A San Francisco Bay Area native, Praveena loves slam poetry and cold cliffy beaches. Her belief in the power of storytelling feeds her daily practice. She is a maker of higgledy-piggledy to-do lists, vegan cuisine, and the occasional scrapbook.
write. edit. rinse. repeat.
The last two weeks I lived in Isaan were by far the busiest. I spent countless and ungodly hours with my co-writer, Abbey, editing a two-part story we had been working on for months. Read Part I here and Part II here.
Earlier this semester, a team of two students, myself, and a journalist set out with the loose goal of learning more about the true nature of Northeast Thailand's Healthcare system. We followed a team of doctors making afternoon rounds to visit three patients in palliative care. Dieow was the second patient we met. His humble testimony and strength moved everyone in the room. Dieow's credo of acceptance of his imminent death left me incredulous and filled with emotion. We asked Dieow if we could center our article around his narrative.
The days blur and our regimen of writing, while taxing, is exhilarating. l roll out of bed, wearing my shambolic spiked morning hair and grab my MacBook. Slipping on my birks and glasses, I'm soon armed enough to meet Abbey at 7:00 am. We grab a quick breakfast- usually an amalgam of street food and 7/11 snacks from across the street. We break bread ($0.10 taro flavored roll with a forever shelf life) in the over air-conditioned small office that, by now, feels like home.
As we open our laptops to pull up the most recent google document, I sigh to exhale any apprehension I have towards the upcoming hours of fussy and scrupulous editing.
Really, I’m tapping back into a marathon of:
“What if we made this a separate paragraph?”
"I was taught to never begin a sentence with 'but'. But I guess we can make an exception."
“Do people even say exuberates anymore?”
Good writing, I’m learning, is not a sprint.
I eat all three meals with Abbey and we are both glued to our screens, steadfastly in editing mode until one of us falls asleep from exhaustion at 2:00 am on the other's bed. I’ll be the first to admit this routine was unhealthy and far from balanced. But it was absolutely exhilarating to dedicate my whole self to crafting something that felt so important. Other than eating, our breaks were also filled with dream-chatter about our futures, jamming to Hamilton, and reflecting on our relationships back home. After doing the math, we calculated that neither one of us has ever spent such concentrated time and effort on anything else before. Yes, not even Abbey’s long nights of cramming for a grueling organic chemistry exam.
But all of these efforts felt minuscule in comparison to the grim reality behind our storytelling- a man destined to die. In our most recent meeting with Dieow, his doctor informed us that he only had a few weeks left to live.
Storytelling and oral history are at the core of humanity- it’s what connects us, it builds empathy and cross-cultural understanding, and it’s a tool for survival. Without stories, humans would be aimless and apathetic- merely sacks of skin and bones. We spent hours writing to be sure that our piece embraced the integrity of Dieow’s voice, while also framing it in the larger public health issue of access to care.
Finally finished writing, we were ready to make the call we had been dreading. We wait in anticipation as the translator dials, and with each ring I submerge slowly underwater. When the translator smiles to affirm that Dieow was the one who answered, we gasp for air and I feel the hot tears begin to form- he's alive. Elated and exhausted, we spend the rest of the day scrambling to plan a trip back to Dieow to read him our two-part story.
And more importantly, we want to say thank you.
That night Abbey’s Thai peer tutor, Proud, offers to drive us to Nong Bua Lamphu. During the three hour trip, we gleefully listen to music and nap, basking in the down time. Upon arrival back, we deliver a few small gifts to Dieow and his mother.
After hugs and admittedly a few happy tears, we soon embark on a speedy adventure to purchase two necessities: a mattress and clean ceramic/stainless steel table. Medical students and Dr. Pure, our initial connection to the community, join us and before we know it, all seven of us pull up at a local furniture shop.
At 4 pm on a Tuesday, a happy scene emerges in this desolate town- young, laughing Thai and American students come together to carry a mattress and a table. They deliver it to a man who has now changed all their lives, for the better.
While my social media feed has been filled with skinny bodies in bikinis holding bottles and martinis, my friends and I decided to venture on a very different kind of spring break in Khao Sok National Park. Molly, Abbey, Alissa, and I caught an overnight bus to Bangkok followed by a flight to Surat Thani.
