To the class that screams their vocabulary words, and makes my time here worth it every day.
To the little boy sitting silently in the corner, repeating his morning Buddhist prayer.
To my fellow motorbikers, flooding the rainy streets with their multi-colored ponchos,
honking and weaving their way through cars and on sidewalks.
To the coral reefs I’ve been able to scuba dive, silently in awe of an underwater world I’ve never seen.
To the larger than life animals, that remind you we share this tiny planet.
To the kind, compassionate, amazing people-that never fail to meet you with the biggest smile.
Thank you for reminding me that me and my problems are small.
Thank you for opening my eyes to a way of life that I never dreamt of having.
And thank you for reminding me to be grateful for what I was given growing up.
When you sell everything you own and move to the other side of the world with only half a plan, you need to believe there is something more than the privileged, educated bubble you grew up in as an upper middle class American.
My journey in Asia has been an eye opening ride to say the least.
The first and most upheld rule of Southeast Asia is: there are no rules. Only guidelines. This applies to traffic laws, businesses, interactions with foreigners, safety requirements, and hygiene levels to name a few. I cannot count the amount of times I have wished for a western toilet, feared for my life crossing the street, and the places (restaurants, hospitals, bathrooms, schools) that I’ve shared with a myriad of animals; dogs, chickens, and geckos alike.
At first the culture shock is apparent, but if you can commit to living with an open mind, it becomes an ever changing adventure.
We began in southern Thailand, where we were fortunate enough to have a 10 foot whale shark swim silently over the top of us during a scuba diving excursion. We volunteered at an elephant rescue sanctuary where we were able to feed, bathe in the river, and have mud fights with the animals. Although seemingly playful, their eyes and the scars they still wear from the logging farms and tourist riding camps, tell a different story. In Vietnam, we lived in a home stay in Mai Chau for three days, riding bikes through the rice patty fields filled with water buffalo and enjoying home cooked Vietnamese food. We went canyoning in Dalat – repelling down 100ft walls, jumping off cliffs, and climbing through narrow caves to swim in a giant crevasse of mud. We rented motorbikes and drove 64km through the breathtaking Hai Van Pass, braved a downpour, and passed truck after truck of screaming pigs. Some are dead. Some are bloody. In that moment, I vowed to never eat pork again. We toured the Vietnam War Remnants museum in Saigon, shot an AK47, and were allowed to actually crawl through 100m of the Cu Chi tunnels. These are only about two feet high, unlit, and in some places you had to army crawl to fit. The Vietnamese lived in these for up to 17 years to defend their country. Being there, re-living it again, is frightening and almost unreal.
I used to hate history class, but once you start seeing the actual places and learning about the stories of others, it changes everything you think you know about how humans treat each other.
If we fast forward to real time, I now live and teach on one of the largest islands in Thailand. The students are amazing. Even though some days are really hard, their enthusiasm to learn a different language and the excitement they demonstrate for being in class is incomparable to anything I’ve been a part of before. They don’t have female sports at my school, so I began running a volleyball clinic for the girls to learn basic skills. The net is a piece of tarp strung between two poles stuck in cement, and only half the girls routinely wear shoes. But its fun.
We recently lived through the longest reigning King in the history of the world passing away after 70 years, and felt the entire heart of the nation collapse under the weight of his passing.
The respect I have for the unity this country demonstrates under any circumstance is overwhelming, and as difficult as this time has been for many, I am thankful to be a part of it.
Some people may read this in disbelief.
I know that I once did.
But I don’t notice these things as much anymore, its just the way it is out here. The things that make it special now are the people and practices that I get to routinely live. The fact that I get to wake up every day, with the 80 degree air flying through my hair as I throw on my running shoes and sprint to the end of the pier. The conversations that I have on a daily basis, that are only in a familiar language to either party fifty percent of the time, but somehow we both walk away knowing what the other meant to say. I believe the best way to get the most out of a culture is to truly try it. Share your story, but also listen. Attempt to speak the language, try new foods, adopt the ways of life that the locals do and be empathetic to their way of life.
You’ll be better for it, I promise.