Creating a string of useful habits

Kyu Bak preparing a presentation for the Global Issues Network Conference

Kyu Bak preparing a presentation for the Global Issues Network Conference

Post contributed by Kyu Bak Lee

I am a Korean national who grew up in Thailand. During my time in Thailand, I attended an international school that largely followed the British model. So, one can say that I saw the meaning of the word “education” being used and explained in many different ways. For the most part, due to my exposure to three different “worlds” (in a nutshell) from such a young age, my immediate answer to the question of ‘what makes a good education’ would differ tremendously in different cultures. However, now that I have gone through the likes of university, first job and now at a point where I can safely say that I have a career ahead of me, I have yearned for the ‘simple’ things in life.

A good education provides a student with a clear definition of what they are studying. Having a clear understanding of what they are studying provides not only guidance but fosters curiosity. Being curious is, and always will be, the pillar of human innovation.

A good education encourages the student to ask why and how.

A good education shows the student real-life case studies of what they have studied, so that they understand from the beginning that there are external and indirect factors that need to be considered.

A good education provides questions, discussions and potential scenarios for the student to show their understanding, and their ability to apply their knowledge.

A good education provides feedback that opens up a dialogue to foster more discussion with the interested parties.

Kyu Bak and Nics, a great Head Boy and Head Girl team - student leaders

Kyu Bak and Nics, a great Head Boy and Head Girl team – student leaders

I believe my time in University had the most profound impact on my life. You are at a place where everyone was a star pupil in their high school, the quarterback, the debate champion, the community leader, the superman of their respective school and organization. It was a place where I knew I had to challenge myself constantly. Not only that, but the responsibility that life threw me during my days as a university student was also a great lesson for me. From having your teachers, parents and friends help you one way or another to having nobody in a foreign land and culture put me on survival mode 101. I was excited to see myself change and adapt and I also learned to be appreciative of the people that I have in my life. I saw a new me that was scared, excited, sad and jubilant. Some turbulent times that proved that without education, there really is no basis in life that you can turn to. Another thing that I want to mention here is to look at “failures” differently. A profile in failure is as important, or even more so, than a profile in success. Failure should be welcomed if you want to better and further yourself in any given situation.

In Europe at the Global Issues Network Conference with friends

In Europe at the Global Issues Network Conference with friends

So far, my greatest achievement that I have experienced thus far is surrounding myself with awesome people. I have always believed in the power of storytelling and discussions. If you are able to surround yourself with people that not only carry different experiences but also are able to effectively communicate that with you, then you have all the tools you need to succeed. Human beings have always seen each other as part of a collective unit; part of something much larger than them. It only makes sense that we are able to draw out the best of ourselves through the collective help of people and their diverse and dynamic experiences. Finding the “right” group is always hard and I am not saying that it will always come naturally, but how do you know what works for you and what doesn’t from the beginning? You always need to fail, to succeed and to achieve.

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My next challenge is to push myself and become the owner of my own business. One of the things that I learned about myself in university was that I liked the responsibilities, I liked the leadership, and I liked the fast pace and ever changing environment that I found myself in. This all pointed to one thing, and that was entrepreneurship. I tested myself with a few serious projects here and there during my time in university, but those all failed. They were absolutely fun and enriching, but they all went up in flames. The failures only cemented my view that I would need to be my own boss and it only made me content that I was fortunate enough to do what I wanted and fail at it, and be okay.

Being reflective

Being reflective

I would like to share what I wish I had heard when I was a student at school; which is “to create a string of useful habits from a young age.”

Get in to a habit of carrying a small notepad around to write down your thoughts and opinion at any given time. In this day and age, it could be an app on your mobile device, but I like my piece of paper and a pencil. People could argue that they have diaries that they keep but having to recollect your feelings and ideas at the end of the day is a daunting task. So, why not keep it simple by writing it down throughout your day? By doing this, you will find your own efficient way of note-taking and drawing diagrams that you can always go back to and reflect on your days, weeks and years.

Get into a habit of reading. Whether they are books, magazines or online articles; find your interest and passion, and read about them and other people’s, take them on to help you gain an all-round understanding of your interests and passions. This will not only put you closer to your interests, but it will also surprise you as it will expose you to thoughts and ideas that you would not be able to generate on your own.

