It’s 9:30pm on a Thursday evening. I am currently sitting alone at a table in ‘Founders Garden’ at my home university in northern Philadelphia. The sun crested over the tops of the buildings nearly an hour ago, and only the smallest traces of indigo are still left in the sky. I’m left under the illumination of park lights and kissed by the faintest breeze between the white-bark trees – which reveal only one young couple at a table ahead of me, quietly watching a film on their computer, arms around each other blissfully. It has now been twenty-five days since my departure from CNX airport in Chiang Mai, Thailand. In the fortnight I have spent back home I haven’t had the chance to take a breath and reflect on what I have been through this summer. Now is my chance to finally sit back and revisit what was, for a time, my reality.
This summer was a lesson in self-understanding, as I assume most journeys to the opposite hemisphere are. I learned a lot of things that were specific and short term, like how to hail a song taew and how much to barter for a wool shirt during rush hours at the Old City Market. I know the conversion rate from 35 Baht to $1 for your average dish of pork fried rice at Penny’s across the road on Suthep Soi 7, and I know that Penny is the name of the owner’s old cat who passed away last year. I know that Fon and Geng Geng run the mom-and-pop together and I know from experience that Geng Geng (whose name means ‘Excellent’ in English) loves to go to tourist bars and cafés on the East side of the city to practice English. Looking back on the things I once learned 11hrs ahead of EST, I feel a special kind of melancholy. The things I needed to know then to survive and understand the world around me mean nothing to people here, and yet despite all of that I still look back on them with joy.
Alas, the thing that separates my summer abroad from any other experience I’ve had in my life is the collection of lessons that govern the way I think, treat people, and live my own experiences. I see now that our images of how the world appears outside of our own home are as fleeting and limited as the view from the window of a train passing by. Everyone who asks me about Thailand seems to want to know how I survived without roads and electricity, and it takes all that I have to tell them that Thai cities have heavier traffic than most places I know in America, and even most rural tribes are locked into their favorite TV shows and reality stars.
Anyone who knows me or is familiar with my deeply cynical outlook on extrinsic reflection knows that not every minute spent in Thailand treated me well. I spent some nights longing for the home I was soon to return to, because life is difficult when you are living in a different world. Yet it is the time spent when you are tossed into the water and expected to swim, when you are baptized by fire and told to embrace your burns, when you learn more about yourself than you ever could standing safely on the river bank.
On my trip I worked at an international school heralding students from Burma, Cambodia, Laos, and Sri Lanka every weekday from 8am-4pm. Although the temporary nature of my position technically made me an intern, I was still regarded with all of the same privileges and responsibilities expected of the full-time teachers with whom I worked at the school.
I moved between six different classrooms, teaching six different curriculums to three native languages and in an age range from 5-14 years. My third graders were particularly difficult. Each day I came into school they looked at me with blank stares because we could barely communicate with each other. For the first few weeks I couldn’t even get them to sit down and be quiet, let alone master the alphabet or distinguish between saying “what is your name?” and “my name is.” It wasn’t until I discovered their unrelenting love for Mr. Bean that I was able to get them to focus on any one thing for longer than a few minutes…
Thai students really love Mr. Bean…
Songs and videos were my key to connecting with the students, and once I learned how to connect with them they slowly began to listen to me more and more. Although I still had a large language disconnect, an unspoken connection, a love, began to grow, and that’s what I remember most about the kids when I look back at old pictures and remember what used to be. Even if most students barely spoke a word of English, on the last day they all said, “We love teacher Duncan. Thank you!” and I could barely bring myself to leave.
Early in July the students had off for Buddhist Lent (A Government Holiday), and I had a long weekend to travel to Bangkok. While in my hostel on the first night I took the time to look at a book of English poems lying out on the table and opened to a page with only one quote. The quote, as my memory serves best, said, “The world is a book, and without traveling it, you are limiting yourself to the contents of the first page.”
Since I was staying in a travel-hostel, I saw through the ‘coincidence’ that this book happened to be laying out on the table opened to this page; however, the tongue-in-cheek self-advertising didn’t stifle the sense of clarity it gave me. It felt like the key to unlocking my time in Thailand rested within it. Even as you experience the page of life that contains the world you know and love, it does not do to dwell within its contents and fail to explore the rest of the story. Although as you turn the pages of the story you reveal conflict and pain, you also reveal growth, change, adventure – and if you’re reading young adult fiction, vampires. What would life be if you let the great journey escape you and you never experienced the meat of the ‘plot-sandwich.’
That is why it is not the specifics of my past now gone, but the contents of the book I continue to discover turning page-by-page that mean the most to me and guide my existence.