to know you’ve been living in Thailand for an extended period of time and are home on break. When….
You enter a new bathroom, and you feel around on the outside of the bathroom door for the light switch, forgetting that in America they put light switches inside bathrooms.
You stand in line while going through immigrations at the airport and munch chocolate, then feel bad for not sharing it with the person beside you. But you don’t want to share it because they would think you are weird.
You cringe when people use their foot to motion or perform a task.
You find yourself staring at dark haired people on the street, wondering if by any chance they might be Thai.
You drink water out of the sink, simply enjoying the novelty of doing that again.
You motion people to come with your palm down, and then feel really weird for doing it.
You find yourself sitting on the floor more than on chairs, because it really is more comfortable.
Just opening the fridge and looking into it is an adventure and feast for the eyes.
You feel like a shadow of your old self, coming back to old haunts and realize that the haunts changed. People are fatter, thinner, older, more stooped, happier, sadder…
You can sit down at the table to eat and not have to swat at mosquitoes.
You feel funny when you think about the fact that you can speak another language. Like you just made up that language and no one else knows it. Or that you have some secret power inside of you that really is of no use.
You realize that you actually do like Americans.
You realize that since you live far away, you have become a neutral, “safe” person to others. People tell you things they never would have years ago.
And you can pull off your clothes in one fell swoop instead of having to peel them off in a sweaty, sticky mess.
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.
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.
Sometimes I have those moments of lying awake in bed at night and wishing I could take the next plane home, get out of the city, spend time with my family, visit my favorite haunts again, listen to the laughter of old friends, and tear down the road in a madcap gallop on a sorrel horse.
I do have those moments. In no small measure. But on the other hand, I also have moments of pure joy as I experience life in Southeast Asia.
It helps to count those moments. To look at pictures of them and savor the beauty and the joy. And the laughter. I face a thousand decisions a day and one of the decisions that come up the most is whether to laugh or to cry. Or lose my patience. And when I do make the right decision to laugh, it’s always a relief. Like the time I walked into the bathrooms after naptime and caught three of my three year old male students sleepily peeing into the toilet all at the same time. Sadly, the funniest moments are usually the most difficult to snap a picture of because they come at unpredictable moments.
Below are several snapshots of what life has been like in the last month. Beauty, laughter, and just plain cuteness.
This is what life looks like for me most of the time. Minus the green and yellow. We only wear these uniforms Wednesdays and smile with relief when the day is past. This photo was taken at Wisdom Tree Home during the exercise part of the day. The rest of the day is spent teaching, playing, eating, napping, and prepping for more teaching. In my room alone, we have 20 students, age 3.
This is Peem, one of my more solemn students. And sleepiest.
We get lots of giggles, as shown in the picture above.
Sometimes its really hard to wake up from naps, even when our blanket gets pulled out from underneath us.
We do art projects, we just simply look cute with our curls, we find worms and we fall asleep at the table. A lot.
Sometimes this happens!
Going to the market on Monday night is bound to bring me some sort of joy, whether its talking to the vendors, seeing people I know, or a tasty bite of fried chicken strips.
One thing that keeps me sane is horseback riding, usually done on Saturdays.
We got to go to a Karen wedding one Saturday.
These two, a coworker and her daughter, keep me in laughter.
And these two make me smile.
We went to Maun Jam, a local mountain lookout one Saturday.
At a local village, we spent some time with the children and later watched them play this game similar to volleyball.
Sometimes just looking at the sky brings me all kinds of joy.
One Saturday we spent time with a Thai friend at a 3D Art Museum.
And when you combine rivers and coffee, life just becomes too much to handle. 🙂
What is missionary life? After reading an article called This Is Missions by Brooke Vanguard, a description of missions in China, I was challenged by a friend to write our own version of missions in Thailand. This is a glimpse of what it is. The photos are a bit random, some having to do with the words, and some not.
Again, a small disclaimer. Sometimes I hesitate to write anything about missions here, simply because so many people get the picture that missions is some sort of really special work that only really special people can do. It is not!! Sometimes I cringe when I am labeled as a missionary, because of this. It is a really special work that people with a really special God can do. And being a missionary does not mean that you need to go to a foreign country. It can be done on your very doorstep.
This is missions…..
It’s reaching up and finding spiders in your hair and going on wild mouse chases in the middle of the night. It’s brushing off the ants from that precious banana bread — and eating the banana bread. It’s waking up at night hearing rats running around attic. It’s setting sticky traps in the kitchen and having to haul off the results later, while choking back nausea.
