Saturday, August 2, 2014

Info for future interns

Before heading to MSP,T (and probably other villages in the area), there are a few things you’d better know. It will make your life easier and less awkward!

* Never ever wear shorts.
* Never ever leave your shoulders uncovered.
* The most comfortable outfit are wide cotton trousers and shirts with long sleeves.
* Schools have a specific uniform for every day of the week.
* If you have any traditional Karen clothes, wear them on Fridays and on Sundays.
* Always wear comfortable slippers you can easily put on and take off.

* The villagers speak Karen. Most can also speak Thai, but not all of them.
* Karen have no similarities to Thai, it also has a different alphabet.
* A couple of people can speak some English, but don’t expect much.
* The language of instruction at school is Thai.

* Required vaccinations: Hepatitis A&B, Encephalitis, Meningitis (especially if you’re going to work with children), Typhus. Check if you’re still covered from the ones you have probably already taken, such as Tetanus, Poliomyelitis, Diphtheria and Measles.
* Malaria & Dengue: we were told there are a few cases in the area. Always wear long trousers and long-sleeved shirts, spray mosquito repellent on the uncovered areas, sleep with a mosquito net and a fan on, and don’t leave any food around. Malaria pills shouldn’t be necessary; if you get any symptoms, simply go the hospital: they will know how to treat you.
* Rabies: there are many stray dogs and cats walking around. In case you get bitten or even scratched by a mammal (cats, dogs, bats, monkeys…), all you have to do is go to the hospital as soon as possible (max within 48 hours) and start the anti-rabies vaccine. It’s 5 shots to be taken within a month.
* In Khun Yuam (20 minutes ride from MSP,T), there is a hospital, but you will rarely find English speakers. The service is OK and fast.
* As it’s quite hot, magnesium and potassium integrators might help.
* If you easily get carsick, you’d better have some pills with you. All around here, roads are full of turns.

* There are 3 seasons in Thailand:
- Rainy season, going from June to September. It rains a lot, sometimes really violently, and when the sun comes out it’s humid and hot. Everything’s green. It’s dengue and malaria season, and there are many mosquitoes. October is not so rainy anymore, and it’s said to be the best month. Nights are always relatively chilly because of the altitude.
- Cold season, from November to January. It’s cold and humid, especially in the mountains. Houses don’t have glasses on the windows and are often open by the roof, so even indoors it can be quite cold. Be prepared.
- Burning season, from March to May. During these months, many people burn the brush, in order to get more mushrooms during the rainy season. From what we heard, it can be quite annoying. These are the hottest months of the year.

* The closest town is Khun Yuam (17 kilometers from MSP,T). There you can find:
- A 7/eleven, which despite the name is open 24/7
- A hospital
- A Police Station
- A couple of guesthouses (we are staying in one)
- Restaurants (only Thai food, though)
- A bus station
* Mae Hong Son is a bigger town to which you can get by bus in one and a half hour for a really cheap price. It’s a touristic place full of foreigners and expats, and it’s quite lovely. You can even get Western food, and there is a small airport with flights to Chiang Mai.
* From Chiang Mai, to arrive to MSP,T, you have to:
- Go by bus / plane to Mae Hong Son
- Take another bus to Khun Yuam
- Ask for a ride / go by motorbike to MSP,T. There are no buses going to the village.
* If you want to go to Bangkok / if you’re coming from Bangkok, every day there is a direct night-bus from /to Khun Yuam. It costs around 800baht, but you’d better book it in advance. It takes 13 hours, but the service is quite good.

* Respect is firstly shown through your clothes. Cover shoulders and knees, don’t overdo it with make-up. It’s going to melt anyway!
* When you thank or say hi, clasp your hands and make your voice sound whiny.
* When you’re walking by somebody engaged in a conversation or watching TV, bent down and walk as fast as possible not to bother.
* Don’t be loud.
* Control your feelings: don’t laugh too loud, don’t cry in public.
* Show respect to everybody, especially your elders.

