The Line between Teaching and Parenting

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My student Simon

It’s much thinner than I ever imagined it would be. I didn’t discover this in my classrooms. At my school, my students speak so little English that I have enough trouble teaching them, much less parenting them. No, I discovered this in my tutoring lessons. Of course teaching, in general, requires that you make an emotional investment in each and every one of your students, and a good teacher will inevitably come to care about the students and want to help them beyond the lessons they’re teaching. And perhaps I would experience that more in a classroom with students that speak my language, but here it has been very difficult for me to connect with my students beyond their English lessons. But my tutoring classes are an entirely different story. I am able to connect with those students in much more meaningful ways. For one, they all speak at least conversational English. Also, spending an hour one-on-one with a student gives you a lot of time to get to know them. In my tutoring classes, my students become complex human beings for me. They have dreams, desires, worries, strengths, and weaknesses. I’m given the opportunity to see many layers of their personality, which I don’t often get to do in my classrooms. I certainly recognize that every student I teach at my school has a complex life that has created a complex personality, but I’m not given access to that complexity in the ways I am during my tutoring classes. There are some students that I’ve connected with more than others, but with all of my tutoring students, I find that I’m more emotionally invested in them than I am with my students at my school simply because of the closeness we’ve developed during our tutoring sessions. This closeness, while it tends to help the atmosphere of the lessons overall as they become more comfortable with me as their teacher, sometimes adds a layer of complication to our relationship.

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My student August

In addition to two adults, a high school student, and a kindergarten student, I tutor three primary school students. They’re all 9 or 10 years old, and they’re amazing kids. They all have very advanced English skills, and I mostly work on grammar and speaking with them. This is the age level that I find it most difficult to separate being a teacher and being a parent. In Thailand, children are expected to listen to and respect their parents to a degree that many in the US wouldn’t be able to comprehend. But that respect is not expected to be returned to the children. Parents don’t have to listen to the children, and they often don’t. This means the children usually won’t voice their problems or worries to their parents. Then they meet me. I’m a foreigner. I’m different from the Thais. I grew up with a mom who always took time to listen to me and offer advice when I needed it, and I offer the same treatment to my students. They learn very quickly that Teacher Jen is someone who will listen to their problems and try to sympathize and won’t judge them if they’ve done something ‘wrong.’ It’s different from what they normally encounter, and they take advantage of it.

Let me tell you about Meena. Meena is my newest student. She’s ten years old and speaks almost fluent English. I met her about a month ago when I started tutoring her at a local mall. During our first lesson, I discovered that she was a very shy but very bright student. I met her brother, who is almost done with school and who had traveled to Portugal last year to study abroad. It became clear within a few minutes that Meena was living in her brother’s shadow. During the first few minutes of meeting Meena, her brother, and her dad, I tried to ask Meena some questions, which were almost always answered by her brother. It’s not that she wasn’t capable of answering. It’s that her brother wanted to be the one to talk, which stopped Meena from doing so. I was glad when I was finally left alone with her and was able to start her lesson. But it only got more complicated from there. During one of the speaking activities, she started telling me about the girls at school who had bullied her last year, and she was clearly scarred by it. I saw that her self-confidence was incredibly low. It seemed that no one had listened to her and that she wasn’t receiving much support from her family. And she wanted to talk. I was supposed to be teaching her English, but I saw how desperate she was for someone to hear her and I let her tell me about it. We spent at least half of the class in that way. The next class wasn’t much different, except that I felt even more pressure than during the first lesson. She needed praise, she needed someone to make her laugh, and she needed someone to listen. I wanted to do all of it for her and still be an effective tutor. I poured my entire heart and what was left of my energy into the lesson, and when it was done, I had to drag myself out of the mall from exhaustion. As I was leaving, I recognized that I had, somehow, taken on the role of both parent and tutor for Meena. She had even dubbed me her ‘counselor’ during the lesson—a role I wasn’t entirely comfortable with for obvious reasons. I was happy I was helping her, and I loved that she was enjoying her lessons with me, but I recognized that things couldn’t continue in the same way the next week. There had to be a line, and I had to be the one to draw it. So the next week, I let Meena interject occasionally with personal topics, but I tried to steer her back to the lesson fairly quickly each time. And it went pretty well. She still got a little talking time in, and I still got to teach her English. She had fun, and the lesson wasn’t nearly as draining for me. She’s got a pretty negative attitude, toward both herself and the world around her, she often lingers on subjects such as revenge and death, and she often mistakes lying with joking. She has her problems, but when I see her laugh during our lessons, I see that she’s still young and that there’s still time for her to regain her confidence and a more positive outlook. I won’t be in Thailand for much longer, but while I’m here I hope I can help her overcome some of the obstacles she’s facing in her life, and in the process I’m sure she’ll help me learn more about what it means to be a good teacher, as all my students are doing.

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What I Miss

Having been in Thailand now for almost nine months, I have a firm grasp on the things I miss from back in the US. Thailand offers me joy on a daily basis. I enjoy my job, my friends are amazing, and my apartment may not be big, but it sure is cozy. I have an incredibly happy life here. But despite loving the food, the people, and the lifestyle, there are still things I miss about home (I use ‘home’ here as the place one comes from, not necessarily the place where one feels most ‘at home’).

Family and friends

Ok, let’s go ahead and get the obvious one out of the way. Yes, I miss my family and friends from the US all the time. I’m very close with my family, and I miss being around them. I’ve missed holidays, births, deaths, and numerous special occasions. I miss sharing those things with my family. I miss taking my grandma out to dinner, taking walks with my parents, and going shopping with my sister. I miss playing with my cousins in my aunt’s pool, holding my nephews, and arguing with my uncle about politics. I miss meeting up with my friends for an afternoon coffee date. I miss having a drink with my neighbors. I talk with my family and friends at least a couple times a week, but it doesn’t hold a candle to their physical presence in my life. Luckily, I have some wonderful friends here that have taken on the role of a family, and that has helped me cope very well with the absence of my US family.

Native English speakers

Of course I knew when I decided to move to Thailand that I would be traveling to a country whose first language wasn’t English. I didn’t realize, though, what a toll it would take on my psyche. Many of the people here can speak at least a little English, but when I say a little, I mean exactly that. Most of my student’s twist up their face in confusion if I go so far as to ask, ‘What did you do last weekend?’ Way too far outside their comfort zone of ‘How are you? Fine, and you?’ If I go to a local market, I may as well throw in the towel. I constantly find myself surrounded by people speaking in a language that sounds like little more than gibberish to me (despite my best efforts to learn some of it). Often, hand gestures are the order of the day. And something that is almost just as difficult is knowing that the Thais know that I have no idea what they’re saying. If I say hello in Thai, they’re almost jumping up and down with joy saying, ‘Pood thai dai dii maak!’ (You can speak Thai very well!). With my students, they know that Teacher Jen has no idea what they’re talking about if they speak Thai. And they get frustrated by that constantly. If they need to ask me a question, they have to seek out one of their friends who speaks a little more English to help them. It makes everything more complicated than it needs to be. My coworkers are always trying to ask me questions in Thai, certain that one day, surely, the foreign teacher will be able to speak the language. But most of the time they’re wasting their breath. I can pick out a few words, but it often isn’t enough to allow me to figure out the meaning of the sentence. I get frustrated with the language, and there are many days where I just want to be in a place where everyone speaks my first language. I want to be able to walk into a shop and ask for something without being looked at like I have three heads. I want to be able to order a meal and ask for something to be changed without having to stumble through various foreign words for ten minutes. I want to know that if my motorbike breaks down, I can take it to a shop and explain what’s wrong without ridiculous gestures. It’s mostly a matter of convenience, as I can often get across what I want with the right amount of time and effort. But living in Thailand has brought me a much greater awareness of just how much language affects every moment of our day, how it organizes our lives, and how it allows or stops us from completing various tasks. Luckily I’m living in a country where the people are incredibly patient with foreigners, and they are always willing to offer as much help as possible as I try to explain myself with what little Thai I have. Without that, I would be completely lost.

