After seven months of living in Thailand and only seeing my family through regular Skype conversations, I finally received my first visitor, and what a special visitor it was. My mom joined me in Thailand at the end of April and kept me company for three weeks. As you can imagine, I was beyond excited when I found out she was coming. My mom and I have always been close, and the idea of having her here and being able to share the life I’ve created here with her was sending me into a frenzy of eager energy. Of course we ended up having a great time together, but it wasn’t all smooth sailing.
In seven months, a lot can change, and when you move abroad, you’re forced to change in ways that your friends and family back at your starting point can’t imagine. You have to become more independent, more self-reliant, more comfortable with solitude, and more confident. Beyond that, Thailand has made me into a more laid back person. I don’t worry about things like I used to, and stress and anxiety take up very little of my time now. I have changed, and my relationship with my family, and especially my mom, had to change in order to accommodate that. We have managed to maintain a closeness since I’ve moved here, and we both know we are here to support each other whenever we need it. But the closeness and support look different now. We can’t be as dependent on each other as we used to. We have each other’s support, but the kind of support that comes from a video chat is very different from the kind you get when someone holds you while you cry. I have, both intentionally and unintentionally, distanced myself from the drama that consistently pops up in my family, and that has further changed the connection I have with those back in Illinois. I’m living my own life, worrying about my own concerns, working on improving myself, and developing the friendships I’ve made here. My thoughts are rooted in my Thailand life, and the life I left in Illinois is still with me, but in much smaller doses. I’m very happy and content to have it this way.
Meeting Mom at the airport brought me so much joy, and I was happy to have her stuff begin to pile up in my tiny, crowded apartment. I was excited to show her the market where I eat dinner almost every night, the street where I often take a walk in the evenings, and the restaurants in the city where I like to go to mix things up. For the first time, she didn’t know what my life really looked like, and I was excited to change that. But I forgot how intense the culture shock is here. I forgot how lost I felt when I first arrived seven months ago, how long it took me to discover the beauty hidden behind the dilapidated buildings, and how much I had to adjust in order to fit into the culture. Mom was experiencing the same things during her first week here. She didn’t like the food, thought it was weird that we ate next to the street for dinner, and couldn’t sleep on my rock hard bed. In short, she didn’t like it here. She didn’t see what I saw in Thailand, and it was natural that she wouldn’t just after arriving. But I was disappointed. I wanted her to love Chiang Mai like I love it. I wanted her to be happy here during her visit, and more importantly, I wanted her to understand why I’m happy here. As we struggled through the first few days, we were also faced with the changes we had both experienced in the past seven months. At first, we didn’t know how to act with each other. There was a lot we couldn’t yet understand about how we had each changed, and navigating changes that we didn’t yet know about proved a pretty significant impediment to reconnecting with each other. We couldn’t find things we both wanted to talk about, couldn’t relate to each other’s concerns, and couldn’t find common ground among our different lifestyles. I missed the way we used to understand each other, the ease we had in making each other laugh, and the parts of our lives we had shared. It was hard to discover that those things weren’t available to be immediately handed back to us. We were going to have to work for it.
A trip to the beach gave us some relief from our struggles. We headed down to Krabi, a popular beach area in southern Thailand, about three days after Mom arrived. We stayed near Ao Nang, Krabi’s most popular beach, but spent most of our time exploring other areas. The first day we went to Railay Beach, a lovely stretch of sand flanked by gigantic, looming limestone cliffs that is only accessible by longboat. We both got pretty severe sunburns that day, but the beach was one of the most beautiful I’ve seen. It wasn’t overcrowded, the water was clear and clean, and the sand, although very hot, was soft on the feet. It provided the perfect location for Mom and I to relax and enjoy each other’s company. It was a little piece of tropical paradise, and I realized that Thailand had rightfully been named home to some of the best beaches in the world. The next day I got to put a nice, shiny check mark next to a huge item on my bucket list—scuba diving. Mom had been diving once before in St. Croix in the Caribbean and had almost drowned due to a leaky face mask. Needless to say, she wasn’t too keen on doing it again, but after some intense persuading, she agreed to go with me, and we used it as an early birthday present for me. Since we aren’t PADI certified, we did a Discover course which allowed us to do two dives without having to go through days of training. It took us about two hours to get out to Koh Phi Phi, a beautiful island near Krabi made popular by Leonardo DiCaprio’s movie The Island. The coral reefs at the island are recognized as one of the best dive sites in the world, and it quickly became clear why. After getting on all our gear and mastering a few simple skills in the water, our guide took us down, and we were greeted by an expansive coral reef teeming with fish, manta rays, sharks, and turtles. Not everyone gets to see all the life the reefs have to offer when they only go diving for one day, so I count it very lucky that we got to see hundreds of colorful fish, a white lobster, a sea turtle (my favorite spot of the dive), and four or five sharks, including babies (a great sign that the species is thriving). We were about thirty feet below the surface most of the time, and, unable to speak, the only thing we could hear while underwater was the sound of our own steady breathing going in and out of the regulator. Our guide Liz knowing how nervous Mom was about the dive, kept hold of her the whole time, but after seeing that I was comfortable, he let me swim along on my own, occasionally grabbing my arm to point me in the right direction when I would steer off course. It was an amazing, beautiful experience, and I’m seriously considering returning to the beaches down south to get my PADI certification before returning to the US. Our guide described diving as a ‘lazy man’s sport,’ and it certainly is very slow paced and relaxing (if you allow it to be), but by the time we finished our two dives, we were exhausted. Mom and I both fell asleep on the boat’s benches on the way back to Ao Nang and slept very well that night. The next morning, before we left Krabi, we made a visit to Tiger Cave Temple, which can only be accessed by going up 1200 stairs. Mom had a pretty difficult time, but I’m very proud to say that she pushed through and made it up each and every one of the stairs. On the way up, we met some monkeys, one of which was drinking out of a water bottle the same way a human would. You have to be careful with those monkeys because they’re used to tourists, and they’re known to steal things when you’re not looking. We held tight to our belongings and didn’t linger long, but Mom and I both love monkeys and we took plenty of pictures and enjoyed ‘oooh-ing’ and ‘ahhh-ing’ at the babies. 1200 steps provide an incredibly intense workout, and we were beat by the time we made it to the top, but the reward was an extraordinary 360 degree view of the landscape of Krabi, complete with rice fields and massive limestone cliffs and mountains. Of course what goes up must come down, and going down those 1200 steps proved more difficult than I expected. Our legs were already aching, we were both drenched in sweat, and the way down gave our knees a beating. But we made it and are both happy to tell of our accomplishment in conquering Tiger Cave Temple.