Get into a habit of playing sports. Playing sports is a great way to make new friends and to learn more about yourself as well. How are you different to playing team games to individual sports? What is it that gets you motivated? Was it the spirit of competition and sportsmanship? Was it the chance to win something? If you play sports, you will always learn more about yourself.

Get into a habit of joining social clubs. If you are a part of a club, then you start experiencing different responsibilities that will be different to finishing your group project, or your homework or your class presentation. It gives you a glimpse of life outside of school that we all need to prepare for.

 

Good things come to those who wait

Will they ever get used?

Will they ever get used?

When deciding on our next family adventure and weighing up the options, the children’s opinions obviously always mattered and were going to play a big part in our decision making. When going to the UK became a serious option it was obvious that this was a popular choice for both my two oldest kids for a number of reasons and top of that list of reasons was that they really wanted to see, feel and enjoy snow.  For the last 2 months I have been telling them both that snow is unlikely and that it may only happen once a year if that.  They all got a plastic sledge each from Santa (grandma) for Christmas, wrapped up in black bin bags (Santa doesn’t seem to do large wrapping paper?), and momentarily used on the living room floor as they tried to imagine what it would be like to use them but not knowing when.  Little did we all know that they would be in full action less than from 48 hours from then.

It's real snow!

It’s real snow!

We were driving back from the sales as the light was fading late on the 26th. In the car headlights large flakes of snow began to glide through the beams and we all shouted out that it was snowing!  It got denser as we drove home, a lot like going into ‘hyper-drive‘ on the Millennium Falcon (apparently).  The kids were desperate to get outside and to feel the snow and as soon as we parked up the car they pulled on their winter coats and dived into grandma’s backyard to adsorb the new experience.

One happy snowman

One happy snowman

I explained to the kids (and my wife, who was just as excited) that the snow may not last for long and can soon thaw and turn to a brown slush, especially if it rains overnight. Even though it was now night time we decided to make the most of the opportunity and had our first family snowball fight, making sure a few snowballs also found their way through grandma’s front door at the same time!  The snow was settling and the conditions perfect to build a snowman.  I showed Jonah how to start with a small lump of snow at the top of the road and then roll it down the hill, “this is perfect rolling snow Jonah” – constantly flipping it over as it increased in size and trying to maintain a rounded shape.  I worked on his body and Jonah made his first ever snowman head.  We added some small stones for eyes, his mouth and buttons, and of course gave him a carrot for his nose.  The garden bush was hacked for some arms and a forgiving grandma donated an old scarf and hat for him to wear. The finishing touch was an empty can of Guinness which had helped keep dad warm through the activity and we both thought the snowman would appreciate (the idea of) it – hence his larger than life smile, he had waited a long time.

Even a snowman needs a friend

Even a snowman needs a friend

Before going back indoors and facing the not so pleasurable new experience of very cold toes and feet meeting a hot steaming bath, we decided to leave the snowman with a small friend to keep him company throughout the night.  Pleased with our spontaneous fun and achievements in the snow, we looked forward to a content sleep – the type you always seem to have after being active outdoors and in challenging weather conditions.  The only concern on the kid’s minds was if the snowmen would still be there in the morning.  They peeked out of the upstairs bedroom window every time they passed it informing the household “the snowmen are still there!

They're still there dad!

They’re still there dad!

Is there anything better than waking up to find the world covered in a crisp blanket of dazzling snow with clear blue skies and a sparkling winter sun?  Seeing your two special snowmen friends smiling up at you and coaxing you out to play?  Knowing there are three brand new shiny plastic sledges in the shed that are going to be christened today?  Plastic bags in between double layers of socks, thermos flasks filled and rations packed away, we are all ready for a full day of family sledging for the first time. There can’t be many better days than this, they are definitely worth the wait.

What shall we do today?

Can we ride on the beach in England dad?

Can we ride on the beach in England dad?

Last weekend as I was compiling my list of important things to do I set myself a back-up target of getting the bikes out (now arrived safely with 90 other plus boxes) and reassembled ready for an unlikely family bike ride in the next 6 months or so.  To be fair though the weather has been great since returning home and although the temperature is obviously a lot colder we have seen and enjoyed plenty of sunshine and such was the case the Sunday just gone.

