together to debrief about the day. I would lead the kids through the debrief session that went something like this. 

Thoughts on Today
(Overall comments on the day, something funny a kid said, something you learned.) 

A Moment
(I wanted students to reflect on a moment…one of those moments we have from time to time where you just step back and go WOW. I wanted kids to think about those moments, when did they come and what did they mean to them.)

A Conversation
(I gave them time to talk about a conversation they had with another student based on my challenge above. Who did they talk to, what did they learn?)

A Take Away
(Each night I would add my own observation of the day and try to send the kids away thinking about something. One night we talked leadership, one night team work and another night about the kids at the school and their lives.)

I loved watching the kids get more comfortable with each other and with the process. By the last night….the kids talked for 30 minutes without any prompting. They were reflecting, thinking, and talking about the experience they had. Many of them talked about the kids at the school they had gotten to know over the week and how hard it was to leave them. “I didn’t think it would be this hard to leave” was a common theme on Friday night. I knew the trip had moved these kids when we loaded up to leave the school on Friday and there were tears in many eyes and the ride back to the resort was quiet. High School students who talked, and laughed the 30 minute ride to and from and the school each day were silent, deep in reflection and self-realization. 

I wish every high school student had an opportunity like this…heck…I wish every person had an opportunity like this. To get out, help someone, love a kid for awhile, and change the world….no matter how small it might seems at the time….the students of Mae Sa Lak School where loved for one week by a bunch of high school kids who started the week on a school trip, but ended the week in passion and caring for someone less fortunate.

As part of their assignment ISB students have to write a reflection on their blog about the week. I encourage you to read the students thoughts on the week in their own words on our Global Citizen’s Week Blog here

Support Operation Smile and the 6th Graders at ISB by donating here http://www.tinyurl.com/isboperationsmile
Support Operation Smile and the 6th Graders at ISB by donating here http://www.tinyurl.com/isboperationsmile

There are days like yesterday when everything comes together technologically that allows you to create some of the most amazing artifacts.

Yesterday The Thinking Chick (my wife) sat down at around 2 o’clock and started working on a video that she wanted to create about her recent Operation Smile trip to Surin, Thailand with 9 middle school students.

8 Hours later she had created what I truly think is an amazing video capturing students feelings and reflections about the trip.

I was so proud of her. I didn’t help her out except to make lunch and dinner and keep her water glass full (still 90F here in Thailand….ug). About two hours into creating the video she looked at me and said “This is kind of addicting” to which of course I just smiles and refilled her water glass.

I don’t think we stop enough to really think about the power of the tools and the ease of use we have at our fingertips. Using iMovie ’09, a program that she had only about an hour of time playing with, she was able to manipulate video, audio, pictures, and words to create a heart felt video. I just marvel at her ability to see the movie in her head and then figure out how to put it all together on her own. An amazing testimonial to the power of the tools and my talented wife.

Of course that’s one thing….to have an adult take the time to sit down and create a video like this. But then Owain, a student that went on the trip, decided that he too wanted to share what he took away from the trip. So using Movie Maker on his computer at home, and in less than a day created this video. He sent the link to my wife in an e-mail that simple stated:

It’s nothing special, but it’s how I see it personally.

Nothing special? Other than here was a student so touched by his experience that he felt the need to share it with the world. He didn’t do it for a grade….because we don’t grade students on things like this. He didn’t do it because he was asked to, he did it because he was moved to.

This is what happens when we stop talking about technology and just let it be. Let it be what we do, let it do what it was meant to do; To create ideas, to share feelings, to communicate with the world. When we stop trying to use technology and just let it be is when it affects us the most.

