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By practiceyogadistrict

I just returned to Khon Kaen from my last homestay of the semester, and I thought this would be a good time to express the deepness of hospitality that I have experienced from Thai families over my short time here.

I have had homestays in a slum, in an organic farming village, in a Karen village, in a fishing village on an island, and then this final one in a village where the majority of the women are silk weavers. In each one I experienced the different quirks of the family, a goofy father, a blunt grandmother, two earnest younger sisters, and a prayerful mother. But this last one topped all the others in the immense generosity and love that radiated from the family that I stayed with.

We (my 14 peers and I) were gathered upon our arrival to the village at the meeting place where all of the Meh’s ‘ were coming to pick us up to take us home for our few day stay in the village. Then in walked a women with penciled in eyebrows and a vibrant purple shirt, her arms wide, “Sa-wa-dee-ka” she exclaimed in welcome. This was my Meh. Immediately hugging my friend Anne and I who would be staying with her. This was a surprise considering that Thai people rarely hug one another, let alone strangers.

Meh took us home and immediately allowed us to settle into the house. She spread before the two of us a massive dinner of at least six dishes. This was the first time in a homestay when the whole family ate with us. It is tradition in Thai families to allow children and elderly and guests eat first, then everyone else eats. It was sweet to get to enjoy food with everyone. Even though Pah consistently made comments on how I was avoiding the cold green fishy pureed seaweed soup. Later on Meh showed us to our bed. We were sleeping in the main room of the house in the only bed the family owned. Pah slept at a neighbor’s house and meh slept on a mat on the floor.

The following day we enjoyed a full day free. Meh gave us an extensive tour of the village. At every house we passed where someone was home, meh would prompt us to wai (bring your hands to a prayer position and bow slightly as a sign of respect) and say hello. She beamed, showing off her guests as we went.. Moving from house to house, we were given a tour of nearly every aspect of silk production. The silk worm larva, the large larva, the mulberry trees used to feed the larva, the larva creating the silk cocoon, the piles of bright yellow silk cocoons, the thread extraction process, the spinning process, the mudmee thread dying process, and finally the weaving process. With each villager we visited, each one allowed us to actively participate in the process, running the risk that our unskilled hands would ruin their work.

That night, our second and final night, the village threw a goodbye ceremony for us and then afterwards all of us had a potluck. However, meh had specially prepared Kai lug cuy for me, knowing it was my favorite dish, and gave me orders not to share it with anyone else.

The next morning had even more Kai lug cuy for breakfast, then meh walked us to where the vans would pick us up to drive us back to Khon Kaen. Again, she made us wai everyone we passed, and dressed us each in a silk scarf that she had woven herself, picked especially for us. This is immensely significant, because these scarves each cost around 20-30 US dollars, and are the equivalent of three weeks income if sold. Yet she adorned us with them and called us her own daughters; “Lug sowe con chan” she said. As we prepared to leave she gave us even more hugs, and as we got in the van and drove away she began crying. I was touched by how much love meh expressed for us after only two days. It made me wonder if houseguests in the US would receive the same warm familial hospitality.

So fresh and so local, the food from my agrarian homestay.
So fresh and so local, the food from my agrarian homestay.

“Arroi maak, ka!” “Chan im maak ka!” I must have said these two Thai phrases hundreds of time this past week.

I was living in a MooBan (village) in Yosothon Province, about three hours northeast of where I am in Khon Kaen, learning about the agrarian life in Thailand. We lived with farming families, and had what CIEE calls ‘exchanges’ each day. Exchanges are essentially meetings where different groups will share their experiences and knowledge, and we will share a bit of our own. We met with groups like organic farmers, farmers who sell at a green market, chemical farmers, and contract farmers. We also visited a rice mill and a sugar plantation. However all these exchanges were far from the highlight of my time away from Khon Kaen. My highlight, you ask? It was the experiences that prompted me to exclaim “Arroi maak” and “Chan im maak.” (Very delicious, and I’m VERY full.)