The Ribble salt marshes

The Ribble salt marshes

As soon as the bikes were ready the kids were on them like a flash, woolly hats over their helmets!  They had obviously missed their bikes the last 6 weeks and I hadn’t realised how much.  They were out in the back street riding up and down and amazed at the lack of sweat being generated but anxious to pull their sleeves down over their quickly numbing fingers.  Provocatively I suggested that we go for a bike ride and much to my surprise they both agreed.  So we set off across two busy roads (another novelty to them getting off their bikes and pushing them across a road) and onto the promenade at St. Annes thinking we could ride along the beach but soon realised nobody else was and that push bikes and soft English sand don’t work too well together.  So we pushed our bikes back up to the main promenade and decided to take on the pedestrians heading towards Lytham with the sun shining on our faces.

The Lytham St. Annes spitfire

The Lytham St. Annes spitfire

Sometimes you (well I do) think things are not worth the hassle and it is easier to keep things simple.  Unpack the bikes in the summer, leave them in the garage and worry about fixing them then when they will be most needed.  Do the shopping today, clean the house, get the kids homework done and put them in front of the TV.  How many times do we fall into that trap and what are we missing out on?  The last Sunday in November and it was an amazing afternoon to be out on our bikes, in fact everyone seemed to be out and it was great weaving in and out of people walking off their Sunday roasts. We made a point of saying ‘hello’ to our new neighbours as we passed them and a ‘thank you’ for making way at the same time taking in the new sights and points of interest of our new home, community and environment.

Not as hot as Thailand but still need a rest

Not as hot as Thailand but still need a rest

The Lytham Windmill

The Lytham Windmill

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Story of Stuff to-do-list

The Story of Stuff to-do-list

One of my favourite Tweets that I read and decided to re-tweet this week was from The Story of Stuff a website that I have actually written about before. What I love about this Tweet is the simplicity of the to-do-list but the effectiveness of how powerful the outcomes are from doing it.  We sometimes take these activities, opportunities and outcomes for granted and almost always, from my experience, gain and discover a lot more (the value-added) than we ever imagined by getting up and outdoors and doing them.  A 10km bike ride got nowhere near my original to-do-list last weekend let alone at the top up amongst: Tesco shop, clean the bathrooms, find the bathroom scales in the shipping boxes, research electricity provider rates, Christmas decorations, etc… but I am so glad that impulse plus a bit of sunshine found a way and that I was reminded of the important things to be included at the top of any to-do-list.

The gap effect

Challenged with a sense of personal adventure

Challenged with a sense of personal adventure

Post contributed by Dan Bowie

Just thought I’d update you on my latest exciting news! Today I found out I got the QUEST Scholarship – sponsored by VINCI.  It’s an amazing opportunity not many get to experience and to say I’m pleased is an understatement. Sheffield University seems to be a bit of a hot spot for successful candidates so – as I’m sure you can imagine – a few celebratory drinks will be had!
There is a teacher in everyone

There is a teacher in everyone

I want to take the opportunity to say thanks, the experience I gained in Thailand is without a doubt the reason I got in – especially when I look at the high standard of unsuccessful applicants. Accepting me into the Gap Programme was a stepping stone that has (and will continue to) lead to so many amazing opportunities. So thanks to all who supported me at the school.
Trekking in the north of Thailand

Trekking in the north of Thailand

Uni life is very good, the course is fairly intense and I’ve already handed in coursework and completed online tests that count towards my 1st year grade, which is a little surreal.  The social side is definitely a change from Thailand, but a change I am very much liking. I have joined the hockey team and this of course means socials (and some hockey!).  I will keep you posted.

If you liked this post then read more about gap year experiences here.

One Man and a Piano

Expressing the artist in you

Expressing the artist in you

I was at the airport again today and had the pleasure to listen to a young man playing one of those ‘play me’ pianos in the public waiting area.  We had sat down to eat our packed lunch and placed ourselves next to the piano and talented pianist to enjoy the music whilst we ate.

Play me

Play me

Zoe immediately took her sandwich over to the piano and had a good look at what the man was doing.  She even started to move to the hypnotic tones of the jazz tunes being played.  I watched and wondered who first thought of this idea of placing pianos in public places for anyone to play?  The more I thought about it the more I loved the concept and continued watching to see what impact our pianist would have on other strangers in the waiting hall.

