Sa-wat-dee-kha 2013!

“There are some things you don’t know yet. Your life will be a great and continuous unfolding.” -Dear Sugar; The Rumpus

Well, 2012 has come and gone and now it’s time to welcome 2013! Whether I am celebrating the New Year in Chiang Mai, Thailand, Cleveland, Ohio, or Istanbul, Turkey (maybe one day?) the transition from one year to another always leaves me feeling reflective; as I am sure it does for many. I find myself looking back, paying close attention to where I was at the same time at the end/beginning of the previous year. It’s interesting, and I may argue necessary, to look back through a year and see what leaves you feeling different or the same. Even though I am relatively young, and hopefully have many years ahead of me, I know that 2012 was unique, it marked the end of my college career and ushered me, without pause, into adult life.

Basically, 2012 was a really important year in my life. I know that every year has events and realizations that influence one’s growth and may alter the way they see and approach the world. I am not trying to say that ever year isn’t filled with great memories and important moments. But, despite this, I cannot stop thinking about the importance of this past year. Perhaps I am getting caught up in the symbolism of it all; that the year was almost evenly split between the end of my Wooster career, where I completed I.S., celebrated I.S. Monday, and graduated, while the other half of the year was dedicated entirely to the beginning of my adult life, which began with a move halfway across the world. In the first half of my year, I was sentimental, not wanting to leave Wooster and the family I had created there. The second half was filled with new challenges, and new people. I became a teacher, rode elephants, scuba dived, jumped off of cliffs into the ocean, was blessed by monks, visited ancient temples, and spent six months exploring and being immersed in this beautiful country and culture.

I have always thought that my decision to live and teach in Thailand would, in a way, set the tone for the rest of my life. I took this opportunity and it has been incredible; I have seen things that I never thought I would see and experienced things that I never thought I would experience. I have felt so invigorated this year, and I have been lucky to find passions and experiences that allow me to feel this way.

This is not to say that this year has been without struggle. I have had worries; mostly about where I will find myself after Thailand. And, some days these worries get the best of me. But, mostly I have been filled with this sense of peace that everything will work itself out. I am not sure when I, the queen of the control freaks, became so comfortable with the serendipity of the universe. But, a wise relative once told me that the most successful people in life are the ones who follow their passions and turn them into careers.

And I have found that to be absolutely true. Because, even though I am not wealthy or in any sort of position of power, I consider myself to be extremely happy, and I consider that a success.

For the past year, I have been focused on my passions, what I want the most of out this life. I was passionate in my last months at Wooster and I have been following my passions in Thailand. Mistakes have been made, I make no such claims that I am perfect, but I have had no regrets. And really, that’s all that matters: to find what makes you happy and having no qualms about doing exactly that.

So, that’s what I learned last year. And I feel ridiculously lucky to have figured this all out at the ripe old age of twenty-two. Now, I just have to stick to it. Easy peasy, right?

Hardly. But, I’ll do my best for sure.

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Merry Christmas, kha!

“I’m dreaming of a white Christmas, with every Christmas card I write. ‘May your days be merry and bright, and may all your Christmases be white.'”

Happy Christmas everyone! I hope you all had a great holiday and were able to spend this time of year with family and friends. I am having a different holiday this year, seeing as I am in Thailand. And, it has been particularly difficult because Christmas is, by far, my favorite holiday. I am all about finding the biggest Christmas tree, putting out decorations, listening to Christmas music, and finding the perfect gift to give someone. And, even though I did not get to do these things exactly as I normally would, and it was 90 degrees instead of snowing, I still had a unique and magical Christmas. We celebrated with our students at their “Christmas Circus” where students sang and danced. We made a home-cooked Christmas meal of American food. We celebrated Christmas Eve with our co-workers at a karaoke-filled, Thai-inspired party. I was also able to have a flawless Skype conversation with my family while we opened Christmas presents together (a Christmas miracle if I ever saw one!). And even though I am living halfway across the world, my mother still managed to keep tradition and give me pajamas to open on Christmas Eve.

