Friday, June 19, 2015

Millenials, it's time to admit to our generation's racism

A week ago, on June 12, America commemorated Loving Day. On June 12, 1967 (only 48 years ago!), in Loving vs. Virginia, the Supreme Court made interracial marriage legal across America. Today we remember it and commemorate legalized interracial love.

(Of course, its convenient that the last name of the interracial couple involved was Loving, because “Smith Day” or “Richardson Day” to remember interracial marriage would be far less memorable.)

This is a big deal to me, because I'm in an interracial marriage. To think in my parents' lifetime, in states such as Georgia, Virginia, and Texas, my marriage would not have been recognized is still shocking. Even travel through these states would have posed dangers for my husband and me.

But there was something slightly disturbing in this year's Loving Day articles that bothers me even more now in light of the racially-incited terrorist act at the Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC.

The theme of many Loving Day articles seemed to be a sort of “Remember when...” and “Isn't it so great that the youngest generation is marrying interracially in droves?” And really, it is pretty impressive that just 48 years after Loving vs. Virginia, interracial marriages make up 9.5% of marriages in America.

However, one quote stuck with me and made me very uncomfortable:

It's millennials, who... 'are the best generation because they have been raised with less prejudice than other generational groups,' she said.

I've spent a lot of time thinking about that quote, questioning if it was true. As millenials, are we so far beyond the racism of the past? I get we totally are the most politically correct in our speech, and I get that things that were acceptable in the past, we now challenge. These are good changes. And the results of these changes certainly is that interracial marriage is not the extreme taboo that it used to be. I am so grateful for that, but...

Today I can point out the 21-year-old white man, who was willing to go into an African American church and take lives in act of terrorism that looks no different than something that might have happened in the 1960s. If a 21-year-old isn't a millenial, I don't know who is. And this in a year which our children will one day read about in history books, as the country has reeled from the realization of on-going police violence against African American men and women (only how much the average white person has really realized it, I'm not sure, because I'm not in America and am attempting to watch the reactions from far away).

White Millenials, let's talk. Let's seriously talk.

We're racist.

We hate admitting it, but it's true. In fact, according to the General Social Survey, we're pretty much as racist as our parents (with the exception of our overwhelming approval of interracial marriage... yay, Loving Day and closing our eyes to systems of racism).

I remember, as a 17-year-old I found myself driving in the car with a young 9-year-old girl, who was also biracial. Her family had been going through a lot of struggles, and her mother had asked if I'd “mentor” her for the summer. So about once or twice a week, this young girl and I would take a drive together and just talk... talk about everything...

Truthfully, I wasn't at all equipped for many of the conversations we'd have, most of which would center on race and gender and God. I've often wondered about her and about who she has grown into, knowing there were so many pieces of our conversation that I'd do a little differently today than I did then. I was only 17 and so many of my own assumptions had not been challenged yet.

However, this young girl helped me in many ways, and one particular conversation has stayed with me.

At one point, we were parking to get some lunch or something, and she clear-out-of-the-blue asked me point blank, “Kara, are you racist?”

No one had ever asked me this question, and for a second, I was getting ready to reassure the child that, no, she needn't worry about that. Then, before the words got out, some hitherto unknown point of conviction answered instead, “Probably. I try not to be, and I don't want to be, but I kind of think the problem with racism is we're blind to it. I probably don't really understand the ways in which I'm sometimes racist.”

This young girl, in that moment, changed something in me. By challenging me and asking me, forcing me to reflect, she opened my eyes to a piece of truth. I am extraordinarily grateful to for that opportunity.

The point is, as a generation, I think we're also wildly blind to our racism. In some ways, it would have been easier to recognize racism when it forbid interracial marriage. Instead, today, while theoretically recognizing that Black Americans and White Americans should have the same freedoms and rights, our generation holds about as tenaciously to persistent stereotypes as the last (like, that “Blacks are lazier than White,” an assumption which just boils my blood). If we don't begin to talk, really talk about racism and cut off any racist assumptions or stereotypes, the following will remain true of our generation:

Beyond generational comparisons... substantial minorities of white millennials hold racial prejudices against blacks. Over 3 in 10 white millennials believe blacks to be lazier or less hardworking than whites, and a similar number say lack of motivation is a reason why they are less financially well off as a group. Just under a quarter believes blacks are less intelligent, while fewer express opposition to interracial marriage or living in a 50-percent black neighborhood. Holding these attitudes is not the same as making racist comments in public or even among close friends, but there's clearly an audience for race-based judgment among the Millennial generation.”

And for as long as these sentiments are permitted among our friends and colleagues in our generation, extremists will rise up and kill people on the basis of their color of skin. Friends, we must stand up against racism, fight the overwhelming impact of racist systems, and not let slide the racial assumptions that lead to violence, wherever we are. Our silence is not permitted.

(P.S. - Yes, I know I've been silent for a while again. This broke my silence.)

Monday, December 01, 2014

Village Life, a New Year, Thanksgiving, and an Anniversary

This is my first post since moving to the village full-time, and I think I should begin with this morning.

Bright and early this morning, probably around 5:00 am, a certain scream erupted my peaceful dreams. In my initial half-dream state, I was pretty sure someone in the house was screaming at the top of their lungs, "No, I won't! I can't! I won't! No, I won't! I can't! I won't!" It sounded like a fight for one's life. Strange terror gripped my heart at such a horrifying awakening, as slowly my mind processed that it was highly unlikely that someone was screaming in English, and secondly there was only my husband and me in the house, and my husband was only vaguely stirring from the sound of the screaming.

