Musings, Travel & Adventure

Coming Home: Not As Easy As I Thought

When I flew out of Minneapolis for Asia on a Friday in early fall, I felt queasy. Three months wasn’t a long time to be gone — or was it? I had no idea what to expect. Would I like Asia? Would I like living out of my backpack for that long? Would volunteering be rewarding, difficult, or both? Would I like the food? Would I get sick? Would I still like my brother Tommy after all that time spent together? (Kidding, Tommy.)

I really didn’t know all the answers to these questions, which was both exciting and nerve-wracking at the same time. I love to travel, but I also love home, and previously my longest trips had only been a couple of weeks at most. I was determined to make the best of it regardless of what I found overseas, but I knew it wouldn’t be the most comfortable period of my life by any means. That really wasn’t why we were going. If anything, I wanted to be uncomfortable. So as we flew out of Minneapolis that rainy autumn morning, I did my best to push my nervous thoughts to the back of my mind. I remember commenting to Tommy, “Well, no matter how this trip goes, it will be a sweet feeling to land back on American soil in December!”

Because coming home is always an amazing feeling, right?

Fast forward to that December plane ride home to America from Beijing, and something remarkable had happened, for better or worse: I really didn’t feel as amazing as I had thought I would to be coming home. I didn’t feel excited. I didn’t feel eager. Instead, the same queasy feelings that accompanied me on the way to Asia were flitting around in my stomach during the return flights. What was going on? Could it be that I actually enjoyed myself so much that I was now going to pine away for Asia? This was unexpected. The thought of facing “real life” back home was as terrifying to me now as flying into the unknown in Asia had been. I had definitely experienced culture shock when we had first landed in Cambodia months earlier, but it hadn’t taken long to adjust. In fact, it didn’t take long at all for me to fall in love with Cambodia and Thailand.

I had also heard of something called “reverse culture shock,” a term used to describe a difficult adjustment back to life in America. I assumed, however, that it was only for people who spent years overseas. I was not at all prepared for it to be difficult for me. But strangely, it was. It turns out three months was long enough to pick up new habits and expectations, and not long enough for me to miss home much at all.

When we finally landed in Minneapolis, I felt empty.

I had planned and looked forward to and lived the trip for so long, and it had gone so fast, that I wasn’t sure what to do with myself now that I was back. Three months no longer seemed too long, but not long enough at all. I missed Asia incredibly. Where was the sunshine? Where was the diversity? Where was the fresh fruit being sold on every corner? Where were the challenges of trying to converse with people who don’t speak my language? Where were the interesting crowds of people? And why is everything here so darn expensive? Christmas, while it is one of my favorite times of year, just made everything worse. After living out of a backpack for that long and cycling only a handful of outfits, I was suddenly overwhelmed by the amount of stuff I owned, and getting more stuff as gifts seemed unnecessary. I missed the simplicity of only a few days earlier. I missed the friendliness and curiosity of the Khmer and Thai and Chinese locals. I didn’t really miss the bad plumbing, but even our fancy American bathrooms added a whole new adjustment. And oh boy, I missed the food. (Except, of course, the fried tarantulas! Those I can live without.) I was pretty excited one night after Christmas to find both pad thai and a native Thai waitress at a new restaurant in town, and she was pretty excited too when I tried out one or two of my terribly-pronounced Thai phrases on her.

I was genuinely surprised and a bit bewildered by the overall difficulty of adjusting back, and I was hard on myself for it, especially when I considered how fortunate I am here at home. Was I just being dramatic? Or negative? I didn’t want to be like that. But it wasn’t until I had an email conversation with my friend E, who currently lives in China, that I understood these feelings weren’t necessarily bad or unusual. She assured me that it happened to her, too, the first time she moved to China for a summer and then returned to America. Through our conversation, I began to look at the whole process differently. Instead of feeling depressed about missing my adventures in Asia, could I take that new perspective that I had wanted so badly and work to apply it to my familiar life here? Could I simplify things, focus on teaching and family and all of the important things, and most of all, know in my heart that these experiences, even if we never get to have them again, make us who we are?

What I was feeling made even more sense when I came across this quote by Miriam Adeney:

“You will never be completely at home again, because part of your heart will always be elsewhere. That is the price you pay for the richness of loving and knowing people in more than one place.” 

This idea resonated with me greatly. I left a small part of my heart in Asia even after a few short months, and that’s okay with me. Dramatic? Maybe, but whatever. I’ve never been one to hold back much. And the richness I’ve gained from the whole trip has emerged during the weeks I’ve been home, especially once I was able to get past feeling empty and lost. Most importantly, I’ve started to realize that you don’t need to fly across the world for new experiences. It’s about saying “yes” when opportunities present themselves, trying new things, accepting people no matter where they come from, and enjoying the little things that surround us daily.

Coming home has turned out to be its own new experience now that I’m adjusting again. I feel like I’m getting a fresh start, so I’ve decided to fill my life with things that are meaningful, big or small. I’ve taken up local adult classes on everything from photography to crochet. I’m drinking tea for the first time ever. I sleep less and converse more. I have a new fascination for people from other cultures and have become more outgoing in general. I also have a new appreciation for drinkable tap water and flushing toilets! That new perspective is working its magic, and coming home — well, truthfully it hasn’t been as easy as I thought. It’s a little too cold now and a little too expensive, and I still find myself looking at flights online during my free time. I will more than likely jump on a plane overseas the first time the opportunity arises.

