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.

Giving Thanks 269 Times Over

Thanksgiving has come and gone.  I have eaten no turkey, nor sweet potatoes or pumpkin pie. I have not watched football nor I have sat around a table and said what I am thankful for.  Strangely, I don’t feel that I have missed out.  Sure I miss my family (and the food).  I asked my mom this morning if there really wasn’t any way she could send me some of the turkey.

Last year around this time I wrote a similar post, one that expressed the way my students have taught me to love beyond my capabilities, to have patience and compassion, and to always, always laugh.  They still continue to teach me all these things.  I think this year it was harder for me to see that.  I was wrapped up in what, unfortunately at times, has become the mundane–struggling to communicate in Thai, going to school early and coming home late in the afternoon, eating dinner, and watching TV on my computer before going to bed.  I had fallen into a routine that seemed almost lifeless some days.  The magic of Thailand, the newness of this whole experience, wore off some time ago.  There are hardly any days anymore where I look out at the playground–1600 students jump roping and drinking pink milk, playing soccer and tracing circles in the sand to start a game of marbles–that I ask myself if this is all real.  It is real.  Too real some days.

Teaching is a really hard job.  It involves giving up weekends for grading tests and lesson planning.  It means some Friday nights are spent in the office making a poster out of butterflies your first graders colored that week.  It requires patience and deep breathing and hearing your name called forty times in one minute without wanting to rip your head off.  Teaching is the loss of all personal space, children reaching for your skirt, your hands, your boobs, your butt, anything their pudgy hands can grab onto.  It is germs–lots of germs.  It is losing your voice and still going to school because you promised your students you would make turkeys that day.  It is fun and difficult.  It is exhilarating and exhausting and it is what I am thankful for this year.  It is what I am thankful for each and every day.  Maybe not all the germs and the late nights and the hours spent grading on the weekend, but the students who make it all worth it.    Teaching for me, is all of these tiny faces.  All of these beautiful children that have touched me each in their own individual ways, each of which I love deeply and genuinely.

So I may not be home this Thanksgiving, able to celebrate with family and friends but I have 269 other reasons to be thankful this Thanksgiving.

 

Remarkable. Spiritual. Breathtaking.

Remarkable. Spiritual. Breathtaking.

I’ve been back from my three week vacation for quite some time now, but with Halloween festivities at school and getting caught up with lesson planning I haven’t had the time to sit down and complete this blog post until now. Here is a very shortened, fairly condensed version of my travels for your enjoyment. Read on and enjoy.


“The tourist sees what he comes to see. The traveler sees what he sees.” – quote found in Siem Reap hostel


Angkor Wat: Massive. Breathtaking. Intricate. Bewildering. Imaginative.

IMG_4568

We spent two days exploring the temples of Angkor Wat. With a guide to help us during our first day, we learned about the histories of the temples, when they were built and why, facts that sadly dissipated from my mind only minutes after they were said. It didn’t matter. The place spoke for itself. Preserved walls, complete with carved stories into the stone, detailed Hindu accounts to tell their children. There were crumbling walls that lent itself as a garden, giant trees growing from the ruins. There was beauty and history and lots and lots of pictures.

The second day we explored the outer, smaller temples by ourselves. After a hot morning, sunscreen dripping from our faces, it began to rain at lunchtime, and never stopped. We tiptoed through puddles in ancient buildings with no working drainage system. We sported pastel colored ponchos that were so cheaply made they began to tear in less than an hour. We stood underneath the rain, our tongues out and arms wide, thankful to be alive, thankful to be in this incredible place.

IMG_4487
Street Art in Siem Riep.

IMG_4532    IMG_4529

IMG_4707       IMG_4527IMG_4509
IMG_4545      IMG_4576


    IMG_4672     IMG_4607

IMG_4634  IMG_4590

IMG_4578IMG_4588  IMG_4576

IMG_4724


Phnom Penh: Dangerous. Spiritual. Maddening. Disturbing. Heartwrenching.

