Not So Typical Study Abroad Experience

Imagine this,

After a long day of class, you go back to your room to study for the next day. Sometimes you would go to a nearby café or mall with your friends, but only the ones in close proximity, as you don’t really know how to get around. Perhaps you don’t even bother trying out new food in restaurants or explore the city because you can’t read the signs and converse with the local people. You go to tourist sites recommended by tripadvisor and skip over the brightly lit alleyways full of street vendors and street performers. This is the typical life of study abroad students.

When our group first landed in Bangkok, it was already past midnight. One man waved his hands and greeted us at our arrival gate. With his two of his female students, Mr. Hartanto welcomed us to Thailand. They led us out of the airport and into the van as we loaded our luggage into their truck. At the time it was beginning to rain, but the hospitality I received in Thailand so far deeply warmed my heart.

The next day, Mr. Hartanto and his students welcomed us with the same hospitality (I actually covered Mr. Hartanto’s Community Learning Center in my previous blog, check it out). The girls had helped to arrange the seats for our discussion space and offered us herbal tea once we were seated. However, the girls were not merely “waiting” on us. They didn’t become a part of our discussion, but rather became participants in our discussion. Ultimately, we were not there for a mere cultural visit, but rather to hear their stories and resilience.

In Chiang Rai, Dr. Spires introduced us to one of his colleagues, Aor. She runs a school and tutoring program to help kids learn English on top of finishing their primary education. While our original plan was only to meet up with her to shop at the market and cook our own Thai dishes together, dinner with Aor turned out to be more of an immersive, dream-like day. Wasting no time, we directly went to search for fresh vegetables and meat at the market the first time we met. We held the grocery bags as she shopped for more food along the way. Then, she graciously accepted us into her house and tasked us to cut the ingredients. At this point, I kind of had a feeling of nostalgia. When I grew up in Indonesia, my mom would take me to the street market to accompany her in shopping for our meal. I remember begging her to let me help cook the food once we got home, trying to prove that I was old enough to prepare my own food. After the food was ready, we chit chatted amongst ourselves and got to learn more about Aor’s life story and how she recently was invited to do a TedTalk.

The evening didn’t stop there like we expected. Aor recommended for us to go to a beautiful temple complex on the hill of Chiang Rai. Since our schedule was not so strict, we accepted her offer and got to see the refreshing and beautiful scenery. Then, she invited us back to spend the rest of the evening at her house. Hanging out with energetic and inspirational people like Aor, her boyfriend, and her sister is an experience that I never knew I wanted in my trip abroad.

We also spent two days with an NGO called Freedom Story. Their mission is to prevent child trafficking through culturally relevant programs for vulnerable children in Northern Thailand. Thanks to our new friend Lucy, we were able to learn more about how the NGO operates and get to hang out with some of the kids in their programs. We sat at a café with the high school and college students as we bonded over a game of UNO and charades. I had to take the initiative with the younger kids. I jumped into the trampoline and the kids around me giggled at my silliness. With my broken Thai, I tried to introduce myself and learn their names.

When I had the opportunity to study abroad in China last fall, I was also able to go to many interesting places such as the Forbidden City, the Great Wall, and the Terracotta Warrior museum. I learned a lot about the history and culture of China as I walked through the sites and read about them. I categorized my interactions with the locals into two types. The first included interviews with professors and scholars, guided by the coordinator of my program. The other is an everyday conversation I would have with shop owners and locals in the areas I visited. This kind of interaction was self-incentivized and perhaps made possible by the fluency of my Mandarin. The same thing also happened when I studied in France; if I wasn’t studying, or being taken to tourist sites by the program coordinators, I would be resting in my room after a long day of activities.

However, the Encompass trip gives my peers and me an opportunity to have an abroad experience that is different from your typical study abroad stories. The whole trip is about research and cultural learning. For example, after visiting Wat Arun and the Royal Palace, we didn’t go back to our room and study for our class the next day. We reflected on what we saw and discuss how these places, a physical symbol and reminder of Thailand’s history and tradition, shape the modern society’s culture.

What made the trip even more meaningful, moreover, was the interactions we have with the people we met. From the girls in Mr. Hartanto’s Learning Center to Aor and her boyfriend in Chiang Rai, all these people are representation of Thai culture and society, but unlike the buildings that “tell a story”, these people actually tell their own stories.

The opportunities to meet people I have met during this trip is an eye opening experience that made me reevaluate the quality of our education system. Indeed, professors and universities had done a great job in creating a space for students to discuss and reflect on issues around the world. However, as open minded as the new generation claim themselves to be, many had never hear and see how people in different parts of the world live their lives. Studying abroad also gives students a push to learn in environments different from their own. On the other hand, students still have the choice to distant themselves from experiencing and seeing the lives of the locals firsthand. Then, how do you expect students to treat the people they read in textbooks as more than mere subject of studies and statistics?

I think that many of us already have a mutual understanding of the terrible things going on in the world. Consequently we are also striving to solve them. However, preserving the dignity and sense of humanity of victims and those in danger of human rights violations is something we should focus more when having our discussions. That is why I am grateful to be a part of this abroad experience. First am I able to communicate with the kids in Freedom Story and Learning Center and the people who work to preserve their humanity. In addition, I am also able to openly discuss with my professors and peers of how our understanding of the issues had changed throughout the trip. It’s easy to say that I am excited about reflecting on our trip in Richmond in the fall semester.