There’s a Reason We Call it Consumerism

There’s a Reason We Call it Consumerism

Instantly, I love them. Cream colored leather. Thick heel. They almost resemble fall booties, but it has a peek toe so they could be worn in summer. I look at the price tag – $70. Too much. I shouldn’t even try them on. Plus, they’re not even what I’m looking for. Stay focused, I think.

I decided to go to TJMaxx last week after I came to the stark realization that I had no good sandals to wear on Easter. I only owned Rainbow leather flip flops and a flimsy pair of black, strappy sandals that my roommate Jenica had given to me in college after she felt they were too worn in for her (they’re now decorated with spots where the fake leather has worn down and revealed the cloth core beneath).

I pass the cream colored heels, scan my eyes further along the shelf. I’m proud of my initial self-control, but the sparkly sandals I eventually try on disappoint and after I try another pair of baby pink ones with a gold plate down the strap, I pull the cream colored heels off the shelf. No harm in trying them on, right? But I know that I am trapped. They feel perfect, molded to my foot almost, as if they were made for me. But they’re $70, I think over and over again. I can’t justify spending $70 on shoes I didn’t come here to buy. What do I need them for?

And there’s the crux—need. I don’t need them for anything. But what about that wedding this summer that I still need shoes for? Or the white coat ceremony for medical school that’s coming up in the middle of August? The justification begins. When it comes time to whittle down my hefty selections from an after work shopping spree, the cream colored shoes stay for purely aesthetic reasons—they’re cute, comfy, versatile. I walk to the register, telling myself I’ll return the shoes if they don’t go with the dress I’m wearing to the wedding this summer.


IMG_6542It’s been almost a week now and the shoes sit in front of my closet, the tags still attached. I am no closer to making a decision of whether I will keep them. They didn’t go with that dress. But I could still wear them, I think. More justification. I recognize that my agony over this decision does not match the consequences of such decision. I recognize that my happiness is not tied to the purchase or return of these shoes, that these are only material things. It’s cliché, I know. It’s things we’ve all heard before—money doesn’t buy happiness. And yet, on the surface, they seem so intrinsically linked.

For much of my life I have struggled financially. I was raised primarily by a single mother and started working as soon as it was legal, right before my 16th birthday, so that I could have money to buy things for myself—clothes, shoes, tickets to movies. I don’t resent my upbringing because of this; on the contrary, I am appreciative that my family’s adversity made me aware, from a young age, of the value of money. Yet, it also has me continually striving for more, and not necessarily in a healthy way.

Since high school, I’ve found that I easily become jealous of others who have more. Classmates whose parents pay their rent for them and still give them monthly allowances to buy clothes and go out to bars; friends who make more money than me and consequently can travel with more ease; even strangers who seem to be dressed nice, drive a nicer car than me, or order an entire bottle of wine at dinner. I wish I didn’t have these thoughts. I wish that I didn’t size up everyone I meet by the amount of money they or their parents make. I wish I didn’t have to think about the balance of my bank account on a daily basis. I wish I could buy what I wanted without having to worry if I could pay the rent that month too.

I reflect now on my fixation with money because even though I have recognized for a long time that my relationship with money is not the healthiest, I began for the first time in my life to form a healthy relationship with money while I was in Thailand. My financial situation radically changed while I was there. No longer was I concerned about making enough money to pay the rent or having sufficient funds to go out on a Friday night for a drink. I had the extreme privilege to have a stable salary that not only allowed me to live comfortably, but also gave me the ability to save for trips and other travel expenses. For the first time in my life, I didn’t have to worry about money.

I also didn’t have the pulls of capitalism that exist so strongly in this country. The few ads I was exposed to were in a language I didn’t fully understand and therefore had no lasting impact on me. I was essentially in this bubble stripped of outside influences and thus, my purchases were almost solely based on the molding of my being. To add to this nearly non-capitalist approach to purchasing, I knew that I anything I bought there needed to have a purpose fulfilled immediately because most of the things I owned while there would not be returning home with me. It was as if I owned this transient set of possessions, material things that I knew I would not add to my permanent collection and therefore would not impact my self-image for long.   Because of this I bought items that I certainly would never have bought if I were living in the U.S. For example, I purchased a pair of orange Converse at a fair when I needed a pair of tennis shoes that would be more comfortable than flip flops to walk around in a city all day. I first tried on a pair of black Converse, something that was already a bit outside my comfort zone. I had never purchased a pair of Converse before, always thinking they weren’t my style and made my feet look too big. But there weren’t many other options at this fair in terms of closed toed walking shoes. As I was about to purchase the black pair, an orange pair caught my eye. What the hell? I thought. Why not? The last time I owned anything orange (outside of Wapiyapi) was a t-shirt I wore in the fourth grade with a sparkly zebra on front.

I loved those orange shoes. They fulfilled their purpose and always made me smile when I looked down on their bright, and a little bizarre, color. When they began falling apart on my way home, the rubber soles wearing through as I walked through town with them in Ireland, I purchased a new pair of shoes in the next shop I saw and threw the orange pair away in the trash can outside. No second thoughts.

This year hasn’t brought the same satisfaction with my purchases. I have bought in excess, whether it be because I have returned home after two years of living in a tropical climate and thus have a shortage of practical fall and winter clothes, or it be because I am starting medical school next year and feel an added pressure to build a varied wardrobe so as to decrease the amount of clothes I will buy over the next four years when everything will be on a loan, I don’t know.

