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Posted: July 27, 2011 in Who we are
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It’s been three days, and somehow here we are, half a world away.

After 21 hours in transit, Saturday morning found us trudging into customs at SFO, encrusted with bags, hesitating briefly before getting in the native, non-visitors’ line for a the first time in year. We noticed big white people everywhere, and did auditory double-takes at being spoken to in English by Americans. When we saw “Welcome to the United States” scrolling across the screens above customs, tears sprang to our eyes as the full meaning of being an American, and returning there, impressed itself upon us. We were home.

Outside at the curb, breathing strangely clean air, we looked for the friend who had agreed to pick us up, and were instead greeted by more than a dozen friends, who welcomed us with hugs, smiles, and remarks that we looked thin and tired. One handed us farmers’ market peaches, a worthy substitute for the Philippines mangoes we’ll have dreams about.

The last three days have been a collage of returning to California memories: eating burritos from our favorite Oakland taco truck; devouring local cherries, strawberries, and figs; driving up highway 101 at dusk, watching the golden sun play on rolling vineyards and olive trees; being served a tiny fruit and cheese plate by our 5-year-old niece.

The intensity of everyday niceties here is a clear reminder of the life we just said goodbye to: each hot shower is a delicious luxury; clean air encourages deep, happy gulps, and despite the jet lag, trails to run on prompt grateful smiles. Drinking tap water is a minor celebration, as is sliding behind the wheel of a our own car instead of cramming ourselves on some form of public transit. And the quiet! This whole country is quiet, spacious, and clean. But the strangest thing isn’t all of the sudden contrasts, but how familiar it all seems, almost as if we never left.

The people we’ve left behind, however, give even the best of the Bay Area a bittersweet tinge; it was only Friday afternoon that we cried more at our Samaritana farewell than we have since our grandparents’ funerals. We had a group Pinoy-American bawl as women held us and told how we’d helped them grow; one of them said in tearful Taglish that she was never the kind of person before who would believe in herself, but she does now and knows she can be a leader. Another shared that we made her strong and brave to face life’s challenges. At the end they gathered around us, every woman touching or hugging us as they prayed for our safe travel, our future, and (much to our amusement) that we would have a baby. With every I-love-you and soggy embrace, we kept thinking “We can’t never see them again!”

In short, we’ve been ruined for the better. Instead of working for awards or prestige, Nate’s goal will be finding whatever advertising work will allow me to stay home and finish my book (and us to support Samaritana). Instead of filling our lives with activities, we’re planning ways to share our love for the Samaritana women with anyone who is interested enough to hear about them.  We’re talking about how to bring home the sense of deep community we experienced in the Philippines, a reality where relationships are more important than money, results, and time.

Before we left Manila, some of the women joked that they would hide inside our checked suitcases, and that they’d be ok as long as we packed some rice for them inside. Sadly even the most petite were over the 50-pound limit per bag, so we couldn’t bring them with us. We hope, though, that the next best thing can be carrying them in the embrace of a country that has so much to give.

-Laura

We’ve only been gone a year, but my friend says I look older. At age 34, that’s the first time anyone’s ever said that to me. I’ve always had a baby face: on my 15th birthday my friends suggested I ask for the 12-and-under price at the county fair; in my passport photo (age 27), I look like a college freshman. But it seems that this year has left its mark.

So what have I seen that’s made me age? Life how most of the world lives it: orphaned siblings sleeping in subway stations. Squatter families living in cement-block shacks the size of an American suburbanite’s walk-in closet. Street women selling themselves for a few dollars or less. Sights that would change anyone with eyes to see. But my eyes have widened joyfully as well: gawking at Avatar-inspiring marine life, eating heartstoppingly-good native mangoes, high-fiving women (who’d never before exercised) as they finished their first race.

But next month, I’m returning our old fantasy life, the Bay Area. Land of data plan complaints, hybrid hypermiling, and wine even in gas stations. Beloved Bay Area folks fret about real estate values or finding organic baby food at Whole Paycheck; Filipinos we have come to love worry about buying food for six on four dollars a day, or having to return to prostitution to pay their dying baby’s medical bills. Our old friends may see the change in my face, but can they feel it in their hearts? Will they even try? After a year of being a foreigner, an outsider, and a target, I fear being an alien in my native land.

When my wife and I quit our jobs last summer and moved to Manila for a year of volunteer work, I naïvely assumed it’d be similar to family trips as a kid: live overseas, see some old stuff, then pick up where I left off. But as a young but astute friend observed, the Philippines has “ruined me for the better.” So now my face tells a more serious story; my eyes focus on things besides literature, nature, and wine. Question is, will others want to see through them?

In the hills of northern Thailand live minority tribal communities that are also spread across neighboring Laos, Myanmar and China. The Thai government recognizes nine (Akha, Hmong, Karen, Khamu, Lahu, Lisu, Lua, Malabree and Mien), but there are more as well. They are some of the poorest people in Thailand, but beyond that, they live without something most Americans couldn’t imagine living without any more than they could imagine living without a car, fast food, or cell phones: basic citizenship rights.

These tribespeople have been living in Thailand for generations (so they’re not refugees; they are entitled by birth to be Thai citizens), but being at the geographic and economic periphery of the country, they’ve largely been left to fend for themselves. Chiefly farmers in former times, they scrape out a living by guiding treks, selling crafts and the like, but what happens when the tourists don’t come?

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The problem is, when you’re only given short bootstraps, you can only pull yourself up so far—and when the bootstrap breaks, what then? The tribespeople generally don’t have their citizenship documents, so they only have access to elementary education and limited health care. They’re also prohibited from traveling beyond their small district, so finding work can be difficult to impossible out on the margins of Thai society. Thus out of desperation they fall prey to traffickers, who use men for construction work, and women for prostitution.

This is where IJM Chiang Mai stepped in. Previously IJM had been focusing efforts on rescuing and rehabilitating trafficking victims (as they do in the Manila office, where I help), but they concluded that they could have a much greater impact addressing the supply side of the problem: all these people without proper documents (and hence opportunities). Each year since shifting focus to documentation, the Chiang Mai office has helped over 800 tribespeople take this crucial step into full-fledged citizenship and away from the dangers of trafficking. For an encouraging summary of one family’s story, see this article on IJM UK’s web site.

What I found pleasantly surprising and encouraging (and I hope those of you who might consider volunteering with IJM will too) is that unlike with most of IJM’s other offices, the work in Chiang Mai doesn’t necessarily require a legal or social work background–and also, as this post from a current intern observes, simply having a college degree and English proficiency can serve an important function in this office’s work. So if you have a sense of adventure, enjoy beautiful tropical places, and get pumped about eating real Thai food, IJM Chiang Mai might be able to use your help! Check out IJM’s fellowships and internships here.

— Nate