Cockroaches, Cow Guts, and Other Pictures from a Thailand Food/Fish Market


Bright colors–of vegetables and cow guts.

Fried toad. Live toad.

Crustaceans and catfish.

And all the locals supplying and buying the goods.

On a down day during our stay in rural Chiang Rai Province, I set out with a couple of the boys I was chaperoning to visit the local market. Thai cuisine is legendary for its spice and umami. It’s no wonder that the market supplying the ingredients would offer rich and compelling slices of life from this part of the world.


We were staying in the small town of Thoeng, the hopping off point for our visits to our sister school as well as visits to other area sites. A couple of students and I walked out in the hot, hot sun, ducking under awnings along the sidewalk when possible past small electronic stores, clothing stores, and convenience stores.



A temple in the middle of town stood out as perhaps the most notable structure.


We then headed to the market. And after walking the few blocks, we discovered that beyond the front tables of breads and cooked chicken were the rawer aspects of culinary culture in Thailand.

It started with fruits and veggies.


Okay, not just fruits and vegetables. Hats above and catfish here:


But mainly it was plant food of every color of the rainbow.





The pattern of this place was that the further back you went, the more interesting things got. And in the back row of tables were these delicacies:



I bought some carrots, for I actually found them to be rare in Thai cuisine.

Adjacent to the produce market was the wet market. The two students and I swam in that direction for a look at the impressive selection of seafood. We were nowhere near an ocean. Yet they had these specimens for sale:







Within the scene were locals exchanging bills for fins with a soundtrack of a generator powering the oxygen.

It was a real, raw look at grocery shopping in this part of the world.

Enjoy some footage to visit this place yourself:


Faces in the Crowd at the Rice Street Parade in St. Paul


Parades are tried and true.

I’ve been going to them my whole life, and they’ve been part of down-home American culture for longer than anyone on Earth’s been alive.

Parades are great for a couple of reasons:

1. They display the different aspects of the area culture. Pageant queens, politicians, cowboys, police, athletes, performers, a local parade is a series of displays of how the people live their lives.

Yesterday evening (July 23), the school at which I work in St. Paul, MN participated in their neighborhood parade by way of their well-known dance team. It being a charter school catering to the Hmong community, their dance style is inspired by a variety of Asian cultures.


And like a good neighborhood parade, last night’s also featured the area councilperson, police, a team of boxers, and some beauty queens.

But today, I’m more interested in who was lining the route than those walking down its center.

2. The audience, as well, indicate the culture, the language, the lifestyles of the neighborhood, and I’ve never seen a geographic demographic as ethnically diverse.

As writer/photographer for the school, I was tasked to walk and shoot the dance team. I let my instincts aim outward as well, in these shots of the faces along the Rice Street Parade in St. Paul, Minnesota:


























Who are the people in your neighborhood?


Thailand’s Hall of Opium and a Talk with Teenagers About Drugs 


We walked a long, darkened hall with just a hint of red and purple hues in the air. The light reflected the bumpy, rock-like walls that had embedded within fossil-like skeletons and skulls with expression of scream and terror.

This museum started off like a haunted house, and that’s evidently the first impression they want visitors to have.

Hall Opium3

Well, not quite the first.

From the outside, the Hall of Opium looks like a friendly, modern structure welcoming you to enter and learn about the regional culture.


The Hall of Opium in northern Thailand, located near the Thailand, Laos, and Burma borders, in the middle of a region known as Golden Triangle–so-called for its historic and prolific opium production.

Hall Opium4

But once you entered to that first freaky hallway, it was clear that the culture shaped by a plant has ultimately been a dark and deadly one.


Opium is indeed a flower, a flower with a pronounced bulb resting at its top within which is the sap used to derive heroin, morphine, and other opiates.

opium flower

I thought it strange when it was announced we’d go to a museum devoted to a drug, but this opium has done a lot more than just get people high.

It became the basis of an economy:

Opium scale

Opium scale

The impetus for war:

Opium War depiction--the First Opium War (there were two)

Opium War depiction–the First Opium War (there were two)

The basis of an entire culture:

Opium dens

Opium dens

And a thread through the history of East/West relations:

Opium trade ships

Opium trade ships from England


After the hellish opening corridor, we got to the museum you might expect, including the items pictured above.

There was also a botany room devoted to the plant itself, which included a fake, concrete opium flower bed in the corner with fake, plastic opium plants growing forth.

Out in fields not too far from where the museum stood–mainly in Burma–workers still harvest this crop. In Thailand (and Burma), cultivation of opium is illegal in the eyes of the international community–and probably the local governments, too. But things slide. There’s a lot of money from street drugs greasing the wheels.