 

An American admirer

An American admirer

As I watched and also monitored Zoe, making sure that her busy fingers didn’t add any unwanted notes to a potential masterpiece, an American lady sidled up to the pianist and introduced herself.  She was quite animated and confident in her approach, immediately acknowledging the skills and passion of our pianist.  They struck up a common theme and chatted for a while, name cards were even swapped.  Meanwhile my oldest son had joined Zoe and the two of them had commandeered the piano as the two strangers were making plans.  I continued watching them talk at the same time cringing at the dreadful din being bashed out on the piano by Zoe and Jonah thinking I must intervene soon and save everyone from the terrible noise. Luckily the American lady suddenly shot off and the pianist re-focused his attention on the piano and set about on my two.

Twinkle Twinkle number

Twinkle Twinkle number

He asked them if they could play Twinkle Twinkle Little Star and to my surprise Jonah started to play the favourite nursery rhyme. The pianist motioned Jonah to play a few octaves higher and then started to accompany him with a funky jazz bass version.  Suddenly my son was playing a Twinkle Twinkle duet with a random stranger and making heads turn in one of the busiest airport terminals in the world.

Patrick and a piano

Patrick and a piano

Isn’t it amazing how music and artistic expression and enthusiasm connects people. We only planned to be in the airport for a short while and never imagined meeting someone like Patrick – how do you plan for something like that – you don’t (but always look out for the opportunities).  I asked Patrick where he was going and what time his flight was.  He told me he wasn’t going anywhere, so I asked him if he was on his work break and if he did this everyday when he had the chance.  He said no, and that he had just seen his Japanese friend off and decided to hang around and the play piano for a couple hours.  We said a big thank you and good bye to Patrick and wished him all the best with his future plans (he is starting a film business).  We walked out of Heathrow Airport for the second time in one week but this time refreshed from the positiveness of personal connectivity and social interaction and privileged that we had met Patrick, the piano player.

If I do not see you again, hello

Take time to say hello - S. Bruce-Lockhart

Take time to say hello – S. Bruce-Lockhart

We hear it all the time, the world is changing rapidly and we have to be prepared to adapt to that change.  Education is (should be) all about preparing our future leaders for change and to be able to not only cope with change but to be the change-makers themselves by having the relevant life skills and confidence to use them.  You can never be 100% sure what is going to happen and therefore that temptation into a comfort zone is potentially a dangerous place to be found in for too long.  Many people have asked us why we are leaving Thailand; leaving our home, leaving jobs that we both loved, leaving ‘paradise’?  Of course it was a big and courageous decision to make but one that we have never regretted since making it back in late 2013.  We knew it was the right time for a change and we were prepared to take on the unknown factors that this change would throw our way and to learn from them.  Deep down we always knew the hardest factor would be saying goodbye, something I have never really been particularly good at.  I like to think I will always see people again and continue where we left off but maybe that is just dodging the truth and taking the easy way out of a hard goodbye.  I follow the blog of a well respected and experienced headmaster of a Round Square school in Canada, Mr. Simon Bruce-Lockhart, and really enjoyed reading one of his posts in particular regarding saying goodbye – the post is titled: Take Time to Say Goodbye.  

People handle goodbyes in many different ways and approach it with different attitudes, sometime gifts are exchanged as a sentimental representation of time spent together or as a message to take with you into your next adventure.

A sentimental suitcase

A sentimental suitcase

When I left the UK in August 1999 I was given a brand new suitcase by my friends with whom I had played local village cricket with for many years.  It was a complete surprise to me that these ‘lads’ had put some thought into a gift which I had never expected from them.  15 years ago it was a top of the range suitcase and perfect for packing my few possessions to take with me to Thailand for the next two years.  The sentimental feelings are just as strong as I pack it full of family possessions for our return trip to the UK tomorrow.  It has served me well and I am pleased it is coming home with us.

Not in the UK!

Not in the UK!

I have found it interesting how attached I have become to some of the material things that we have owned.  Part of this transition process has meant selling our cars and of course leaving our family home.  I am not really a car person but have had a couple of (brief) sentimental moments when finally handing both cars over to their new owners and realising that there will be no more family adventures in them.  Thousands of kilometers of nursery rhyme CDs, playing eye spy, making up awful jokes, tantrums, arguments, tears and laughter all confined in a metallic cube – gone!  It’s not like I am ever going to own a pick-up in the UK – and let the kids ride in the back is it?

The power of a stone (next to our zebra - which we are leaving behind!)

The power of a stone (next to our zebra – which we are leaving behind!)