My panic settled and quickly turned into chicken soup anger, as I realized one of our roosters had discovered our place of sleep and placed himself exactly under our partially open window. It was not a scream of danger; he was demanding food! No, I thought to myself, I will not reward screaming chickens. Both my husband and I shielded our ears and refused to give in to the rooster's tantrum for the next eternal half hour. Eventually I heard the faint sounds of huffing and him moving away. We had won and returned to sleep. For some reason, this morning we have been discussing the best timing for our next pot of chicken stew.

Anyhow, as to other updates, Shan people around the world have celebrated the start of a new year: the year 2109! Yes, the Shan have been living in the 22nd century for the last nine years. Look to the Shan to see what lays ahead, young Westerners. Soon you too will enjoy termite delicacies and blood soup. It is only a matter of time... Anyhow, we had a great Shan New Years celebration here in Thoed Thai, though I'm not how sure I got pulled into helping to carry the banner for our neighborhood in the village parade. Nevertheless, a whole lot of people were able to legitimately and openly take my picture, instead of stealthily pretending to play on their phones, facing me, while their cameras made weird flashes. I think my husband vaguely considered charging 20 Baht per photograph (kidding... just kidding). Here are a few highlights...

 The handsomest guy around... :)

The "VIP" truck for very special people who don't mind paying 20,000 Baht to break the rules and annoy the community. 

The stage

 This little guy and his father, in front of the Shan flag, were just too photo-worthy. Sadly, I cannot seem to upload the version, where I fixed the coloring. His dad wanted him to take a photo with me, but he shyly refused.

Getting ready for the parade. Everyone finding their places. 


No comment. 

These girls all performed in the traditional dancing later.

Almost immediately following Shan New Year, I realized Americans would soon be celebrating Thanksgiving. As I am big on the tradition of eating a large meal for Thanksgiving, I suggested to my husband that we go into Chiang Rai (a city), where we treated ourselves to a grand Japanese lunch, complete with sushi. I'm sure our meal differed slightly from many of our American friends, but we enjoyed it nonetheless. And we were thankful, of course, which was the whole point.

Then yesterday marked a very special day: Mong's and my one year wedding anniversary. To mark it, I made a Thanksgiving feast, which we enjoyed after church with everyone who came. It was a bit of a culinary stretch for most of our guests, but it'll provide them something to tell others about. ;) 

In honor of being married one year and one day, here is a sneak peak of the photos that will soon be uploaded onto Facebook:

Saturday, September 27, 2014

A Good Education

As I currently prepare to say goodbye to my wonderful class of second graders and take my first break from teaching in five years, I have been reflecting on what makes a good education. So for those not interested in educational views, skip this post. :)

Here are a few educational myths that I find extremely pervasive and that I wish to leave behind forever.

1. Myth 1: More difficult equates to a better education.
I heard this one reflected when a fellow teacher proudly told me he gives extremely few As. I heard this one reflected when a parent complained that our students have far less homework than their peers at a neighboring school.

Here's the end-all: An excellent education will include the difficult bits, but it will not attempt to make things difficult.

Giving almost no As means the teacher failed to bring almost any students up to an A level of understanding. This does not mean the majority of the class should receive an A, but my goal as a teacher is to create an accurate assessment on what I taught. Very low grades overall is a reflection on either my teaching or a poorly aligned assessment.

Lots of homework=busywork. There's no data supporting that homework helps student achievement.

2. Myth 2: The earlier the better.

If reading at age 6 is good, reading at age 4 is better! If doing multiplication at age 9 is typical, doing multiplication at age 7 is terrific!


There's a reason to the older, slower paces of learning. While some children may be ready earlier and may automatically learn these skills ahead of the game at home with their parents, subjecting all children to these schedules lacks an understanding of child development (I say this after being required to teach multiplication to second graders who haven't had the chance to fully master subtraction with regrouping). Take your time.

3. Good grades are a sign of your child doing well.

Well, no.

They're a sign that the teacher gave the right pieces of paper to the child on which he/she could at least copy or imitate the correct answer/process. A wise teacher creates scenarios in which the child must demonstrate further thinking, but even among the best of teachers, I am skeptical of grades in general. How was the child feeling on the day of an assessment? How did the teacher take the child's answer to form a number grade? Was partial credit given for where the child had the right thinking but only missed on a minor calculation error?

Mostly I am opposed to grades in the elementary school, because I think what most parents are looking for is really information about where their child is succeeding/not succeeding. Numbers just don't give that. An 80% in math doesn't tell a parent that the 20% he/she did poorly on all had to do with fractions. I think assessments and feedback can be done better than numbers, but numbers are easy shortcuts for schools (I feel the draw of them, certainly, because doing away with them would be way more work for me).

What do you all find to be the pervasive myths your encounter daily?

Monday, September 01, 2014

Cameras, Traveling, and Poverty

Lately I've been struggling with the role foreigners, particularly privileged foreigners, play in visiting or living in communities struggling with poverty. For any of us who have been regulars in this struggle, we know there's always a bit of an awkward factor--and there's also the just downright "bad feeling" that comes with it.