* Foreigners are called “farang”. In the areas where there aren’t many, they will point to you and shout it loud. “Faraaaang”. It doesn’t really matter where you’re from, if you’re not Asian-looking… Farangs are all friends, “same same”, and outside Asia it’s just a big country. It can be really annoying, but it’s how foreigners are seen here.
* I’m 1,68 meter tall and I feel like a giant. I’m probably the tallest person in the district. It’s fun sometimes, really uncomfortable some other times.
* I’m dreaming of cheese and bread. Dairy and wheat products are not really loved here…

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Language: An Observation

As far as the MSP,T village is concerned, the students going to school are Karen. This means that their mother tongue is Karen, that they speak Karen at home and with their peers. However, the language of instruction at school is Thai, which is very hard for students to learn, much more for those who only study during school time. At the same time, learning how to read and write Karen is left to the church, that teaches students the language through songs to be sung in church on Sunday, or to parents who have knowledge, patience and time enough. With the advance of ASEAN, good language skills in Thai and English are necessary. Yet, one’s mother tongue is part of one’s culture, part of one’s self. Unfortunately, the teachers working at the school teach only Thai language and other subjects in Thai. That is understandable, since Thai is already difficult to study for children, time has to be wisely allocated to subjects and the teachers speak fluent Thai, even if their cultural background may comprise two ethnic groups. Especially with young students, Karen has to be used for children to better understand Thai, and the teachers are aware of that. At the same time, concerning reading and writing Karen, parents as teachers of their children are not reliable, as they are too tired after their work and chores around the house, or might not educated enough to do so. The language may not be dying, since generation after generation learns to speak it, but language skills other than speaking are not cultivated.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Dancing in the Background

After 5 weeks spent at the village, we are officially halfway through our internship. Unfortunately, in such a short amount of time, I cannot say I got to understand much about the social dynamics that are going on, and I do not think that a whole year or even a whole life would be enough to see the whole picture; I am and always will be an outsider. However, coming from a distant and different culture, and having lived in a few countries before in my life, I got to realize how some behavioral patterns seem to repeat themselves, and how some others differ greatly, at least on the surface.

I was raised in a quite male chauvinist country and family, where the so-called “equality of gender” is far from being achieved. Despite my beliefs, my fights, and my anger, deep inside of me I still find it acceptable to see a woman doing the dishes, while her husband or partner comfortably sits on the couch. There is always a voice inside me telling me not to let my male friends help me clean, but instead accept female help. I still raise my eyebrows in surprise when the woman in a family is the breadwinner, and the man takes care of the kids. In Italian, there is even a male version of the word mamma (“mammo”) to refer to this kind of dads, as if they had to give up the more respectful status of “fathers” and be downgraded to “mothers” instead. On the other hand, women who decide to climb the social ladder are seen as monsters denying their main function as children producers and caretakers. Single men spreading their seed around are heroes; women having sex with occasional partners are whores. And again, there is no word in Italian for a male prostitute: either we borrow from the French the politically correct and elegant word “gigolo”, or we just distort the word “prostituta” to make it masculine. Being unmarried, I expect people to call me “signorina”, not “signora”, whereas my married and unmarried male counterparts do not need to let the world know about their marital commitment. Some professions are meant to be for males, some other for females; if it is not the case he must be a gay, and she must be a lesbian, or extremely ugly. Men have the right to be ugly and fat, and still hope to be somebody. Women must be beautiful and steadily in shape; if not, ho, they are doomed to have such a sad destiny, Mother Nature was not nice enough to them.

These are just some of the few (sad) examples I can adduce about the country whose citizen I am. There is a whole world of more or less small things that I, as an Italian, cannot even notice. Being raised in such an environment, I filter the world through the specific lens that this same environment gave me. I can fight and go against it, modelling my behavior according to my beliefs, but somewhere deep inside of me there is still a voice telling me that, overall, it is natural that women should take care of the kids and men do the ‘real’ job.

