Goodbyes are heart-wrenching and color my entire trip from Wichita to Dallas to Los Angeles to Guangzhao to Chiang Mai.
The lady at the counter furrows her eyebrows as she searches for my visa in my passport. “We can’t let you get on the plane if you don’t have a visa and a reentry permit,” she says. I flip through the passport and find it, breathing an inner sigh of relief when she nods her head and wishes me the best.
The floor of the new Wichita airport is shiny, even in the bathroom. I find it interesting that as I sit on the toilet, I can see the reflection of the person in the opposite stall. This is funny and hilarious until I remember that they can see me just as well as I can see them. I finish my business quickly and leave the room.
I watch the last of Kansas soil disappear from the window of the airplane and cry. The girl beside me is heading home after a year in Ghana, working as a volunteer with agricultural projects.
The plane landing in Dallas is rough. After we land the little girl in front of me loses her lunch. I offer her a bag to put in some more of her lunch, and try to hold my nose shut inconspicuously. Her mom thanks me and sighs. They have only a few minutes to catch their next flight since this flight was about 20 minutes late.
In Los Angeles, I check the screen to see my flight’s schedule. Someone sneezes in the distance. An airport worker sitting close to the screen shouts out, “Bless you!” I grin at him, thinking this is probably the last time in a long time I will hear those words in relation to a sneeze. (you don’t say “bless you” when someone sneezes in Thailand. I don’t know why. You just don’t.) He grins back.
6 hours down. 8 more to go. The air is dry, the quarters are close, and I wonder if I will go crazy or not. I sleep instead.
The Chinese man on the one side of me and the Vietnamese man on the other side enjoy their food with great relish and sound effects. I block it out and enjoy my food with great relish and zero sound effects.
The toilet paper in the airplane bathroom has somehow unraveled several squares and is on the floor. I freshen up quickly and head back to my seat, only to look down in dismay at the foot-long trail of toilet paper that has stuck firmly to my shoe and followed me back to my seat.
Someone sneezes on the plane. The Vietnamese man says, “Bless you.” I giggle inwardly.
I feel good when we land in Guangzhou, China, better than I have ever felt before after a 14 hour flight. This airport and I, however, have trust issues stemming from a 17 hour layover, flight cancelations, and exorbitant food and coffee prices when I flew home in May. I begrudgingly buy a yogurt parfait since I have some Chinese yuan I have no other place to spend, but dig out my Vietnamese coffee filter I brought specially for this occasion. The airport has no cold drinking water, but hot and warm water instead. I make my coffee with the hot water and chuckle an evil chuckle to myself as I drink it and enjoy my little rebellion and protest at ridiculous coffee prices.
The parfait is delicious, perfection in itself. The coffee is…. ok.
I meet a Belgium man and his Thai wife. We become friends as I help him connect to airport wifi. His wife, when she learns I speak Thai, begins to ask me questions about my lifestyle and dress. Thinking I am a sister, she asks, “Can you get married?” “Yes,” I say, and wonder at her reaction. “Really?! Really?!” I don’t wonder for long. It turns out that she has very serious matrimonial designs for her 30 year old half Thai son and feels that I would fit right into that design. She goes down the checklist: I speak Thai. I speak English. I even speak some Northern Thai. I have good manners. I study at Payap, (her son is a graduate of there). She asks my age and date of birth. I fit the specifications exactly. She cannot understand why I do not jump at the chance.
I still am not sure if I am ready to land in Chiang Mai yet or not, but my flight is leaving and I must board.
The flight to Chiang Mai is made interesting through conversation with my backpacker seatmate. He is an intelligent conversationalist and talking with him is fun and easy. He has traveled the world extensively.
The sky is beautiful. The Chinese boy in the seat behind me looks at it and says, “Hen piao liang!”
Doi Sutthep greets me as we land. I feel a thrill of happiness. Eight friendly faces greet me as I come out of customs. Eight hugs make me feel welcome.
I grab my friend’s camera, and set out on my bike, impatient, thirsty, and expectant. The western sky hangs heavy with soot red smoke and the dust stings my eyes as I drive first down the winding path behind our house, where suddenly the road pops out into a gap where a rice field lies, green and spring-like in the dying evening.
Then I drive on, through choking Friday evening traffic, and wait at stoplights that are stonily unsympathetic to hunters who know the sun is steadily dying in the west. I watch the people around me and wonder if any of them are on a God hunt. Finally, I find it, a pocket of green field with a smoky view of the mountain and the silhouette of a church cross painted on the sky.
