Bangkok, Thailand. When I was younger, those words always stirred up an image of a truly foreign land; a place where fantastical gold temples rise off the rivers like a mirage, and Thai people, faces partially covered by wide brimmed straw hats, sell roasted crawly creatures and exotic fruit.
Only one year ago I was on my way to one of those fantastical gold temples, so ubiquitous in Thailand, with 2 girls I had just met. We kept peeking in our guidebook to ensure that we were on the right track to the Grand Palace. As we sat on the Bangkok Mass Transit System (BTS), each passing stop name sounded so foreign- a jumble of unidentifiable and unfamiliar inflections. I fought off tears thinking of the friends I had just left.
Although nobody can replace those friends back home, one of the pleasures of living abroad is foraging a new family. Those you meet quickly become like old friends in an expedited fashion. For the time being, they are the only ones who ride on the roller coaster of emotions with you; they feel your highs and lows in the pits of their stomaches, and they understand your struggles, frustrations, jokes, and awkward moments for all they are worth.
The BTS lady who once sounded so foreign starts to sound like home, and as time passed, I began to derive meaning from her words. She would say, ‘Nanaaaa,‘ and it inevitably induced a smile; I couldn’t help but think of the nights I’d stumbled down Sukhumvit Soi 13, buzzing on cheap Thai beer and laughing with friends. It’s the street where I continually marveled at the true miracle of the push-up bra, as tiny and temporarily voluptuous Thai women (or men?) paraded down the street while we sipped Singhas.
By the time I left, every stop name that rolled out of her mouth in that kind, elongated Thai way was imbued with memories of adventures and mishaps…
Eventually I could close my eyes and know naturally when my stop was coming, just as someone nonchalantly anticipates the right hand turn into their local grocery store. As I waited, swaying in the hard, yellow chairs, I stifled so much laughter at oncoming outfits that Barbie herself wouldn’t be caught dead wearing…
Some days when the simple frustrations of living abroad had been grinding on me, I loathed those outfits. I rolled my eyes at the 30 year old white collar worker in a homecoming-esque dress taking selfies on her tiny phone, which had been swallowed by a colossal watermelon case. Absolutely ridiculous.
Other times I cringed at the hypocritical interpretations of Buddhism, had urges to shake anger into people in this land of the cool, calm, and collected. I prayed for my life on late night taxi rides with drivers tweaked out on yaa baa. I tolerated the inescapable and painfully slow and soft covers songs that made me want to take a fork to my own ear.
I bought an ‘I love Bangkok‘ shirt unaware that the demonstrations would start soon, and I would spend so much of my energy cursing Bangkok rather than loving it, wading through its oceans of inefficiencies, and being completely baffled at the system that Thailand refers to a democracy.
However, the protests contributed to the dynamic, unpredictable nature of Bangkok, which is one of its alluring characteristics; I learned how be more adaptable to changes in plans. An equally alluring characteristic was the small airport 15 minutes away from my apartment, which served as gateway for me to explore 6 new Southeast Asian countries.
I appreciate the daily, embedded adventures that come with living a life abroad. I will miss falling asleep to heavy monsoon rain, the pungent aromas of street food, and the spice that Thailand brought to my tastebuds, and into my life. I already crave the taste of Tom Kha Gai soup from Harmony House.
There are so many more things I’ll miss that I can’t even put a name to yet; it often takes hindsight for us to realize what we will always remember about a place.
I taught my first class of 32 wonderful students. Those little Thai faces framed by straight black hair looked exactly the same to me on the first day of school, but they became as distinct and unique as their personalities. I will miss their sprightly ‘sawadee’ in the mornings.
I had one of the best years of my short life partly because of my frivolous and adventurous lifestyle, but mostly because those around me brightened my life and my time in Thailand. Each member of my farang family taught me a lesson weather it be about kindness, speaking up, being yourself, patience, spontaneity, and even love.
I came to know one more little spot in this big, wide world, which tends to be my mission when I travel. Home is where the heart is, and Bangkok will now have a little piece of my heart.
That’s my biggest takeaway and the true meaning of travel; a place as exotic and foreign as Bangkok can become home, anywhere can become home… you just have to give it long enough.