Changing seasons

In Thailand, the temperature, no matter what time of year, almost never goes above 105 degrees Fahrenheit or below 70 degrees Fahrenheit. This January there was a freak cold spell that hit the north pretty hard, and temperatures got down in the 40’s and 50’s for a few weeks. But that was an exception to the rule. Thailand has three seasons—summer, winter, and rainy—but the changes that happen between each are much more subtle than what happens between the seasons in southern Illinois. Summer lasts from around March to June and brings in some intense heat and dry air. I can’t remember it raining more than two or three times during those three months. This causes a horrible buildup of smog and smoke as it also coincides with the burning season. After summer is the rainy season, which usually starts around the beginning of June and lasts until September or October. This season is, you guessed it, very wet. It starts with the daily monsoon rains, which eventually taper off to a good rain Exif_JPEG_420a few times a week. The rains also bring in cooler weather and it stays a nice 80 or 90 degrees during this time. Winter makes its move around November and sticks around until February. As I said, this year was much different from other years. Usually, the Thai winter is cool and dry, with the temperature rarely going below 70 degrees.

I’m not a fan of winter in Illinois. Ok, that’s an understatement. I hate winter in Illinois. It’s freezing, it’s grey, and you don’t see the sun for weeks at a time. The occasional snow isn’t enough to make up for all the depressing days that winter brings along. So no, I don’t miss winter, and I love that Thailand doesn’t have its own proper winter.  But I do miss the way it feels in Illinois when the seasons change. I miss that little chill in the air that tells you the leaves will fall soon, that fresh scent in the grass that marks the beginning of spring, and the first day you throw on your shorts to welcome summer. And yes, I even enjoy that first day that I wake up to frost crackling on the windows. There’s something magical about the way the world around you changes with the seasons, and it’s not as noticeable here in Thailand. Yes, certain trees only bloom during the summer, the air feels refreshing during the rainy season, and wearing a jacket in the winter was a welcome shift in routine. But it’s different.

English food labels

I’m one of those people who can spend hours in a grocery store. I enjoy eating healthy, and I like knowing exactly what’s going in my body. I like to buy organic, local foods when they’re available to me. In the US, I loved walking up and down the aisles, reading ingredient lists and nutritional labels. In Thailand, it is a rare day when I find any item at the grocery store with an English label. Even at Rimping, where most of the food is imported from western countries, Thai labels are slapped over the original English ones. I have learned where they place the number of calories, and I can usually get a decent idea of how good it is for me by looking at the percentages on the nutritional information, but it only allows me a fraction of the information I could glean from an English label. The only thing I can get from the ingredient list is whether there are many or a few. They are pretty good about labeling organic or non-GMO foods in English, which is helpful, but it doesn’t make up for the mysteries on the rest of the packaging. The local markets are nice since I know I’m buying local foods, but again, I don’t speak enough Thai to ask if the products or organic, where they come from, how long they’ve been sitting in the heat, etc. I miss just being able to pick up a product, taking a quick look at the packaging, and knowing what it’s made of and whether I should put it in my body.

Napkins

Ok, I know this one sounds weird, but I really do miss proper napkins. In Thailand, napkins are no different than toilet paper. At many stalls at the local markets, they will simply put a roll of toilet paper on the table and call it a day. Some will go so far as to get little separated squares of toilet paper, but it’s all the same. They’re tiny, thin, and disintegrate within a few seconds of wiping your hands. They’re mostly useless, unless you want to pull out ten at a time. I miss a sturdy napkin, one that I can wipe my mouth and hands with and then be able to set it aside to be used a second and third time.

Cooking

Exif_JPEG_420When I was living with my family in the US, I cooked dinner for everyone almost every night. I love spending an evening the kitchen, trying new recipes, preparing a meal from start to finish. My parents called the kitchen ‘Jen’s kitchen’ because I was in there far more than anyone else. I enjoy baking as well and would often experiment with new desserts. Here in Thailand, my ‘kitchen’ consists of a small fridge, a rice cooker, and a hot pan. I don’t have an oven (most houses and apartments here aren’t equipped with one) which eliminates the possibility of baking, and I am incredibly limited on the kinds of dishes I can make due to the lack of a stove. Mostly I do simple stir fries or pasta with my hot pan, but that gets old pretty quick. I miss the variety of cooking I was able to do in the US and the space that was available to me in my kitchen.

 

I will leave the list there for now. There are many things that I miss about the US, but that doesn’t diminish the love I have for Thailand or my life here. Just as there are things I miss about the US now, there will be things I will miss about Thailand when I leave. It is natural to think of things we love, enjoy, or find convenient. It is not healthy to brood on these things or let them cast a shadow over the things that are different in your present life, but I think it is healthy to acknowledge the good those things can bring to you and allow yourself to think of them with appreciation.

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Grieving Abroad

My Aunt Dorothy, my grandma’s younger sister, had been gone for 20 years. She left town after her mother’s funeral because of an argument in the family. No one saw or heard from her again until six months ago when she called my grandma, asked if she could come and stay with her, and showed up at her door a few days later.

Aunt Dorothy had a hard life. She grew up in East St. Louis with her mother and sister. Under her mother’s strict rules, Dorothy rebelled and left home as soon as possible. For the rest of her life, she was in and out of abusive relationships. She had two children with a man, eventually abandoned her son, taking only her daughter when leaving the relationship (the reason for this will forever be a mystery), and then entered another string of abusive relationships. When she turned up at my grandma’s door six months ago, the effects of her relationships could be seen in a leg that was twisted in at the knee—most likely a broken leg that had never healed, although Dorothy never admitted it.

After moving in with my grandma, Dorothy was quiet. She would barely speak, much less speak about what her life had been like during the past twenty years. All we know is that she had been living in Tennessee. She was younger than my grandma, but she looked (and acted) ten years older. My family noticed that her mind wasn’t completely intact, and it deteriorated even more in the following months. And her body followed. About a month ago, she became very ill, and after a couple of weeks, my grandma forced her to go to the doctor. She was immediately admitted to the hospital with a kidney infection, and it was soon discovered that she was experiencing congestive heart failure. She remained stable for a few days before sinking further into her illness. Within two weeks her kidneys were on the verge of a complete shut down, and her body was swollen with the water that her heart was failing to pump through her body, eventually building up so much that it began leaking through her pores. The medications didn’t work. There was nothing more the doctors could do. They gave her pain medications to keep her comfortable, my family visited her every day to make sure she wasn’t alone, and my grandma allowed herself to forgive Dorothy for all their past disagreements. Last Tuesday, at 11:30 pm, Dorothy passed away.

I never met Dorothy in person. She arrived at my grandma’s house about two months after I left for Thailand. I only ever saw her through Skype. At Christmas, I talked with her, and, despite her years of hardship, she seemed happy. Not knowing how to use the phone, she put her face too close to the camera, tilting her head to the left and right as she talked. She smiled, thanked me for the card I had sent her, and told me about the gifts she had received that day when I asked her. Her past hadn’t completely destroyed her spirit, and she struck me as quite spunky. During her 20 year absence, my family had learned to resent Dorothy for abandoning her son. Hearing her story, I had never liked the idea of her, and I didn’t understand why my grandma hoped to see her again in the future. But after talking to her, I couldn’t help but feel for Dorothy. I sympathized with her, I liked her, and I was looking forward to meeting her. I wanted the chance to offer her some of the kindness she had missed out on in her life. I wanted to get to know this woman who had been such a mystery in my family for so long. Even though we had never met in person, I still felt a connection to this long lost family member, this slightly spirited woman with a severe limp.