But this is home. And I’m finding again that it’s not so bad, after all.

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Musings, Travel & Adventure

A Bittersweet Detour

The purpose of our three-month long trip to Asia was to train in Cambodia and  volunteer teach in Thailand, but we thought it was necessary to end with a week-long detour into China since we were in the right hemisphere and everything. (You can read a little about this Chinese detour here and here.) We enjoyed every stop we made, but we had one major goal in mind: To visit the famed Great Wall of China.

I’m happy to say that on our very last day in Asia, we finally made it.

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Furthermore, we accomplished the impossible: We actually had the Great Wall to ourselves for most of the morning. In China, a land of 1.35 billion people and countless tourists, it can be difficult to find personal space. And this is the Great Wall. Surely, even in December, we would be admiring it with fellow crowds of tourists. But I am not kidding when I say that the one and only time I enjoyed complete solitude in my almost three months in Asia was on the Great Wall of China, which, depending on the source, is visited by four to ten million tourists a year. Amazing!

Several things helped our cause:

First, it was not peak travel season in China. When we went, it was between Chinese holidays. Near the Chinese New Year holiday in January, more people start traveling again, but we were there weeks before the Chinese New Year, and also, the schools were busy wrapping up their semesters.

Second, we were helped out greatly by the friendly manager at our guesthouse in Beijing. He had recommended going to the Jinshanling section, which is a bit farther away than the more popular sections of the Great Wall near Beijing. We took his advice, and I’m glad we did. He also helped by lining up a private car to drive us there. As we had flights to catch in the afternoon, we decided to leave at 5:30 a.m. and were there before 8:30. I’m not even sure if it was open yet, actually. I think they just let us in anyway.

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Third, it was absolutely freezing. Granted, I had just left Thailand where I’d been sweating in the heat and humidity for months, and I had turned into a bit of a cold weather weeny. But even hardened, wizened agriculture men Adam and Danny, who had recently left the North Dakota winter, claimed it was cold. And they were well prepared! Tommy and I, on the other hand, were trying to make do with any clothing we had from our Thailand backpacks that could count as slightly warm, as well as scarves, hats, a fleece-lined flannel, and other outerwear hastily purchased on the China streets. Tommy was forced to wear socks under hiking sandals. Yes, it was cold, my friends; but apparently North Dakotans are among the few crazy enough to go romp around on the Great Wall when the temperature is 10 degrees Fahrenheit and there is a biting wind blowing across the rugged Yanshan mountains.

That’s not to say we didn’t do some precautionary warm-up stretching:

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It was probably good for me, anyway. I needed a taste of winter so I would be prepared to go back home.

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Standing on the Great Wall for the first time was breathtaking. (Perhaps I’m remembering the icy wind that hit me in the face and literally took my breath away.) But in seriousness, in that moment it was worth every minute spent applying for visas and every penny spent getting there. At the Jinshanling section, the Great Wall stretches over ridges and mountain peaks as far as the eye can see in either direction. And once we were up in the sunlight hiking around, even the cold wasn’t so bad.

We were like a group of kids on a really impressive playground.

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The first humans we spotted in the late morning were two Chinese merchants, a chatty, smiley wife and silent, serious husband, who haul their coolers and water jugs to the top of the Great Wall every day to sell drinks to thirsty tourists. These two are tough, I tell you. The cold barely phased them. Partly in admiration and partly in desperation, we purchased cold beers and hot black tea with the last of our RMB – it seemed fitting to spend it there, despite the steep prices – and sipped it on the Great Wall while the wife cheerfully learned how to use my camera, laughed at our pronunciation of “thank you” in Mandarin, and taught us a couple of new words.

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We did eventually run into a smattering of tourists straggling onto the Wall, who looked equally as cold as we did, but we were on our way out by then. We had flights to catch and real lives to get back to and these kinds of moments can only continue in one’s memory, anyway.

It was a bittersweet feeling, stopping on those ancient stones and gazing over the mountains, knowing I wouldn’t be back to this part of the world for a while.

Mostly, it was just bitter because of that bitter cold I mentioned.

Because as far as memories go, this one’s pretty sweet.

Musings, Travel & Adventure

Happy Every Day: Guest Speaking in China

As I mentioned in my last post, we spent a day and two nights in Zhengzhou, in the province of Henan in north-central China, with my friend Erika. Zhengzhou happened to be a perfect stopping point between Hong Kong and Beijing during our week of train adventures.

Usually back home I am trying to convince people to guest speak in my classroom, so when Erika asked if I’d like to accompany her to two of her college English classes at Zhengzhou University, I had to say yes. My brother Danny also volunteered his services. It turned out to be one of the most enriching experiences during my time in Asia. After just a couple hours spent with Erika’s warm and curious students, I could see why so many people fall in love with China for its people.

First, we talked about our Christmas traditions, including Christmas cookies, Christmas trees, sledding, and carols. Danny and I taught two carols to the students, and in return they sang a Chinese New Years song for us. Erika also instructed her students that if they wished to ask us a question about ourselves or about life in America, they needed to share with us something interesting about China first. Here are a few of the cultural things we learned:

  • Chinese New Year, or Spring Festival, is a pretty big deal!
  • We should try dumplings while in China. We heard a lot about dumplings. (And when we tried them from a street cart later, they were pretty tasty!)
  • Dialects vary greatly from province to province, and even within provinces. We even got a demonstration on dialectical differences.
  • Do not eat a banana by itself! It needs to be eaten with something else or you might hurt your stomach.
  • Do not drink milk by itself either.
  • You should not put honey in hot tea as it ruins the nutrition.

