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Photo by Sampor Burke, Mekong Semester.

Our Final Post: A Reflection

As we spend our final days together doing transference near Kampot, we have one last collaborative post to share with you. Each of the 10 mini-posts have been written in general response to three questions proposed to us by our instructors:

  1. What is a misconception that you had about the region that has been dispelled or challenged?
  2. How have you been impacted by the discussions, the itinerary, and experiences that you had on this trip?
  3. What should friends and family know about me when I return home?

Each response is anonymous, and up to our friends and family at home to match-up. Good luck!

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1) The misconception which most easily comes to mind is probably the concept of poverty, particularly in the regions we’ve been to. In all three countries we have passed through areas which, by income and lifestyle standards compared to those at home, would have been considered poverty. And yes, there is a definite level of low income and struggle, as well as hard work and maybe not as many opportunities. But passing through these places, as well as the homestays, made me look differently at this way of life. Places that I would have considered “poor” or primitive, have now changed to places with simply a different way of life. The people living in these villages have, in my eyes, a simple life without much complication – something almost incomparable to mine yet also so similar.

2) With so many experiences piled up over three months, and almost every day having something inspiring or special within, it is difficult to choose just one moment which was especially inspiring. I think that mostly it is a compilation of little happenings, not even the big grand events, that have influenced or inspired me the most. As well as that, it is the people we have talked to. Those have been many (chiefs, NGOs, nuns, etc.) with whom we’ve had the pleasure of speaking, and who have shared stories with us, about actions they have taken or things they believed in. These are the conversations which have sparked my interest and moved me the most.

3) My friends and family should know that I have seen and learned so much, and while it has been amazing, I am excited to go back home. I would love to share stories and photos with you over time, but some things I will be unable to share. I have also not become a whole new person! Just one with some extra layers.

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1) If you had told me by this time last year that I would be returning home from a 3-month journey through the heart of Southeast Asia, I wouldn’t even know where to begin in trying to process my emotions. Some combination of excitement, anxious anticipation, and being completely overwhelmed, asking panicked questions like, “did they make me eat dog in China!?”, or “where on earth even is Laos? Will Cambodian biker gangs try to get me for my kidneys?” As the program draws to a close, and the events of the journey are drawn to the front of my mind, I feel a sense of fulfillment and confidence in my ability to dispel those same ill-informed assumptions that stop so many from visiting countries that are fiscally poorer than their own. There is so much more to a country than first-world status and sitting toilets.

2) This program has shown me the priceless value of learning through experience, whether that meant being plunged into the Lao jungle to fend off bloodsucking leeches, or by playing charades with my Cambodian host family to explain where my country is located. City-solos armed with nothing but an out-of-date map, or 2:30 AM meditation sessions in a Thai monastery, there was always one foot well outside of the comfort zone.

3) With the prospect of returning home to my loved ones and luxuries, I can’t help to feel some of those same nervous emotions alongside my excitement. I know that this program has changed me, but what if the shock upon returning to an old and familiar life allows these resolutions to quietly slip away? Will I spend my days in university bored, reminiscing upon a period where every day was an adventure in a completely alien place? These are the questions that will accompany me on the plane back home, and all I can ask for from my family and friends is for the love and support that they have never failed to provide, and to be patient with the many, many, stories and experiences that I have to share. Miss you loads, and I can’t wait to see you all!

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1)  When I came on the trip, I obviously knew that China is one of the most powerful countries in the world, but I thought that China’s power didn’t extend to Southeast Asia. Alas, everywhere we visited in Laos and Cambodia, there was China trying to stick their fingers in the economy and culture. From the Chinese bank on every corner in Siem Reap, to a Chinese businessman who tried to buy Ban Don Donh island to make it into a golf course… Another example of China wanting to expand their power is a very accurate one right now, as we are staying at a mangrove community near Kampot. The village chief told us yesterday that a Chinese company had literally held a gun to his head, to make him sell the mangroves to them. Obviously, my preconception of China only gaining power in the world as one of the strongest economies, has definitely been dispelled.

2) Very positively: not only have I learned a lot about the countries we visited by traveling through them for 3 months, I learned even more about the people and cultures by living in a local family for a longer period of time. The itinerary was a very hectic one. We moved around a lot, and never (except for in the homestays) stayed in one place for a longer period of time. It will be strange to go home, and I will miss moving around, except for the bus rides without AC and seats made for petite Asian people 😉

3) Don’t expect a “changed” or “different” person to return home. I still bite my nails and I still have trouble falling asleep without my earplugs and eye-mask. Instead of visibly changing, it is my mindset that has changed. On this trip I have collected so many different perspectives, that I have changed my outlook on certain aspects of life. Yoe yoe!

