Saturday, July 30, 2011

Lessons from Living Abroad

I think the term “studying abroad” is a little bit misguided. Yes, you are enrolled in classes and yes, you have assignments and deadlines, but the courses and books are not what truly teach you. Experiencing everyday life while walking the streets of Bangkok or buying from food vendors in Salaya, that was where the greatest learning took place. And the biggest lessons that came back with me across the wide expanse of the Pacific are the ones I literally picked up from the streets. I could list approximately two-dozen of these life lessons; lessons about time management, about balancing taking a lead and taking a step back, about appreciating differences, and the list goes on and on. But there are two learned lessons in particular that have taken effect immediately and consistently.

Melissa and I went to the night market in Chiang Rai and we watched as, around midnight, the vendors packed up their carts and tables. We observed people who had been trying, often unsuccessfully, to sell shirts or ties or watches to passersby for hours upon hours. They most likely received rude responses to their sales attempts throughout the evening as they stood in the 400% humidity that is persistent in the rainy season in Thailand. And as the complicated process of folding, packing, hauling, and folding some more continued, we wondered how soon they would be back to unfold, unpack, haul, and unfold some more. But as they finished up, they began to congregate. Someone arrived with beers and they sat around long after the packing of carts was finished. There was talking, laughing, sharing of food, and not a single face lacked a smile.

This impromptu “living abroad” experience gave me a massive piece of mental luggage for my trip back home. Why do I take myself so seriously? The pressure I put on myself to live up to something each day, something that I haven’t even really defined, is absurd. Each day cannot be earth shattering. And what defines something as earth shattering anyway? The vendors in Chiang Rai were living their lives of unpacking, selling, and repacking and history was most likely not being rewritten on that street corner, but they were happy. In Thailand it really hit me that nobody can save the world, and putting world-changing goals on your to-do list can do more harm than good. If you do what you love and if you’re happy, that’s earth shattering for you. And that’s what matters. And most likely, you will have a greater and more positive impact than if you keep “saving the world” on your bucket list.

This lesson entwines itself very tightly with another Pacific-traveling tidbit I now possess – living in the moment. Being in Thailand, this lesson hits you over the head about a hundred times a day. You planned to be at dinner at seven? Well Bangkok traffic is unbelievable and none of the taxi drivers want to take you all the way to the Mahidol campus. You planned a session for a group of preschool-aged children? Well you have a four year old and a ten year old so figure out how to include them both in your session. You planned to write down ideas for research or your philosophy statement while in Thailand? Well you barely found time to jot down what you did each day and a month passed like weeks usually do. Life has to be lived in the moment in Thailand, so why not live each moment happily? I find I often live in tunnel vision with only my plans and expectations in view. Thailand gave me peripherals, the ability to see and appreciate my surroundings in that moment. Of course you want to have aspirations and set yourself on a path to achieve them, but each moment on the way to that tunnel’s end is just as important as the moment you get there.

For these lessons I need to thank Dr. Register for the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and the incredible and unwavering guidance. I need to thank my peers on the trip for their eye-opening perspectives and unconditional love. I need to thank all the Thais I interacted with for their graciousness and, often unwarranted, acceptance. And finally, my greatest thanks is to Thailand, the nation that stole all of our hearts and gave them back to us as something with a little more happiness, a little more acceptance, a little more love. Essentially, a little more Thai.

1 comment:

  1. Kim,

    You are a fabulous writer and I love reading your blogs so much! You always leave me with some awesome little catch-phrases hanging around in my head, like "mental luggage". I couldn't agree with you more-- but didn't know how to say it! Also, I completely agree with the "living in the moment thing" In my blog-to-come I wrote about letting go of some of our American concept of time. But what I really mean is what you said-- that living in the moment was most important. You were wearing a dress when we got to the Tiger Cave temple and you STILL climbed the mountain like a champ!

    To reiterate, I love your blog :)