I was able to Skype with Dorothy the week before she died. I barely remember my great grandma Williams (Dorothy’s mother), who had died when I was only four or five, but looking at Dorothy in her hospital bed, I remembered my grandma Williams with her curly, white hair and timeworn body. Dorothy’s face had grown older in the months since Christmas. Her eyes were sunken in and her face was swollen. I had sent her a small candle from a market in Thailand, and her face lit up when I asked her if she liked it. I couldn’t be there, but for a short moment, I had made her happy. Still unaccustomed to conversation, she didn’t talk much, but I asked her if the doctors were taking care of her, told her I hoped she felt better soon, and said we would talk again. As I said it, I felt silly. I knew she likely only be alive for a few more days. But it was a knee jerk reaction caused by my hope that she would somehow still pull out of her illness and remain in the world until I returned to the US. But I don’t think Dorothy wanted to stay. I think she had found some happiness with my grandma in the previous six months and now she was finally ready to find some peace. I cried when I got off the phone with her. I cried because I knew she would die. I cried because I couldn’t visit the hospital with my family. And I cried because maybe no one had ever cried for Dorothy before.

I didn’t cry when my mom sent me the e-mail I knew I would receive telling me that Dorothy had passed away. I think for many, including me, grief hits first as a soft shock, preventing any kind of intense reaction. It lingers, finally settling in some days or weeks later. Some of it is bubbling up now, forcing out some more tears for Dorothy. I can’t grieve with my family. I can’t hug my grandma to comfort her. I didn’t get to see Dorothy finally being put to rest. My friends here are sympathetic, but I’m craving the empathy of my family back in Illinois. I wish I could’ve cried with them at the funeral instead of crying alone here. Grieving alone is a different experience. Without witnessing the people around you working through their own grief, you’re forced to set your own standards, and your grief feels intangible without another’s to link with. You don’t want it to come up, you don’t want to have to experience it alone, but you know you should. If it isn’t given time and attention, it will grow and twist into something much worse than grief.

Dorothy was buried last weekend. As if fate herself had organized it, an open plot was available only a few feet from my great grandma. They’re now resting next to each other, and I hope Dorothy has finally found the peace she never found in life.

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In the Minority

Living in America, I always had a comfortable seat in the majority because of the color of my skin and the amount of money in my parents’ bank account. I grew up in a small town overrun by white, middle-class Americans with very little diversity. In college, although I encountered a significant population of African-American students, as well as many foreign students, the white students still easily outnumbered the others. When I arrived in Thailand, it was the first time I stepped into a space where I was part of a minority. The various brown skin tones that surrounded me made me look (and feel) more white than I ever had before. For the first time, I stood out. I had never known what it was like to be an oddity, to be an object of interest when walking along the street, or to be referred to not by my name, but by a term used for all white people. In many cases, my identity dissolved and became wrapped up in one word—farang.

‘Farang,’ which means foreigner in Thai, is not often used as an insulting term by the people of Thailand. It is simply a word used to identify you in a crowd. It is neither a compliment nor an insult and is meant to be taken as neither. It is more of a factual statement than anything else. I am a foreigner, and when Thais call me ‘farang,’ they’re acknowledging this.  When walking down the streets of my village, I can understand very few words that pass between my neighbors, but ‘farang’ is not an uncommon one for me to pick out of their conversations. While they usually don’t mean to demean foreigners in any way by calling them by this name, it does work to set us apart. Being called ‘farang’ reminds us that we aren’t native, and that, because of this, we can never fully belong in Thai society. We are different. Our skin color makes us so. It gives us away, makes it impossible for us pass unnoticed. My skin is like a spotlight. Eyes are drawn to me as the thing that stands out in the room. My actions are watched and judged more than any Thai’s.

Can you spot the farang?

Can you spot the farang?

I’ve never had the experience of being looked upon as an object of fear or aversion, as many minorities in America have. I’ve never had to worry about what opportunities I would be denied because of the color of my skin. These things are still true now that I’m in Thailand. My experience and the experiences of minorities in America are vastly different. As a foreigner here, I am treated with respect, not fear. I have many opportunities for work simply because I speak English. I don’t know what it’s like to live as a minority in a country where many of the citizens treat those minorities as inferior. I don’t know what it’s like to deal with discrimination in daily life. I have only ever felt discriminated against with the Thai police. They rarely pull people over; more often, they will set up roadblocks and simply beckon random drivers to the side of the road to get checked out. In general, they will aim to pull over foreigners because 1) they know they probably don’t have an international driver’s license (an offense that comes with a 500 baht ticket) and 2) they expect foreigners to have more money which means they can ‘bribe’ the officer by giving him or her some money on the spot, lining the officer’s pockets and saving them the trouble of writing out a ticket. I’ve been stopped  by the police three times during my seven months here, and two of those times I felt I would’ve been safe if I had had a different skin color (the other time I really did do something wrong). That knowledge is hard to swallow. Those experiences inserted a sizable dose of negative energy into my life here, and I can’t imagine what it would be like to deal with discrimination on a daily basis. Even the small taste that I have received here has caused me to have more sympathy and respect for minorities and the complications that title brings to their life.

Thai society, as I’ve explained before, is one of inclusion. My white skin does not mean I am shunned or excluded from daily life in any way. I am often invited to Thai events, my neighbors make an effort to talk with me in English, and most of my students respect me as much as they respect their Thai teachers. But I find that I am sometimes viewed as an anomaly or something to be played with (this is very likely unconscious on the Thais’ part). For example, I’ve been stopped while walking along the street several times just so a Thai can test their English skills. Shy children will approach me and say, ‘Hello!’ and then erupt into cheers and applause when I return the greeting. I understand how some foreigners would be upset by this, but my time here has taught me to enjoy these experiences for what they are, to laugh with the children, and be grateful that I am seen as something exciting and not something frightening. The place I am occupying in Thai society is offering me a new and enlightening experience. Then again, every day in Thailand offers me an experience that teaches me something. Maybe today I learn something about myself. Tomorrow, about human nature. The next day, who knows.

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A Special Visitor

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 momDSC_2967 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.

DSC_2843A 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 IMG_0341bucket 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 luckyDSC_2877 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, DSC_2897which 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-DSC_2923ing’ 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 inDSC_2950 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. DSC_2961It 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 backIMG_2489 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 IMG_2505wanted 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 templeto 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.

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Hanoi and Halong Bay

When I came to Asia, I had a picture of what an Asian city would look like in my head. Roads filled with swerving, honking cars, sidewalks lined with old, charming buildings, restaurants pouring onto the street, and shops crammed together like sardines. Hanoi, in all its bustling, picturesque glory, fits this ideal and stands as a sort of quintessential city of Asia. WheDSC_2494n Li and I first arrived in the Old Town, we were completely overwhelmed. Chiang Mai has a population of about 1 million people. Hanoi has over 7 million. The motorbikes crowding and swerving through the small streets and alleys, honking even when no other cars or motorbikes were nearby, put the drivers of Thailand to shame. We couldn’t take two steps without getting honked at, and any sidewalks that would have been available were covered with restaurants spilling out onto them. As evening approached and we wandered out, the streets of the Old Town turned into pedestrian only areas as the restaurants extended further into the street. They completely covered the pavement in short tables and stools, which soon filled with people, tourists and Vietnamese alike, eating, smoking, drinking, and chatting. After only a few minutes of walking, our nerves were shot. The streets were a series of convoluted twists and turns that were impossible to navigate with the fading light, and we were hungry, thirsty, and tired. We both needed a drink. We found a little restaurant, ordered some spring rolls and some alcohol, and with our bodies and minds relaxing a bit, we ventured out once more. We found another restaurant, ordered yet another drink, and also enjoyed some pho (pronounced ‘fuh,’ like rhymes with ‘duh’), a traditional Vietnamese noodle dish. We had a few more drinks after finding a buy one get one free bar, went back to our hostel, and, with the sounds of the noisy crowds lingering outside our window, we fell asleep.

