Monday, January 26, 2009

“Heck, Yes!” and “Why Not?” Leads Kalamazoo Woman All Over the World for Adventure

Traveling the world has been a consistent call for Janet Illeni. She has visited and lived in many parts of the world—and she always keeps her suitcase handy for new adventures.

Last June she received an e-mail from a college friend that began a whole new chapter in her life. It read: “Opportunity knocks. Jack probably will get OK and funding for a position. Interested?”

“Heck, yes,” Janet replied without hesitation. Four months later she was on her way to Chiang Mai, one of Thailand’s major cities located in the northern part of the country, to serve as the director of staff development at Prince Royal’s College (PRC).

The 66-year-old independent contractor for Sunshine Media (Scottsdale, Ariz.) decided that that she wanted a change after 15 years of publishing two bimonthly trade magazines (MD News and Builder/Architect) for western Michigan.

“The work of putting together magazines is all-consuming work,” said Janet. “It takes a lot of effort to coordinate writers and photographers, take care of the layout and printing, set-up photo shoots, establish relationships, sell advertising, edit articles and write columns for each issue.”

So she sold her car, rented her house, dismantled her business and stored her personal items.

Janet has had the travel bug since she was a student at Grinnell College. In 1963 she and five other classmates went to Europe armed with Eurail passes and dreams of seeing the continent. They drew up an itinerary but rarely followed it. Instead, they followed their “travel noses” but would occasionally meet up in designated places.

One day in Copenhagen, Janet met a diplomatic family who was looking for a tutor for their daughter. They were stationed in Trieste, Italy.

“Why not?” said Janet. She worked with the girl for the 1963-64 school year.

Trieste turned out to be more than a job, however. Janet met Guido Illeni, a young Italian lawyer, whom she married in 1964 and had two daughters: Elisa, who now lives in Carbondale, CO, and Cristina, who lives just outside of Trieste. The girls grew up speaking Italian more than English and Janet became fluent in the language and still speaks it today. The family traveled all over Italy, Sardinia and Yugoslavia on adventurous camping trips.

In August 1963, Janet had the opportunity to visit her brother, Dick Ramsdell, who was teaching through a Columbia University program in Mwanza, Tanganyika (now Tanzania), on the southern edge of Lake Victoria in southeast Africa. After asking her mother to wire her bank account of $600, the two rode an Austin-Healy all around Lake Victoria through Rwanda, Burundi, Kenya and Uganda on many roads that were more like ruts than highways.

In 1978 Janet returned to the United States with her daughters and came to Kalamazoo because her widowed mother, Lucy Ramsdell (now deceased), lived here. She decided to finish her degree in linguistics at Western Michigan University and afterward obtained a master’s degree in communications.

During this time she tutored many international students and taught Career English at WMU. For seven years she taught composition and business writing at Kalamazoo Valley Community College. That’s where she met her future Chiang Mai boss, Jack Neale, who directed training and development at KVCC at that time.

From 1987-89 Janet was associate director of continuing education at Nazareth College where she managed off-campus programs, adult degree programs, weekend classes, and taught writing classes for the Nursing Program.

For five years after that she served as a copywriter for mail order catalogs at Heath Company, an electronic equipment outfit in Benton Harbor and was soon promoted to copy editor and creative manager.

“This really gave me a tremendous amount of experience for magazine publishing,” said Janet who started her own marketing and communications business after Heath Company merged with Zenith. Eighteen months later she saw an ad in the paper calling for a trade magazine publisher.

“Why not?” she said as she faxed her resume to Sunshine Media (Scottsdale, Ariz.) and got the job.

Her work as a busy publisher, however, did not deter her from travel. She visited Japan once with a high school friend and stayed with a family who was curious about Americans. Of course, they taught her much about the Japanese.

“It’s interesting to see culture through the eyes of local people, which to me is just amazing,” said Janet.

She also visited Spain, southern Mexico where she rented an apartment for a month at a time, and of course, Italy where she had family and friends.

Janet participated with Colleagues International in Kalamazoo and hosted international guests. One woman she befriended was Tatiana Schultz is from Pskov, Russia (southwest of St. Petersburg). When she had a chance to go to Russia through the Kalamazoo-Pushkin Partnership, she then visited Tatiana in her home. One of her more memorable activities of the trip was the banya or the Russian public bathhouse “where you sit in intense heat, are beaten with birch branches, take an occasional dip in an ice water pool and drink vodka served by a little babushka woman,” she said.