The food. My Meh in this family was an organic farmer. When rice is in season she grows organic rice, and in the off-season (which is right now) she grows a wide variety cover crops that nourish the soil for the next rice season. The crops included an assortment of vegetables, watermelon, and corn. There were also a number of chickens that roamed the back yard and offered us fresh eggs each day. Everything that was placed before us to eat was fresh, organic, and grown by my Meh herself or by one of our neighbors.

There was an abundance of stir fried vegetables, fish, som tham (green papaya salad), and sticky rice (SO MUCH sticky rice!).

My two favorite dishes were a local Isaan variety of black sticky rice (cow neow see dam), soaked in coconut milk and topped with sweet egg and fresh coconut meat that came from the coconuts plucked from the trees in our yard. I had to slurp down the coconut water first before I could eat the meat of the fruit with our sticky rice. My second favorite was a dish of caramelized onions and whole cloves of garlic paired with boiled eggs that had then been fried so the outside was a little crispy. I dipped my sticky rice (plain white this time) in the sauce, scooping out caramelized onions and garlic, to eat with my bite of boiled/fried egg. A perfect blend of savory and sweet. My mouth waters as I write and reminisce. Arroi MAAK, ka.

Eating from such an intensely local food system was an incredible experience. The food was probably the best I will have in Thailand.

By LizGoodwin04

As part of my study abroad program, we stay with 6 different host families in various rural villages for a week each over the course of the semester. This past week, we stayed with a host family here in Khon Kaen, just 15 minutes away from where we are taking classes. While we spent the evenings and mornings with our families, we spent the day at classes here on campus. Though it wasn’t a complete immersion, this homestay was like a test-run to get us acclimated to staying with a family and improving our Thai.

I was paired with another American student in my program to stay with our host family, who lived in a neighborhood called the “4 Region Slum,” for four days. My family was huge and we spent most of the time trying to figure out just exactly how everyone was related. The other part of our time was spent desperately trying to understand what was going on. I thought I could understand basic Thai phrases until I realized I couldn’t even understand when our Meh (host mom) asked us “Chao mai?” (Early, no?). I just stared and went to my go to answer “Ka!” (Yes!); hoping of course it was an appropriate answer to respond yes to. In another embarrassing instance our Meh spent 10 minutes telling us to “Nang!” or in other words, sit down. Whereas, we spent those 10 minutes walking around the room asking “Nang?” while pointing at the garbage then “Nang?” while pointing at the food and finally after walking outside and noticing the bench “Oh, nang!”

On the last day of our homestay, the program arranged for an exchange with the students and our host families. There was a translator at the exchange so we could tell the families everything we had wanted to say, but didn’t know how and also so we could ask them questions about their community. During the exchange we were able to learn more in depth about how the community was founded, as well as how the community will progress into the future. Right now, a railroad track runs along side the community and during the exchange we learned that there are plans to expand these tracks 20 meters on either side to build a high-speed railway. By expanding the railway, every family in this community would be displaced and would lose everything they ever worked so hard to achieve. During our stay our family was so generous and kind. They had patience with us when we couldn’t understand anything they were saying, they took us to the market with them at 4 am and had a monk bless us, and then even invited us back to stay with them later in the semester. Although it was heartbreaking to learn that this development project could displace them in only a few months, it was inspiring to learn that they are currently in the process of organizing to send a representative to the Department of Transportation in Bangkok to fight and stop the expansion of the railroad.

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My neighborhood of three days.

Homestay number one of six is complete. I feel incredibly fortunate to have had the opportunity to stay in a slum here in Khon Kaen for three nights. It was truly a once in a lifetime experience.

