Emerging Leader: An Interview with Storyteller Kent Truog

11555_560897080721_5620052_nMeet Kent Truog, a photojournalist currently on the ground in the Philippines. Kent believes in the power of visual storytelling, and has been working on his craft since 2008. His work focuses on telling the stories of individuals in Honduras, Indonesia, Cambodia, and Kenya, many of which are rarely seen in today's media. Kent has helped to shed spotlight on endangered dolphins in Thailand and Cambodia. He has even worked with social entrepreneur and impact speaker Mark Gonzales on suicide awareness and prevention. His most recent work has been covering the aftermath of natural disasters in the Philippines, including the earthquake that hit the Visayas, as well as Super Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan). In this interview, Kent gives on the ground insight to the situation in Tacloban. He continues to update his social media networks on his experience there, weeks after the typhoon crashed into the PI. For regular updates, follow Kent on Tumblr and Twitter @kenttruog.

A man assessing the damage in Tacloban.

1. What brought you to the Philippines? How long have you been there?

I’ve been living in Southeast Asia off and on for about four years now. During a stint in Cambodia, I was lucky enough to meet a girl with a similar passion for international aid work, which has since taken us to India and now the Philippines. We’ve been in the Philippines since April 2013.

2. What do you do there?

I work as a freelance documentary filmmaker and photographer.

3. When did you reach Tacloban? Have you been to other areas hit by Super Typhoon Haiyan/Yolanda? What is it like?

I was in Davao on the island of Mindanao when the storm hit, having just returned from Bohol, where I was documenting the relief work from the recent earthquake that devastated the island. I was immediately summoned to Leyte, with a first response team of an international NGO, to survey the damage. With the Tacloban airport out of commission, we had to fly into Cebu, where we then took one of the few ferries in operation to Ormoc -- a town a little over 100km from Tacloban. We had no idea what to expect upon arrival, as Ormoc also received extensive damage, and due to some travel delays, we didn’t arrive until about 10pm at night. Except for a few candles burning, it felt like a quiet ghost town. You cold see dark shadows in the damage behind the pier. One of the team members walked into town and found us a hotel that still had open doors (albeit no running water or electricity), so we stayed there the night.

The next morning, we found a jeepney willing to take us to Tacloban. The military had already begun to clear the roads, but the normally two-and-a-half hour journey took closer to six. We arrived in Tacloban the third day after the storm hit, and the sights on the ground were hard to process. There was devastation everywhere. Few buildings were left standing.

4. Are there any particular events that you've encountered (since the typhoon, or even the earthquake) that have made you question your work or what you're doing there? Are there any events that have reminded you why what you do is so important?

Not at all. Although Typhoon Haiyan has been by far the hardest even I’ve covered, my experiences in Bohol, and with Typhoon Phailin prior to that in India, prepared me well for everything I've experienced here in the Philippines. I knew what I was getting myself into, but seeing loss of life is never easy. All I can do as a storyteller is to help the rest of the world see what the people of the Philippines are going through, and help build a bridge between the international community and the people of Samar, Leyte, and Cebu. The Filipino people are amazing and are handing this calamity with a strength that is really inspiring. Each day I visit the field, I  find more people and more communities, working hand in hand and helping each other rebuild. It’s inspiring.

5. Have you been able to identify the major need in areas hit by the typhoon, or even the country as a whole in general? What can Pilipinos who are currently not living in the Philippines do to help?

The devastation is so extensive it’s been really hard to mentally process at times. I just wish that aid could rain from the sky. There are a lot of good NGOs out there doing great work. Find one you trust and believe in. A little bit of money can go a long way here.

6. Based on your experiences thus far, do you have any advice for our Filipino leaders, who are still figuring out their passion/work in life?

For those living abroad, return home if you can. Get to know your roots. The Philippines is an amazing place with wonderful culture and great diversity. I’m grateful to be able to live here at the moment and tell stories throughout this magnificent island chain.

Concerns over water supply and sanitation continue to grow in communities affected by the Typhoon Yolanda.