Here are some of my favorite questions the students asked us in return for sharing a cultural tidbit:

  • Why do Americans tuck napkins into their shirts in the movies?
  • Why are dentists respected in America? (In China, they tend to go to the dentist for a toothache only, not for regular cleanings. It’s not a serious medical field.)
  • Is it true that in America, if you wear an outfit to a party, you can’t wear it again? (Blame the celebrities.)
  • Does America watch dating shows too?
  • Are farms in America expensive?
  • Can you use chopsticks? Are knives and forks used as eating utensils even safe?

It’s great seeing your own culture through a brand new set of eyes. Their questions surprised me, but then again, they were shocked that I didn’t know that I’m not supposed to eat a banana alone. It’s the beauty of culture, and cultural differences.

And also, why was it ever OK to tuck napkins into a shirt?

The best part of this whole experience actually greeted me back in America. Erika’s students wrote thank-you notes and sent them to me. Here are some of the heart-warming messages I received from these truly charming students in Zhengzhou, China:

  • “Merry Christmas! Happy New Year! I like your lifestyle very much!”
  • “Welcome to China! I wish you happy forever!”
  • “Hope I could see your ‘star-like’ eyes again.”
  • “Thank you for visiting our class which makes us very happy!”
  • “It’s very glad to see you! Thanks for your beautiful songs!”
  • “Hope you can come back to China someday in the future.”
  • “May you come to China at Spring Festival.”
  • “I am so glad to see you but I forget to take a photo with you! What a pity! I hope I can see you again… and then take a photo!”
  • “What a lovely girl you are! Happy every day!”

What a great message: “Happy every day!” I’m not sure if the students learned a thing about Christmas from me and Danny, but I know I learned a thing or two from the whole experience. China is an amazing place, and I’ve never been greeted so warmly by young people I had never met before. When you are fortunate enough to get to add these kinds of experiences to your life list, it’s hard not to be happy every day!

Here we are:

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Thanks for the experience, Erika!

Musings, Travel & Adventure

2535 Kilometers on the China Train

We had exactly one week to spend in China, and we needed to travel 2535 kilometers in that one week (not including a short trip to Hong Kong smashed in there), and we needed to stop and see some of China along the way, too. We were willing to meet this challenge with the help of one very important asset: China’s high-speed train system. After several years of construction, this train system is both the longest high-speed rail system in the world and also the most heavily-used in the world.

A little summary of our 2535 kilometers through China by train: 

We landed in Guangzhou, a major city in the south of China, on the Thursday night that we had left Bangkok for the last time. I tried to swallow some of my sadness over leaving Thailand by focusing on the challenges facing us in China: Mainly, how the heck were we going to make it to Tommy’s friend Brady in Shenzhen when we didn’t know a piece of the language, we wouldn’t have phone access to find him, and generally, we didn’t have a clue what we were doing? (Read: Silly, lost, clueless tourists in a very foreign country.) But with all four of our silly tourist heads put together, we managed to get it done. We had printed the Chinese address of our hotel to give to the taxi driver at the Guangzhou airport. Our hotel in Guangzhou turned out to be lovely, and the receptionist helped us get a cab to the correct train station the next morning. At the train station, we were helped by an exasperated employee who managed, through many gestures and basically by pulling the correct money out of our wallets herself, to get us four tickets to Shenzhen, our first 139 kilometers by train. In Shenzhen, thank goodness, Brady found us where we had agreed to meet and escorted us to his apartment and throughout the city of Shenzhen.

Here we are, happy to have made it to Shenzhen. This would start our long, increasingly-colder journey north to Beijing:

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Because Shenzhen is near the China-Hong Kong border, Brady also escorted us to Hong Kong and back for a night. I only wish that we had more than one night to spend there, because it was a pretty amazing city. We took the ferry out into Victoria Harbour to see Hong Kong’s skyline; we ate burgers and drank ale at a delicious diner; and we stayed out late to enjoy the local nightlife. We were only there for a total of about 16 hours, but I’m glad we stopped by.

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Did you know that Hong Kong is also home to the world’s longest outdoor covered escalator system? I secretly like riding escalators just as much as I did 20 years ago — and so do all of you, be honest! — so personally I thought this 800-meter-long escalator system was pretty sweet:

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Upon returning to Shenzhen in the morning, we said goodbye to Brady, and, armed with instant noodles and packaged cookies, we hopped on board our second high-speed train and traveled 1707 kilometers north to Zhengzhou, current residence of my friend Erika, a college professor. Unfortunately, it was so foggy that we couldn’t see much of the countryside out the train windows, but we enjoyed our trip regardless. It was indeed a speedy train: during our trips, the trains traveled most of the time at a speed of 300 kmh (around 186 mph).

We spent a lovely two nights and one day in Zhengzhou with Erika. She showed us around her college and introduced us to her friends and co-workers. She also took us to some pretty tasty street food, which is a quick and sure way to all of our hungry traveling hearts:

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It was also getting increasingly bitterly cold as we went farther north. After spending two and a half months in tropical Southeast Asia, I would classify myself as a rather giant weenie when it comes to cold weather. (The only good news here is that China was doing its best to prepare me for my trip home to the brutal winter of North Dakota.)