Janet’s stint in Chiang Mai involves working with Thai faculty members who teach English at PRC, a K-12 private, Christian school with over 6,000 students on a 40-acre campus. She describes this newly-created position as a “work in progress.”

The main problem she faces is that language learning is grammar-based and students pass exams with paper and pencil. They are not required to demonstrate oral competency.

“The kids at PRC pass their tests but they can’t speak English,” said Janet.

A big part of her job is to help faculty develop their own skills as they provide a more comprehensive whole language approach for their students.

Jack Neale, the head of the English Language Program at PRC, recruited Janet because he knew of her wide variety of skills. In just two short months she’s already helped students with the new school newspaper and taught students and faculty songs and public speaking techniques. However, her main task is to discover teachers’ needs and help them improve their English.

Another challenge Janet faces is to work with teachers who have 38 to 60 students in each of their classes and are in school from 7:45 a.m. until 4:45 p.m.—and sometimes later. This means that they are devoting a couple more hours each week to learn new teaching methods for their English classes.

“I love change, diversity and problem solving,” said Janet. “It keeps me alive. I like finding new ways of doing things and seeing that people are pleased with what I give them and enjoying the learning process.”

Although it’s part of Janet’s nature to make a decision and work out the details later, she is quite comfortable now that she is in Thailand. She has a nice two-room apartment off-campus and she recently bought a car. Driving in Chiang Mai will undoubtedly bring her many new adventures in itself because the traffic is frenetic and drivers drive on the left side of the road.

Janet is also learning Thai language, which she approaches like a puzzle. Thai, like Chinese, has written characters and tonal qualities for the same word. She diligently pours over her language book but she also uses language to make friends with native Thai speakers by asking them questions about words, phrases and pronounciations.

She also devises different tricks in remembering words. For example, a common soup with meat and noodles is called khao soi, which sounds like “cow soy.” Or she looks for similarities between Thai and other languages. For example, sà-pǒm means “to wash” and it is close to the Italian sapone, which means soap. Bpai, the transliteration of chرp-bpíng, means “to go shopping.”

“I feel I could live most anywhere in the world,” said Janet, “because I always try to learn enough of the language where I am so I can function and seek relationships with locals.”

Travel and working overseas, however, offers Janet something more: an opportunity to be an international ambassador.

“You realize how important it is to represent your own country as you want it represented,” she said. “The United States has lost status in the world’s eye in recent years. This one-on-one relationship with people from other countries can only help show others that we all are the same, we all have desires for our families and we all want comfortable lives.”

Janet has also been able to get a bird’s eye view of the predominant Buddhist culture in Thailand more intimately through a serendipitous meeting with a young monk at a temple. The two struck up a friendship and began conversations about the Buddhist religion, culture, and philosophy.

This sort of religious encounter interests Janet. Her father was a Methodist minister and a theologian who taught at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., and Garrett Theological Seminary in Evanston, Ill. Her mother held a master’s degree in religious education. She, herself, is a member of the People’s Unitarian Universalist Church, which believes in religious freedom and diversity as a means of seeking wisdom and truth as well as justice and compassion in the world.

“I love the way the Thais wei each other when they meet and say good-bye,” said Janet. (The wei is the pressing of hands together prayer style in front of the face.) “It’s beautiful and respectful. I love it that Buddhism is totally respectful of other religions.”

This latest leg of Janet’s world travels has only enhanced her thirst for travel. During school vacations, she plans to visit other cities in Thailand and to explore other countries in Southeast Asia. For the Christmas holiday she visited Ko Mak, a small island just six bus hours and a 45-minute speedboat ride southeast of Bangkok in the Gulf of Thailand.

“There’s so much more of the world I want to see and wonder how to fit it all in,” she said.

Janet encourages all Americans, especially the young, to travel because it is a way to become involved in uniting the world’s peoples.

“I am happy to be an American, but I also consider myself a world citizen. The United States is not an island. We are a part of the global economy and citizens in a world that need to communicate with each other. Students should take every opportunity available to go on study abroad or to be exposed to another language.”

Portions of this article appeared in the Kalamazoo Gazette, January 21, 2009.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Down in the Dumps

I’m afraid I didn’t share the same reaction Nicholas Kristof did after he visited a garbage dump in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, where the poorest of the poor live. Nor did I come to the same conclusion as he did in believing that sweatshops are an alternative for employment.

I visited a dump in Mae Sot, Thailand, last month, and like Kristof, found it to be a “Dante-like vision of hell.” You might say the people there are the waste products of the global economy.