I breath in deeply the greenness and savor the glimpses of the setting sun. We leave with whetted appetites and wander on and on, down twisting alleys and darkening streets, seeking for more. I find it where cows graze on withered grass in the dusky evening, and two dogs bark menacingly at the strange foreigner pointing a black thing towards their charges.
They escort me out the alley at a furious pace, satisfied that they have succeeded in disposing of me.
I find a place, where the country and city meet, where the light from the street lights gleams over the rice fields and calls me home.
Soon it is too dark to snap anymore photos, which is good since I am thoroughly lost and need to focus on finding my way. Finally, I pop out on a large road close to a major university, about 15 kilometers from home. I make my way home, turning in the last road where the cool air nestles in a pocket of trees, and reach our gate, where our dog greets me.
My eyes are dry and burnt by smog, my back is tired from driving, but I have found beauty, and where beauty is, God’s hand has been.
Sometimes life takes the strangest twists and curves.
Five years ago, I would never have dreamed of doing what I am doing now. Even a year ago it seemed impossible.
After spending close to three years as a volunteer teacher here in Thailand, I realized how important it was for me to finally get my degree if I wanted to be here long term.
About 8 weeks ago, I walked up those 4 flights of steps to room 417 for freshman orientation at Payap University, Chiang Mai, Thailand. Those 4 flights of steps took what felt like ages on legs made of jelly.
Outside I may have looked confident. Inside, far from it. But it’s been a good, good 8 weeks. I’ve been stretched and challenged in more ways than one. I’ve made new friends, learned new things and gone new places. It has made me dig deeper into the foundations of why I believe what I believe. Studying in these classes feels like sinking my teeth into a juicy sub-sandwich after not eating for two days. I know that the time will come when I’ll be sick and tired of homework, but while that enjoyment lasts, I plan to soak it up as much as I can.
It’s not been easy, this college thing. You are challenged. You are usually the strange one out. You are stretched. You meet people who do not always handle situations in a quiet firm manner. For a sensitive, relatively sheltered Kansas girl, this isn’t always easy.
Yet, I have been blessed with learning to know understanding people, helpful professors, and many new friends.
I’ve become friends with people I never thought I would be friends with: the friendly Thai girl I met the first day, the quiet introvert who loves to draw cartoons, the middle-aged Japanese lady in my department, the silent loyal IT student, who after I struck up a conversation with once, always greets me, the shy Kachin student from Burma, and many, many others. In the international program at Payap, there are over 30 different nationalities represented. I study with people from Japan, India, Vietnam, Burma, Thailand, Germany, China and more. We become friends despite cultural and religious differences. I am grateful for their acceptance.
Above: enjoying ice cream together after a school outing one evening. The friend taking the picture does not study at Payap, but was along for the fun.
Sometimes I feel an awe when I see the hand of God moving in my life, bringing me from place to place. Sometimes I feel scared. Sometimes I feel overwhelmed at some of the opportunities and responsibilities He gives me. Sometimes I shy away from facing some of the deep questions that arise in my heart that need to be answered. Sometimes I am unsure about what to do about the desires that pull and stir deep inside.
But this I know. I am glad that God has brought me to this place in my life. Very glad.
One of my favorite parts of traveling is watching people. I love the way that God designed each individual to be his/her own colorful character.
Two colorful characters I know…Photo credit: Barbara Lapp
Like these colorful characters above.
Recently I took a trip to Laos to the Thai embassy located there. I needed to leave the country and request a student visa at an embassy outside of Thailand. (perhaps more on that change later)
I realized again how much I’ve lived in my own little world in Chiang Mai, going back and forth to work each day, attending church at my Thai church and at the local group of Mennonites. Leaving the three- year-old “familiar” of Chiang Mai and traveling into the “unknown” of northeastern Thailand (also known as Isaan) and southern Laos was exciting. And considering it was my first day off of full time kindergarten teaching, it was a bit of a shock.
There were some people I met that I wished sincerely I hadn’t. Like the tuk tuk driver that poked his head around the bus door in Nong Khai even before I had fully descended.
“Tuk Tuk? Where you go? Tuk tuk?”
I perked up.
“I need to go to the Friendship Bridge,” I said in Thai.
“Oh, I will take you there. But do you have your Laos visa yet?”
“No, I will get it at immigrations in Laos. I just want to go to the bridge.”
“Listen, listen. I will take you to get your papers for the Laos visa first. Then I will take you to the bridge.”
“No,” I said. “All I want to do is go to the bridge.” I had heard about these people. They take you and they do stuff for you that you are perfectly capable of doing yourself and charge exorbitant prices.