Finally, we left Erika behind in Zhengzhou and commenced the third and final leg of our journey by high-speed train, 689 kilometers north to famous Beijing. We felt we were pretty experienced high-speed-train travelers by now.

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That was a little irony, because we were still kind of just silly tourists in a very foreign country.

But we had at least figured out a few crucial tips about China train travel: First, the hot water dispensers located in every train car are invaluable for anything from instant noodles (in other words, cheap lunch) to hot tea. It took us until the last leg of the journey to figure out that they even provide paper cups for your tea leaves.

Second, they do have both squatty potties AND Western-style toilets in the trains. However, as I learned after waiting for what seemed like an hour for my preferred Western-style toilet and finally resigning myself to the local version, using a squatty potty on a swaying train — while it takes some skill and courage — is not actually so bad. (When in Rome, right?)

Finally, when you spend 2535 kilometers on high-speed trains in China, even more important than the flavor of instant noodles that you choose and the type of toilet that you use is the quality of your travel companions. And I had pretty good ones:

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Musings, Travel & Adventure

Scuba Diving and No Mishaps

Traveling is full of mishaps. Just when you think everything is going smoothly, you get food poisoning and only barely make it to the public airport bathroom. You get lost looking for a museum and somehow find yourself in a field of goats. You end up stranded on an island because the weather prevents any boats from leaving. You “accidentally” almost murder a rooster. These things just happen. Actually, now that I think about it, all of these things I just mentioned DID happen.

Mishaps make the best stories provided they don’t end up in disaster.

However, I will put my storytelling instincts aside and report that our last week in Thailand actually decided to be kind to us. How boring! No one got sick. Our scuba course passed by in a blissful three days with no problems at all. Even the weather, which had been on-and-off rainy for weeks, seemed to smile on us. We also spent the last week in great company: Our brother Danny and cousin Adam joined us in Asia for the last two weeks of our trip – one week in Thailand and one in China – following the conclusion of our volunteer teaching. Seeing them across the world was a pretty sweet feeling.

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And of course, for them, missing the -40 degree wind chill back home and swapping it for a balmy 85 was a pretty sweet feeling too.

We met them in Bangkok and spent a day there before heading south to the island of Phuket, Thailand. We had to spend a little time on the beach before we could even think about doing anything else. Adam was so thrilled to be in sunshine again that he fried himself a bit – I don’t even think he cared. The rest of us are Norwegians with a red-headed mother. We don’t mess around with sunburns.

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The next day, we started what we had come to Phuket for in the first place: our scuba certification course. Of the four of us, Tommy was the only one with any scuba experience from a college class he had taken, but he hadn’t been certified. We chose a 3-day course that included coursework, pool work, and the open water dives. At the end, provided we passed, we would be PADI Open Water certified.

Usually at this point the mishaps would come in. I would tell you about one of us getting seasick, falling off the boat, failing the course, eating something nasty, getting caught in bad weather, being hospitalized for sunburn, or some other problem. But everything was pretty perfect. We liked our English instructor within a few minutes of meeting him. The weather was gorgeous. The water was so clear it was turquoise. Being able to breathe underwater is a pretty sweet feeling. And yes, we all passed.

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Pretty boring, isn’t it?

Because it really was perfect. Hands down, these were my favorite three days of our entire Asia trip. When I looked around and realized I was a world away from home, underwater in the Indian Ocean with two brothers and a cousin… Well, maybe it was one of those times you just had to be there. And maybe every once in a while, perfect isn’t so boring.

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It was a good way to end our time in Thailand.

Musings, Travel & Adventure

The Truth About Roosters

I have a confession: Tommy and I have an ugly side. For the most part, we are easygoing and agreeable, but this ugly side revealed itself recently.

Because of a rooster.

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I really don’t like those things. Don’t get me wrong: Chickens are great – cooked and arranged artfully on my plate, that is. Roosters live and in the flesh? No, thank you. In fact, I have some disappointing information: We have all been misled on the topic of roosters. According to cartoons and egg advertisements (both reliable sources, so I thought), these colorful fowls are supposed to perch on the barn around 6 a.m. when the sun is peeking over the horizon to give a cheerful crow and wake up the farmyard. At this point, the farmer and his wife and their daughter, who is wearing some adorable blue cotton dress, finish their breakfasts of biscuits, bacon and buttermilk and tramp out of the farmhouse with rosy cheeks to begin morning chores. That rooster, he just starts the morning off right. Thank goodness for his cheerful crow every sunrise.

So idyllic.

Such a lie.

Here is the truth about roosters: They do not crow at 6 a.m. They crow at 3 a.m., 4 a.m., 5 a.m., 6 a.m., and whenever they darn well please, lest you have forgotten their measly little existence in the past few minutes. Also, they do not crow in the farmyard. In Asia, at least the parts we visited, roosters crow all over the cities, in backyards, on rooftops, in the markets, and next to hotels where people are sleeping peacefully, Furthermore, their crow is anything but cheerful, and I wouldn’t even go so far as to call it a crow. It’s a screech.

Had I been asked a few months ago my opinions on roosters, my answer probably would have been indifferent. My dislike for them started in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. After months of listening to the horrible screeching music of roosters, the dislike has only magnified. Now when I am walking down the street, I give each one that I see an evil eye. I secretly hope that every chicken meal that I eat contains at least part of the rooster that woke me up the night before. Harsh, I know. I’m not proud of this.

