ABC day 4: The Token “Needy People Who We Can Help”

My sister Amy is an English tutor at North Chiang Mai University (NCU) in Thailand. Recently she emailed me about a trip she took with some NCU students, and I was absolutely fascinated by her account. With her permission, I’m re-posting her experience here. 
In January, my new group staff who study with me invited me to go with them for a “volunteer activity” back in the mountains. It was a very eventful trip.
I had assumed that for an official school activity like this we would take a couple of the university’s nice comfy vans. But no, instead, we took the rattly old truck. The seats along the sides were folded up to better accommodate the luggage and donations that filled about a third of the space, and there were at least 15 people crowded into the remaining space.

We took multiple long breaks as we went. Eventually, we got to the main city of the district where our destination village was located, and met up with a bunch of people from another school and ate breakfast of sticky rice and grilled pork. I hadn’t realized it before this, but this trip was not organized by NCU; instead, we were just sort of added onto a trip planned by another, larger university in Chiang Mai.

There were about 20 vehicles all together, and most of them were fairly capable looking. There were two of those rattly old trucks, though; ours, and one from the other university, which was completely packed full of donations for the people in the village. From the district office on, the road was dirt, and it hadn’t had a chance to completely dry out yet from the rain the last couple of days. The old trucks got stuck and just couldn’t make it. Our truck was able to get unstuck within a few minutes both times, but the other took a long time and a lot of pushing.

Thanks to the stuck trucks and the frequent rest stops, we were past the estimated 6-hour travel time, and the end was nowhere in sight. We drove on and on and on, on that narrow, one-lane road, around tight curves and through awful potholes and past lovely scenery that we didn’t even appreciate because we were so ready to be done. Our poor driver had never encountered roads like this before, and his nerves were about shot. Finally, at almost 3 p.m., nearly 12 hours after we left the university, we arrived in the little village that we were trying to get to.

So why did we end up in this village, anyway, out of all the hundreds of villages in Chiang Mai, most of which are much easier to reach? Well, first of all, you have to understand about the hill tribes. There are a lot of different tribal groups who have immigrated to Thailand in the last couple of hundred years. Most of them have come from China or Myanmar, and many of them have made homes in remote mountain villages. The Karen are probably the largest of the hill tribe groups, but there are about 5 other main groups, and more smaller ones.

While they learn Thai in school, they speak their tribal languages as their mother tongue, and many of them are not given Thai citizenship. They tend to be poor and less educated. Many of the manual labor jobs in the city are done by tribal people, who earn less than $10 per day. If you met one on the street you probably couldn’t tell the difference between them and an ethnically Thai person, but the Thai people can usually tell. These “hill tribe” people tend to be looked down on as lower class, yet simultaneously pitied. They have become the token “needy people who we can help” for the Thai people. What’s not to love about a project like this? After all, the pictures look great. Adorable children in their tribal outfits, with a backdrop of majestic mountains. And what better way to feel good about yourself than to give something to someone who’s worse off than you, and tell yourself that you’re improving their life? And if you can take a trip to an exotic location with your good friends at the same time, well, why not?

When I went to a similar village with the church youth group, at least we spent some time with the local people, visiting their homes and talking to them. This time, though, the visitors stayed in their own groups, hanging out with their friends from university. When the official activities were finished, our group built a fire outside the classroom where we were sleeping, and started pulling out the stash of beer that they’d brought along. Up the hill, students from the other university had been drinking for a while already, and they blared their music loud. It could have been a perfect night, with the fire and the stars, but all of the peace and quiet was ruined. I was tired anyway, so I put in my earplugs and rolled up in my sleeping bag and went off to sleep, but not without feeling sorry for any villagers who may have been attempting to sleep.

The next morning we did some games and stuff with the children, and then it was time to Give Them Stuff, the main point of the trip. The villagers sat in rows, and one row at a time, filed forward, and came back with their arms loaded with clothing and blankets and ramen noodles and unhealthy snacks.

The picture just seemed wrong to me, waltzing in and giving them what we thought they needed but never even getting to know them. On top of this, I knew that a different group had done the same thing in this village last year, and I wondered about whether we were helping to perpetuate a culture of relying on others for handouts instead of being self-sufficient. So I mentioned it to my Christian Thai friend, who was also along. “Do you really think it’s a good thing to just give them all of this stuff?” I asked her. She agreed that it probably wasn’t, and mentioned a guy at NCU who was from a small hill tribe village and grew up living in a children’s home and having people come give him stuff like this all of the time. “He always asks to borrow money, but he never pays it back,” she said. “It’s like he thinks people should just give him money because he’s poor. But he doesn’t try to get a job.” She told me that many of the men in this village are unemployed as well, and just sit around and drink and don’t do much else. And it seemed to be true—near our campfire, some village men had built a fire of their own, and in the morning the area near their fire was filled with beer bottles and trash.

The trip home was much shorter, only 7 hours instead of 12, thanks to a drier road and fewer frivolous rest stops. It was scary, though, going up and down and around tight curves on those mountain roads, slinging back and forth. If I didn’t hang on tight it felt like I would slide out the back when we were going up hills. But finally we made it home.

April Blogging Challenge day 2, written by my mom, can be found here. Day 3, written by Jenny, can be found here.

2 responses to “ABC day 4: The Token “Needy People Who We Can Help”

  1. I understand Amy’s sentiments, questions, doubts. I witnessed the some thing similar many years ago stateside.


  2. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I recently watched a documentary called Poverty, Inc., subtitled Fighting Poverty is Big Business But Who Profits the Most? It opened my eyes to a problem I didn’t understand and hadn’t thought about. I mean, we all see the images of hungry, half-naked children, and are moved to do something about it. But, as you observed, just giving something periodically is usually not the best thing to do. I appreciate reading your about your experience.

    Liked by 1 person

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