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I came to Asia thinking it would be wildly different from other places I’ve traveled to. I expected a jarring culture shock in the homestays. I thought the language barrier would make it exceeding difficult to connect with locals, and I thought that even the architecture would not resemble that of home at all. What I found, however, was quite the opposite. I started to find comforting similarities to this continent that had been so foreign to me and my own community. The village kids here played beach games and learned cartwheels, my homestay mom scolded her daughter when she walked inside with shoes on, and the tin-roofed huts even reminded me of my old Caribbean home. Instead of learning through observing differences, I was immersed in communities that reminded me, in surprising ways, of home.

In a different sense, the group as a whole provided a feeling of home. Over time, we started to bicker like siblings, debrief like seasoned classmates, and love each other like family. Having a shared experience as meaningful as this one created a natural bond between us all. I could go on and on about the jungle hike, the monastery, the long bus rides, the tea picking, etc. But I think what created the biggest sense of home, to me, was the simpler moments. It was teaching each other new card games, laughing about our zip-off pants, sharing bites of (rare) Cambodian pastries, making friendship bracelets, and singing along to Laos pop music. So what I want to take with me from this trip isn’t just the beautiful sunsets and incredible old temples (although I’ll remember those, too). I want to remember the simple and small moments of togetherness and familiarity, and I’ll take with me the bits of home that I found halfway across the world.

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I came into this trip with very little previous knowledge about the region of Southeast Asia. As I had never been to Asia, my knowledge was limited to a few preconceived notions. For example, I had assumed that the most westernized country we visited would be China. As it often happens with preconceived notions, I quickly discovered that that my assumption was incorrect, and it was, in fact, the exact opposite. In China, even in the cities, it was quite hard to find western foods or brands, and it was far easier in Laos and Cambodia.

As we are reflecting on the last three months of this trip, we are constantly returning to the power of story. As an avid reader, I have always loved stories, and was pleasantly surprised by how much I have learned through the stories of others this Fall. Whether it was the life story of a nun, told as we sorted rice in a monastery in Thailand, or the funny experience of a friend, told over a cup of iced coffee on a hot afternoon in Luang Prabang, my most vivid and meaningful memories revolve around stories. Aside from learning more about the region, the culture, and the people who live here, trading stories with friends and peers brought us together, especially in the first few days when conversations didn’t flow quite as easily as they do now. I have discovered how much I can learn about a person by what they choose to share, and am able to appreciate more the strength with which the locals told us their struggles, as we were able to see them firsthand. I can only hope to do all of these stories justice as I attempt to recount them when I return home.

When I do see my friends and family, I hope they will be patient with me as I sort through my memories and emotions that will no doubt be constantly on my mind for the next next few weeks. Having spent the last 12 weeks surrounded solely by people going through this experience with me, it will be strange to suddenly have no one who remembers the pain but also the laughter from the monastery or the time when a goose chased after me on the China hike. However, I can’t wait to share everything with my friends and family even if I have to remind them once or twice or maybe (in my dad’s case) 20 times who everyone is.

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I’m currently working to balance my excitement about returning home with my determination to retain the transformation and perspective I’ve gained on this course. I ignorantly expected an exploration of the Mekong Basin, with endless trekking through areas infrequently traversed by Westerners (aside from Kunming, Choeung Ek, and Angkor Wat), given that nobody I know from home has traversed rural Yunnan, Laos, and Cambodia in this fashion. Of course, I was shocked to see temples built for tourism in Jinghong, Luang Prabang cafes flooded with ‘falang’ (Lao for ‘gringos’), and the ribbons of souvenir shops in Phnom Penh’s Central Market. Yet, due to both Dragons framework and personal choice, I reaped the benefits of coming here to experience rather than to see. What I found was an exploration of myself and my role in the world.

The gift from China’s Laojun National Park was humility. I felt as small as I ever have in front of the towering cliffs, only for those to be dwarfed by the peaks above. I fell in love with Jinghong, whole palm-lined boulevards and shaokao-filled markets put far larger cities to shame, a reminder that hidden gems of places are everywhere for those willing to look. The jungle pitted our resolve against nature’s ferocity, allowing me to nonchalantly tackle future issues saying, “Well, I survived Nam Ha,” and our monastery stay taught me how to accept and live amidst others’ values while staying true to my own. As for Cambodia, I saw utter despair in the eyes of a seventeen-year-old boy, forced to make stilts from before dawn to after dusk every day in order to support his family, aware that he would give anything for education I complained about while receiving. But I also saw hope in the smile of an international relations student in Siem Reap, age nineteen, as we connected over his interest in my country and mine in his, our shared curiosity transcending the thousands of miles between our respective homes.

I’d like to use this opportunity to announce that I’m moving to Luang Namtha as a Communist missionary with my Sino-Khmer wife. Okay, never mind. Yet I will be different from the student who landed in Kunming on September 17th. Perhaps the distinctions will be major, such as a sense of calm or an intense desire for further exploration. Most of my transformation, however, will be subtle, with mannerisms and reactions I’ve gained or lost along the way. Don’t be concerned, though; I’m still me. All the best, and I look forward to seeing you once I return.

