Author Archives: Michael Sun

Some post-trip thoughts

Though I’m a positive person, I was really cynical/pessimistic at first, and for valid reasons. First, Delta lost most of our team’s baggage, as in EVERY checked bag for the 20+ people from the connecting Boston flight containing their clothing and necessary equipment for our work. These bags would continue to be lost for a few days, gradually returned from days 5-7 of the trip. Because of this, most of our plans were derailed. Our first three days were spent without a definite plan, without productive work, and without an answer to “what the heck were we doing in Nicaragua anyways?”. The worst was on the first Sunday when we were introduced to the town of El Hormiguero on their secondary school’s graduation day. We stopped by, were stared at, and felt generally bad about being a spectacle at another people’s celebration since we weren’t doing the work we were supposed to be there for.

But things got moving on Monday, after four days in country. We started seeing patients, more and more patients. Every day we broke our record of patients seen, except for our last day when we had to close up early to take inventory but were still on record-breaking pace. In six days we treated over 700 patients, gave hundreds of soaps and toothbrushes, and distributed so many condoms! This wasn’t without casualty. In addition to being dead-tired and sleeping by 8pm, at least half our team got sick (an understatement to the truly grim circumstances of no bags, eating primarily rice and beans, and being rather moist). Fortunately, I was fine, with the exception of possible parasites after being covered in mud after a “short walk” in a rainstorm. (But seriously, huge shout out to the CH team for enduring so well. I almost feel sorry for not being afflicted as many of you were.)

During this time, we bonded as a team (maybe too much), we played a lot of cards, and I soon found myself wanting to stay on our last day in Hormiguero. Despite the bugs, smelly latrines, and moist-ness to our clothes, there were so many treasures to the place; the smell of the earth after rain, the view of the Bosowas, Mantequilla cookies with fresh coffee, riding in the bed of a pick-up, being completely unplugged, and so many more.

To wrap up this post, we left Hormiguero, spent a couple nights in Granada for some real tourism (which needs an entirely separate post), and made our separate ways back to our homes. I’m eating less healthy, it is 70 degrees colder here in Chicago, but I’m happy to be home. But if given a few more nights in El Hormiguero, with my friends from Dartmouth and across Nicaragua, I would want it back in a heartbeat. There are things that you make happen because they are a once-in-a-lifetime kind of thing. And then there is something like this; something worth making happen again and again and again.

Hasta luego Nicaragua.

A poem for Nicaragua


Above is a poem I wrote while in Hormiguero, Nicaragua. This was my first time writing a poem in Spanish, and the process was certainly interesting. My writing process was a bilingual mess – thinking in Spanish until I wanted an English phrase or word that I couldn’t translate. Spanish also reads and sounds more beautiful than English, I think. It’s less clunky, has more flow and unintentional rhyme.

This poem is an ode, or a poem of praise. But the poem is also structured around various ways in Spanish to say “sorry” as we would use it in the States. For me as a foreigner, especially an American, I didn’t feel as if I could say how much I appreciated the country, culture, and people of Nicaragua without acknowledging the complications of our presence: the history of Nicaragua and the USA, the ethics of our work, and the clumsiness of different languages and cultures. As for the mirrored poems, I mention there are words lost in translation and words never sent. For example, in the Spanish writing I write “cara china”, literally meaning “Chinese face”, as opposed to the English version’s “Korean face”. In Central America, “china” is used generally to describe an Asian, done without judgment or assumption. I use it because readers of Central America would understand the meaning better than “cara coreana”. I accept it because it is the truth of the language, but it is one example of a detail that is lost.

Thank you to everyone who helped me translate and revise this poem.

(if you would like to share this poem, please first contact me at

Final Reflection – Week 10

Ten days from now, I will be on a plane on my way to Nicaragua. I almost can’t believe that I am going after three months of preparation. Just as well, I am unbelievably excited to use what I have learned and contribute to the work of Bridges to Community and past Dartmouth CCESP trips.

