I stood in the chili paste aisle at the Asian grocery store. My friend rounded the corner and I stood alone in the aisle. I was looking for something familiar. Some ounce of familiarity that reminded me Thailand. The only reminiscent that I had was the elephant pants I was wearing and the cardigan around my shoulders. My heart ached. I was distracted by the excitement of coming home. My friends were around me and I had many stories to share. But it was strange trying to explain my experience. How do I explain four months of my life. A life that you cannot know unless you have experienced it. Some stories I tried to share, I found I could not find the words. How do you explain the feeling? How do you explain the core of who you are that was built across the world? So I stood there in the chili paste aisle wondering what was coming next. The dream had come to a close. A dream I found myself wishing for again. When it hit me on the flight home I felt pieces of my heart breaking. Thailand was a huge step in my life. It launched me forward into greater dreams and greater expectations for myself. Yet, when you are thrown back into a familiar lifestyle, it is hard to keep achieving greater expectations. How do I live life fully when I am stuck in the classroom? How do I move forward when my dreams seem far off in the past?
I recently had someone ask me how has Thailand changed me. I had trouble answering the question. I’m used to giving the general two-minute answer of “it was a great experience”. Or the longer version of the highlights. And even the two-hour slideshow complete with stories and explanations. But I was not prepared for that question. Perhaps cause I was scared to answer it. It’s easy to come back and expect my relationships with my friends and family to be the same because they have not gone where I have gone. They have not experienced a different way of living, they have simply lived life as it was before I left. I am incredibly blessed to have been welcomed with open arms. Some friends that I thought would have moved on, welcomed me back fully. And to my surprise one even wanted to sit through the three hour long unedited slideshow. Over Christmas break I met with many of my friends to chat about life and what had gone on while I was gone. I often thought being abroad would separate me from people, but I was pleasantly surprised that people still wanted to share their experience of the last four months. Although it was wildly different than mine, it still held value in my heart. So thank you to anyone who shared their life when I returned, and listened to all my stories.
I want to highlight some people that really made a difference when I returned. First of all, my parents. Who graciously listened to me chat forever about Thailand and dealt with my continual show and tell for two weeks. Thank you to my grandparents, uncles and aunts, cousins, and of course my brothers. You truly believed in my experience and my stories, which makes me incredibly blessed to have a wonderful family. Thank you to all my aunties, uncles, and friends who read my blog and talked to me about it. Thank you Nathan and Isaac for being amazing brothers, who listen and continue to challenge me beyond my experience. Thank you to Andrew, who was the first friend I saw and also graciously dealt with my chatterbox of stories. And thank you for showing me that life can be fun if I let it be. Thank you to Lacey, who drove over just to see me for a couple hours despite being tired and worn down from your job. And thank you for continually listening to my stories, my heart breaks, and helping me figure out what life looks like when you come back from being abroad. Thank you to Michael, for always welcoming me in your arms. For being there in every stage of life, no matter how long I have been gone. You are an incredible blessing of a friend and I’m so thankful to have you by my side no matter what I’m going through. And thank you for taking me out for Thai food and helping me find adventure in Portland. Thank you to Alexis, for willing to listen to my my three hour unedited slideshow. Which the beginning only consisted of flowers and cacti. And especially thank you for sharing with me what you had done while I was gone. Thank you to Melody, for accepting me in any stage of life and asking questions that push me to think deeper about my experience. And asking about how God moved in my life while being abroad. Thank you to Andrea, for helping the transition be a little bit easier. For listening to my stories, going through photos with me, and helping me battle the struggle of being back at Fox. You have helped me more than you know that the simple act of being there. Thank you to the twins, Karen and Sarah. No matter how long or how far we are apart, I know what it will always be the same with us. I love having friends who chat just as much as me, and that doesn’t change even though we are miles apart for a long time. We probably will never live in the same city again, but I know I can always come back to you two. Thank you Mikayla, for checking in on me and always having good words to uplift me when I am down. Thank you for sticking with me all these years. I also want to make a shout out to my supervisors in the Library. You have made my college experience more real than the majority of my classes. You have listened and asked deeper into my experience. I’m incredibly thankful for the way you helped send me off to Thailand and the way you welcomed me home. You probably will never know how much you have made a difference in my life. All of you listen well, believe well, and love well. Thank you for listening to me, and being excited about my adventures. And most of all, thank you to my adventuremates. Although we are miles apart, you still keep in contact. Which means the world to me. I miss you all dearly. And of course, thank you to Leah. Who still calls me, listens to me, and believes in me. You are such a gem. Thank you for being there for me in the long road we call life. If I have missed anyone, know that I still cherish you and you listening to my dreams. These are just a few that have really helped me in coming back to the States.
The road has not been easy in returning. After the beautiful distraction of seeing friends, and the overload of Dutch Bro coffee cups in the fridge, I suddenly felt overwhelmed by the feeling of coming back. After working a week and moving to my new cove back at school, my body took a turn. The first day of classes back I could barely function. The pain in my arms and my shoulders grew worse. Everything seemed not aligned. And I didn’t know how to help myself. It amazes me how much pain affects your mind. How it causes you to think differently and it crumbles your hope. When my friends returned back to school, the loneliness started to set in. I was now back to the place that I did not want to be. I could not run, I could not play piano, could not reach out to anyone for comfort. I felt alone in my battle. My parents noticed I stopped talking as much, and I had to drive back and forth for doctors appointments. I had hoped that school would be better when I returned. My heart was high on life with Thailand still close at hand. But after time, it seems incredibly far away. And the farther away I get, the harder it seems to explain.
