I went back to Thailand hoping to find closure, hoping in some small way to realize that Nan was no longer home. There was a part of me that wanted my trip to be miserable. I wanted to feel isolated and lonely. This, I thought, was the only way for me to move forward.
Just after arriving though, I felt my soul reuniting with a part of itself it thought it had lost. I was relieved, yet afraid. I did want to reconnect with my students and my Thai friends, to eat lots of good food, and drive through the mountains on a motorbike—in short, I wanted to feel at home—but I was afraid that if I returned and didn’t feel lonely and out of place, that I would never be able to dissociate myself from Nan. I feared that if my trip were actually enjoyable that I wouldn’t return to Denver at peace. This was the whole purpose of the trip, I thought—to dismantle Nan as my home and realize that Denver was not simply a place I lived, but somewhere to call home as well.
Sometimes what we think we need is not what we need at all.
On my first afternoon in Nan, after showering and unpacking my things in my room, I went to eat at a small soup shop kitty corner to the school. I looked towards the school as I ate, taking in the large, imposing orange painted front gates. It wasn’t until just then that I thought about how awkward it might be to return. No one knew I was coming. I had tried to get a hold of Teacher Anne, my Thai co-teacher whom I had grown close to over my two years there, but had failed to connect with her. After paying my bill I took a deep breath inward and walked across the street to the school.
I went straight to the third-floor English office where I had worked when I was there. Teacher Anne’s office had most likely moved and this, I knew intuitively, was the only place where I could be guaranteed to find someone who could speak English. I met Nicole, an American who was teaching there now.
“Oh, I know you,” she said enthusiastically as I introduced myself. “We still use all your stuff.” She pointed to the organized folders and boxes lined up neatly in the filing cabinet. It had taken me weeks to organize all that. I had spent long hours with my legs sprawled out along the ground, worksheets scattered around me as I tried to sort through what to keep and what to toss.
Nicole informed me that Teacher Ann indeed still worked at Sriserm, although she wasn’t sure where she was at that exact moment. “You can come to class with me, though, if you want,” she offered.
I asked her what students she had and she pointed to a stack of worksheets on her desk. “All those students,” she said. I looked towards the worksheets, locating their names written at the top of the page. Prom. Khunnan. Or-Air. Aoey. Fighter. These were all my students. I smiled.
“I’d love to join you,” I told her.
Five minutes later I was walking with Nicole to her classroom. I hadn’t anticipated that within my first three hours in Nan I would already be at the school going to see my students. When I walked into the classroom the kids stared at me with wide eyes. “Hello,” I said. They all stopped. No one said anything. My stomach sank. Maybe they had all forgotten me. “Do you remember me?” I asked. A few of them shuffled closer. Others went back to shuffling papers at their desk. Then Eng, from the back corner of the classroom shouted, “Teacher Banana!”
“Yes, Teacher Banana,” I repeated. I loved that my nickname was the word to stick with them rather than my actual name.
They all came running to greet me then, smashing me into the front desk with the weight of their bodies. Their hands smothered me and their heads buried into my chest. They were so much taller now. They no longer needed to reach up to place their arms around my waist. Some of them even placed their head on my shoulder. “I missed you so much,” I told them, although amidst their chatter and excitement I don’t think a single one of them heard me.
Within minutes, the rest of the hallway filled with my other students. Nicole had gone up the hall, informing the fifth and sixth grade classrooms that I was there. “Teacher Brenna is here,” I imagined her announcing softly and the kids scooting from their desks faster than she could move out of the doorway. Somehow the weight of the fourth graders had pushed me into the hallway and now I could see sixty more students come running towards me, shouting, “Teacher Brenna! Teacher Brenna!”
“Baipu! Earth! Blaifon! Junior! Tar!” I repeated each of their names as I saw them. I tried to extend my arms so I could envelop as many of them as possible. I touched each of their heads. “I missed you all so much. I thought of you every day.” Some of them had tears softly rolling down their face. “Oh, Tar,” I said as I saw her crying. I wished I could cry then too. I was so desperately happy. I had thought about this moment for years and now here I was, my students back in my arms. All the fears I had dissipated, proven untrue. Yes, they were taller, more grown up but I recognized all of them. I hadn’t actually forgotten their names. And they hadn’t forgotten me at all.
My days in Nan unfolded easily. I woke and rode my bicycle to the morning market. I ate my breakfast on the back porch of the Lodge and wrote for long hours, only taking breaks to go eat again. I spent my afternoons at the school, sitting in my students’ classrooms, watching them learn. I was happy just to be in their presence.