“But listen to me. I will explain it all to you.”
I have never been able to say no to these people, usually because I myself don’t know enough about what I am doing. But I used to think that once I knew Thai fluently, I would be able to say no, and to harden my heart. But I can’t even haggle at the market. I just give in to the price they ask, even if it’s ridiculous.
In the end, I gave in. It was my first time crossing this border, I was by myself, and I was unsure. It was stupid of me, and I was mad at myself all through the next hour until I left the Laos entrance. I was mad at him too, for persuading me.
“You see,” the man said as we sputtered off in his tuk tuk, “They will cheat you at the Laos border if you don’t do it beforehand.”
“Yeah, right,” I thought bitterly to myself. “Like you are doing now.” I ended up losing 600 baht. (close to 20 dollars)
The next interesting character I met was a red-haired Norwegian who reeked of perpetual smoke. We were sitting in a van going to the Thai embassy in Vientiane. He leaned forward from behind and tapped me on the shoulder.
“Are you a nurse?” he asked, pointing to my veiling.
“No,” I said, and explained.
“Oh,” he said, and proceeded to tell me all sorts of things about Amish people. I nodded and smiled to myself. As if you knew.
The girl beside me was from Palestine, and worked in Pattaya in Central Thailand. Then I chatted with the aged cab driver, who spoke Thai well, and told me tidbits of Laos history and language and how the police lock up his wheels when he parks beside the road for even a few seconds. I felt like his granddaughter.
One of my favorite parts of the trip came on the way back the next day, headed back to the Thai-Laos border to cross over into Thailand again. The cab driver was gruff and honest. He talked mostly Laos with a spattering of Thai, and I talked Thai to him with a spattering of Northern Thai. (Thai, Northern Thai, Isaan Thai and Laos are languages that are very closely related. Usually one can understand the other quite well) I wanted to share with him, but felt at loss on how to begin. Finally I told my Father that I would at least ask one question and then if the man wanted to listen I would share with him.
I asked him if there were any C’s in his country. I knew very well there were.
“Yes,” he said, and gave some other facts. Then he leaned over, turned down his radio and said, “Tell me what you believe.”
So, in the best Thai I could muster, I gave the story of the Father in a nutshell. It wasn’t perfect by any means, but at the end, I asked him if he understood.
“Yes,” he said, but didn’t say much else.
The rest of the ride we chit-chatted, and at the end I gave him a J film. He was very excited for it.
The next person I met was a French lady who traveled the world. She was at least 60. I was sitting under an outdoor shelter that had a beautiful view of the Mekong River, the river that divides Laos from Thailand, at my guesthouse in Nong Khai.
“Do you have Skype? Can I use your Skype?”
“Sure, you can,” I said. As I was getting signed in, she told me all about herself.
It turned out that she travels the world as lightly as possible. She told me the amount of underwear she carries with her, (5 pieces, I think and sometimes she washes them out twice a day. Sorry.) how many changes of clothes she takes with her, (two, and she rarely uses the second one), a blanket or a scarf, and a good pair of shoes, and several other small items that I forget (not as memorable as underwear, obviously). So, that was why she was using my Skype, since she packs only enough to get by on.
When I had successfully signed into my Skype, she called her home in France, only to have her mother answer.
She switched from French to Dutch, “Alles is goot!” Her mother was very hard of hearing, so the rest of the guests at the hotel got in on the conversation as well.
After a short conversation, she hung up and turned to me. “Will you be here in the morning? Can I use your Skype again?”
“Sure,” I said again. She offered to pay, but I didn’t let her, wondering to myself what was the best method for cleaning spit off a screen.
The next morning I hauled out my books and laptop and was going to enjoy the river view when the chain smoker lounging at the end of the table spoke up, “Are you Mennonite?”
“Similar to Mennonite, yes,” I said, looking longingly at my breakfast omelet that had just been delivered. We chatted as I ate. It turned out that he was from Chiang Mai, from the same neighborhood as a few of my Mennonite friends. So he knew about Mennonites in Chiang Mai.
“What’s the difference between Mennonites and Amish?” he asked.
As I was explaining, a face appeared beside me.
“You are still here!” It was the French lady.
She used my Skype, while the chain smoker looked on with a bemused expression (in light of our recent conversation on Mennonites and Amish.)
“This is ironic,” he said. I laughed. The French lady finished her phone call. She addressed the chain smoker, “You should stop smoking. It is very bad!” And proceeded to give him a piece of her mind.
