Home is where the heart is

Today during our staff meeting my “English teacher” responsibility was to talk about the proverb “Home is where the heart is.”  As I was explaining the meaning of this quote to my Thai co-workers I felt myself getting highly emotional.  It again brought up the internal conflict I have been struggling with.  My heart is in two places that are 8,129 miles apart (13082 kilometers).  I literally don’t think it could be farther apart.  I have two homes that are on the exact opposite side of the world.  My heart is divided.

Yesterday morning I was speaking to my 8 year old niece and all she could say is that she loves me so much and that she misses me so much.  She said she didn’t know how she can wait until January to see me, but then admitted that time has flown by already.  She thanked me for not “staying forever.”  At that moment I realized how much I am loved in Minnesota and how much I do miss my niece and nephew.  They mean everything to me and all I could think was my home is in Minnesota.  My heart is in Minnesota.

Fast forward 9 hours later and I am attending a staff meeting with my wonderful co-workers and explaining the quote “home is where the heart is.”  I live in a room here in Phayakkaphum, far different from the 3 bed room house I sold in Minnesota, but I have never been so happy in my life.  Teaching at Iam Sook has been by far the most rewarding career I have ever had and words can’t explain the joy I experience here every day.  In Phayak, I have amazing friends, a job I love and an overwhelming sense of happiness.  At that moment all I could think was that my home in in Phayakkaphum Phisai.  My heart is here.

When I chose to move to Thailand never did I imagine that I would find a home.  People kept on asking me “why Thailand?” and all I could say was that I had no idea.  I just had a feeling that something was there and it turned out I was right, but  I had no idea another home waiting for me across the world.

My heart is in two places.  I have two homes.  Two homes that could not be any farther apart.  The trip from Minnesota to Phayakkaphum requires three different flights (Minneapolis to Detroit, Detroit to Tokyo, Tokyo to Bangkok)  followed by a 7 hour bus trip from Bangkok.  This trip takes nearly 2 days of travel each way and costs nearly $2,000.

Now I am left with having to figure out how to make both homes part of my life forever.  I guess one could say I am blessed to have two homes, two places where I am loved and appreciated, two places where I can be myself and have the support of others, but right now I struggle with what the right solution is.  I want everything.  I want my family and friends from Minnesota in Phayak.  I want my Thai friends in Minnesota.  I know that neither of those things is going to happen so I have to find a way that I can split my time and create a realistic future for myself that will allow me continue living in two homes 8,129 miles apart.  I am uncertain now what that means, but the one thing I do know is that when I am in Minnesota my heart will always be in Phayakkaphum Phisai and when I am in Phayak my heart will be in Minnesota.

What if I am not ready?

18 days ago I booked my flight back to America.  I am coming home on January 18, 2017.

Since I booked the flight home I have noticed so much in me change here.  I have been anxious, overly sensitive (I cried when I realized dragon fruit season was almost over) and back to trying to obsessively plan things in advance (I have already contacted my old employers at Minnesota Life College and told them I am available to come back on January 23).  I am no longer able to enjoy the present like I have been for the last 10 months.  I just got back from a weekend trip to Khoa Yai with my friends Pi Fon and Lin and all I could think about was that everything is about to come to an end.

At first I thought it was just natural sadness about leaving my new friends and family in Phayakkaphum Phisai, but then my thoughts got deeper and I realized it is so much more than that.  I began to realize that just as I was begin to discover who I am and what I am truly capable of I am about to go back to my comfortable life in the suburbs of Minnesota.  It took me 32 years to build up the courage to break out of my comfort zone and now I am preparing myself to re-enter my bubble.

What if I am not ready?  What if my dream is just beginning?  What if I don’t feel I have accomplished enough?  What if I am not done discovering who I am?  What if I go back to Minnesota and my old thoughts of regret begin to re-enter my mind?  What if I am just beginning to realize my full and true potential to impact this world?  These thoughts have kept me awake for the last 18 nights and they scare me.

