Connect : Connect November 2011
12 Above: A Maldives primary school Teacher Previous page: Graham, Nyet and Kylie in 991 Graham Eagleton Country Thailand | Assignment Technical and Research Support Officer: Sustainable Mekong Research Network Host Organisation Faculty of Public Health (FPH), Khon Kaen University, Professional Development Section (PDS), Centre for Continuing Education (CCE) Australian Partner Organisation University of Queensland - School of Integrative Systems (SIS) | www.uq.edu.au/sis Always in Transition "Grow up!" I shouted at our daughter Kylie in one of those moments we later prefer to forget. The truth is we never grow up, nor perhaps should we. Whether our age is 21 or 65, we are always in transition. The Book of Hebrews puts it this way: "They saw it way off in the distance, waved their greeting, and accepted the fact they were transients in this world. People who live this way make it plain that they are looking for their true home." In 1975 I met my wife-to-be, Nyet Fah, when nearing the end of a three-year stint as a Volunteer Abroad in Malaysia. I like to spread the story that Nyet Fah and I met on the highest mountain in South East Asia, Gunung Kinabalu, which is not even half true; for we met in its foothills, and there are at least four peaks higher, including Indonesia's Puncak Jaya in whose foothills we were lucky enough to trek 20 years later in 1995. Thirty fve years of marriage have taken us to more than our fair share of remote locations. Mind you, 'remote' is a relative term, and culturally laden at that. We live in a shrinking world: for the people of the Baliem Valley in West Papua, the city of Sydney where I was raised is becoming less remote every day. Nowadays, Kylie speaks from Sydney to her sister and natural parents in Xifeng City, Gansu, by mobile phone, but in 1990, Nyet Fah and I, living near Xifeng, maintained contact with Australia by telex and fax. One day, when I came in to lunch from working in the feld, our housekeeper and friend Yuexia informed me that Nyet Fah had gone to pick up a baby. That night, at three days of age, Kylie slept in our rooms in a cardboard box which continued to be her makeshift crib for the next few weeks. Kylie spent most of her childhood with us in the idyllic location of Wagstaffe on the Central Coast of New South Wales. She is now more Australian than either Nyet Fah or I. The thought of hurtling off to the other side of the world as a volunteer is probably not her idea of a good gig; or indeed of most people's. Yet for me, after more than a decade of teaching in NSW government high schools, I was itching to hit the road again. In July 2010 I got my chance. I was selected along with several other Australian teachers for an assignment with the Professional Development Division of the Centre for Continuing Education in the Maldives through the VIDA Program (now Australian Volunteers). For six months I lived on the magical island of Thulusdhoo, 100 metres away from the world famous surfng destination of ‘Cokes’. The extra-curricular distractions proved more a temptation than mere mortals are designed to resist. One can only hope that amidst all the wave-riding, snorkelling and scuba diving, I did not do too much damage to the professionalism of the island's teaching staff. I was in fact greatly impressed by their dedication and generosity and fnished my assignment convinced that the education of the children of Thulusdhoo and surrounding islands is in good hands. Six months is a short time in the scheme of things. After returning to Australia, an opportunity arose for me to take up another volunteering assignment - this time under the umbrella of the newly formed Australian Volunteers partnership, and this time not for six months but for 18. At the end of August, Nyet Fah and I set out together on a new venture to the city of Khon Kaen in North Eastern Thailand. In many ways, coming to the University of Khon Kaen to assist in a research project assessing the impacts of contract farming seems like a return to our beginnings; for it was an Australian volunteer agronomist with the University of Agriculture of Malaysia that my frst professional encounter with South East Asia began. At the end of my three years, I was supported by Nyet Fah in a research project that combined feld work in Malaysia and the University of Western Australia. For the frst 10 years of our marriage, before Kylie was born, we worked in agricultural research activities that included six years in the Ord River Irrigation Area of WA, two years in Somalia and the three years in Gansu. There is, as I say, something of déjà vu about this new assignment in Khon Kaen. Yet nothing ever remains the same; we are always in transition. At the moment the challenges ahead seem insurmountable; learning the Thai language just for starters, and then the coming to grips with all the subtle differences of a new environment and culture. Yet we look forward to it with enthusiasm, for isn't this what volunteering is all about? communities of people around the world continue to carry out their lives in accordance with their own unique and culturally- specifc practices. Those daily lives are affected by global problems like climate change. Building links with communities like those on Cat Ba Island and in our neighbourhood is a wonderfully rewarding experience, and one that hopefully contributes in some way to better tangible and intangible outcomes at the individual, national and regional level.
Connect March 2012