Working without words: Norwich
establishes connection with Thai village © April 9, 2010, Norwich University Office of Communications

Norwich students Ally Manousos [center] and Amber Heckman make an offering to a Thai Buddhist monk in the town of Pha Chan during a January 2010 service trip.

photo courtesy of Joel SweetserNorwich students Ally Manousos [center] and Amber Heckmann make an offering to a Thai Buddhist monk in the town of Pha Chan during a January 2010 service trip. They are with a friend of their host family. The skirts they wear are a customary display of modesty and respect.

You’ve traveled more than 11,000 miles from Northfield, Vt., to the tiny village of Pha Chan in northeastern Thailand. You and your fellow students are trying to initiate a relationship with 400 or so villagers that will hopefully lead to plans to build a library and literary center.

Nobody speaks a word of English, however, and you don’t speak Thai. Now what?

If you’re Samantha Johnston, you do the Hokey-Pokey.

That’s what worked for Johnston, a senior nursing major at Norwich University, during a January 2010 service trip of six students, three staff members and one travel liaison to Thailand. Their mission was to establish ties with the people of Pha Chan and identify their needs so that future volunteers may return and help build needed educational infrastructure.

As Johnston and her fellow students realized, sometimes a few dance steps are necessary first. The dancing, she explained, began with the villagers themselves, who performed a special welcome ceremony for the Norwich delegation to their home on the Mekong River.

“It was the most amazing experience I ever had,” said Johnston, who grew up in Morgan, Vt. “The entire village was waiting for us, dancing and singing.”

Once the initial excitement subsided and students began settling in with local families for their home stays, however, lack of shared words and interpreters began to get in the way. Even more uncomfortable than bamboo mats on dirt or concrete floors with mosquito netting for protection, were awkward phrases and misunderstandings.

“The language barrier was very difficult to work with,” said Joel Sweetser, a sophomore architecture major from Rumford, Maine. “The communication that took place was a lot of horrible sign language. It became a game of charades that was not very successful.”

Other games proved more useful. Three students stayed with a family that had four daughters, and broke the ice with rounds of Duck, Duck, Goose. They drew pictures and listened to lyrics of pop songs. During visits to a local school, Johnston and others shared some American culture, including songs like This Land is Your Land, Take Me Out to the Ballgame and the Hokey-Pokey dance.

“The first time everyone kind of stared at us,” said Johnston with a laugh. “The second time, they were standing up and dancing.”

Other rituals needed few words. Every morning in the predawn hours, a villager named Luie would fish the Mekong River with massive nets strung along the cliffs. One day, Johnston and Sweetser joined him.

“It was pitch dark ... Samantha and I sat in the boat being silent and just watching Luie do his thing,” recalled Sweetser, who helped haul in five fish and a crab that morning.

“It was weird to see Joel coming back, holding fish on a string,” said sophomore Ally Manousos, a political science major, “and then later in the day, there’s that fish, sitting in our bowl of soup.”

Food was shared among villagers and the visiting Americans, and also with the group of nearby Buddhist monks in a silent ritual. “One [monk] would walk an hour into the village, barefoot, wearing orange robes and carrying a big silver bowl,” said Manousos. “The house mother would have rice and cookies waiting.”

And only a few sentences were necessary to initiate a project of bamboo basket-weaving among the village children. Students brought them back to the United States to sell, raising money for the library. A second order of baskets was also successful.

Working with Sweet Mango Tours of Montpelier, Vt., Norwich plans to send another group of students to Pha Chan during the 2010/11 winter vacation, as well as the following year. Sweet Mango’s Linda Wheatley said she and the villagers were impressed by the maturity of Norwich students—and excited by the possibilities of working toward their goals with help from a sophisticated university, despite language barriers.

“This was not a very comfortable situation, and not just physically,” said Wheatley, who has been visiting Pha Chan with other service groups for several years. “But there was no complaining among the Norwich students, and they were very creative with communication.”

Group members were overseas for more than two weeks. In addition to their work in Pha Chan, they spent time in other villages and the city of Bangkok. They returned with not only a few Thai phrases and dance moves, but a newfound appreciation for simple comforts, such as running water and family life.

“I learned to be more aware of what I’m using in my life and how I live,” said Manousos. “I don’t take things for granted as much anymore.”