Seeing the world with new eyes

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By Admin1 (admin) on Wednesday, September 26, 2001 - 6:09 pm: Edit Post

Here is part of another story about the Peace Corps written for the 40th that appeared in the Rock Hill Herald in South Carolina:

Seeing the world with new eyes

Sep 23, 2001 - Herald Rock-Hill SC Author(s): Karen Bair / The Herald

James Hubbard, on a jeep in a Thai jungle clearing in pitch darkness, inhaled the stars sprinkled overhead. A satellite tumbling through the night seemed to originate in another millennium.

Across the clearing, a woman in a three-sided bamboo hut handwove cloth on a loom.

"I thought how this was right over her head, and she was living in a time 1,000 years ago," the Rock Hill gynecologist marveled.

Sitting recently in his office with photos in a thick scrapbook, a piece of his heart stole away to Thailand, a jungle of a nation where turmoil, disease, cobras, scorpions, danger and loneliness awaited him 14 years ago.

When he returned from the Peace Corps three years later, he had not only seen the world through Thai eyes, but brought Thailand home in his heart.

Oddly, returning to the United States was a greater culture shock than adjusting to Thai language, food, culture and climate. He saw his culture through others' eyes and realized that the poorest of Americans live in relative wealth compared to the Thai people, who ask nothing and give generously.

His return culture shock peaked when an acquaintance threw a tantrum because her mother had bought her a VCR, but not one with the bells and whistles she wanted.

"A friend of mine said, 'How does it feel to be back in the real world?' '' he recalls, "and I thought, 'This is not the real world. Seventy-five percent of the world is like what I just came from.' "

Worldly lessons

Hubbard was 21 and fresh out of college when he arrived in Thailand, stationed along the Burmese border at Mae Sod in the village of Tak. His mission was to travel from village to village checking blood for a worm that causes elephantiasis and for mosquitoes that carry it. If elephantiasis is treated before symptoms emerge, it can be cured, but once infected areas begin to swell, it is too late.

Burmese rebels often crossed the river there, and his Thai friends scouted for land mines. He sometimes slept in flimsy bomb shelters erected for stray shells, and the Thais inspected them first for booby traps.

Leafing through his scrapbook, he recalled that becoming Thai in his thinking had been fun. He spent three months learning the language and culture with other Peace Corps volunteers. When he had garnered enough language to order a chicken and noodle dish, he went to a hut restaurant and ordered it. The woman was obstinate and he couldn't understand most of what she said, but she finally cooked his dish. But when he paid her, she refused to take the money.

"Later, I learned it was not a restaurant," he chuckled. "It was somebody's house."

He absorbed the taboos of the culture: Never hand anything to someone with your left hand, never touch a person's head, never wear shoes in the house. Bow to a depth appropriate to the other person's station.

"Never show the bottom of your feet," he advises. "That is the biggest insult. You are asking for a fight."

Personal space was the most difficult lesson, coming from a homophobic society.

"One man's space to another is very close," he learned. "If I was to talk to another man, I would hold his hand. They touch each other. If you back away, they don't trust you.

"Women are very physical with other women, even touching one another's breast. Men and women together are the opposite. Even if they are married, they don't touch one another in public."

Three months after his arrival, he bid farewell to the other Americans and traveled to his headquarters hut with no running water or electricity. "The Peace Corps teaches you language and culture," he said. "The rest you got to learn yourself."

Most villagers had never met an American and assumed he was from New York, and, because he had blue eyes, asked whether everything he saw was blue. To fit in, he wore the native pakama, a long piece of cloth wrapped from the waist.

He spent most of his $65 monthly stipend on a motorcycle, food and buying drinks for his Thai friends and soon learned that Thai time is "whenever." When he arrived in a village, he was required to obtain permission from the village chief before he could proceed. That could take time. After that, despite their lack of material things, they would argue over who would have the honor of housing and feeding him.

Psychological challenge

The perils of proximity to a war zone soon dawned. After three days of trekking the jungle to return to Tak, he and his Thai friends agreed they needed a bath. The village went to the river to bathe, but no one would approach him because he was white. It was not that they were racist, but because most mercenaries were white Europeans, and snipers awaited along the river. His friends feared a poor shot would hit them instead.

"The toughest part is psychological," he recalls. "The hardest was around Christmastime. Or just a simple thing like you tell a joke and they don't think it's funny."

He learned to appreciate spicy Thai food and to participate in Thai dances at Buddhist festivals. At New Year's, he partook of the custom of slapping people with white paste and was likewise coated.

His adventures even introduced him to a Thai officer, who thought Hubbard was a CIA agent. The officer flew him by helicopter to a Burmese rebel camp across the border, where he delivered supplies, then back to Thailand to view a magnificent waterfall.

"I was stupid," he shrugs. "I was young. My time in the Peace Corps was like a manic depressive. Very high and very low."

He contracted both Dengue and typhoid fever there. It became routine to check the bed under its heavy mosquito netting for snakes, and, after being stung by a scorpion, he clapped his shoes together before donning them.

He grew to appreciate their humor, their warmth and their spirituality.

He tried to stay in touch with his Thai friends, but mail does not reach remote villages.

He thinks most often of a Thai neighbor who mothered him, of her daughter and especially of her son, who was being lured into the rich temptations of smuggled opium, jewels and arms. Hubbard became a surrogate father to the boy, sometimes paying him to assist on trips to other villages. Hubbard and his wife visited the village together years later, but the boy was not there and his mother still worried about her son's path.

Hubbard believes all the Peace Corps volunteers make a difference, even if only to show people in the Third World that, unlike they may have been told, Americans do not eat babies. The greatest gift, he believes, come to those who volunteer.

"I found out what it is like to be a true minority, and I empathize with people who are foreigners in this country," he said. "I learned what it is to be a celebrity. I had to be on my best behavior because it would make Americans look bad. I was the only American they knew.

"Mostly, I learned everyone around the world is basically the same."

Contact Karen Bair at 329-4080 or

Read the full story here:

Seeing the world with new eyes

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