It's awkward to be seen has having dollar signs on your forehead, for sure, and then it's simply painful to walk into a house with simple clothes on your back and feel like a queen for what you're wearing.

I think most people who've been involved in development work or simply Christ-centered "downward mobility" have struggled with this. For me, I didn't shop for a time. My clean clothes always had holes. Forget make-up splurges. And still we might feel like royalty. We get asked for money. And it's such a struggle! How do you answer? Maybe you've been offered a baby and there was no legal way to take that child and bring him/her to safety (I was--back before I even knew my husband, and it affected me deeply).

I have often not known what to do, but one thing I felt compelled to do was take pictures. Of children laughing. Of clouds settling far below the mountain peak where I resided. Of gardens, full of vegetables, conveying hope in the midst of trying circumstances. Of fires blazing during the dry season. Of kids studying at school. These were beautiful moments, and I wanted to record them, and I believed that in capturing them I could, perhaps, explain just a bit of the life I'd chosen to those far away.

That's the context for what I need to write and is the source of a great deal of inner turmoil right now.

You see, there's a certain camp for IDPs (internally displaced persons) that my husband has had the privilege of visiting many times. He has also taken doctor teams to the camp to assist the clinic with training or in other various ways.

On a recent visit, a villager in the camp came up to him and said something along the lines of, "Look, I need the money that the last team raised for me."

My husband understood immediately (I wouldn't have) and had to explain to the man that the team had simply enjoyed taking photographs around the village and with people they'd spoken to when they had finished at the clinic.

This man was still quite confused, because, after all, they had taken photos of him. What's the point of all those photographs, in the midst of his poverty, if not to show the world and raise funds? He did not see the potential beauty worth capturing in his surroundings. In fact, he still felt that funds must have been raised, and either the team or my husband was holding it back from him. He had to be reassured a lot.

To my surprise, this was not the first time my husband has dealt with this issue. Apparently in the village we live in (which is far more comfortable than the IDP camp), there had been several similar events. Westerns come, do their thing, then take pictures, and villagers begin hoping for the help that is not coming.

What I realized is that when Westerners have often felt they were capturing a beautiful place, moment, or event, what so many local individuals have felt was an unpleasant exposure, to which they willingly succumbed, because Westerners have represented monetary hope for them.

Of course, it's the postmodern age, and some of these same villagers are also on Facebook. That means, they also see Facebook campaigns from their foreign Facebook "friends" to raise funds for this or that, sometimes individuals persons. Sometimes accompanied by photos.

And my heart broke when my husband said this to me.

Yes, in most of these cases, monetary support is not the best way to help. Really, it's not. And, yes, a major education campaign needs to occur everywhere to stop viewing foreigners as ATMs, but what hope does such a campaign have when Facebook tells them otherwise?

So what about the camera? Here are my requests of those who may visit me (and probably for anyone who visits similar situations), in no particular order:

1. Only take close-up pictures of people you know the names of and think you might loosely call "friends."
2. Do not take pictures immediately following someone telling you of their struggle, previous persecution, pain, or poverty, unless you actually intend to do something to help them. If not, wrong message. Take pictures of JOY.
3. Take pictures of mountains, lakes, clouds, and rice paddies.
4. Take far away silhouette photos of non-recognizable people doing work, which is beautiful and culturally specific, like rice planting or monks gathering alms in the morning.
5. Be upfront about the reasons for your visit (ie. not to raise funds, unless that is the reason, and even then, state what the funds will be used for).
6. Do not post fundraising campaigns for local-to-here situations on Facebook publicly. Use your privacy settings to determine your audience on Facebook.
7. Do not act like an ATM.
8. Tell people if you intend to use their photos and for what.

Most of all, let's keep working on showing deeper respect for the communities in which we find ourselves, understanding that what we may perceive as beauty (such as clothes on a clothesline) might not be understood that way by someone overwhelmed by the painful reality of their situation. Let's be slow to pick up that camera and quick to listen, love, and laugh together.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

When I wasn't who the police thought I was...

Right now, I am struggling with just how disturbing the news is. I hear about what is happening in Iraq and Syria at the hands of the Islamic State, and I want to vomit. Then I read the latest new coming out of Ferguson, Missouri, and I want to cry at the reality of race in America.

I don't really know how we're supposed to respond to news of hate, but I do believe, as a follower of Christ--as one who sees reconciliation as quite central to the message of Christ--silence is not an option.

But it's also difficult.

Namely, because I don't live in America, Iraq, or Syria. Moreover, when speaking of America, I am a blonde-haired, blue-eyed Southern girl. Sometimes I feel even ashamed to speak. I don't know how to speak of racial profiling, because I've never experienced anything but the privilege of favorable profiling. Likewise, I feel stunted in my ability to discuss the frustration, anger, and desperation that we see now exploding in Ferguson.

I'm quite simply the wrong person.

Yet as my Facebook wall fires up with mostly compassionate responses toward the residents of Ferguson, there are a few others--mostly from people with whom I grew up--posting angrily. White people. Angry. And it scares me.

Race is complicated, and white people really have few opportunities to experience the full dimensions of its ever-present existence in daily decision making.

There has lately been an old memory that has haunted me a great deal. It's actually a story I usually enjoy telling, and everyone gets a good laugh, but right now it doesn't feel funny.