On Christmas night, I went with Jessica to our favorite coffee and smoothie place in Lamphun. The owner, our friend Dome, was having a Christmas party for all of his family and friends, especially foreigners. When Dome was younger, he lived in Sweden for a little while. He always tells the story of his Christmas living abroad, where it was snowing and cold, and he could see families having parties through their windows. He explained to us that he told himself that he would always have a party on Christmas for foreigners living abroad so that “they would not have the lonely feeling that I had.” And, though I did miss my home quite a bit that day, I never did feel lonely. Though this Christmas was different, that was what I loved about it. It was hard to be away from my family, but I was lucky enough to have another family to celebrate with this year: my Lamphun family. And, to me, that is what Christmas is all about, celebrating with those who love you. Well, and also getting an awesome care package from your parents.  😛

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Merry Christmas morning from the Dutton girls!

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Happiness Is Here and Now.

“Happiness is here and now. I have dropped my worries. Nowhere to be, nothing to do, no longer in a hurry. Happiness is here and now. Happiness is here and now.” -Khunnai Ternsai Guesthouse; Pai, Thailand

In my last post, I wrote about being thankful and appreciative of my time in Thailand and the opportunities it brings me. Well, the reason I have been so remiss in my blog posting as of late is because I have been taking advantage of these many opportunities to enjoy and experience the beauty and culture of this wonderful place.

At the end of November, we celebrated the Thai holiday of Loy Krathong. Loy Krathong felt a lot like the 4th of July to me, with people in our neighborhood setting of fireworks for almost the entire month of November. I was lucky enough to be able to celebrate Loy Krathong twice: first, at Mae Jo University in Chiang Mai and again with our Chakkham Khanathon students in Lamphun. The Yi-Peng Festival in Chiang Mai was the most beautiful and magical thing that I have ever witnessed. It was a massive festival with thousands of people gathered together in a large field. During Loy Krathong, lanterns are released at nighttime, and people will say a prayer, make a wish, and let their worries float away with their lantern. It was powerful and stunning to look up at the sky that night and to see thousands of lanterns floating above me.

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Releasing my lantern at the Yi-Peng Festival at Mae Jo University in Chiang Mai.

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In awe of this moment.

The next week, we celebrated with our wonderful students. Each of us had a krathong which is a handmade arrangement of flowers, candles, and incense that floats in the water. Like the lanterns, you say a prayer, make a wish, and let your krathong float away with all of your worries down the river. And, I was lucky enough to have a krathong made by my wonderful friendship family!

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Chakkham farang teachers celebrating Loy Krathong in Lamphun.

In early December, Jessica and I took a little roadtrip with some fellow Chakkham teachers to the beautiful city of Pai. We only spent one night in Pai, but it was so nice to have a weekend away. We stayed at a guesthouse which emphasized “slow life and lazy living.” What I quickly learned is that Pai is the quintessential hippie town with tons of food, coffee shops, and boutiques boasting hand-made products. We spent most of our time relaxing with fresh green tea. But, we did some sightseeing; visiting Pai’s famous fields of yellow flowers, an old Chinese refugee village, a World War II Memorial Bridge, and Pai’s Strawberry Fields.

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Pai in the early morning.

 

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Sunshine and yellow flowers. Perfection.

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Giving Thanks, Thai Style

“I been sleeping for 40 days and I know I’m sleeping, because this dream’s too amazing… Ah, it’s the magical mystery kind, must be a lie” -Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros

Since arriving in Thailand six months ago, I have gone through every emotion imaginable. I have felt nervous and excited to move to a new country and live on my own. I have been terrified to run my own classroom and teach kids everyday (I am still not quite sure who thought I was responsible enough for that). I have felt awe in the mountains of Mae Hong Son, a healthy sense of fear petting tigers in Chiang Mai, and exhilaration jumping off of cliffs and scuba diving in Koh Phi Phi. I have felt the pride and joy when English begins to make sense to a student. I have felt overwhelmed by the sheer difference between my lives in America and Thailand, and also for what lies ahead in my uncertain future. And, I have also felt sadness, knowing that my friends and family are going though important parts of their lives and I am not there to enjoy these moments and support them.