I mentioned that Tommy also has an ugly side when it comes to roosters. On a recent visit to Chiang Mai, Thailand, this came to surface in both of us. (Never mind that we could have ended up in jail.) Here are both sides of the story, which we had sent in an email to our family shortly after the incident:

Tommy’s side of the story: A couple weeks ago, Rachel and I were staying at a hotel in Chiang Mai. It had great reviews and we were excited about our nice place to stay upon arrival. That changed quickly. The very first morning, I woke up at 3:59 am to the sound of a dying rooster. His song of sorrow was a sick melody of crowing for the next hour and a half. At first I felt bad for the chicken, but soon that changed as I realized I should probably put an end to its life. Hence, I soon found the chickens’ roost next door, in clear sight from the 3rd balcony, right outside my door. Looking for an object to throw was difficult, as many of the objects were too valuable to kill said rooster’s poor crappy existence. However, finding a 5-liter bottle full of water soon gave me hope. I was going to crush that rooster’s head.

Rachel’s side of the story: I had no sympathy for this so-called dying rooster. It was not dying but probably just really stupid. Its song was not a crow but a 3-note call that went high-low-SQUAWK! High-low-SQUAWK! Over and over, every 5 seconds, from 4 a.m. onward. I agree, however, that this thing needs to be put out of its misery. By 5:30, my ears were ringing with the high-low-SQUAWK and my thoughts had turned murderous. I wondered to myself, how much time would I spend in a Thai jail if I went out of this room, found the rooster, picked it up and wrung its neck? (This thought process really happened, by the way.) At least jail might be quieter. Did I just hear Tommy’s door open and close? In fact, unbeknownst to me, Tommy was indeed outside, taking my thoughts one step further. He had located the squawking rooster and was standing on the balcony aiming a full water bottle at it. He was checked only by the rooster’s owner coming outside to feed the chickens. This was probably a good thing, we decided — until the next night, that is. This time, the squawking started even earlier, and all I felt was despair. Did I just hear Tommy’s door open and close again? Way to take one for the team, Tommy. I promise to visit you in jail after I sleep a few more hours.

The third night, I had gotten past anger and despair, and when I heard the rooster squawk at 4 a.m., I felt nothing but depressed. I was going through the stages of grief. The thing I was grieving was my chance at ever sleeping again.

Only one thing has happened which has made me feel sadly vindicated over these little brainless menaces. Don’t worry, I promise this turned out fine in the end. But we did get a little laugh when we saw this:

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I still wouldn’t be too upset if he ended up as a box of nuggets….

Musings, Travel & Adventure

Tidbits About Thailand

Our time in Thailand, rather shockingly, is drawing to a close. Two months ago, I had said goodbye to my family and students and made frantic last minute additions to my backpack and iPod before leaving in a rush with an anxiety-induced stomachache, having no idea what to expect. Experiencing the initial culture shock upon arriving in Cambodia, I felt that my almost three months here would trickle by slowly. Instead, it’s flown by. I can hardly believe that we have only a week and a half left in Thailand before we head up to China for another week and then, home to the United States.

I have learned a lot of interesting things about the culture here. I am grateful we were able to come here as part of a volunteer teaching program, because we were able to learn more about local life than we would have merely as tourists. Of course, in two months I have barely scratched the surface of understanding a new culture, but I thought I would share a few little tidbits that people back home might find interesting:

  • Chopsticks are not widely used in Thailand. More common is a fork and spoon, as in the West, but general table manners would have you use the back of the fork, in your left hand, to push your rice or noodles onto your spoon, in the right hand.
  • Tipping is not common in Southeast Asia. In fact, on some occasions when we have tried to leave tips, the server has insisted we take our “change.” One transplanted American working at a beach restaurant told us that generally the only customers that leave him tips are other Americans.
  • It is generally considered poor manners to drink from a bottle by tipping it up to drink from it. Better manners dictate to drink from a bottle by using a straw. Should you buy a bottle of water or a Coke from a 7-Eleven, for example, you will be given a straw to go with it. Teachers should definitely not drink from bottles of water without a straw in front of students, as the students are likely to emulate them and thereby go home copying these bad manners.
  • Speaking of 7-Eleven’s, they dominate every street corner in every major town here. I haven’t even seen one in the United States for I don’t know how long, but I have grown to love these little treasure troves of convenience where you can buy a 1.5 liter bottle of water for a mere 40 cents.
  • The “wai” greeting is used largely among native Thai people, meaning to place two hands together in a type of bow to show respect. How high or low you place your hands depends upon the rank of the person you are greeting – place your hands higher (fingertips at eyebrows, nose, or chin, depending on the situation) when greeting monks, elders, teachers, and bosses, for example; and place them lower (chest level) for employees beneath you, people younger than you, and students if you are a teacher. However, with Thailand’s active tourist industry, the locals generally understand that we Western visitors will not be able to “wai” correctly and don’t often try to greet us in that way.
  • It is rude to beckon someone with one finger as we do in the United States, mainly because that is how they call animals such as dogs. Instead, you should turn your hand so that your palm is facing down and use your entire hand to beckon someone. It is also rude to point at someone.
  • In Thailand, the head is considered holy and the feet are considered lowly. For this reason, you must not touch the head of an adult (with small children, it’s usually ok), and you must not point your feet at someone while sitting. Instead, it is more polite to keep your feet crossed safely underneath your chair.
  • Because feet are considered lowly and feet touch the floor, the floor is also considered an undesirable place for items of value. Books and school supplies must not be placed on the floor or stepped over, as knowledge is considered valuable and stepping over them would be disrespectful to knowledge.
  • So many people in Thailand’s tourist areas speak English, that if you attempt to speak to them in Thai and greatly butcher the pronunciation (as I do), the friendly Thai people are almost less likely to understand you then if you just speak English. At the very least, you may very likely get laughed at. At least, I do. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try, however! Tommy is better at speaking Thai than I am, I admit.
  • Much of the beauty market sells “whitening” products, in the form of face creams, lotions, and makeup. I always find myself jealous of the beautiful tan complexions here, but then again, usually we want what we can’t have. Perhaps it is similar to America’s obsession with tanning beds, fake tanners and bronzers?
  • Although Thailand is a democracy with an elected prime minister, the country greatly adores its royal family, so much so that to say anything disparaging about the king could land a person in jail. Even to step on money inadvertently is considered disrespectful, as the face of the beloved king is displayed on Thailand’s coins and bills.

