Having moved into a whole new lifestyle and set of experiences in Asia has me thinking about how much has really changed since I left the states. In conversation with a friend we were discussing how living abroad has shifted both our relationships and priorities. In our minds, we were both starting over: living in a new place, holding new jobs, etc., yet our conversation raised the question: is it really possible to start over?
We often use the terminology to close chapters in our lives and open new ones. Our lives however, much unlike the static nature of the text in a book, is often much less clear and well defined as to be laid out in chapters. I believe that the things that who we meet, what we experience, think, and feel, carry with us and bleed into other aspects of our lives whether or not we want them to. Think about if you have ever had a bad break up, or quit a job that you just couldn’t wait to get away from; we think that we are moving on, we push to forget it and start over—or at least that’s what we think we are doing. Is our “closing of a door” more of a hopeful act of symbolism than a truly mental capability that we have to leave the past in the past and not let it affect the present? Sure over time things affect us less; we change our circumstances, how we act, even sometimes what we look like, in the attempts of making these transitions easier. However, is it possible that accepting that this infinite distance from what pains us is impossible to achieve, might therefore spare us the expense of copious wasted energy and emotion? And in turn, might this realization allow us to see things from a different perspective and search for the lessons from the past that come from the difficulties we encounter?
I’ve been trying out seeing these big changes as transitions instead of something that is cut and dry. Accepting that some take longer than others has been the hardest part. I think the biggest difference has been looking for the good in even bad experiences and taking that forward with me instead of trying to begin an entirely clean slate. Humans are messy, confusing, and complicated entities, and therefore changing and “fixing” things in our lives is just as messy of a process. Originally in leaving Delaware and my life the past two years I saw this experience as a clean break. A way to restart, reestablish priorities, refresh my drained identity; however, the further I get in both time and space (literally thousands of miles) the less this closing of a chapter seems necessary and the more I realize that both the good and bad has had a wonderful and profound impact on what I am doing and who I am. In addition, the people I have met that remain a part of my present are shining examples of why my past matters in my present and future. It is because of these reflections that I am glad that we cannot fully close chapters; we are just constantly in transition.
In the land of kitschy coffee shops, mountain side restaurants, and even children sporting a full head of Rastas, it seems normal to be relaxing in a 1960’s egg chair staring at a 180 degree view of the lush green valley of Pai, Thailand. The Thais put a lot of effort into this city, more than I have seen in most, careful decorating ever nook and cranny with something handmade and colorful. It’s strange the effect just a colorful splash of paint can have on a place and what an influence it can have on my mood. As I drift into a relaxed meditative state it is quite an experience to feel so incandescently happy. I’ve been riding this feeling the last week, going on motorbike excursions through the mountains, swimming in a reservoir in the rain, and dancing with new friends until I just couldn’t stand. This life also lends to solo time, reading, practicing my French, drawing, thinking about the future and where it will take me. My mind is learning how to go from its normal 100 mile an hour state to a slow relaxing emptiness when the situation calls for it–something I never thought I could be capable of.
When I quit my job and moved to Asia I was trying to figure out whether teaching–the only thing I have ever known I wanted to do–would still rank once I opened myself up to other options. Would the long hours, the never ending paperwork and all of the rules and red tape that drove me away in the first place still seem all that bad once I had escaped it? It has been three months since I left the classroom and what I find myself missing is very telling: I miss spending time with kids, dancing, singing, teaching them, watching them grow, hearing their crazy ideas, seeing their interests form, and most importantly learning from them what it means to be resilient, show unconditional love, and be driven. These qualities were shown in very different ways between my 5th and 1st grade students, but each student shaped me in a certain way. You learn from each other.
While entertaining local village children with some songs at an English camp temporarily fills the void, I miss seeing their smiling faces every day. I’m not sure what this means about the future, but it is definitely going to play a role in deciding what I do post this year; and in the mean time I will continue enjoy the brief moments I get to play with children at the local Thai restaurants and those that are enamored by the white girl biking through town. Apparently I am just as interesting to them as they are to me!