An hour before catching the bus, my mom called in tears. Her grandmother, my only great grandparent left, had just passed away. She left peacefully in her own home in Bodinayakkanur, Tamil Nadiu, India. My relationship with my mom changed in the matter of a phone call. For the hundreds of times my resilient mom has consoled me, this time I could be a source of calm and comfort for her. These months abroad have been filled wth learning and growing not only on my own, but also in my relationships here and afar. After the rush of getting on the bus in time, I thought back to Avva and Bodi, a place frozen in time and filled with pockets of wonder and peace. For me, Avva and Bodi are inseparably entwined together- it's amazing how a person's home can take on the feeling its owner exudes. While my peers fall asleep on the bus, I fall back into hazy memories of being in Bodi, flying on the washed out yellow swing chained to a tree. Beside me are my two younger siblings, Vivi and Kavi, giggling and pleading for Thatha to push us faster. I reflect on how many family members must have also sat in our seats, swaying and dreaming about their future.
Here in Thailand, some of the rural areas I'm hosted in remind me of the Bodi home. The sect of Buddhism practiced here has threads of Hinduism braided into the religion as well. My brown skin is closer in color to the flesh of Thai locals than the pigmentation my American peers wear. Together, these factors have made me attune to my Indian identity more than ever before. I feel privileged to have traveled enough times to Bodi to have fond memories of my own. It's a place deeply rooted in heritage and family moments, big and small. As I rock on the bus to my Spotify playlist, Rock with You plays and I simper at a sweet triviality: my mom danced and listened to Michael Jackson tapes during her youthful summers in Bodi, and I happened to be on the same veranda when Michael Jackson died.
We drove down to Khao Sok, blasting Rent. I've never had the chance to listen to the soundtrack or watch the play, but hearing the story through music was so timely. The musical centers around young, poor artists trying to thrive in New York at the height of the HIV/AIDS era. As my best friend, Celeste, put it, “It’s queer as hell and a story that ties deeply with the San Francisco community as well.” The emotional car drive reminded me of how artists can weave public health messaging into their craft. Struck with emotion and inspiration, I felt my (current) purpose so clearly. I want to connect different disciplines (i.e. spoken word and healthcare) to produce synergistic art. More than a specific vision, however, I want to leave viewers ruminating deeply-perhaps even spellbound- after immersing in my art/writing. I'd like to think that's essence of culture change. I transported back to swinging in Bodi so many years ago; back then my aspiration of being an artist was barely notional, but I had strong pre-teen dreams of making an impact that moved people.
As we drove, we sang along to Seasons of Love and passed by majestic mountains. The monstrous mounts screamed "you are small minuscule beings in a great, great universe.” Feeling humbled by Mother Nature, we finally arrived wide eyed at the hostel I booked. Warm humans greeted us and I met people from across the globe. Human interaction in hostels can be so romantic; you meet someone and hear their story, and say bye knowing you'll never meet again.
The next day we took a lake tour. After breaking for lunch on a floating village we trekked through the jungle. I looked up at canopies speckled with whistling bamboo, and took long breathes of air marked by a distinct refreshing lush aroma. Then, we entered the cave. Inhabited by impressive creatures and resplendent crystal rock formations, this chamber astounded me. The water started to rise and eventually we were neck deep in cool, flowing cave water. I flashed my headlight and smiled at spiders larger than my face, waved at different bat species, and reeled back at nocturnal catfish flashing their bright blood-red eyes (Ahhh!!). In the middle of the cave, we held firmly onto a rope while an abundant waterfall gushed directly onto my giddy face.
On our final day together, we hiked on our own into the national park and stopped by waterfalls, monkeys, and vast vines hugging trees in a frozen protective dance. Molly came out of the first waterfall with battle scars after losing to a pufferfish and a leech. We felt like ants in It's A Bugs World traversing the jungle's tallest grass in the world: giant bamboo. The trees in the jungle felt like wise stars watching me; I felt and know I am young and small.
"I felt like lying down by the side of the trail and remembering it all. The woods do that to you, they always look familiar, long lost, like the face of a long-dead relative, like an old dream, like a piece of forgotten song drifting across the water, most of all like golden eternities of past childhood or past manhood and all the living and the dying and the heartbreak that went on a million years ago and the clouds as they pass overhead seem to testify (by their own lonesome familiarity) to this feeling."
—Jack Kerouac, The Dharma Bums
Phu Tubberg (sometimes written as Phu Tab Berk / Tabberk / Tabberg / Tubberg / Tubberk / Thap Boek) stands 1,768 meters above sea level. Historically, The Hmong People cultivated this soil to produce opium. Since its restriction, the Hmong have turned to planting an alternative crop: cabbages. With no place to stay or way to get to the summit, Beth and I set out on Friday morning determined to breathe the cold mountain air composed of redolent earth and sweet cabbage fragrances.
Between an unnecessary cab, shuttle, bus, three hitchhiking trips, and a final cab ride over, we were surprisingly content with the inefficiencies of spontaneous travel. In fact, the roundabout journey brought us unexpected small moments of joy. While backtracking on a shuttle after taking the first 6am cab to the wrong bus station, we passed by the Khon Kaen School for the Deaf. My tired eyes widened and I squealed to Beth, “No way! I’ve been looking for a way to learn more about Thai Deaf Culture.”
