When I left Grand Rapids, Mich., to study abroad in Thailand in the spring of 2007, I was happy to have the chance to learn about another place while being a part of it. It was a unique opportunity for a student like myself, who had never set foot out of continental North America. People told me that being abroad would make me see the United States differently. While I accepted their wisdom, I also stepped off the plane confident that my last two and a half years of Christian liberal arts education had prepared me well for resisting reverse culture shock. I had a Reformed world-view that could handle anything. I had studied sociology and inequality and raised awareness about justice issues with a student group on campus. I took pride in knowing the flaws of American culture (childhood obesity, policy failures and how suburban strip malls were stealing our collective soul).
But Thailand was my introduction to a justice issue of great consequence—that is, the tension between modern and traditional ways of life. In neighboring Burma, this tension has an ethnic overtone that is perpetuating genocide and tyranny, which recently came under a spotlight in the international community as government officials crushed massive protests in the region. The current situation started after a long period of revolution that ended with the State Peace and Development Council seizing control (yet failing to live up its name). For decades now, members of traditionally rural hill tribes who have lived in the mountains for generations have been conscripted for forced labor, murdered, raped and run out of their villages. Modernization alone cannot be blamed for this disgrace; but, as the UNOCAL scandal indicates, it has been a deceitful savior to us all.
Thailand is not immune to this tension, either. I was enraged when I first learned that the government has adopted a development plan that forces rural villagers out of newly designated “national parks.” We visited such a village outside of Chiang Mai, one that has refused to relocate and as a consequence has had its electricity cut off. Its members are on a campaign to win the right to stay on their land, and are also trying to prevent the latest “development” project—a combination elephant zoo/resort hotel/flower garden/amusement park/cable car line that is already being built inside the national park boundaries. By the government. For the sake of tourist dollars.
In the midst of my fits of righteous anger a subtle realization set in, one that has sent me to my knees and humbled me more than ever. It started with our professor sharing an anecdote about the situation of Thailand’s national parks. A former student had been carrying on one day about the injustice of it all when a villager interrupted him and said, “You mean there were never people living in your national parks?”
Slowly, I came to consider the fuzzier aspects of U.S. history, the ones whitewashed (no pun intended) by my high-school textbooks, the ones we had touched on but rushed through in favor of Columbus Day and the first Thanksgiving. Our purple mountain majesties had never before been presented to me as the spoils of genocide and war. Indeed, I had never fully grasped the extent to which injustice cracks the very foundation of America.
What are we supposed to do? Many Americans are a transplanted people, rootless, adolescent, and yet we grow as if we thought we could be Isaiah’s oaks of righteousness. Thai people taught me that the ways of those who lived on the land before us continue to have meaning and consequence. They should not be so easily discarded.
Something fundamental in my attitude toward my own country changed as a result of my experiences in Thailand. For me, the great international playing field was leveled when I honestly owned up to our corporate transgressions. That confession brought pain, but healing, too. Somehow, I returned to the United States with a more honest appreciation for baseball games, bluegrass music and big sky country now that I also recognized the fallacy of American pride. I appreciate democracy more than ever, but I also understand that no one nation can lay claim to its truth. I will continue to work for justice with a deepened historical understanding of what that means for our society. And until it is accomplished, I will build my home on a very different foundation.