Joy in the Simple Life
This summer vacation saw the third time I have taken the Wenzao International Service Learning Association (WISLA) group to Northern Thailand, for a month’s culture and education program.
This time the seven volunteers were not afraid of the A(H1N1) flu and just went for service and experience. They returned to the village where they had already served for the past two years. When we arrived at the school, it was different from the past because our names were called in the welcome ceremony. The students asked why such and such a teacher hadn’t come this time. The new volunteers had the pleasant feeling of being remembered. We also cried out with joy the names of the Principal, the Dean and the teachers. Even some of the Trustees were there. All the same, no matter how familiar we thought we were with the situation we still had to discuss with them what they wanted. After a whole morning’s discussion, it was clear that teachers’ training was what they needed. We understood each other and had an agreement with each other from the beginning about teaching pronunciation. Now they wanted some poetry and verse although they were very much aware of the deficiencies in their pronunciation and comprehension and felt their Yunnan accent was too strong. What surprised me about their request for books was that the teachers hope we can send them books about personal formation. Again and again they want us to teach them how to behave and be polite. Politeness in Thailand is a very important part of education. Respect for elders is essential, bowing, kneeling and so on. I don’t what we can give to them in this regard.
As in previous years, the volunteers have reflection and sharing which makes them grow. They have the habit of noting whatever they see and hear and reflecting on it. They examine to see what they can do better. Each day they are grateful for what that day brought them. In the sharing group, they appreciate what the others have reflected on and it develops their own experience. Of course, observing and listening ability need training and the level they achieve will be just about equal to how much effort they put in. With the sharing, they are open to each other’s appreciation and accept guidance and gratitude. My main work in coming to Northern Thailand is to help the volunteers in this work of reflection and appreciation. I believe that to leave the familiar surroundings and serve the poor is a situation where the students can learn and grow. The training and formation before they leave is even more important. They must learn not to use their own country’s standard in serving, teaching, dress, speech or lifestyle. They must respect those whom they meet; otherwise they will bring unnecessary trouble and harm. The volunteers feel, after a month without watching TV, using the Internet or their cell phone that the greatest change is in their mindset. They can better use these things and not be used by them.
In the morning, from 9:00 a.m. to 12 noon in the Chinese Yu Ying Junior School, the student volunteers help teachers by instructing them in Chinese, English, Mathematics and Computer. In the evenings, they go to the classrooms with the teachers from 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. We have also helped to establish the library and the computer room here. I had a different experience this third time. One aspect was the power of relationships and another was the joy in the simple life. Coming again to this village called Chang Liang I see the whole village still has only one made-up road. All along the way there are no advertising billboards or forced violence to the eyes from bright lights. If the village people want to do business then they just open a grocery store. The whole village, in principle, is agricultural for water supply is sufficient and there is plenty of land. The children are already accustomed to work in the fields to earn some money. For example, picking one kilo of peppers can earn five Thai dollars, equal to NT$4.8. If the whole family works hard it can earn about $200 in a day to pay the monthly school fee for elementary classes (about 160 Thai dollars).or buy a kilo of pork at $100 to eat for three days. One of the second year Chinese students has 6 brothers and sisters. He renounced the opportunity to study in a Thai elementary school using the daytime to work in the fields. Now he is 14 years old and already rents a piece of land. On the way, you often see him carrying his tools, telling with much satisfaction that what he farms is his own land. Another eleven year old 4th grade girl left her parents in Myanmar and ran away to Chang Liang. She knows she lives in dependence on others so works hard, rises at 4:00 a.m. to prepare breakfasts, washes clothes, prepares lunch for the whole family. She earns $5 spending money a day. She feels that the school education she receives is not serious and some of students do not much respect the teachers. I cannot forget the conversation I had with her.
Every morning at 6:00 a.m. I walked around the village; the paths are made of red stones, and I see what is planted. I can greet the village people. They always invited me inside their home to sit and talk. They are very simple: they tell how they have given up everything in Myanmar to come to Northern Thailand. During those times I learned precious stories about how much they have given up, how they built their house in a few days, how the husband died and left the widow and orphans. Although they have no rich life, they are together and help each other without any old folks’ homes or orphanages but everyone gets fed and cared for. I mentioned that in Taiwan there are lonely people who commit suicide because they could no longer pay for water and electricity or their credit card. They had lost their job and had no one to care for them and help them. They heard this and smiled because in Chang Liang village they don’t have to pay for water; electricity is cheap; there is no situation for losing a job. The difference between rich and poor is minimal. No one will say anything about your educational level, or point out that you are a laborer. There is no showing off of family glory. You leave the doors open with no fear of thieves. All the same, the people here hope to get an ID card and go to Taiwan to study or work. They know that they could go under the title of Thai laborers but they would be despised.
Our students go to Chang Liang to give service, it is true, but what they receive is of even greater benefit to them. They see the beauty and power of relationships to create peace and harmony. They see how simplicity and frugality in lifestyle brings joy and contentment. They see the power of sharing to achieve peace and justice in the village community. All is shared: fruit, vegetables, land. There is hardly any difference in the social scale. In the First World, the difference between rich and poor is immense and yet there is so much that could be shared: education, medical help, and spirituality as well as material wealth. In September of the year 2000, 191 member countries of the United Nations Organization passed a resolution to diminish the number of the poor and hungry worldwide. By 2015 they hoped to decrease the number of the poor by half and passed a resolution to that effect. It is likely that the goal can only be achieved by ever more effective sharing of resources now held by a few countries in the First World. We can only hope and pray that governments will understand the need to share and that more and more people, like our student volunteers, will see for themselves the inestimable power of sharing in order to bring pressure on government and public opinion to bring about change in our world.
July 2nd to 16th, 2009