Cultural differences are fascinating.

Speaking of, I think going back to the United States may be a culture shock all over again. Going from the humid 80- and 90-degree weather back to North Dakota’s winters will be the biggest shock of all!

Musings, Travel & Adventure

New Perspectives from the Airport Bathroom Floor

About eighteen months ago, I decided my life had gotten too comfortable and that I needed a new perspective.

A few days ago, I found myself on the tiled floor of a public airport bathroom in Bangkok, throwing up my food-poisoned dinner from the night before, cursing myself and the bathroom and all of Asia in general.

Why did I ever think that “too comfortable” was a problem?

Let me tell you exactly how I came to find myself on that bathroom floor: After deciding I needed this new perspective, I researched Southeast Asia volunteer teaching programs online for months, began setting aside chunks of my teaching paycheck, got a second evening job, booked tickets, quit both my jobs, moved back home, found a new job willing to give me three months leave, prepared sub plans for those three months, applied for visas, got all sorts of brutal vaccinations in my arms, stocked up on sunscreen and mosquito spray, and packed everything I could into a backpack.

And here I am.

Did I really do all of this for the sake of gaining a new perspective on life?

I’ve always been accused of being a little bit dramatic.

But on that bathroom floor, I came to the realization that it’s working. As my list of new experiences expands — some more enjoyable than others — I do believe I’m getting what I came here for. I’ve seen and tried more new things in the past two months then I have in any other period of my life. I’ve been lost, homesick, swindled out of money, challenged, exhausted, disgusted, and culture-shocked. I’ve lost what feels like half my body weight in sweat in one day; I’ve battled the fastest, most ninja-like mosquitos that I’ve ever battled; I’ve trusted the kindness of strangers who don’t speak a bit of my language. I’ve purchased overnight bus tickets just to find myself on the overnight bus from hell. And of course, I’ve lain on the floor of a public airport bathroom in Bangkok, wanting to die and be put out of my misery. (I told you I could be dramatic.) Oh, and I really miss my dog.

But here’s the thing: I’ve also made new friends, learned a bit of a new language, and (somewhat) successfully taught English to Thai children. I’ve enjoyed my interactions with locals; and I’ve had interesting conversations with other travelers from Poland, France, Russia, Kazakhstan, Turkey, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Canada, Iceland, Spain, Australia, and the UK. I’ve gained a new taste for spicy food, gazed at the Indian Ocean for the first time, and found a good traveling partner in my brother Tommy.

I didn’t know what to expect when I signed up, but I think I can say that so far — despite the few hiccups — it’s been a good decision. The months preparing weren’t easy; the months spent here haven’t been easy; but I knew they wouldn’t be. I knew I was going to be hot and sweaty the whole time. (To those freezing in the Midwest right now: I apologize and I know this may be hard to hear, but intense heat is not all it’s cracked up to be.) I knew I would end up lost more than once. I knew I would like the kids at my school just a little too much. I had a strong suspicion I might get food poisoning. And I knew I was going to be thrown right out of my comfort zone. That’s what I signed up for, for reasons I can’t always remember now.

Here are a few pictures of our more memorable new experiences. (If you don’t mind, I’d rather forget the airport bathroom.)

Remember The Spider?

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I’ve made new little friends:

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And new grown-up friends:

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We’ve trekked over mountains:

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Climbed waterfalls:

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Visited countless beautiful temples (this, the White Temple in Chiang Rai):

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Participated in a lantern festival:

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Gave Thai cooking a shot:

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Went white-water rafting:

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Got up close to an elephant:

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And kayaked, in the rain, through Thailand’s renowned karst formations. On this particular adventure, I also had to arm myself with my paddle against creepy little bandit monkeys, but I refused on principal to take pictures of the little jerks:

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Most of the new experiences, unfortunately, really can’t be caught on camera. If I could, I would show you the insane traffic in Cambodia, or the friendly Thai security guard practicing his English on me, or the moment we realized we were really, really lost in Chiang Rai. I can’t, but you can take my word for it that my perspective, in just 8 short weeks, is changing. I appreciate things I didn’t appreciate before. I’ve gained new ideas about the world. And I still have a few more weeks to go before I go home for Christmas. Hopefully, the list of new experiences will keep expanding until then.