I have so much back in Minnesota.  I am missing my niece and nephew grow up.  I have missed an entire season of baseball and soccer and merely get play by plays over the phone from my mother.  I have missed birthdays and holidays.  I have good friends who I miss playing board games with and dining with on Friday nights.  I have a loving mother who thanks to amazing technology I still am able to converse with nearly daily.  I have a dog who I adopted almost 4 years ago when I thought my life was forever going to be just settling in Eagan, Minnesota.  Thanks mommy for co-parenting Barley this year.  I have made promises that this will only be for a year and then I will be back in Minnesota and get my teaching license and continue my life in Minnesota.  I will travel during my summers I tell myself to provide me some comfort.

But what if I am not ready yet?

I am still only 33 years young and I have so much more living to do and so much more of the world to see…

 

Being selfish isn’t always a bad thing…

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Choosing to move across the world was the first completely selfish decision I have ever made.  It was the first time that I really didn’t care what other people thought about my choices.  I didn’t think about how my leaving would affect my friends, my niece and nephew, my mom, or my dog.  My only concern was how this move would impact me.  I was sick of living in regret and fear and I knew the only way to get out of my rut was to take this leap of faith and move abroad.  It did not matter to me at that moment in my life who was affected.

I had very limited expectations of what I was going to experience.  All I knew was that I was going to be a teacher, but I did not know where in Thailand I would be or what grade I would be teaching.  I could have ended up down south, up north, or in Bangkok but I ended up in the center of the rural northeastern region known as Isan in the small town of Phayakkaphum Phisai at the primary school of Anuban Iam Sook.  I did not know how my initially introverted personality was going to fit in to this town.  I did not know if and how I was going to make any friends.

I realized very quickly into my stay that I had nothing to worry about.  I had natural curiosity to learn everything I could about the Thai culture and Phayak had an interest in knowing what a foreigner was doing in their town.  From the very beginning it was a match made in heaven!  The town opened up to me and embraced me quickly once they realized that my only purpose in their town was to teach their children and to learn their culture.  Walking to and from the market each day I smile hearing students both from Iam Sook and those from other schools yell out “Teacher Tracy” and ask me how I am doing.  Vendors at the market know me by name and what I like to order.  Store owners smile when I walk in the door.  It is a great feeling every day, but those are superficial interactions with people on the street.

What I never imaged when I moved to Thailand was the true and genuine friendships I would make here and the impact it would have on myself and them when it comes time for my departure.  I have friendships here that are identical to my friendships at home.  Friends that I can sit around for hours and laugh with while sipping beer.  Friends that I can share news with both good and bad.  Friends that will take me to the doctor when I am bit by a mysterious bug that causes my lips to instantly swell at night.  Friends that I know I can count on for anything.  Throughout this year we have all learned that speaking the same language is just one small part of a friendship.  We have the power of “google translate” to help us fill in the missing words when needed.  What we have all learned is that the most important part of friendship is being there for each other in any situation.  This past Sunday I was eating lunch  with my friends Pi Nok, Pi Fon and Lin.  We were chatting and laughing and then Teacher Lin shows me her cell phone and on google translate it says “destiny” and Pi Nok shows me her cell phone with the word “fortune.”  They were telling me that destiny and good fortune brought us together and I could not agree more.  Nothing else could explain how I ended up here in Phayakkaphum Phisai.  Destiny and good fortune.

Yesterday I booked my flight home to America.  I will be returning to Minnesota on January 18, 2017.  I am feeling so many mixed emotions right now.  Although it is still seven months away it seems so near.  Reality is starting to hit that this home I have built and the friends I have made is all about to be nothing more than fond memories and stories I will be able to pass down.  Nobody back home will ever be able to relate to the exact experience I am having now.  People may have similar stories about their travels abroad, but nothing will be able to compare to mine.  I have not traveled abroad, I have lived abroad.  I know, however, that even after I return to Minnesota I will always be able to come home to Phayakkaphum Phisai.