150 years ago, opium was sliding freely all over Asia and beyond. Its effects of getting people relaxed–very relaxed and euphoric–became especially popular in China. Use of the drug formed its own culture, which shaped Chinese culture. Designer pipes and pillow industries rose to appeal to the serious user. Candy shops set up near the dens, because after getting high, the user craved sweets. It was ritual to go to an opium den after a day’s work. A quarter of the male Chinese population were opium users.

China had had enough and made the drug illegal.

England resisted the prohibition, though, because opium was then being imported from Britain-controlled India–thus the Opium Wars, both of which England won.

But eventually things hit home for the West when opium dens popped up in America and other nations. And in 1909, several nations gathered for an opium conference, and soon after, the drug was outlawed in many countries.

I walked away from the museum with two key points in mind:

  1. The human susceptibility to addiction: This is an odd activity for an organism to undertake–for one’s mind to permit and justify this slow suicide. It’s even stranger when you see how normal this self destruction can become when socially accepted.
  2. Despite all the problems caused by the War on Drugs, I better appreciated why it was waged, particularly when putting myself in place of Chinese leaders in the 1800s. If left with the choice to watch your people endure this ruin or prevent it with force, the choice seems obvious.

To the museum’s credit, it wasn’t just a palace of doom and gloom to try and scare people away from the horrors of drugs. There was much information simply laid out for people to decide for themselves the impact of policy. And in fact, they even had a generously-sized set of wall panels devoted to the War on Drugs debate, including proponents for ending drug prohibition entirely.

But the main message of the museum was the harm caused, and to show the universal toll opium has doled out, one of the final displays was a panel of global celebrities taken in by the lure of heroin, morphine, or other opium-derived drugs.

opium kurtcobainunpluggedbig


I was in Thailand documenting the trip of 37 eighth grade students from St. Paul, Minnesota.  Throughout the museum, the students dutifully took notes of the history and reading the captions along the exhibits.

Some left with question–basic ones. On our drive back to our motel, one of the boys in my van asked me, “Brandon, why is opium bad?”

It was Kevin, 14, a curious young man in thick-frame glasses. I turned around and exhaled with the acknowledgement that this wasn’t going to be a short answer. But I was also eager to share with the six young men sitting behind me. I know that most of the talk they hear about drugs is likely to try to scare them away from it. I wanted to offer them a more honest view.

“Guys, opium isn’t necessarily bad,” I said. “It’s a substance that affects your body by slowing it down. And you feel relaxed and feel good. This is useful when someone is in pain. But some people use it just to get high.”

I paused and asked, “Does that make sense?”

“Yeah,” said two or three of them.

“The problem is that it takes more and more of the drug to feel good. Like someone who needs to drink fours beers to get drunk instead of the two they used to need. Plus, like a hangover from alcohol, you start to feel sick after the opium wears off.

“So, you see there are two factors: you need more and more to feel high–tolerance. And when you don’t have it, you feel sick–dependence. Both cause you to want more, and people start taking too much. Opium slows you down. Sometimes people take enough to slow their heart to a stop and they die.

“Does that make sense?”

“Yeah,” said the same two or three.

They didn’t offer any follow up questions. I hope the knowledge can be useful to them. I hope the Hall of Opium can serve to lessen opium abuse in the region and beyond.


An Unbelievable Twins Story, A Revelation of What Makes Us Who We Are


After writing about identical twins (including my grandmother and her sister), I was sent this incredible story from the New York Times about two sets of identical twins in Colombia:

Two sets of identical twins were born at the same time at the same hospital. They were mixed up, with one of each being sent home with the wrong family. The two sets were raised as fraternal twins in different parts of the country. Then 25 years later, a coworker of one of the twins happened to spot his lookalike–his actual twin. All four were reunited and the mix up discovered.

Twins Bogota

These four men from Colombia were switched at birth, not knowing they had an identical twin. (picture New York Times)

Last week, I wrote about the connectedness of twins, about how my grandmother could feel that her sister had just passed. I shared about a set of identical twins from China whose story of reunification was full of coincidence. The story above, of course, exemplifies this as well. Twins give us a precious and powerful look into those connections between humans that we can’t see.

Twins also reveal truths about what makes us human on a biological level.

I had also mentioned in my previous article the work of the Minnesota Twin Family Study. I was employed there for about 18 months after graduating from the University of Minnesota. This piece above also cites the U of MN’s Twin Study while taking the opportunity to lay out plainly the debate of nature vs. nurture:

“…identical twins have helped elucidate our most basic understanding of why, and how, we become who we are. By studying the overlap of traits in fraternal twins (who share, on average, 50 percent of their genes) and the overlap of those traits in identical twins (who share 100 percent of their genes), scientists have, for more than a century, been trying to tease out how much variation within a population can be attributed to heredity and how much to environment. ‘Twins have a special claim upon our attention,’ wrote Sir Francis Galton, a British scientist who in the late 19th century was the first to compare twins who looked very much alike with those who did not (although science had not yet distinguished between identical and fraternal pairs). ‘It is, that their history affords means of distinguishing between the effects of tendencies received at birth, and those that were imposed by the special circumstances of their after lives.’