On the other hand, what I saw during my stay in Finland positively impressed me at first, and deeply disappointed me after a while. Women seem to be strong and independent, not submissive and passive sleeping beauties waiting for their Prince Charming to wake them up from their meaningless, virginal lethargy. They seem to take the lead, they seem to be the ones who know how to play the game and set the rules. Women are often in a position of power, and having a female boss is apparently not so humiliating, and gender equality is claimed to be a fact. There is even an “Equality Day”, a national holiday, during which the nation is reminded the importance of balance between genders, which is reflected in the language in the absence of a distinguishing ‘he’ and ‘she’.

However, I noticed how all this can become a source of problems for women. It happened to me more than once to see girls asking for help, and men standing motionless beside them. “You wanted equality? Here we serve it”. As if gender equality meant leaving women to face alone any kind of problems simply because of their being female. Furthermore, the rate in domestic violence in Finland is quite high. Behind closed doors, many women are beaten and abused by their drunk husbands, and this is not something that should be discussed in public. However, the worst is that everything that women have achieved might just end up to the trash, as some (and especially one) political parties are advocating the return of more “traditional” values, namely that stereotypical family in which the husband takes care of the wife, the wife takes care of the children and the house, and children obey their father; “as it should be”. Also at political level, the situation seems not to be going any better, as all progress that has been made is being set aside in favor of “compromise”. Having a woman as a prominent political figure right now might be a little bit too extreme for the nation; it is a time of crisis and instability. A man will surely be better accepted more readily! It really looks as if even Finland is going backwards.

Now, coming back to Thailand. I am writing my thesis about sex tourism in Thailand, and I am using blogs of sex tourists and websites of NGOs fighting against sexual exploitation as resource material. I had never been to Thailand before, and I did not know much about gender issues in the country before starting my research. On the one hand, the image I got from the aberrant and absurd blogs held by sex tourists is that of a country where almost the totality of women (or “girls”, in their words) is devoted to prostitution, as it represents the most profitable and effortless source of income. They claim that girls are cheap and easy, that for them sex is not such a big issue but is only fun, that tons of girls will be begging Western men to go to bed with them… leaving the lucky guy just spoiled for choice. Being sweet and hungry at the same time, most if not all Thai girls will satisfy even your dirtiest perversions. And the girls will be happy with it, getting two birds with a stone: money and pleasure. Those stating that the girls might be victims of human trafficking, that they might have been forced into prostitution, that they might not be that happy of doing what they are doing, are just liars not wanting real men to reach perfect sexual satisfaction.

On the other hand, the image of Thailand I got from most NGOs’ websites is that of a country where women are constantly being trafficked and exploited, and in need of external help in order to get the right to choose of their own destinies. Local demand in prostitutes being quite high, and the sex tourists coming to Thailand becoming more and more, women are being sold and trafficked either from poorer, disadvantaged areas of Thailand, or from the neighboring countries. Women in these websites are usually represented as passive, sad human beings, being either enslaved or set free, exploited or empowered. In most cases approving the actions carried out by NGOs, I sometimes feel intimidated by the powerful and paternalistic image they give of themselves, and the laid-back, docile image they give of the women. NGOs give them income, the right to choose, power, skills, happiness, peace, networks, protection… And women, apparently, just take.

I didn’t know what to expect here. All the information I got from other sources, be it books, professors, acquaintances, or friends, built a quite controversial picture of the country. And since I got here, I understood that yes, this country is anything but homogeneous, even within extremely small areas. I see many different kinds of women and, most importantly, many different representations of women.

I see women on TV programs and music videos. They are beautiful and pale, and try their best to look like Western women. They do not wear many clothes to cover their thin bodies, and have annoying, high-pitch voices when fighting or asking for something. They shake their hips in order to be observed and courted by their male counterparts, and they always wait for men to take the first step. Being shy and compliant at first, they will sooner or later give up to their more or less handsome admirer. The few ugly ones are usually made fun of, as they prevent their partners from enjoying their time with some prettier younger girls.

I see women in the TV-news. They are elegant and serious, they usually have their whole upper part covered and speak in a relatively low pitch. They are calm and professional, their feminine figure is well hidden and forgotten, and sometimes they might even have the right of being chubby and not fit the TV beauty stereotype. I see them as genderless creatures, put there to create a sort of balance with their male counterparts.