You see, a few years back, I lived in southern Louisiana, and I frequently made the 14 hour drive from North Carolina (where my parents lived) to my home in Louisiana in a single day. That allowed me more family time, and I was able to get the drive done with all at once.

However, there was a risk to it, because, at that time, there was no available bridge across the Mississippi to the small parish (Louisiana word for "county") where I lived. On the western side of our little segment of the Mississippi was New Roads, my home at the time, and on the eastern side was the much wealthier (and whiter) town of St. Francisville. This meant that at the very end of my drive, I was required to take a ferry from St. Francisville to New Roads. The risk was not leaving early enough and missing the last ferry for the night.

Well, one particular holiday return, I apparently had allowed time to slip by a little too much, and as my car wound through St. Francisville, just miles from my home, I had the heart-sickening realization, I might not make it.

I did what anyone would do: I sped up. Not a lot. But enough. About 10 miles over the speed limit.

I should add that at this point the road I was on could only be going in one direction. In just a couple more miles, it would dead-end at the ferry stop. There was absolutely no other place I could be going. From wealthy St. Francisville. To New Roads.

That was when the lights began to flash behind my car. Shoot, as I glanced ahead, I noticed the speed limit had dropped 10 more miles. My first time ever to be pulled by a cop had to be when I most desperately needed to rush!

I was not afraid, naturally, only frustrated. I did not even notice or pay attention to the fact that I was in a darkened area, where there would be no witnesses to whatever occurred. It did not even strike me as an important detail.

Then as I turned off my car's engine and pushed the break in, I had my first fright.

The police's lights continued blinking and shining, and out of the microphone of the car, I heard the policeman's voice boom, "Will the driver of the car, please, exit the vehicle with the hands in the air!"

Mind you, though I had never been pulled by a police officer before, I had been in the car many times before, and I was well aware I was not being handled normally.

That's when I first realized how dark it was and how the nearest businesses weren't necessarily close enough to be paying any attention. That's when my heart skipped a beat, and I wondered what this officer's intentions were. The officer's orders boomed again. That's when I considered restarting my car and going until I found a well-lit place where others could witness the transaction. But I was also frightened that this man would assume it was a chase.

I was terrified, when I finally complied. I stepped out of the car with my hands in the air, as the officer got out of his car, his hand on his holster.

And then he saw me.

The elderly officer broke into a smile, allowed me to get back into my car to find my documents, and asked me how I was doing. He then quite gently asked me if I had noticed I was going above the speed limit.

I was shaking and terrified. I couldn't transition to his friendly demeanor quite so fast.

The man felt bad for me, when he realized I was trying to catch the ferry so that I could teach in the morning and actually told me to get going again and hurry up.

That was all. No ticket. Nothing.

I was speeding.

But I didn't look like the person rushing to New Roads that he thought I would be. Appearances was all it took to reassure him.

I did, in fact, miss the ferry and spent the night in St. Francisville, rising quite early to cross on the ferry the next morning and meet my students at the school.

Usually when I tell this story, using just the right intonation and a wave of my left eyebrow, everyone cracks up at the point where the officer saw me. I mean, I'm this small little blonde-haired teacher with my hands in the air. It is funny.

Except when it's not.

What if I had been someone else? A different teacher? What if I looked different?

Don't get me wrong, I don't think the officer would have shot me, but... The problem with life is that it's full of split-instant decisions, in which quick observations, inform us, accurately or inaccurately, what situation we're in. In my case, before he saw my face, where I was coming from and where I was headed in had frightened him enough to demand I exit my car with my hands in the air. My face, however, quickly cleared me of guilt. What if it had not?

I've always wondered about that. I know it would not have gone so easily that evening.

Right now, this memory is fresh as I look at the frustration and fear exploding out of Ferguson. I can never know what it feels like to fear police daily, because my face has always exempted me from any extra scrutiny by police. I can't know, but I also can't accept how very ignorant to this sort of treatment white Americans sometimes are. Yes, we can't really know, but we can see bits and pieces of it upon occasion, and it ought to be enough to horrify us and inspire only the deepest compassion and a desire to work to see things change. And it must inform our understanding of what is happening.

There's a great article on The Guardian about what's happening in Ferguson and riots in general that I recommend reading: Check it out. Just don't be silent. And think about that anger.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

That time I balanced a cake while sitting side saddle

Last night around midnight, I had one of those "Aha" moments, where I thought to myself, "I think I can possibly write about my current ordinariness." I also thought to myself, this makes me that Westerner--who think it's funny to write about ordinary events. Okay, forgive me.

You see, I was at that moment sitting side-saddle on the back of a motorbike that my husband was driving, slipping and sliding over a muddy path, with my weekend bag, my purse, and a carrot cake (which I am quite proud of having made) on my lap--that is without tupperware... In fact, the carrot cake was still on its ceramic dish, with a plastic bowl over it and a grocery bag wrapped around the whole thing. Then there was the enormous bag of blankets and linens, as well as the computer bag, between my husband's feet, which he balanced while driving, in addition to the bananas and grapes in the front basket. We relatively comfortably slid our way through the muddy path and under frighteningly low electrical lines, made our way to the church, and were in bed not too far after midnight.

