The view from the Lahu Bible School

Last week our Mission Encounter to Thailand group visited the Lahu Bivocational Training School in the north of Thailand.  It was my fifth time there and each time I visit, I’m forced to view my own life from a different perspecti ve.

The Lahu are one of the ten or so hill tribes that live in Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.  You might have heard of one of the tribes called the Hmong who helped the U.S. during the Vietnam War.

Most of the Lahu eke out a living by subsistance farming.  They tend to be poor, unsophisticated from our point of view, and with little education.  Finishing high school makes a Lahu well educated. 

I love visiting them because, among other things, they help me get me get my head screwed on straight, my feet back on the ground and my spirit recentered.

INNOCENCE.  They tend to be shy with me.  When they try out their English—Good. . .morning…how…are…you?—they giggle  bashfully.  Do you remember when you were that way, when you were little and with sophitication or guile, when the world was a wonderful mystery to be explored and you didn’t have “one eye in the mirror” constantly checking out how you were performing?

I feel shamed, in a good way, when I’m with those Lahu young adults.  I have a doctor’s and two master’s degrees.  I live in the middle of a multicultural, complicated urban area.  I’ve travelled in Germany, France, Austria, Italy, Ireland, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Mexico and Thailand.  I taught in Puerto Rico for two years.  I consider myself to be a sophisticated person. 

But it’s come at a price.  I’m aware that I’ve lost much of the innocence of my childhood in the process of learning to survive in a complex world.  I miss the wide eyed wonder I had when I sat on Santa’s lap at the Boston Store when I was four and believing that he would take my gift list seriously, because, after all, I had b een a pretty good boy—at least compared to kids like Jackie O’Connor who said swear words.

I miss walking in the woods and feeling like the trees were alive—not in the biological sense—but in the sense that they really were my friends.  I believed that if I kept on being a good boy, not only Santa but life itself would reward me.

You might say, of course, that it’s a good thing that I grew up, that I let go of that fantasy world and dealt with reality.  But I’m not so sure.  When we say things like “get real,” we usually mean face the dark side of life.  That’s necessary if we want to survive, to be sure, but the reality of 24 hours includes the daytime as well as the darkness of night.  It’s the child inside of us that allows to dance till one in the morning and giggle at the antics of a squirrel, to cry when we lose a friend and to pray.

I envy those earnest Lahu students.  I also admire the missionaries who work with them.  The ones I have met—and I know a lot of them—don’t come close to the paternalistic, arrogant stereotypes some of us still hold onto. 

The people who developed a written language for the Lahu many decades ago have helped that tribal people hang onto their culture at a time when many are tempted to discard the values and relationships and customs with which they grew up and are tempted by the material prosperity of the big city.  How you gonna keep em down on the farm after they’ve seen Paris or Chiang Mai or, worse yet, Bangkok.  Life away from the constrictions back home is tempting, but the price is often that they lose their cultural/spiritual anchors or roots, and get swept up in a powerful ebb tide which takes them far out to sea.

Sure, the missionaries who created a written language for the Lahu were motivated by the desire to give them the Bible to read.  But more than that, the scholars who work in the Linguistics Center at Payap University in Chiang Mai really do want to help preserve each of the tribal cultures, so that when that young Lahu in Bangkok realizes how adrift he is in a cosmolitan sea, he can recover some of his roots by reading in his own language.

I have hundreds of stories about how being in a culture different from one the one I’m used to has helped me see that our way is not the only way.  I see aspects of Thai culture, like respect for the elderly and their easy going, smiling approach to life which I wish we could adopt.  And I also see how that easy going approach can get in the way of setting and pursuing goals.  It helps we see both the problems and strengthes of our own culture.

Getting out of my comfort zone is often scary and humbling, but it’s also exciting and maturing.  If you don’t come with me to Thailand on our next mission encounter trip in November, at least commit yourself to visiting a church of a different denomination or even religion than your own; or visit the Mexican cultural center in Pilsen; or go to a basketball game at Proviso East; or try to strike up a conversation with the handicapped guy down the street whose speech is hard to understand because of his neurological disorder.

Good chance it will help you see yourself in  a new and good way.