Mae Sot, reputedly a “frontier town” made up of 120,000 Thais, Burmese, Indians and Asian Muslims, is not far from the Thai-Myanmar border in the northwestern part of the country. The people living on the dump are Burmese refugees and illegal immigrants whose government is so oppressive, they consider themselves “lucky” to be where they are. They would probably have no place else to go had the Thai government not accepted them or at least turned a blind eye to their presence.

The air at the dump is filled with the stink of rotting garbage that is so foul it stays with you several hours after you leave.

The water the people drink, cook and wash with is polluted, including the beautiful, tranquil lake near the dump.

The ground is covered by mounds and mounds of trash, much of it toxic waste. While the dump’s perimeter is surrounded by luscious trees, wild sugar cane and weeds, the trash heaps keep expanding into these greener areas where the people live. So they simply give up and live on top of the trash.

Their “houses” are typically made of 10x10 foot bamboo frames covered with old tarpaulin. Tires are placed on the tarpaulin to steady it against heavy winds and rains. A lone “house” sits on one of the highest trash piles. It is either a sentinel or a defiant witness to the disgusting circumstances of this place.

Black hogs forage through the garbage oblivious to the people around them. Dogs wander about just like those in town do only these dogs are gaunt and diseased with open sores splaying through their fur.

Trash burns. Pools of mud lay stagnant, even in the winter’s dry season. A rat lies flattened in a two-dimensional profile of itself. A small, white plastic spoon, like the kind I’ve used for soup in the town’s restaurants, lies pressed into the loose dirt.

Suddenly, an industrious boy, about 10, eagerly runs to his house with a matched pair of boots that he apparently found in a heap. He stores them under the “floor,” which is a series of bamboo poles layed across the frame of the house and covered with an old mattress, rags and boards over a hole dug underneath the structure. Some rural Thais elevate their houses on stilts in order to keep the rats away. I doubt this boy’s “house” provides the same protection.

My guides who brought me here also bring eight dozen oranges to share with the people, who gratefully and graciously accept the treats. Some people keep their oranges to eat later while others, especially the children, attack them voraciously as they let the peelings drop on the ground. Their black-stained fingers take sections of the fruit apart. Then they shove the orange into their mouths noticeably savoring the juicy freshness so foreign to them.

The faces of the children are smudged with dirt, a complement to the yellowish-white “tree chalk” their parents have pasted on them, a typical relief treatment from the tropical heat that even city kids sport. In fact, the kids’ whole bodies are covered with dirt from the dump and from the second-hand clothes they find there. Most of the kids wear flip flops but some walk blithely in colorful rubber boots that protect their bare feet from the broken glass, cans, splintered wood and filth.

Whatever they have, the people have probably found it by rummaging through the trash. The children play with discarded toys. A toddler curiously investigates the properties of a deflated orange balloon by sucking on it. Some boys play soccer with a “ball” made out of a trash-filled plastic bag tied together.

A small group of men play dominoes and sip tea from tossed-out cups. They are intent on their game amid the activity of the oranges, the Western visitors and the mother bathing her squirming toddler in water nearby.

There is some schooling available to the children but it is meager. For these kids there is not much of a future that education could give them anyway—and their parents know it.

All 400 people living at the dump work: men, women and children. What attracts them here are the plastic bags strewn all over the dump. They collect the bags in four-foot long baskets that they carry on their backs to the recycling center about half a mile down the dusty road. The center gives them two baht (6 cents) per kilo for the plastic bags. They used to get five baht (17 cents) per kilo but the worldwide economic slowdown has affected prices even here.

If the recycling center closes, the people will lose their income in the same way that Kristof feared closed sweatshops would put people out of work. The pitiful thing about this situation is that keeping the recycling center and the sweatshops going is presumed to be the most humanitarian thing that can be done for these poor, poor people.

Kristof’s contention is that it’s better for the people to work in a sweatshop than to live in these dumps. Even the people, themselves, say they prefer a sweatshop to the hot, filthy, stinky dump.

However, these choices are specious. Mae Sot already has 250 sweatshops with many more on the drawing board. It is unlikely that the people living on the dump will get these jobs. They have no skills or legal papers.

What we need to understand from impoverished areas like Mae Sot or Phnom Penh is that our free market structures are bringing ALL the world’s people down into what human rights activist Charles Kernaghan of the National Labor Committee against sweatshops calls a “race to the bottom.” Those who produce the products, those who buy the products and those who live off of the products once they have been discarded are all pathetically bound together. And unless this system changes, there is no exit from it for anyone.