We chatted some more. He was your typical “farang” living in Thailand. There for the cheap, easy life, with a Thai daughter and a Thai ex-wife. Bored with Chiang Mai. Smoking away his life. He pumped me for information on Amish and Mennonites. He had a live one on his hands and wasn’t letting the opportunity pass.
“I hope you don’t mind these questions,” he said. “It’s not every day I can ask someone these questions.”
I actually didn’t mind. Much. I only wished he would stop smoking.
We discussed separation from the world.
“I guess you and I are separated from the world,” he said, with a nod at the other hotel guests. “We’re sitting in the smoking section.” I almost choked. Not because of smoke.
“So have you ever thought of like,” he stumbled over his words as if unsure how to ask. “Like you’re over here. You could dress like you wanted to and no one would ever know. Like if it were me, I would hate to get noticed like that. You could just dress like everybody else. Like, sort of like, undercover Amish?”
I laughed. Undercover Amish. Like, what is the world coming to?
Looking back, I feel like there would have been better ways to answer some of his questions. But I always do that—think of those things I should have said.
I left Nong Khai for Udon that evening and in Udon, caught the bus back to Chiang Mai.
“Excuse me,” I said to the girl in the aisle seat as I went to slide into the window seat in the front row of the top story of the bus.
She looked up. Beautiful dark eyes, pale skin, cultured face.
At first, she had her earphones in. Then she took them out and we started talking.
I’ve never experienced such a quick bond of friendship before. We clicked. Almost instantly. She was 19 and her name was Mint. We discussed family and friends and dreams, usually looking straight ahead at the road in front of us because we both got sick easily.
She was studying to be a doctor in Phayao. She wanted to go to the poor mountain regions of Thailand and be a doctor there. I told her of my dream to be a teacher there.
Her eyes lit up. “Let’s go together!”
I grinned, “Sure!”
We both liked the color green. We both love eating gummi bears. I tested her English a bit and taught her some words. She asked if I had Facebook.
“No, I don’t. But I do have Line.” (a popular messaging app used a lot in Asia.)
She was getting off in Lamphun where her boyfriend was working, and I was getting off in Chiang Mai. Before we reached there, I told myself, I would get her Line ID or number. This was a friendship for life.
The night drew on and we both fell asleep. Her head would come bouncing over onto my part of the seat as we hit bumps and I would stick my feet over on her part. We were both awakened in the middle of the night by a group of tourists that came on the bus, babbling in some European language. For some reason, both of us thought the sound was hilarious. We giggled hysterically.
“It sounds like when we were children and would just talk nonsense,” she whispered to me. I agreed, and we tried to smother our giggles in vain.
We fell asleep again and suddenly we woke up and the sign said Lamphun. It was only a short roadside stop, so she had to hurry and was gone before I could sleepily scribble out my number on a piece of paper.
I felt a loss that I couldn’t describe. Like I had met a little sister for a brief 12 hours and then suddenly, she was gone. Only an act of God could let us ever meet again.
But I am glad I got to meet her. And the others, too. No matter how short the time that I got to know them, in some small way, each person impacted me, whether it was my pocketbook or my heart.
Which reminds me, I still haven’t cleaned that spit off my laptop screen.
A few weeks shy of my 27th birthday, I tapped the brakes slightly on my motorbike, and as a result, went sliding down a rain-washed mountain curve, leaving a 15 foot long scar on the pavement and a barely noticeable bruise on my leg. Shaken, but not hurt, I righted my bike and continued down the mountain in a proper fashion.
A few days before that, I finished reading the book When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi while sitting in the waiting room of a hospital waiting for a health certificate in order to renew my driver’s license. Finishing the book at the hospital seemed fitting, even when I had no reason to be there other than to get a piece of paper.
Kalanithi writes poignantly of his battle with cancer and even more poignantly of his search to find purpose and meaning in life. Somehow when you read a book in which you know the author dies in the end, you read it with an expectancy of being on the brink of learning a great secret of life. It’s like leaning breathlessly over a death bed trying to catch the last words of someone who is ready to cross over to the other side of that blurred glass. You feel that someone that close to death must have a key to the purpose of life.
Perhaps that is because death and life really are not that much different.
The gist of Kalanithi’s story kept echoing in my soul several days after I put the book down. Kalanithi’s words, the fact that I slid down the mountain, the fact that I am close to adding another full year onto my life, and various other factors turned my mind to take a deeper look into my own life. One afternoon as I was patting one of my K1 students to sleep, a thought exploded in my brain.
If I live till fifty, I am over half finished with my life. If I live to 75, I am a third finished with my life.
I hated that thought and wished it away. It scared me. It made me panic.