Seven months ago, I applied for this trip per the recommendation of friends who were past participants, and after an amazing experience in Honduras I was excited to volunteer abroad. But while taking the time to truly learn about international development and the country of Nicaragua, the initial excitement and glowing reviews faded, and I realized that I did not know why I was going on this trip. I touched on this on a previous blog post, but I want to expand on how I felt and my feelings now. In the middle of the term, I was learning how to make the right impact in an ethical way, and it was great that I was being educated properly for this trip. But I was questioning whether I was the right person to go. Can I be an ethical volunteer if I do not plan on pursuing international development for a career or through my lifetime? Suddenly I was not sure if I should go regardless of whether I wanted to or not. It was difficult to keep up with the coursework when my heart was not in it, and I didn’t want the term to end because then I would have to go on the trip.

Then Peter Mason from ACTS Honduras visited. Our discussion was specifically about returning to Honduras, and he convinced me to believe in the good that I can do as an experienced volunteer. This thinking expanded to the CCESP trip. I can contribute to this year’s trip, in an ethical and effective manner. In the future, I will remember the ethics of international development and the complex and humanist perspective with which I should view other countries. One small example is voting. In political candidates’ views of other countries, especially developing countries, my knowledge of the politics and ethics of international relations will help me make an educated vote. But from the smallest action such as discussions with friends about development to further volunteer trips, this class has had a life-changing impact on me, more than I had realized. And I’m not done yet!

I’m excited for what I’ll learn during my two weeks in Nicaragua – with regards to my final project on alcohol consumption, on healthcare challenges and practices in rural Nicaragua, and more on the culture of Nicaraguans. I’m excited to see Nicaragua, after learning about its politics and history. Maybe I will be lucky enough to hear some Nicaragua poetry from writers in Hormiguero. All I know for certain is that I feel confidently prepared and am ready to fly in with an open mind. A lot to do in two weeks, and hopefully I’ll have more stories upon my return.

Reflecting on the team’s projects – Week 9

Roshni, Morgan, & Katie presented a comprehensive review of the status of women in Nicaragua. Overall, the presentation did an excellent job of analyzing data and objective qualities of Nicaragua to understand how the female gender is perceived in Nicaraguan culture.

The group went over the connections between education, healthcare, economic, political, and legal standing. For example, the education section showed that more women attended school than men, but there is still less economic opportunity for women, in part due to gender roles in an agricultural economy. This shows the intersection of more than one field, acknowledging the need for the comprehensive analysis. Also, women are expelled if pregnant while in school, despite a lack of sex education. This shows that while women are encouraged to get schooling, the school system still has backwards policies on gender, which is related to women’s healthcare and their legal rights which have been infringed by the Sandanista government. In summary, the group demonstrated that while progress seems to be made, there is much more work to be done, and advancements should not mean that advocates for women ease on their work.

Eric & Titus presented on the potential benefits of a cooperative agricultural system among smaller rural farms in Nicaragua. They presented data on crops, land use, and research on current cooperatives in Nicaragua and cooperatives in comparable nations.

First, they presented on the safest crops that can be grown without a cooperative (rice and beans) for subsistence based living. However, in a cooperative, farms don’t have to rely on subsistence crops alone and don’t have to worry about growing only the one crop to feed them for the year. They will be supported by other farmers in case one or two crop yields are low, and other land can be devoted to cash crops which provides the necessary capital for community development. Of course, there is a lot of infrastructure development necessary to create such a cooperative. Eric & Titus also acknowledged that their research is somewhat limited, and so I’m excited to see what they can confirm while in Nicaragua and their conclusions on the effectiveness of a cooperative.

The importance of a bio-social approach – Week 8

As I have mentioned before, there is a lot of complexity to development. For example, the Nicaraguan agricultural economy is struggling for reasons such as climate change and a lack of sustainability, which could be improved by better farming practices and addressing deforestation. Government services and education are needed to assist the people, as well as allow general upward mobility of the poor. So the benefits of general government services and improved education services would increase the wealth of farmers in Nicaragua to allow them better healthcare, increasing productivity, and so further boosting the economy.

From our readings and research, there is clearly a difference between an effective and ethical way to address the complexity, versus a non-productive and harmful way. There are many previous examples of the latter: international corporations that take over areas of the land with government permission and develop the area with infrastructure but abuse the local people, foreign governments who send monetary aid but the aid would not trickle down to the general population, and international development organizations that visit to accomplish a project and leave without a lasting change.

