Allison Finneseth: Adventures Across Asia

This past semester, my sister and I had the opportunity to spend four months studying abroad in Thailand. While we were in Asia, we also got to spend some time experiencing the culture, customs, and chaos of India, Laos, Vietnam, and China. I previously assumed that the countries in Asia were fairly similar to one another; however, I quickly learned that each had its own unique flavor. Although it’s impossible to explain all of the differences in a short blog post, I wanted to give you a taste of my adventure abroad.

Thailand- Traveling up north to Chiang Mai, we visit the Karen Hill Tribe, one of the largest minority groups in Thailand. The Karen tribe is the only tribe that has grown up working with and caring for elephants on their land. We visited their village and not only had the chance to feed, bathe, and play with the elephants, but also learn about their heritage and way of life. The Karen people speak one of the Tibeto-Burman languages, which is completely unique from any other dialect spoken in Thailand. All of the Karen are completely self-sufficient and live off of the land around them. Their food comes from the rice they plant, the trees they grow, and the animals they raise. Clothes are woven and dyed using colors from the plants nearby, and their medicines are completely herbal. The village has its own school and Christian church, and many young children drive motorbikes wherever they please. Their houses looked like wooden shacks and the toys consisted of rocks and sticks, but the kids couldn’t have been happier. I’m still fascinated by their lifestyle and reminded of how much our culture shapes our definitions of “normal” and “abnormal.”

Laos- My sister and I had finally arrived after what seemed to be a never-ending overnight bus and needed to get our visas on arrival. We filled out our paperwork, handed over our passports, and were ready to get inside a minivan for another three hour drive to our destination for the weekend. A sweet lady showed us to the right van, but the driver wasn’t ready to take us quite yet. He was sitting around a table with some of his friends eating lunch with what looked like a pretty empty bowl of soup sitting in front of him. He said he needed to finish and let his soup settle, so we should come back in an hour and see if he’s ready by then. My sister and I walked to a café across the street and said, “One hour?! It looked like he was done with his lunch! I guess we’ll just wait here and hope he’s ready to go when we head back.” Luckily he was ready to take off shortly after we got in the van, and after some long and windy roads we arrived safely. Fast forward to late that afternoon and we were trying to figure out which tour to book for the next day. We were searching through a book at our hostel and asked the worker if he could arrange one of the hiking tours for us. He was more than happy to do so and called the company to get it arranged, but came back with some unfortunate news. He said, “The hike you want to do is a fairly long trek, and none of the guides want to walk that far tomorrow. Is there a different tour you’d like to do?” We couldn’t help but laugh and of course chose a shorter, less strenuous hike for the next day. Laos definitely tested my patience and desire for structure, but it also made me question the strain of our fast pace.

China- My family and I were walking around Tiananmen Square while our tour guide was filling our heads with facts about the late Mao Zedong, founding father of the People’s Republic of China. We were amazed by the vastness of the Square itself, as well as the two ancient gates on either side of it, but then something unusual caught our eyes. Three locals around 60 years old were staring at the four of us and whispering amongst each other. One of the men smiled and shouted in Mandarin to our tour guide, after which she told us they wanted a group picture with our family. We willingly obliged, and afterwards they thanked each of us personally before once again briefly talking with our guide. Before our tour continued, the guide informed us that the “locals” were actually rural farmers who had never seen foreigners before in their lives. That struck me because I immediately realized two things. First, these farmers had been surrounded by people who looked like them, talked like them, and acted like them their entire life. Second, I had always taken the beauty of diversity for granted. Diversity was something I grew up with and assumed everyone else did as well; however, it is such a sweet gift that I will continue to remind myself of and treasure forever.

I have countless more stories to share, but Asia has changed me in so many ways. I’m forever thankful for this opportunity to explore the vast world in which we live. I couldn’t agree more with Helen Keller: “Life is either a daring adventure or nothing at all.” Asia, I hope to see you again.