A few weeks ago, I was ashamed to come to the realization that thankful was not one of the emotions I had been feeling. Hitting the halfway point in my year abroad left me missing home, my family and friends, and the comforts of America (read: my clothes). Now, I like to fancy myself a daredevil, not quite Superwoman, but pretty close on my best days. So, feeling this way was unsettling to me. I can honestly say that I have no recollection of ever feeling homesick (sorry family!). I tried to make sense of it, to reassure myself that it was just a phase. While one friend suggested I exercise more (note to all the male readers out there: NEVER suggest this to a female friend). My sisters and best friend suggested I get to the root of the problem and simply come back to America.

But, before I made the crazy decision to buy a plane ticket, I had an epiphany sitting in the back of a song-taew riding back to Lamphun from Chiang Mai. As I was sitting in the back of this little bus, I had a perfect Sunday afternoon view of Chiang Mai. I could see the mountains, the river, the houses along the country road, the weekend open-air markets. I could hear the chatter of people in the temple courtyards and the chanting of Buddhist monks. And that was when I realized how incredibly lucky I have been throughout these six months. All I have ever wanted in my life was to travel and see this big, beautiful world. And I suddenly felt foolish for wishing it away.

Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “The invariable mark of wisdom is to see the miraculous in the common.” Now, I am in no way implying that I am wise, but I think that Emerson might be onto something here. I wrote in a previous post about not appreciating the everyday, the seemingly average parts of my days. But, in fact, it is the “seemingly average” which has reinvigorated me and my love for this place. It is the common which is making my life so extraordinary. And though I cannot say that I will never take it for granted, I now know that these small things are what I will miss most about my life here.

For example, these goofballs:

Happy Thanksgiving from Mattayom 1/12!

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Tales From Holiday!

“Put me in new direction, point me to the edge of the world. With a warm heart and cold complexion, I’m feeble with a flag unfurled. Where to today? Miles away. And as I sigh, the long goodbye. What will be found, wandrin’ around?”     -Carbon Leaf

It has been a busy few weeks! I just came back from my two week October vacation, which was in a word, incredible. I was able to travel both Koh Phi Phi and Bangkok during my break. The two were very different vacations, which meant I got the best of both worlds. Even though it was exhausting, and sometimes stressful, it was well worth the frustrations.

Getting to Koh Phi Phi was a difficult task, which required a ten hour bus ride to Bangkok, a twelve hour bus ride to Krabi and then almost two hours on a ferry to get to the island. But, as the ferry pulled into the pier, I knew it was worth all of the hassle. Every time I looked around, I felt like I should have been on a postcard or something. The pictures I took? Total crap compared to the beauty of that island. I actually spent a fair amount of time saying things such as: “Where am I right now?” and “Is this real life?” and “How did I get so lucky to be here?” And the island did not disappoint. Let’s be serious, like I had any doubts that it would. We spent a lot of time relaxing on the beach or in the blue, blue ocean, but we were also very active. We hiked, swam, went scuba diving. We also went on a day-long excursion full of cliff diving, snorkeling, a fire-twirling show, and swimming with glow in the dark plankton. Oh, yeah, I jumped off of a cliff. Into the ocean. Do I get my badass license yet?

Even though the cliff jumping is what I am the most proud of, the scuba diving was by far my favorite. We found a really great dive shop (this is where I shamelessly promote Blue View Divers) that was both small and eco-friendly. Not only were they extremely helpful (one of my friends can’t swim, but they worked with her several times so that she could go diving too) but they were fun to hang out with. Because it is a small shop, our group of five had the entire boat to ourselves, so we got to work one-on-one with the instructors. They helped us learn our skills in the ocean and made sure we were comfortable, and then went on our first dive! The first dive was a little scary, but not too much that I did not enjoy the experience. But, I did spend a lot of time making sure I was breathing. After forty-five minutes beneath the surface, we went to a little private beach, had a great lunch, and then picked up some trash (just doing our part!). The second dive was even more incredible than the first. They took us to a location that is known for sea turtles. WE SAW SEA TURTLES. As someone who is mildly obsessed with turtles, I pretty much just floated there for a little while and watched them. They are incredibly beautiful. We also got to see clownfish, and I got close enough that a little one came up and kissed my mask. I wanted to laugh and cry and smile, but all of those things are very difficult to do when you are trying to breathe underwater. All in all, it was one of the most incredible experiences of my life. I am dreaming of the day when I can go back to Koh Phi Phi and get my Open Water Certification. On the way back to Krabi, I had actually fleeting thoughts that I would simply not go back to America and become a certified scuba diving instructor and just stay on Koh Phi Phi for the rest of my life. Don’t worry Mom, these thoughts were only fleeting.