“Galton, who was Darwin’s cousin, is at least as well known for coining the term ‘eugenics’ as he is for his innovative analysis of twins (having concluded, partly from his research, that healthy, intelligent people should be given incentives to breed more). His scientific successor, Hermann Werner Siemens, a German dermatologist, in the early 1920s conducted the first studies of twins that bear remarkable similarity to those still conducted today. But he also drew conclusions that for decades contaminated the strain of research he pioneered; he supported Hitler’s arguments in favor of ‘racial hygiene.’ In seeking genetic origins for various traits they considered desirable or undesirable, these researchers seemed to be treading dangerously close to the pursuit of a master race.

“Despite periods of controversy, twins studies proliferated. Over the last 50 years, some 17,000 traits have been studied, according to a meta-­analysis led by Tinca Polderman, a Dutch researcher, and Beben Benyamin, an Australian, and published this year in the journal Nature Genetics. Researchers have claimed to divine a genetic influence in such varied traits as gun ownership, voting preferences, homosexuality, job satisfaction, coffee consumption, rule enforcement and insomnia. Virtually wherever researchers have looked, they have found that identical twins’ test results are more similar than those of fraternal twins. The studies point to the influence of genes on almost every aspect of our being (a conclusion so sweeping that it indicates, to some scientists, only that the methodology must be fatally flawed). ‘Everything is heritable,’ says Eric Turkheimer, a behavioral geneticist at the University of Virginia. ‘The more genetically related a pair of people are, the more similar they are on any other outcome of interest’ — whether it be personality, TV watching or political leaning. ‘But this can be true without there being some kind of specific mechanism that is driving it, some version of a Huntington’s-­disease gene. It is based on the complex combined effects of an unaccountable number of genes.’

“Arguably the most intriguing branch of twins research involves a small and unusual class of research subjects: identical twins who were reared apart. Thomas Bouchard Jr., a psychologist at the University of Minnesota, began studying them in 1979, when he first learned of Jim and Jim, two Ohio men reunited that year at age 39. They not only looked remarkably similar, but had also vacationed on the same Florida beach, married women with the same first name, divorced those women and married second wives who also shared the same name, smoked the same brand of cigarette and built miniature furniture for fun. Similar in personality as well as in vocal intonation, they seemed to have been wholly formed from conception, impervious to the effects of parenting, siblings or geography. Bouchard went on to research more than 80 identical-­twin pairs reared apart, comparing them with identical twins reared together, fraternal twins reared together and fraternal twins reared apart. He found that in almost every instance, the identical twins, whether reared together or reared apart, were more similar to each other than their fraternal counterparts were for traits like personality and, more controversial, intelligence. One unexpected finding in his research suggested that the effect of a pair’s shared environment — say, their parents — had little bearing on personality. Genes and unique experiences — a semester abroad, an important friend — were more influential.

“As pure science, the study of twins reared apart has troubled some researchers. Those twins either self-­select and step forward or become known to researchers through media reports — which are less inclined to cover identical twins who do not look remarkably alike, who did not marry and divorce women of the same name or choose the same obscure hobby. Identical twins who do not look remarkably alike, of course, are also less likely to be spotted and reunited in the first place. And few studies of twins, whether reared apart or reared together, have included twins from extremely different backgrounds.

‘Every study will have its critics,’ says Nancy Segal, a professor at California State University, Fullerton, who worked with Bouchard from 1982 to 1991. ‘But studying twins reared apart separates genetic and environmental effects on behavior better than any research design I know.’’’

Dr. Thomas Bouchard was a professor of mine. He used to lecture in our class precisely that which this article later states: “On average, the researchers found, any particular trait or disease in an individual is about 50 percent influenced by environment and 50 percent influenced by genes.”

He got flack for this–so did the entire U of MN psychological department. They were called Nazis because of their findings that genes matter as much as environment. Meanwhile, because of the taboo against genetic impact, the anthropology department didn’t have or receive any problems stating the scientifically inaccurate: that we’re entirely products of our environment.

There are implications and inferences when crediting genes or environment for shaping a human, but in the end, and like so many either/or arguments, the truth is that it isn’t “either/or” at all. Founding researcher of the Minnesota Twin Study, Dr. David Lykken, summed it up once by saying, “It’s not ‘nature vs. nurture’, it’s ‘nature via nurture.'”

It’s time for us to take a post-partisan position on the effects of genes and environment.

For more explanation of the science of what shapes a human being, and for the incredible tale of these four guys, take some time to read this long-form piece.


