IM Journal May, 2013
I recently returned to Thailand after a seven month period of work (“deputation”) in the USA. During this time I was based in Philadelphia, and did some extensive travel (Colorado, West Virginia, New England). I love public speaking, and I love sharing the stories of girls at the NLCF…their transformed lives, their excitement, their hope for their future. So I always enjoy these opportunities to visit so many people in different places across the United States…!
In addition to speaking at various churches and spending time with my family and friends, I had the opportunity to go back to school in January. I started an MS degree in “Organizational Dynamics” at the University of Pennsylvania. This degree combines organizational development and organizational psychology…and it’s just perfect for me in terms of what I want to study and some skills I need to develop at this stage of my life! Working and going to school was a bit of a challenge, but the experience was just fantastic. It gave me fresh insights and renewed energy. I am hoping to finish this degree during this upcoming school year (September, 2013 – May, 2014). Many details regarding this are still unclear, but I am trusting that the pieces will all fall into place within the next few months…!
Upon returning to Chiang Mai I realized the extent to which I am just completely familiar with Thailand. That deep sense of familiarity is what makes a place your home, and after 14 years here I am really far more familiar with Thai culture than I am with certain aspects of the culture in the United States. Regardless of how long I’m away, this familiarity feels like stepping back into a pair of one’s favorite, comfortable shoes.
The Thai language has at least 25 different pronouns for “I”, “you”, “he/she” etc. When referring to someone else, you can communicate respect for them, and/or acknowledge their status, simply by choosing the appropriate pronoun for the word “you”. Simultaneously, you can also lower or raise your own status through your choice of the word “I”. For example…you can refer to yourself as “dichan” (quite formal, communicating a distinct hierarchical distance between you and the other person) “chan” (more informal, relaxed, to use with familiar colleagues or acquaintances) and then there’s my favorite - the word “phi”, meaning “older”. “Phi” is what you use in a casual context, and when you want to be very friendly. I use the word “phi” to refer to myself when I’m buying something at a store, or at the gas station, or in any other very casual situation (e.g., “older would like you to fill up the tank”; “older would like the fried rice with vegetables”). It’s fun to see people smile and relax when I use this word – a sweet indication that my desire to be friendly has been successfully communicated.
As you know, Thailand has a hierarchical culture; one is placed on a ladder of status according to one’s rank, somewhere between a rice farmer on the bottom rung to the King at the top. (This deeply engrained cultural hierarchy is related to Buddhist philosophy as well, but that’s another conversation.) You have to know where you are placed on this ladder (higher/lower; more/less education; older/younger; etc) in order to know how to truly gauge a social context. When I first came to Thailand I was hopelessly lost trying to track all the different pronouns in conversations. I couldn’t figure who was talking about whom. I was particularly confused when the principal of a prestigious Thai high school called me “phi” because I knew she was at least 15 years older than I! (She explained later that she called me “phi” as a way to be very friendly and respectful, despite the fact that she knew I was younger and had far less status than she does.) It took me several years to learn to navigate my way through these different pronouns and understand the social ramifications of each one, but now it’s easy to jump right back into it. This is another aspect of my familiarity with Thai culture, and it just feels so comfortable.
There are many other aspects of returning to Thailand that feel so comfortable as well. Working in my office at the New Life Center Foundation, with all my books! Bike riding on the trails through the rice paddies that I’ve discovered over the years. Reconnecting with friends, and the staff and residents of the New Life Center that I’ve grown to love so much. I am so grateful for all of this.
Many of you have asked how you can pray for me, and the ministry of the NLCF in this period.
The NLCF is definitely at a place in its organizational life cycle where it needs to transition to full ethnic minority leadership. Another way of putting this is: the NLCF needs an ethnic minority director! I am quite committed to the work of the NLCF and will stay here as a consultant, as a support staff, as a resource; however, it is extremely clear that we need some type of an appropriate leadership succession plan. Given the unique situation of the NLCF (legal Thai NGO, started by American Baptist missionaries and flagship ministry of the ABC) and our current donor relationships and funding requirements, this is proving to be more challenging than I had anticipated. Please pray that the staff, board of directors and I can work together to develop some type of feasible, practical, and appropriate leadership succession plan. Thank you so much!
How can I pray for you?