You see, I’ve been living life in the same manner that I’ve been using crayons at work. In a classroom of 21 children, crayons are expendable. Once one of them becomes a little stub, it ends up in the trashcan without much thought and is easily replaced.
Life is not like that. But I’ve been living it like that. And suddenly with the realization that I’ve been alive for 27 years and at best have 60 more years left, comes the realization that I can’t afford to live life carelessly. I could die tomorrow. I could die in two weeks. I could die in 20 years. And the brutal fact remains– I’m not getting any younger.
My young students remind me of this daily. One day while playing “doctor” (I was the patient; they were the doctors) one of them discovered the white hairs in my head, exclaimed over them and made it her self-appointed duty to pick them out immediately. Just a few days ago, I leaned over a table, talking to a three year old, while raising my eyebrows. At the end of whatever I was saying, he didn’t respond, only wonderingly lifted his finger up and traced the wrinkles on my forehead. No, I’m not getting younger.
What does it mean to really, truly be alive in this world? This is the question that comes back to me over and over again.
There are lots of good quotes and words out there about what it means to really live, what a life well lived looks like. Cliché. Well meant. Good stuff. But somehow I’ve reached a point in my life where I myself need to come to a conclusion about what it really means to live.
As I was trying to form a conclusion for this post, I only was able to come up with a hundred more, disjointed random questions and thoughts.
Does truly living mean pouring yourself out trying to meet the needs and demands of the people around you until you are totally exhausted in the evening and lack the energy to even make your own supper?
Or is it the opposite, saying no to the needs around you so you can live your private life, follow the desires of your heart and stop and smell the roses and drink all the coffee you want?
I don’t think it means either of them. For the last few years, the former has been the story of my life. On some days I drag myself home at the end of the day, thinking, “Is this really what a fulfilling life looks like?”
But the fight within me continues. I have a hundred things that I would love to do before I die. I want to gallop across the Sahara desert on an Arabian horse with my hair down. I want explore Southeast Asia and visit the deserts of Mongolia and find my way into North Korea. I want to live in a refugee camp on the Thai/Burmese border. I want to write another book, a really really good one. I want to read books. I want to live at home and appreciate the intricacies and idiosyncrasies of my own culture. I want to live in a Karen or Akha village in the mountains of Thailand. I want to learn another language. I want to live in Tibet. I want to get married and have children of my own.
But I only have one life. And it’s not my own.
Can I justify doing things to satisfy my own wanderlust and desires?
What do the words mean, “Delight thyself in the Lord and He will give you the desires of your heart?” Am I not in tune enough with the Father’s heart to have my desires be his yet?
What does it mean to enjoy the gift of life that God has given us to the fullest, and yet being in tune to the needs of millions in this world who lack the privileges of money and freedom I have been given? Can I justify using my time and money in following my own desires while others are struggling to simply live?
What does it mean to be a Mary who serves?
Is it wrong to spend time reading literature just for the fact that it is well written, even if its spiritual benefit is low?
When is it right to spend money on your own comforts when it is something you could live without?
How do you decide where to pour out your life when there are so many things you love to do and would love to learn?
Paul was an apostle who poured out his life so others could hear the gospel. But did he ever stop on a mountain peak and drink in the glory of the natural world? Did he rejoice inwardly in the beauty of each culture he visited and delight in the different stripes and colors of each country?
This life is beautiful. The people and the world around me are beautiful and deserve to be noticed and gloried in. There are hundreds of amazing accomplishments of humanity that should be celebrated, not because of the human ability behind it, but because of the gift of talented brains and gifted hands that God has given us. There are hundreds of beautiful cultures and customs that express the image of God.
To sum it up, the question that remains is, “How do I live and taste this beautiful life to the fullest, without getting wrapped up in things that take away from the purpose God has given me?”
Suddenly I plunged into it. Up and upward I climbed, deeper into the heart of the mist. The echo of the Chinese tourists’ jabber faded and nothing remained but the winding road, the forest and the fog. I was alone in the world. Curve after curve we went, the fickle fog wisping in the hollows and around the mossy tree trunks, now fleeing in fear, now advancing recklessly, reaching around my hands, my neck, my arms, chilling me with welcome numbness. We climbed up and then bounced down, my motorbike and I, through rutted tracks and mud, deeper and deeper into this alien world. When I stopped at the lookout to pull my camera from my backpack and turned off my bike, the silence hit me with a shout. Only the wind spoke its emptiness in the treetops, like a December breeze in a muffled midnight snow. Beneath me the fog rolled out in an fathomless ocean. I thrilled. I was alone in a world of fog. Alone.