That afternoon we caught a three hour ferry to Phuket, one of the biggest islands in Thailand and one that is known to have a plethora of beautiful beaches. While we kept it simple in Krabi with a nice little guesthouse, we splurged in Phuket and booked a beachside bungalow at a resort with a private beach. The sand was steps from our front porch, there were beds and lounge chairs that provided a perfect space to relax while listening to the sound of the waves, the lagoon pool, as we were told, is one of the biggest in Phuket, and the grounds of the resort were landscaped to perfection with beautiful tropical flowers, fountains, and well-maintained pathways. The grounds are also home to over 100 semi-domesticated rabbits that roam freely to keep the guests company. Krabi had provided adventure. Phuket would provide relaxation. We spent the entire first day on the beach simply enjoying a break from the hustle and bustle that had accompanied us in Krabi. We walked around the grounds, fell asleep on the beach beds, swam in the lagoon pool, and had some drinks at the poolside bar. It was blissful. The hotel provided a free shuttle to Patong Beach, Phuket’s most famous beach, so we decided to try it out the next day. It was certainly a nice beach, but Mom and I weren’t too impressed after the beauty and peace we had found at our little private beach at the resort. Patong is a beach that has developed into a tourist’s paradise and, as such, has had trouble retaining the beauty that would be there if it hadn’t been overrun. It’s hard to relax when the locals are coming up to you every five minutes asking you to buy this little handmade flute or these roasted peanuts or that smoothie. I’m glad we had a chance to experience another beach, but I was happy to return to the tranquility of our bungalow.
After another half day of relaxation in Phuket, we hopped on a plane and headed back to Chiang Mai. After the commotion of traveling wore off, we both settled into a routine back at my apartment (complete with a daily trip to Starbucks for Mom), and within a few days, the sense of humor specific to me and my mom returned to our conversations, and I felt that we had restored some of what our relationship had looked like seven months ago. In order for this to really be possible, I had to dig up parts of myself that have been cast aside during my time in Thailand. Those things weren’t necessarily discarded because I didn’t like those parts of myself, but simply because I’ve had no use for them here. Am I happy that this regression took place? Not really. But I’m not upset about it either. I’ve changed since being here. Parts of myself have been left behind and parts of myself that I didn’t know I was harboring have come to light and flourished. The fact that I had to alter the new version of myself a bit in order to reconnect with my mom is worth it to me in many ways. I miss the sense of humor we share, and I was happy to reintroduce it to my life. The parts that I wasn’t as happy to reacquaint myself with will shrink back into the shadows soon enough as I readjust to the personality I’ve developed here.
Back in Chiang Mai, I acted as a tour guide for my mom. We went to Mae Ya Waterfall, one of the most beautiful in Thailand, Royal Park Rajapruek, one of the loveliest gardens I’ve ever seen, Phuping Palace (yes, it’s pronounced how you think it’s pronounced), the royal family’s winter residence, and several temples. We even managed to squeeze in a small merit making ceremony with a Buddhist monk at a local temple, organized by my good friend Tong. I wanted to make sure Mom didn’t miss anything she wanted to see while she was here, so we kept good and busy for the entire three weeks she was a visitor in Chiang Mai. And what a lovely three weeks it ended up being. Mom started to see some of the beauty of Thailand and adjusted to the quirks of the culture, which made our daily adventures much more enjoyable. We got off to a rocky start, but once we found our groove, things flowed really well. We were happy in each other’s company, we were laughing all the time, and I learned to enjoy having a second energy present in my apartment. My little place got very crowded during her stay here, but when all of her stuff disappeared last week when she returned to the US, my apartment felt empty. My energy wasn’t enough to fill the space that had been so used to having two of us. I missed the mess of clothes that had been sitting in the corner, the three empty Starbucks cups that were constantly present on top of my fridge, and my mom’s voice, which had become so welcome and comforting. When she left, my apartment was so still, so quiet. It didn’t feel tranquil like it used it. It just felt hollow. I felt alone. It has taken me several days to readjust to solitude, to exude enough energy to fill up the little voids my mom left behind, and to get back into my own routine. I miss her. I’ve missed her every day since she left. Having her here reminded me how important of a presence she is in my life, despite our differences. It didn’t make me want to move back to the US, but it did help me to realize that having her around when I do return will make the transition a little easier to bear.