How To Be Alone Together

Katie Basset, 131 YinD

I had never lived alone before Peace Corps. In fact, I never had my own room until I was 19. When I was young, I craved solitude, little places and moments where it was just me and my thoughts and nothing else to bother me. I thought that moving into a rental house at site would be the fulfillment of all of my childhood fantasies, to have a space to call my own.

It turns out that things are not always quite that simple, especially in Thailand. I can hear my neighbors bucket showering in the evening from my bathroom or common space, and hear the laughs of the two sisters who live across the street as they cook. Children play on my front stoop, often abandoning their toys in front of my door for a few days before they come back for them. My 80-year-old neighbor’s prized roosters crow day and night, whether he is home or visiting one of his three children who live on our street.

My neighbors noticed things like whether I turned the light on in front of my house at night (I often forgot, and they asked my landlord to install an automatic one for me), if I remembered to shut my windows before the rain (and when they broke, reminded my landlord to fix them), and when I stay the night away from my house.

In the beginning, I found these things to be grating. I was not used to having so many people so keenly attuned to my life. The questions and reminders felt like spotlights on all the ways I still didn’t know what I was doing, even on the most basic level like in caring for myself or my home. I wanted to integrate, but I also needed space. I have since come to appreciate that these are simply the means by which my neighbors show they care about me; and realized I need to find my own ways of doing the same.

One of the biggest personal victories of my service has been finding this balance, carving out time to be alone and take care of my own needs and with the large extended family I am surrounded by. It’s taken some of the following forms:

  • Spending the afternoon cooking food that I’ve missed alone and then inviting Daa, my only neighbor who likes my farang food, to come eat with me.
  • Saying “yes” to a second lunch of som-tum sometimes. 
  • Closing my big garage-style doors early on a hard day and listening to a funny podcast while I do a face mask. 
  • Sharing food — I get limes picked straight from their trees, and they eat my oranges when I realize I have greatly overestimated how many I can eat in a week. 
  • Doodling with the kids in the afternoon, journaling by myself in the evenings. 
  • Sitting outside, complaining about the heat, and playing on our phones in each others’ company.

It does not always have to be a grand gesture or an incredible moment of cultural exchange. Simple, consistent, heartfelt gestures make a difference — and allow you to set the boundaries you need to care for yourself on the most difficult days. I can pull down those big, loud, metal rolling doors knowing as I wave “good night” to my neighbors, knowing even as I am alone in my house, that we’re all still together.

Read more of Katie’s previous articles and contributions.

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