When we finally arrived in Bangkok, nearly two days of traveling later, we were thoroughly exhausted from all of the excitement on the island. We splurged in Bangkok to stay in a nice hotel, and we spent most of our time relaxing and enjoying the comfortable beds, comforters, and showers. Huzzah for hot water! We ate Western food, visited the Grand Palace, Reclining Buddha, Temple of the Emerald Buddha, and the Bangkok Arts & Culture Center. Even though the Grand Palace bore a striking resemblance to Disney World, it had some of the most beautiful architecture I have ever seen. I also became oddly obsessed with the tiles and mosaics on the buildings. The details were incredible.

Bangkok and Koh Phi Phi are really big tourist destinations in Thailand, which meant that we were frequently surrounded by other foreigners. Or, that if we were not surrounded by foreigners, that we were surrounded by Thai people who spoke exceptional English. Not only did this make me use more Thai -I did not want these people to think I was just any tourist- but it also meant that we met some really cool people. The people who work on Koh Phi Phi that are not Thai are fascinating to me. It seemed that many of them simply woke up one day, unhappy with their lives, and moved to this tiny island. We also met many friendly fellow travelers, some disgruntled bartenders (who we obviously won over in the end), and extremely helpful MIT graduate who wrote a list of all the best clubs in Bangkok on a napkin from a Mexican restaurant at the mall. These people, though I only knew them for only a brief time, have been some of the most memorable, and eccentric, people I have ever encountered. And, they will always have a special place in my memories of this year abroad. Even Claudia, who practically jumped out of a moving taxi. Let me tell you, she was crazy. But, I digress.

This vacation, which marked the halfway point for my year in Thailand, was an experience I will never forget. I refuse to say that it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, because I have so many more things to see and do in this world. Now, I have four more months left in Lamphun and a lot of work left ahead of me. Aside from giving me some time to relax and enjoy myself, I am hoping that this vacation also helped me to become energized and motivated again. The end of last term left me feeling exhausted and overwhelmed, and I definitely needed the time to pause and recharge before the new term. If I am not motivated, there is no way my students will be. And even though they can be little punks who too often tell me I am fat, they are still my kids. Which means they are awesome. So, I need to be awesome too. And, when they shouted “Cassieeee” from down the hall when they saw me coming to class, it put a huge smile on my face.

I definitely think this vacation was good for our relationship.  And it was necessary for my sanity.

 I took many pictures on this epic adventure, so here are just a few of my favorite snapshots. Enjoy!

Beautiful Koh Phi Phi.

 

With love, from Koh Phi Phi.

I became mildly obsessed with the longtail boats.

 

Ready for diving! I did not want to take that wetsuit off, it did wonderful things for my figure. I also felt super professional. 

On the ocean floor. Our amazing diving family!

Fins. Noggin. Duudeee. SEA TURTLES. *dies*

Marble Temple at sunset: Bangkok.

Temple of the Emerald Buddha, Grand Palace: Bangkok. Absolutely stunning.

All smiles at the Grand Palace!

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The Lucky Life.

A jet plane and a big idea, I jump over the sea

What ifs hot on my trail, But that can’t catch me 

– The Avett Brothers

I write this as I sit in school, proctoring final exams. This means two things, aside from the fact that my life is as routine as it sounds. The first thing is that because October is here, it is time for October break! I remember when I thought October break was so far away. That it is already here shows how quickly my time here is passing. Which leads to the second thing: my first term as an English teacher abroad is coming to a close! My time in Thailand is halfway over. Holy crap.