Our main purpose in going to Phnom Penh during this trip was to educate ourselves on the genocide that happened in Cambodia in the mid 1970’s. For those who don’t know, the Khmer Rouge, an extreme Communist group, took power for four years staring in April 1975. They then began to kill anyone they thought was an enemy—mostly intellectuals and their families. It’s estimated that 3 million people were killed during those four years.

We visited the Tuol Sleng Prison and the Killing Fields. Tuol Sleng Prison is where the Khmer Rouge held and tortured people before killing them. It was an old school. Two buildings were lined with pictures of the victims, young boys of only fourteen or fifteen, mothers with babies cradled in their arms, teenage girls and elderly men with glasses, all of them with wide eyes, a few with haunting smiles. The stairways were covered in stains. From old students’ spilled Coke cans? Rust? Blood? It was unclear. Metal iron beds sat in one building, supposedly never moved from the place of their last victim. Pictures hung on the wall above the beds–a mangled body draped across the metal frame, his head on the ground, blood swirling around it; another with a chest cracked open, the man’s eyes as big and open as saucers. The pictures were yellowed and the edges of the film weren’t quite clear, making it all seem somehow make believable. Another building had two rows of cells facing one another, tiny prisons built hastily with layered bricks. They measured one meter in width, maybe six feet in length. Big enough to lie down and nothing else, the tour guide told us. He had survived the genocide himself, working in a labor camp with only part of his family. He informed us that the Khmer Rouge studied the principles of Nazi Germany. They took ideas from Hitler’s death camps. I walked through the prison, my head down and mouth pulled tight. I left with a headache and a giant sinking pit in my stomach that I summed up to hunger.

People stayed at this prison for weeks until they were brought in trucks, blindfolded, to the Killing Fields. There they were hit across the head or punched in the skull, dumped into a hole, hoping they were dead. Bullets were too expensive. The Killing Fields had fragments of bones scattered throughout the walking path that cut through dozens of mass graves. Bones still come up every rainy season when the soil shifts, the audio tour said into my ear. I was taken aback at the washed up fabric that had become stuck in the roots of trees, the small offering of bones that sat undisturbed beside it. It was unreal to me. I was standing right there, graves where hundreds of people were killed and buried, the ground becoming warped from their swelling bodies and chemical decay, and yet I still couldn’t quite fathom it. I still can’t fathom it now, two weeks back from this trip.


Takeo: Beautiful. Relaxing. Delicious.

IMG_1499

We stayed at a homestay in Takeo with a kind family who spoke perfect English and cooked hearty, delicious meals. We ate more than our tummies could fit, eating one (or two) extra slices of pizza when they made it from scratch, kneading out the dough on the bamboo counter and cooking it in the clay oven they said they had built just for making pizza. We sat around the circular stone table for hours after a meal, talking with other travelers or playing cards. We drank tea and ate moon cakes in the afternoon light before dinner. We rode bikes through the green covered countryside in the morning, our skin already itching from mild sunburns. We read books in hammocks and watched as thunder clouds rolled in, the air becoming breezy and only slightly cool. I woke up at sunrise each morning, watching as the sun peaked above the rice fields, the light so blinding I had to look away. We stayed longer than either one of us had anticipated. And even when it was time to go, we didn’t want to leave.

IMG_4780      IMG_4773

IMG_4748        IMG_4770 IMG_4761


Kep: Unexpected. Remarkable.

IMG_4792 (1)

Our next stop was Kampot, a small local town located charmingly next to a river. But Kampot, however, is not where we ended up. We boarded the bus from a restaurant in Takeo, politely informing the driver we were going to Kampot. He was less than impressed, averting all eye contact and waving his hand for us to sit down. About two hours into the drive, my friend Brea and I looked at each other. Aren’t we supposed to be there already, we said to one another. We looked to the woman next to us, trying to ask her in English if Kampot was coming soon. Ten minutes, she assured us with a hesitant smile. We looked out the window to see water. Kampot, we thought. The river. But then the river quickly expanded to the horizon. The ocean? Welcome to Kep, a sign read, placed in the hands of a giant crab statue standing in the middle of yes, the ocean. Kep was most certainly after Kampot in this bus route. Brea and I had looked at one another and laughed. I guess we’re going to Kep, we said.