As a teacher I always tell my students (when they ask me) that I don’t have favourites – but if I did have a favourite class then the class I taught Geography through Year 7 to Year 11 would have to be one of them.  I also taught many of these students ICT (well they actually taught me!) as well in Year 5 and Year 6. When it came to their graduation and leaving the school they presented me with a rock, knowing that I like rocks and talked about them quite often in my classes with a certain amount of passion. Each student had signed the rock and they were very pleased with themselves when they presented it to me and told me to take good care of it.  It was an effective way to say goodbye and to acknowledge what we had learnt and been through together – it had real meaning.  I have of course kept the rock ever since in my office at home and just realised the other day that it did not make the packing with the 91 boxes of shipping.  For a split second I though this cannot go to the UK, it is just a rock, but the emotional attachment and meaning soon came bursting out of me and I placed it in a suitcase ready to be packed.

One of the students in that Geography class sent me a poem the other day as part of her Global Citizenship reflection.  Her father saw it when visiting Japan and had sent her the translation.  Even though I have not seen this student since she left school over six years ago, we still say ‘hello’ to each other whenever we can and share our thoughts and ideas about the world.  I thought it was very poignant to receive this poem at a time of big transition and occasionally stress and anxiety for me and my family.  The hardest thing about change is the unknown and saying goodbye to the familiar.  Tomorrow is a the biggest day for our family so far and I am sure it will be a roller coaster ride of emotions but I also know it is going to be the best day.  If I do not see you again, ‘hello.’

Each day is the best day

Whether it rains
Whether it shines
Each day is the best day
Whether I cry
Whether I laugh
Today is the very best day
Because it is a precious day out of my life

-Mitsuo Aida

Thailand Reflections

Tan the motorbike taxi driver

Tan the friendly motorbike taxi driver

They often say that you won’t live anywhere better in the world as an expat than in Thailand, the Land of Smiles.  Having now lived and worked here for over 15 years I have definitely seen many people come and go, such is the transient nature of the expat and especially international teachers.  One thing that I have noticed is that people do usually return to Thailand, whether it is to visit friends, to holiday or to work again.  I had no idea what was in store for me or what to expect from the Thai people, their culture and their kingdom when I first left for Thailand in 1999.  I know that we will return, Thailand is our home, the place where I got married and also where my three children were born.  It is of course going to be difficult to leave and let go of the many pleasures that we have become accustomed to and take for granted but we also realise that it is time to re-connect with another home, we like to think that we are becoming a global family.

Love that Thinglish!

Love that Thinglish!

My oldest son likes to compare new countries that he visits with Thailand, to observe what is similar and what is different.  He is going to be in shock mid-November in the north west of England when the obvious differences hit him!  What makes Thailand such an amazing place is how easy it is, especially for families.  The Thai people are so welcoming and they love young children.  I will miss speaking Thai with them and getting myself into trouble as I get lost beyond the second sentences of a conversation.  I admire their appreciation and tolerance of a foreigner making the effort though, especially my local barber who I have had the same conversation with (in Thai) four times a year for the last eight years.

What a sandwich!

What a sandwich!

The Thai food is awesome of course but I have to say that one of my all time favourite discoveries on arriving in Thailand was Au Bon Pain.  The chocolate croissants are to die for and the steak and swiss cheese sandwich is mega – I couldn’t believe it when I found out they delivered as well!  I have had two of the sandwiches this week for old times sake and savored them as much as I did in the early bachelorhood days when they were part of the daily diet.  Au Bon Pain always got my mothers blessing as well whenever she visited as she always said, “they making a piping hot cup of tea.”

Ciao Khun John's

Ciao Khun John’s

The first place I ever drank a beer in Thailand was Khun John’s restaurant on the banks of Lake Mabprachan.  The Friday football lads took me there after my first sub-tropical kick-about and I had no idea where I was – I knew I was almost dying of heat stroke though.  The Heineken came in these huge bottles and seemed to be bottomless.  All I can remember is that I was told not to eat or drink after midnight as I had an important medical the next day.  The following Monday I got a note in my tray informing me I had failed the medical and had to attend another one that coming weekend.  I didn’t go to Khun John’s after football that Friday!  I have been many times since though as it is a family favourite eating place.  Any Thai food you want, it is tasty, quick and good value.  We went for the last time this week and coincidentally the waiter told us that Khun John has apparently sold up (after all these years) and it will become an Italian restaurant next month.  I can’t imagine Thailand without Khun John’s it has been a constant in our lives.