The Incredible Experience of Being a Twin Reveals How We’re All Connected


There is more to the human experience than I believe meets the eye.

There are bonds between people. There are coincidences that aren’t really merely coincidences at all, but are so-called because the forces at play are invisible.

At a fundraising benefit dinner on April 24 for the school in Tanzania at which I had worked in 2014, I shared with the attendees that we can all look back on our lives and realize how connection and coincidence had transpired to allow for incredible happenings and experiences.

I used my meeting the school founder as an example that would eventually lead to me being before this very group of 100 supporters. I could also cite my recent trip to Thailand and how that all came together five years removed from an initial meeting before last fall’s coincidental(?) reintroduction to the school which would hire me–and then ask me document their trip to Thailand.

Not all examples are so clear, but the more pronounced they are, the more profound–and the better they serve as evidence that this invisible connectedness is real, and that those who get to experience it vividly are fortunate.

Probably the best, most reliable, example are identical twins.


On May 20, I called my grandmother. She had tried to call me on my birthday (May 15) but I had been away. When we spoke, she shared with me some sad news. Her sister had passed. And this wasn’t just her sister. It was her identical twin: Grandma Jeannette and her sister Annette.

Annette had a heart condition. Grandma said to me on the phone that she would know when her sister was suffering through a down spell in her health–despite them being two states apart (Minnesota, Nebraska). Grandma said, “I’d ask Annette, ‘Why didn’t you tell me you were sick rather than make me feel it?'”

To me, what was interesting about Grandma’s statement wasn’t just the apparent connection she had with her sister. It was that she said the above sentence as casually as if she were talking about food or clothing. These twins’ connection was just a normal part of their lives.

Grandma holding her and Annette's graduation photo

Grandma holding her and Annette’s high school graduation photo

These kinds of unseen connections have been written about for ages. I don’t think there many scientists who will go on record to back up such phenomena, though, because as far as I know it isn’t measurable nor are there any studies showing concrete evidence for it. It’s just examples of long-term coincidental events like my trip to Thailand or series of events that highlight (or were just a normal part) of Grandma and her sister’s life. And such events can always be explained by something else–coincidence, odds, the fact that someone had to be there, or why not the events that happened?, etc.

Scientists shy away from suggesting an unseen connection, because it assumes that you’re drifting toward the miraculous. Or that God controls everything. But why does it have to be all or nothing? How about just a general connection between humans–between some more than others; some force at play that helps shape outcomes and occurrences and situations and meetings; something to acknowledge, perhaps something we even have a hand in, but something we’re unconscious of and so something we cannot control. We just get to go for the ride while living our lives.

At some point, when seeing how human lives are imbued with this phenomena, you start to accumulate enough examples where trying to explain it away with mere chance becomes cumbersome. Reaching for an accepted scientific explanation starts to become more of a stretch than it is to simply acknowledge this unseen influence. It’s like dark matter. We can’t see it. But we know it’s there because of its effect on other matter. Such a broader scope helped convince one researcher I used to work for of this connection.


For about 18 months, from 2005-2006, I worked for the Minnesota Center for Twin Family Research at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. The “Minnesota Twin Study” is famous for discovering the first examples of identical twins raised apart. The most famous perhaps were the “Jim Twins” reunited in 1979 at the age of 39 after being separated at four months of age.

Their similarities were uncanny: “…they discovered they both suffered from tension headaches, were prone to nail biting, smoked Salem cigarettes, drove the same type of car and even vacationed at the same beach in Florida.”

After having seen several hundred pairs of twins in his career, Dr. David Lykken, principal researcher and founding member of the study, said that he wished he could have been a twin. He said this to us employees well into his retirement at a Twin Study staff meeting. The white-haired, elderly man sat hunched over in a chair in the front of the room in Elliott Hall, and shared how he couldn’t deny the connection between identical twins and that he would have loved to have had that experience in his life. He died just weeks later.


Dr. David Lykken (1928-2006)

In literature and conversation, we speak of chemistry, electricity, that something “clicked” between two people. We may get to know someone so well, “we can finish each other’s sentences.” This documentary from PBS offers an incredible tale of how two orphaned twins found one another, and then despite being raised on separate continents, how their similarities and connection knew not that distance.

Watching this documentary, I realize that these twins aren’t just lucky for getting to experience this unseen connection. But because such experiences are so precious and rich, they exemplify the reasons we live: to feel deeply and experience great things.

I’m sorry that my grandmother lost her sister. But I’m happy that she had almost 80 years to have an identical twin and feel connected to someone in such a profound way.


Grandma’s sister Annette died May 12 of this year. Grandma told me about that day–and the night before.

“I had a funny dream. I was trying to find her (Annette). I was calling and kept looking for her. Then I awoke and said, ‘no she’s gone.'”

