Brights lights. Busy traffic. As a girl growing up in the city, all I’ve known of is the city life. Back at home, life is always busy: work, school, appointments, time, and money. Life moves fast in the city. So I didn’t know how prepared I would be for this Thailand trip. On our first night, we arrived in Bangkok. Bright lights. Busy traffic. Nothing too different. But as we flew to Chiang Mai and Chiang Khong, things began to change.
I want to focus on the Mekong School we visited in Chiang Khong, which focused on educating people on the preservation and sustainability of the Mekong River. Hearing them speak about their purpose in life was inspiring. Back at home, I never truly appreciated the natural environment. Honestly I didn’t really know what it was. The Mekong School and people in Northern Thailand have a way of coexisting with the environment. They flow with the natural pace of mother nature. While I experienced a glimpse of their life, I felt a sense of freedom that I had never felt before. I felt like I could breathe for the first time.
The same feeling overcame me during our 2nd home stay in Amphawa. During the night, we took a stroll on a boat to see fireflies. Naturally, I’d be freaking out about the darkness and bugs. As we drifted about the city looking for fireflies, I closed my eyes and simply listened to the music of nature. The sound of the paddle in the water… the insects buzzing around… the sound of my breath. This is what beauty is, and this is what’s missing at home. During this trip, I’ve learned to not only appreciate the the beauty and power of the natural environment, but to find a way to show others that beauty. I’ve learned that bright lights can come from fireflies and the moon and busy traffic from all the animals and organisms colliding into each other. I learned how to breathe for the first time.
I can’t believe today is our last day in Thailand. It’s crazy to think that I’ve been here for three weeks and have seen and learned so much. Even though I loved it here, I can’t wait to go back home.
It’s been over twenty-five years since my parents immigrated to the United States as refugees from Thailand. They haven’t been back since. Though my parents still have friends and family here and in Laos, they haven’t found the time and opportunity to come back to the place they grew up, the place they once called home. Being assimilated into the American lifestyle, they still keep a part of Laos and Thailand with them through gardening, farming, raising chickens, going to local Hmong markets, practicing Shamanism, etc. It’s hard sometimes, but they still do.
Even though I am the only one here, I feel that this trip was also for my family; in every picture I took, my dad, mom, uncles and aunts would comment on the things: “Good choice to go as an American.” “Is it fun?” “The Mekong River is still big.” “Be safe and always be aware.”
I’ve always wondered about my parents lives before the United States – do they miss it? What did they do as kids, as teenagers? What kind of struggles did they have? What kind of environment did they grow up in? Even though the places we went were definitely not exact replicas of the way they lived, I’m truly grateful that I got to experience the things I did, such as sleeping on hard mats, squatting toilets and walking through the woods. Each time we went out and explored the city or learned about the environment and agriculture, I kept my parents in mind and connected it with them. In a way I did have this experience with my mom and dad, but I wish they could’ve been here with me to see everything. I know they would talk about what’s changed and what’s the same, and about how different the American lifestyle is from what we see.
It’s been three weeks since I’ve been home, and I miss it. I miss the beautiful lakes, I miss the view of the skyline of downtown Minneapolis and St. Paul, and I miss the businesses down University Avenue. It’s been over twenty-five years for my parents; I wonder what they miss?
During this trip, I have taken over 900 pictures, bought a handmade ring in Chiang Khong, stuffed my suitcase with souvenirs for loved ones back at home, and made connections with 19 other students and countless people we have met along the way. However, I didn’t expect to walk away from this trip with 19 new people I consider family, countless indescribable experiences behind each 900 of those pictures, a wicked sunburn (sorry Mom, I swear I put on sunscreen!) and an entire new perspective on life. Three weeks seems like too short of a time to consider people family and become a new person yourself, but there is something magical about traveling 8,000+ miles away from home and being pushed to your limits again and again. As I sit here and reflect on the past three weeks, I find myself dreading boarding that plane tomorrow and saying goodbye to Thailand and my new “Thailand Family”. As sad as I am to say goodbye (or as we say here in Thailand, “until we meet again”) I know there is a positive behind the sadness and the tears.
I genuinely believe that the people we become is made up of everyone we interact with. Whether that be through close relationships or just a passing on the street. Some of these connections are stronger than others, some more positive, some more prevalent, but no matter what.. I am a make up of everyone I have ever seen or spoken to.
I have always wanted to think that I was a good observer of my surroundings, but I knew I was not. I am bad at crossing stop lights and go at the wrong times; I only look straight ahead when walking so I miss everything that is happening around me; and I struggle with seeing the small details of the things that I look at because I do not spend enough time examining them. Being in Thailand for three weeks, I cannot say that I have magically fixed all those things about me, but I can say that I have see improvements in my ability to be an active observer.
For the past three weeks, this experience of studying abroad in Thailand has been life changing. As a first-time traveler abroad, I really didn’t know what to expect except to keep an open mind as much as possible. From riding in a plane for 16 hours to reconnecting with my roots and being educated on Buddhism, the amount of knowledge and wisdom I have learned and gained has impacted me immensely. Every day has taught me something new and has opened up my eyes to really see the world. I still think of how lucky I am to be able to have gotten the chance to study abroad and experience what life is like outside of my own. The friendships I have made and amazing peers I have met throughout this experience has really made this trip worthwhile aside from being immersed into the beautiful culture of Thailand. I hope that in many years down the road from now we will all be able to look back on this opportunity and smile with joy from the unforgettable memories we have made.