After 4 years in Thailand - Some Thoughts

Four years ago today we stepped off a plane into the warm muggy Chiang Mai heat and began a new chapter in our lives.  

I meant to document more. Tell more stories here. I thought I would fill these pages with descriptions of our days and adventures.


Most of the time I don't know where to begin, who I'm talking to anymore. I can't tell a joke I'm thinking of. No one in the US would get it. I can't tell that story, without a long explanation, because if you haven't been here, you won't understand.

I thought I understood, before we left, what I was getting us all into. I might have had better preparation than most. My husband had been coming here for years. I read the books, did the research, talked to people who lived here.

I didn't understand. Some things can only be gained by experience.

People ask me how they can prepare for culture shock, coming here. "You can't." I tell them. "I wouldn't be a shock that way."



You don't know what will do it to you. You don't know what will make you suddenly feel the deep alien strangeness of the place you're in, what will cause you to feel utterly alone. Will it be getting lost in the dark in a strange city with a dead cell phone battery? Will it just be that the water delivery isn't actually coming, and even thought they said tomorrow, you know it will be 2 more days because tomorrow is a holiday. Will it be the 50th time the pump quits in the middle of your shower? The 8th time the power goes out and you have to find candles again and make your kids take cold bucket showers? When you get stopped at a checkpoint? That you have to ask for help to simply order an electrician, again, because you still don't speak the language well enough to do it yourself? When you realize that the people you thought were friends are just being polite, and you can't trust anyone to tell you the truth?



That passes after a while, 6 months, a year. You get used to things like smiling to the doctor's face and then going home and googling every single thing prescribed to make sure it's safe to take.

You get better at language.

You make some real friends. 

You accept that every time you drive someone will act like they are trying to commit vehicular suicide right in front of you. You are very good at swerving, and honking. You even fail to react very much when your son witnesses an accident at the intersection closest to your house where there is nothing left of a woman's brain but a big red smear.

You let him ride his bike to Thai class the next day anyway.

You forget what it's like to drive a car with seat belts.



You become the veteran. People come and look to you for answers. You forget how tender and raw everything was at first. How hard the simplest things felt. You encourage people that they will get through it. You did, and you're not particularly special. You know they can.



You get used to people being disappointed with you. You're surprised that people expect you to have your shit together, or be bigger or more than you ever said you were. You get used to falling off of pedestals you never asked for, and keeping your mouth shut while people who just got here tell you what you are doing wrong and should be doing better. You try to love them anyway and be kind. Sometimes the questions are useful and help you to correct. You sift those out of the ones that only reflect the other person's insecurities.



You teach yourself to be thankful for the little things. The small bits of help, the lessons you've learned. Even if those lessons are about what you will do differently next time, and the questions you should have asked.



You seek comfort, because here is home now. You tell yourself a real couch and bed are earned. You buy inexpensive things that make you feel at home. You feel silly and conflicted about the amount you spend on a couch because you know how many empty mouths it could have fed. You give away the clothes and toys you don't need. You buy a hot water heater because you are so over cold showers.



You pay people to clean your house, and feel your deeply held mindset shifting when they thank you for the privilege. You begin to be thankful for your big old rundown country house, because it gives you an excuse to employ that girl who's father gets drunk and beats her mother, and her, and it gives her a chance to stand up to him, kick him out, and tell him that she'll take care of everything from now on. She's got a good job. She's grateful to clean your toilets.

You find you can simultaneously feel glad about this, and sharply irritated at her because she did something wrong, again.

The work is challenging. Nothing is simple. Nothing is fast. What you imagined you'd be doing is rarely what you're actually going to do.  

You come to realize that you've brought yourself with you. Anything you thought would be easier when you got out of the 9-5 rat race at home and into a "meaningful" kind of overseas job is still going to be right there, beside you. It's going to be harder to deal with too, in a foreign country where all your raw edges come to the surface and your temper is unraveled and here you can't hide from those things that you blamed on the 9-5. You are still you.


You are not saving the world. You are maybe, maybe, succeeding in helping a few people right within your influence, and you have to settle for that tiny piece of "we helped this one person today".


There is little job satisfaction. You are trying to stem the tide with a wall made of sand after all. Every person you choose to help means turning away hundreds of others. You have only so many resources. You sift humanity in the scales of what your program goals are, and who you have a mandate to help from your donors. You live with those choices. You are never comfortable with them. You worry though, when those choices start to get easy, that you are too comfortable with tragedy.


You try to find words that will make people see and care about these things, so you can help more people and say no to fewer. You struggle with it every day. Then people ask questions that reveal that they misunderstood your words. That you didn't communicate what you thought you were communicating, and words, the thing you loved, become work, the thing that weighs on you at the end of the day as one more thing that didn't get done.

You make friends, and they leave. Your children cry when people go home. They remember everyone they ever loved, especially those who died, and grieve over all of them all fresh again at every parting. You brace yourself for the end of each visit, every party happy fun time. You know they'll creep into your room in the middle of the night to cry about the goodbyes.

