It’s nearing the end of my time in Thailand so we are finishing up exams in class and I’m beginning to pack up some of my belongings. I’m also beginning to reflect on the emotional rollercoaster this experience has been.
These last 6 months have been some of the most challenging of my entire life. I’ve been living in a small town where most people speak very little English. This can sometimes turn simple conversations into big, overwhelming interactions. Every act of communication takes more effort, which at first is exhausting but gets easier over time. I was able to understand people better after about a few weeks of getting used to hearing the accent. I also learned which words to use that people will understand, when to just point at things and at times have resorted to Google Translate when necessary.
This being said, I truly believe that Thai people are some of the nicest people on Earth. I have had so many touching experiences where a stranger went out of their way to help me. While having these experiences I’ve been very appreciative and blown away because it’s just not something that could be expected in the U.S. (not that people don’t sometimes show random kindness at home, but the point is this isn’t random, it’s just a natural, usual way of life here). Once while traveling on an island, I fell into this huge hole in a sewer grate. My whole calf went down this grate and the only thing that stopped me from falling further in was my knee. It sounds dramatic and it was scary but I wasn’t too badly injured. However, my knee was bleeding and I wasn’t quite prepared to take care of it. A Thai couple that owned a shop across the street came up to me and gave me tissues and the woman actually applied ointment herself to my wound. I was incredibly grateful that they went out of their way to show me kindness when I needed help. Another example is when my friend and I were on our way home and her motorbike ran out of gas (for the record this wasn’t negligence, the gas gauge is unreliable). We attempted to ask a group of Thai people who owned a food stand where we could go to fill up her bike and they told us to wait. We were a little confused until we saw a man drive off and shortly later arrive back with gas for us. While we did thank him and pay him, I was again astounded by the selflessness of people who don’t even speak the same language.
The only transportation available is driving a motorbike or taking motorbike taxis or tuk tuks around which are not very cost effective. However, I’ve been forced to rely on these methods a lot since I only drove a motorbike a few times here. It wasn’t something I ever got comfortable with since not only do they drive on the opposite side of the street as at home but there also aren’t really any “rules of the road” and it can be pretty unclear at times who has the right of way. I decided I would rather spend a little bit more money to make sure I get home in one piece.
It’s pretty impossible to keep work and personal life separate, which is something I appreciate a lot at home. I’ve had to learn to be friends with the same people I work with everyday and most of who live in the same apartment complex as me. It’s been an extremely different lifestyle just in that alone from living in Chicago where English is widely spoken and your friends sometimes live in whole different neighborhoods, not to mention the difference in population size.
This has been a positive experience in that I’ve had to really put myself out there to form connections with people I don’t immediately have a ton in common with so I’ve had to get out of my comfort zone not only in living in Thailand but also in making friends. It’s also been a negative experience at times because it feels so alienating to be in a country alone with people you don’t really relate to on a deeper level most of the time. I have questioned everything about my own judgment and myself more in this time than ever in my life. At times I could feel completely confident in everything I’m doing and at other times I could feel utterly torn down and like giving up. This experience has taught me a lot about myself, that’s for sure.
Speaking of health, I have struggled a lot with my physical health as well as mental health. I have been sick more than half my time here even when taking as many preventative measures as possible. This also affected my mental health because feeling lethargic and sickly doesn’t exactly promote optimism in general. Some of the sinus issues I believe has to do with the air quality as well as the different weather and changes in weather. Some days it is extremely hot and the next day it is cooler, rainy and extremely humid. Another aspect of this was my change in diet, which was pretty unavoidable. Although I did manage to continue to be a pescatarian, many food places are not regulated up to the same health standards as in the U.S. In general, there is a lot more MSG used in a lot of the food and a lot of sugar is added to pretty much any kind of cold beverage except water.
Finally, the biggest challenge here was unsurprisingly the job itself. I had a little experience teaching English as a foreign language but only to different proficiency level adults. I have never taught children and don’t have kids in my family. I only remember ever holding one baby in my life and that is the son of one of my best friends. (Hi Grieta if you’re reading this!) Even having a conversation with one kid at a time is not something that ever came naturally to me and then I had 33 students in class at once. I felt like I had no idea what I was doing. I had to learn what level they were at, what I’m supposed to teach them and how to get them to improve. Now at the end of this semester I’ve never felt like I’ve understood kids better. I’ve learned how to make them laugh, how to cheer them up when they cry, and how to get and hold their attention. They’ve taught me more than I will probably ever realize but one of the most important things they taught me is how to truly be a kid again (or at least feel like one). They’ve taught me how simple happiness can be and how fleeting every moment is. They’ve brought me so much joy throughout all the stress and times I wasn’t feeling my best. They love unconditionally and show it so simply. I hope to be more like them in certain aspects of my life and remember not to take life so seriously all the time. (I definitely cried my eyes out saying goodbye to these beautiful, happy souls a few days ago).
I don’t know if being a kindergarten teacher is my life calling. In fact this could possibly be the only time I ever do it. But I can say it has definitely been one of my favorite jobs so far.
Although 6 months may seem like a short time to some people, that is how long I planned to stay from the beginning and it’s fairly unique in that it’s somewhat rare (although definitely possible) to find contracts with a teaching agency abroad for less than one year. It’s a good way to try it out without making a huge commitment. Tourist visas in Thailand last only 30 days although it is possible to get them extended to a maximum of 90 days. I think it’s pretty cool that I got to stay double the time someone just traveling would be able to spend in Thailand.
I’m really happy with the experience I’ve had, with the changes I’ve made in my life and with the person I’ve become. I’ve really grown up a lot here because I’ve had to. I’ve met some incredible people who I will never forget and have learned so much about the world and myself. I am grateful to my parents and everyone else who supported me and feel blessed that I was able to go pursue one of my dreams overseas at 24.
Now I just have to get through the reverse culture shock of returning to the life that I knew in the U.S. but constant change = life and I feel pretty much ready for anything these days!