The state of California has two Schools for the Deaf, and I grew up walking distance from the school in Fremont. Though I didn’t have any close Deaf friends growing up, many of my peers had Deaf relatives or were involved in the Deaf community. Always intrigued by Deaf culture and sign language, I decided to pursue learning more at Tulane. I petitioned for American Sign Language as a foreign language, rather than just a linguistics elective.
Daydreaming on the bus ride to Lom Sak, I flashed back to my first ASL class. While waiting for the teacher to arrive, a woman enters the room. I remember the professor’s first name is Rocky, and I think to myself this must be her. She goes on to describe the course syllabus but after a few minutes I notice she is actually interpreting the older man in the other corner of the room. After the first day of class, this mysterious woman never returned and we were all taught by the real Rocky Miller, my Deaf American Sign Language professor. I was forced to immerse myself in ASL; it was an hour and fifteen minutes of silence, frustration, laughs, learning, and expression. He opened my eyes to the Deaf world and culture, and we were forced to practice mindfulness. There were absolutely no distractions or note taking; we glued our eyes to our instructor and mimicked his signs, latching onto every manual movement and non-manual expression.
The mysterious woman did, in fact, return my third semester. Rocky was a victim of the Baton Rouge flooding and at the last minute, Denise Crochet became my professor. As a hearing interpreter, she had a very different teaching style. ASL soon became one my most challenging classes, but it took my signing to the next level. Her stories of interpreting for famous singers ranging from Stevie Wonder to Keith Urban were ones we hung onto, along with many takeaway lessons. Extremely well traveled, Denise testified to the fact that she could often find Deaf people in different countries and communicate with them, despite the different sign languages around the globe.
After a great ordeal of reminiscing, we arrived at a campground. The Hmong people we encountered, greeted us with such kindness. We strolled by Qua, a local farmer, who showed us her organic strawberry patch and insisted on packing us a small bag for snack. Cows, cabbages, and hundreds of white heavenly butterflies surrounded us. The snowy darlings danced around us, taking small breaks to pollinate one vibrant flower to the next. We were in a cabbage patch dream.
As it is hot season in Thailand, tourists were sparse and we felt like we had the magnificent mountain to ourselves. Camping at the edge of the summit was breathtaking, especially for the morning sunrise. We awoke to a scarlet orb swelling in the fog studded sky at 6:30 am and for the first time in months, we finally felt cold.
Diao lives five minutes away from Suwannakhuha District Hospital. At 36 years old, his protruding bones and withering skin serve as a disappearing vestige of a strong man's body. In 2009 Diao was diagnosed with Chronic Kidney Disease (CKD). Just an hour away in Udon Thani, lies a hemodialysis center that will restore his health and livelihood. However, this drive is too far and too expensive, making Diao's condition that much more excruciating. Diao, who's name translates to solitary, is ironically not alone in his plight. He and many others have slipped through the cracks of Thailand's revered universal healthcare.
A team of two students, myself, and a journalist set out with the loose goal of learning more about the true nature of Northeast Thailand's Healthcare system. Peera (they/them/theirs), a journalist for Isaan Record, served as our translator and acted as our first link to the healthcare system. Beyond being fluent in the local Thai dialect, their parents are also healthcare providers. We first met with Peera's friend, Dr. Potsawat Wetpanich. At 27, he was one of six young and passionate doctors who worked at the hospital. Overburdened with patients, their devotion to providing healthcare to local villagers was undying. My vested interest in the way social determinants of health impact wellbeing led me to inquire more about the ways in which key players and practitioners in the system are incentivized. I took note of the way in which privilege permits some doctors to focus more on improving population health while others live in social circumstances that understandably facilitate a capitalist climate.
With no time to linger, the afternoon soon met us with a sultry breeze. After hearing from doctors and administrators, witnessing a bloody ER incident, and talking with patients attending the weekly CKD clinic, we finally had a minute to breathe. I hung on to my beating heart, overflowing with intrigue, follow up questions, and messy notes. In this country's revolutionary free healthcare system, the issue of lack of access to services quickly became apparent in CKD patients. Out of 200 people with CKD in this village, only about 10% of people get treatment. Though a majority of current chronic kidney disease interventions focus on individual behavioral factors (symptoms, diet, physical activity, etc.), it is equally important to address the influence of underlying non-medical social and environmental contributors to chronic conditions.