We rode song taows to the communities that we were staying in. As I prepared to go I tried not to think too hard about the fact that I was about to live in a slum with a family that I had never met that spoke a language that I hardly speak. If I did, and I’m honest, my stomach would drop a little bit. When I arrived, my nong sow (younger sister) named Som (which means orange in Thai), picked me up from the community center and used the few English phrases she knew to engage me in conversation, asking my name and age. She led me across a busy downtown Thai street to my home for the next three nights, right next to the train tracks. My Meh (which means mom in Thai) waited for me towards the front of the house which doubled as a store front, selling small snacks and drinks to the community. When I walked in, Meh immediately asked if I was hungry, practically before I set my bag down. She was making Som Tham, or green papaya salad. I sat on a mat on the floor with Som and was introduced to the many people coming in and out of the house to meet the farrang (me, the westerner). I started to get the impression that everyone was related, because each person who walked in was introduced to me with familial pronouns. ‘This is Yaye’ (grandmother) my Meh said about an older wrinkled woman who walked into the living space. She actually was related to the family next door, but would walk me around holding my hand all the same. Dinner was served to me on the floor, and we ate family style. My younger brother (nong chai) named Captain (a nickname), Som, Meh, and I ate, while Pa looked on. It seemed to be tradition that we would always eat before Pa. After dinner I watched a few minutes of Thai soap opera, and didn’t understand a second of it, while also making friendship bracelets with Som.

In Thai culture it is customary to shower often, however, our home didn’t really have a bathroom. We had a spigot in a very wet area of the house where dishes and laundry were done, and showers were had. I termed it the wet room, or the wet hallway because that is effectively what it was. There were no doors, so when my family asked me if I wanted to ‘ab nam’ (take a shower) before bed, I didn’t know what to do. I ended up wrapping myself in a sarong and splashing cold water on my feet. They gave me weird looks when I came out of the wet room with dry hair. Sheepishly I went to bed underneath my pink, quite hole-y mosquito net.

I woke up the next morning with four bug bites on my forehead, one on my cheek, and one on my right eyelid- which resulted in an eye that was swollen shut for the whole day. My Meh turned on the light in the room that I shared with my siblings, and pushed her face up against my mosquito net asking ‘Mah-gieeeee! You eat Breakfast?!’ I did, and she made these marvelous home made Thai doughnuts. Paw crouched in front of me with curiosity on his face as I read and journaled in the family’s living space.

kierstead 1
Meh weaving baskets out of recycled plastic

After classes that day, I returned for the second night with much less anxiety. I knew what to expect as I returned that evening to the community. My sisters both worked until late at night, and Paw was feeling sick, so he was asleep in the back room. It ended up being just meh, Captain, and I the whole evening. Because conversation was not an option, I resorted to pulling out my Thai textbook and asking my Meh ‘Pud yang nye’ which means ‘how do you say…?’ We spent about an hour like that, with her half watching the Thai soap opera and half responding to my question of ‘pud yang nye.’

The final night was full of tender moments. Though I had stayed with this family for only three nights, they had shared everything they had with me. It was really sweet to see how relationships were built around generosity, community and sincere thankfulness rather than language and other commonalities.

In the morning before I said goodbye for the final time, Meh chirped “Maggieee, forget me not?” and I certainly won’t. Both the family and the place will be remembered long after I leave Thailand because of their big, big hearts.

By clairemac93

It’s one of those things you see on CNN, or in movies, or you read about. The trash- laying on street corners or buried under dirt after long months of no attention. The animals- feral dogs with mange and bad tempers, no collars or owners in sight. The homes- tin roofed, brightly colored, but ultimately threadbare.

I’m speaking of the townships.

South Africa is probably one of three countries I would associate with the word “township”- the other two being Brazil and India. However, countries everywhere from Pakistan (largest township in the world) to Jamaica and Bangladesh consider townships inevitable parts of society. Not surprisingly, the countries containing townships- most of them considered middle income countries, also have very high Gini coefficients [Gini Coefficient=mathematical measurement of inequality in society], with South Africa in fact having the highest measure of inequality in the world.

On the one hand, movies like Slumdog Millionaire and events such as the World Cup have made the general public more aware of the existence of townships/shantytowns/favelas and have put a face to those who live there. On the other hand, flying into Cape Town in January I was still mentally unprepared to see these townships stretch for miles, with planes landing only yards from shacks outside the airport gates. On my initial ride through the city, where major monuments and parts of the city were pointed out to me, it was not lost on me that not a word was spoken about the miles of townships we were passing. Perhaps our tour guide thought they spoke for themselves.