Of course, Grandma knew her sister had a heart condition. So her acknowledgment of her sister’s death had reasonable context. But what she felt seemed no less compelling a reason to believe that there was something tangible between them.

“It felt like I was cut right in two,” Grandma continued.

Jeanette and Annette

Jeannette and Annette’s graduation in 1954

I empathized the best I could by sharing stories I had heard about the remarkable nature of identical twins when working at the Twin Study.

“They sent me questionnaires,” replied Grandma. “They’ve been sending it for years.”

After a beat, I asked, “Grandma, you were part of the study?”

She doesn’t remember how far back it started, but years, perhaps decades, ago, her and Annette were asked to take part in a particular inventory of identical twin data as part of the overall study.

“Oh man, I think I had 100 questions,” Grandma sighed referring to the questionnaire. But she always filled out the information, which surprised me because Grandma is a private person.

“If they care enough to keep track of the twins, then I feel I should answer it,” she explained to me.

The data I had seen when working for the study, that the Twin Study researchers had reviewed and cited in their journals, the examples Dr. Lykken referred to just weeks before his death, included my own grandmother.


One Cliff, Two Rivers, Three Countries: A Story of Freedom


I stood at the edge of a cliff overlooking a windy, muddy river coming into view from my left. It meandered its way across my line of sight until meeting another, larger river perpendicularly. This truer river, clearer in direction and color, came into view from the distant horizon straight ahead and continued toward me until veering out of view past my right shoulder. Between the rivers, of course, was land.

Beyond the windy river from my left was a bank of tall grass. Further back were a few trees, and in the distance were green hills as a backdrop for this empty, low-laying plot. On the right hand side of the larger river coming toward me was a similarly gradual bank with trees beyond and hills in the distance. This bank, however, featured some buildings and development that stayed consistent all along its edge.

On the edge of my bank, I saw only the drop and plants clinging to the top of this boundary before the descent to the rivers below.

And it was a boundary. In fact there were three made by the two rivers: the windy Ruak River straight below and the mighty Mekong River coming toward me.

I was standing in Thailand. The bank of low-laying tall grass to my left was Burma. The built-upon bank along the larger river was Laos.

One point. Three countries.

DSC07378 (1)

Angled piece of land = Burma (Myanmar); Upper right = Laos; Foreground = Thailand.


With our group of 8th grade students, one of our activities in Thailand was a visit to the north to a region known as The Golden Triangle.


This region is so-named and famous for reasons that you may not suspect would be popular with a school trip: it was once the most productive (and still a significant) region for growing opium in the world. Opium is the plant whose sap is derived to create heroin, morphine, and other related drugs.

Yet here at the meeting point of these three countries is growing tourist infrastructure, development, an impressive museum that we’d get to, and the park at which we were presently.

DSC07375 (1)

Golden Triangle Park overlooks the Ruak River separating Burma from Thailand, and the Mekong dividing Burma and Thailand from Laos.



To me, these were simply two foreign countries shrouded in a bit of mystery.

For many of our students, though, their soil represented homelands.

Our student group consisted of ethnic Hmong and ethnic Karenni. The Hmong were forced to flee Laos for safety in Thailand in the 70s. The Karenni are a people from Burma, who, like the Hmong, fled their homeland and its oppressive regime for the relative safety of Thailand. So while Thailand was once where many of our students or their parents called home, Burma and Laos is where many of their grandparents and ancestors going back indefinitely called home.

Not all the Karenni left Burma. Not all of the Hmong left Laos. One of our Hmong chaperon’s in-laws remain there. One of our Hmong students was born there. Sara, 14, sat on a bench atop that cliff edge overlooking the rivers and countries. The young woman was red-faced with moisture streaming down her cheeks while leaning her head on the shoulder of a friend.

Sara left Laos only five years ago and came to the US knowing no English. She came with some siblings but not her half-siblings. Somewhere far beyond that bluff into Laos, they were going about their lives. Seeing the soil brought back her memories of childhood and the relationships she left behind.

Many Hmong had to leave their lives in Laos behind. When the Vietnam war ended, the communist Laotian (and Vietnamese) governments didn’t appreciate the Hmong having had a hand in the US efforts. The Hmong were targeted. So they fled to Thailand across this very river, the Mekong–perhaps not far from this very spot. Whether due to injury, boats capsizing, inability to swim, being caught trying to flee, many didn’t make it over the river.

To me, the Mekong was a blue line on the map and featured on shows like River Monsters where the host catches great fish from the world’s great rivers. To the Hmong, the Mekong is a regular feature in their traditional story quilts; a representation of life, death, freedom, and other thoughts related to my home country’s this time of year.

Americans celebrate the 4th of July to recognize the land they fought to secure. The Hmong recognize the Mekong as the finish line and starting point of a new land in which they could live free.


