Once a month we like to share a story we find really interesting from a volunteer’s blog. This month we share one from It All Started in the “Land of Smiles”

Clark Finkelstein, 130 TESS

Twenty-six years old.  Up until last August when I was accepted into the Peace Corps, I had no clue where I would be for my 26th birthday, physically or emotionally.  I didn’t come here to find myself; I have traveled and volunteered in other countries on my own before and felt I knew myself as much as I possibly could.

Within my first week here I had a major reality check and felt as if I lost everything I knew and was starting at the beginning.  I spent my first few months trying to ‘rebuild’ myself to fit into this new life I signed up for. The things that make Peace Corps difficult seem manageable on their own, but everything adds up and it feels impossible at times.  I reached a point where I truly thought I should quit and go home. I felt like I had lost my purpose and not only was I confused, tired, and burnt out but I felt more alone than ever before. This is crazy coming from me because I’m the queen of being alone.  I love having ‘me time’, I strive to be miss independent and do everything by myself, for myself. I push away love and real feelings. I’m not into holding hands and rarely initiate hugs or kisses. I planned on feeling alone while here but given how I am I didn’t think it would be a huge issue.

Until you are truly alone, you don’t know how lonely and sad it feels.  The odd thing is that I am not technically alone, I actually am usually surrounded by many Thai people.  Living with people who speak another language can at times almost feel like living alone though. I either am the center of the conversation, or am completely ignored and talked over.  I started to miss things like hugs from my dad, cuddling and watching movies with my friends, and basic human touch, something I thought I never cared much about. Feeling as low as I did, I was pushed to do something I don’t ever do.  I talked about my feelings. I told my friends, my family, and other Peace Corps members how I felt. I was emotional. Somewhere in the mess of being lost and crying to everyone I knew, I didn’t ‘rebuild’ or change, but I came back to the real me.  The little girl who would sit on her bed every night and tell her mom EVERYTHING. I was honest about how I felt and I was talking about my feelings, not building them up and creating a wall around myself, like I had been doing for so long. From high school heartbreaks, family drama, the loss of a very close grandparent,  hiding and being in denial about my parents’ divorce, saying goodbye to the home I grew up in…all that plus dealing with growing up and seeing all the hate and evil of the world…all of this changed me, or so I thought.

I never felt comfortable putting my feelings on the line, they always seemed subsequent to everyone else’s.  Growing up in America being independent is so valued. Building this barrier against emotion and calling that independence was really me just pushing everyone away.  I thought that was the way it should be. I thought that was what was best. Although Thailand isn’t as forthcoming with some emotions and isn’t direct, these people are dependent on one another.  They are open, honest and are rarely ever alone. Going from the extremity of being alone and independent to being smothered, reliant, and at times helpless, broke me in a way I will never forget. I can say that being here makes me never want to be so independent ever again.  I didn’t find a new me, I am at the beginning of coming back to who I always was.

Growing up, dance was everything to me.  My dance classes were my therapy, and they linked me to my heart and my soul.  When I stopped was when I started losing myself. My mom encouraged me to go back but the walls I had built were too strong and the thought of feeling and letting my emotions out was too painful to consider.  I don’t dance here, but I have started writing in my journal and am dealing with and facing my emotions head on. I am no longer afraid to reach out and tell people I am not okay, or that I feel sad or lonely.  I find myself drawing and being creative again, the way I used to be.

The peak of my shift happened on June 27th, the day before my 26th birthday.  This was the most vulnerable, terrified, open and trusting I think I have ever been in my life. I got really sick at school and my principal insisted I go straight to the hospital.  I assumed I had food poisoning and said I would be fine going home but he was scared I might have gotten dengue fever. During this experience my co-teacher didn’t leave my side. She acted as a translator at the hospital and listened to me share my medical history and details of my sickness, things one usually doesn’t share with friends and family, let alone a coworker.  My principal and other coworkers were with me most of the time as well. They knew all the gross details of my sickness and saw me at my absolute worst. I found myself in a position where I needed help and physically could not do things for myself. It thankfully was only food poisoning, but I was left weak and in an incredible amount of pain. Old habits die hard and I put up a front and said I’d be fine in the hospital alone overnight. Thankfully they didn’t listen. They made sure I was safe and not one or two, but THREE co-workers spent the night with me on the smallest couch ever.  I am beyond thankful I had them there to help track all the pills I had to take and when to take them, I had no energy to do it on my own.

Even though at times I felt overwhelmed and annoyed (like when they tried to feed me Thai food right before going to the hospital, after sh*tting and puking my brains out) I felt like the luckiest woman in the world. Waking up in the hospital on June 28th on my 26th birthday I felt so much love. While this was all happening I woke up to a Facebook page my mom created for me as a birthday surprise. The page was filled with pictures, memories, and love from my friends and family back home.  I have so many phenomenal, supportive, and amazing people I get to call my friends and family. How did I get so lucky?! More coworkers came to visit me after school and presented me with a cake saying ‘Happy Birthday Kowhom’. Just six months ago I found that name silly and now it is truly part of me and who I am. So here I am, 26 years old. I am beyond delighted to share my first of hopefully many breakthroughs. I am proud of myself and am eager to grow into the best Clark (and Kowhom) I can be!

A truly Thai statement to share:
Before hooking up my IV the nurse asked me “What hand do you eat rice with?”…AKA which is my dominant hand.  Only in Thailand would they use rice in this situation.

***Below are pictures from my hospital visit because God forbid something isn’t documented…even when I am feeling terrible and really don’t want to be in pictures (notice they still got me to smile and make a peace sign). Also, super strange turn of events, my co-teacher got sick during all this and checked into the hospital the day I checked out as you’ll notice in one picture.  I had the pleasure of celebrating my birthday with Peace Corps friends the weekend before too so there are some pictures from that as well!


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