Michael Rich is a global health physician and an expert in creating health systems, especially to treat multi-drug resistant tuberculosis. He came to speak to our class, and advocated for a bio-social approach to global health. In summary, disease is linked to the income of people. According to Rich, malaria discourages foreign investment and increases out-of-pocket spending on treatment. Malaria did not use to be as widespread of an issue, and a lack of mosquito control and changes in climate have facilitated the spread of the disease. By preserving biodiversity, malaria can be controlled, improving health and income. This development process involves climate change policies, environmental protection, improved water and waste systems, and more. While this seems involved, it shows a clear way how humans can be involved and fix physical systems to improve the public.

I would encourage you to check out the Partners in Health website to learn more about how they approach health development, and help a nation’s development. Money can’t solve all problems, but monetary support in the right hands can make a great difference.

Changing a skeptic – Week 7

When it was time to view the documentary Dreaming Nicaragua for class, I was skeptical of any media. There is no such thing as unbiased media, film, television, or otherwise. Documentaries are no exception, and while I previously thought of them as objective sources of knowledge, I was now ready to filter out whatever propaganda was blended into this film. A title like Dreaming Nicaragua sounded like something a guilt-tripping American would pour money into production to ask for donations. Let’s say I was very skeptical.

The beginning of the movie begins with an introduction by the Fabretto Foundation. I found this to be odd since documentaries are usually not explicit with their plea. But I soon learned that the Fabretto Foundation has been dedicated to helping the poverty-stricken of Nicaragua for decades. Initially started by an Italian missionary over sixty years ago, the Fabretto Foundation helps struggling communities through education and building community support. This film was produced largely by the Foundation to show the world the hardships of Nicaraguans, so my expectation of a bias was correct. However, even in this introduction I could tell that this film was different.

The film follows with four vignettes of Nicaraguan children, all in conditions of poverty but in very different situations. The documentary captures their daily struggles, their thoughts on their position, and their goals and dreams for the future. The film is different because the film is honest. It acknowledges why the film was produced, but its greater purpose is to humanize the poor of Nicaragua. Over the course of an hour, we learn about the lives of these four children, empathize with their joy and suffering, and are filled with hope and sadness with the film’s brief one-year follow-up on their situations.

Despite my initial skepticism, I really enjoyed this film. I believe this speaks to the method of the film – that the film sought to honestly depict the lives of people rather than exploit its audience with pleas for help and dramatic stills. There is a lot of media about ‘third-world’ countries in Central America, Africa, or Southeast Asia, and many of these sources write a single story of people in need, of pity, and of suffering. This is dangerous because it contributes to a false superiority by ‘developed countries’ and unsustainable donations. But this film and others like it help to dispel these myths and show humanity, values, and hope – three components to build genuine connection and long-term support.

The observer effect – Week 6

I’m taking Physics 3, introductory physics, along with LACS20. And in physics, there exists the ‘observer effect’ that states: a phenomenon cannot be observed without being altered by the observational method. For example, even inserting a thermometer into warm water to take its temperature will absorb some of the heat. By measuring the water, the temperature is decreased even if by a miniscule degree.

How does this relate to ethnography? Well, no matter how much time and energy I invest to knowing another community, as an outsider, I will always influence their interactions with me. Especially as a foreigner, obvious by both appearance and by culture, there will be barriers to my interactions with others. Interviews, observations, none of it would be truly natural. Even if I were to spend a long amount of time and become a part of a community, I would unintentionally influence the community with my culture and ideas.

This doesn’t mean that ethnography is all a pretense. But knowing this, I should remember that I cannot assume anything about the people of different cultures that I meet, whether as an ethnographer or just as a tourist. There are ways, though, to conduct ethnography in an ethical manner. I’ve learned to consider important things such as my own cultural influence, compensation for their time, and avoiding a confirmation bias (a tendency to look for or present data that confirms my previous bias). On conducting ethnography, I’ve learned that it’s a complicated process that demands its complication. Without it, we have the danger of creating a single story. Below is a link to a TED Talk about this danger in literature. Writing stories aren’t too different from conducting an ethnography, and more than anything, ethnography should be about telling all of the stories, all of the truth.