The shop that sells everything

The shop that sells everything

I am looking forward to the UK village shop again and buying a daily newspaper and a bag of Walkers Crisps (I have got to stop saying chips… and candies… and cookies) but it is not going to be Janya Mart.  There is something special about the Thai family shop that sells everything.  It is sad that a lot have struggled to survive since Seven Eleven has swept across the country but there are still a number out there and I always make the effort to use them.  Janya Mart is our local village shop and it is one of the best ways to connect with the local community and to use your Thai.  It is set up (like all other Thai family shops) to focus on social interaction with benches and tables outside and always an array of tempting snacks to choose from – it is the hub of the community.  You can buy a beer at anytime of the day, sit down on the bench and watch the Thai world go by. You can even drive your motorbike up to the shop and fill it up with petrol from a selection of bottles usually precariously placed on a wooden framed structure. Janya Mart has been a regular calling point for the last eight years and I will miss the interaction and constant smiling faces of both Janya and Nui who have witnessed our family grow and devour – God knows how many ice lollies!  I have explained to them that we are leaving on Monday but I am not sure if they have really understood, I will pop in before we go, wai, thank them and say goodbye.

If you liked this post you may also like this: 15 Years of Stuff

The Rice Challenge – a Scottish perspective

Post contributed by Karen Partyka

buying the rice

buying the rice

Over the last few months I had seen many of my friends and colleagues do the Ice Bucket Challenge but for some reason it did not feel right for me. I had read on Paul’s blog about the rice challenge that some people were doing instead. It started in Angola where water is scarce and it would not be appropriate to waste water so they changed it to the rice. Then last week Paul nominated me to do the rice challenge. I had seen Paul donate his rice but living in Scotland I knew it would be quite different. So first of all I looked online for local food banks and found one quite close. Unfortunately the first thing I saw on their website was an appeal for urgent items, there was 5 items and 3 of these were chocolate, brown and tomato sauces. I reflected on if you were truly desperate for food, would chocolate or brown sauce be one of your top things. I suppose it goes back to poverty in the developed world is a very different poverty than that in the developing world.

at the food bank

at the food bank

I bought my rice and visited the food bank with my mum, there was no big ceremonial handing over of the rice and the people working there were polite but not particularly talkative. I had wanted to find out more about who visited the food bank, what were their situations but this was not possible.

When I returned home I remembered seeing a woman being interviewed on the BBC a few months ago. Her name was Jack and was a single mum with a baby son. She had to give up her job as it was impossible to work and look after her child. She calculated that with the money from her benefits and her outgoing expenses she had £10 left each week for food. She took a different approach from visiting a food bank, she went to the library and started looking for recipes which were healthy but also kept within her budget. She then started visiting her local shops to find out what time they discounted their food each day and with this information she started to live her life with her £10 a week. Jack started her own blog with her recipes and has built her life from quite a humble start with her son but she demonstrated that working hard and being resourceful is the best teaching tool for her son.

Her website is http://agirlcalledjack.com

Jack and son

Jack and son

In comparison to this there are quite a few stories of families in the UK who are living on benefits but who seem to spend their money on unusual things in their circumstances. One example is a family with children in North Wales. They do not work and their only income is through benefits.  Each week they spend £15 on Sky TV, £32 on mobiles and £240 on shopping which includes 24 cans of lager, 200 cigarettes and a large pouch of tobacco. It astounds me that a family would spend so much of their benefits on lager, cigarettes and SKY TV.

I remember meeting a lovely man whilst I was in South Africa on the RSIS service project, he was the gardener at the centre. He was a gentle man who was a grandfather and was already in his 70s. He was very cheerful and did not ever give you any idea of worry or need in his life. But one day through general chatting he told me that he walked to work each day as it meant he saved the money of the bus. The walk was 3 miles each way, so 2 hours of walking each day just to save his bus fare. The money he saved was not huge but he told me that it all adds up. Would people in the developed world consider doing this to save a little bit of money, unfortunately I think not.

All people have to take responsibility for their lives and to better themselves. I wonder in the UK, do people just expect to be looked after. If there was no welfare state would there be a motivation that it is up to you to better yourself, not the government to provide.