Next, we followed a team of doctors making afternoon rounds to visit three patients in palliative care. Diao was the second patient we met. His humble testimony and strength moved everyone in the room. Diao's credo of acceptance of his imminent death left me incredulous and filled with emotion. We decided to visit him again the next morning. We asked Diao if we could center our article around his narrative to depict, "universal inaccessibility." At the end of this second exchange, Diao was no longer a symbol of lachrymosity. As our rapport grew, so did our shared humanity. Though his hobbies are harder to perform with withering flesh, he smiled a wide grin while revealing his favorite pastimes; he enjoys weaving nets and reading religious texts. Diao is an ordinary being who embodies both simple profundities and profound simplicities. I am honored to help share his story.
Supreme Court, Sakon Nakhon Province-The back of my neck is pressed against a cool wall and I stare at my dusty ankles, the only sliver of skin to be seen. I am draped in unfamiliar formal clothes, undoubtedly uncomfortable in this edifice of law and order. Escaping this 97 degree Fahrenheit weather, I find my breathe in this overly air conditioned room. Come to think of it, this room feels filled with people who breathe one of two kinds of air. Upstairs, there are villagers who inhale humidity in farmland and bear a darker, sun-kissed complexion to corroborate the fruits of their labor. The other bodies in this government building possess respiratory tracts filled with artificial air and apathy. Three minutes later, an older Meh (mother) decked in black attire saunters down the stairs. Behind her are forlorn faces of family and community members. The hairs on my arm stand up straight and a chill crawls through my blood. In just a handful of seconds, we find out she has been sentenced to three years in prison. For what? Trespassing on her own land.
This seemingly oxymoronic judgement is one that many villagers here have endured, including her husband. The same day, we visit him in jail as his daughter tells him the devastating news through bars, opaque glass, and a telephone. As an outsider, I am overwhelmed with despair and hopelessness. The same week, 10 students and I traveled to Jad-RA-Beab village in Sakon Nakhon Province. Here, we were able to witness the effects of Thailand's Forestry Management from villagers, government officials, lawyers, and NGOs. Within our exchanges, local leaders of peoples movements shared their hope, successes, and challenges in bringing justice for marginalized groups forced to relocate to accommodate large scale state projects. Their resistance is rooted in resilience and strength.
First, we heard perspectives surrounding the incredulous "Master Plan," which also led to Orders 64 and 66. Order 64 is Thailand's national goal of reaching 40% of forest area. To achieve it, indigenous people must be removed from the land. Currently, the country is at 33%. Order 66 states that people who are classified as poor should not have to relocate, but classified investors are vulnerable to being sanctioned to relocate. Failure to comply can result in villagers being sued or even arrested for trespassing onto the reserved land.
Confusion arises in how government officials are classifying people as either poor or investors. For example, a villager who technically owns 25 rais of land but only uses 5 is classified as an investor and is punished based on the number 25 rather than 5. The 1998 Cabinet resolution, which has been used to determine the land rights of people living in forests, has caused many problems between people and authorities. Officials use old aerial photographs and satellite images to refer back to original land ownership. This is the sole method of determining how much land someone owns; officials do not take into account other form of paperwork proof. Villagers claim these photos are misrepresentative. Another issue is that villagers feel tricked into giving away their signature and land titles; in exchange for random incentives, officials used villagers signatures and list of family members to persecute them as investors.
Government officials are incentivized by an oppressive system. Each department (police, military, etc.) has to reach a certain quota of arrests per day to prove they are doing their job. Additionally industries such as PTT (gas station) make deals with the Royal Forestry Department to plant trees, which in turn is yet another way that the government and industry work together. Worse, villagers are left out of any conversations.
The national government seems to lack coordination with the local system. For example, the Prime Minister's office assured villagers who don't have anywhere else to go can be labeled as, "on probation" and are allowed to temporarily work on their land. However, the local government doesn't recognize this policy and still places people under arrest. Even if someone is proven to be not guilty in a court case, they are still subject to civil fines starting upwards of 80,000 baht. Villagers often spend time in jail as wrongly accused and when released, it is difficult to seek compensation from the government.
Meanwhile, the population's mental health suffers. Families are torn apart, children are left parentless, and sometimes family members leave home in the face of fear. Stress and lack of advocacy takes a toll on everyone. The only support lies within the community, and often times it is limited. On the inside of prison, people are left completely in the dark, unable to stay in the loop of recent events. These families have used this land for generations, which amplifies the burden and pain endured by those who are evicted.
Interestingly enough, this oppression is cloaked in positive environmentalism; the plan to increase Thailand's forest area is rooted in an attempt to reduce the effects of global warming. Forest maintenance executed by the government flops in comparison to the expertise of villagers who have proven their mastery in tending to the forest. It is in their blood to do this work and do it well.