On second thought, remembering the airport bathroom that I’d really like to forget, maybe I should be careful what I wish for….

Musings, Travel & Adventure

The Kids at Korpai

Our weeks at Korpai Kindergarten were filled with singing, games, flashcards, and all sorts of fun (slash exhausting) activities that I don’t usually get to do at my teaching job back in the States. “Teacher Tom” and I had a lot of fun during our teaching experience there. We taught little English lessons with different topics every day, from insects to zoo animals to things at a park. I think Teacher Tom was a bit of a natural, actually. If he wasn’t going into secondary science education back home, I think he would make a pretty good elementary teacher. He sang enthusiastically, he led games that were loud and boisterous, and the kids loved him.

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One day, I did get a pretty good laugh, though. I was preoccupied taping flashcards of insects up on the wall for our next activity, so I let Teacher Tom handle the transition by singing “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” with the kids. He started too high. “Wait, stop,” he said. Then he started too low. Then his voice started cracking. Then, he skipped a line. Then, another kid sang the wrong line, so Tommy went with it. I found myself laughing harder and harder, unable to step in and save him. Tommy glared at me. “Thanks for the help,” he said. I just laughed more. The kids probably didn’t know much different, although I think a few of them had an inkling that Teacher Tom didn’t know much about “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.”

When it came time to say goodbye our last day of teaching, it was pretty sad. We sang the Shark Song one more time. I watched Dtang-Mo run around the Duck-Duck-Goose circle one more time. I watched Teacher Tom yell at the top of his voice during Red Light, Green Light one more time. The hard part was knowing that, more than likely, we won’t see these kids again in our lifetime. Hopefully, they are in good hands.

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When we packed up to leave at the end of the lesson, the kids asked their regular teachers where we were going. “America,” she said. The kids rattled off something to their teacher in Thai, which we didn’t understand. She said something to them, and they looked at us pretending to rub their eyes and cry. “They are sad,” she translated.

When we walked away, they gave us a pretty sweet goodbye for us to remember. To leave every day, we had to walk by a gated doorway that looks from the kindergarten out onto the street. This time, the kids rushed to the gate when we left and stuck their arms out in little waves and little peace signs. They were smiling, laughing, sad. It was a pretty touching moment.

Happily, I snapped a picture before we left for good:

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I’m going to miss those little rascals.

Musings, Travel & Adventure

Stolen Inspiration

I love learning about new cultures. But one thing that this trip to Southeast Asia is showing me yet again, is that although the world contains its cultural differences, the people in the world are really not that different. Everywhere I go, there is love and laughing; there is pain and despair and things we don’t understand and will probably never understand. My time in Cambodia was heartbreaking at times with its level of poverty, especially in rural areas. Some of Thailand’s kids, like my little friend Dtang-Mo, need more than just English lessons every day — and they are so adorable that it hurts. To the southeast, our neighbors the Philippines have been slammed by “super typhoon” Haiyan, which has killed and displaced thousands.

The struggles extend beyond Southeast Asia to the rest of the world, to America, to North Dakota, the oil boom, friends and family, my home, your home, everywhere.

That’s why I like this poem I’m going to share with you. I stole part of it from a decorative sign at a Minnesota lake resort last summer. I liked it so much that I recently did some research about its origins and in doing so, stumbled across the rest of the verses. I’ve learned that it is actually a hymn based on poetry written in 1919 by a young woman named Annie Flint Johnson.

Some stolen inspiration for you:

What God Has Promised

God has not promised skies always blue
Flower-strewn pathways all our lives through
God has not promised sun without rain
Joy without sorrow, peace without pain

God has not promised we shall not know
Toil and temptation, trouble and woe
He has not told us we shall not bear
Many a burden, many a care.

God has not promised roads smooth and wide
Swift, easy travel, needing no guide
Never a mountain rocky and steep
Never a river turbid and deep

But God has promised strength for the day
Rest for the labor, light for the way
Grace for the trials, help from above
Unfailing sympathy, undying love…

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Musings, Travel & Adventure

A Little Watermelon

I know I’m not supposed to pack the kids from school into my bag and take them back home with me, but I can’t help but want to, just a little bit. Especially one tiny little girl named Dtang-Mo, which translates literally into “watermelon.”

Dtang-Mo is about 2 years old, has dark eyes, dark curls and chubby cheeks. She is missing her front teeth prematurely. She grins at us every time we make eye contact with her and every time she sings. She loves singing. Her favorite song is “Itsy-Bitsy-Spider.” Sometimes when we are sitting on the floor, coloring or playing a game, she sits close to me, begins doing the actions for “Itsy-Bitsy-Spider” with her little chubby fingers, and whispers the words to me, or at least something that sounds sort of like the words. When I sing it softly with her, she holds up one index finger at me at the end, which means “one more time.” When we get to the end, she holds up one index finger at me again. I could sing “Itsy-Bitsy-Spider” with her all day long.