So the question comes, how has my experience changed me. For one, it has changed how I see life and how I see people. It is easy to get mad at first world problems. Or angry at what people say. But I have to remind myself, that they do not understand. They have not seen what I have seen. Their story is not mine. I have always been fascinated by people’s stories. When returning to the States, I asked more questions about people’s stories. Because for once we spoke the same language. In Thailand, it was hard to learn people’s stories because of the language. And upon returning, I have found that I have no people fear. I’m not afraid to ask people questions, or afraid to approach people that I do not know. They speak the same language, mostly anyway. They can comprehend and understand what I may want to express. And that is something that should not be taken for granted. I am blessed to know English as my native tongue. Most of the world does not have that advantage, and that is something that I still struggle to understand.
My heart is changed tremendously. I feel deeper and am far more passionate about the world. Even in debates in the classroom, I get more fired up than I used to. Passionate people problems. Although my passion leaves room for more heartache. When I see things on the news now, they are no longer a separate issue. I may not be in the same country as those people, but I now have a face to a global problem. I now know people who live the everyday struggle of the developing world life. But not all of it is a struggle, in fact the majority of it is quite beautiful. A more simple lifestyle that is formed by tradition, family, and love. We are not so different from the rest of the world. We still feel, move, work, and live in a very similar way. Americans just go about it in a more individualized way. I also have found that my mind has changed. I often contemplate whether the American life is for me. I love the Northwest, but I find I don’t fit as well when returning. I still wear my Lahu skirts, my elephant pants, and my vibrant scarves. All which have caught more attention than I expected. And most of that attention has been compliments to my surprise. The more I feel that I do not fit, the more I wonder if I fit somewhere else in the world.
My ability to overcome challenges has broadened as well. Because of my health deteriorating, it was threatened that I could not go on another global trip. And I had to fight to keep my spot on the trip. How do I explain trekking through the jungle with my arm in a sling, but still making it to the end. I was honestly hurt that people assumed that I could not overcome my own physical challenges. And mine are not even as bad as others. Someone’s health should not be held against them. For those who have health problems, it is something that we battle every day. Every morning when you get up, it’s a new day of challenges. But also a new day of joys. If anything, someone telling me that I’m not capable of doing something pushes me to prove them wrong. And coming from my experience, someone should never tell someone with health problems that they are not capable of doing something. Because there is more to life than limitations, it is moving beyond the challenge to find what life is truly about.
So here I am. Struggling to stay afloat. My heart aches for Thailand and aches for the people that I have met, but will most likely not meet again. I was blessed this last weekend to have been welcomed in by a Thai woman. She brought me to Asian grocery stores, as well as brought me to a Thai grocery store that had authentic Thai food. Right when I thought my heart would break from being away, she brought a piece of home to me. She spoke Thai and listened to my broken Thai phrases. She knew exactly what I was talking about, which was beautifully comforting. Going through photos is hard. And I find myself unable to keep dry eyes when encountering some of my photos. The experience almost seems unreal. Like I was in a dream. In fact, it is a dream. It is a dream that I got to live. And one that I keep living, because it is still in my heart. It still moves and sways with me. It’s something that will never go away. My experience in Thailand was challenging, heartbreaking, beautiful, and adventurous. And I know if I ever get to return, it will be different the second time. Things will have changed, and people will have changed. For now, I look for any familiarity that reminds me of Thailand. I seek people that I can talk about the world. I seek to further understand my experience by continually sharing it with the people I interact with. I have not gone a day since being back, without wearing something from Thailand. All I have now is physical reminders. My Thai pillow, my elephant pants, my Lahu skirts, and my umbrella. And of course, my body only craves Thai food. I do not miss the spicy food, but I certainly miss the home cooked Thai meals. As a whole, I would say that the core of me is still the same. But many aspects of me have grown. I’m already thinking about where in the world that I want to be in next. My heart is grown greater to the love of people. For the love of knowing stories. And the love for being the voice for the voiceless. The downside right now is that I cannot live fully every day. As a student some days are spent behind the books, and behind the computer screen. And other days are spent at the doctors. I am not in the space of life that I want to be, but I know this is just a stage of life. I know that God has called me to a higher calling. And that in itself rests greater expectations for myself and my future. So I have changed. I have changed by meeting people who love beyond poverty. Who care about their country. Who care about their people. I find that people in the States are abrasive in their opinions, and sometimes forget they are talking to a human being just like them. We are all fighting and struggling through this life. And we need the community of one another to make it through.
I keep going back to the question my friend asked in the card that I read on the plane to Thailand. It said, “I hope you find what you are looking for”. And I think I almost have. I am looking for connection. I’m looking to connect people to people, and myself to the world. I just haven’t figured out how yet. Although the road home has been rocky, I have hope for what is to come. I have hope that one day I will get to return to Thailand. I believe in who I am and what God has called me for. Thank you once again for everyone who has been with me through this journey. Thank you to those who have battled life with me. Especially thank you to those who continually welcom me back in their arms when I am uncertain about life. No matter how many miles I may travel, how many words I may write, I know that I have the support of my dearest friends and the God who created me. I still experience reverse culture shock. It’s not easy some days. And it’s not easy to explain my pain. But I suppose pain makes you stronger. Pain forces you to see another perspective. It forces you to look outside of yourself, outside of your pain, and outside of your world. It has helped me clarify what I want life to be. With all my heart I continually grieve Thailand, but it is also the experience of Thailand that keeps pushing me forward. As C.S. Lewis said, “There are better things ahead, then any we leave behind”. So I spread my arms out and raise my eyes up to look at the vast open sky. I welcome in the rain. And I welcome in the sun. Because that is what life is about. Accepting life as it comes, and realizing the challenge and the beauty of the journey. So here I am, a sojourner at heart. A woman who is trying to figure out how to connect to life. And who has a passionate heart for God’s world. I don’t have too many answers, but I have hope. And that is enough to keep me going.