Townships are a lot more nuanced than a quick overlook might make them out to be. Densely populated and located in many different areas of cities or the country, townships hold far from homogenous groups of people. Everything from income level, to language, to religion, to employment status is different from area to area and home to home. Walking down the street you may find a shack that is hardly standing, with a cardboard roof and no running water, next to a house which rivals many comfortable single-story homes in the United States.

I stayed in a home in Gugulethu, a township about 15km outside of Cape Town. The township’s name means “our pride”, a very robust name considering its founding was due to Apartheid’s removal of blacks from Cape Town- thereby moving them to areas like Gugulethu. My host family consisted of my host father, Zukile, the right-hand man to the priest at the local church and his wife, Loretta, who works at the Department of Home Affairs. Because of the fact that both of them are employed, something perhaps not associated with those living in the Townships, their house is nicely furnished, with two bedrooms, and all the amenities of a normal South African home.

Besides the fact we were in a township, my time staying with their family gave me a very different cultural experience than what I would get in a place like Stellenbosch. The family was black and Xhosa-speaking, very spiritual, and focused on their extended and spiritual family. We went to church together on Sunday morning, and I got the chance to try what I would consider real South African home-cooked food. Never in my life have I eaten so much meat. My host family was full of warm hugs and curious questions, and I found myself envisioning what my year would be like if they were my full-time host family here in South Africa. Despite this, it was impossible to ignore some of the realities of living in the area. True to what I’d read, trash collection was not as efficient as other places and many families share latrines outside the home, which many times go uncared for and overflow. Alcoholism is a large issue, true in any disadvantaged community, as is HIV.

Going to church was my favourite part of the weekend. Acting as the social and cultural center of the township, the church itself can fit hundreds of believers and reverberates the sounds of worshipers singing for hours on end. From old ladies to little toddlers who can already pop-and-lock, there is rarely a moment when the room isn’t full of song and dance. The old ladies particularly liked to dance a move I called the “chugga chugga choo choo” which involved swinging their arms in a circular motion next to their hips. Though the service was conducted in isiXhosa and I myself am not believing, I couldn’t help but be spellbound by the joy emanating from those around me, and to see and feel how thankful they were for all that they did have in a world where many people can only think about what they don’t. The church itself has gotten a lot of praise as well as criticism for its acceptance of HIV/AIDS positive members and its promotion of inclusion of HIV positive residents. The HIV/AIDS awareness ribbon hangs proudly on the front podium of the church. After church, most of the youth head to a place called Mzoli’s- a place I would recommend any visitor to Cape Town go, especially on a Sunday. With large platters of meat and no shortage of music, Mzoli’s acts as a nice mix of locals and foreigners gathering in one big outdoor day-party in the middle of the township.

Returning home to Stellenbosch, I found myself much more motivated by my time spent in the township to push myself to find new and unique experiences like what I’d just encountered. However, I was also quickly reminded of the divide when I raved to an Afrikaaner classmate of my homestay over the weekend, and she quickly wrote me off by saying that she grew up here and would never take a step into the township. Another student chimed in in agreement. She, and others here, are missing out on a lot of warmth, culture, and critical discussion. It’s a shame that many of my fellow students here have not so much as taken the train into Cape Town, let alone gone into a township. This being said, I can see myself or my fellow students in the United States saying similar things about certain parts of Philadelphia, DC, or Detroit- where poverty and crime are high and most of us would avoid so much as driving into. I hope to come to terms with the similarities between the racial and economic biases in all the countries I’ve lived in someday, and hopefully be able to explain them more eloquently.

By heatherlgilbert

The most valuable part of my experience in Korea is my wonderful home stay family. They have taught me so much and have given me an insider look at the everyday life of a typical korean family. Last weekend again, I was able to experience the local life by volunteering with my homestay mother at their church.

The third week of every month, the church holds a community service event for the elderly in the area to gather and eat together. The church provides all the food and the venue. Volunteers are responsible for preparing and serving the food and clean up.

Working side by side with other volunteers and talking to the elderly allowed me to understand new dimensions and problems facing Korean society. With the continual modernization and growth of Seoul, the government has supported the construction of many apartment complexes. While this supplies a greater number of living areas, it also displaces many of the elderly who lived in old houses.