A blind carpenter who was rebuilding his own home after  Super Typhoon Yolanda.

In a post online, Kent shares an shot of Anderson Cooper, and reflects on "that moment when you're telling stories from deep in the field, and you turn around to see that one of your heroes in journalism is doing the same."

Photo credits: Kent Truog

Postcard from Thailand: 8 Life Lessons


Thirteen months ago, I packed a couple bags and left for Thailand. But not the Thailand you imagine.

I did not move to the land of ‘Pad Thai’, exotic beaches, full moon parties and the Bangkok portrayed the Hangover movie.

More specifically, I moved to Mae La Noi, a village in Mae Hong Son province. Mae La Noi is surrounded by rice fields and mountains, and has a river running down the middle. The province is right along the Thai-Burmese border, which is marked by the Salawin River. Though Thailand is a Buddhist-majority country, I worked with kids who also practice various faiths and traditions. In Mae Hong Son, and in my village in particular, there five ethnic groups and hill tribes. The Thailand I have learned to love is a community comprised of people from these backgrounds.

Here are some students from Mae La Noi Daroonsik School, representing their respective ethnic groups and hill tribes. From left to right: Karen, Khon Mueang, Hmong, Tai-Yai and Lawa

The Karen hill tribe people are historically from Karen State in Burma. Many of my students are Karen, and are practicing Catholics. Their Karen language, written in Latin script, sounds reminiscent of French.

The khon mueang, or northern Thai people, live throughout northern Thailand. They are from the Tai ethnic group and are Theravada Buddhists. In addition to Thai, they speak phasaa mueang, a northern Thai dialect that is different from Thai.

The Hmong are an ethnic group found throughout mountainous areas in China, Vietnam, Laos and Thailand. However, in the 1970s, a civil war broke out in Laos, and many Hmong sought refuge in Thailand and overseas under UN-sponsorship. Today, there are Hmong communities found in the US and in Europe. They speak varieties of Hmong dialects.

Next are the Tai-Yai, or Shan. Originally from the Shan State in Burma, they can be also found in China. They practice Buddhism and animist traditions, and some speak Shan, which is related to Thai, and Burmese.

Finally, the Lawa hill tribe. Their ethnic group can also be found in Laos. They are native to Thailand, and have lived in Thailand before Thai people arrived. The Lawa students at my school practice Protestantism, though other Lawa are known to practice Buddhism and animist traditions as well. The Lawa script looks similar to Thai, but they are different languages entirely.

My students’ first language is their native dialect or hill tribe language. Their second language, which they learn in school, is Thai. It’s no wonder that my students struggle to learn English or Chinese, which are taught at Mae La Noi Daroonsik School. Learning a third language through a second language is a challenge, no matter if you are living in the mountains or a bustling city. So I give my students a lot of credit for their efforts.


During my time in Thailand, there are eight things I’ve learned about life.

1. You can live simply and still be happy. Money isn’t everything.

My house was made of cement brick with a tin roof propped above it. There was no insulation, and half of the time I had no running water in the house. I often showered in other teacher’s homes, or used my reserve water that I collected when water was working. Sometimes the water would work, and it’d be black (because of the pipe bursting further up in the mountains). I remember waking up early to check if there was running water every few days. If so, I’d hurry to wash my laundry before I got started on my day. I was never frustrated with this though. I learned to love hand-washing my clothes, and found it therapeutic at times. If the opportunity presented itself, I would gladly live under these conditions once more, if not for the rest of my life.

2. It’s good to be flexible. Nothing is ever set in stone, so being able to accept life’s fluidity will help you stay afloat.

Sometimes, ceremonies or special events would take precedence over class. At times, I found this to be frustrating, because all I wanted to do was hold class and teach my students. But, this is the reality of the Thai education system and culture. I learned to adjust and understand the facets about life at Mae La Noi Daroonsik school, as well as in each of the new places and countries I’ve journeyed to while abroad.