It is a terrible thing in this world that in the developed world we have people in poverty, children in poverty and families visiting food banks but there are procedures in place to ensure a child will not die of hunger in the UK. If we saw a child living on the street in the UK it would be reported straight away. In many developing countries countless children live on the street and people walk by them each day as they slowly die of hunger without a second glance behind. Each year 2.6 million children die of hunger.

Constructive paranoia

a convoy of cousins

a convoy of cousins

During my time in Vietnam and meeting new family I have been thinking a lot about a term that I read recently in a book by Jared Diamond.  The book is:  The World Until Yesterday, and is all about what we can learn from traditional societies.  The term he used was constructive paranoia and he used it often to describe a cautious approach that people living in traditional societies adopt to avoid danger or potential death even though to us it may seem an extremely low risk or even paranoid.  An example Diamond used was when he (frequently) stayed with communities in New Guinea and that they never slept under old trees at night for the fear that they may fall down and crush them.  Although the likelihood is small on a particular night, if you were to sleep under trees every night as many Guineans do then the chances of an old tree eventually falling down and crushing you increases, therefore the most constructive long-term approach is to avoid them altogether as sleeping shelters.

easy riders

easy riders

If you had asked me before our visit to Vietnam if I would allow my kids to ride on motorbikes in a country where there seems to be little regulation on the roads I (and especially my wife) would have said no way!  Nothing paranoid about that, just a total agreement that motorbikes are to be avoided if possible in countries like Vietnam and Thailand where the accidents involving motorbike accidents are high.  It is difficult though when you arrive in a situation that is totally new to you and you suddenly find yourself in the hands of your hosts who so happen to be family.  Things happen fast and people are speaking in a language that you don’t understand but you can start to gather an idea from the body language, gestures and the accumulation of motorbikes around you and triple the amount of helmets needed per motorbike!

walking in the river to the sand dunes

walking in the river to the sand dunes

Of course you think fast and make eye contact with your wife (and mother of your children) to quickly reassess the situation.  The cousins are all excited though and so enthusiastic to see you and show you around – they really want to take their new family guests to the beach.  The kids are all excited as well, the chance to ride a motorbike is a complete novelty to them and they of course believe they are indestructible.  Your heart says go with the flow but your brain is telling you that this is not a good idea and to think it through a bit more.  There is also the culture factor – do you stand your ground based on a mental risk assessment and possibly offend people that you have just met and are putting you up in their home.  Or do you shift your perspective and realise this is how people commute in Vietnam, everyone does it – you are placed on a motorbike days after birth!  Are we going to just sit in the house and feel safe and walk everywhere?

a flying sand dune in Mui Ne

a flying sand dune in Mui Ne

I know my wife’s feelings about motorbikes and what surprised me most was that she understood that this was an important time to go with the flow and to enjoy the cultural experience.  This doesn’t mean we should be neglectful of risk, still be risk aware – paranoid enough to be constructive but not averse to the opportunity.  We made sure that everyone is wearing helmets the right size and that the most experienced motorcyclists were in control of the bikes.  The cousins soon got the message that we were happy with the situation but alert to the potential risks in a subtle way.  They drove at a good speed and we always felt very safe without us having to say anything to them.

Mui Ne

Mui Ne

We ended up using the motorbikes everyday while we were in Phan Theit and Mui Ne and the family were over generous in their desire to transport us around and to spend time with us – telling us what time they would meet us and pick us up each day.  We could of course taken taxis but this would have been less sociable and not as an authentic way to see the country, plus the kids really loved their motorbike experience and each one had their favorite cousin to ride with – often sandwiched in between Oanh or myself!  If we had opted not to embrace this opportunity we would definitely have missed out on three amazing days visiting; the Flying Sand Dunes of Mui Ne, eating fresh crab on the beach, shallow river walking through a sandstone gorge, a sunset over Mui Ne bay and most importantly of all making close and honest bonds with special family members.

 

 

Getting to know your family

old photos

old photos

I met Oanh almost 15 years ago in Thailand where we were both working as teachers. Over 35 years ago she left Vietnam as a small child with her father, mother, three siblings and members of her mother’s family in a small boat seeking refugee in a new country following the war that ravaged Vietnam during the 1960s and 1970s. Many thousands of ‘boat people’ didn’t make the treacherous journey into the South China Sea and were sadly lost to storms and piracy.  Oanh and her family were picked up out at sea by a Thai shipping vessel and were taken to Thailand where they were granted asylum and stayed in a refugee camp for a number of months before being flown to Australia and welcomed as new citizens to that country.  Oanh’s father tells me that his family were the first Vietnamese to settle in the New South Wales city of Newcastle and they have lived there ever since. His wife’s family moved to Queensland in Australia and his family remained in post war Vietnam and he has not seen them since they left that dark night in the small boat.