Every time I have bought something this year I have told myself that this is the end of the purchasing for a while. I don’t need any more clothes for fall. Or winter. Or spring. But as soon as I buy one thing, I begin to want more. Just after I purchased a cardigan in the mall, on sale, I began to notice what women wore in the store while I was at work. I wanted the purple cardigan one women wore, who I spotted leaning over her daughter, wiping some stray juice off her cheek. I took note of the running capris one woman wore while pushing her stroller; they hit her calf in just the right place so they didn’t ride up. I observed the heels that clicked by and the brightly colored converse that caught my eye. Why, I thought, am I constantly wanting more just as I have obtained more?

When I first moved home I felt hypersensitive to the capitalism around me—the ads on TV, the radio, my phone, the Internet, the emails with sales and discounts and new products that filled my inbox on an hourly basis. They all drove me mad. I felt like there was no way to escape the noise, there was no way I couldn’t want more. I felt restless most days, going to bed with a slight buzzing in my ear.

Is this a condition of humanity? Or just of our Western societal structure? Or is it more specifically a construct of American society?

Or perhaps some of it as well, has something to do with the condition of my hometown. It’s a place filled with upper middle class families. A place where my high school spilled over with kids dressed in the latest designer clothes—Juicy Couture track suits, Coach shoes, Miss Me and Lucky Brand jeans—and the parking lot seemed like a high end dealership—BMW’s, Land Rovers, Mercedes. I was the only one I knew above the age of 16 who didn’t have their own car.

Now I find myself surrounded by that all again, just in a very different context. I am no longer influenced by the amount of name brand purses I see in the grocery store, but I do feel a certain pressure to look my best. For the first time in my existence I feel an urge to wear heels in an everyday capacity and not simply for formal events like dances or weddings or interviews.

When I was in college I once asked one of my teammates what they wore in terms of makeup. “Only mascara,” she said. “Sometimes eyeliner if I’m going to a party or something. But a lot of days I don’t wear any makeup.” I was a little taken aback.

I turned to my other teammate and asked her the same question. “Mascara and eyeliner,” she said. “But a lot of days I don’t wear anything either.”

“Really?” I looked at both of them, incredulous.

“What do you wear?” they asked me.

“Mascara, eyeliner, eye shadow, foundation.” My list felt long and unnecessary compared to theirs. I told them I always wore makeup, that I hardly ever went a day without it. “It’s not that I think I don’t look good without it, I just have never really thought about not wearing it on a normal day where I go to class.”

After our conversation, I realized that I had built my own makeup habit in high school and it had never left me. In high school I had noticed all the girls with intricate layers of foundation and blush, shades of eye shadow filled in up to their brows, thick lines of eyeliner that were impossible to miss. In class one day a teacher asked us to reveal our morning routines. Most girls said they spent 40 minutes to an hour on their makeup alone. I had the shortest routine at 10 minutes. I was tame in comparison to many of my classmates, at least that’s what I thought. Puget Sound, the place I attended college, however, was far different from my hometown and I felt it immediately.

“I like that people wear their hair natural here,” one of my friends observed at the beginning of our freshman year. It was true. Many girls didn’t feel the need to straighten their hair or even blow dry it and thus there were more people with wavy and curly hair than straight. It gave my friend the permission to ditch her own straightener and go natural as well.

Students at Puget Sound didn’t feel the need to impress others with how they looked. It was a laid back campus where designer brand purses were almost nonexistent and a natural look won over a highly made up one.

How much is the way I present myself to the world shaped by the town I grew up in? Was I never able to ditch my makeup regimen in college because it had already been so firmly cemented in me during high school? Was I never able to wear my hair natural because of the fear I had during high school that everyone would take note if I hadn’t straightened my hair for one day? If the answers to all of these questions are yes, then isn’t it reasonable to assume that my spending habits this year, especially in regards to building a more glamorous and varied wardrobe are tied to these same pressures? I am a product of my environment, as many of us are, and despite having traveled to different parts of the world and having lived in another part of the country, I am still vulnerable to the very thing I hate most about my hometown—its superficiality.

I think what bothers me most about this superficiality is not that I can’t afford the nice things so many people have around me, but that people feel the need to buy these nice things in the first place. The excess of luxury cars, designer clothing, and fine jewelry in my hometown is not so much a sign of higher income but a need for people to flaunt that excess wealth. What is the purpose behind buying a Lexus over a Toyota? A Kate Spade purse over an off brand one from TJMaxx or Target? There is something to be said of higher quality, but yet, how much of our decision to buy nicer products is entangled in what that brand represents and thereby what our status becomes when we can afford such luxuries.

As a kid, and even now, I have never understood why money ruled our world. I have always questioned how extremely wealthy people could keep all their money for themselves without ever giving much of it to others who need it more. How can one be so selfish as to live with far more than they need, and yet others do not even have the necessities of a home and clean clothes?

In high school I was strangely curious about communism. I thought, in many ways, it was more ideal than democracy because it ruled out capitalism and wealth and social hierarchy. But I knew better than to say these thoughts out loud, especially in a classroom. Even in a post Cold War world, I knew that saying communism seemed better than what we currently had in the U.S. was crossing a certain line, even if I didn’t entirely agree with that line.   Communism, to me, represented this world where people could be equal, where there was no choice in being selfish and everyone was taken care of. Since visiting some communist countries, I have seen that all of these ideals work out better on paper than they do in practice. Selfishness is a part of the human condition. There is no denying that.

I, myself, who has always criticized wealthy people for keeping their riches, am guilty of this crime too. I do not need those $70 shoes; instead that money could go towards Wapiyapi (a cause that many of you know is near and dear to my heart), funding a scholarship for one of my students in Thailand, or even selfishly—my student loans.

This whole post isn’t to mock my purchase, or your purchase for that matter, of a $70 pair of shoes. In the overarching world these are small things. Yet, I find myself gripped with buyer’s remorse each time I purchase something. Even weeks after the purchase I am engrossed with possible regret. I may have used the shoes several times or worn the dress and received many compliments on it; I may even have fallen in love with the item myself. But yet, I am still burdened with the thought of returning it because truly my life would be the same without it.

