On Christmas Day, 2011, I headed halfway around the world, across many time zones and far out of my comfort zone to volunteer in Southeast Asia as a mental health consultant with SalusWorld. I had first contacted Gwen Vogel and Elaine Hanson the previous spring when I was exploring opportunities for a mini-sabbatical I was taking from my work as clinical director of the Center for Early Relationship Support at Jewish Family and Children’s Service of Greater Boston. I was interested in finding a way to bring my skills in training and clinical work with parents and young children to another part of the world. I was particularly drawn to the SalusWorld focus on sustainability in using consultants to build local capacity rather than provide direct service. The match with Salus seemed to have great potential—they were interested in my specialization in early childhood mental health and I was excited by the possibility of travel-with-a-purpose to Burma and Thailand, a part of the world that was completely new to me.
I had many questions before going and spent hours talking with colleagues and developing my plans for the training. I looked to find ways to translate the concepts that underlie the work of our Center for Early Relationship Support to young, inexperienced (but open and eager) community providers half a world away. What parts of our approach to understanding, supporting and healing parents and young children can have meaning across differences of language, culture and historical context? I approached the training weeks in Yangon, Burma and Fang, Thailand as an opportunity to explore these wonderings and foster dialogue with training participants. I learned so many things, felt challenged before and during the trip, met amazing, dedicated local participants and accomplished my personal and professional goals in moving beyond my comfort zone and offering my head and heart knowledge to others.
The experience was incredibly rich in terms of my learning and was deeply affirming in terms of the value of the training. I found that the core ideas that have guided my work for many years can be meaningful and useful in both personal and professional ways, even when translated from English to Thai to Shan (as was necessary in the northern Thai village)! Training participants offered feedback at the end of the training in Burma, sharing the varied lessons they would carry with them into their lives and work. Some spoke of new insights about child development they would discuss with co-workers; others talked about more personal effects on their own relationships. The common themes centered on new understandings about the fragility and emotional life of even very small babies and the ways that external behavior reflects internal meaning. One participant summed up her learning with a quote in the baby’s imagined voice from a book I had shared with them: “I may be small but I feel it all.”
In my role as trainer, there were many lessons as well. I learned that if I wanted full participation I needed to accept that some students would speak in Burmese, leaving me feeling left out at times of the more heated, or humorous, interactions. I learned that my usual long-winded style of explanations had to be dramatically abbreviated and that putting things in writing was a great way to promote clarity. I learned that when I asked for students’ thoughts, I was met with silence because I needed to be explicit that I wanted them to not just have thoughts but to discuss them!
On a more emotional level, I learned that it’s a big and varied world out there with so much to experience and to share. But also that there are tremendous commonalities across these different worlds and that the language of relationships and their power to hurt or heal is one that can transcend boundaries of nations, cultures and dialects.