Megan McGowan

Megan McGowan
August 11, 2015

Where were you – and what did you do – during your PiA experience?

I taught English at Khon Kaen University in northeast Thailand from 2006-2007. It’s a small, industrial city near the border of Laos, and my students came mostly from Thailand’s agricultural, underdeveloped Isaan region. They were incredibly welcoming, generous, and inquisitive, and I spent most of my time letting them take me around to eat various things, and help me gain a grasp of basic Thai language sturdy enough to occasionally feed myself on my own.

This was Khon Kaen in the pre-Starbucks days, which makes me feel ancient, but at the time I just felt like a Chinese pop star. Which was strange, because I am not Chinese, but the nearly-all female English major cohort explained that I had “small eyes and white skin,” and therefore resembled a “Hong Kong man,” which justified their collective agreement that I was their most handsome teacher. Which was the weirdest backhanded compliment I’ve gotten to date. This was just one of the reasons that Khon Kaen was the best-kept secret in Thailand. Industrial, unglamorous, but full of amazingly welcoming, down-to earth people and phenomenal food. Just like New Jersey.

Looking back, what was one of the craziest or most interesting experiences you had while on PiA?

Something I read in one of the reports from the PiA fellow before me lead me believe it was a good idea to put myself in a 10-day silent meditation retreat in Chiang Mai. In a Buddhist temple overrun by stray dogs. In rainy season. Wearing only white. We were up at 4am taking ice showers and reciting the mantra “clean body clean body clean body.” Then we had two hours of meditation before eating rice and vegetables sitting in silence on the floor of the mess hall. Then a few more hours of sitting and walking meditation, before eating our second and final meal of rice and vegetables at 11am, and then nothing but hours of meditation that stretched on and on until we were finally allowed to lay down on our cell floors at 10pm.

I always thought the term “bored to tears” was hyperbolic. Not so. I grew to fantasize about chairs (there weren’t any) and such mentally stimulating activities as cleaning the bathroom or making a sandwich. When I emerged from 10 days of silence, Thaksin had been ousted in a military coup, and I had learned, viscerally, that everything, good or bad - from the easier moments when time seemed to speed up in my meditative trance, to fear of permanent nerve damage from losing all feeling in my crossed legs, to national governments - is impermanent.

What are you up to now?

I recently returned from three years in Italy, studying sustainable food and working in wine PR and food writing. It was about as horribly dull as it sounds. I’m now back in Brooklyn, working as the Program Manager for the League of Kitchens – an innovative cooking experience in which immigrants who are amazing home cooks teach workshops in their NYC apartments. We typically run 2-4 workshops per weekend, as well as various private/corporate/school events. These women have an incredible depth of culinary knowledge, and no shortage of inspirational personal stories. They come from 8 different countries - with representation from North, South, and Central Asia - so I get to access pretty much the best global cuisine happening in the city, in the intimate spaces of our instructors’ homes.

How did your PiA experience influence your subsequent path through career and life?

PiA definitely gave me the confidence to know that I could put myself in locations and situations far out of my comfort zone, and find a way to be ok. It also taught me that the best stories come from the situations that were the most uncomfortable at the time. I think that most of us who have had a PiA experience become mildly obsessed with the food of our host country, but I continue to be drawn to food as a way of understanding and experiencing the world, and as a powerful means of connecting people.

In a word or phrase, what was one of the most important things you gained as a result of your PiA experience?

Spice tolerance. 5% pain receptor damage, 95% womaning up.

What advice would you give current PiA fellows in the field?

The question “what’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever eaten” will probably come up for the rest of your life. If someone offers you a bizarre local delicacy, EAT IT. There are no half-hatched baby birds on the menus in Williamsburg. At least not yet. You won’t regret it.

And that advice probably applies to things that are not food as well. So have an attitude of saying yes (while not doing anything that would kick you off PiA insurance, or reduce your chances of being around for more adventures).

For more information about the League of Kitchens, or to register for a rad cooking workshop, visit www.leagueofkitchens.com

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