We spent our first full day in Hanoi doing some sightseeing. We spent the morning at the Temple of Literature, the first national university in Vietnam. It was built in 1070 AD and was dedicated to Confucius. Walking around the DSC_2471grounds of a college or university has always had a calming effect on me. Being in places of learning puts me into a state of ease, whether because I enjoyed my time at my university so much or simply because I admire education, I’m not sure. Being in a place of learning this ancient and historical only amplified those feelings of ease. We were still in Hanoi, in the middle of this very active city, but upon entering the temple, the city faded into the background. I could still hear the motorbikes speeding and honking outside the temple walls, but it was background noise to the softness of the sounds inside the temple. We spent about an hour exploring the many sections of the temple, meandering slowly through each gate and building. After taking a break for lunch and a little rest, we walked to Hoan Kiem Lake (Lake of the Returned Sword) in the center of Hanoi. In the middle of the lake stands a small, grey tower called Turtle Tower. There is an interesting legend behind this landmark. They say the first king of Vietnam was granted a magical sword by the gods. After conquering and bringing Vietnam together, the king went to the lake, where he was met by the DSC_2516turtle god, who asked him to return the sword to him. The king threw the sword into the lake, as requested by the god. The turtle is one of four sacred animals in Vietnamese culture. The others are the unicorn, the phoenix, and the dragon. They are all featured along the entrance to the Ngoc Son Temple, which sits on a small island in the middle of the lake. To reach the temple, you must walk along a bright, red bridge known as the Huc Bridge, or the Rising Sun Bridge. We took a free tour of the city through our hostel when we returned from Sapa, and our guide informed us that crossing this bridge is supposed to bring luck to your love life. I guess we’ll see… When we got tired that afternoon, Li and I sat next to the lake. It was chilly and sprinkling off and on, but there was an air of peace around the lake that allowed us to escape the streets for a while, and we weDSC_2522re happy to sit and look out over the water. While sitting there, we were approached by several students attending universities in Hanoi, and they asked if they could speak to us. Unknown to us, the lake is a popular place for students to seek out tourists to help them practice their English. We had nowhere to go and nothing in particular to do, so we ended up chatting with the students for about two hours. At one point, we had ten students surrounding us. Their enthusiasm and desire to practice their English skills impressed me immensely. Coming from Thailand, where the students show very little interest in learning English, it was refreshing to find people who were so eager to learn, and I was more than happy to help them. For the most part, they spoke pretty good English—much better than most of my students. It was a bit disheartening in a way as I realized just how far behind Thailand is when it comes to educating its students, but there’s hope, and with the new ASEAN agreement that has opened up the borders of many Asian countries, Thailand will soon be forced to face the fact that its citizens are poorly prepared for the pressures of an international job market. On the other side of this, the people of Vietnam seem to be taking it very seriously, and many of the students I met actually seemed to enjoy speaking English. After two hours, we had exhausted a lot of speaking topics, and we were ready for dinner, so we bid farewell to our new friends, they thanked us profusely, and we were on our way to find some more delicious Vietnamese food.

We left for Sapa that night on an overnight sleeper bus. See my previous post for details of our time there.

We were exhausted when we returned to Hanoi. The sleeper bus dropped us off in the city at 3 am, and when we arrived at our hostel, we were waved away by the security guard. No key, no entry. We asked what time the desk would open, but he clearly didn’t speak English and continued to wave us away. Not knowing what else to do at three in the morning, we went and sat by the lake. It was chilly, we were tired, and a little after four it started sprinkling. The only other people around were those still out drinking from the night before. Our only other company were the rats digging through the small trash piles around the lake, which were soon cleaned up by a cleaning crew that arrived a little after five. I put my backpack on my lap, laid my head on the top, and managed to sleep for a little while, but Li didn’t get any rest. By the time we checked into our hostel a little after six, we were exhausted. We couldn’t get our beds in the dorm until the other people checked out, which wouldn’t be until about noon. We sat down on the lobby couches; I had a small breakdown simply from a lack of sleep, which made the situation seem more stressful than it was, and leaned onto the armrest and took a nap. Again, Li wasn’t able to sleep. Luckily, she functions very well with very little sleep, and she was able to handle the day fairly well despite only getting three hours of sketchy sleep on the bus. I was impreDSC_2739ssed. We pulled ourselves together around 8 am, went out and found some breakfast, came back, added two packets of instant coffee to our water bottle, and joined a free walking tour at ten. We got to see St. Joseph’s Cathedral, a beautiful building left over from the time of the French colonization in Vietnam. We got to visit the lake, yet again, and then we were led through some interesting street and bike markets. The bike markets are DSC_2750just what they sound like. In Hanoi, as in many cities, you have to have a permit to have a shop. But many sellers simply sell products off their bikes, and if the police come, they grab their merchandise and ride off without facing any consequences. The markets were full of interesting foods, both dead and alive (one particularly gruesome shop was in the process of pulling the heads off of live frogs), flowers, trinkets, and handmade souvenirs. The tour ended at a small, hidden coffee shop that was four stories tall and looked out over Hoan Kiem Lake. It was relatively quiet, and very lovely. It was here that I got my first taste of Vietnamese egg coffee, which is coffee mixed with egg yolks that have been beaten with sugar to form a frothy, delicious cream. The day, like those previous, was oscillating between chilly and warm, and the coffee was a perfect addition to the cloudy morning.

We finally got our beds when we got back to the hostel and, after taking a much needed shower, Li and I both hopped into our beds and took a nap. Around five, we ventured out once again to go see a traditional water puppet show at a theater near the lake. The show was all in Vietnamese, but the stories were mostly easy to follow simply by watching the actions of the puppets. The mechanics were very impressive. There were dragons that blew fire, foxes that climbed up trees, and plows that moved through the water as if moving through a rice field. Traditional Vietnamese music accompanied the show. It was cute, funny, and a perfect evening outing. It also felt culturally authentic, and I really enjoy finding those experiences when I’m traveling. After the show, we found yet more delicious Vietnamese food (by this time, I was doing pretty well with the chopsticks since most places didn’t offer spoons and forks), and then settled in for the night, grateful that we were facing a night of uninterrupted sleep.

The next morning, we were bound for Halong Bay. It took about four hours by shuttle bus, and I was happy when we were finally freed and taken to our small cruise ship. The ship’s paint was chipping a bit, and it had clearly seen better days, but the rooms were nice and comfortable, the dining area was clean and looked out over the bay through large windows, and the top deck was scattered with lounge chairs where you could sit and enjoy views of the bay while cruising. Halong Bay, a World Heritage site, is celebrated as one of the most beautiful places in the world. It is, indeed, very beautiful. DSC_2761Towering limestone pillars covered in lush forests rise out of the waters of the bay in every direction. Vietnamese legend says that the bay (Halong translates as ‘where the dragon descends into the sea’) was created when a dragon flew toward the coast, its tail carving out valleys, and when it crashed into the sea, the bay filled with water, leaving only those limestone cliffs visible. While we were there, it was cloudy and foggy, giving the bay a sort of mystical, romantic feel. I prefer sunny days, and perhaps I would have enjoyed it more if the skies had been clear, but as it was, there was no shortage of beauty in the bay. Our first stop of the day was kayaking. Li, who grew up in Portland and is very familiar with outdoor sports, is comfortable with kayaking, and, with both of us being the adventurous sort, we used the 45 minutes we were given to explore a series of limestone pillars that were in the opposite direction of the route many of the other tourists seemed to be taking. Doing so allowed us to get away V1from the crowds and to experience relative peace in the bay without being surrounded by other cruise ships, chatting tourists, or the motors of the small, local boats. As we were paddling back toward the pier, we came across a small group surrounding the edge of one of the pillars where a few monkeys were jumping around, grabbing at the food one of the locals was throwing at them. It was the first time I had seen wild monkeys since coming to Asia, so I was excited, and that helped us end our little kayaking venture on an especially happy note. The second stop was at Surprising Cave, the largest cave in Halong Bay. I’ve seen more impressive caves, but this one was interesting all the same. The view from the entrance is what made it special. The entrance was set into the middle of one of the limestone islands, and from it you got a spectacular view of some of the cliffs, surrounded by the cruise
DSC_2799ships and local boats. Even the cloudy day couldn’t ruin the landscape that sat before us at that moment. After the cave, the explorations were over and we were left to relax on the ship. That night, while Li was reading in our room and while the other guests relaxed on the upper deck, I went to the front of the deck and sat down, looking at the outlines of the cliffs and the many lights cast off by the other ships that glowed like the stars that would’ve been visible if not for the clouds. It was quiet. I could hear some muffled karaoke coming from other ships, and one of the crew sat near me trying to catch squid, bV3obbing a simple fishing rod in and out of the water, but the natural stillness of the bay was still heavy in that moment, heavy enough that it weighed on me and pressed the other sounds deep into the ocean, away from my consciousness. I felt the bay’s magnificence, let it guide me toward an understanding of the grandeur of this place. In that moment, more than any other over those two days, I understood how Halong Bay had earned its prominent place among the natural wonders of the world.

