In October 2015, 30 students from my grade were chosen to go to Phuket to help redecorate a school for Burmese Orphans. I was lucky and was one of these students. What I thought was incredibly important and interesting about this trip was the way we could really see the cultural differences, whilst also helping people who are a lot less fortunate than us.
As we were staying at the International School in Phuket we did not have a lot of food that is traditional in Thailand. We mainly had western food. However for there was a noticeable difference in the choice of fruit. Instead of apples and mikans, there were watermelons and papayas. This was especially nice as it gave us an idea of what types of fruit people farm in Thailand.
There was a 20-minute bus ride to the work camp where we were painting the walls. During this drive, we always saw a variety of different housings. First, we would drive past houses similar to the ones a middle-class person in Japan would own. Then we would pass a settlement (it may have been a fenced area. I am not entirely sure) where people lived in ginormous, fancy houses. It was clear to see that these people had a lot of money and did not hesitate to show this. Some of them even had cars from companies such as Ferrari or Porsche.
And then we would drive into the poorer part of Phuket. The houses were made of metal planks. The doorways would either be covered with a sheet of plastic or just completely open. The houses did not look like they could stay together in storm weather. However, the one of the worst parts for them in summer must have been that there was no way for the hot air to leave their houses. This meant that it could get very difficult to breathe inside the houses. Seeing the way these people did not have something we take for granted really gave all of us a boost to give start appreciating what we had.
From what I have been taught, the reason why there are so many Burmese in Thailand is that they fled after the Military Junta started taking control of Burma. The Military Junta was mainly out for the smaller tribes as these did not want to join the now independent state of Burma. Life as someone outside of their home country is never easy but it is especially difficult for refugees. According to The Diplomat “ Burmese migrants are working for half the allowed minimum wage”. This can explain why these people are living in such poverty. Also, their job options are not very varied. They are most times given the “hard” jobs where risk injury is high and where they work every day of the week. As they also often can’t afford health insurance, this can be even riskier. I think it is very important that we went on this trip to Phuket to learn more and see how people can have very different lives to ours. We are blessed with the lives and opportunities we have and should spend less time complaining and more helping people who aren’t as fortunate.
The main objective of us going to Thailand, however, was not to look at the food or compare their lives to ours. It was to help give Burmese orphans a more lively place to spend their school day. What we did was paint murals on two of their walls and plant mango trees in a garden outside. On the first day, my group planted the plants and made a border between them and the pathway so that we could minimize the weed growth. This was extremely exhausting as it was hot and we were all sweating. However, in the end, it was definitely worth it as we knew we did something good for people who really needed and deserved out help.
On the second day, my group continued painting from where the previous group had left off. This was a lot less exhausting but I felt more pressured to do things correctly as the children would be looking at it every day and I really wanted it to look right.
Spending time with the Burmese orphans
Additionally, to make their school look nicer we also spent time with the children. I think this was probably the most enjoyable part of the trip as it was nice to meet first hand with kids who have such a different life to us but still are happy. Whenever the children smiled it was really difficult not to smile back. They had really warm smiles and were so full of joy. Playing games with them was really fun because it showed how sports was a universal language. When we played dodgeball with them they immediately understood how to play and what they had to do to win. It was really nice to see how a sport is a universal language.
Seeing that sports can be understood by anyone, no matter their origin, culture, ethnicity or the language they speak. This makes you think about global sports competitions, such as the Olympics or the World Cup. Their people from all around the world come together to compete. They all got taught in their own languages but still learned the same game. Sports is a way to communicate between cultures. It is something many people can recognize and understand. This means that global and well-known sports, like soccer, can be played by anyone and with mixed teams. When playing the standardized soccer, everyone plays by the same rules, thus being able to communicate with signs and pointing, rather than words. This is important as it can not be expected for everyone to understand each other through words, so we have to find other methods. This is what happened one our trip to Phuket when we met people who did not speak English or Japanese. This was a great learning experience and taught me a lot about how we can communicate without using words.
For me personally, sports have not always been a way for me to communicate with others but I can see this happen in the community around me. For example, when a new student comes and immediately joins a sports club, it can often be easier to find friends through this. This is because people recognize that they have similar interests, or at least have this one thing in common. This is something important to notice and learn and might be something I can apply once I move countries again or join a new community at any future point in my life.