My relationship with money may be rocky, but I will continue to work on making better, smarter purchases and creating a healthier partnership with money in the context of a highly capitalist world where advertisements are thrust into my lap within nearly every minute of every day—

Wait—I just received an email with deals on winter jackets. It’s only spring, but if I want to get a good deal I got to act now. . .Where’d I put my wallet?

What Do You Do? – a contemplation on work and success

In our society we value work and success.  It’s something I’ve always known, growing up in a family where I was encouraged to pursue a future career that would utilize my education.  In high school I had a fairly blunt conversation with my mother on this topic. I was sitting on my bed, my mother across from me.  We were talking about what I wanted to do when I grew up, a question that around my sophomore year of high school seemed to suddenly morph from a light and friendly topic to something that carried far more substantial weight.  I told my mother that day, the sunlight pouring in through the sheer curtains of my bedroom window, that I wanted to be either a fashion designer or a photographer.  I was in both classes at the time.  They had surpassed my long time favorite – English.  But when I told my mother that this was where my current interests lay she didn’t show the slightest elation. Instead she sort of pursed her lips and I could see her shoulders grow tense.  “Brenna, you can’t be that,” she said.  

“Why not?”  The conversation had become serious and I found myself, like most teenagers are with their parents, combative.

“You’re too smart to be a photographer or designer.  You need to do something with your mind.”

That comment has stuck with me; although I realize for my mother it was most likely a fleeting comment, a passing conversation that she now has no recollection of.  It is something that over the past few years, as I begin to truly answer that question – What do you want to be when you grow up? – has continually replayed in my mind.  Did that comment change my projection?  Did my need to appease my mother force me out of a creative profession and instead steer me towards medicine?  I think I would have found my way towards medicine anyway because the comment my mother said to me that day was not fueled by her own belief that I should pursue intellect over creativity.  (Indeed I think there is much to be said about the intellect in photography, fashion design, and all forms of art for that matter.)  Instead, I believe my mother’s fear that I would choose a “wrong” profession was rooted in our societal beliefs.  

For one reason or another, we as a society, have created a hierarchy of professions.  There are certain professions we see as prestigious and noteworthy, and therefore we give certain people more automatic respect because of the connotation of what they do for a living.  It is generally thought that going into medicine is a good, worthy occupation.  However why is it that doctors are more generously given respect in comparison to nurses, or PA’s, public health experts, or health care administrators?  I don’t just mean when you are at a dinner party and say what your profession is to a stranger, but even within the workplace.  I’ve worked as a medical scribe this past year and because my job doesn’t automatically fit into any one health care role — i.e. nurses or doctors — I’ve found that I have been accepted by both groups within the office.  This mutual acceptance has allowed me to see the interactions between health care providers without any natural biases.  It continues to amaze me how even though everyone is working towards the common goal of providing the best care for a patient that an unspoken heirarchy still exists.

I must point out that this hierarchy is completely subjective based off the values of a particular culture.  In Thailand, for instance, teachers are highly respected and seen as one of the most important professions.  In public, teachers are given the title Ajarn, the Thai word for teacher, rather than their first name.  It is essentially the equivalent of being referred to as doctor if you have an MD, DO, or your PhD.


 

It was the other week, skiing the slopes on a weekday that I became confronted with the value our culture places on work and success in a way I was never aware of while I was a student.  Having skied solo for the day I shared many chair lifts with other single skiers, most of them older males.  Within the small conversations one question continually slipped in, usually at the beginning of the conversation – What do you do?  

I shouldn’t have been taken aback by this question.  But I was.  Living in other countries I have noticed that this is never the first question you ask a stranger.  You ask “Have you eaten?” or “Where are you going?” (Perhaps my perspective is a bit skewed here.  In Thailand it was assumed within my community in Nan that I was a teacher. Maybe that is why no one ever asked me What do you do?) Men in skinny black jeans on motorbikes would look over at me while we were stopped at a light and ask Bai Nai?  Where do you go? Women sitting on bus station benches would ask inquisitively, Gin leao? Have you eaten?   I loved the societal connotations of these two questions, although I never quite mastered the art of answering them–it can be awkward to say to the guy next to you at a traffic light that you’re just wandering the city on a Saturday morning, trying to kill some time before you meet your friends for lunch.  People didn’t necessarily care that you had achieved great success in your career or even that you had finished school, although they still do place great emphasis on a good education.    Instead, they cared about what you were doing in that present moment; they cared that you were taken care of and that you were moving forward in a positive direction.    

On the chair lift the other week I found myself wanting someone to ask me those questions again — Where are you going?  Have you eaten? — instead of What do you do?  I was a bit embarrassed, honestly, to answer the question.  I’m a medical scribe.  I felt that by admitting this, I was also admitting my failure to be successful.  Why was being a medical scribe equivalent to failure, I thought?  Why was it not good enough?  The answer to these questions probably all rely on the personal connotations I have with being a scribe rather than the societal connotations.  I’m sure nobody on that chairlift thought lesser of me because of what I did.  

But I found myself wanting to add more.  I felt the need to also tell everyone that I was going to medical school next year, that this job was only transitional.  Why did I feel the need to add that?  Why did I need people to know that I was striving for more than being a medical scribe?  

As I noticed this tendency to elaborate, I tried to stop myself.  The next person I shared a the ski lift with was an older man who lived in Keystone.  Inevitably he came around to asking me what I did.  “I’m a medical scribe.”  No flare.  No added boost of medical school.  Just I’m a scribe. I let the words hang between us.  There seemed to be no judgement.  But still, I wondered, why did I put so much weight on that 4 word question?  

