Today I woke up and looked back on the lessons I’ve learned teaching abroad in Thailand so far. Exactly one year ago today I was sitting on Korean Airlines flight 7850 headed from Atlanta to Seoul. August 17, 2018. I was 23 years old, had a broken foot, and was halfway into my one-way journey to Bangkok, Thailand. It wasn’t until a couple hours into this flight that it all really hit me. It wasn’t until this flight that I really broke down.
Earlier that morning, my dad woke me up at 5 AM. I hurriedly threw some last minute items into my suitcases before hopping (literally, because of my broken foot) into my dad’s truck and headed to the airport. There were, of course, tears as I checked 160 lbs of my favorite possessions at the airline desk. Inside two of the largest suitcases I could find were camping and backpacking gear, way too many clothes, every book Anthony Bourdain had ever written, seven pairs of shoes, and enough Tony Chachere’s Creole seasoning to last at least 2 years.
To say I had no clue what I was getting myself into would be the understatement of the year, or maybe even my life. I knew I would be teaching English in Thailand, but that was about it. Friends, family, and the odd acquaintance would ask me questions about where I was going to live, what grade I would teach, what my schedule would be like, how much I was going to be paid, how much living expenses would cost, and how long I would be abroad. My lack of answers combined with my happy-go-lucky and optimistic attitude confused some, made many doubtful, and bewildered most. I had no answers. I didn’t know. I would not know the answer to any of these questions until I arrived – until a month after arrival, actually. Did I know how to speak Thai? Nope. I could say hello (very poorly) when I first landed. That’s all. I was hoping to be near the beach, teach kindergarten, and, for the first time, live alone. So that was it. I packed up and moved straight out of my parents house, some 9,000 miles to the exact other side of the world.
I had convinced everyone else I knew what I was getting myself into, but I never really got to hash it over with myself. Hence the in-flight breakdown. I sobbed and sobbed and the poor Korean woman next to me did not know what was going on. I took out my laptop and penned a letter to my father to express some of my emotions, which included thoughts like:
What the heck am I doing?? Who does things like this?? I’m moving to a country I’ve never even been to? I’m basically homeless right now?? Can I even locate Thailand on a map??
Self-reflecting one year later
Today I woke up and looked back at that letter, 365 days later. Oh, how I want to hug last-year Brooke. If she could only see me now!
Hindsight is always 20/20. So, here’s some highlights of my year in retrospect. This post mainly focuses on personal growth I’ve experienced, not so much on the little things. It would be impossible to cover everything, but I’ve tried to summarize the major lessons here as well as give examples of small things contributing to the lessons. They’re not prioritized in any specific order, and I couldn’t rank them if I tried.
There’s a difference between pain and discomfort
This has been the most tried and true lesson I’ve learned so far. A lot about this past year was uncomfortable. Being away from my family, learning to live in a much simpler accommodation, learning new foods, smells, customs and people – any of these would have been overwhelming on their own. There were certainly moments of pain, which I allowed myself to feel for a second, but for the most part it was discomfort. The thing about discomfort is, as my yoga instructor taught me years ago, if you can sit in that little bit of discomfort for a short time, it won’t be so irritating anymore. From this logic I have really expanded many boundaries, such as my ability to eat spicy food, live without air conditioner, get used to sweating all the time, tolerate bugs being literally everywhere, and even confidence to attempt speaking Thai.
Growth does not happen in your comfort zone
Similar to the first lesson, I realized that a lot of the things I’ve learned and ways I’ve grown here would not have been possible had I stayed in America. Leaving was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done, but it was so so so worth it. By putting myself in this strange, foreign place I have been forced to adapt and change in ways I’d never considered. It’s made me stronger, more independent, and helped me develop a better sense of self.
Western luxuries are not necessities
I remember my first brush with a lack of AirCon being a visit to Cambodia with my mom in 2018. We had a rather nice hotel, but when we left for the day we had to take the key and the power went out. All of it. AirCon and all. So after touring the temples of Angkor Wat all day, we’d get back drenched in sweat and had to wait for the room to cool off from scratch. Seriously?
Moving to Thailand, at the onset of my TESOL/TEFL course, we were advised to get used to living with just a fan. I thought they must be insane. Now, however, I run my air for 1-2 hours in the evening before bed and leave the window open during the days and weekends.
I don’t have a kitchen, there’s no divider between my toilet and shower, and I don’t remember the last time I sat on a sofa or watched a proper TV show. Don’t get me wrong, I’m going to appreciate these luxuries when I get home. I just never imagined life without them until now.
Being alone is hard for me
This was probably the most difficult part as well as the area where I saw the most growth. Ever since childhood, I didn’t spend much time alone. Not truly alone, at least. I have a sister one year younger than me, parents I am very close to, and friends who I spent a lot of time with. I cannot think of a time when I spent more than 2 hours alone aside from some studying in college. Always having someone to talk to and a friend, sister, or co-worker at arm’s reach, I never really had to be alone. I didn’t like it.
It was a gradual transition, but slowly I became more okay with it. Whereas my Friday nights used to feel empty when not spent with a drink in a noisy bar with giggling friends, I now find solace in a Friday evening spent in my apartment, with a rom-com and some hot ginger tea.
A lot of things aren’t really a big deal
In college I was prone to breakdowns. They were fuelled by intense pressure I put on myself, over commitment to extracurriculars, lack of sleep, poor nutrition, over-caffeination, and a bunch of anxiety about the future. Most people I was friends with in college had witnessed one or two, especially if you frequented the education building. During my final semester, I was having a realllllly tough time with student teaching. I was in a major depression and any tiny bit of inconvenience could be the one to light the fuse. I was mid-breakdown in the teachers lounge with my coordinator, a professor who I had known well during my college years, and she hit me with some free truth that I did not ask for. “Brooke, when the smallest little thing happens you just kinda freak out.”
She was right, and I have been working on that for the last year and a half. Instead of being upset, develop a game plan and move on. It takes a lot for me to hit those breakdowns now. Smashed my phone to oblivion? Fixable. Class didn’t go as planned? No biggie. Bus is three hours late? Bring a book. Spilled my coffee all over me as I was leaving? Change & clean it up. Looking back now I can’t believe I let so much get to me, and I’ll be sure to the lessons I’ve learned in Thailand from keeping from going back to that place.
Free time is a real (and cool) thing and you should fill it wisely
As you can imagine, never spending much time alone in my whole life meant also being busy all the time. I was in a million clubs and made it a point to make time for all of my friends and family. Any free time I had, I quickly filled. If I didn’t have anything to do, I’d head to the bar to meet up with friends. This was an awful practice. Don’t get me wrong, I still love a night out and a nice G & T, but I’m also content with finding a coffee shop and sitting around with a book for hours. I’ve started learning all sorts of things via Youtube and books. I have read more books here in the last 12 months than I had in the last 4 years combined. I’m so happy I’ll be taking home these new habits of making time for myself.
I’m so grateful for all of these lessons that I’ve learned whilst teaching English in Thailand with TravelBud. My time here immersing myself in this incredible land and culture has brought forth so much growth that I never imagined. I thought I was signing up for a change of scenery, a resume-strengthener, and some good food and friends. The life-changing experience I got, however, was so much more.