Family lunch

Family lunch

To be able to come to Vietnam and to meet my wife and children’s family and to get to know them has been a huge privilege and I am thankful and excited that they will have such welcoming and caring family to connect with in this part of the world for the rest of their lives.  Oanh and I keep suggesting to Jonah that he has the ideal base for a ‘gap year’ when he has finished school – but I don’t think he realises the value of this quite yet.

I have taken a back seat during our visit and left Oanh to get on with all the conversation and catching up.  They definitely have plenty to talk about!  It has been great for myself and the children to see her in full Vietnamese flow and using her native language.  It has encouraged the kids and I to also learn more Vietnamese and to use it with the family.  Jonah especially has made a good go of it and has been improving his Vietnamese numbers on a daily basis.  I have loads of questions to ask about each uncle, aunty and cousin but need to bide my time and I am enjoying just trying to make the connections and map the intricate network of families through my own observations.

Coconuts are a good way to break the ice

Coconuts are a good way to break the ice

Food is such a central focus of Vietnamese (and other countries in SE Asia) culture and social cohesion. Whenever we return to Australia to see Oanh’s parents we are always treated to a Vietnamese culinary delight, it has been the same here in Vietnam staying with her family. Oanh explains that it is the way in which they show love and affection. In fact Oanh’s mum says the secret to cooking good food is to think of the person who you are cooking it for, as it helps ‘flavour’ the food!  My children especially like the coconuts that Aunty Tam brings out for them mid-morning for a snack.  I wonder if they have brought them specially for our visit and are treating them?  They probably are.   Their love of children and family are obvious.

cousins on the beach

cousins on the beach

It has been good watching our children interact and gain in confidence with their relatives.  They have grown affectionately close to a number of the older cousins and there have been plenty of hugs going around.  Some of the cousins have their own children of similar age to ours and it didn’t take long for them all to start playing together and causing chaos around the house – language (or lack thereof) is not a barrier as it seems to me that you only need to learn a first name and then everything else is universal.

Jonah with chu Hat

Jonah with Chu Hat

We have been staying with one of Oanh’s aunts, BaTam, her husband Chu Hat and a couple of their daughters ( I think they have eight children in total – I know one daughter is a nun in Italy and the youngest two are twins who are studying in Saigon).  It has been great staying there and getting to know them and we have really appreciated their hospitality and kindness.  Chu Hat works especially hard for a construction company and has already left for work when we wake up in the morning and doesn’t finish at the end of the day until late.  He does pop home for lunch though and is always smiley and chatty (he speaks some English) and has a beer with me!  The two daughters that we have met are a great credit to them and it has been lovely getting to know both Thien and Nhung, I hope we see them again soon in the near future.

Zoe getting her hair done (again!) this time with Yung and Jonah

Zoe getting her hair done (again!) this time with Nhung and Jonah

It is hard not to reflect and to think about the ‘what ifs’ when learning about the past and the present in such an authentic way. I am looking forward to asking Oanh all the questions I have stored up over the last few days as we head back to Thailand.  I am sure she has done much reflecting herself and I will be keen to discover how her memories and perceptions have changed since her first return visit.  I wonder if one day we could or should live and work in Vietnam or if my children will ever consider the possibility when they are older?

Phan Thiet Beach and the Pacific Ocean

35 years years ago on Phan Thiet Beach my future father in-law made the courageous but decision to leave his country, his home and his family and took those he could out into the Pacific Ocean to seek refuge.  The fates of many lives were certainly held in the balance during that one night. I am certainly grateful that despite Oanh’s father’s paralysing fears of death and the responsibility he felt for so many lives that night, and the deep sadness for leaving the country of his birth that the quest for searching for a better future for his children over-rode those fears.  Life would have been very different if he had not done so, not only for Oanh and her family but also for me as I wonder if I would have ever met Oanh if they had not left?  As Jonah realised, “So I would not have been born if Ong had not left Vietnam?”

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