Maybe, I thought, it was the fear of answering that question that gravitated me towards a career in medicine rather than a more creative occupation.  Ever since I could read, I have also loved writing.  My first (and truest) desire was to write a book.  As a kid I always imagined I would grow up to be an author, although even then, I would never admit this when someone asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up.  Perhaps I knew, even then, the perceived negative connotations I would receive.  Or perhaps I also knew my need to survive on a stable income.   Whatever it may be, somewhere along the way, societal expectations got the better of me and I too fell into my mother’s trap, feeling that I must utilize my intellect above my knack for creativity.  That’s not to say I will never write–clearly I have sustained this blog far past its conceivable life and continued writing even when I know so few are actually reading; and I still have the crazy desire to continue writing and formulating books and stories as I venture further into the realm of medicine. But that question – What do you do? – needed to be answered in more tangible way for me. I choose, very deliberately, not to make writing my entire career.   


At the end of the day I realized I had only asked one person I rode the chairlift with what they did.  Not only was I uncomfortable answering the question, I was also uncomfortable asking the question.  

Why, I thought, do we place so much emphasis on what we do?  Why does it seem that our worth is tied to our success? And that success is measured in career aspiration and achievement rather than our base happiness?  Instead of asking one another what we do, why cannot we ask: Are you happy?  Are you loved?  Have you eaten?  Where are you going?  

Because ultimately, I think, it is not what you do that shapes your life, but who you love and who loves you.  What matters is how you find joy in your life, despite the monotony of a job and daily living.  What matters is good food and good conversation.  What matters is family and friendships that sustain us.  What matters are deep life experiences that strip us of who we think we are and show us what truly matters.  

An Open Letter to My Students

Dear Little Ones (who are probably not quite as little as I remember now),

I think about you everyday. I thought it would be easier by now. It’s been almost a year since I last saw you and still I wake up thinking about you and go to bed longing for you. It’s hard to believe that it’s been almost a year. It doesn’t feel that long ago that we were playing with puppets and plastic food and writing sentences in a language that was far different from your own. To all of you though it must feel like an eternity. You are so young, you have so few years to compare the passing of time to. As a child I would whine on Christmas morning as soon as we opened all the presents.

“It’s over,” I would cry in front of the torn wrapping paper and flung open boxes.

“Christmas will come again next year,” my mother would say to me.

“But that’s a whole year away,” I would whine. A year felt like a slowly passing train that would never end.

It doesn’t feel that way anymore though. The years now seem to chug along faster and faster, as if they are an accelerating train getting ready to derail.

I miss you so much it hurts. Some nights if I think about you too hard, I begin to cry. I whimper in my bed and think of each one of your faces. I try to remember all of your names, I try to prove to myself that I have not forgotten.

I don’t think I have ever missed anyone so much in my entire life. Sure I missed my family when I was with all of you. At times I missed them so much that it hurt too. But it was a different kind of hurt. It was a sharp pain that seemed to stab me in the gut for five minutes at a time and then would softly dissipate. I could call my family. I could even see them through the gracious acts of modern technology. I talked to them at least once a week and I knew that I would see them again soon. I knew that my separation from them was only temporary.

My separation from you though, is far from temporary. There are some of you, perhaps most of you, that I will never see or talk to again, although I like to think otherwise. I strategize about how I can make my way back to Nan before you leave the sixth grade. I dream of seeing you in the U.S. one day, all grown up, running into you on the street, somehow recognizing you despite the passage of time. I imagine crying and embracing you. I imagine that your English is almost perfect.

“Teacher Brenna,” you will say. And I will cry a little more because I miss being called that.

The pain I feel from missing you is a dull and constant ache. It is something that simmers beneath my skin, a constant vibration that many days I try to ignore, if only because it is easier to live in the present moment without thinking of all of you. Some days though, I cannot ignore it.

The other week I was at the grocery store with my mother when we ran into an old friend. She asked what I had been doing since college graduation. I told her I had taught English in Thailand for two years. I explained that originally I was only supposed to teach for a year but I decided to stay.

“Why?” she asked. She was inquisitive. Her eyes were soft and voice gentle.

I inhaled deeply. I opened my mouth, then paused. I could feel my face growing red.

“She loved her students,” my mother spoke for me.

I nodded. Tears began to form in the corners of my eyes. I thought it was becoming easier to be away from you. Just the day before I told myself that I was finally beginning to adjust to living back at home. But this friend, kindly asking me about all of you, made me realize otherwise — I still missed you all desperately.

“Why didn’t you stay?” my mother’s friend asked me now.

Why hadn’t I stayed? I was so happy with all of you. But it had never occurred to me that what we had could last forever. It had never occurred to me that I could stay forever.

Someone had asked me the same question when I came home during your summer from April to May. I was at my dentist and he asked if I would live in Thailand. I almost scoffed.

“No,” I said. “I’ll come home next year.”

You see, it was always temporary. It was this holding place in my life, this two year stint to fulfill a goal of traveling before I went to medical school. But sometimes I question why I ever left at all. I question if I will ever be as happy as I was with all of you in Nan. I question if I will ever have a job as fulfilling. I question whether I will experience another love that is anything similar to the love I shared with all of you.

If I had stayed in Nan, I would have a new set of students now whom I would form a similar bond with and whom at the end of the year it would be just as difficult to say good bye. But at least if I was in Nan I would still be able to see you. I would be able to see you grow up. The pain of losing you would dissipate, just as the pain of not seeing my family dissipated. Instead, I fear, that I will live with the pain of not seeing you forever. I will miss you each and everyday for the rest of my life. I will feel guilty as I forget your names over time and your faces will begin to blur in my memory (not that it will matter as your face will have certainly changed by then).