We didn’t stay in the bay long the next day. After breakfast, we started cruising back toward land, and we were there a little after noon. After another four hour bus ride, we were back in DSC_2826Hanoi and spent the evening doing a little souvenir shopping, finding dinner, walking around the lake once more to enjoy the lights that were strung through the trees and that were turned on for the first time since we had been in city, and packing up our things to prepare for the return journey to Bangkok. After arriving in Bangkok the next day and making our way to the bus station via the subway system, we still had about six hours to wait until our overnight bus left. By the time we finally climbed onto the double decker bus, our feet were sore, we were drained from the heat, and our shoulders were stiff from carrying our backpacks all day. But we made made it. It was a rough six hours, but we pushed through, and the next day we were back in Chiang Mai, happy to be home, but sad to leave our adventures in Vietnam behind.

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A Trek in Sapa

‘Are you tired?’ Pan asks me. She puts a pot over the fire burning in the small indent etched into the kitchen floor as I look up at her. She’s pretty, maybe 30 years old, but she could pass for much younger.

‘A little,’ I say, knowing that I should be much more tired than I am. I’ve just finished six hours of trekking through the mountains and villages of Sapa, a mountainous region in northern Vietnam. An overnight sleeper bus from Hanoi had delivered me and my friend Li to the small town at 6 am. The town is masked in fog, and finding our way through the angular streets to the hotel where we were to meet our trekking guide is a challenge. But we find it, nestled between some small restaurants and hotels on a gently sloping street. We meet our guide, Chinh, around 9:30, choose the route we will take over the next two days, and start walking, landing among fog-covered rice DSC_2547paddies and mountains in less than thirty minutes. Soon we are among workers plowing the fields, preparing for the upcoming planting season, water buffalo lazing in the grass, and small villages dotted along a steep, majestic valley. Another local woman has joined our group and walks behind us, winding string around her hand and barely glancing at the jagged trail ahead of her. As we pause for a break, she holds out her hand to Li and I, offering us both a small horse that she has made with some of the thick grass on the mountain. I ask her how to say thank you in her language and forget it almost immediately.

We run into many tourists during the first half of the day as we travel on a well-worn path known by many of the local guides. We are all heading to the same place for lunch, but our guide assures us that we would get away fromDSC_2570 the tourists in the afternoon. About an hour outside Lao Chai, the village where our guide grew up and where we will stop for lunch, we take a short break at a small hut that looks out over the valley and stair-stepping rice paddies. Our guide points at a young boy walking along the road, chewing on a thick brown stick that looked like bamboo. ‘Not bamboo,’ she says. ‘Sugar cane. You want to try?’ She goes to a basket, pulls out two sticks of sugar cane, and shows us how to eat it. ‘You don’t swallow. You rip small piece, chew it until juice comes out, then throw it away,’ she says, throwing a freshly chewed piece into the valley below. We continue walking, chewing the sugar cane, letting the sweet juice sit on our tongue to satiate the hunger that is slowly creeping up on us, and throwing the dried, fibrous leftovers onto the rocky road beneath us.

As we reach Lao Chai and sit down for lunch, we discover that the local Hmong woman who has been following us has been doing so with an ulterior motive. She, along with four or five other locals, including a couple small children, approaches us, holding out bracelets, handmade bags, and pillow cases. ‘I go back to my village now. You do shopping,’ she says, holding out her merchandise. We shake our heads, mumbling gentle thank you’s, as she repeats herself again and again. After about five minutes, I try to look away, simply ignoring the DSC_2592offers, but it feels wrong. I know they are doing this so they can buy their meals for that week, or so they can afford to buy new clothes for their children. I know they need the money they will make from the many foreigners eating lunch in this place, including me, but I don’t want anything they’re selling. Eventually they give up and move to a new table, but more come up to us during the hour we are in the restaurant. It’s a relief when we can finally leave the village, winding through the small houses and up into the mountains once again. Within ten minutes we can look back and see the entire village, sitting quaint and quiet in the forefront of a towering line of mountains. The path becomes calm We pass only a few locals carrying wood or other supplies to and from the village. We don’t meet any more tourists that day. The last two hours of the trek are the hardest. Our legs are burning, the air is a little thinner as we climb higher, and even the clouds can’t keep out all the heat from the sun. By the time the local house where we will spend the night comes into view, we are drenched in sweat, but every time we look behind us and see the expansive landscape, we gain more determination to complete the first day of this journey. The final challenge we face before reaching the local house is crossing a set of rice paddies, which requires intense focus and balance as you walk along the thin edge of one layer of the fields. Step too far to the left and you tumble off the side and into the layer below. Step too far to the right and you fall into the muddy water next to you. Chinh, Li, and I both make it across without much trouble and walk up to the small wooden house where we will stay for the night. It’s a surprisingly well DSC_2636made house with four sizeable rooms and a front porch that looks out over the mountains and rice paddies, partly covered by thick clouds settling in the valley. But the house is simple, and the only furniture I see is plastic chairs, a kitchen table, seven beds (enough for the family and the trekkers that stop by the house two or three times a week), a couple small end tables, and a small cabinet in the kitchen. Most of the house is empty space.

‘On a clear day, you can see Sapa town from here,’ Chinh explains, pointing to a line of mountains off to the right, hidden mostly by fog, and I am allowed to visualize the 7 miles we completed that day. Chinh, a short, round woman with long hair pulled into a ponytail, walks around the house, looking for her ‘auntie’ that owns the house. She’s the same age as me, but has already been married for four years. Every day she dons the traditional outfit of the Hmong tribe, complete with her favorite hat, a pink and white sun hat with a large flower on the side, and leads foreigners on treks through these mountains. ‘Not here,’ she concludes after making a lap around the house. ‘She is coming back from work. She will be here in a little while.’ She manages to get the door unlocked and brings a table and two chairs out to the front porch and serves us some tea. I’m perfectly content to sit and look out over the landscape, sipping tea, chatting and laughing with Li, and allowing myself to fully relax for the first time that day. My legs and hips are aching and I know they’ll be sore the next day, but it’s the kind of sore I can be proud of. I earned it with every step I took up and down the mountains that day, and as I realize that, the aches don’t bother me much.

