Lesson #11: “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes well you just might find, you get what you need” -The Rolling Stones
I did not want to move to Thabo, I had a meltdown of sorts when I first saw the pictures of the small town that I had been placed in. I panicked, I cried, I wrote countless emails asking to please be moved to Chiang Mai, and I started looking up the prices of apartments in San Fransisco. I wanted friends, not to be isolated and alone in Thailand. I wanted inspiration, not a dusty desolate town. I wanted to grow, not feel limited by my environment.
Well my time in Thabo is coming to an end (only one month left- yikes) and I have to say there were plenty of lonely moments, many nights when I fell asleep at 9, and a fair amount of days when Pinterest was my source of inspiration. So yes, a couple of my fears about my Thabo experience did come true, but if I could go back to that day when I received my placement and change things I wouldn’t. I might not have gotten what I wanted, but thats ok. What I wanted was comfortable. What I needed was to be pushed far outside that comfort zone, in order to grow, in order to learn things that playing it safe would have never taught me.
Being alone and being lonely are two very different things.
I get my energy from others, nothing gives me more fuel than hanging out with a friend, giggling over coffee, pondering life. Not so easy in Thabo, turns out my plans to learn Thai didn’t really pan out and not many people here speak English. So I had to change my thinking and stop equating being alone with being lonely. I had to learn to laugh with myself, to find contentment getting lost inside my own head, and to rely on my own judgment when making hard decisions. To be perfectly honest I still feel anxious sometimes when I don’t have plans or a long night of solitude stretches ahead of me, but I am working on it and living here has helped me see that I need to.
The word friend has many definitions.
When I came to Thabo I saw Melanie as the only potential friend that I would make. Sure I wanted to connect with as many other people as I could, but I was convinced that our friendship would be restricted either by age, language, or cultural differences. What I found was that once I let go of my American conceptions about what constitutes a friend there were actually plenty of people to get to know. There is Jet the 28 year old who works at the post office and who is absolutely hilarious. There are the “Thabo Riders” the local motorcycle gang in town, who always have a cold cup of beer waiting for me on my bike ride home which we share over boisterous toasts about who knows what. There is Somkiet (the governor of Nong Khai) who has essentially become my surrogate father in town, over plates of Vietnamese spring rolls we engage in broken but lively conversations covering anything from politics to the power of love. Then there is Carla a chatty Thai-Australian who has a passion for herbal medicine and spiritual growth (who insists that a 30 day water fast is not only healthy but will open up the potential of the right side of my brain). Plus I can’t forget New, my closest friend, another English teacher at my school who raps Eminem with me as we joyously high-five that we are done teaching for the day. In short, Thabo is brimming with amazing people I just didn’t see it right away.
The ‘I don’t belong here’ feeling will go away.
I have traveled before, lived abroad before, but never before have I been one of only two Americans for miles upon miles. At first I was an outsider walking on the surface of things, seeing but not participating, interacting but not communicating. I honestly wasn’t sure what would happen after three months, if I would still be regarded with both fear and intrigue (almost as if I was a unicorn) , the distinction between me and them uncomfortably palpable. Recently I have noticed that this reaction happens with much less frequency than it did at the beginning. I didn’t do anything special, just gave it time, and observed as people’s reactions to me changed, felt their comfort with my presence increase, and slowly even I started to forget that not an ounce of me actually looks Asian.
Communication is about far more than what you say.
As we have already covered, I don’t speak Thai. So what do you do when you can’t communicate with your words? Simple, you let your body speak. You pretend your face is made of clay and contort it into the most expressive positions you can think of. You dance and jive when you’re happy. You laugh and smile at anything and everything. You learn to reach out and physically touch people as a means of connection. You hold eye contact longer than is appropriate. You go to any extreme to make people laugh. In essence you realize how meaningless words can be and how genuine and impactful actions always are.