You are reluctant to make friends with "short termers".

You deal with sickness, all the time. Weird rashes, strange insects, more stomach problems than anyone should have in a lifetime happen to you in a year. You wonder what you have done to your children, bringing them here, far from family, far from their culture, far from the illusion of safety you enjoyed in a modernized country.

That time a dog bit her while she was jogging with friends.
You are always tired. There's always more work than you have time for.

You post photos on Instagram of the coconuts you drink, and kids tree climbing and swimming in ponds, the aunties in the villages cuddling your babies. These are good things. The little everyday things. You savor them.



You make real friends. With people who grew up here. You love them. You know you can trust them, and you are thankful every time you talk. You are still careful. Because culture is always a difficult thing to navigate. You don't want to need forgiveness every single day.

You see babies grow fat, and become toddlers. You see women walk tall. You know people by name, know their story, remember that time when they came running out to see you to tell you they were pregnant.



You ache for your neighbor who had a miscarriage, and wonder if you should go back to learning Thai instead of Burmese so you can talk to her more. You always stumble, no matter what language you are speaking. But you are speaking it. You can manage some daily conversations now. There is progress.



Your neighbor gives you crickets and you understand her cooking instructions. But they sit in your freezer still. You're not quite brave enough to try making them yet.

Your children get taller. They start speaking the language better than you! They have learned so many things while you weren't exactly looking.



Poolside roti vendor





You start to worry about the day they leave home. Which country will they go to? Can you handle it when they walk out the door that last time? Why did you choose to live so far away again?




You go back, once, and deal with the truth that you will probably never see your 96 year old grandfather alive again. Sometimes you miss people so much it's debilitating. Sometimes you go for months without thinking about them. Life is so busy right where you are.

You and your spouse have had rough patches in the past few years. The wear of tiredness and busyness pulling you away from each other. Yet you still reach out to touch each other in the night, and smile when you say good morning. People have tried to separate you, to turn you against each other, to manipulate you both, and you have stood strong, and stayed together. You have each others back, always. It's a good thing. You are glad that you have practiced forgiveness a lot. The amount of forgiveness you need seems to grow, rather than diminish.




You learn to make time to let down. It is a beautiful country. You go to the beach once a year, and you don't feel bad about it. You know you need this time to reconnect as a family.

You ask each other if you ever imagined your life could be this amazing.





You watch a thing you started grow into something way bigger than you imagined it could be at first. You're equal parts nervous and excited about how much bigger yet it looks like it's going to be. There is so much yet to do.


Your younger children turn their noses up at the occasional treat of cheese, or even potatoes. "Where's the rice?" They ask. Your oldest complains that nothing you cook is spicy enough.


But they still love to get packages of western treats.


Your house is slowly, so much more slowly than anyone in the west would understand, with the easy access to affordable or free furniture that they have, starting to feel like the welcoming sanctuary you want it to be. You might even get around to hanging pictures, one of these days. Something always comes up.



You sometimes take for granted the fresh bananas, mangoes, jack fruit, tamarind, coconut, guava, and berries that you can pick right in your own backyard. It's work to keep them from going to waste.

Hot season doesn't feel quite so horrible anymore. Dry season is downright chilly. But when it rains, that's when you, and everything else, come alive. You dance in the rain, feast your eyes on all the green, breath deeply the smell of wet earth, and pause to photograph every spectacular sunset. Even the mold can't get you down, much.




Sometimes people ask you when you are coming "home". It's been 4 years since your kids had feet on North American soil. You laugh inside your head and think to yourself, "This is home. Why would we ever leave?"



Always trying to beat the heat.






But you love it when people come to visit.


Comments

  1. What an amazing story you're living. You sharedit so well, so many of the ups and downs. But through it all I get the words ' you are overcomers' you are such an amazing family.

    At first I started reading I had this bit of fear well up, will I be able to do this if Carrien finds it difficult? But we will try! We don't walk alone and that is our comfort.

    Love and blessings to all of you.

    Trisha

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    Replies
    1. Thank you Trisha. I think you may be a lot stronger than me. :) You might be just fine.

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  2. Man. I cried through this whole post. I miss you guys more than I ever imagined. I barely knew you when I volunteered to go to Thailand with you, and I still don't, but now I feel a deep connection to you that I can't even express - it's one of the strangest feelings I have ever felt. One day I'll make it there again. I'm so proud of your pereseverence! Love, Nicole

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    Replies
    1. Nicole! You are always welcome here. We love you.

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  3. Thanks for sharing your story! I couldnt have enjoyed it more. We raised our 3 children in a foreign country. They consider it home. They married their spouses in that country. It wasn't nearly as dramatic as yours because the culture was similar. You don't know me but I knew your husband when he was growing up in Vancouver Canada. His parents had a great impact on my life. He would have known me as Elaine Lee.

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  4. It's somewhat grueling to obtain a visa for Vietnam but you could get it through the http://greenvisa.io visa service without the heckle and that's the absolute truth.

    ReplyDelete

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