About an hour later, Pan, the owner of the house, finally arrives and invites us into the kitchen to sit by the fire she begins building. It is a little cold outside, and we’re happy to sit by the fire as the sun starts to slide behind the mountains. The only light in the small room off the main area of the kitchen comes from the natural light of the fire DSC_2646and a small, bare lightbulb that hangs from the ceiling. It fades in and out as it struggles to pull enough electricity to cast an adequate amount of light on the room. Pan puts a large pan over the fire and dumps oil into it, letting it heat up. A few minutes later, her husband comes in with a large bowl of raw French fries, and I can’t help but chuckle. We’re invited to wait outside at the table once again as the fries are prepared. They’re delicious when done. They’ve tossed them with ginger, garlic, and onion, and the flavor is unique but still familiar to my American taste buds. The rest of the meal is no less delicious. A storm starts to blow in just as dinner is finishing up, so we bring the table into the house, surround it with ten of the plastic chairs, and we join the family as the meal is served. The table is covered in spring rolls, stir fries, rice, and sauces. I usually only eat vegetarian food, but the food on the table is too much to resist, even with the chicken and pork strewn throughout. We eat mostly by candlelight because the lightbulb in the makeshift dining room isn’t working well that evening. ‘Not enough electricity,’ Chinh explains. Pan’s husband pours a clear liquid into small glasses in front of Li and I, and, in my ignorance, I mistake it for water. I take a sip, quickly discovering that it’s some kind of alcohol—rice wine, as I soon learn. A few minutes later, Pan’s husband holds up his little glass, toasting us in the local language. Li and I, not wanting to offend our hosts, drink the shot, and our glasses, to our dismay, are quickly refilled. We’re careful not to drink it all in one gulp for the remainder of the meal.

Li and I spend the rest of the evening sitting by the fire as the family cleans up (they refuse our offers to help with dishes), listening to the thunder that comes closer and closer until rain starts to hit the metal roof above us. It DSC_2650continues throughout the night, but by the time we wake up around 7 the next morning, it has stopped, and the landscape is mostly dry. I wake up a little before Li and go out to the front porch. The rain had cleared the fog and clouds, and the entire valley is visible before me. I discover that Chinh was right—Sapa town is visible, sitting small on the side of a distant mountain.

Pan comes out to say goodbye before she leaves for work. Her three children already left an hour ago to make the hour and a half trek down to their school in the village. I thank her, wishing I had brought some kind of gift to show her how much we have appreciated her hospitality, but words will have to suffice. Chinh serves us breakfast on the porch. She’s made some kind of pork soup, rice, and pancakes, which she serves with honey. I haven’t had pancakes since arriving in Thailand, and they’re simple and delicious. I eat seven of them. Sitting on the porch, looking out over one of the most beautiful landscapes I’ve ever seen, I’m struck by the life I’m creating for myself. I know this is one in a long line of adventures that have already taken place and will continue to take place in the future, but this is the first time that I genuinely feel like a traveler. I feel comfortable in this place, comfortable in the fact that I’m so far from anything familiar to me, and comfortable with the knowledge that the way my future looks to me is changing. I’m craving more moments like these, and an intention to seek them out is forming. My life will be a series of adventures—I will settle for nothing less.

After breakfast, we brush our teeth, pack up our things, and we’re off again, heading up a nearby mountain, stepping to the side when several young men come by dragging long pieces of wood. They’re almost running down the mountain as the wood chases them. ‘To build the houses,’ Chinh explains. We climb for about an hour before the trailDSC_2685 levels off and finally begins to descend, but going down is almost harder than going up. The ground is mostly dry, but it’s still soft from the rain, and much of the path is steep. Finding the right place to put your foot is a skill, and one that you have to master quickly to keep from slipping. Li and I both slip several times, but I’m the only one who falls. Li is more experienced with trekking, and I fall behind a few times as my feet, ankles, and knees try to learn how to handle the terrain. But the joy of walking through the small clusters of local houses, balancing on the rice paddies, passing by the water buffalo that have to move to give us the path, and smiling at the locals as they watch us pass easily overwhelms the discomfort in my legs and feet.

About two hours into our second day, we take a break at a waterfall that runs down the side of the mountain. Li and I DSC_2716take our shoes and socks off, letting our sore feet soak in the coolness of the water. We can see the village where we will have lunch from where we sit. It takes us only another hour or so to reach it, and that’s the finale of our journey. From there, Chinh hires two motorbikes for Li and I to get us back to Sapa town, and we climb on the back and hold on. The drivers give us helmets, but they aren’t careful, and the road is not in great condition. It’s a fun ride, but it also causes some anxiety. I try to focus on the valley to the left of the road, where I can see all of the mountains we have traversed over the past two days. The mountains of Sapa are laid out before us in a way they haven’t been until that time, and, unable to use my camera on the back of the motorbike, I try to soak in the scene, hoping it’s something I won’t soon forget.

(Stay tuned for a post describing the rest of my time in Vietnam.)

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My Motorbike Misadventure

I had just spent two lovely days exploring Sukhothai Historical Park and Si Satchanalai Historical Park, both sites ofDSC_2294 ancient Thai capitals of the Sukhothai Kingdom dating back to about the 13th century. The trip had demanded a six hour road trip, which I and Mimi completed with little trouble on Thursday. Yes, it was a hot day, but there was only one time when I felt like I might wither away from dehydration while driving, and it was quickly remedied by a small Thai shop where I was able to find some water and orange juice to help me plug through the last hour of my trip. The only other problem was the sunburn that covered most of my arms and neck after arriving at my guesthouse, despite copious amounts of sunscreen, but it wasn’t unbearable. Arriving at Sukhothai Historical Park proved that the six hour journey had been well worth it. There were massive temples, partly collapsed but more intact that I had expected due to extensive reconstructions. There were 40 foot Buddhas, DSC_2351towering chedis, and intricate Buddhist monasteries that revealed the incredible grandeur that this city must have claimed 700 years ago. Si Satchanalai was no less amazing, and was set in an even more remote, forested location. I saw very few tourists while there and was free to explore the ruins at my own pace (a very slow pace since it was about 100 degrees).

I began my return journey to Chiang Mai on Saturday morning. I knew the highways that would take me back home were not always forthcoming with gas stations, so I was a little paranoid during the drive. I stopped at almost every gas station I saw, and if Mimi’s tank was only half full, I was almost in full panic mode. I was in Lampang, about two hours from Chiang Mai, going about 90 kph (~55 mph) on the highway, when I saw a nice gas station on my left just as I had almost overshot it. I grabbed my brakes as tight as I could, and at the second entrance, still going about 30 kph (~20 mph), I tried to make the turn and hit a large patch of gravel that was spread across the entrance. Mimi’s back tire couldn’t get any traction, the bike went horizontal, and I went with it. There’s a moment right after an accident where you just make sure you’re still alive. You move parts of your body, you try to sit up, you take a few breaths to make sure your heart and lungs are still functioning, and then you start to scan for the damage. Going down, I landed hard on my left side. My left hand was already throbbing, there were some nice scrapes on my left knee, my shirt was torn at the shoulder, and blood was quickly running off my left foot and onto my white Toms. Within minutes I was surrounded by concerned Thais. I didn’t move. I didn’t take off my helmet or my backpack. I didn’t try to stand up. I just sat there, trying not to throw up and letting the EMS workers (who had somehow arrived within two minutes of my accident) move my leg in whatever direction they needed to. Eventually I came to my senses enough to recognize that the blood stain on my shoe was quickly growing and slipped it off my foot. Someone had taken my helmet off, another had removed my backpack. My ankle felt broken. There was now a sizable pool of blood on the ground in addition to inside my shoe. They laid a stretcher next to me and motioned for me to get on. They didn’t ask if I wanted to go the hospital, and I didn’t refuse. I left Mimi at the gas station. The Thai ‘ambulance’ was really just a small car, almost like a hearse. It only took about five minutes to get to the hospital. I was in an area called Ko Kha just outside the larger city of Lampang, and the nurses had a hard time conversing with me in English when I arrived, but one spoke well enough to make herself understood. They were all very kind, and luckily I was still out of it enough that I didn’t feel much pain when they were cleaning the gravel out of the scrapes. At the hospital, I noticed that my left shoe had not followed me to the hospital and gave it up as a lost cause after the nurse shrugged her shoulders when I pointed it out. While getting my ankle x-rayed, I attempted to call my mom, which was a mistake since I was in a room with very poor reception and all she could hear were gargled ‘I’m ok’s’ and ‘hospital.’ Not what you want to hear when your daughter calls you at 11 pm. But I sent a quick e-mail to explain that I wasn’t on my deathbed, and everyone calmed down. Sitting in the ER, I didn’t panic. Yes, I was alone. Yes, I was still two hours from home. No, there was no way I was going to be able to ride Mimi back to Chiang Mai that day. But I was in Thailand. And in Thailand, things have a way of working themselves out as they need to.

