Alison Reenock, TESS 131
It started 15 months ago when our flight touched down in Bangkok on that January 5th afternoon. We were all hot, fatigued, walking through the motions, a little bit delirious, but still putting on our best B1 attire and feeling so much excitement upon the arrival into our new home. Personally, I’m not one who dwells on relationships. I tend to steer away from emotional attachments. But even with the exhaustion and mildest form of delirium, I looked out of the bus window and knew I was home. It was love at first sight and I was in it for the long haul.
Fast forward three months, the end of training, the end of long bike rides, afternoon brews and the enriching conversations using both Thai and English that accompanied said brews. The end of going through those long days of struggle with who are now your closest friends just being right there to pick you back up and give you the hype you need to get through. On some days, those three months felt like a lifetime, but during that time as volunteers we created a lifetime of memories. We became a family. We rose to the occasion, we conquered, we swore in as volunteers, and in that time, my relationship with Thailand deepened even more.
At this point, our relationship as a cohort was solidified, but we were set off on our own journeys, with our own people, in our own little pockets of this beautiful country. I remember the first time I met my counterparts and my school director. I remember being so nervous to impress them, for our nine-hour road trip to my new home in Isaan. I remember thinking “I hope they like me, but I need to be enough for them.” I remember everything from my first day arriving at site. I remember walking into my school’s assembly hall for the first time and being greeted with smiles from all the teachers at my school. I remember my Mathayom 3 student, Pear, playing ukulele and singing for me as we made decorations for the students’ moving up ceremony. I remember the first time I met my Yai, and how she embraced me as if I was her own. I remember all of my firsts at my site.
I am committed. I have committed to making my students smile. To making them love English. To embracing every moment, every conversation, every community event, and every “bpai tiao” with all that I have. In our second week of school, my counterpart said me, “You’ll notice me videotaping a lot. It’s not to make you uncomfortable. It’s because we only have two years and it’s important to document every beautiful moment.” I took this conversation with me for the rest of my service. Every moment was so beautiful, and every new day gave me a reason to fall even more in love with Thailand, with my community, with my new life.
Fast forward 12 months and, as volunteers serving in Southeast Asia, we get the first wave of coronavirus hysteria. We’re telling our students every day to wear facemasks, wash their hands, and keep their hands to themselves. We’re told by our peers and our host families to avoid going to Bangkok, but that we are safe where we are. I felt so safe, so content, and so happy. I also felt untouchable. Could we be evacuated? Never, not in a million years. Then, I’m in a van, in Bangkok, with my counterpart, on my way to train the new volunteers who are literally hours away from finding out where they will be placed. I get the call. “Go back.” Then, I get the email. “You’re going home.” My counterpart and I literally looked at each other in disbelief. There is no way this is true.
So, I rush home, pack up my things, and go through a sleepless night, just dreading having to see my Yai and tell her I’m leaving 10 months too soon. I pack, and I cry, and I drink wine, and I cry some more. It all feels unreal. In a matter of three days, I packed up my entire life, said my goodbyes, to my family, the teachers at my school, and all of the beautiful, bright, young faces that made every single day feel worth it.
Now I am home. Three weeks have passed and I’m still trying to process the grief, disappointment and pure disbelief of how quickly my life had changed. I find myself trying to deal with these emotions and explain this tragedy to my family; It is a bad break up, my first real heartbreak. A constant sucker punch to the gut over-and-over-and-over again, having all of those “just one more,” thoughts, and knowing that there was nothing I could’ve done, nothing my community, my school, my family, or anyone could’ve done to prevent this. It just simply was meant to be this way. And this way, hurts. It hurts hard.
In some relationships, two people fall in love, break up, move on, and hopefully find someone new. In Thailand, I fell in love; with the culture, the infinite kindness of its people, the beautiful views of my rice paddies, and the way that no matter how far away I was from my home in the States (8,437 miles) I always knew I was right where I was supposed to be. It also broke my heart; to know that I couldn’t finish what I started, thinking about all the “should’ve been’s” and looking the people that have become my family, my home, in the eye, saying goodbye. At this point, I don’t know what moving on looks like, I don’t know what’s next. I don’t know what, or where will be my “someone new.” But I suppose that’s why it’s called a journey.
Read Ali’s previous articles and contributions.