I am writing about it now, because until the moment when I thought of all of you, who might read this, it had not occurred to me that it was all that strange of an event. I mean, there was the part about it being midnight, and our evening had not exactly been planned this way. Certainly, it's not how every Friday night goes. So, in all those ways it was unusual, but it felt only normally unusual--not particularly daring or the least absurd... until I thought of you all.

The lead up to that moment was that we were helping a young woman in the church, who had been renovating her father's house. She'd asked us to pick up a truckload of furniture for her on our way up to the village yesterday. We did, little knowing that our truck would, several hours later, get stuck on the road to her house. This led to an amusing burst of help from rather tipsy neighbors and family (and thankfully some sober help as well), who helped carry all the quite heavy furniture to her house. Meanwhile, without thinking twice about it really, we left the truck in the road and traded it for the young woman's motorbike to get home. We emptied the truck of all the belongings we'd need, piled them high on ourselves/the motorbike and took off back to the church. Naturally, I was still in my meticulate professional dress, which I had worn in the morning to teach--hence the sitting side saddle.

My approach might easily have been one of annoyance, but I really have all of you to thank for changing that. When I thought of you all, I just suddenly felt like such a dare devil on an adventure that I positively wanted to laugh at the absurd image of my husband and me on that bike, with all that stuff, in that midst of that midnight, at that time of night! So thank you for transforming such an ordinary moment into one of excitement and intrigue! It is therefore in honor of you and out of gratitude that I have written this entirely frivolous blog post. Hopefully you smiled at the mental image anyway.

Now, let's hope we get the truck out!

Saturday, August 09, 2014

When violence takes someone...

These days I am in a quiet (if busy) phase of life. I no longer live in an IDP (internally displaced persons) camp and have to face the realities of displaced peoples daily. I no longer teach in a center for migrant workers, who face daily discrimination and insecurity. I no longer listen weekly to the tales of horror coming out of Arakhan State and the violence in Kachin and Shan States. (Go here to be educated on those realities.)

Instead, I spend my time teaching an adorable group of 25 second graders, mastering the art of sourdough bread-making (go ahead and ask me about wild yeast and my absolute excitement over this kind of bread making!), looking up recipes for fermenting vegetables, and falling in love with my husband more everyday. Like I said, it's kind of quiet. Maybe old-fashioned even. Rather restful. And definitely quite normal, for a girl whose adult life has been usually led in rather not-so-normal locations.

I think it's given this backdrop of not being surrounded by violent situations anymore that I am coming to process the violent deaths of two different friends.

[NOTE: I am not including my friends' names, as there will be already, unfortunately, far too many Google results regarding their deaths now, instead of their lives.]

Both friends are individuals with whom I had lost contact after a few years, and neither had ever been in my closest circle of friends, yet a few good conversations sealed the label "friend" years ago. One was a good friend for a summer during Teach for America's training institute, but when we were placed in distant schools, that friendship never really progressed further. The other I spent a year living and working with in high school as a Page for Congress. That's enough for a connection. Within a short time of each other, the first was murdered by her boyfriend, and the second committed suicide.

Both were far, far too young to die.

There will probably never be any great words of wisdom that come of out of such violence (I learned that years ago when first finding myself immersed in the pain of an IDP camp), and so this post is not about that. What it is about is connecting.

Upon reflection on the sudden loss of these two beautiful individuals, I've realized there are many people that I respect, cherish, and love, with whom I no longer connect regularly, due to distance and life circumstances. There are people I would call even close friends, with whom I rarely speak anymore. High school friends. College friends. Friends of other life circumstances.

So, friends of so many different life phases, here's what I want to say to you: I cherish you.

I may not always know how or when to reach out to you, and I know that a long-distance friend from a past life is not the same as a friend in your current here-and-now, but I do cherish you.

Moreover, I respect you. You became my friend, because I respect who you are--the person God created you to be.

We live in a violent world, where we are not guaranteed a tomorrow ever. Random violence, sickness, or accidents could take any one of us today. Yet for both of my friends, who have now left this world as very young women, as far as I understand, the circumstances that led to their deaths were not new. In light of this, all I can think to ask right now, friends, is that you not give up--that you refuse to see yourself as trapped in any situation. You're not stuck, and if you're struggling right now, there's more to this great, big world than pain. Take the steps, any steps, to get help and move beyond the painful circumstances that can trap you.

Meanwhile, let's make sure we love each other thoroughly. We've got today to give out every drop of love possible. I'm going to attempt that, and meanwhile, I'm also writing some of those dear friends that I haven't heard from in a while. A little encouragement goes a long ways during the dark nights of our souls.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Married life!

Okay, so I am officially the worst blogger ever. I have on several occasions to started to build up something of a readership, semi-freaked out that so many people wanted to know what I was saying (made doubly speechless and confused when people I knew began discussing particular blog entries in front of me), and disappeared until my readership had dwindled comfortably down.

The most pointed example of my status as worst-blogger-ever is the fact that I quit blogging right before my wedding and failed to blog at all again for the next eight months. A wedding. It's the kind of thing that bloggers that actually want people to read what they write really like. Because people like weddings. And wedding photos. And sentimentality.

And I just don't get it all. That's not what I want exposed all over the internet. That's not what I want to draw people to my writing.

I have blogged off and on for some time, because it connects me to people far away. I also enjoy expressing some of the things that I am thinking about. But here's the reality: I don't know how to discuss my writing. Ever. And when I get afraid that people will actually want me to discuss my writing, it tends to leave the blog. Not that I ever stop writing. That's impossible for me. It just doesn't show up in blog form any more.

