The days are long but the years are short

It has been 351 days since I packed my bags and took off for foreign lands and each one has been a unique and unpredictable adventure. Yet at the same time, looking back, I can’t believe a year has already flown by.

It’s difficult to summarize what this experience has been like. Before I arrived, I had absolutely no idea what I was getting myself into and didn’t even know if there would be other foreigners in my town. The girls I ended up living with quickly became my family, my partners in crime and my shoulder to scream on whenever I needed them.

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From the moment we arrived, our co-workers welcomed us with open arms and open hearts. They are some of the sweetest and most caring people I have ever met. Realizing how far we are from home, they took us under their wings and made sure we felt comfortable, even inviting us on a weekend trip to Chiang Rai and to the Assistant Director’s son’s wedding.

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We also became very close friends with some of the younger teachers in the department, as they introduced us to the local bar scene and we introduced them to American drinking games. We went adventuring together on camping trips, festival celebrations and culinary tours of Chiang Mai, while their sarcasm, jokes and all-around sassiness kept me laughing all year long.

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And then there are my incredible students, who have filled my days with smiles and joy, and have taught me so much about friendship, acceptance, love and respect. They showered me with kindness, hugs and gifts during the last few weeks of school and I’m so grateful to have gotten to work with such kind-hearted and intelligent young adults.

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As many times as I tell them I’ll come back and visit, I know it’s going to be hard to preserve these relationships when I return to America. Technology offers ways to keep in touch, but in a few weeks, they will have new foreign teachers, shiny new toys to fawn over, and thus the process will start all over for them. I can’t imagine how exhausting and emotionally straining it must be for them to see people come and go so often.

Even though I may have been just a small part of their lives, they have been a huge part of mine. This experience has been more than I could have ever imagined and I am forever grateful for the opportunity to see what life is like on the other side of the world.

Thailand is honestly like no place I’ve ever been. Here, something as mundane as going out for dinner, for example, can lead to the miraculous discovery of a wild bunny farm!

“Only in Thailand” has become a sort of catch phrase for us because where else would something that random ever happen? (Check out my last blog post for stories about some of the absolute weirdest things that have happened here.)

Thailand is also home to some of the most incredible landscapes, exciting nightlife, and generous people, and although I work full time here, I’ve been able to travel to many different provinces on weekends and during breaks.

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I’ve driven a motorbike through windy mountain roads in the North and relaxed on sandy beaches in the South. I also visited Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos and Hong Kong during a two-month break in March and April.

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When I think about the fact that many of my students have never even been on a plane or even left their own province, I’m overwhelmed with gratitude for the life I have been given and for the opportunities that I have as an American.

Living here has also made me appreciate simple American pleasures like freedom of speech, having a variety of food options (“One burrito bowl with guac please!”) and the general structure and efficiency with which most organizations operate.

However, there are also a few tips that America could take from Thailand. First, Thailand treats its teachers with an incredible amount of respect and honor. As government employees, they make a good salary with excellent benefits and are regarded very highly in society. Students wai (bow) to show respect to their teachers and even kneel on the ground when they approach a teacher’s desk.

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Second, Thai people have an innate sort of optimism that they wear proudly. “Mai pen rai” is a phrase similar in meaning to “hakuna matata,” though for Thai people, it’s more like a way of life. They closely follow Buddhist teachings that emphasize living in the moment and accepting what you can’t change. We would have a lot less violence and anger in America if we adopted some of these principles too.

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The last 351 days have been some of the most difficult and most rewarding in my life. I pushed myself way beyond my comfort zone and learned to be more open-minded, respectful, appreciative and spontaneous along the way.

I encourage EVERYONE to travel abroad if you have the opportunity, but not just to get more likes on Instagram or stamps in your passport. Go off the beaten path and see how other people live. Try to understand their culture and learn about their traditions.

I will try to bring what I’ve learned back to America, but I know that I’m also leaving a piece of myself behind. Thailand has captured my heart in a way that I can’t explain to my friends and family back home. Nevertheless, I’m grateful to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard.

“Because fate has a funny way of mending things back together. I mean, you’re here and I’m here and we’ll find each other again…that is, if that’s the way it’s supposed to be. So if you believe and I believe, then someway, somehow, we’ll find each other again. Just don’t forget me and I’ll promise to always have you close to my heart.” – Robert M. Drake

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