Being here as made me realize that it is ok to be selfish sometimes.  It is ok to do things just for me.  Moving abroad has transformed me into a person I always dreamt of being.  A person I would have never discovered if I hadn’t decided to be selfish.  I am stronger than I ever knew.  I am flexible.  I am able to adapt and fit into any community I desire.  I am able to do things on my own.  I don’t need to fear living ever again.  I am ok being selfish every now and again.  I am ok being me.

Back to life, back to reality

Back to life, back to reality…

Today for the first time I got the experience of being a teacher coming back to school after a long summer off.  And it hit me hard!  I am exhausted, sweating profusely, I have a mild headache, my feet hurt but yet I still can’t stop smiling!  The moment I saw my class and heard the squeals of little children yelling out “Teacher Tracy” the smile came.  Summer break is a highlight of being a teacher, but today I was reminded why I am really here and have realized that being a teacher is the only career for me.

I had an incredible first summer vacation.  I traveled around the world and back again.  I went to Vietnam, Cambodia, northern and southern Thailand, Sri Lanka, Borneo and Bali.  I celebrated my first Songkran with my Thai friends in Khon Kaen and at home in Phayakkaphum Phisai.  I aged another year.  I climbed mountains.  I slept in jungles.  I spent three amazing weeks with my mom and another two with a close friend.  I ate traditional delicacies and learned about new cultures.  Everything I did over break made working seven days a week back home worth it.  I am grateful for those adventures which further enhanced my perspective on the world and re-sparked my interest in seeing even more of what is out there.

Today starts another semester.  Last semester my goal was to survive!  This semester my goal is to take what I learned and become the best teacher I possibly can.  This semester marks my last semester at Iam Sook…at least for now.  I have one more semester to influence my kids, teach them everything I can and show them that speaking English can be fun!  Most importantly though this semester I want to teach my kids that it is ok to fail as long as you try.  I want my kids to step out of their comfort zones, challenge themselves, make themselves vulnerable to the world.  I want to teach them that accomplishing something challenging is a lot more rewarding then taking the easy way out and even if you fail at least you tried.  If you don’t try you will never get the opportunity to feel success.  If I can teach my kids that lesson then I will have succeeded as a teacher.  That lesson will be far more valuable for the rest of their lives than knowing all the parts of a plant and how photosynthesis works.  That is the lesson that took me 32 years to really figure out.  If I can teach that to my kids at 7 or 8 years old hopefully they will learn to embrace life and not be afraid.  My work is cut out for me, but I am ready.

 

Teacher Tracy has been taught

Yesterday was my last day teaching for the semester.  Next week is finals followed by a week of relaxing in Phayakkaphum Phisai and then off to travel southeast Asia for 9 weeks.  This post is going to be dedicated to my P1 MEP class.  The students that taught “Teacher Tracy” how to be a teacher.  My 39 monkeys that shaped me into the teacher I always dreamt of being.  My 39 monkeys that pushed me to my limits and then gave me big hugs at the end of the day.

Back in America I had plenty of experience working with kids.  I was a preschool teacher, a camp director for 5 years, a 9th grade religious school teacher, I taught adults with autism social skills and I was a coordinator for youth and family education at an elementary school for 4 years.  I was 32 years old and had 10 years professionally working with children.  Although I did not have any formal classroom experience I was still probably more prepared than most people entering the Teach in Thailand program.  I was confident I was going to be a great teacher here, almost verging on the edge of cockiness.

But then my first day came and I was hit like a ton of bricks….

Everything I knew about working with children in America was not going to work with these kiddos!  I was given a class of 39 first graders, none of who spoke English, and was told to teach them math, science, English and health.  I realized quickly with these kiddos that me talking to them was not going to cut it.  The more I talked the more blank stares I received and the naughtier my kids started behaving.  Then on Thanksgiving, about 4 weeks into the semester, I showed a short “Charlie Brown” movie and I heard the teacher portrayed in the movie “Wah wah wah wah wah.”  That was me to the kids.  They didn’t understand a word I was saying.  I was nothing more than a sound to them.

