Tuesday, July 8, 2008

The Conference

7:24 am. I’m about to head out the door to a conference on migrant workers and health. The main attraction of this conference, of course, is that I get to scope out the big names from WHO, UNIFEM, and the Ministry of Public Health.

It’s day three here, and I’ve been trying to get my brain switched to living-in-a-developing-country mode again. Except there seems to be no evidence that this is a developing country. There are these massive, sleek, hi-tech malls that are all nicer and more carefully and artistically designed to maximize your shameless consumption than any mall in the U.S. People from Japan, China and Malaysia come here on “shopping vacations.”

I’m still reeling from the overstimulation of being in a new country and hemisphere, as well as being 11 hours ahead of New York time, but if I had to choose one message that stands out most from everything I’ve taken in so far, it’s this: JUSTINA MUST LEARN THAI, LIKE YESTERDAY.

Supposedly everyone learns English in school here, and I don’t mean just in high school. It’s taught starting in fifth grade. But much like in China and Taiwan, the emphasis is on reading and writing, not on speaking. So basically, I can’t understand a word anyone is saying to me.

Yesterday I was at an internet café and the woman at the desk kept saying, “Conserve foon.”


“Conserve foon.”






“Foon. Foon.”

Finally I figured it out. She was saying, “Computer full.” All the computers were taken and I should hang out a bit until one opened up. Thais sometimes pronounce L as N. But they also sometimes pronounce R as L, or L as R.

So how about some nooden for dinnel?

11:05 pm. I got lost trying to find my way to the Ambassador Hotel off Sukhumvit Road this morning, but I did learn how the whole Thanon-Soi thing works. A lot of thanons (roads) have side streets coming off them that are called sois, which are numbered. So Soi Sukhumvit 1 is the first side street that turns off the main Sukhumvit Road.

This is apparently a pretty large conference. It’s called the National Migrant Health Conference or something like that. There were a bunch of display tables and booths from various NGOs and government organizations that supposedly support migrant health and rights in Thailand, and some of them were giving away freebies. Mostly, though, everything was in Thai, further solidifying my resolve to learn Thai reo-reo: fast fast.

At the welcome table I got a little radio-like thing with a belt clip and earpiece. It receives a feed from the booth where two people were translating the program from Thai into English and vice-versa, which I thought was pretty cool. They could offer personal versions of these for super lazy people, where you hire someone to follow you around and keep inconspicuously out of sight while their translation of everything around you is constantly transmitted to your ear.

I met some people from Mahachai at the conference – my supervisor was there, and I met a Burmese doctor and nurse who are based at the drop-in centers. There were also a few peer educators and Burmese translators from a migration NGO in Mahachai, all youth, and some staff from the Mae Tao clinic in Mae Sot, of Dr. Cynthia fame.

One of the early speakers was the head of UNIFEM based here in Bangkok. She gave an energetic speech about migrant rights, especially for female migrants, who are more vulnerable to exploitation. The rhetoric was nothing earth-shattering, just very familiar. There were a few other speakers from NGOs around the country who said more of the same thing, but then the government officials got up and started talking about why migrants were a menace and should be stopped from coming into Thailand.

Whuuut? No one seemed to react. People just kept taking notes. During the coffee break I ran into our executive director, who said, “The ministry people said all the wrong things.” He was irritated but not surprised. It sounds like this is the standard party line every time the government is invited to talk about migrants.

For dinner I met up with a PopFam classmate, Francisco, who is doing his practicum with UNAIDS here in Bangkok. It was great to see a friendly face, one that speaks English at 35 mph instead of 2. We sat in an air-conditioned noodle shop in the mall, slurping down noodle soup and stir fried chicken with vegetables, and comparing notes on Thailand through expat eyes and non-Thai ears.

Francisco ordered an iced chrysanthemum tea, I ordered a Thai iced tea, and we made a special toast:

“To being interns in Thailand. Because you know our classmates working in Africa aren’t eating like this.”

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