23 Across the Sea- Elephants, Sharts, and Mini Hearts

I’ve been in Thailand for a little over a month and a half now and have been searching for words that accurately describe all I’ve experienced so far… every few days I’ll start scribbling in my journal to make sense of everything that has happened. But I end up having no idea what to write.

(Frankly, you have to experience this place yourself to know what I mean.)

Getting on the plane back in October at Newark Airport was hard. I woke up at 5am, said goodbye to the boy I love and was then dropped off at the airport by my best friend/partner in crime (my mom) where I said my final goodbye. But, it was getting on the second plane in China en route to Chiang Mai that was the worst.

My time in the Chinese Airport provided me with my first of many “holy fuck” moments Asia was going to throw at me. When trying to find my connecting flight, no one recognized the name of the airline I had booked, no one spoke English, and no one really gave a shit about helping me. I spent the first 2 hours of my layover in the customs line, spent the next 3 trying to find the correct counter to check in at, and after finally finding a counter that had my name in their system they told me “you no seat. you cancel.”

I had no cell service and no wifi access to contact home. This was the first time it had really sunk in that I was completely alone, and I was CHOOSING to be so.. I sat on the floor and looked at my bank account to see if I had enough money for a flight home. I slapped my credit card on the counter and bought myself a ticket.

I bought yet another ticket to Chiang Mai.

And I’m so glad I did, because if I didn’t I wouldn’t have seen beautiful temples, planted rice, climbed up a waterfall, eaten amazing food, taken part in the lantern festival, hung out with elephants, shopped at countless markets or would have met 29 awesome new people (I also got my money back from my amazing travel agent/family friend! Shout out Pattie!)

All of these experiences were the novelty/touristy ones I needed to get me excited about my new surroundings. It provided me with the handholding and slow acclimation I didn’t even know I needed to warm up to a completely different culture. It also gave me a network of 29 other awesome people going through the same journey together. I now have support all over Thailand and friends to text and chat with that are not only awake at the same time as me but are also going through the same struggles and trials.

But, I don’t think 2 or even 3 months in Chiang Mai could prepare me for my new life.

I have now been in my new home, Chaiyaphum (a small city in the Isan Region of Thailand), for a little over two weeks. With my TESOL certification in hand, I moved into a studio apartment in the same building as two awesome girls from my program 2 days before my 23rd birthday!

I’ve always loved birthdays, it’s like having a New Years Party just for you. You can start fresh, set any new intentions or cut bad habits.

Nothing says fresh start like a new life on the other side of the world.

This year, I was not surrounded by my usual crew double fisting gin and gingers (miss you people) at Mad River (also miss you bb). But instead, I spent the day getting the hang of my new motorbike (driving on the left side of the road is a strange experience), exploring my new town with the help of a new Filipino friend, and Trivia Night  with fellow “farangs” (Westerners) at the one Western bar in town (affectionately named “The 1 Bar”).

The night closed with a shot of whiskey, from Ping Pong- the non-English speaking owner of the small restaurant next to our apartment as her family who recited “Happy Birthday” in a chorus of strong Thai accents. I was in love with this new place, the new experiences, the sights, people, and lifestyle. It was a great fucking birthday!

And as life would have it, I started my new job the day after celebrating as an English Teacher for M1 and M2 students (8th and 9th grade).

I was not thrown into teaching right away as my kids were out of school due to testing, (I soon learned Thai schools never have class) but thankfully so. I was handed my schedule, a textbook, 16 class rosters, gradebooks (in Thai) and that’s about it.

My first day went a little like this…

6 classes x 45 students each + very little proficiency divided by one teacher = what. the. fuck. is. happening. 

No TESOL course could prepare me for students straightening their hair in class, laying on the floor, talking the ENTIRE time,  showing up 15- 20 minutes late (classes are 50 minutes).. but apparently this a normal occurrence..

I originally had this shiny vision of having a few classes, seeing the same students everyday, knowing their names, building relationships, and making a huge impact on their lives. Unfortunately, the system doesn’t really allow for such a warm and fuzzy picture. I see most of my students once a week and with 45 in each class, it is really hard to make personal connections, manage a classroom, and get through the material mandated by the school.

But, I didn’t have too much time to stress about my new career choice, because 2 days later I found myself sharting and yacking through the night for about 12 hours. The entire next day was not spent in school, but rather in the hospital getting my blood drawn (my ABSOLUTE favorite) and then being administered an IV drip for 4 hours for my severe intestinal infection <3. You would think that Thai food would be the culprit here, but no… pizza. I ate fucking. pizza.

Being sick abroad has been the only time where I have truly questioned why it is that I am here. Why did I choose to turn my entire life upside down when I have everything at home? Why am I laying in a hospital bed in a place where no one speaks English and I have no idea what is wrong with me?

After a long weekend of eating only soup and rice, I finally stopped sharting myself and prepped for my second week at school. At first, I was anxious to return to the classrooms filled with teenaged girls that would always outnumber me. It’s difficult to manage a classroom when the majority of students don’t know what you’re saying, and if they do, they can pretend that they don’t.

I had to find a way to keep them focused or this was going to be the longest semester of my life… thank GOD for bribery and for music because as long as I promise to sing for my students at the end of class.. they now complete all of their work and sing a’long with me. I even have students who are not my own come up to me on campus and shout out names of songs they want me to sing. Even when the language isn’t there, music will always create a bridge to fill the gap.

I decided to shift my outlook when it comes to teaching. I may not be able to make an impact on every single student. I may not be able to teach them to be fluent English speakers with the time and conditions I am given. But, if I can have at least one positive interaction with one student everyday, I am doing a good job. In the beginning, interactions were few and far between. But now, I am getting “mini-hearts” in the hallways, “I love you Teacha!” “Teacha is beautiful!” and big smiling faces with “HELLO TEACHA!!! HOW ARE YOUUU!”

Sometime’s, I get frustrated by the fact that class will be canceled because of “cheer practice” for “sports week” or a girl steals another girl’s skirt during class and she is standing with no pants on (yes, that has happened…) Sometime’s I’ll get frustrated by the fact that it takes me 10 whole minutes to explain and pantomime to my class to “take out a piece of paper.”

Sometime’s I’ll be out in public and be keenly aware of the fact I am the only Western person and there is not one English word being spoken around me.

Sometimes I will ask myself how did I get here?  But, I would not change anything about my experience thus far.

I am so lucky to have an amazing foreign community in this tiny city, awesome co-workers, a cute apartment (with Air-con #BLESSUP),  conveniences like TESCO, 7/11 (the holy grail in Thailand), Western dining options, a night market every night and a supportive group of friends in Thailand AND at home. I have easy access to visit all different parts of this beautiful country. I have met people from all over the world. I have already seen so many beautiful things and have connected with so many people.

I know for certain that growth does not occur in comfort and that I evolve the most when I am stretched and spun and turned upside down. Good news for me… because Thailand has no shortage of twists and turns.


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