Never before have I formed such a deep relationship with a group of kids. The part that continues to amaze me is that we could never fully communicate. With our mixture of Thai and English we could only get across very basic phrases. And yet, I felt more connected to all of you than any child I have ever spoken to in English. Perhaps our language barrier made our bond stronger. Perhaps, just perhaps, if I had spoken fluent Thai or you all had spoken fluent English our bond would not have been the same. It was in the navigation of the space between our cultures and our languages that we began to love each other.

On days I especially crave that relationship I wear a bracelet that one of you gave me on a random Wednesday. You thrust the pastel colored beads into my palm as I entered the classroom. You smiled as I smiled. I wore that bracelet for months on end, without taking it off. Now I wear it on the days that feel unbearable to be apart from all of you.

At night, if I think about you too hard, I curl up to the teddy bear one of you gave me on the last day of school. It was one of only a few things that could fit into my suitcase. I hug that teddy bear tight and think of the other gifts you gave to tell me thank you, to tell me good bye. I think of the ceramic rooster and the green, silk tissue box cover that resembled a large couch. I think of the black purse with little Eiffel Towers stamped geometrically across its surface. I think of the rhinestone heart necklace that was too small to fit around my neck and the crocheted Hello Kitty with florescent whiskers. I think of the boxes of chocolate and the notes made with stray paper and dull pencils. I think of the red scarf and the large pink t-shirt with a whispering couple on the front. I think of the keychains and pens and the one purple brooch that I haven’t found a good enough occasion to wear to yet.

I think of the sparkly red hearts that came out around Valentine’s Day and which you all plastered to my shirt throughout the day so that I would go home with 20 stickers across my chest, glinting in the afternoon light. In September I found one of those stickers still hanging to the inside of the green jacket I brought to Nan. It was slightly curled, sitting right next to the opening of the right arm hole. I had been home for almost five months. I was amazed that it had hung on that long, through multiple packings and washings. Now every time I wore the jacket it was like a small part of all of you were with me. Every time I washed it I checked to see if the heart had fallen off. I smiled each time it hadn’t. It feels as if there is some meaning to that heart sticker, that it has stayed attached to that jacket for so long, against all odds, for a particular reason. I want to say it is because we are both thinking of each other, that it is because we both miss one another. But what does it mean then, when it falls off?

It did finally fall off, just the other day. I was out to dinner. I placed the jacket on the back of my chair. As we finished our meal and got up to leave I could see the sticker had moved 6 inches. The next time I put that jacket on, I thought, the sticker will fall off. I thought about taking the sticker then, placing it in my pocket, and keeping it there forever. Instead though, I pulled the jacket from the chair and put it on. I could still see the sticker, clinging by the dull adhesive, as I pulled it over each shoulder. When I got home and hung the jacket in the closet, the sticker was no longer there.

I don’t want to think too hard about the metaphorical meaning of that. Because the truth is, even without that sticker, I still think about you every day.

*****

Happy Valentine’s Day, little ones. Go forth and put a million shiny, red heart stickers in people’s jackets. I wish I was there so you could put another one in mine.

This is Enough

This is Enough

It feels like a dream seeing them on my computer screen. Their faces are blurred from the bad internet connection.   I smile wide. They are so excited to see me. “Teacher Brenna!” they shout. They crowd around the screen. They smile and wave frantically. The connection pauses and when it resumes there are another 15 students in front of the screen.

“Aoey. Baimon. Tangmo,” I say their names, wanting them to know I haven’t forgotten them. I’m nervous I’ll forget one of them. It’s difficult to tell who is who with their faces blurred and the connection cutting in and out so that I’m not even sure I’m saying the correct names for the kids who are in the screen at the exact moment I speak.

They freeze for long swaths of time. I smile wide in case I am not frozen to them. I want them to see that I’m happy. It’s only 10 minutes—ten minutes of their blurred faces and blended voices—before we say goodbye. The screen goes blank. I sit in my room. I am alone again.

I begin to cry, quietly. I am so grateful to have seen them. Their presence proves they are real. It is evidence that their lives have moved forward and yet they still remember me. What we had wasn’t a dream. And yet . . . seeing them there, moving, speaking, being totally themselves, makes me miss them far more than the pictures I have hung of them on the wall.

I want them here in my room with me. Or better yet I want to be there with them. (The humidity and heat now would be a welcome relief.) I want to feel their arms wrap around my waist, my legs. I want it to be like the end of a class, each of them filing past me, giving me a high five or motioning me to bend over for a kiss.

It is still difficult some days to stay in the present moment. Without my students to ground me I have found it increasingly difficult to stay motivated. Without 200+ students counting on me everyday to show up and do my job, it is hard to find a reason to be my best self.

I recently finished reading Michael Cunningham’s The Hours. In the book three characters struggle to appreciate the life they have. With each exquisitely described moment the characters individually try to accept that This is enough. It is enough. The novel resonated with me because of this often-repeated phrase.

It is something I have asked myself a lot over these last six months since moving home. Is this enough? And something I try to repeat when I feel unsatisfied with where I am. This—this life, this moment—is enough.

“Are you adjusted yet?” my dad asks one night at dinner.

“Not really.”

“From Thailand?!” Pierce clarifies. He doesn’t understand how six months later that this even a question.

The truth is, although I try to tell myself this is enough, most days my mind still frantically tries to grasp for more. This is not enough, it tells me. I am not fully satisfied with my work life – perhaps because I am not challenged enough. I am not fully satisfied with my home life – perhaps because I feel too dependent on my parents whom I have not needed to ask for their help financially since I left for college. I am not fully satisfied with my social life – perhaps because for the first time in my life I am no longer a part of a community where it is easy to meet and make friends with people my own age.