It was on that day that I realized it was me who had to change if I wanted them to learn anything this semester, not them.  I am the teacher and I had to take change quickly or the semester would have been a waste.  I started spending my weekends creating PowerPoint presentations on everything filled with visuals, I would search through youtube archives for fun and simple songs, I broke down small concepts into even smaller ones and realized it was ok if it took my students one or two weeks to learn them, I realized that mastery was more important than amount of information taught, I learned how to empathize with my students, I danced, I laughed, I sang and I loved.

As the semester went on things began to fall into place.  I began to truly fall in love with teaching and my students.  I put in far more than 40 hours a week because I cared.  I cared so much for these students and wanted so much for them to succeed.  I could empathize with my students, but I could not relate to the experience they were going through.  Imagine being 6 & 7 years old and being taught the foundations of education (math, science, English and health) in a language completely foreign to you.  Imagine being sick in class and trying to explain what is wrong to a teacher that speaks a different language and stares at you blankly.  Imagine if another student is teasing you and you try to tell your teacher and she just nods but offers no solutions.  So, what did I do?  I spent my nights watching “Learn Thai” videos on YouTube so I could speak a little to my students in their own language and begin to understand their needs or interject a few Thai words into my lessons to help them achieve a better understanding.  I changed up the health curriculum and taught my students English words for health ailments so they could communicate to me when they had a headache, stomachache, sore throat, earache, toothache and various other illnesses.  I taught them feelings words so when asked “How are you?” I didn’t get the robot response of “I am fine thank you and you.”  My students learned to tell me if they were happy, sad, angry, hungry, thirsty, tired, hot, etc.  I met my students at their level and dropped the expectation of them coming up to mine.  By achieving an understanding with my students and changing my ways I was able to teach them complex concepts in math, science, health and English.  My students now know the properties of materials, how to carry numbers and perform multiple digit addition and subtraction problems, the 5 senses, healthy vs unhealthy foods, heavy and light, more and less and the list goes on.  I am so proud of my students and all they accomplished this semester.

I learned to understand my students and they learned to understand me.  We formed a very special connection that I will never have with any other class.  This was my first class.  This was the class that taught me how to be a teacher.  This was the class that made me realize there is no other job in the world more suited for me than teaching.  Although there were days when they all decided to push my buttons and test my patience I loved this group of kids and forever hold them close to my heart.  I owe any future successes in teaching to P1/1 at Anuban Iam Sook in Palan, Phayakkaphum Phisai, Maha Sarakahm.

 

 

 

My Dream Thai Vacation!

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I just got back from my dream Thai vacation!  No I wasn’t in Phuket or Koh Phi Phi.  Not in Koh Samui or Koh Samet.  Not Koh Lanta or Koh Chang.  I was not sipping drinks on one of the beautiful islands that you picture when you think about Thailand.  I was very far from the beaches.  I was in a van with 8 Thais and 2 other foreign teachers road tripping through Northern Isan!

I had no idea what to expect when traveling with Thais.  I was told to pack a couple changes of clothes and a sleeping bag and be ready to go by 6am on Saturday morning.  I knew we were going to Loei Province up north, but outside of that I had very little information.  I was going into this trip with my new “mai pen rai” attitude.  Whatever was going to happen was going to happen and I was just going to roll with it.

Vacationing with the Thais was an experience that will go down as one of the best trips in my life!  It was filled with laughs, food, beer, selfies, selfies and more selfies.  This trip went to show that language is not a barrier to genuine friendships.  With my little Thai language knowledge, Fon’s exceptional English translator skills and the help of the Lonely Planet Thai phrasebook all 11 of us were able to communicate with each other.  Language is just one part of communication, smiles and laughs are another much more powerful part.  Smiles and laughs are the part that form friendships, that create memories, that make everyone feel comfortable around each other.  This road trip created and solidified true friendships between the Thais and the farang (foreigners).  I think we all realized on this trip that we are more similar than we all think.