But... lest anyone think my general silence (mostly from the time I first began dating my now-husband) is due to unhappiness, here's a few of my reflections on married life.

It's good. It's two people. It's warm. It's waking up next to my best friend. It's being understood. It's being misunderstood. It's choosing love every day. It's choosing to focus on some things and overlook other things. It's closeness and intimacy. It's kindness. It's grace.

It seems people are particularly curious about the multicultural aspect of our married life, because it seemingly sets us apart from so many couples. Without a doubt, bringing our cultural styles of communication into our married life has required grace, patience, and understanding. Yet, I still have this on-going theory that we misunderstand each other about as much as the average couple; we just *know* we're multicultural and therefore are more prone to apply grace in the moment. Don't we all grow up in distinctly different family cultures with unique styles of communication and different expectations? Doesn't everyone have to work through forming yet another culture whenever we embark with another person, from another family, in creating a brand new family unit?

As I said earlier, marriage is being understood and misunderstood. I think that's part of why God gave us marriage. There are deep, deep lessons to be learned in the give and take that comes from this process. And there's extraordinary intimacy that comes when we choose someone that we cannot in the moment understand. (I am not speaking of language now. I am speaking of the infinite number of things that we do in our way, which we can never explain why truly... or, at least, explanations make no sense to another.)

And the other side of multicultural marriages... oh, the richness! Seeing the world from another perspective. Seeing my own country and culture from another perspective. Speaking a language at home that is different from the languages we use outside the home for daily business. Comparing the international news in two languages (worth doing!). Absorbing values from each other that our own cultures have neglected.

That being said, I married a gem of a man. Some days I wake up and still cannot believe this can all be real. The kindness and gentleness I experience from my husband makes it impossible to imagine any other life. And I don't intend to quit saying these things about him. He's a good man--the best even--and I am extraordinarily blessed.

Wishing you all the best from Lampang, Thailand!

Thursday, October 10, 2013

"Do these rights count in the home?"

The United Nations Human Rights Declaration: Article 5 - "No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment."

My students understood this article and were quick to state their need for it. They could think of countless examples.

But then one particularly astute student stumbled for his words as he said, "No, I don't know about this. These are all rights for out in public. What about in the home? Do these rights count in the home? If a husband is beating, even torturing his wife, can someone really intervene into the privacy of the home? Don't families have a right to self-determination?"

I held my breath and looked to the rest of the students, thinking one of them would speak. They looked back at me.

Kham Moen, my Shan co-teacher, and I had been teaching this class more in the role of facilitators than instructors, and despite the temptation, I did not want to stop this time. I wanted my students to come to make up their minds on tough ethical quandaries, because they had thought it through, not because an authority figure had told them "the answer."

So we made it personal. We came up with specific examples of domestic violence and sexual abuse. The students listed the rights (even sometimes conflicting rights) of every member of the family in these situations, and we talked about what was the right and moral thing to do in really difficult situations.

And then it continued... for the entire week of the Human Rights workshops. We could not simply talk about human rights in the public sphere, if we did not talk about human rights in the places closest to students' hearts: the home. So we did both: we had examples of government interactions with villages and more intimate interactions within the home. We engaged them both constantly.

I was fully invested in working through the material with my students for two reasons: 1) It is infinitely valuable for these individuals to think through the rights of others, 2) It is the last gift I can give my students.

You see, in two weeks, I will be moving and will begin a new job teaching a fantastic group of Thai second graders. It breaks my heart to think about leaving these Shan young adults, however, and so I've tried in one week to give them everything I could: a sense of compassion, empowerment, and responsibility. Before this class, only one student out of the eighteen had ever heard of the concept "human rights" or even the idea that all people might have certain rights. To talk about the international law, to which Burma is a co-signer, mattered to them.

When I asked the students what they found most interesting to study, I will never forget when a usually meek student, who keeps her head down and rarely speaks, spoke first in the class, lifting her eyes level with the others, "That my body belongs to me." This was in relation to our right to say no to unwanted sexual advances in a discussion the day before. This is what this girl remembered most of all. If that is all she remembers, we have one a huge battle in one young woman's life.

Now, over the next couple weeks, the other English teacher will be giving historic examples of non-violent resistance, as a means others have used to fight for those basic rights. Sometimes I look at my students and wonder if we're throwing fire at gasoline. They are tired of injustice already, and they are just so ready to do something. I can only pray they will have the wisdom to see when and what action is helpful. I also pray that the world will never be black-and-white to them and that they will always see the complexities, even in the midst of choosing action.

Truly I have been privileged to work with these students.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Appreciating now

Change is kind of difficult.

If I calculate it out, in the last ten years, I have lived in 21 bedrooms "long-term" (tells you how long-term anywhere has been), with over 50 different roommate/housemates. Right now, I have been living in the one-room apartment that I currently live in for four months now, and I have actually no roommates (quite an unusual arrangement actually for me). The little bungalow, which I last called home, was the longest I had called anywhere home since I was sixteen, and I stayed there for just barely over a year. As you can imagine, I found it difficult to leave that house.