It’s trying to make food that your Thai guests will enjoy and instead, it’s putting way too much water into the rice which leaves it sticky and mushy. It’s feeling like a bumbling city girl who can’t cook anything because you simply don’t know how to make Thai food. It’s ordering fresh milk and feeling stupid and naïve because no matter how desperately you calculate, you can’t think of how much 10 kilograms of milk might be in pounds. It’s feeling silly because you don’t know how to change children’s diapers Thai style— pull off the diaper and spray ‘em with the hose!
It’s being told that you are way too trusting when you invite the lonely stranger you met at the bus station to stay at your house. It’s being told by your neighbors and friends how you should arrange your furniture, how you should put up your shelves, how you should always close your door to keep out the mosquitos, and how you should not go out into the sun without long sleeves, or let yourself get wet. It’s feeling frustrated when you’re constantly told by your coworkers at school that you need to speak harshly to your children in order to make them behave, and feeling like you can’t do anything right because you don’t quite do it their way.
It’s trying to impress your hosts with your ability to eat spicy food, and then paying for your pride the next morning in the bathroom. It’s feeling frustrated by not being able to communicate the way you want to and it’s being tired of feeling like a 3 year old who keeps on using the wrong words and saying silly things.
It’s feeling totally comfortable telling a male friend at church how much you weigh. It’s laughing at jokes you would not have thought funny 2 years ago. It’s eating with your spoon in your right hand and your fork in your left without a thought. It’s being ok with changing plans at the last minute, or not even having any plans in the first place. It’s going home and asking your mom if the mattress in your room is new—- because it’s so soft! It’s asking people if they’ve eaten yet and what they ate, as a way of being polite. Or asking them where they’re going.
It’s feeling like you’re brain is permanently fried by language study and hot weather. It’s feeling like you use so much brain energy just surviving that all the profound, cool thoughts you used to think have simply vanished from your brain.
It’s wondering how on earth to help the bouncing ADHD student learn to control himself and stop shooting things with his imaginary gun. It’s holding tightly an angry child bent on hurting whatever he can touch in his little world. It’s feeling like all you do is tell little people what to do.
It’s going to church and feeling a heaviness on your heart because you wish so badly that your unbelieving friends could be there too. It’s driving home late at night and feeling the sadness of the city circle around your soul.
It’s being ecstatic about the fact that in a little over a week you get to fly home for an entire month. At the same time, it’s feeling terrified too.
It’s being on cloud nine after being able to carry an hour long conversation all in Thai, and then it’s crashing down to reality when you can’t understand a simple question.
It’s always feeling a little self -conscious, wherever you go. It’s being told you are sooo beautiful all the time and you speak Thai sooooo well. It’s being used to the stares that come from passengers on the backs of trucks as you drive down the road on your bike.
It’s listening to your friend recount with glowing face her new found faith and the way God is working in her life and leading her to witness to her co-workers. It’s listening to her bold statement of faith before she is baptized on a rainy Sunday afternoon.
It’s having a young student crying inconsolably after leaving school because she found out that Teacher Lori is going home to America, not realizing it’s only for a month. (Ok, not quite inconsolably. She was consoled by donuts eventually, I heard.)
It’s listening to a 4 year old student from a Buddhist family announcing to his friends, “When I grow up I am going to go to church!”
It’s watching the even rising and falling chest of a young girl as she sleeps and running your finger over her smooth cheek, praying that God would give her a hope and a future, even when all the odds are against her.
It’s feeling that odd tug at your soul when you crest the mountain peak – on those few occasions that you do get to the mountain – and seeing smoke rising from a valley village, far below. It’s that heartfelt connection that you feel after stopping at a roadside stand to escape the rain for a few minutes and striking up a conversation with the vendors and customers, finding that they too know the true God. It’s seeing the delight on a market vendor’s face because you speak their language and eat their food.
It’s feeling the small strength of a child’s hand in yours. It’s seeing the solemn trust in a little girl’s chocolate eyes and hearing her say your name. It’s hearing the squealing laughter of 30 children loose on the playground. It’s giving piggy back rides and bouncing wildly on big rubber balls and roaring like a tiger and rolling on the ground and doing other quite unladylike maneuvers.
It’s sitting at Wednesday night cell group, singing Thai songs and sharing struggles and realizing over and over again that we are brothers and sisters.