While in the ER, my friend Toni called me wanting help finding a school she was going to do an interview at. This was at the point when they were cleaning me up and pressing on different parts of my body to see what hurt, so I was nearly in tears, my voice was shaking, and all I could tell her was that I was in the hospital. She turned her car around and went back home. She was going to come get me. She insisted, and I didn’t try to stop her. Within a half hour, I had got a hold of my best friend Li. She and my friend Molly joined Toni, and they started the two hour journey to Lampang.

In the meantime, the doctor came back with the x-ray results. ‘Good news,’ he said, and the weight lifted. My ankle wasn’t broken. I would be able to do my trek in Vietnam next week. I would be able to drive again in a couple of days. I would get back to playing tennis after returning from my vacation. The relief was incredible. The doctor asked me to try to stand up, which I still hadn’t attempted at that point, and upon finding that it caused me intense pain, he diagnosed me with a sprained ankle. He wrapped it up, they ordered some pain medication, and within another half hour I had been put in a wheelchair and sent to wait for my friends outside at the entrance to the ER. The ER was only big enough for about three or four people, and there were patients with greater need than me.

During this whole process, a middle-aged Thai man had taken notice of me. He saw that I was alone and that I was about his daughter’s age. She was in the ER with a fractured arm, also from a motorbike accident. During my time in the hospital, he split his time between his daughter and I. He spoke decent English, and we were able to have several full conversations during the three and a half hours I was there. When they sent me to wait outside, he waited with me, leaving once or twice to check on his daughter, and once to go buy me a green tea and a water. We talked about his job and his family, and he showed me pictures of his other children and grandchildren. I told him about America and my life in Thailand. It made what could have been a torturous two hours a very pleasant stretch of time. His name was Mr. John. When he had to leave, about twenty minutes before my friends arrived, he insisted on giving me his phone number. ‘You call me if ever in Lampang again,’ he said. I smiled and happily agreed I would. His kindness and generosity brought me incredible comfort, and I can only hope one day it is repaid to him in some way.

Toni, Li, and Molly arrived around 3:30 with smiles and hugs, and I felt another wave of relief. They wheeled me inside, helped me pay for my hospital bill (a whopping $15, including the ambulance ride and x-rays) since I didn’t have enough cash on me, and helped me maneuver into the car without causing too much pain to my ankle. The nurse had told me that Mimi had been taken to the local police station, so that’s where we headed after we left the hospital. When we arrived, Li did her best to communicate with the Thai police officers, but they spoke almost no English, and the only thing we could understand was that Mimi wasn’t there. ‘Go gas station,’ they said, pointing in the direction we had just come from. So we did. We tracked down the gas station where I had wrecked (luckily I remembered what highway I was on at the time), spoke to a couple of the staff there, and finally found Mimi tucked away on the side of the building, along with my helmet, keys, and bloody left shoe. Everything was in its place now. Mimi is a tough old gal and had sustained absolutely no damage, so we filled her up, and Li took control of her. She drove behind Toni’s car, where I was tucked into the backseat with my foot propped up on a pillow that my thoughtful friends had brought along for the ride.

The journey from there was completely smooth. Li let Molly take over about twenty minutes outside of Chiang Mai, and we got to Toni’s house around 6. We hadn’t all been together for a while, so that night ended up being somewhat of a party. My friend Spence, who lives in the building next to Toni’s, joined us that evening. We made a huge pasta dinner, drank some wine (which I may or may not have used to wash down some pain killers), and talked until late that night. They would let me do nothing. Even to get from the couch to the bathroom, which was all of five feet, they insisted on rolling me to the door using Toni’s computer chair, which led to lots of good laughs for everyone. Yes, I was in pain. Yes, I was tired. Yes, it had been a long day for all of us. But my Thailand family was together that evening, and that brought us all great joy. It hadn’t even been a thought for them to come get me. One of their own had needed help, and it was a natural reaction for them to jump in a car and drive two hours to help her. And they were happy to do it. They asked for nothing in return. They didn’t make me feel guilty for ruining any Saturday plans they may have had. They refused to let me apologize for the inconvenience. These amazing, generous people that seemed so strange to me on the first day of my TEFL course have become my chosen family here in Thailand, and to recognize the lengths we would go to help each other brought a new kind of light to my heart.

I spent the night at Toni’s on Saturday, and she slipped into mama mode, pampering me in every way she knew how. I was well taken care of. On Sunday, although still in significant pain, I was able to drive Mimi back to Hang Dong after the pain killers kicked in. I was a little apprehensive getting back on her for the first time since the accident, but after a successful, smooth ride back home, we settled into our groove again. On Tuesday, the pain mostly subsided, and I was able to walk with very little discomfort. My shoulder is still bruised, the cut on my foot still stings a bit, and my left hand still can’t move in all its natural directions, but I’ll get there, and then I will add this to my list of completed adventures here in Thailand.  DSC_2330

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An Eventful Weekend

My First Thai Ticket

It started on Saturday. I had a lovely, relaxing day planned for myself. A morning haircut—the haircuts here truly are magical, complete with a 15 minute head massage and styling, all for around $6—a delicious lunch at my favorite Indian restaurant, and a two hour Thai massage to wrap up the day. I guess everyone decided to wake up late on Saturday because all the salons were closed, and the haircut didn’t materialize that morning. So I started my day at the coffee shop instead, which was a nice replacement. I arrived at the Indian Grill around 1 pm, an hour before my massage, ordered my food, and headed to the bathroom. During those fateful five minutes, a police officer pulled up, slapped a ticket on the seat of my motorbike, which was parked in front of the restaurant where I’ve parked every time before without incident, and wrapped a chain around my seat and tire, making it impossible to move my bike. A quick side note here on law enforcement in Thailand. Police here do not enforce laws; they enforce commands. This means that they will not give out tickets unless they have been specifically instructed to do so on any given day. So on Saturday, in a stint of unluckiness on my part, the police officers had been told to sniff out offenders of my particular infraction. To continue the story, I came out of the bathroom just as the officer was leaving (if I hadn’t been in the bathroom the whole thing probably could’ve been avoided by me simply moving Mimi after he arrived), and all he could say in English was ‘Go to police station.’ The only thing I could manage to verbalize was ‘Mai khao jai’ (I don’t understand). He repeated his irritating command to go to the police station and drove away, leaving me with a hanging jaw and wet eyes. I had no idea where the police station was, I had no idea how much I was going to have to pay, and I didn’t even know what the ticket was for. Luckily this happened in Thailand where helping strangers is the norm and not the exception, and people immediately came to my aid. The owner and workers at the Indian restaurant came out and explained that I had received a ticket for parking on the wrong side of the road—I’m still not sure how I was supposed to know there was a ‘right’ side of the road—and offered to take me to the police station to get it all figured out after I finished eating the meal I had ordered. But I had no time. I explained that I had an appointment at 2, that Mimi needed to be free by then. So, in true Thai style, the situation basically took care of itself. The owner of the restaurant took 200 baht, or about $6, from me (the cost of the ticket, they explained) and drove to the police station to pay my ticket for me while I ate and attempted to enjoy my lunch, which proved difficult because I was still worried about the chain wrapped around Mimi’s back tire. The owner returned around 1:30, and about 20 minutes later the same police officer that had given me the ticket came back and unlocked poor Mimi. Yes, she was slightly traumatized by the whole event, but after a few good drives around Hang Dong, she is almost back to normal. The incident was followed by abundant Kop khun kha’s (thank you’s) to the staff of the restaurant and then my monthly 2 hour massage, which proved an effective source of intense relaxation to dissolve the stress created by my first Thai ticket.

