Theresa Kozelka, 129 YinD
In September, I was lucky enough to have one of my best friends travel halfway across the world to visit my new home. We spent ten days exploring caves, island hopping, and taking jokes much too far. After her visit, I was struck by the reality that she was returning to friends and family, while I would remain in my little community, with my limited understanding of Thai language and culture, thousands of miles away from home. This recognition culminated in what some may call a “breakdown.” As I fielded questions about Anna’s trip and her current whereabouts, I could not hold back my tears and began to cry in front of my entire office.
Fast forward to November, I have now been living in Thailand for ten months and I am anxiously awaiting the arrival of my parents and sister. It is all I can think about. It has honestly taken over my every thought. We have a packed itinerary, traveling from Bangkok to Chiang Mai and then all the way down to my home in Satun, one of the southern-most provinces bordering Malaysia. In the days leading up to my family’s visit I was frequently asked a somewhat unexpected and very blunt question: “Will you cry when they leave?”
After my reaction to Anna’s departure I cannot say I was completely shocked by this question; however, I could not help but feel belittled by their teasing. I am a very sentimental person. I have a vivid memory of pacing back and forth in my bedroom, anxiously awaiting my upcoming graduation. I was nervous about growing up and the ominous world I would be entering. Luckily I pulled myself together in time to make it to my kindergarten graduation. So without realizing it, my community was preemptively encouraging my nostalgic ways.
However, even my over-active sentimentality could not stop the giddy feeling I had every time I thought about my parents and sister en route to Thailand. They arrived in Bangkok around midnight and we treated ourselves to some steaming plates of fried rice from the nearby Seven-Eleven, a Thai delicacy.
Our couple of days in Bangkok fell during the Thai festival, Loi Krathong, which my mom creatively coined “Loy.” During “Loy,” we released a basket made from banana leaves and flowers into the river, letting go of the past year’s negativity and wishing for good fortune for the upcoming year. My dad and sister must have wished for a good year’s sleep, because their jet-lag set in rather strongly as we (slept) walked back to our hotel. Our remaining days were filled with temples, lounging poolside, introductions to my fellow volunteers and delicious food.
We then made our way to Chiang Mai. Our day at the elephant sanctuary was easily the highlight of the trip. We packed into a van and travelled about an hour and a half outside of the city to Happy Elephant Home. As soon as we arrived, our guide introduced us to the elephants. Honestly, I was absolutely terrified. Ellen, however, jumped right in, feeding them pieces of sugar cane and stroking their curious trunks. After our initial introductions we changed into traditional Thai clothes provided by the sanctuary—which we regrettably had to return— so that the elephants would be more familiar with our scent. The rest of the day was spent walking down sloping mountain paths alongside the gentle giants and playing with them as they bathed in the river. It was an unforgettable day that was made infinitely better by the fact that I got to share it with my parents and sister.
After an all too quick week, it was time for Ellen to leave. We made our way to Bangkok and said our goodbyes, but before I could let myself feel too distraught my parents and I were boarding our plane for the south. While Bangkok and Chiang Mai dazzled my family with their festivals and adventures, Southern Thailand is the Thailand I have grown to know and love, so I was very excited to share my second home with my parents.
When we landed in Trang, we were greeted by the pouring rain and the huge smile of P’Nun, one of my coworkers at the local government office. The hour and a half trip home from the airport was filled with spurts of conversation about our travels and my parents first impression of Thailand. When we arrived at the office my counterparts were waiting outside to greet my parents and proceeded to lead them inside. As with most conversations cramped by a language barrier, it was a little awkward, but the great care everyone took in making sure my parents were comfortable was palpable.
The few days spent at my site could not have gone better. Our first night consisted of dinner at my host family’s house, where my mom proudly enunciated her Thai proclaiming, “Aroi!”—“Delicious!”— and my dad licked his plate of spicy chicken curry clean, making my host mom’s week. The following day we visited one of my schools, where we were immediately greeted by a swarm of students. I couldn’t help but gush with pride as they asked my parents, “What is your name?”. The visit ended with a lunch outing with one of my favorite teachers. Later that night we made our way to another teacher’s house, who taught my parents how to make authentic Thai lettuce wraps. My parents quickly became celebrities in my community.
The last leg of our trip brought us to Koh Lipe, a small island off of Satun Province. Picture a postcard of the most picturesque beach you can imagine – white sand, turquoise water, islands sprinkled along the horizon. Now add a walking street teeming with coconut ice cream, fresh seafood, and amazing hamburgers. That is Lipe. My parents and I spent our last few days together soaking in the sun and drooling over the perfect views.
After our two absolutely perfect weeks, I found myself back in my office, trying to distract myself from the rapidly growing physical distance between my parents and myself. As I sat at my desk, a coworker walked up to me and asked, “So did you cry yet?” I remember thinking, “Oh boy.. not this again.” And I responded, “Yep, I cried a lot.”
She turned to our coworker and said, “Huh, just like us.”
She then turned back to me and said, “I understand. My mother died a few years ago and I miss her everyday.”
As I settle into life in Thailand, I constantly have to remind myself to not jump to conclusions. While I assumed my coworkers were just playfully teasing me, I realized they were also reflecting on something much greater than my embarrassing meltdown. In Thailand, family forms the foundation of daily life, whereas American culture places a larger value on the individual. While I navigate this foreign culture halfway across the world from my own home, it is easy to forget that the people I am surrounded by daily have not only never left their country, but they have no desire to leave. My motivation to travel and to understand other cultures seemed self-explanatory, but many people in my community will never fully understand why I decided to come to Thailand. However, with every meal shared, every family member or friend introduced and even with every tear shed, we will continue to break down the barriers between our two cultures together.
My family’s visit provided me with countless memories I will cherish for the rest of my life, and perhaps more importantly my family’s visit provided my new community with a greater understanding of this foreigner who chose to call Thung Wa, Satun home for two years. I think it is safe to say that I will continue to miss my friends and family everyday, but as my coworker reminded me, “You have a family and friends here too.”