Spending time with kids from the SOS Children’s Village
After spending the morning at the water park we got to meet Thai children from the SOS Children’s Village. This was nice as the majority of them could understand and even partially speak English, which meant that we could ask them questions and they could respond and vice versa. Spending time in the pool also made connecting easier because it was a fun activity where everyone could do what they wanted. I also thought this was better than dodgeball as swimming did not make us competitive.
Traveling on roads
In my opinion, one of the biggest cultural differences between Yokohama and Phuket was the way people traveled. No matter where we drove there would always be people on motorcycles and often these people seemed to be underaged. Also, they somehow managed to fit five people on one bike. It was always very shocking how risky they were on the roads.
As this was one of the main things that stuck in my mind, I have thought about this a bit more. I think carrying five people on one small motorcycle is incredibly dangerous. In respect to this, I do not think that Japan is being too strict with how many people are allowed or at least accepted on one bike. I do however see that for some families in Phuket, it was necessary to drive this many people at once. Cars are more expensive and not always as convenient in places like Thailand so if you need to go somewhere with many people, you have to utilize what you have, in this case, a motorcycle.
According to this study done on how many motorcycles and cars are owned in 44 different countries, the results are relatively clear. The place with the least amount of cars, and thus owning more motorcycles is southeast Asia. This probably has something to do with the state each country is in and their status.
On the third day in Phuket, we went snorkeling. We went into the water in two different places. This was a fantastic opportunity to see the differences between alive and dead coral. It was quite interesting to see all the colorful fish and bright coral as a contrast to the grey, dead coral with only a few fish but mainly sea snakes. We also learned about the main causes of the death of nearly 50% of Phuket’s corals. As many of us expected tourists were high on that list. It is important for tourists and others who go into the sea to be careful not to step on the coral and especially not to take any of as a souvenir.
On the second to last day, we went on a hike through the rainforest. This was meant to take about 3 hours. However, a tree had fallen in our path so we had to take a completely different route. I do not know how long exactly we were walking around but it must have been around 5 hours. This hike was the most any of us had sweat in our entire life. The air was incredibly humid and it was very warm. About half way through the hike it then also started to rain (which could have been expected as we were in a RAINforest). However bad I just made this seem, it was actually quite a lot of fun. Maybe it was just because I like hiking or maybe because of the sense of teamwork we created due to the slipperiness that made us help each other.
The gibbon’s sanctuary
Once we were done with the hike we ended up at a gibbon sanctuary. This was a place where Gibbons who had either become too reliant on human help or who had no chance of survival were held. Those who could eventually become independent could go out into the wild again, however, some of them had to stay in the sanctuary for their entire life. Going here really helped all of us to learn more about wildlife in Phuket, especially as we were experiencing it first hand.
This made me think about humans and our relationships with animals. I personally think that all animals were born to be free. However, as some animals have been bred to rely on humans, this is no longer true. Animals that were bred to be house pets, can no longer survive on their own. They need human assistance. the animals, such as gibbons, however, are meant to be free and were mostly not bred to be pets or reliant on humans. We should not force animals who can live on their own to lose that ability.
Planting the Mangroves
After we had eaten lunch at the gibbon sanctuary we went to a mangrove plantation to each plant five mangroves (it may have been 4 I don’t quite remember). Previously we had been told why the local people could no longer plant mangroves out in the sea where they are usually kept. This was also why we went into a smaller area with an optimal place for the mangroves to grow. This meant that the floor was very swampy and full of tiny red crabs. However, I don’t think anyone was bitten. Planting the mangroves was a fun experience. Whenever we dug a hole it would immediately fill up with mud again so we had to be extremely quick which made us less careful. This meant that some of us fell into the mud.
Overall I think Phuket was a great experience. Seeing the cultural and environmental differences was amazing and helping the children who were so much less fortunate was so rewarding for everyone. Seeing the smiles on the kids when they saw our murals and got all of our presents was heart warming. I would recommend this trip to everyone.
What can I do now that I am back in Japan?
To continue helping those who are less fortunate than me, I am part of two GIN/CAS groups (Combatting Human Trafficking and Student Service Committee). To specifically continue helping the Burmese children the SSC has helped create a group dedicated to this service trip. As I am in the SSC group that helps new service groups, I make sure that this group has everything that they need, including support and members. I will also encourage all 8th graders to go on this trip when their time comes as it will definitely be worth it for all of them.
This is the certificate I received for helping redecorate the Burmese school