For as long as I was abroad, it did not take long for me to adjust back into plain old American life. Aside from the jet-lag-insomnia-sudden need to nap cycles disrupting my sleep pattern for the first three nights along with some minor reverse culture shock, the less than two-week transition to university life after Thailand was plenty manageable. My Thai food cravings on the other hand, are another story.
But those above things that I had to re-familiarize myself with are purely physical. Obviously I knew the time change would be different, the food less spicy than the Thai vendors’, the customs less rigid, and the cost of living much higher. Once I found myself doing my usual routine tasks – grocery shopping, driving around town, sending emails, etc., it was almost as though I had never even left, and my days have been relatively average since de-boarding.
The things that I encountered that changed me internally are what I didn’t want to somehow leave behind at the baggage claim. These are the things I can’t overlook or let fade away as I reintegrate myself into my everyday activities.
Bottom line is I’ve changed. But when people ask me how my trip was, I don’t really talk about that aspect of the trip, because it’s not something you necessarily want or expect to hear about. They expect to hear about what I saw or did (or ate).
So I write. Let not your hearts be troubled, I’m not about to go all eat-pray-love-peace and harmony-let’s-do-yoga-and-meditate-every-morning-and-sing-to-the-birds-at-Walden-Pond on you. But I do feel more zen-ful more often these days.
Less than a week after I was home, I spent some time with one of my good longtime family friends talking about my trip. During the trip, I was advised by another teammate to keep my story less than five minutes as to not scare people off. Yeah, well that didn’t work out in this special case…as I was telling her both the awesome and not-so-awesome experiences, she said to me, “You look different.”
“Different?” I repeated.
“Yeah, I don’t know what it is but you look prettier…and happier.”
I don’t know about prettier, but I do I catch myself smiling more now, which consequently improves my overall appearance.
Because I am happier. Not that I was a depressed person before, but my previous general attitude never went much beyond basic contentedness. As in I was never joyful per se, as I was just plain old fine. Fine with school and whatnot, but not quite truly blissful. Kind of bored, really.
This apparent boredom often left time for me to question my significance, and whether or not I was satisfied with the person I was or what I was doing and wondering if other people were – and I didn’t think they were. I devoted most of my time to the comparison game, critiquing everything about myself, and hating myself when I wasn’t “good enough.” Whatever that means.
The biggest flaw I concentrated on most was my appearance. It’s a huge mental battle, and can drain me of much of my energy and happiness. Whenever a family member, friend, or whoever would tell me I looked pretty or even nice, I would quickly dismiss it, feeling uncomfortable because I could never let myself believe it. I don’t know why or how I started to think and to a degree still think this way, but I never thought I could be deserving of any attention unless I was perceived a certain way.
It was certainly something I didn’t think I’d have to deal with in Thailand. After all, I was there to serve, not focus on me. Much to my shock, I quickly came to learn that apparently, I was considerably attractive by Thai standards. And the people I was with would remind me of this regularly, which was both awkward but flattering. I wasn’t sure how to take it, other than with polite “Thank you” and small smile.
Even my own teammates made such great efforts uplift me on both my inner and outer qualities. Somehow, they saw the good that I had trouble seeing on my own. I hope one day I’ll be able to see what they see, but I’ve learned to open my eyes a bit.
Next…A natural observer, I’m quite shy and don’t like to be the center of attention. Even with small things such as meeting new people or confronting a waiter about a wrong food order make me nervous. As a foreign teacher though, I could not afford to be easily embarrassed. I had to go to great lengths to teach lessons, such as the day I taught my class of working middle-aged adults the song “London Bridge.” With hand motions. I spent hours talking to new people I’d never met before, and learned to get around Bangkok independently knowing very, very little Thai. The result has been a considerable increase in confidence, for which I’m grateful.
Thirdly, I found such genuine friendship within my team that I never expected. With all of our stark differences, my initial goal was to get through the trip without a hitch and do what needed to get done. I don’t know how it happened, but I’ve come to a place where I know I am genuinely cared for and vice versa, and will never be judged in any way. These people have taught me that sometimes, you have to go across an ocean to find this. Sincerity exists – it just might take a plane ticket to find it. But when you do, it’s quite extraordinary.
And to end with a bang, I realize time and again just how much things can change in a short span of time. The Ghost of Caitlin’s Past would’ve never imagined myself here now. It’s incredible what can happen, but even more so is how it will always be a mystery. For example, I have no idea if I will continue to pursue my goal of working in some sort of editing field, or if I will earn a teaching credential to work in a foreign country. Or maybe I’ll do public relations for a non-profit group. Or work as a travel journalist. Who knows? What I do know is that I will only be fully satisfied knowing that in the near future, I’ll always have a place to book a flight to.
While there, I was always asked when I would be coming back to Thailand. In honesty, I would like to see the rest of the world first before making “seconds.” But I would love to make a return someday, if possible.
At least once each week, one of my students would say something to me that echoed in my head throughout the trip, at the baggage claim at LAX, and now. I thought she was saying it in a joking, lighthearted manner, but the more I think about it, I start to think that that’s not the case at all:
“I’ll be waiting for you when you come back to Thailand.”