Life is inherently full of judgments. That person looks strange. How can they eat that! Oh, they are from ___(place)__ than you must like to ___. Consciously or not, we are constantly judging, making assessments of people and situations, and reacting by changing our behavior or actions. While id like to think i do not, whether i verbalize them or not, i am just as bad as the rest. This does not make me a bad person, close minded, or sheltered, it is natural, normal, and expected when you lead a life where you are constantly encountering new things. It is what you take from these judgments, what you learn, how you act in response, and how you share about your experiences with others that determines how people will see you.
My dear friend and travel companion Mariah Streck challenged me to push myself when it comes to judgments. She said “everyone person you judge, you must then go up and talk to.” I have taken this suggestion to heart and here is what it sounds like in my head: “I can’t believe that young pretty Thai girl would want to be with that old British man…shit, darn you Mariah, now I have to go talk to her.” Or, “Why would the long neck tribespeople do something so painful for aesthetics to their body…oh no here we go again.” Sure enough each person has their reasons, their ways of finding happiness, and concurrently their own judgements about others–it’s human nature. I know that I have been the subject of numerous judgments when they find out I’m from California: no i dont surf, i dont smoke weed, and i do not spend all day on the beach tanning…it blows their minds. This challenge means I spend much longer getting from point A to B as I stop to talk to people. Nights out at a bar mean talking to even those that look angry, or strange. I have learned so much because of it. My 1.5 hour walk in the mornings is filled with stories of locals and their struggles, old men who really did want to hit on me like I thought haha, and new friends I made through unforeseen circumstances. So I am choosing to embrace these judgments I make instead of pretend like they don’t happen–at least this way something good can come from them.
For the past three days I have take leave from the city to venture to Chang Kong with Patricia, a Spanish girl I met on couch surfing and have hosted twice in Chiang Mai. This is a small city filled with local village and hill tribe people with commerce centering around those that happen upon it on their way to Loas or who are crossing for a quick visa run. Aside from the sprinkle of foreigners, the city lays quiet and slow, guided by the rain storms and rice field harvesting season.
While the scenery and population may be more docile than the hubbub of Chiang Mai, our conversations have been the polar opposite. We have spent most of the past few days challenging social stereotypes, pushing ourselves to come to terms with the judgements we both consciously and subconsciously hold towards this new culture we are immersed in, and reevaluating the lifestyles we have become accustomed to. We encounter a 15 girl, married off to an older westerner so that her family will be taken care of; a rice patty worker who slaves away until the age of 85 as there is no governing system at allows her to retire; and young hill tribe children whose life aspirations are to have a nuclear family and material luxuries at any costs; and we judge them. We think, we hope, that we can do something to change their situation, that we can inspire them to want to reach beyond what they can see with the naked eye.
But why, why do we feel compelled to change something that they do not see as broken. If these people are happy, often even more so than westerners burdened by social obligations, aspirations, and media influence, who are we, to say its wrong. How do we unclouded our judgment and see things from their point of view without literally walking a mile in their shoes (the lady boys and female escorts at the karaoke bars wear shoes that would make me break my neck)? In an ideal situation, our generosity of spirit and good intentions would be enough. The desire to do good, would actually always come out of the process as such–good work. However, often it doesn’t, or we can’t be sure if the means justify the end, or even if our ends are in fact what should be guiding us. Is this what they need? Do they really need anything at all or are we just imposing what we believe on an unsuspecting recipient?
These precautions, challenging ourselves to reevaluate what we do and why we do it, has added a necessary inner turmoil to this sleepy town escape. I return to Chiang Mai more aware that my actions and my interactions with this culture may have unforeseen repercussions. I hope this awareness will lead to a whole new set of experiences.
“Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming “Wow! What a Ride!”
― Hunter S. Thompson