By Leah Weigel
Sawatdi Kah! I am currently in Chiang Mai, Thailand, spending two months of the summer working as an intern at a Child Development Institute with a team of Expressive Arts Therapists. It is already week 3, and I have been so busy working with the children, and exploring Chiang Mai, that I want to take a moment to share what I have been learning!
This trip was my first time travelling outside the United States alone, and also the farthest I have ever been from home. Needless to say, I had a good amount of anxiety and culture shock at first. The airport hassle, jet lag, language barrier, traffic patterns, and stress of being alone in a new place took me a great distance outside my comfort zone. I am learning to stay open minded, however, and I often remind myself to “go with the flow.” All these new experiences are so important for growth as a human being. I already love the stunning temples and landscape, the abundance of fruit and (very) spicy food, and of course, the Thai people I have met so far. Chiang Mai is a beautiful place to be.
The first morning at work I was placed in a room with 8 children with various disabilities, then left alone to do something with them. Thankfully, my Music Therapy professors have taught me well, and I after 2 minutes of realizing how little Thai I knew, I was able to facilitate a Music Therapy session. They knew “Doe a Deer” from The Sound of Music, so I taught them motions to go with that. Before long, we were dancing around the room together, pretending to be elephants and snakes to the music. They asked to share their music with me as well, which I eager accepted. Without the security of language for me to communicate, I found myself more reliant on the music than ever before. That day I was reminded of this important, stunning reality: Music transcends all differences, whether it’s an extra chromosome, a nuerodivergence, language barriers, or cultural differences. How powerful is that?!
I also work with a group of 3-5 year olds with emotional disorders (what I am told). There is a lot of crying pre-music, but the second I strum my guitar the kids are completely engaged! It is magical! When I am not singing and playing music in a session, I am assisting the team in other modalities of therapy. We do equestrian therapy, aquatic therapy, art therapy, and drama therapy! One day we took the kids to an organic farm on the mountain that was run completely by people with disability. I was really inspired by that concept and would love to see more places like that in the US. I am very impressed by the Thai medical system. It is much more common for a doctor to prescribe what we would call “alternative therapy” rather than medication. Thai people really respect the use of art and recreation to achieve clinical/medical goals. I am also impressed by the way the community supports children with disability.
The second week, the Child Development Institute was hosting a camp for kids with Downsyndrome. I had the privilege of writing a theme song for the camp, which was translated to Thai and taught to the kids! The staff and I also developed a dance to go along with the song, and at the end of the camp, they performed it! It felt really good to have created something that made these children feel so happy and empowered. When I am leading sessions, I do a lot of piano improvisation, movement songs, and any song that promotes socialization.
I am staying with a Thai host family, and one night, they took me to dinner with their friends, (who had served on the Thai National Committee for Human Rights) and their 3 elderly sisters. We ate under a giant, majestic tree, and the weather was perfect. At first I felt a bit like a fish out of water because I didn’t know anyone, or speak Thai–-but then they asked me to sing. Timidly, I sang “The Hills Are Alive” from The Sound of Music, and everyone starting singing with me! We spent the rest of the meal singing, and sharing show tunes, traditional Irish/American, Chinese, and Thai songs. I was reminded, again, of the incredible power of music, and its ability to bridge over cultural, language, and age differences. I left no longer feeling like a stranger.
When I am not at work, I spend my time meandering the city, drinking smoothies, visiting temples (sometimes chatting with the monks), writing in cafes, meeting new people, and I even spent a day hanging out with elephants. I am in constant awe of the peaceful way of life here. Being far from home has given me a new perspective on everything. There is so much to explore and see. And I want to see it all! My wish is that every person in the world has a chance to travel at some point. For me, it has helped me uncover a new drive for life, a new love for people and music, and a new passion to explore and cherish this dynamic world I have found myself in. I am so excited to continue my journey here in Thailand!