But there is always a problem that occurs, at least for me, when I spend time living abroad. When you first arrive, everything is a new adventure. This is my first time in Asia, so the architecture, Thai language, and way of life all hit me like a ton of bricks. Don’t get me wrong, I was bombarded by this new culture in the best way. But now, four months later, these experiences that were at first daunting, frightening, and also amazing, have become commonplace. No longer is it a struggle to order food for dinner. I am not overwhelmed by the thought of catching a bus; whether I am going down the street to the post office or to Chiang Mai for the day. I am excited that these things do not scare me anymore, because it means that I feel comfortable here, that, at least for a little while, I can call this place home.

But, it also means that I can lose sight of the great things that happen to me everyday. I see beautiful temples on nearly every corner, but they should not be any less stunning simply because I see them everyday. When I drive around my province, I see breathtaking scenery of mountains and foliage. I do not want to lose the appreciation for the small things that make this an amazing experience; like driving around Thai neighborhoods on the back of a motorbike after sharing lunch with a good friend, eating delicious food in the courtyard of a temple in Chiang Mai, or having the privilege to spend my October break in one of the most beautiful places in the world.

So here are some of the small, and big things: I love how easily and beautifully the Thai people can take off their shoes. I love how I think this type of devotion is beautiful. I love the easy-going nature of this country, but also know that I could never adjust. I think this country is beautiful in both its simplicity, but also in the ornate temples and architecture. Time goes slow, but also fast. People are so kind, but sometimes, being farang, I also feel so marginalized. Sometimes I miss America so much that I ache, but other times I wonder how I am going to go back. This is my life now, and it is a crazy paradox.

This past weekend I went to a temple in Pa Sang with a fellow teacher. The temple was situated on the top of a mountain, so I had a beautiful view of the mountains and surrounding farms. She asked if I had ever lived abroad before, and I explained that I had lived in Western Europe for a few months and traveled briefly in Eastern Europe and Africa. She smiled at me and said, “I think you have a very lucky life.” Even though this woman was a terrible driver, and had forgotten to get gas before leaving for our expedition, I am inclined to agree with her. To say that my life, at this moment, is anything less than lucky, would be a lie indeed.

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Fighting! (Part Three)

PART THREE.

Fighting: Hegemonic Structures

In my four years as a student of the social sciences, I have gained an uncomfortable awareness of the way that Western Europe and the United States have shaped the society of the modern world. They have set the tones and standards through the hegemonic institutions that they create. As a student, I understood this concept of dominant culture, and could explain through abstract examples. But, my time living in Thailand, for me, has been one of the clearest examples of the way this hegemonic institution influences lives all over the world.

I teach English at a high school in northern Thailand. It is a large school, hosting over 3,000 students in grades 7-12. So, everyday, I see girls 11-18, and everyday I hear them say “I want white skin” or “Your skin is so beautiful.” On a regular basis, girls, and sometimes even grown women, hold their arms up to mine and gasp and laugh at how much whiter my arm is than theirs. They are even more aghast when they flip their arm over and it’s still darker than my near glow-in-the-dark appendage. Students wear long-sleeved shirts and sweaters when it is nearly 90 degrees outside, not because they are cold, but because they are “scared of the UV” that will make their skin darker. Their lotions and face washes have skin whitening creams infused in them. It’s everywhere, and it’s not just about skin. I’ve talked with students who want to be tall like me (HA!) or have rounder eyes, or even have plastic surgery to have a more Western nose.

And while their compliments are sweet, I find myself more angry than flattered. I wonder what society, media, and entertainment have taught them that they want to change so many things about themselves. I am angry that Western culture can be so ethnocentric that they make other cultures feel so poorly about their own appearance. And, what makes me even more angry, is that these girls, the same ones who want to change their skin, their eyes, their nose, are extremely beautiful. I know there are all things that we wish we could change about ourselves. So, when they tell me that they want my skin, I tell them that I wish I had their skin. I would love to be a little more tan. And when they walk into class and say “Teachaaa, so beautiful!” I respond, “Youuu are so beautiful!” Because I think it’s true, and someone needs to start telling them so.

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