I’m Back

I’ve returned to the USA. There’s cheese here; I like that.

It’s been a great joy to see so many people I haven’t seen for so long. My social plate has been full for the last week and a half, and I hope all my friends know how wonderful it is to see their faces and hear their voices.

People keep asking how it is to be back; and it’s good. It’s surreal how ordinary it all feels, almost like the last year never happened and I’m back where I’m supposed to be. I’m different, though. The ten months abroad gave me a lot, in terms of focus, identity, belief.

Currently I’m existing in a state of unknowns. Thankfully I saved enough to invest in some things I need (an American phone, a drawing tablet that works, new interview shoes), but things cost a lot in America—like, so much—and I need an income sooner rather than later. I expected to feel more anxiety about that, but I’m putting a lot of energy toward the search, and it all has to work out one way or another. Housing is also an issue, and unexpectedly so, but I know we’ll find a solution.

My most overwhelming reverse-culture shock moment so far happened while walking into a Hannaford grocery store last Sunday. There are many Hannaford stores all over the greater Portland area, and for the two years I worked as bus driver Hannaford was my home-away-from-home. You can always find bus parking in a Hannaford parking lot, and I used to go in at least once a day to use the bathroom and grab a snack, or even get lunch from the wings/salad bar. While riding back from the airport, just seeing the Hannaford sign gave me a surprisingly intense shot of nostalgia.

So I walked into Hannaford on a Sunday morning, concise grocery-list in hand, and it was SO STRANGE to be alone in a public place and feel like I was meant to belong.

Every time I went into a mall or grocery store or market in Phitsanulok, I knew that I stood out. I was the tall foreigner who didn’t speak the language, and couldn’t be expected to know how to do anything. If I ever needed help, or if the cashier needed to tell me that it was buy-one-get-1-free on one of my items (which I never knew while getting it off the shelf because I couldn’t read the sign), it meant we were in for a half-mimed and half-understood conversation of broken Thai and broken English. I became really accustomed to that feeling of standing out, of being watched, of sales people whispering to each other when they saw me and then sending their best English-speaking representative over to ask if I needed anything.

So it was bizarre to be in a large store and to feel like everyone around me expected me to fit in and know exactly how to behave. It felt like a lot of pressure, suddenly, like if I messed up people would judge me. I didn’t realize that the lack of expectations for my behavior in a foreign country was actually freeing, in some ways, and belonging in a place visually made me feel like an imposter. Especially since I couldn’t remember where the coffee aisle was, and hadn’t steered a shopping cart in months.

I’m also really scared that Hannaford has stopped making lemon poppyseed muffins, which were my favorite. They did them perfect, too, soft on the inside and crispy on top. I need to try a different store, or a different day, to confirm. All I know is that the back bay store didn’t have them on Sunday, and it was a bummer.

That’s all for now! Despite the muffins, it’s great to be back.

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A Lost Month, and Beautiful Things

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Floor at Wat Pha Sorn Kaew, Buddhist Temple in Khao Koh, Thailand

Okay. We have some catching up to do.

First of all, culture shock is real, and I lost August. Not entirely lost—I traveled to Chiang Mai and Bangkok, I wrote some, and planned and organized thoughts for the rest of my novel. I went to school every day, and joined my friends for dinner and lunch and afternoons at coffee shops. When I wasn’t with people or fulfilling a work obligation, though, I was lying on my bed watching Gilmore Girls, and even when I was with people I mostly felt really, really bad. I identified with many of the things on this “13 Lies Your Depression is Telling You” list, I felt like a terrible teacher, and I wanted to go home.

I don’t know how much of this was the isolating effects of culture shock, and how much was mild depression. I’ve always struggled with ups and downs and probably always will, and going to Thailand in the first place was a response to some pretty serious negative feelings about my self-worth. I didn’t feel like I was capable of anything, so I went to the other side of the world to prove myself wrong. I’m not necessarily knocking this as a solution, but… you’re still you, even in Thailand, and all those bad feelings won’t instantly go away.

I’m doing amazing now, though, and I’m really grateful to everyone who sent me emails and skyped and chatted on facebook and talked and ate meals with me during my bad month. The human contact was so needed and appreciated. Somewhere along the line I got really cynical about a lot of things, and I made a decision a few weeks ago to be more grateful and less self-defeating. To believe that things can be done when I start them, instead of assuming laziness and failure from the outset.

Here’s what I’ve been up to:

Running. Thursday will mark three weeks successful completion of my 5-runs-a-week routine. I run around our school building (.4 miles a lap!) and the students laugh and smile at me. They wave and shout “Hello teacher!” when they see me, every time they see me, which is sometimes three or four or even six times per run! This is a good system because I always run a little faster after a student makes me smile. My favorite was when a group of M1 girls (seventh graders) said, “Teacher, fighting!” as I went by. That’s my new mantra, whenever I’m out of breath and want to stop: Teacher, fighting!

Strength training. Three days a week, I’m doing push ups and squats and crunches. Like, more than I knew I could do. I’ve flirted with pushups in the past, and exercise machines and stuff like that, but this is the first time I’ve realized how it works. You do this. It feels like this. This is uncomfortable, but instead of stopping you do a few more, or a lot more. Sweat drips onto your yoga mat, your muscles surprise you, and you feel fierce. In a few days, you come back and do even more.

[Reality check: I still can’t do more than three full push-ups in a row. Instead of letting that discourage me, I’m killing it with the modified ones and I’ll work my way up to full ones very soon.]

Other stuff. Stretches and yoga, which get mixed in with the running and strength training. While on a school trip, I got up early to do yoga on the balcony while the sun rose over a misty sea. My yoga instruction is entirely from youtube videos, but maybe all these people who are talking about yoga all the time are actually onto something.

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Environment. My brother told me a while ago that a clean house fights depression, so I’m trying to do things to make my surroundings feel nice—even though I’ll only be here for six more months. It’s difficult because my house is dirty and desperately needs a coat of paint, but I’ve been putting things on the walls and investing in cleaning supplies. I haven’t kept up with the cleaning quite as well as the exercise, but I’m picking things up more often and working on some projects. I’m sewing fabric curtains for an ugly piece of furniture, and I bought a new bed set and a folding table to go by my bed. Little things, but worth it for the happiness I get when I use them, and the happiness that comes from feeling at peace with my surroundings.

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I’ve also done some traveling these last few weeks to the ocean and the mountains. The ocean, man. I lived a ten-minute walk from the ocean for last past two years, and didn’t realize how much I missed it until I saw it again. And yesterday’s ride on a mountain highway to a stunning temple 117 km (70 miles away) was awesome, and now I’m remembering my plans for longer bike trips. Things feel possible again, and it feels especially amazing because nothing felt possible in August.

There’s a lot more to say, always is, but for now enjoy some pictures from yesterday’s road trip!

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The five sitting Buddha statue at Wat Pha Sorn Kaew

Me and Anna, my friend from Germany who has been teaching at the school and sharing my house for the last two months. It was her last weekend in Phitsanulok, and I'm so glad we got to do something fun together!

Me and Anna, my friend from Germany who has been teaching at the school and sharing my house for the last two months. It was her last weekend in Phitsanulok, and I’m so glad we got to do something fun together!

Stairs!

Stairs!

Mountains!

And mountains!