Building my life here—in the suburbs of Colorado—is much harder than building a life for myself in Thailand. In a place where I speak the language, where I have family to support me, an education and all other necessary characteristics to succeed, I find it much harder to make friends, much harder to find a job, much harder to seek out a community and feel as if I belong. And yet in a town half way around the globe, a place where I was stared at because of the color of my skin, a place where I could hardly communicate with the majority of its people, a place that in every regard should have been somewhere I did not belong, I built a home for myself. Nan, I realized as I boarded the bus out of the city for the last time, was the one place in the entire world where I felt most at home.

What a blessing to have that. What a curse that I had to leave it behind.

I am trying to build that here. I am trying to make this enough. This has to be enough. It is enough. It is. It’s just sometimes I forget. Some days I remember my kids’ smiles and the waning light of day on rice fields too fondly and I don’t focus on what makes me happy here—fall trees; runs on back trails that open to the mountains stitched into the horizon; Christmas trees glittering in dark windows; snow softly falling at twilight; watching movies with my family, the fireplace aglow.

This. This is enough.

Moving Forward

Like so many Americans, I sat in front of the TV on Tuesday night, watching as the elections results poured in. Like half our country, I hoped for history to be made. I hoped and expected our first woman president to be elected. I was looking forward to an ecstatic time in our nation’s history, a symbol of progress and equality for all.

I woke up the next day to something I did not expect, to something that I did not want.

Over the past 24 hours I have had so many emotions. I am confused, angry, sad, scared, hopeless. I have written and rewritten words in my head to express what I am thinking because writing is the only way I feel I can cope. I am desperately trying now to find the right words to reach out to not only the people who feel just as I do—hurt and confused and scared, and I know there is many of you as my whole Facebook feed is filled with your worries and calls for love—but also the people who have made Donald Trump our next president, the people who voted for a candidate who has encourage violence and sexual assault, who has perpetuated ethnic and religious stereotypes, and who is threatened by powerful women like Hillary Clinton.

Living abroad for much of this election, I was confused from the very beginning. Confused how the American people could continue to hear the blasphemous things Trump was saying and yet still he was the front-runner of the Republican party. How could Trump outright lie and people believe him? How could he call all Mexicans rapists and everyone not be outraged?

I’ll admit it. I thought about not returning to the U.S. I thought about leaving the country before anyone was even talking about moving to Canada if Trump was elected president. I joked with my American colleagues in our office before school that I wouldn’t move home to the U.S. until Donald Trump was out of the race. Some of them said the same.

“And if he wins,” I distinctly remember saying one morning. “I will never move back home again. I will never claim to be an American again.”

At that point in time I thought there was no way he could win the Republican candidacy. I thought that people would come to their senses, that they would see that this was no longer about good TV and instead it was about hiring the president of the United States, one of the most powerful positions in the world.

It became clear as I packed my bags to come home that he would indeed be the Republican candidate. I was baffled. Astonished. Confused.

I honestly couldn’t understand how it had gotten this far. Who had supported him? All my friends on Facebook were either adamant Hillary or Bernie supporters. From my social media feeds I could not see a single thread of Trump support. Other people I talked to abroad (not just people in my small town in Thailand) couldn’t understand either.

“I don’t know who’s supporting him,” one American woman in India told me. “None of my friends nor family support him.”

When I first flew back to the U.S. I stopped in D.C. to visit my college roommate. On a run through the mall we passed dozens of school groups from across the country—Ohio, Virginia, Georgia. Many of the kids were sporting Trump t-shirts; a few of the adult chaperones were as well. It was the first time I had witnessed anyone publicly supporting him.

“So it’s real,” I said to my former roommate Jenica. It was the first symptom of reverse culture shock.

Later on that same run, as we were passing through the Teddy Roosevelt memorial (one of Jenica’s favorites) I overheard a 14-year-old boy say: “Thank god we haven’t had a woman president yet. “

My mouth nearly dropped to the floor. How did this mindset still exist in the U.S.? How could this boy, at only 14-years-old, already think that woman should not be in places of power? That they did not belong in the Oval Office? What had a woman ever done to him?

I thought then of my female students, my little girls who were forced to go to Girl Scouts every Thursday afternoon to learn how to cook and clean while the boys got to tie ropes and shout chants outside. I thought of their cultural expectation that girls should be thin and fragile, how my Thai teachers had not wanted me to lift too many books or chairs or even a desk, that these tasks were for my 8-year-old boy students to do for me. I thought then of how my little girls had commented on my big legs when I came out to cheer them on during Sports’ Day practice. “Yes, I have big legs,” I told them. “I have big, strong legs so I can run just as fast as all the boys. Do you have strong legs to beat the boys?”

I had worked so hard to instill confidence in my girls, to show them they could be and do anything they wanted to. This 14-year-old boy was dismantling all of that.

I had grown up thinking I was capable of anything I set my mind to. I grew up thinking that boys and girls were equal. I grew up with strong female role models that instilled in me a fierce independence and ambition.   I hadn’t realized before then that not everyone had grown up the same way I had. I didn’t realize that despite our similar American roots, some could believe that women shouldn’t be president. These beliefs were archaic to me, representative of a culture that was not my own, of a country who had not made the sort of tolerant progress that ours had.

As I returned home, I continued to be astonished by the amount of support Trump received. And as the scandals grew and it became more and more clear that Trump was devoid of any moral compass, my astonishment grew to disbelief. How could anyone vote for him over Hillary?

Now I am not naïve to the reasons people dislike Hillary. But it seemed wrong to me that people could take so much from Trump, a white male, and so little from Hillary. They were tolerant of sexist, racist, and so many other horribly demeaning comments and yet the emails that have loomed over Hillary’s head for over a year could never be forgiven.

