Tales from abroad: Southeast Asia

Aside from wonderful service opportunities, Southeast Asia also provides its vistors with remarkable wildlife. (credit: Courtney Wittekind | News Editor) Aside from wonderful service opportunities, Southeast Asia also provides its vistors with remarkable wildlife. (credit: Courtney Wittekind | News Editor)

As a student at Carnegie Mellon, my day-to-day life is generally measured by due dates, deadlines, and “to-do” lists. Where some might rip a page off a calendar, I remove a post-it note from a constantly expanding swamp of reminders, push pins, and reading lists that have found their way onto my bulletin board.

However, it wasn’t long ago that I lived very differently. Rather than deadlines, my days were often tracked with tally marks and numerals scrawled along the inside of a foreign map. Rather than a dorm room, my home often amounted to a jumbled collection of vinyl bus seats and patches of floor carefully contained within the circumference of my mosquito net.

These were my experiences during the eight months I lived in Southeast Asia — eight months of mosquito repellent, cinched backpacks, and unpaved road. My clothes were sun-bleached and stretched, my shoes caked with the dirt of five countries and literally falling apart at the seams. And, when I reached the end of the eight months, heading home seemed a bit of a foreign concept. But leaving Southeast Asia didn’t only amount to struggling with packing and good-byes; it also meant struggling with a collection of stories that seemed much too big to fit in my suitcase.

For the majority of the eight months I spent on the border between Thailand and Burma, I lived in a rural community of refugees who had been displaced by Burma’s government-sanctioned attacks on ethnic minority groups. These were individuals who had fled their homes and villages, leaving everything they owned and all they knew to escape to Thailand. Unfortunately, safety comes with its own set of problems for Burmese refugees: Namely, they have no rights to health care, education, or employment within Thailand. Transitioning into Thai society also poses a challenge because in addition to language and cultural barriers, many refugees left Burma severely disabled, often mentally traumatized or physically injured.

Many of the people I met had been traumatized to the point where they could no longer function in a “normal” society. Working with local nongovernment organizations, I worked to bring the arts into the healing process, offering an outlet for emotional stress while also encouraging physical recuperation through drawing and painting. I also worked with a group of children who had been orphaned or separated from their families due to violence and, with them, I created art and mural projects. These were just small acts — miniscule, really, in terms of the help I was able to offer to a group of people so desperately in need but ignored by much of the world. I didn’t feel like I was doing much — maybe offering a distraction, a comfort here and there. It was defeating, to say the least. But as the weeks went by, I began to realize that the results of my actions were not always as necessary as my sheer presence was.

So I kept doing what I could, and as I did, my community quickly became much more than a statistic or a target group; instead they ended up becoming my family in the truest sense of the word. I ate alongside them, slept across the wooden slatted floors of their huts. In the evening when, with no electricity, it was too dark to see, we would sit around makeshift candles and talk late into the night. This was the time when I heard their stories — in the evening after darkness had been pulled across the village like a shroud. Sometimes these were stories of terror: stories of running from the junta, of hiding within hollowed-out walls. But there were also stories of restoration and healing: stories of reconnecting with lost family, of finding new hope in a new country.

These are the experiences; these are the stories that I carefully packed into my suitcases and bags as I returned home to the U.S. and entered Carnegie Mellon. It’s those stories that have seemed, by far, the heaviest of everything I’ve carried along with me from place to place. Often I misplace them, only to rediscover one hiding alongside my paintbrushes or scribbled in the margins of a page. Most of the time I’m not sure what to do with these stories when I rediscover them, but I see them revealing themselves within much of my work here. They’ve been carefully rendered within my paintings. They’ve taken many, many forms — the academic and the artistic, the written and the visual, the premeditated and the unexpected.

It’s all of these things, both in Southeast Asia and here at Carnegie Mellon — the deadlines and character counts, the peeling pages of classic fiction, the scent of turpentine late into the night, the foreign buses, mysterious food, long hikes, and customs desks — it’s all of these things that have created within me an unwavering passion for the telling of stories. It’s the stories that drive me, and my hope is that one day, these stories will not remain untold.