3. Try new things. I’ve shared Karen dishes of raw pork, chili and coriander. I watched students prepare a sack-full of live frogs for dinner outside my house. I went to eat dinner with the dormitory students, as they were responsible for cooking all of their meals. Some things on the menu were gaeng khiaw wan (sweet chicken green curry, though it was actually spicy), fried fish, bamboo shoots, jackfruit, noodles and eggs. My students were so excited that I’d join them for dinner, as other teachers simply oversee them during meal times.

4. Always accept an offer

Or at least, truly consider it before declining.

5. Know how and when to say “no.” – This is different from the lesson above, as I'm referring to when people are asking things or favors of you.

I had a hard time doing this. As a volunteer, receiving no compensation from the school, I was glad to say yes to teachers when they needed help to teach, create lesson plans and worksheets, assist with committee duties around the school, and more. I was happy to help my students and hold tutor sessions a few times a week, be it after school or on weekends. However, the one time frame that I remembered to keep for myself was Friday afternoon until the evening. If someone asked for something, I remembered that I wanted to keep this time open for myself. However, I should add that if I wasn’t sharing a meal with teachers or starting a weekend travel trip on Friday evening, you would certainly find me hanging around the student dorms, helping whoever needed assistance with their English assignments.

6. You can’t change the world alone. But you can make a difference in someone’s life. You may not see it at first, so give it time, take a step back and view the whole picture.

Sometimes, I’d feel so guilty for not having the class time to adequately prepare my students for tests or standardized tests. I tried so hard to develop teaching methods and styles for each of my classes, because each class is different and the students were always at varying levels in English. But what I’ve learned to do is to focus on them as much as I could, but realize that things are out of my control. What I saw happen throughout my time at Mae La Noi is that students, who were initially too shy to speak to me in class, warmed up to me when I’d approach them outside of class or at the dormitories. The students who wanted my help would ask if they could go to me during office hours, or even after school. They may not remember all of the verb tenses, but the students who truly wanted my help have developed some amazing study habits, as well as their curiosity about learning.

7. Home is not a physical space, but a sense of becoming your self. It’s defined by the people you meet and learn with, the lens through which you view life, and the actions you take to improve yourself and the environment around you.

The teachers at Mae La Noi Daroonsik gave me so much support and love. While they were busy with teaching and other duties to the school, they always wanted to make sure I was fed and comfortable in my house. The students were no different, especially those living at the dorms. One specific home I found was at St. Peter Catholic Church in Bah Ma, a village adjacent to the school. I went there every week for mass with my students, which was either held in Thai, Karen or English (Thursday nights only for the latter). Last Thursday night, I said goodbye to the Karen students who live at the Catholic children’s home, and attended mass with them for the last time before I left the village. That evening, after mass, the father and catechism teacher invited me to say a few words. I promised myself I'd fight off tears a bit longer. I am truly glad I found this loving community here that I could connect with on a spiritual basis. I was accepted instantly; as a foreigner here in the village, I felt like an outsider at first. But discovering a family (comprised of individuals from Catholic Karen hill tribes) that is also minority in their country was truly a humbling experience. The father, who used to work outside of Manila for a few years, can speak Thai, Karen, English and a little Tagalog, and has invited me to work at the children’s center in the future. I plan to work, save money, and return to this church and children’s home, if not to volunteer, then at least visit again.

8. Pay it forward. If you give with expectation of receiving anything in return, the universe will reward you with various forms of love.

There’s a guesthouse that I stay at when I need to make visa runs (every three months) in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Deejai Backpackers has been an incredible place to get my dose of Western music; it’s usually bustling with backpackers and tourists from around the world and the staff is incredible. Mama, one of the Thai staff members here, always remembers me each time I return. As a gift, the other day, I brought her some fresh (and expensive) longan. She ended up serving me a plate of rice and curry, because she noticed I hadn’t eaten breakfast yet. Today, I was checking out of the guesthouse, and she asked me what time I was heading to the airport.