People who support Trump have told me it’s not a woman thing, that it’s not about gender. But how can it not be? How can it not be about gender or race or religion? It is all of those things.

But let’s focus on the woman card.

How is it that a man with absolutely no government experience has beaten a woman who has been called by the president himself the most experienced candidate to ever run for president? If Hillary were a man would she have won? If Hillary were a man would everyone have forgiven her for her emails? Would everyone see Trump for the sexist, racist, bully that he is? I think so. Many won’t agree. That’s okay. It’s hard to say for sure what we would do in hypothetical situations. Like how would you react if you found out you had cancer? You hope that you can accept it with grace and move forward but in reality you might not be able to.

Like so many people I woke up yesterday morning feeling utterly hopeless. I didn’t know how to respond, how to react. This had all been so unimaginable to me, even impossible. How could so many people choose a white male supremacist over a qualified, dignified female?

There are people calling for us to love one another. When it is so starkly clear that there is a deep rift in our country, one far deeper than anyone had previously predicted, people are calling for us to come together. People are calling for unification, for healing. They are calling for the end of hate.

This hate, it goes both ways. During this election season there was so much hate coming from the Trump side, not necessarily from his supporters but certainly from the words Trump was speaking. Now though, if you are an avid Hillary supporter saying F*** TRUMP or You’re not my friend if you voted for Trump, think twice. You are now spreading that same hate that you despised.

It’s something I’ve thought a lot about in the last few weeks leading up to this election. If I cannot understand why people are voting for Trump am I spreading the same intolerance that I dislike in Trump and his supporters? If I can’t love and accept them just as much as the people who view the world the same way I do, then aren’t I a bigot too?

In the glimmers of hope today, I saw this election outcome as an opportunity. Despite how dark it may seem, having Trump as president will give me the opportunity to practice tolerance towards the people I least understand—the 14-year-old boy who thinks a woman shouldn’t be president and others who stand in solidarity with what Trump stands for. This is a time to start conversations, to listen to one another. Not to argue but to deeply listen to each other and try to understand one another’s perspective.

I believe that the majority of people who voted for Trump do not align with his racist, sexist, Muslim fearing comments. I have to believe that. The America I know doesn’t stand in solidarity with casting out immigrants or a religion or treating women like objects. When I hear news reporters and read Facebook posts categorizing the people who voted for Trump as racists and sexists and bigots I feel as if we are doing the same thing Trump did when he called all Mexicans rapists. We are making a broad generalization. Certainly half of our country does not believe that it’s okay to sexually assault women or that Muslims should not be allowed in our country. But yet there are reasons people voted for him.

Maybe it’s fear.

Fear has driven so much of this election. Fear has motivated people to vote for Trump. They are fearful of change, fearful of the “establishment”, fearful of their jobs being taken by immigrants (they’re not), fearful of their guns being taken away by Hillary (they’re not). So many of Trump’s comments have been fueled by fear. He called Hillary a nasty woman out of fear that a woman who was smarter and more qualified than him could win the presidency. He wants to build a wall because he’s fearful of immigrants and how they can change our country. (Our country was built on immigrants. It will continue to be built on immigrants.) Hillary never fully confronted her emails in a public debate because she feared what voters would think. She feared that if she said she had used a private email server not to be malicious or reckless but because she couldn’t use technology very well and this was easier for her (look up the latest episode of This American Life Master of Her Domain, it talks about this), that voters would think her unqualified.

I am fearful now. I am fearful for women’s rights and LGBTQ rights, for Muslims and people of color, for immigrants and for every minority in this country who makes us who we are. I am fearful of the white uneducated male that news reports keep claiming are the reason Trump has won the election. I am fearful that all the progress we have made in the last 8 years with Obama as our president will vanish. I am fearful that our healthcare system will dissipate and that my family will be left with no health insurance. I am afraid. I am scared. And that is okay. What is not okay is to act on that fear. Because actions motivated by fear are rarely pure.

So that is why I will not be moving back to Thailand. Or to Canada for that matter. The woman who a year ago said she would never move back to the U.S. if Trump was elected president is staying here because I realize that that comment was said out of fear. Now though, I must face my fears and stand up for what I believe in. I must fight for the America that I remember, the America that I celebrated with my students on 4th of July and Halloween and Thanksgiving and Christmas. I must fight for the promotion of love and respect for all, whether Trump supporters or not. I must fight for healthcare and women and diversity. I must fight because as Hillary so poignantly said: “Never stop believing that fighting for what’s right is worth it.

Homesick

Homesick

I’ve been home for a month now and I feel no more adjusted than I did when I first arrived back in the States. I knew that the move back home would be hard, that there would be reverse culture shock along with many trends I wouldn’t understand because of my absence from American culture for the past two years.

When still in Thailand one of my friends mentioned JLaw in a conversation and immediately I asked: “Who’s JLaw?”

She answered with: “Oh boy, you really have missed out on a lot.”

That was my first indicator that I had a lot to catch up on in American culture. Now whenever I find myself incompetent (which is often) I blame it on my absence. “I’ve been in Thailand for the past two years, Mom. How could I possibly remember where the decorative bowls go or that when we’re out of apples I write it on the grocery list?”

