It has been 142 days since my 482 day adventure ended. It is extremely difficult to put the emotions I have been feeling down on paper, but I will try. I thought I was on an emotional roller coaster in Thailand, little did I know the true roller coaster was located in Mendota Heights, Minnesota.
Since I have been back I have been working with students with special needs at a small charter school. I thought teaching 42 Thai first graders with no English was tough, but that is nothing compared to the challenges I have had at my new school. I am constantly cursed at by 14 & 15 year olds, told I “am doing too much” each time I ask a student to do their work, pencils have been thrown, tables and chairs flipped over. Each day I leave mentally and emotionally exhausted, but I always survey the day and find the one or two positives that occurred whether it be helping a student complete an essay or taking one of my students who has no real home to to the store to stock up on food for the weekend. Throughout it all though, I still have a desire to stay in a classroom!
Next week I am embark on a another new adventure. I am starting a masters program in teaching English as a Second Language at the University of Minnesota. I am not at all nervous, as I feel my time in Phayakkaphum Phisai has adequately prepared me for this. I have not been a student since 2005, so I am slightly apprehensive about what school with all this new technology will be like. I mean, an online class, what is that?!?!
I am still running into people for the first time since I have been back and their first utterance is always the same…are you happy to be back? For me this is such a loaded question. I am back at attending soccer and baseball games. Family dinners. Friday night dinners with friends. BBQs. Board game nights. Life was pretty much the same place I left it here. I am content. I am happy.
I do feel like a different person since I have been back, but for not all the reasons I imagined. I feel like a left a big part of me in Phayakkaphum Phisai. The part of me that felt complete. From the moment I arrived in Phayak I felt like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders, a weight I never knew I had. I never knew how light I could feel. It is a weird feeling that I struggle to put into words. How can you explain finding a part of you that you never knew was missing? I felt whole for the first time in my life. I still don’t know what brought me to Phayakkaphum Phisai or how I got to this place in my life. I am forever grateful that I got to experience true bliss and wholeness at least for awhile, some people never get to experience that.
In only six months I will be back in Phayak and I can’t want. I am ready to feel whole again.
482 days ago I left Minnesota. I was uncertain, terrified, doubtful and anxious. I had lived my entire life up until September 24, 2015 in a bubble of certainty. I did my best to plan my every moment, predict my future and live within societal norms. Everything in my life was comfortable and foreseeable. 482 days ago I was just going about the movements of life, not really enjoying it but at the same time not hating it. Life was what it was and I thought it was going to stay that way forever. 482 days ago was the day that I finally made a change and stepped out of my comfort zone and started living my life. I am never going back.
Today I return to Minnesota. I have heard so many people say “I can’t wait to meet the new you.” I hear that and I feel that people may be a little disappointed. The same me is returning. The only difference is that I finally realize what other people have seen in me for years. Most people are so surprised to hear that I have been suffering with anxiety disorder for the last 26 years. They have always seen me as an outgoing, confident, capable, strong individual. Externally I did come off that way, but internally I was a wreck. I never saw myself as that person. I saw myself as nothing more than an anxious person putting on a show. Each day of my life used to be so exhausting trying to meet people’s expectations of who they thought I was.
These last 482 days have finally shown me that I am the person that people have always seen. I am confident. I am outgoing. I am capable. I am strong. I just never knew it. I finally realized that I just need to let go of all control and live life in the present. I have experienced so much these last 482 days, have pushed myself in so many unimaginable ways and have succeeded. I became a teacher. I created everlasting friendships with people that speak a different language. I have stood with the mayor of Phayakkaphum Phisai at the Mother’s Day celebration. I lead 1500 students in line dances. I sang the national anthem in front of 300 grade 5 & 6 students. I drove a motorbike. I visited 17 countries. I flew in 30 planes. I lived in a tent for 67 days in Africa. I slept with lions and under the stars. I went without showering for 3 days. I lived without wi-fi for 8 days. I went 16 months without driving a car. I jumped out of a plane. I got a tattoo. Individually these all may seem like minor things to accomplish, but together for me they are nothing short of amazing.
I return to Minnesota knowing that I can do anything. I can live my life as I want to live it. I can do things on my own. I don’t need to wait on others to do what want to do. I return to Minnesota feeling fulfilled. Feeling happy. Feeling alive. Feeling excited for my future.
Life truly did begin at the end of my comfort zone.
I left home 382 days ago on a mission. I was on a mission to get my life back. One year ago life was happening around me. One year ago I was living a life filled with regret and fear. One year ago I always needed to feel in control. One year ago I would get anxious if invited some place new. One year ago I was sad. One year ago I thought my life was doomed to being stuck in my comfort zone forever. One year ago I never imagined I could be happy.
Here I am today, 382 days later. In 3 days I will be leaving Phayakkaphum Phisai and heading out on a 100 day backpacking trip. In 100 days I will visit 11 countries, trek through tea plantations and jungles in Malaysia with a few of my Thai sisters, sleep in a tent in Africa for 66 nights, go paragliding, skydive (hopefully), zip line over Victoria Falls, see wildlife up close and have beers and Vegemite sandwiches with good friends down under. 382 days ago I would have been scared out of my mind right now, but today I cannot wait. 382 days ago I would have been crying my eyes out saying goodbye to my new life in Phayakkaphum Phisai, but today I realize that nothing is forever and change is ok (although I am sure there will be some tears). I know that I will be back in Phayak in 435 days and that I can come back any time.
Today I am happy. Today I can honestly say that I feel good about my life. Today I can say that I am ok with who I am. Today I can say that I no longer care if people look at me differently or question me for not living the way society tries to dictate that people live. Today I have given up on life timelines and accept that things happen when they do for a reason. Today I accept the fact that I am 33 years old and just learning to live. Today my glass is half full.
I have been happy before, but this time is the first time I know my happiness is going to last. It is not going anywhere this time, because I know where to find it and how to get it back if it ever starts to disappear. This year I have learned that my happiness comes from pushing myself out of my comfort zone and now I am not afraid to do that. There are so many more challenges in life for me to overcome and so many more places for me to see. There are so many more kids in this world to teach and so many more chances for me to affect lives. Each time I step out of my comfort zone I gain a little more happiness, which means my potential for a life of happiness moving forward is endless. I cannot wait to see what else life has in store for me. My life is back in my hands.
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.
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…
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.
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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.