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Question 1
Seeing how many Western products are manufactured in China and how closely linked China and the US are economically, I figured there would be quite a few similarities. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Everything in China is different. We have Google; China built its own search engine. We use iPhones and Samsungs; China uses Oppos and Huaweis. We drive Fords, Subarus and Toyotas; they drive Chang’ans and Leopards. From the products they use to the collectivist mindset of the society, everything is different.

Question 2
Through hearing the stories of how hard everyone else on this trip and the people we have met along the way have worked, I have become much more motivated to work hard and to be productive. I have also become grateful for everything I have been given and all the opportunities I have back home. In addition, I now know that I want to do something with my life that will help people who are less fortunate.

Question 3
I don’t know if I really want to go to college.

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Question 1
One misconception I had about Laos, particularly, was the complexity of its culture and history. In truth, I don’t think I had ever heard about Laos before reading the Dragons pamphlet. I ignorantly thought that since I had never learned about it in school, it must be pretty irrelevant or have a history completely removed from my own. And was I wrong. In the jungle hike, I learned that Laos is the greenest (and leechiest!) country on Earth. In Luang Prabang, I learned about the ancient Lao kingdom, now turned Communist. In Vientiane, though, I learned about what shattered my misconceptions of Laos the most: the Secret War, where the US, in an effort to contain Vietnamese Communism, bombed Laos. It is because of the States that, to this day, Laos is the most heavily bombed country per capita in history. My history is irrevocably intertwined with that of Laos. And just because I never learned about it in school, even when studying the Vietnam War, does not mean it can be overlooked.

Question 2
I don’t think I will be able to fully measure how I have been impacted by this trip until many years down the line. This is the type of experience that will stay with us forever. But I do know that through these experiences, I have learned about myself. I have become a more critical thinker and have gained a deeper love of history. I know the power of stories and how to work in a group. In just four days, I will transfer these new skills home. How exciting!

Question 3
Friends and family should know how excited I am to be home. They should also know how tired I will be and that I might need some space. They also need to know how hard it will be to answer broad questions like “How was the trip?” A word like “amazing” would not sum it up fully. As much as we want to share our experiences with you, finding the language to do so might be hard at first, so patience might be necessary. Lastly, I hope to hear about how all your lives have been while I was gone. I ask that you also be willing to share your stories, too!

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Question 1
I’m shocked that Laos went from the most bombed country in the entire world (mostly due to the Secret War) to striving to be the powerhouse of Southeast Asia, using hydroelectricity generated by dams as their main source of power. I’m also surprised by the misconceptions of China trying to take over the SEA region by seizing plantations.

Question 2
The impacts of my experiences have caused my schema to blend my past and my future with every present moments of memories.

Question 3
Some of the lowlights and highlights of my experiences along with everything in between will never fully be understood, no matter how many photos and stories have been shared of the last three months.

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I came here not sure what to expect. In fact, I came here eschewing the concept of expectations entirely. My goal was to allow the experience to wash over me and to allow the beads of knowledge and change to pool up and soak in as they might, without my meddlesome mind calling the shots. I’m glad I did that because the sublime feelings, ideas, messages I’ve extracted from my time along the Mekong have been more important and impactful than anything I could’ve tried to force myself to find. Likewise, I’ve refrained from posting a Yak thus far because I didn’t feel like I had reached a point where sharing my story would help me process the time deeper. Now, even though this post is quote unquote required and my lack of participation would have been quote unquote severely frowned upon, I have some thoughts I’m ready to share.

Most importantly, I have a reinforced sense of the non-sameness that permeates the world. I could list stereotypes or preconceived notions I held that were shattered along the course, but it’s much easier to simply state that one size never fits all. Any attempt to compartmentalize people by any metric will almost always fail when scrutinized even a little. This point has been emphasized by our homestay experiences and other interactions, watching how people live and making note of all the cognitive dissonance moments, of which there were many.

Equally important, I found this simple concept in group discussions. A part of my ignorance was a perceived sameness within the “us,” the group of ethnically white students from the US, Holland, and the Bahamas. In our conversations about our own privilege, responsible tourism, religion, politics, history, and anything else, I realized what unique narratives each of our lives follows. So many factors shape our lives that it is impossible to predict a person’s attitude or outlook.

Coming home, I am going to be surrounded by those who haven’t had the opportunity to remove themselves from the pressures of home life or the clutches of worrying about the future. I know that my personal journey may seem contrived or maybe even pretentious, but it is important for me that people at home know that my findings are just that-mine. I have no intention of imposing a new “enlightened” mindset on anyone or looking down on anyone at all. I don’t even think I’ve really changed that much. I just want to make plain that I’ve fallen into that clichéd Dragons trap – broader horizons, more self-awareness, and more comfort with the world around me.