With this sort of nomadic life, I think I have earned the right to state that change is difficult. Yet, I will add that I would not give up one of these experiences. I certainly hope and pray, by learning to live with so many different types of people, I am a hair's breadth readier for what my dad calls "the ultimate roommate" (that is, marriage). Moreover, I have learned from people and cultures all over the world, and who I am today is layered deeply into these many experiences. I have loved the life I have been fortunate enough to live, and I am simultaneously extraordinarily grateful that I will soon now have someone with whom to share all of life's future transitions.

Yet, despite this gratitude for life's many phases... I must admit, I am struggling with change again. In just over two weeks, I am moving to a new city to start a new job with new students, living in a new house, relying predominantly on a new language (that is Thai, instead of Shan), driving a new car on a new side of the road, and a little over a month after the move will begin my new life as a married woman. It's a lot to take in.

And being who I am, as soon as I know a change is on the horizon, it's my instinct to focus on that, rather than where I am.

So in honor of all this change, I want to take some time to appreciate all that has been (and is) in this rather short phase in which I have found myself in Chiang Mai. Here's my incomplete list of appreciation for my Chiang Mai time:

1. I have fallen in love with a wonderful man, who will soon be my husband.
2. I have been privileged to join hands with Partners and Shan Youth Power as we began the new migrant resource center, which is today Seed (This is a video of Seed, and if you look, you'll even see me teaching in this video!).
3. I have come to know the most wonderful Shan staff at Seed, who have been at times my students and at times my teachers, but always dear friends on whom I have often relied (and enjoyed their cooking).
4. I have had the chance to get to know the other Partners staff that I did not have the opportunity to get to know so well while working in the village on top of the mountain.
5. I have developed dear and lasting friends, who had no connection to Seed, Partners, or any other work related activity.
6. I have had a comfortable bed, a hot shower, a spacious bathroom, and air conditioning for quite some time now.
7. I have had the most amazing students ever (for proof, check out this past post).
8. I have enjoyed exploring Chiang Mai, whether through slow meals at the vegetarian restaurant at Wat Suan Dok or through walking around the Shan parts of town.
9. I have had the pleasure of walking/bicycling through the flower market everyday on the way to work.
10. I have been refreshed by the daily sight of the Doi Sutthep (a mountain).

Where are you all? Where are you headed? What are you grateful for right now? I'd love to hear from you.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Fruitfulness and Marriage

DISCLAIMER: For those of you who read my blog for the purpose of reading about things related to Thailand, Burma, and the Shan, this post isn't that. As I enter this new phase of life, I hope you will occasionally walk with me on some more marriage-related posts.

I basically don't like rules. Especially when people make them regarding expressions of faith. They bother my core and make me suspect insecurity more than a deep regard for their Creator.

But then again, I can't create a rule about rules either actually... I would, in fact, admit there do seem to be a few concretes in scripture that don't confuse me on cultural grounds that I do think make fairly good rules to live by: "Do not murder." is a fine example. Being faithful to one's spouse falls in that category, as well. A long with quite a few others. Some rules are okay with me.

Yet, mostly, I see exceptions everywhere, and I am bothered by blanket statements. I certainly see family planning as an impossibility for hard fast rules, which is why it surprised me so much when I was quite bothered yesterday by an article on Christianity Today's Her-Meneutics: The Fruitful Callings of the Childless by Choice. I read it, and I couldn't pinpoint what it was that bothered me, so I went to sleep.

So let's begin with admitting my own oddness: I am not very likely to take something at face value, just because someone told me so. I remember when in my senior seminar in college, my professor told all the graduating seniors that what he most wished for is that we had developed a fine-tuned "BS detector," and I thought to myself, mine might have gotten a bit hypersensitive. Basically, I am highly skeptical and approach assumptions through the back door.

Which is to say that when I first began to realize I would be getting married this year and thus needed to start thinking about birth control, I did not come in with many ready assumptions. Of course, I did the usual research about birth control methods. Pros and cons. Effectiveness. Side effects. The usual.

I could cite that stuff, but something inside me kept calling me deeper in my questioning. There was nothing wrong with birth control really. At all. But... I did not like the way it seemed to be discussed online, nor the way others were discussing it with me in person. Then, as well as last night, I could not put my finger on why right away, so I also slept on it. And slept some more on it. For weeks. And I listened to people and listened to when it was that I felt they had something beautiful to say about families and family planning and when it was they expressed something that elicited that same uncomfortable feeling inside me. 

Then I did something else quite unusual: I figured if the reason I could not express myself regarding birth control was because it was totally taken for granted in our society, I needed to go back only a hundred years in my reading to see what people were expressing when it was still new. So I began reading both defenses of and attacks against birth control dating from the 1880s through the 1920s. (Thankfully, Kindles are wonderful sources of free reading of the older sort.) I noticed something: many strong, courageous women felt that the availability of birth control was a necessity, BUT... they thought it highly unwise for a newly married couple to delay having their first child. In fact, everybody seemed to be in agreement on this one fact (I'm sure if you dig, you will find the exception, but I did not), during the era when birth control first entered our society. Those who delayed, they referred to as "voluntarily sterile," and they considered it a failure to realize the fullness of the marriage. To them, it was a terribly sad and selfish state of being.

I did not come to the same conclusion. Not entirely. But it helped me understand.