(No, we’re not taking these in order)

Buddhism in Thailand

  • No belief in a god that created the world
  • Buddhist believe do good things, be good person, and you will be rewarded
  • Experience enlightenment to break the cycle of birth, disease, death, rebirth
  • Teach patience and give consideration to everything you do to be a good person
  • Monks believe should not eat solid foods after mid-day.
  • 250,000 monks ask for food each day. Giving of food to a monk is considered being a good person.
  • Meditation is to clear the mind and think clearly so you can become calm and wise
  • Many young men become monks to finish their schooling, then quit being a monk and go back to their villages to live.
  • Some are monks for a few months, others a few years, others a lifetime

Reading: Individual Life Cycles

  • Thai baby becomes “someone” after its name is chosen.
  • By 8 children start to take on their “role”. Girls household chores, boys guarding the family buffalo.
  • Children attend government school taught standard nationwide curriculum. Acquire varying degrees of literacy and study Buddhist and Thia history.
  • Youth of 15 or 16 are already regarded as fully mature adult laborers. Graduation from school and marriage at around 20.
  • Most village males go into the monastery, usually for the duration of one rainy season (about 4 months), to make merit for themselves and their parents; in some areas, a man who has never been a monk is avoided by marriageable girls, who regard him as a “unripe person” (Thia: Khon dip)
  • Girl’s entrance into adolescence is a gentle one.
  • Courtship is extensive and “whirlwind courtships” are exceedingly rare.
  • Most young people select their own marriage partners.
  • In many parts of the country, it is the custom for the groom to move in with the bride’s family, avoiding friction between mother and daughter-in-law.
  • After marriage first child usually comes during the first year.

Reading: The Family

  • Extended family, consisting of several generations living under one roof.
  • Home is usually a simple wooden house raised on posts.
  • There is little privacy, which is not as highly regarded as in Western societies, and the communal life style instills a strong sense of social harmony in which tact, compromise, and tolerance are essential.
  • The father is regarded as the leader, but the mother plays a significant role in the family finances and instruction of the children.
  • Respect  for elders is taught very early
  • Position in the family hierachy is important and carries throught the life of a Thai
  • Sense of responsibiltiy is also inculcated in early childhood.
  • Prime responsibilities placed on children is that of taking care of parents in their old age, a prominent feature of the Thai concept of family.


An interesting day of learning about Thai culture and the family structure. The best part is still the stories from people who have lived here for a long time, and from the Thai teaching staff who’s culture we are trying to understand. Of course these are western Thai so they understand “western ways”.

What we learned today is different than the Thailand that you will see if you come to Bangkok. Bangkok is modern, up-to-date, and feels like any other large city anywhere in the world, but the real culture of Thailand is outside the city, the real Thailand, most people don’t see.

The same was true for China. Shanghai is not China. Yes it’s 23 million people strong, but in a country of over a billion people Shanghai is just a small part and does not represent the true China.

It will be interesting to watch how “flattening” and connectivity plays a role on cultures such as Thailand’s. Most Thai families now have cell phones and as access to information spreads I wonder what affect that will have on the culture and family structure…..only time will tell.

All new international teachers to Thailand must take 20 hours of class work to obtain a Thai Teaching certificate. Today was my first class and our assignment is to reflect on what we learned…..so here I go.

What did I learn today?

We had a great discussion about the Wai. A common greeting in Thailand much like a handshake. The discussion around when to Wai and who to Wai was an interesting one. There are two ways to Wai back at someone. You can just put your hands together and not bow your head or you bow your head.

If a student or someone younger then you Wais you, you do not bow your head while Wai-ing back. You simple just put your hands together and Wai.

You would bow your head to someone older than you, someone of higher social status, or someone who you respect.

Who or what determines when to wai?

-Social status
-Profession (Teacher, Doctor)
-Buddhist monk

Learning to Wai is much like learning when do you shake someones hand, when do you just say “hi”, and when is it appropriate to just wave.

The Thai phrase “Mai-pen-rai” translates as “It doesn’t matter” but really it does…but only sometimes…sometimes it doesn’tm and somethings it means No. But other times it means Yes. Confused? Yes….we are too

I think all cultures have phrases like this. In Saudi Arabia it was “Inshallah” which meant ‘have pateints” but really it meant much more than that. In America…what is the phrase that we use? We say “Yeah” a lot, we shake our head in agreement even though we might not agree.

Learning globally meaning learning cultures.