Open water optimism

Open water optimism

I walked into the store head held high, on a mission to find whiteboard markers and chocolate (obviously) when the strangest smell hit me. It was the best, and worst smell I had ever experienced. It was like a rotten egg rolled up inside freshly cleaned sheets or dirty socks stuffed with warm blueberry pancakes. I looked to my right and saw a little stand selling tiny donuts with flavors like “taro pineapple” and “green tea lemon”. The signs were pink and in big bubble letters were the words “Mister Donut”. All around little Thai kids were flocking to the stand like it was Hello Kitty brought to life (kind of looked like it) and I could practically see fluffy pink hearts emerging from the wafts of delicious odor. Well, I thought, that explains the best smell…

I looked to my left. A gray blob sat sadly on the seemingly darker side of the room, sign-less and simple. An older man stood defiantly in the stand, protecting the hundreds of fresh fish he had laid out upon melting ice. Many people came by, quickly bought their fish and left: a simple exchange for a simple product. I stood a second too long and accidentally got a whiff of sewer gas mixed with compost and decided it was time to move along.

Although it was a quick and ordinary instance, I started to think about how that stark contrast of smells perfectly defined Thailand to me. Thailand is filled with contradictions. Take the way they view relationships: prostitution is legal, very openly practiced and sex tourism is a major economy booster. However, relationships are very private, PDA is practically unheard of, and conservative dress is expected.

Thailand bridges traditional values with progressive ideas very well, if sometimes confusingly. For example, last weekend one of the teachers at my school took us to a temple in Ubon Ratchathani, the city we live just outside of. In temple, you remove your shoes, approach the Buddha and sit on your knees so your toes are not pointing at him (toes/feet are seen as the lowliest part of the body, the farthest from above, etc and is a sign of respect).

There were two monks sitting before the Buddha, receiving gifts from temple-goers, and blessing them. The whole temple was very quiet, very peaceful. When it was our turn we approached the monks, presented them with flowers we had bought, poured the holy water into the proper container and lit the incense. Just as the monk opened his mouth to bless us my co-teacher’s phone went off. I immediately got embarrassed for her, hoping that this wouldn’t bring us bad karma and that the monk would still bless us instead of condemn us (although I wouldn’t know the difference I suppose). I was imagining all the worst possible consequences when I realized that she had actually answered the phone and was chatting to her friend. In the temple. While a monk was speaking. I turned to the monk who had proceeded with his blessing and thought nothing of it, like this happened all the time.

After he finished blessing us the monk opened his eyes and looked right at me. I was suddenly keenly aware of my non-turtle necked shirt and slight makeup. Instead of offering a disapproving stare or yelling incantations in Thai he simply asked “Where you come from?” Apparently I was an oddity at a Buddhist temple.

“America,” I replied.

“Ah, welcome to Thailand!” said the monk, softly but excitedly.

In a similar instance, our first week here we visited a temple in Hua Hin and got blessed by a monk. He spoke to us while our instructor translated. I won’t forget how his calming voice transported me back to a time I can only imagine, how organic his words seemed, and how he had casually pulled out an iPad to take a picture of us while we were sitting. Contrast.

In other news, I’m all moved to my new and permanent city in the north east of Thailand just an hour away from the Laos border in a city called Ubon Ratchathani. In four days I have moved from one place to another, been almost attacked by dogs while running, and greeted and shocked again by the kindness of Thai people.

I am adjusting to life here, and I think it will be a slow process. I feel truly alone for the first time in Thailand, overwhelmed with information and uncertain of what teaching will be like and what is expected of me. I feel like I’m learning how to swim again (and I never really knew how in the first place). When you first learn how to swim people help you, hold your hand for a bit but before you know it, you’re thrust into open water where you can’t touch the ground and you’re forced to swim on your own. Ubon feels to me like the biggest and deepest open water I have ever experienced.

It won’t be easy, but I feel determined to make a community here that I’m happy about, that I can look back and confidently say that I had the time of my life. In the past few days I’ve had moments of deep pessimism and I don’t feel that very often. I am an optimistic person to a fault and I am unsure about how to adapt to these new feelings. If there is one thing I am determined to learn here it is patience. I will try my hardest to be patient in my new life and allow it to impress on me whatever it is meant to. I am certain of one thing: If I were home, living my great but comfortable life, I would always be wondering what this would have been like. How I would have changed. What opportunities would have come from it. What I would have learned. Now, I am given the chance to know that. I guess that’s my optimism emerging again. I hope it sticks around.

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