We walked around this park. The first noteworthy sight had been behind me the whole time, also overlooking this international view:

DSC07379 (1)

Up a nearby hill were temples and sculpture.

Both school's students posing at the base of the ornate steps leading up the hill.

Students posing at the base of the ornate steps leading up the hill

Up the hill, we enjoyed these sights:



New temple


Old temple ruins



Down the stairwell on the other side of the hill


Gateway featuring the King and Queen of Thailand

After the park, we went to the Hall of Opium, a museum that I found interesting for its devotion to a drug. But I discovered that opium wasn’t just a drug. It was the impetus for war, the heart of an economy, and the center of a culture of addiction in Asia. I’m going to share about it next week.

For now, let’s get back to the river…


The final activity of the day was a boat ride on the Mekong.


On the Thailand bank

A few decades back, relatives of some of these students crossed at night using row boats–or jerricans, or trees, or nothing.

Today in 2015, however, we all loaded up in motorized longboats and dressed up in life vests. Need to be safe on this swift ride for these American passport-holding Hmong and Karenni.


Students readying to board

A lot can change in a few years.


Much easier to cross by boat.

DSC07542 (1)

And the country from which many of their parents/grandparents fled now welcomed these students back. This specific region of Laos is known as the Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone (SEZ).

DSC07381 (1)

SEZ is a designation given to parts of a country with the hopes that they can develop with more liberal economic policy. China has a few of these. For instance, we didn’t need to pay a visa fee–or even have our passports stamped–to enter this zone in Laos.

On the other side, a market.


From fleeing Laos, to finding new homes in Thailand and then the US, our American Hmong students returned to find a freer, more peaceful land.


I Received an Old Dollar Bill as Change; A Lesson Ensued


“Hold on,” said the barista as she studied the bill she was about to hand back to me for change.

She looked down at it with wrinkled brow. The she held it up to the light. I joked about counterfeiters probably not wasting time producing dollar bills.

The barista couldn’t find her counterfeit-finding pen so just handed it to me to look at. I thought it might be real–and real old. So I said I’d take a chance on it.


Turned out it was real–and pretty old. 1957. Back then, our dollars didn’t say “Federal Reserve Note” across the top but “Silver Certificate.”

Can you guess why?


We aren’t that good with money knowledge. But such facts tell us something about our country, the nature of money, and social psychology. (A much more detailed and complete history of money can be found here.)

Back in the day-way back in the day–money was invented as a way of exchanging goods and services without having to trade or barter, to have to find someone who wanted to trade what they had or offered with what you had or offered. Money allowed one person to simply exchange value for a good or service whether they had something the other person wanted or not. This first money is considered commodity money, because it was made of something with inherent value–precious metals like gold and silver or seashells. 

Eventually, representative money came along to replace the unwieldiness of carrying around a sack of gold. This money started as receipts for deposits made, and people started trading them instead of the deposits themselves. This turned into the first paper money. And thus, the US government used to print money like the bill above as certificates exchangeable for silver. Back when our parents or grandparents were running around, they could’ve taken a bill like this, gone to a bank, and exchanged it for a bit of silver.

But then, governments decided to try something: would people trust this paper as worthy even without the backing of something tangible? Perhaps–if government made it law to accept it, illegal to make other competing currencies, and even under FDR criminalize gold possession–the citizens would be compelled to trust it. They did. In fact, they may have trusted without all these measures. Today, Americans are allowed by law once again to buy gold and yet we all still trust the dollar, which in the 70s lost all ties to precious metals and thus, bills like the one above ended.

Today we don’t carry Silver Certificates. We carry Federal Reserve Notes, the Federal Reserve being the national bank in charge of monetary policy. I do think it’s a raw deal that I’m not allowed to exchange this bill for silver from the government. Feels like Uncle Sam went back on his word. And the inflation of currency since being decoupled from precious metals, and the resultant devaluing of the dollar, has money-savers crying foul. (If you saved money all your life, your savings has dwindled. But if you find (or have) pre-1965 quarters, keep them. They’re actually made of silver and worth much more than face value.)

But for most, the modern identity of money is acceptable. In fact, that’s exactly what’s been discovered over this grand worldwide experiment: money simply comes down to trust, believability, and acceptance. The dollar is just paper, but gold is just metal. And that Picasso is just paint on canvas. Value for these items is subject to sociological processes–mass acceptance. Generally, as long as trust is high, the currency, and thus the economy, will operate smoothly.

Finally, as this time of year encourages, we can now look back on our nation’s history with a little more understanding. 


The Hmong Mountain Village in Thailand

We walked past one-room houses of bamboo stick walls, straw roofs, and dirt floors.

Chickens scampered and clucked about.

Children played barefoot and parents in flip-flops tended to the babies, prepped meals, or conducted other daily chores.