We hopped off the bus and into a travel agency. Rabbit Island, the only other group of travelers on the bus said to us as they scooted past our bewildered faces. Why not, Brea and I thought. What else are we going to do? We had heard about Rabbit Island, mainly a blue box in the travel book taking residence in a high corner shelf at the
homestay in Takeo. The box said it was nice. We booked a boat ticket for that afternoon.

Rabbit Island, as it turned out, was a half-mile strip of sand lined with thatched bungalows and a smattering of restaurants that resembled more of a dusty, old sport shed than a place to eat. We rented a $14 a night bungalow that included a bed. Just a bed.   No wifi, no electricity, no running water.

IMG_4789During our three days there we napped on blue wooden lounge chairs, taking dips when we got too hot. We read in a hammock draped across our tiny bungalow’s porch when it rained in the afternoon. We ate fried rice with shrimp and squid and crab and attempted to learn how to excavate crab meat from its shell (it’s very difficult if you’ve never tried).   We drank beer and watched for an hour as the sun set behind the islands in the distance, the sky saturated in color, pinks and purples bleeding across the entire horizon.

In the late morning of our third day, we boarded another boat for the mainland, our skin slightly brown and our hair caked in salt. Brea headed back to Phnom Penh to catch a flight to Chaing Mai and I started my solo traveling, sleeping with a dragonfly in a local hotel before bussing to Koh Chang the next day.

IMG_4787


Koh Chang: Engaging. Fun.

IMG_4820

Like any good beach town, I spent the day alternating between reading, swimming, and reapplying sunscreen. I made friends with people who I could barely converse with in my broken Thai—the staff of a local restaurant/travel agency. They called me Teacher Banana and Barbie, saying Brenna was too difficult to learn. They said hello to me each morning as I walked past and around dinner-time they would ask about my travels that day. I made friends with people who I had nothing else in common with but a long walk in the same direction. On a booked trekking tour I hiked with people from all over the world—Korea, Germany, France, Russia. We crouched in bushes and listened to the sounds of monkeys jumping from tree to tree. We snapped pictures of a stone-colored snake that glided through the branches of low-lying shrubs. We ate lunch on top of the peak, the entire landscape of Koh Chang looking out before us. I made friends with people twice my age. I unknowingly walked into a BBQ party, making a quick drink to watch sunset into a night conversing with German and Canadian women old enough to be my mothers, over hamburgers and kabobs.

IMG_4814

IMG_1507


Koh Wai: Breathtaking. Isolated. Paradise. Perfection.

IMG_4900

I rented a bungalow, this time wooden and with running water (still no wifi or electricity). The water was a picture perfect blue, lapping up onto scattered rocks only fingertips away from the raised porch of my bungalow. I sat with my torso emerged in the water right after I arrived, looking out across the sparkling water that was so clear I could see tiny fish swimming around my wrists. This is paradise, I thought.

I woke most mornings at 6 without an alarm clock, the sounds of waves softly echoing outside my window. I ate breakfast and wrote for an hour in the cool shaded terrace of the small restaurant. I laid out on beaches with only myself to keep me company, small strips of sand that I could walk across in less than thirty strides. I snorkeled for seemingly hours, seeing giant rainbow colored fish, black and white striped fish, a red crab with claws I wanted to eat, a fluorescent blue stingray, and a fish with a nose so long and thin I thought it would hurt if it touched me. I devoured book after book. I talked with strangers for hours over lingering bottles of beer. I fell asleep early with the sound of the waves rocking me to sleep.

It was a dream. I have never felt so in love with any place in the world. It was beautiful. It was breathtaking. It was paradise.

IMG_4864    IMG_4857

IMG_4897   IMG_4849