I see women in commercials. They are pretty, thin, young, pale, and quite naked. They care about their beauty, and buy tons of products to bleach their skin, make it shiny, remove blackheads, lose weight, be pretty, and stay forever young. They are the ones cleaning the house, and commercials of any kinds of cleaning products are meant to be for them. When it comes to advertising “unisex” (!) products or products destined to male consumers, women are usually just present. They might be the ones to seduce, or they might be simply dancing in the background. An ugly, fat guy is made cool by that new thing he just bought, and women now surround him shaking hips and gratifying his ego. Alone in his harem, a man can finally find meaning.

I see women as teachers, for instance my colleagues. They are strong and independent, some of them live far from their husbands or do not have one, and have to take care of their kids on their own, having a full time job at the same time. They are bossy and caring, strong and weak, firm and shy. They do want to fit the Thai beauty stereotype, buying whitening products and lotions, and doing their best to keep their weight under control. They are alerted by the fact that at 24 we are still single, as in their mind at this ripe old age we should already have children. They are genuine, lively, hard workers. They dream big, but are strongly bound to the place where they live and work. They are not dancing in the background; they are standing with their chin up in the front.

I see my female students. They are 9-11 years old, and have a far lower exposure to media than kids in bigger towns and cities or in other countries do. Most of them still have a TV, and get some sort of influence from cartoons and programs coming from abroad, and whatever is produced in Thai big cities. However, they do not have Internet, and the time they spend in front of a TV set is not so significant; they still prefer playing with their friends in the open air. I cannot tell for sure to which extent the American crap with anorectic teenagers covered with makeup or the Thai bleached sexy girls are influencing them. What I see is how gender does play a role, even in the small society of a class. Girls and boys sit in different rows, and for a boy being forced to sit beside a girl is considered as punishment, or as humiliation. On the other hand, girls try not to deal with boys at all, as otherwise they will most likely be bullied. There are strong, imposing girls who rebel against any act of bullying, but who still do it with some kind of fear, and only if they are sure to have backup. The uniforms vary according to the gender, and for girls it means having to wear a skirt. Even haircuts are quite standard, and all girls look the same in their short-length style. At church, people wear Karen traditional clothes. Whereas man has the freedom of choice when it comes to colors, unmarried women have to wear white and married have to wear black. This means that the Sunday clothes that my female students wear are of a virginal white… But they won’t stay like that for long, because from what the teachers told us, early marriage is practiced here as a normal development of a girl’s life, and often the partner is chosen by the family. The 12-year-old kids I now hear playing in the yard will most likely be married in a couple of years and will be expected to have children as soon as possible… maybe from the same boys they are being bullied by right now. They will not have the chance to get a decent education, as most of them won’t go to high school, and they will never have the chance to be teenagers, as they will have to be women really soon.

Finally, I see women at the village. Honestly, their beauty is what struck me the most. To tell the truth, to my European eyes, Asians all look pretty much the same, but at the village everyone looks so different, so special. I could spend hours staring at some old lady weaving, and each of her wrinkles simply looks perfect. I don’t know why, what I can assume is that they did not have either the motives nor the means to fit any stereotypes, they never tried to look younger or prettier by changing what they are. When we had to take pictures of them, they got ready by putting on their traditional clothes and a necklace, not makeup and chemicals. This might sound like a rhetorical elegy of authenticity, but I think here I was really able to discover a new form of genuine, pure beauty.

However, behind this beauty there is sadness. We heard from a villager that the prettier a woman is, the harder it is for her to leave her house and meet other people, as the husband might be jealous. If it is justified that a man checks out other women (and whatever consequences this might have), a woman cannot even think about other men. Even here, men are said to have stronger sexual needs, and are more responsive to the immediate satisfaction of carnal impulses; women, on the other hand, apparently have weaker sexual needs, and can control them better… Also, many men here are seasonal workers, or they just work out of the village, coming back only at weekends. Women do not do the same, of course, as they have to take care of the kids and the household. In addition to that, they have to work in the fields or in the farm, cook, and possibly generate some additional source of income, weaving or managing some small business.

