One year ago today I embarked on the journey of a lifetime. To leave my family, friends and job in NYC to teach English to 4th graders on the other side of the world, in Thailand. Although it was unconventional, had nothing to do with my career, and it meant traveling alone to a very, very far away place, it was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. I truly believe it was one of the best learning and life experiences I have had thus far. Since returning and deciding what is next on my life agenda, I sometimes forget the lessons and richness of the experience. However, on an interview yesterday, I was asked an interesting question. “What was the most important thing you learned during your time in Thailand? What surprised you?” I was honestly caught off guard. During my interviews I am very rarely asked a serious question about my time in Thailand. Mostly people are curious, ask me how I got there, but never what I did once I was there. Let alone what I learned. The main focus is usually around my relevant experience prior to Thailand, in marketing, which obviously is most practical. So I had to pause and think. And then it all just came to me and began rolling off my tongue before I could stop it. Reflecting on it more now, on the anniversary of my departure, this is what I learned.
Not everything is always as it seems.
I have found most of my life I usually have preconceived notions of how things will go. Expectations, either high or low, usually mapped out in my brain before visiting somewhere new, meeting new people, visiting somewhere or even when I went off to college. I have a picture or map, planned out in my mind. Probably because of my constant need to plan and organize things. Well, that road map, picture, and idea of what my life would be like in Thailand was quickly thrown out the window. Nothing could have prepared me for the people, places or things I did and learned while there. It is the type of place that really takes all of your preconceived notions and turns them upside down, but in the most wonderful way. Whether it was my day-to-day life, teaching the kids, traveling, or the friends I made, I always pleasantly (and sometimes not to pleasantly) surprised by the outcome. And for someone like myself, who relishes in control, productivity, and a sense of “how things should be” it was an eye opening and really helped me to let my guard down, not jump to conclusions, and take things as they come.
Slow down and let go.
It is very difficult, especially in your day to day life in the US, to just stop for a second and really take in what’s around you. I have always struggled with that. There is always something to do, somewhere to go, someone to see, something to buy, somewhere to eat, or another activity to keep your days, weeks and months chugging along. In Southeast Asia it is very, very different. There isn’t a sense of urgency. Besides the traffic. Especially while traveling. It is perfectly acceptable to let days roll by while you enjoy your surroundings. Coming from a family and culture where there is a need to get the most of your time and experience anywhere, see the most things, take the most pictures, meet as many people as possible, that was difficult. But I quickly learned there wasn’t always a set schedule for the bus, and the trains rarely left on time, and you will get there when you get there. This forced me, whether I wanted to or not, to learn how to let things go, slow down (mostly because at times even if I wanted to get somewhere there were 5 obstacles in my way) and just enjoy the scenery.
To be fearful is not a weakness but an opportunity.
My time in Thailand and Southeast Asia came with a lot of uncertainty and at times, fear. Not the dangerous fear, the kind where your life is at stake. But the fear of the unknown. Before going to Thailand I had never taught. And suddenly I was a teacher. To 105 fourth grade students. With not a whole lot of guidance on how to do so. It was terrifying. But you take it day by day. You mess up. Sometimes you get it right. And it gets easier. The students, teachers, and friends make it easier. And the students at the end of the day, don’t know you’re afraid. All they want to do is love you and learn from you and their open-hearted acceptance makes you become a better teacher than you thought you could be. To do things that scare you will help you learn more than you could imagine. As long as it’s safe of course.
Before Thailand I had never really traveled alone, besides on business. But that didn’t really count. I had the opportunity for a few short trips to stake out on my own and enjoy the solitude and anxiety that it can bring. And it was wonderful. Although it can be intimidating and even scary, especially for a young woman, if you are smart and smile you would be amazed at the people and places you will see and meet along the way. Traveling alone opens up a whole different door and road for experiencing things differently. I believe forces you to meet people and be more open to experiences you may not be open to if you were with a group of friends. On those short solo trips I met many strangers with amazing stories from around the world, I was approached by locals to dance in the park, to offer advice, and hear their stories. I was able to map out my day as I saw fit and see what I wanted to see. What it scary? Yes. Intimidating? Definetely. But boy was it worth it.
I know it sounds cliche but I cannot help but believe it to be so true, do something that scares you.
I cannot be grateful enough for my time in Southeast Asia and the people and experiences that came with it. There was such a richness around the whole experience and it is safe to say I have left a piece of my heart in all of the places I visited, with my students and with all the people I met along the way. And one last thing I learned that I never thought I would truly understand – the importance of packing light. You would be amazed at how far you can go without everything you own. Take that as you will.