There have been things that I expected to be different that have not surprised me—the variety in body shape and clothing style and skin color and overall diversity compared to the homogenous population of Thailand. But there have been many other things that have shocked me, things I haven’t thought about for two years and which still, a month later, tend to baffle me. For the first two weeks after arriving back home, I was confounded by the fact that I could hold a conversation with anyone around me and conversely they could do the same. When entering a restaurant, if a hostess asked me how many were in my party I would turn to the person behind me, hoping they could answer instead. It was as if I had forgotten English, forgotten my native language, despite the fact that I spoke more English in Thailand than Thai. It was bewildering and strange to me that all I had to use were words to communicate. No more pointing fiendishly. No more polite gestures and bowing and speaking quietly in Thai, hoping that through my quietness my ineptitude at their language wouldn’t show.

Once I was confident in my English communication skills, I noticed how Thai culture has seeped into me so that now when I see something that is not culturally acceptable there, I become uncomfortable, even if it is perfectly acceptable here. When at camp I stepped into a kiddy pool with two other volunteers to cool our feet off, I admitted my discomfort saying: “It’s strange that people aren’t afraid of feet in this country.” I explained how in Thailand the feet were the dirtiest part of the body and thus it was impolite to point to things with your feet, to lift your feet above your head, or to put your feet on things in public. When I see someone’s feet on the couch I still cringe in nervousness that someone else will see and be offended. When someone lifts their foot in the air to show someone the cut on their foot I must choke back a shout to tell them to stop.

And then there are the other smaller things that still bewilder me. The giant highways and speeding cars – why aren’t people politely (and SLOWLY) meandering down a one lane road? The excessive amount of paper towels – who knew that we used so many paper towels. The consistent supply of toilet paper and soap in public restrooms – that part is actually really nice. The packaged, frozen, processed food that my body has protested since the day I landed in the States. Where are the open air markets full of fresh fruits and vegetables and butchered meat with the pig’s head sitting right next to it? The constant drone of the TV, the onslaught of images and commercials and sounds that I can’t seem to escape no matter where I go. And possibly worst of all, Starbucks, which has completely lost its charm. A chain coffee restaurant with stock designs and furniture that has the same menu no matter where you go. Where are all the cute cafes I went to in Nan—the one with the cat pillows, and the other one with a Western feel, and the one I liked to go to on the weekends because it was a little further away, and the one that had a couch looking out a clear glass wall on passersby?

Life, right now, feels as if it has shrunk. Coming back home, living in the same town I did as a child, a town I never much liked, has sapped my motivation. I sleep in and go to bed early. I hardly write or read and looking for a job seems fruitless (and I haven’t even started). I knew moving home would be hard. But I had hoped being with family would counter some of that, that the joy of living near my mom and sister and brother would give me solace, would make me realize why I was excited to move back home. But right now it all feels hard, different, in some sense a duller version of living.

In short: I miss Thailand.

Two More Weeks

Two More Weeks

I have two more weeks to be a teacher. Two weeks. That’s it. Two more weeks of nearly falling over at the end of every class, a gaggle of kids reaching their arms around my legs. Two more weeks of giving a million and one high fives every time I leave a classroom. Two more weeks of bending over to receive kisses from seven year olds. Two more weeks of going to the morning market before school, the stalls smelling of fish and fried dough, of squeezing my way to the far end where jok (a Thai rice porridge) is steaming in giant pots, a long line stretching far past the small counter space the stall owns. Two more weeks of sticker charts and bathroom passes. Two more weeks of trying to get kids to sit still and finish their homework. Two more weeks of singing nursery rhymes and playing with puppets. Two more weeks of flashcards. Two more weeks of “Repeat after me kids.” Two more weeks of asking What is your name? and still getting the answer I am fine, thank you.

Two. More. Weeks.

And then I will be an anonymous traveler backpacking across Asia.

“But you should be excited,” my mom says to me over Skype. “You’re on to the next adventure.”

Yes, I am. In three weeks I leave for a month in India, after which I will hopefully head to Myanmar and then back to Thailand for a few weeks before flying to Ireland to visit family and finally heading home to the US in mid May. It’s exciting, to be sure. I’m going to celebrate my two years of successfully living abroad by traveling for three months. And then I will move home and find a new job and start all over again.

But most days I don’t feel excited. Instead, I am overcome with grief. A pang of sadness that comes with leaving Nan, leaving my students and the relationships I have created here, behind.

The other night I spent over an hour wandering a Silver Festival with one of my students, Nice, who I happened to find because her mother owned one of the stalls. She pointed to things as we walked, asking what they were called in English—table, skirt, purse, rice—and in exchange told me their names in Thai. She ate dinner with me and was patient as I tried to formulate basic sentences in Thai. I lingered at the festival far longer than I intended to because I didn’t want to end my time with Nice. It was such a special, almost magical, moment to spend so much unexpected time with her outside of class.

What am I going to do without these kids? It’s a question I ask myself nearly every day. Yet, I still haven’t come up with an answer.

The other week every girl in my second grade class came up to me during class, gushing with wide smiles, their fingers itching with something to tell me. “Teacher, Earth . . . Bio!” They pucker their lips and make obnoxious smooching sounds. “Earth love Bio!” They all tell me separately, twenty girls giving their own rendition over and over again so that it takes fifteen minutes for us to start class. I don’t mind. I find that I am smiling just as wide and giddy as my girls are. When Earth runs into my arms to give me a hug later that afternoon, I bend down to tell him: “I hear you love Bio.” He looks at me with an even bigger smile than any of the girls showed earlier. “Yes,” he nods without hesitation.

These kids make me laugh. They make me smile. They challenge me to be my absolute best self. Teaching is one of the hardest things I have ever done and it is certainly the hardest job I’ve ever had. It has taught me compassion and resilience, organization and patience. It has taught me how to love and be loved. It has taught me the difficulties and yet the great reward that comes with serving others. It’s funny. In the end I believe teaching taught me far more than I could ever teach my students.

So in conclusion: thank you Nan. Thank you.

 

P.S. All the pictures above are a compilation from the this past semester.