Megan Cindric, 129 YinD
When you try to learn a new language, there’s a transition point where you don’t just talk in the target language, you also start to think in it. I remember our language instructors explaining the difficulty with reaching this level: Instead of completely immersing yourself in the new language, you still think in terms of your native tongue instead. You’d hear something in Thai, internally translate it into English, come up with an English response, then translate that back into Thai. It’s instinctive to do this, but it slows you down and prevents you from being truly fluent. Plus there’s so many feelings and expressions that just aren’t able to be translated back and forth. You can certainly still get by when thinking in this way, but it holds you back from reaching a whole new depth of understanding. I had a moment recently where I realized I’ve spent the past year subconsciously doing this in my everyday life, not just with language but with my experiences at site as well.
I’ve lived in the same city my entire life. My journeys to foreign countries have been limited to the U.K. and Canada. I spent 22 years with a very concrete image of what life was like for me, so when I came to Thailand, I interpreted things here in relation to the things I knew from back home. Life in Wisconsin was my frame of reference, and I used that when dealing with new experiences here. All too often I’d encounter something like people casually commenting on my body weight, meetings that dragged on because my boss gave an impromptu 30-minute speech, and the always popular last-minute cancellation of classes, and my reflex response would be to try to think in terms of America. These situations were unfamiliar to me, and even if there wasn’t an adequate comparison back home, I’d find myself thinking things like “we wouldn’t do this in America because…” In my head, I was always doing that cultural translation – Thai to American then back to Thai – instead of just accepting that both places were separate entities. I was comparing apples and oranges, and in a lot of ways it made my experience here feel inauthentic. Constantly seeing things through an American lens cheapened so many of my experiences here, since nothing back home could adequately compare to life here. It was like I couldn’t be at peace with just Thailand, and it made me focus on so many minute details of everyday life instead of the entire experience as a whole.
It took until last weekend before I realized I’ve dropped that thought process. I was on a long bus ride home through Issan watching the endless rice fields and villages roll by. I passed by a familiar temple, a giant golden Buddha 30 meters high, perched on a mountaintop (okay, they’re actually hills, but let me dream). I was thinking back to the first time I’d visited that temple last year, and how my knee-jerk reaction then was to think about what that would look like in America: a giant statue of Jesus somewhere up in the Rocky Mountains. What would it be like if the U.S. had a national religion like Thailand? Is there a giant Jesus statue somewhere in Colorado I’ve somehow overlooked? It was an entertaining train of thought, but it left me feeling detached from that moment instead of taking in this beautiful temple I had the privilege to visit, and it also made me more than a little homesick to dwell on America like that. Now, here I was, nearly twelve months later, and it felt like I was seeing this temple for the first time. It was beautiful, this massive figure gazing out over the valley below, and for the first time I just took it for what it was with no judgments or comparisons. I realized I’d been here long enough that this place has become my world, and I’m no longer wasting energy trying to compare here with there, but instead am completely present and content with where I am at.
Having this realization opened my eyes to just how much I’ve integrated over this past year. I’m no longer stressed when traveling back to my site because the van drivers recognize me and know where I need to get dropped off. I feel like everyone in my community knows me well, and our conversations feel so casual and genuine. I take an interest in their lives and they do the same for me. The grandmothers in my village are constantly inviting me to sit and eat with them, and we have a great time joking about how many mangoes they’ll trade me for more homemade cookies. The neighborhood kids are always coming over, but are also respectful when I tell them I need time to relax by myself for a bit. Things feel…dare I say it…normal. I’ve gone through a full cycle here, and even though things are constantly still taking me by surprise, I now have so many familiar things – my house, my village, the sights, the sounds, and my family here. At this point it’s been long enough that I don’t miss things from home like I used to. Sure, there are still plenty of things I’m looking forward to, but now I feel like instead of constantly focusing on what I miss, instead I’m focusing on what I have here.
This change in thought was heavily influenced by new volunteers joining us and other volunteers closing out their service. The gratitude the older volunteers felt, the tiny gestures and customs they said they would miss, and their stories as they said goodbye to their communities made me realize just how fast time has gone by. I remember meeting them a year ago, seeing the confidence and ease they had with their lives here, and now realizing that I’m in the same place they were back then. I suddenly realized oh my god I’ve sorta figured things out for myself. It gave me a profound sense of accomplishment with how far I’ve come, the challenges I’ve overcome, and the growth I’ve had as an individual. Coupled with this was a new group of volunteers finishing up their training and heading to their new homes throughout Thailand. Seeing the excitement and wonder of the new volunteers has reminded me how lucky I am to be in this situation, and made me feel grateful for the opportunity to experience Thailand in such a unique way. Even the hard days feel less daunting and more like an exciting challenge I get to overcome. Suddenly the year ahead seems so incredible, yet so fleeting that each moment deserves to be treasured and cherished. From big events like my whole village making merit together, to small things like the way my grandma laughs and the “gaa-woow” call of the birds, everything feels special and worth my whole attention and focus.
I’ve finally come to a point where “Thailand is like…” has become “Thailand is,” and it feels like this world has finally become my home. I’ve been here long enough now that I have my routines, I know how to cook som tam and travel halfway across the country on my own. I can have in depth conversations in Thai and can sit properly in a skirt. Integration is when you finally drop the mental comparisons with here vs. there, and can accept things for what they are. I know that in a blink of an eye this year will be over and I’ll be saying my goodbyes, but I feel confident now that when the time comes to leave, I will be doing so without regrets, knowing that I was present for each and every moment, taking it for what it was without judgement or comparison.