“I think I should go at around 8 o’clock this evening”, I said. “Oh, that taxi is free for you. Free for you,” Mama whispered. "Make sure you come to the desk at 8:00pm." She then proceeded to ask the staff at reception to book a taxi for me.

Photo credit: Mae La Noi Daroonsik School

Education Equality in the Motherland

Since 1925, the basic education system in the Philippines has been surveyed and reformed countless times. However, such reforms haven’t exactly proved to be successful. The current Philippine education system, which was modeled to reflect the K-12 system in the US, continues to face much critique. Some argue for a decentralization of the basic education system by installing school-based management, as to cater to the needs of each particular socioeconomic environment and other influential factors. According to the World Bank, Philippine primary school enrollment is relatively high. UNESCO reports that literacy rates are also high. However, the education system continues to struggle with lack of resources, understaffed schools, and managerial and organizational issues. Secondary school enrollment is usually lower. As of 2012, the Department of Education (DepEd) made school compulsory. Though enrollment may be higher than it has been in the past, there is a severe lack of employment opportunity for after graduation.

Many activists and reformers are pushing for efforts to revitalize the education system, such as Teach for the Philippines; they continue to work toward education equality throughout the PI. However, how can a nation create larger, systemic change to a problem that countries face across the world?


The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) was formed in 1967, is currently pushing for regional economic collaboration by 2015. Member countries include Brunei, Burma/Myanmar, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia , Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam, and the Philippines. It is even a goal to use English as the primary language of communication, which is why there’s a major push for language acquisition across ASEAN. However, according to a 2008/2009 report, the Philippine Congressional Commission on Education (EDCOM) notes that the country has a poor performance of improving the education system, unlike many other Asian nations. This creates even further concern for the future of the Philippines.

In addition to primary and secondary school reform, there is also a call to address higher education. As ASEAN promotes the movement of goods, services and labor between its member countries, the Philippine Daily Inquirer raises and important question: “What does this mean for our students who will be graduating from universities in a few years and will then be looking for work?”

As employment opportunities are already scarce, not just in the Philippines alone, but across the Philippine diaspora, I wonder what will happen to my friends and family. The struggle to find work continues to grow more competitive. Some of my relatives and family friends, despite attaining a higher degree back in the PI, are now domestic helpers or working in retail, for example. How is this fair, when such hardworking individuals are forced to find work outside of their expertise or training?

Many Filipinos have migrated, leaving behind families in search for work. Something must be done to reverse this “brain drain”, and I believe should be continuous support and investment in education. We need the youth of the PI and the larger Pilipino community to know we believe in them by providing them with the tools needed to succeed in a global community, and not just for economic gain.

My Fil-Am Identity Abroad: "You Look Like Thai People"

When I introduce myself to my students, teachers, administrators and important guests here at the school where I'm teaching in Thailand, the conversation, without fail, proceeds in the following manner:

“Chan chuu Ryann. Pen khon American,” I say. Translation: My name is Ryann. I’m American.

I am usually faced by blank stares of confusion.

“Meh ka Paw maa jaak prathet Philippine, ” I add, just to clarify why I have black hair and dark skin. Translation: My mother and father come from the Philippines.

“You look like Thai people,” they offer.

I have mixed feelings when I hear this response. I am flattered to know that I have been able to blend into the northwest Thai/hill tribe culture I’ve been thrust into. However, I am certainly not “Thai people.” I’m Pilipino American. Thus, I am also internally disappointed that my heritage and nationality aren’t as obvious to those around me.


As Fil-Ams, we are at an interesting identity crossroads. We are too American to be Pilipino. We are too Pilipino to be American. We moved from the Philippines. We grew up in the States. Or, we were born in the States, and have yet to dig our feet into Philippine soil.

What does it even mean to be “Pilipino”? How can we understand our Fil-Am identity, especially while abroad? Sometimes, I despise this question. I hate the cliché answers that I come up with. Yes, I do love pan de sal, Kodakan, and a victorious round of mahjong. But there are other facts surrounding my identity that percolate in my mind. I am guilty that I never learned to speak Tagalog. I am ashamed that I’ve only been to the Philippines on two occasions, both of which were not long enough to feel like I belonged there. Am I truly Pilipino?