Listening to locals and understanding their needs gives me a greater appreciation for my circumstances.

By juliaraewagner

Our latest project has been to create a case study about the rural to urban migration patterns occurring here in Senegal, so this past weekend, we hopped on a bus to a small village within Toubacouta, located next to the Gambian River delta just north of The Gambia. It took 7 hours, 4 pit stops, about a hundred potholes, and one flat tire, but we finally made it to a welcoming group of drumming villagers who were very excited to host students for the weekend.

I was introduced to my home-stay mom, Awa, in the dark because we arrived well into the night and the village had no electricity. We were lucky to have a full moon as I helped her cook dinner under the night sky. After initial introductions, I ran out of Wolof phrases, so we mostly smiled and sat in silence as she directed her niece and daughter around kitchen. I shredded lettuce as Awa and the girls grilled some onions in a pot over the fire. They found it funny that I was so infatuated with the baby goats that were hopping about the outdoor kitchen space. After dinner, we sat under the stars and listened to the radio. Then my host mom ushered me to bed, where I fell asleep next to my new host sister, Oli. 

I woke up the next morning to a small stampede of farm animals being herded through the bedroom into the front yard. I had to laugh as I mused about how absurdly different this way of life was than my own. The differences were stark as everything from manner of dress, to gender roles, to simple body language was jumbled across cultural lines. My friends and I definitely had some interesting efforts when trying to explain basic needs, like going to the bathroom. For example, the villagers have separate toilets for #1 and #2. I was happy to walk around with my host sister because she usually deflected any random questions people asked me in Wolof. When she wasn't around, I would just revert to dancing as a means to connect with people with whom I didn't share a common language.

By Dominique Bonessi

Touchdown! 5:15am. So tired—travelled all night from Spain on Turkish Airlines into Jordan.  Upon arrival I was greeted by the bright lighting in Jordanian airport and a long line at passport control, but after a exchanging some money and  few yawns I was off in a taxi with another student from my program for my host’s home.

Sam, my companion in the taxi, has already been to Jordan doing an internship over the summer and had a better grasp on the Jordanian dialect.  Between the two of us we managed to get Sam to his host neighborhood and I was able to direct the driver to my home.  The best part about getting to my home was that my roommate provided perfect directions.  Rebecca has already been in Jordan for a semester and she is well-accustomed to the culture by now.  It is great having someone to show me the ropes and get me acquainted with my surroundings.

The taxi drove up to the green gates—exactly as Rebecca’s directions said—I got out gave him 15 dinar for my trip and 15 dinar from Sam, and rang the buzzer.  I wasn’t sure upon arrival if this was a house or an apartment complex, but the housekeeper, Ruma, came out to greet me and show me to my room.  Finally meeting Rebecca, I settled into our apartment that is the loft beneath the main house.  I can’t believe my eyes the room has a sitting area, wide screen TV, one queen-size and one twin bed, a full kitchen, washer/dryer, and small full-bathroom.  After a seven hour nap, Ruma, came knocking to see if I was hungry.

We made our way up through the garden to the main house.  The house has a warm glow of colors and at the center of the house a beautiful courtyard with grass, a fountain, and beautiful shrubs all around. I meet my host Lamia in the kitchen talking with her sister, in Austria, over Skype.  She quickly greets me with two kisses on each check and asks if I am hungry.  She has prepared for me stuffed zucchini and eggplant with bread.  I didn’t realize exactly how hungry I was, but the homemade food was absolutely delicious.

The host family I am staying with feels like an Arab version of Steel Magnolias. Lamia, the cook and the head of the house hold.  Then Ruma, the young help and kind soul, Saya, Lamia’s daughter and looks like an Arab version of Beyounce, and two of Lamia’s friends all meet in the kitchen.  They drink strong Turkish coffee, smoke cigarettes, talk about their weight, and exchange habibi [love] every other word.  And there is Lamia’s husband, who I have not met yet, but it seems like these women are independent and make up a family.

I can’t believe I’m finally here. It is going to be a great four months.