Focusing on a glass half-full – Week 5

We were very fortunate in our LACS20 class to meet Michael Boudreau, executive director of Compas de Nicaragua. Michael talked about the empowering work of Compas de Nicaragua, from their women empowerment program to improvements in sustainable agriculture. I was amazed by the work of Michael and the Compas de Nicaragua team – here was definitive proof of positive, life-changing and community-changing work.

Because of our studies in class, I had learned to be skeptical of development work. Considering the history of development in Nicaragua, especially from the U.S. perspective, there are a lot of reasons to doubt the work. The U.S. has sent the navy to bully and pillage, backed a dictator, fueled a war, and manipulated trade to reap economic benefits and maintain control in Central America. Many organizations claim to help, but often make futile efforts at lasting change. Which is why I was especially impressed by and admired Michael for his dedication to his work and his love for Nicaragua. He moved to La Paz to live and work in Nicaragua all year, except for occasional visits to the States.

Seeing true dedication and my skepticism of the international worker, I felt discontent with myself. Why was I going on this trip? I’ve had international experience and learned a lot of the crucial lessons already, so is it ethical for me to go anyways? I seriously considered dropping the trip.

Two things happened. The first, our class was able to speak via Skype with Hugo González, Eva Pérez, two Nicaraguans who work for Bridges to Community. From their perspective, they really appreciate an organization such as Bridges to Community for employing them, obviously, but also for the lasting impact despite the rotating cast of Dartmouth students who visit. Our class also spoke with Peter Mason, a board member of ACTS Honduras. I talked with Peter one on one about my doubts, and he told me that I’m underestimating how much I can do. Especially should I choose to continue traveling to Central America, my past experience allows me to adjust quickly and focus on the work to do.

I’m not sure what my future plans are with regards to international development work, but for this upcoming trip, I am encouraged by my opportunities to help and learn. I realize there is still more for me to learn with each experience. I’m still trying to figure out what being “el chino de Japón” means, but in the meantime, there is work that I can do and intend on doing my best.

On tourism beyond the United States – Week 4

When I was 9 or 10 years old, I went to Jamaica with my family over Thanksgiving break. For me, it was a vacation despite the volunteer dental work my mom and dad were helping with in a clinic a colleague of my mom’s had set up on his own. While on this trip, I noticed the effect of foreigners and tourism in another country. While our group treated the locals with respect and genuinely tried to help the community, we were targeted by people accustomed to tourists during our two days break at the end of the trip. Driving through Kingston, Jamaica, so many stores, restaurants, and other vendors were geared towards the Americans passing through to swim at the beaches or hike through jungles. In hindsight, I realize that the clinic had a limited capacity to help, and while it doesn’t have the other hallmarks of voluntourism, such as high fees and short trips of different people, it’s short-sighted work doesn’t do much more good than the voluntourist programs.

My family and I on vacation at a port.

My family and I on vacation at a port.

When I was 16, my family went on a cruise to celebrate my grandparents’ 50th anniversary. We went around the Caribbean, and tourism essentially made these towns. We were confined to designated tourism zones, and the artificial nature of the crafted experience was glaringly obvious. I believe the local government determined this, but nonetheless it feels wrong to be in a place designed for your money. There was no cultural exchange, no genuine interaction. Even within properly designed tourism, I think that there’s two types: one that acknowledges the majority of tourist desires to have fun and enjoy, and the other that teaches and shares culture.

After going to El Rosario, Honduras, I know that I have good intentions for this journey. I’m not expecting a vacation, I’m not creating a fantasy of a Central American expedition, and I’m hoping to have genuine interactions with the Nicaraguan people. Unlike my first international experience in Jamaica, Bridges to Community and the CCESP aims for a lasting development impact rather than an “in-the-moment” treatment, doing more than voluntourist organizations. Despite all this, my other-ness will always be physically present as a barrier to real interaction. I will try to surpass differences by checking my privilege and foreignness, withholding my cultural norms of right and wrong, and learning about Nicaragua through their eyes.