This was a quiet lifestyle. No machines–though it felt as if we had entered a time machine and gone back to the days when my great grandparents lived in similar conditions, minus the bamboo of course.

This was a hill village in Southeast Asia, and we wandered it on May 11.


All this day–sports day at our sister school, about which I shared last week–I had been teased with images of the adjacent village activity. Then by mid-afternoon, after the students had kicked their last goal and shot their last basket, it was as if life heeded the call of these photographs, and Kazoua, our trip supervisor, called out, “Okay everyone, we’re going to tour the village!”


Sister school soccer field with village beyond

All 37 of our students, us six chaperons, and a village guide began the walk the village, Huai Khu near the Thailand-Laos border.

map Huai khu

We walked down the hill atop which the school was perched. Nearing the bottom, we took in the activity of main street, a tar road lined with concrete, painted buildings with metal corrugated roofs.


Huai Khu is a young municipality–maybe 40 years old, a settlement of Hmong former refugees after their refugee camps were closed, and so the Hmong assimilated within Thailand.

Though the people here identify Huai Khu as a “village” rather than a “town,” I admit this part feeling more “townish” with the convenience stores of food staples, cold sodas, and candy; mopeds zooming along the road; and electricity powering the lives along this stretch.




Then things changed.

We went off the main road, and as happens in cities all over the world, a mere minute of walking can see the scenery adjustdrastically.


Bamboo chute walls replaced the concrete. No more cement floors. Floors were earth. Overall, people lived with less distinguishing between work and home.

And then we really went off the beaten path.


Our guide, an employee at our sister school, directed our group of students and chaperons up a hill path. Heading deeper into the woods of the hillside while climbing higher, the path became narrower and even a bit treacherous as one feared slipping and tumbling down unless a tree should interrupt your fall.

And the crazy part was that this was the route some of our sister school children took every day to get to class.

Eventually, moving a few, eye-level branches out of my way, I had reached the plane of the hilltop where things opened up. There were several simple buildings.



Fowl waddled about.

Children looked at our group–especially at white man me.


And as was apparent with the girl above watching her younger sibling, the ways of life here were evident.

DSC07678 (1)



Caged birds and a man sharpening a knife

The Hmong are known in Southeast Asia as “Hill People.” It seemed that after leaving the refugee camps, they assumed their ways up here.

The views were lovely.



After several minutes wandering, we made our way back down to one of those convenience stores for some refrigerated water.


The average American has compartmentalized the elements of life: work, family, vacation, spirituality, leisure. I believe this demarcation is in line with the American strength of productivity. Separating these element leads to more impact for each.

But while life is enriched by these impactful elements, and while it can be cleaner to organize them exclusive to one another, there is also something relaxing and calming and serene about the way things were done here at Huai Khu.

Don’t worry about having to look the part, impress others, meet the deadline–often all at the expense of missing out on our breath, our existence. To soak in the pleasure of feeding chickens or sharpening a blade is to realize the joy in life’s fundamental elements. It’s really about being in touch with life. Heck, up here even the line between civilization and nature itself was blurred in ways further than I was used to.


It’s a blessing to experience, and then understand, how different lifestyles exhibit different strengths and expand the potential for humankind.

After the tour, we made our way back to our motel in the nearest city a hilly hour’s drive away.  The next day we’d drive both schools’ students a couple of hours away to a place where we could see three countries standing in one spot.

The Minnesota Mike Rowe


Meet Chris Hensiak, welding instructor at Hennepin Technical College.


I met him while researching a story about work being done to help lives in inner-city Minneapolis. His school is partnered with a north Minneapolis nonprofit to provide welding and machining education to local young adults.

The demand, on both ends, is high.

“They’ll take as many guys as I can feed them,” he says of local power companies.

Young adults arrive to find “hidden jobs they never heard about. Schools have this theory that everyone has to go to four year college,” he said.

Chris is the Minnesota Mike Rowe.

Mike Rowe

Mike Rowe is the TV host who’s become famous in recent years for his programs about blue collar work in America. By hosting these programs, Rowe discovered that these jobs weren’t just interesting to learn about–they were in need of good workers. Then he uncovered the stone causing this: a systemic undervaluing of hard work in America preventing young people to not just shy away from physically demanding work but to shy away from hard work in general.

Chris Hensiak echoes these sentiments. But this attitudinal hurdle isn’t his only obstacle. The guys he works with–the ones in the inner-city who most need the jobs–are also the ones at a higher rate of not qualifying. Working at a power plant or oil refinery means needing to have no criminal record according to guideline set by US Homeland Security.

But he’s not deterred. The need is there, and the jobs “pay huge,” he said. It’s rewarding to work with the guys he does get qualified, to train them for a career they can be proud of. Today, in fact, he’s got a class of eight guys who are going to try welding for the first time.