Trapped

The next moment of excitement came Sunday morning. I got my laundry from the washing machine, brought it upstairs, and went to my little balcony to hang it on the metal rack that serves as my drying rack. I shut the door behind me as I went out to the balcony, hung up the wet clothes, and turned to go back into my apartment. But I couldn’t turn the handle. The door had locked itself. I started to panic. I was on the second floor with no phone and no way to get back into my apartment. I tried pulling the door open, hoping it would somehow magically unlock itself. I tried busting in my window, but the panes of glass blocked any possible entrance. The only other obvious option was to yell for help, but what would somebody do even if they did hear me? I knew there was a hidden spare key that would let them get into my apartment, but how was I going to explain that to someone who didn’t speak English? So I looked over the railing. It wasn’t that far down… And there were bars over the window of the apartment below mine… If I could just make it to those bars… Yes, my friends. I pulled a Spider-Man and scaled the side of my apartment building. There were a couple of ledges, a pipe, and the bars that made it possible for me to climb down the two stories and land safely on the ground with a nice adrenaline rush but no scrapes, bruises, or broken bones. Sometimes the most intense adventures happen right at home.

A Visit to the Hospital

Before you freak out, keep in mind that hospitals are also the centers of doctor’s offices here in Thailand, and in my case, it was a trip to a GI doctor that prompted my first visit to Chiang Mai Ram Hospital. I was experiencing some stomach issues over the weekend that needed to get checked out, and my first Thai doctor visit on Sunday went quite smoothly. I entered the hospital having no idea who to talk to or where to go, so I approached a desk that was marked for ‘International Patients.’ The staff spoke English well enough and directed me to a nurse who took me to the registration area. I was checked in and taken to the GI department, where I waited about 45 minutes for the doctor to arrive. He got there, asked me some questions in good English, did a physical examination, took some tests, and within an hour—an hour during which I fell asleep in the waiting room and had to be woken up by a very kind nurse—the test results had come back. I was diagnosed, given a prescription, and sent back downstairs. Here I visited yet another desk where I paid the very reasonable $40 for the entire visit, including the four medications I received, moved down to another desk to receive my prescriptions, and left the hospital about two and a half hours after I had entered it. It was cheap, efficient, quality medical care, and I have to say that anyone worried about the state of healthcare in Thailand shouldn’t be. I’m in good hands here.

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A Baht for Your Thoughts

Since coming to Thailand, a common question I’ve received from family and friends is, ‘What do the people there think of America?’ I could definitely throw out some guesses based on conversations I’ve had with the people here, but I thought a more effective answer would come from the people themselves. So I set out on a mission to collect some responses to the question, ‘What do you think of America and Americans?’ from various people, Thais and others. I recorded their responses, and what you see here are direct quotes or summaries in the case that I had to have a friend translate for me. I’ve corrected some small grammar mistakes but have attempted to keep the responses as close to the originals as possible.

The initial purpose of this post was to satisfy the curiosity of those in the US, but as I’ve been keeping an eye on the news and watching the deteriorating situation surrounding the presidential election, the growing refugee crisis, and the numerous other world issues, I realized that learning about how people around the world feel about each other is one way to create more compassion and understanding between different cultures and to relieve some of the fear and uncertainty that has been spreading so rapidly. Because of that, I hope this blog post will help expand your understanding of other cultures, as well as help alter any inaccurate assumptions you have been making about how people around the world feel about America and its people.

 

Tong, Thai intern and friend:

America has a multicultural society. The best thing I know about America is freedom of speech, freedom of moving, and freedom of living. Americans make eye contact. They are brave to express the ideas they are thinking and brave to express both good and bad ideas.

 

Boo, Thai intern:

Everything is advanced with transportation and technology.

 

Khem, Thai intern:

I think of technology.

 

Fah, Thai intern and friend:

People in America have freedom. Freedom is something very important in America. American people are easy going and extroverted.

 

Benz, Thai intern and friend:

I think of lots of cosmetics when I think of America. Americans are very kind and friendly. They have freedom to think. I always get the thought when we are talking with the American people that they express their ideas about the society. And Americans have more dreams than Thais.

 

May, Thai intern:

There are good and bad people. My friend told me America is good.

 

Moo waan, Thai intern:

I like black guys who sing hip hop songs. I like movie films and music of America. I like rap and the Backstreet Boys.

 

Oil, Thai intern:

I think of cosmetics and cheap make-up. I’m not familiar with American people, but I think some Americans are promiscuous.

 

Nui, Thai intern:

The country is systematic with big cities like New York and Los Angeles. They have lots of gambling and casinos.

 

Man, Thai intern and friend:

I think American people are friendly and easy to get to know. I have been a Thai buddy for the USAC program at CMU. That’s a very good program that lets me make friends with American people, and I always keep in touch with them. Most are very nice and always help me too much. They’re very cute. Talking about USA, it’s a big country, and also the dream land of many Thai people. Some want to study or work there. But in my opinion, American society is hard to live in. I’m also afraid of terrorists. I choose to live in Thailand and have American friends. That’s a better choice for me.

 

Dream, Thai barista at nearby coffee shop:

Americans are nice and friendly.

 

Several Mattayom 5 students:

The men in America are very handsome, and they have good food in America.

 

Kru Oh, Thai English teacher:

America is the freedom land! It’s well-known. It has various geographic lands and many states. It’s the land with two sides, positive and negative. It’s positive on economics, and it’s advanced. It’s negative because it’s dangerous to survive in, especially in New York. The people are friendly, and the way of life is easy and informal. The American language is not like British. Some words are easier to understand. Most Americans work hard to earn money by themselves, like the teenagers. The self-confidence is high, but some have less. Some are selfish, like the old people. Some Americans are impolite.

 

Kru Ae, Thai English teacher:

America is a very serious country. Many people in America don’t like people in Thailand. They’re very serious about their work.

 

Jaruwan, Thai veterinary professor at CMU:

America is the high developing and high technology country. It’s a wonderful country. I felt safe in the US. They have the security. America is prosperous and their development, everything is high tech. Americans are nice people. My PhD advisor is American. She is kind and nice to me. She responds to my mail so quick and likes to help me. I think Americans are on time. Very, very on time. Haha. And responsible. They have ideas. I think your country and people teach you how to think and how to be responsive. It’s not that way in Thailand. I love the country.

 

Xia, Chinese intern and friend:

Americans love freedom and are independent.

 

Martin, British friend:

Americans come across as very knowledgeable with a strong ability for public speaking which seems to come quite naturally.

 

Toni, American friend:

I’m glad I’m not there right now. I’m quite disappointed in the support that is being shown for Trump and in the groundswell of hatred and fear.

 

Wes, American English teacher:

I think so highly of America’s natural beauty. I’ve traveled around the world, and I love America’s wilderness and nature because I grew up there and I know about it. We’ve led the world in the idea of national parks and stuff, which is a great step. As far as American government and all that, I feel like we have the right idea—democracy is a great idea—but it’s not functioning, so it doesn’t matter that it’s a great idea. I feel like basically America is a proxy, it’s like a fake government and they’re doing the bidding of the world’s richest people. They’re not working for the citizens. They’re working for the super-rich internationally. I couldn’t think any less about American government. The American people, I understand them because I’m American, and I think I like the American people because it’s basically the whole world. So many people from all over the world have immigrated to America, so it’s a cool group of people because it represents the whole world, but at the same time once they’ve been in America for a while they’re American. I enjoy the diversity of people in America. I feel like generally people in America are friendly and helpful and nice. I generally have a good opinion of American people.

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