On the morning of May 7, we awoke in our half-star hotel in Thoeng to fulfill the core purpose for our school’s travel to Thailand: meeting our sister school in the rural north.
As we had done the day before, we loaded up the vans, left town, and rode the windy, up-n-down road to-and-through the hilly countryside.
We crept along, taking in the views and meeting locals on their vehicles.
Eventually, we reached what could have been just another mountain village, except this one happened to be named Huai Khu.
As we got into town, we toured the narrow, dusty tar road past the wooden buildings, kids running in bare feet, adults (or kids) driving mopeds past the area homes/general stores. We reached a driveway to the right, scaling a hill beyond the front gate. This was Huai Khu school.
On last year’s trip to Thailand, our school (Community School of Excellence in St. Paul) was introduced to this fellow Hmong-student school in Huai Khu. This is a Hmong village not even 40 years old, a community founded by the Hmong who had been in refugee camps when fleeing nearby Laos in the aftermath of the Vietnam War.
History Lesson Deeper:
See, the Hmong aided the Americans in that conflict, and for that, many were killed by the communist Laotian government. Naturally, many hightailed it out of Laos for neutral Thailand. Thailand cooperated by allowing the Hmong to stay, but in these humble camps–so huge they were like shack/cabin cities, really.
But Thailand wasn’t going to let them stay indefinitely. Something had to be done. Many Hmong came to the US starting in the 70s-particularly Minnesota, Wisconsin, and California. Many also stayed–and started villages like Huai Khu. Here, they sort of picked up where things left off before the war: agrarian lifestyles in the hills of Southeast Asia.
Meanwhile, those to who came to the US had to hit the ground running to keep up with fast-paced American life. The two halves diverged, and this day they came together.
We exited the vans on the dirt drive at the top of the hill. Several buildings–classroom, lunchroom, storage–of various size (and all exposed to the elements without glass in the windows or without doors) made up the small school. I looked in one particular direction to take in some nearby area homes.
I looked down to take in some area farm animals.
Right away, things came together for these Old/New World Hmong in a powerful way. One of the boys in my group was called over by the head of the school. Tommy, 14, walked over in his clean tennis shoes and Yankees baseball cap to a local woman in white blouse and floral dress, her little daughter standing beside her. She was Tommy’s mom’s cousin. He had been told she would meet him here, but it was a surprise to us, and when seeing her he and she yet seemed struck by the encounter.
Tommy handed the relative he had never met a gift from his parents: a bag of clothing and a $100 bill.
Bloodlines began this connection in an intimate and powerful way.
Here’s some footage of our arrival:
Next we went into the school building, where our schools would connect doing what they do best–conduct classes.
We walked down the hill to classroom building. When we got there, I looked down further to the sports field, as well as enjoyed a sweeping view of the village and rolling countryside nestling and nurturing this community.
The two story structure of approximately ten rooms had a “school feel.” It’s just that compared to the US, standards were different–as was the language and decoration.
Before students entered class, they began their day seated in the classroom building portico.
After a couple of welcomes were offered by school administration, classes began.
First was Thai language class.
Then came computers.
After they learned about computers, I walked up to the second floor to see them.
The computer teacher started speaking to other chaperons and myself about starting a email pen pal exchange between his students here and students at our school in St. Paul.
Kazoua, our trip leader, said to me, “Brandon, maybe you can help with this.”
“Yeah, I think I can,” I thought. I had done this very thing in Tanzania.
So I sat with the computer teacher in the lab, explaining in my plainest English how he logistically could best arrange this with their slow internet speeds here (accessed via cell phone towers).
Emails should start in the fall. I’m excited to be able to help facilitate this continued connection between the two schools.
Oh, and there was a shedding lizard in the computer lab.
In the afternoon, students learned art.
And then English. Thus, each school’s students were able to help their Hmong peers from across the Pacific with their respective non-Hmong languages.
Finally, students finished classes by interviewing one other about their daily lives.
“I noticed they combined Hmong and Thai languages,” said one of our students. Meanwhile, he/she might might use an English word that would confuse the Huai Khu students. They learned that language is both something that endures over time but also evolves. Differences in language, though, didn’t keep them from connecting with one another.
And they’d have the chance to connect in ways outside the classroom in the coming days.