Teaching Football to Thai Students


Blue 42; Blue 42!!

Our interactions with our sister school in the rural hill country of Thailand went beyond the classroom. Scheduled for two days were: a service project and a sports day. And like my Mom taught me, you do the work first. Then you can go play in the field.


A service project is one of those things that sounds like a nice thing to do with your day. Help out. Do your community some good. Make the world a better place.

Well, the world here had a heaping pile of sand that wasn’t going to move itself.

The day after our students joined theirs in classes, we arrived via our vans cruising over and around green hills of farm and forest on the warm, sunny morning. We arrived, parked, and disembarked to see the local students already in action.

DSC07135 (1)

Shovel and shovel the dirt into the wheelbarrow to roll and dump over yonder, and do it all over again. And again. And again.

But no worries. Many hands make for light work, and we had 37 students to go along with theirs, who admittedly worked harder than ours. The stereotype that First World life can soften a person held true, though our students certainly worked.

DSC07165 (1)

I compared the Hmong youth from here in rural Thailand with sun-baked skin and wearing only flip flops on their feet vs. our students in looser, cleaner clothing, trendy baseball caps and tennis shoes, many of whom probably hadn’t put in a hard days’ labor in ages if not their entire age.

First World living is preferred by most, but easy living also means the option to get soft. You may have to work to work–to choose it. Though it may seem an odd choice, strenuous athletic activity is part of our body’s evolutionary expectation, and thus, our mental makeup. In order to feel good from head to toe, we have to get up and get active.

We asked the students to do so a bit today and they stepped up alongside their Thai peers.

DSC07171 (1)

The job was finished within two hours.

And that was really it for that day. Other tasks were on the docket, but the task leader from their school was unable to arrive. So we didn’t have to put in as much work to reap the reward of playtime the next time we came to the school.


This next morning we arrived to a downpour, a rain on our parade of a plan for a sports day. We settled for indoor, gym class-type games in the school cafeteria.

DSC07584 (1)

But then things let up.

Some students went to the cement basketball court to shoot hoops and bump volleyballs. Others followed me down to the football field.

DSC07151 (1)

Field to the bottom right

And when I say football, I mean soccer. This isn’t America.

But I’m American. So though it may have been a soccer field, I carried with me a football–the American, egg-shaped one. It was likely the first time the local students in this isolated village had seen one, let alone use.

I had a little work to do.

In fact, football isn’t exactly a popular sport in the Hmong community in the US, either. Our K-8 institution does not offer football. So I was tasked to show Americans and Thai alike the finer points of throwing, catching, and eventually even playing.

Five boys from the school here wanted to give this odd ball a try. We started with some catch.

DSC07587 (1)

DSC07588 (1)

DSC07590 (1)

They caught on to catch pretty quick.

Good thing, too, because now it was game time. The big leagues. The international games between a Hmong charter school from St. Paul and a Hmong village school from Thailand.

A match for the ages.

The teams lined up, the quarterback yelled, “Hut!”, and the players all ran out for a pass in this two-hand-touch, American football recess-style.

DSC07592 (1)

DSC07594 (1)

Here, too, the Thai students caught on–as did one of the teachers, a 40-year-old fella with excitement in his step and tight grimace of a game face as he ran out, caught a pass…but then would think rugby or something and pass it again to another teammate.

Didn’t matter.

The point was that all enjoyed and got involved. Sports–like chores had been the previous day–was a conduit for building relationships.

While they continued bonding in competition, I looked around outside the field to the adjacent village action.

DSC07600 (1)

DSC07607 (1)

DSC07609 (1)


Teachers called out to the students, and all ran back up the hill to the cafeteria. Well, most used their feet. These two from the Thai school used their scooter.

DSC07606 (1)

After a lunch of rice, spicy meat, and mango, students from both schools teamed up once more–and once more over chores: doing the dishes.

DSC07614 (1)

From shoveling to sporting to soaking, these two teams worked as one.

While they did so, I caught glimpses of more of the surrounding village.

DSC07143 (1)

DSC07623 (1)

The afternoon saw the sun come out.

Under the burning bulb in the sky, I used an umbrella for something other than rain for the first time in my life. Students weren’t so concerned about sunburn and “non-American” football was now in play.

DSC07633 (1)

After an afternoon session, the sports day came to an end. Yet those village shots above proved a foreshadow.

After the afternoon games, we all took a stroll. Earlier Hmong village visits on this trip had been influenced by tourism, vendors ready for our and others’ arrival. This time was different. This late afternoon village wander was quiet minus the calls for goods for sale and less colorful minus the flamboyant Hmong traditional wear hanging on racks.

This was what you might call a “real” village in the hills of Thailand, and I’ll show it to you next Sunday.


Subscribe to RSS Feed Follow me on Twitter!
Skip to toolbar