About a week into my stay I came to a stark yet beautiful realization. I was riding my bicycle home from the morning market. It had rained the night before. The ground was wet, the air damp, yet light. My bike basket had my breakfast, siphoned off into small plastic bags—deep fried pork belly, sticky rice, nam prik (a type of green chili sauce). I pulled out of the small alleyway to see the congested street. Vans that served as school buses played Jenga around the motorbikes and cars. As they approached the front gates of the school they coughed up the kids in their blue and brown uniforms, backpacks dangling from their shoulders. I rode up the street against traffic and away from the school. As I rounded the corner, I had what I can only describe as an epiphany. It sounds cheesy, I know. But it seemed as if this thought had come from somewhere else. A thought with sharp and defined edges that had been inserted into my head from some higher source. I am exactly where I need to be, the thought told me. I needed to do this—visit Nan—but I no longer have a purpose here. The thought continued as I listened. I don’t want to teach. I want to be in medicine. I questioned it for a split second. Do I really not want to teach anymore? Do I really not want to live here, in this serene paradise where I bike to the morning market to pick up breakfast and spend long hours on a porch writing? No, the thought insisted. I want to be in medicine.
What?! It was the first time in over five months that I had embraced my pursuit of medicine. Riding my bike upstream against traffic, I was simultaneously grateful for my experience teaching but also clearly and simply recognized that this was no longer my purpose. It was the clarity I had been searching for for so long. I hadn’t expected that by coming to Nan I would answer my internal question of whether medicine was the right career choice for me. The last semester of medical school was challenging in ways that made me doubt whether I should even continue with this career. I hadn’t come to Nan to find an answer to that question, yet here it was, when I least expected it. I clung to the thought, although it already seemed to escape me, as if it were being buried further in my brain; as it burrowed deeper, the edges of it became blurred. Hold on to it, I thought. Hold on tightly. I was afraid that in the next minute I would question the clarity, that I would forget it. That this moment of brief and resounding peace would disappear with the clouds that hung over the town in early morning.
* * * *
It was my last morning in Nan. I had parties planned for the morning and afternoon. One hour each with the fourth, fifth, and sixth grade classrooms where we would play games and take pictures and where they would shower me with love. The fifth graders would write all over the chalk board as I went around the classroom and took pictures. We love Teacher Brenna, they would write in each of their handwriting so that at the end of the period the entire board would be covered in little messages of love and affirmation. Now, though, I sat on the porch of the Lodge, trying to write as the morning mist shifted in the street. I didn’t want to leave.
As much as I wanted to deny it, this place still felt like home.
“It’s so peaceful here,” a woman of about my age said from behind me. I turned to smile at her. Her arms and legs were dotted in tattoos. Her hair cut short. I had seen her around the Lodge this past week, Facetiming on the phone with her girlfriend and typing on a Macbook computer in the lobby (it was unusual to see a Thai person own any Apple product).
I nodded back to her. “It is really peaceful here, isn’t it?”
She told me that she was from Bangkok and that she had come to Nan to find some peace and quiet. “I’m a D.J.” she explained, noting that when she got a few days off she liked to spend it somewhere with very little noise. “There’s just such a quiet, relaxing way of life here.” She looked slightly upward as if she were trying to find the exact words to describe this place.
On my first morning in Nan a woman of about the same age had struck up a conversation with me very similar to this one. She, too had been from Bangkok, and like this woman D.J., she had admitted how peaceful she found Nan to be. “It’s a quiet life,” she had said. In that moment it was exactly what I needed, a reminder that while I was in Nan to see my students and eat good food, I was also here to bathe in the solitude and space that this quiet town cultivates. Now, on my last day another woman gave me an important reminder. She reminded me of the extreme pleasure and privilege I had in living here for two years. How many people, after all, get to experience a slice of heaven while still alive?
These two women felt like a kind of gift, as if, like my epiphany, they had been placed here by a higher source. The two of them bookended my stay in Nan and through their conversations I realized that Nan didn’t have to stop being my home. I could have two homes, couldn’t I? One in Denver and one in Nan. Two homes stretched across the earth. I could return here, like this woman with cats tattooed up her calves, whenever I pleased and it would always feel like home. My students may wander and I may never see them all again in the confines of Sriserm Elementary but I was okay with that. They had grown and so had I. We both helped to shape the other. In that way we will forever be intertwined. But it was time now for me to move forward and to claim Denver as my own.
That night I boarded a bus to Bangkok and waited the rest of the next day in the airport for my flight to leave. When I arrived back home in Denver I embraced my mom in a hug. I am exactly where I need to be, I thought.
Below are some more images from the rest of my summer.