Berline Exume, 130 TESS
On July 12, I walked into a tiny tattoo shop, and proceeded to mark my body. If you would have asked me a few years ago about whether or not I would ever get a tattoo, I would have said, “Nah.”
Coming to Thailand for me has been one of the most life changing decisions. I always knew I would be volunteering somewhere for an extended period of time, but never like this. Never to the point of learning the language, living in the same homes as Thai people, and having to maintain a consistent level of integration. I have had to change my thought processes. I have had to question my belief systems. I have had to pose very hard questions. I no longer view myself in the same lens as when I first arrived to this foreign country. I am no longer the same version of who I was, if anything I am a much better version.
During the first three months in Thailand, all volunteers including myself had to endure Pre-Service Training (PST). It was exhausting, a bit of information overload, and mostly overwhelming. During those first three months, I struggled SO much. I have not had to work alongside people in about five years. Most of my jobs have been very individualized tasks, which meant that the only person who had to check in on me, was ME. I spent a lot of time alone, and I loved it. I did not have to have real people critique my work, critique my opinions, or critique me based on their own biases for FIVE whole years and then I got to Thailand. I had to sit in a room surrounded by 70 strangers from around America everyday, and let’s not forget to mention that I am only 1 of the 9 black volunteers. For me, it was hard. Somewhere in those five years, I had lost the art of articulation, so I stumbled over my words a lot. I speak faster than I think, so I would lose track of my thoughts. I also didn’t really know how to talk to people that did not look like me. During that time, I questioned myself and lacked confidence in who I was and my ability to produce good work. Quite honestly, I felt small. I was very uncomfortable.
During PST there was a silent pressure to make friends and fit in, because no one wants to do this alone. Only problem with that is, in order to make those friends you had to constantly subdue your true, personal opinions and thoughts as to not offend. Walking into that kind of atmosphere daily was a struggle for many volunteers, including myself. I personally did not feel as though I could be who I knew myself to be, and I disliked that.
We finally went our separate ways to our new sites, and it was here on my small island that those negative thoughts and emotions vanished. I finally felt free to be myself (to an extent) again. I didn’t have to report to anyone, I didn’t have to pretend to want to talk about the weather, and I didn’t have to care about what other Americans thought about me. I spent a lot of time readjusting who I believed myself to be after having experienced PST. Consequently, learning how to look at myself closely helped me to take a better look at Thai people, especially the women and the ways in which they are micromanaged and how they must feel everyday. To the say the least, I was growing.
After three months of not having seen many volunteers, we had to attend Reconnect, a conference to do just that, “reconnect.” I had so many sentiments leading up to the conference. A part of me was excited to see some old faces, another part of me was not looking forward to the useless chatter. The first day that I arrived, I did everything in my power to avoid people. I did not want to pretend to miss people who had not reached out to me in three months. I did not want to either ask or answer questions that were rooted in nothingness. I did not want to play “catch up” considering that I had been a phone call away for the past few months. As I was avoiding the crowds of people, a good friend of mine pulled me to the side and asked me “what is the matter?” I told her how I was feeling and I saw her face light up, as she shared the exact feelings. It made me feel validated and not alone, I needed that. After spending the evening with her and few others, I felt so much joy. I spent the entire conference deliberately interacting with those whom I felt connected to, and those whom I knew had genuine motives.
My tattoo says, “Authenticity.” By definition, authenticity means, “true to one’s own personality, spirit, or character.” I am the embodiment of being true to myself. Being true to myself has allowed me the pleasure of sharing “laugh out loud” moments with my Thai family and friends, and getting to the core of who people really are. It has taught me how to not be afraid to go against the grain, rather than to subdue any parts of myself, I embrace all of me wholly and unapologetically. To be authentic is to be genuine and my hope is that, that is who and what I always am – for my students, myself, and those that I cross paths with. Although it is just a tattoo, it is my personal statement reflecting both growth and resilience.
Read Berline’s previous article Readjusting to Adjust.