From what I read, human trafficking does happen in the area where the disadvantaged hill-tribes live. Remote villages far from cities and far from laws are the perfect place to abduct young girls to be sexually exploited, both for the local and foreign markets. Here I can draw the connection between what I see and what I read, here I can see the horror of this beauty being torn apart, caused by poverty, ignorance, and enduring gender issues. The unique, lively Karen beings playing in the yard might be seen as standardized objects of pleasure, simply belonging to the big group of “Thai girls”. It is most likely not the case of MSP,T, but this is still going on, and not far from here.

From what I experienced, women anywhere still have a lot to fight for, and a lot to fight against. Against beauty stereotypes, against gender stereotypes, against poverty, against meaningless and unchecked violence, against lack of education, and against the educated males setting the rules because they are in a position of power. Once we achieve something, we will not have to “pay for the consequences”, because there is nothing we have to pay for. Yet, first of all, we have to fight against ourselves, we have to kill that internal voice that encourages or finds excuses for uncritical acceptance of what is being steadily perpetrated, that part of us that sees as natural what should not occur.

Women are still dancing in the background, giving meaning to the bad-looking guy acting cool in the front. They are still cooking in the kitchen waiting for their husband to come back home, or fighting against the sarcasm caused by their apparent emancipation, or being simply labelled as “cheap Thai girls”. But if women stop dancing, the guy will appear in the magnitude of his absurdity and meaningless awkwardness.

Step by step, let’s allow space for women to move to the foreground.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Product Design and Development Workshop

On 5-6 July, the Product Design and Development Workshop took place in the village hall of MSP,T. The aim of the training was for the women to learn how to reproduce new Karen designs for WEAVE, which were made in the refugee camp, whereas color-matching ideas were given by Joanne Cotton and WEAVE. Around fifteen weavers participated, both from MSP,T and MSP,N, and Joanne informed the women on quality control and its importance.

The preparation of the venue was carried out by WEAVE staff: P’Nune, P’Saeng, P’Say, and the only man present, P’Yam. The hall perfectly served the purpose, and it is now ready for future trainings.
After a group picture and short introduction by the organizers and the district governor Mr. So Chi Win, the women started working on their thread, having already had the chance to study the new patterns. 

 Joanne, from the EEPPOC organization, supervised the women’s work and gave advice in terms of quality. The products need to meet specific quality standards and have an appealing combination of colors in order to be marketable internationally. Joanne, with the help of P’Say and P’Saeng who served as translators and facilitators, gave some general instructions to the women on how to proceed, measure, be consistent in their work, thus maintaining their reputation as original and skilled Karen weavers. Joanne and WEAVE staff were walking around trying to find out more about each weaver’s abilities and difficulties, and about the techniques they use to measure, trying to give advice on how to improve them. 

It was inspiring to see women helping and supervising one another, sharing their knowledge about weaving and enhancing their collective efficacy. Each weaver has a different level of expertise, and cooperating makes their job faster. This is why some women kept walking around, looking at the others working on their textiles. There is no competition, only a spirit of cooperation. Joanne made things clear: they are the weavers, not her, and they know how to do their job better than anybody else does. Her job is simply making the products they can already make internationally marketable; she helped the women in understanding which features a product should have in order to be sold in Western markets.
Children were running around, sometimes trying to catch their mothers’ attention, but mainly playing and trying to communicate with us “farang”. Women, on the other hand, were concentrated on their work, which slowly took shape in the form of shawls before our eyes. 

We also had the chance to take a look at the way the thread is prepared for the weaving process as well as the time, effort, patience and skill invested in creating traditional patterns. Let us remind ourselves that oftentimes fair trade products are rejected in favor of their cheap, machine-produced counterparts overlooking the fact that that means we implicitly encourage cheap labour and all the consequences it entails.

Not only it was great to take a look at how the products we buy are made, but also sharing thoughts with Joanne, a woman much experienced in development and interesting to converse with. 

- Sotiria & Elisa