When we color, we sit on the floor like all the rest of the kids. The school doesn’t have many school supplies, but it does have a bag of crayons and the kids get only one or two colors each. She sticks out her tongue when she colors pictures of lions, spiders, and gardens. When she is finished, she points at the blank white back of the coloring page. I draw a flower. “Flower,” I say. “Fwow-a,” she repeats. The next day, she finishes coloring and points at the white space again. I draw a flower. “Fwow-a,” she says excitedly, and begins pointing to all the white space repeating “fwow-a,” over and over again. Pretty soon, her paper is covered in flowers. This happens every day for a week. At least I know I taught one word, flower, to at least one student, Dtang-Mo, if I accomplish nothing else on this trip. I could draw flowers with Dtang-Mo all day long.

When we play duck-duck-goose at the end of the morning, she gets picked sometimes. Seeing her little grin and her chubby little legs as she bounces around the circle makes me bubble up with laughter inside. She never tries catching the kid who picked her. She just bounces. I could play games with her all day long, too.

I would take this little watermelon home with me, if I could.

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Musings, Travel & Adventure

Handle with Care

Tommy and I are having a great time teaching and traveling here in Thailand. I’m pretty lucky to have my younger brother as a companion. We make a good duo with our similar yet different personalities. We are alike in many ways: We both like good food and good books, we like to explore, we have the same sense of humor, we enjoy conversation but can also go for hours without speaking and be perfectly content, and we’re both pretty good about rolling with the punches when plans change. We have different personalities, too, in good ways. I get things done; Tommy keeps things calm and cool.. I arrange the details and book the flights and hotels; Tommy follows along cheerfully. I score 1% higher than Tommy on the Thai language Test; Tommy scores 1% lower than me on the Thai language test. (Oh wait, that really has nothing to do with our personalities. I just had to throw it in there.)

Anyway, it works out.

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But let me just say, that every once in a while, Tommy is pretty good at tuning me out when I chatter away.

And every once in a while, Tommy can get a little bit ornery. When this happens, the situation must be handled with the ultimate delicacy and care. The rest of my family can attest to this fact. Unfortunately, in this particular instance, I failed.

On Saturday, after a long week of teaching and Thai class, we jumped on a bus from Pattaya to Bangkok. We booked a hostel, met up with a couple friends named Jackie and Carlton from our program, and starting exploring the city. I have to say, I hadn’t given Bangkok enough credit. It is busy, yes, but really it’s more like bursting — with life, energy, and of course, food.

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I don’t need to bore you with more descriptions of street food and street markets — Bangkok has plenty of those. One market in particular, though, turned out to be pretty cool. That’s because this one wasn’t exactly on the street. The Dumnoen Saduak floating market, a couple hours’ drive out of Bangkok, is entirely organized within canals and shopping there can only be done by boat. To get there in time to visit the market, we were told we needed to get up early, take the Sky Train to Bangkok’s Victory Monument, and locate a minivan to take us there for a couple dollars. Jackie and I planned the excursion and arranged the details. When we informed the boys we were leaving the hostel at 6 a.m., they enthusiastically agreed. Or at least I thought they did.

Remember when I said Tommy tunes me out from time to time?

And remember when I said he can get a little bit ornery?

And remember when I said these situations should be handled with delicacy and care?

Here is how that morning went:

  • 5:30 a.m. Wake up and get ready.
  • 5:55 a.m. Realize Tommy is still sleeping facedown while the rest of us are ready to go. Wake him up by shaking him and saying, “Tommy, we are leaving now!” At this point, I was not handling the situation with delicacy and care. Mistake #1.
  • 6:02 a.m. Tommy is still sleeping facedown. Ask impatiently if he is getting up or what? Still not handling the situation with delicacy and care. Mistake #2.
  • 6:05 a.m. Realize mistakes #1 and #2. Decide to be patient and leave Tommy alone to get ready. Try to make amends by asking if he wants me to buy him a bottle of water. No response. (Tommy definitely appears to be grumpy.) Ask if he can lock the door when he comes. No response. (He still appears to be grumpy.) Ask again if he wants me to buy him a bottle of water. Finally a mumbled “yeah, sure” in reply. Leave the room carefully with no more questions for Tommy.
  • 6:20 a.m. Finish breakfast and coffee with Jackie downstairs. No sign of either boy. Try to maintain patience.
  • 6:23 a.m. Appear in the doorway of the dorm room. Give the boys the evil eye. Tommy still appears to be grumpy and is throwing piles of clothes out of his locker angrily and shoving other things back in. He is muttering to himself. I am by now a little nervous to approach but I declare anyway, “Um, we were supposed to leave at 6?” He glares at me and replies, “I didn’t know that. You never told me that.” Do I tell him that I did in fact inform him? It’s at my own risk, but I go for it. “I did too tell you.” More glaring, muttering and throwing of clothes. I leave the room wishing I had handled the situation with more delicacy from the beginning. Remind myself to never wake up Tommy in anything but a gentle manner.
  • 6:27 a.m. Leave the hostel with ornery Tommy trailing behind. Although he doesn’t smile much, I think by the time we get on the Sky Train that he might be warming up. Or waking up. One of the two.

Several hours and a van ride later: Tommy is back to his cheerful self and we have a great time at the floating market.

Lesson learned.

Here are some pictures from the floating market so you can see that Tommy did, in fact, start smiling again. 🙂

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Ah, there’s that smile. It was a fun day.

And my traveling companion? Well, he’s still awesome; I can be a bossy older sister, after all, and I understand feeling ornery from time to time. I got a few good laughs out of the morning at any rate. (Although I tried not to laugh at him until I thought he was a little more cheerful. Remember… delicacy and care.)

More on teaching to come soon!