Highlights of the trip included:

  • Sleeping in a pig
  • Drinking beer out of a “Hello Kitty” mug
  • Stopping to take photos every 3 meters
  • Teaching the Thai teachers how to say “I have to poop” in 10 different ways in English
  • Learning how to say “I have to poop” in Thai
  • Eating dancing shrimp (still alive baby shrimp) on a raft in a lake
  • Climbing to the top of Phu Kradueng  and Phu Reau
  • Eating at least one time every waking hour
  • Watching the sunset over the Mekong and the sunrise from the top of a mountain (Oh wait that never actually happened…Thai time…)

When I moved to Thailand this was the Thai vacation I was dreaming of and my dream came true.  I look forward to more road trips in the upcoming months!

 

 

A little FOMO never hurt anyone

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For the first time in my life I am finally experiencing this thing called FOMO that people have been talking about for years.  FOMO…fear of missing out.  Back in the US I never experienced FOMO.  I think I had the opposite of FOMO at home, I will call it IWRSAHTBTSWNWO.  Or…I would rather stay at home than be trapped somewhere with no way out.  The moment I would get a party invite or friends would discuss going out to a bar after dinner or I would be asked spontaneously to go spend the afternoon at the mall or a beach my mind would immediately go in to panic mode.  I would begin to think of legitimate sounding excuses, think of how I could convince everyone I need to drive separately and plan my exit route in case I felt stuck.  Literally my mind would be racing and I would become nauseous.  In the end I would accept about half of the invitations I received and feel left out of the other half sitting at home with Barley.  As soon as I would arrive at a place I was always ok and ended up enjoying myself.  I am a fairly social person and am able to converse with most people I encounter.  What people never saw though was this intense anxiety that was present deep inside me BEFORE arriving at the outing.  This is a side of me that has been hidden from the outside world for years and very few people that meet me would believe I struggle from social anxiety disorder.

My first month in Thailand I still carried those social anxieties with me.  I only went out to the bars one time in my month in Chiang Mai and I refused trips to both Chiang Rai and Pai with my TESOL peers.  I wanted to go but I declined the invitations because I knew in a foreign country I would not have any control of the situation and that terrified me.  I was filled with excuses.  It is too expensive, I am too old to go out and drink, I have nothing in common with people 10 years younger than me.  As I was lying in bed a few months ago I realized that all these opportunities may only be given to me once in a lifetime.  I may have lost my only chance to get to Chiang Rai and Pai and I definitely lost opportunities to get to know the people from my TESOL group on a different level.  I am only in Thailand for a finite amount of time and I need to take advantage of every moment.  If I was just going to hide away in my cave I may as well still be in Eagan, Minnesota.

When I moved to Phayakapphum Phisai I promised myself I would be different.  I promised myself I would not let any opportunity, no matter how small, pass me by.  I decided to cast my control and fears aside and just go for it.   I did not want to miss out on anything!  For the first time of my life I have developed FOMO and it feels great!  I have been to two Thai weddings, a Buriram United football match, a Thai memorial service, drove 2 hours to Roi Et to pick up a dress for my Thai best friend’s mother, drank Chang with numerous groups of Thai teachers at dinner parties, fed the monks, swam in the Gulf of Thailand at Jomtien Beach, set a krathong a sail,  climbed 300 stairs to see a giant Buddah at Khao Kradong forest park, took a night trip to Na Dun and the list goes on.   I refuse to let any more opportunities slip by.

I still have not let my practical side go however.  I remain the fiscally responsible, well grounded self I have always been and always will be.  I have just learned how to analyze situations on a different level and ask myself “am I saying no to an opportunity because I legitimately do not have the money now or am saving money for other travel endeavors?” or “am I saying no because I am scared and just making excuses?”  If the answer is the latter I take a deep breathe, tell myself I will be fine, accept the invitation graciously and have the time of my life.

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