On some occasions, I’ve even found myself too afraid to introduce myself as an American. Overseas, Americans are perceived as ignorant, lazy and obnoxious individuals. And being in Northwest Thailand over the past six months, I’ve been criticized simply based on the fact that I’m American. I’ve heard the excuse that I don’t understand Thai culture enough to appreciate and value it, as I come from the States. I’m offended by this assumption, because I come from a Pilipino household and culture that certainly values family and religious faith, just like here in Thailand. I’ve been told that my reactions and comments are attributed to me being from the Land of the Free; the fact that I’m a college graduate with an array of experience under my belt is not even considered. All of these insensitive assumptions are unfair, but to take another persons’ criticism to heart would only prove that I’m accepting their claims.

Whether or not this is an identity crisis, I know one thing to be certain: I am a resilient and driven Fil-Am in the global society. Fil-Ams are unique, and crucial, to the larger Pilipino community. We should embrace the various facets that make up who we are, not fear them.

Sinigang for the Soul

Tonight, I find myself in northwest Thailand, in the remote and mountainous province of Mae Hong Son. I’ve been here for six months, as I’m completing a teaching fellowship for Global Playground. I teach English at a middle and high school, which serves 1,200 students from this district and nearby villages. As a proud Pilipina, I am faced with a predicament. The closest Pilipino restaurant is in Chiang Mai (about six hours away from my village), and it is only open for part of the year. Last July, Tita Ann (the owner) and I, shared a brief conversation over the phone, as I was trying to satiate my Pilipino food cravings. Her Chiang Mai restaurant was closed, and she had relocated to Bangkok to run her other restaurant. Naturally, this would happen to a young lady deprived of all Pilipino dishes and dessert. During times like these (hunger, severe stress, intense homesickness and the like), I find myself craving "Sinigang sa sampalok." This delicious and savory soup, flavored by tamarind, onion and kamatis (tomato), is my personal comfort food. Unfortunately, Thai cuisine is known for its chili peppers, sugar, palm sugar, peanuts and fish sauce. Here in the village, my meals consist of noodles, rice, eggs, vegetables, tofu, chicken and pork. Not much variety, since I cannot tolerate spicy dishes.

It was about a month after I had moved to the village that homesickness began to take its toll. I missed my family; before my fellowship, I never went more than two months without seeing them. One day, another teacher at my school flat-out asked me.

“Are you homesick?”, she said bluntly.

“Yes,” I replied without hesitation.

“I’m going to Mae Sariang this weekend to visit my daughter. Do you want to come?” she asked.

I kindly accepted, and that weekend, we drove to her mother-in-law’s home to visit her one-year-old daughter. We went around the neighborhood (i.e. homes scattered among the rice fields), lounged to the sound of the rainfall (it was rainy season at the time), and ate northern Thai food. It is said that northern Thai food is not as spicy as the dishes found throughout the rest of Thailand, though I have to disagree on that. Everything is too spicy for this foreigner.

Located front and center, "Pha kha jaaw" is the Thai equivalent to Sinigang sa sampalok.

After one of my naps on the padded mat set up by the TV, I stumbled over to the table. The family had prepared a variety of dishes, and I spotted one that seemed almost too familiar. It was a soup with supple chunks of pork, leafy greens and onions. I doubted it for a mere second, before taking a spoonful and slowly tasting it. It had a sour tinge to it, and in an instant, I smiled. It tasted just like sinigang. I learned that it was called "Pha kaa jaaw," a dish from Chinese influence, also made with tamarind. Now, I can order the dish at restaurants; the cook here at the school also prepares it every now and then, after she learned it was my favorite.

I accepted the teacher’s invitation, and every invitation to join other teachers and staff after that. One of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever heard was, “Always accept an offer.” I’d like to add that you should, at the minimum, consider every offer before you decline it. It may lead you to the "sinigang" you're craving.