Finally, I began to verbalize to others and to my fiance (who was light years ahead of me in this area... he needed no convincing at all!) what I was feeling--that we live in a society that does not value children. We generally want "us" time, more than we want the natural blessings of married life. And we certainly do not want too many of them! They are a threat to our way of living, and birth control has become more closely related to the fear of the arrival of a child than with the excitement of planning for the arrival of a child. I do not want that. Whether we delay or not, our reasons should be more about the excitement than about the loss (and yes, every time we choose one thing, we do lose another, I realize... the honeymoon phase must change into something else eventually).

Sooo... back to the article yesterday... There was nothing I found technically wrong with it, and I appreciated the author's honesty. I would not want to apply a rule to her, which I would find unfair. But... I still question the basic presuppositions... that children might ever take us away from our purpose. Perhaps, God has not called this particular couple to have children, and that is fine, and perhaps a few who have likewise been called into a unique lifestyle will find encouragement in what she has written. Yet, I am concerned for the many, many others, who simply fear the losses. That's what bothered me: not the article itself, but that it may so easily build on the already existing cultural supposition that children are a burden upon our "deeper" purposes and desires. Are children not often the very inspiration for the additional gifts and purposes God gives us?

Admittedly, I now write as only an engaged woman, who has never yet gone through the transitions of either marriage or motherhood, but my critique is on an accepted societal view. When my chance to welcome a new child into the world comes, I want it to be exactly that: an exciting welcoming, not something I feel frustrated about because he/she showed up before I had properly planned for them. 

What do you all think?

Thursday, September 05, 2013

Talking about the Holocaust and reconciliation

Some days I am pretty sure I teach the most incredible students ever. Seriously.

Last week we had a conversation that I still have not gotten out of my head. You see, it started off by reading a story that just mentioned a "senator's wife." But these students are from Burma, and you can't explain even a simple political word without really talking about.

So we talked.

We worked through the different parts of government in the American system as a point of comparison, and then we talked about Burma. So far, I had not had any political conversation with my Shan students, and I was a little nervous about opening it up, but I also felt it was necessary. Because politics in Burma, to migrant workers in Thailand, means everything. It's what determines whether they ever return to the places where they were born.

Amazingly, as I began to ask about the constitution, my students demonstrated incredibly maturity and insight. I asked them what they thought would happen at the next election (when a majority of the seats are going to be contested), and they tackled the issues of whether Aung San Suu Kyi's NLD party might win and what that could mean for the country. They went on to discuss their fears and how sometimes they feel inside Shan State, Burma, as second class citizens.

If we had stopped there, I would have felt the lesson a great success. My goodness, they were incredible--seriously, incredible. They came from many different walks of life with so many different experiences, and yet they held a conversation with mild debate in a respectful and considerate manner.

But the story doesn't finish with talking about government.

One of the more thoughtful students had something he needed to tell the class: you see, on the way to class that day, he had seen a man stranded on the side of the road after a motorbike accident, and he stopped to help him, only to discover this man was Burmese. For my student, who has suffered deeply by the Burmese in the past, he had a decision to make. He wanted to turn away and leave this man to suffer alone, but this student really and truly is incredible. He did not turn away. He stepped in and helped him.  He looked at the class, fresh from the emotions and asked, "Did I do the right thing? I wasn't sure if it was right, because he was Burmese, and the Burmese have hurt our people so. But he was just a person."

The students stared back at him. They did not rush to tell him he had done the right thing, because I suspect all were wondering if they would have done the same thing. After a short silence, I told him that I thought what he had done was extremely brave and good, but I would tell them a story and see if my story helped them decide for themselves.

I told them about growing up, knowing of my Jewish heritage and therefore learning early on about the Holocaust and all those that died. Since my students did not know what the Holocaust was, I gave them a history lesson and showed photographs. As I paused, you could hear only the constant whir of the fans in the students' silence.

Then I confessed the fact that I came to know sometime later than I came to know my Jewish heritage: that's the Nazi war criminal past as well. That "other" cousin.

You see, I share in my blood the blood of many who died but also of one who did much to assure that more died. That's my heritage. Both.

I have since lived in Germany and come to speak German fluently, and my sister lives in Israel and has married an Israeli. We never walk away from the understanding of humanity's deep capacity for incredible good or evil, and, knowing that terrible evil has existed even within our family, we have no choice but to walk in forgiveness. That is why I went to Germany, and that is why I learned German. That is also why I chose to love what is German. Forgiveness is my heritage.

And it's precisely that understanding of my heritage which has translated into a passion for justice and reconciliation and sent me off to work with those who have suffered most by the Burmese regime's discriminatory and violent practices. I then turned to my student, who had helped the Burmese man, and asked him if he understood why I was telling the class this story.

"Yes," he responded and smiled. "I believe in helping him too."

The next day the class continued the conversation, adding that the only chance Shan State has for true freedom exists through forgiveness and valuing all people. I was floored. This is not normal Shan speech, and my students said it, not I. This may sound like ordinary Western meaningless fluff, but this kind of speech is completely foreign here and most definitely has meaning. We watched some videos about the Holocaust, and the students talked about both what was similar and different to what the Burmese have attempted against the Shan and the incredible risk of what the Shan could attempt against its minorities if ever given independence, if they do not first deal with their own hate, fear, and other issues. I. have. never. heard. anyone. actually. say. that.

I have hope today, because my students will one day be leaders, and these leaders will lead well.

As I said, I have incredible students. I am so incredibly privileged to be their English teacher.