This blog was originally drafted in March 2020
If you read my most recent blog, you know that my roommate, friend, and I were on an 11 day holiday in Thailand for Lunar New Year when (what felt like overnight) the whole world turned on its head. We received word from our company informing us that all schools in China would not be allowing any student or staff on campus temporarily for the next two weeks due to the threat of the virus. Instead, every school in China would be taking up an online initiative known as HBL or Home Based Learning during the ‘short’ hiatus.
Those two weeks slowly turned into four weeks, which was forced to extend into six weeks and now, as I’m writing this, we have just received news that it is unlikely we will return to school until probably eight weeks from our initially scheduled return date (though at this point many people suspect it will be even longer). So, this is a blog reflecting on the past month of online school and my displacement in Thailand.
First, I have to list all the things I’m thankful for in this crazy situation…
My roommate’s family welcomed us for a short 11 day holiday and continued to welcome us when our little holiday turned into a full time almost 55 day residency (for me). I have a roof over my head, a warm bed, a nice bucket of water I can sometimes fill up for a shower, and access to a hot water kettle for all the tea and coffee needed to survive teaching online. I absolutely recognize I could have ended up in some hotel or trapped inside my own home in China. I am grateful every day for the hospitality and generosity of my roommate’s family.
Grace’s mom’s cooking. There is nothing like working knowing that you don’t have to worry about meals. Plus, she’s feeding us some of the most delicious brain food ever. I don’t think we’ve eaten the same meal twice. Grace’s mom might be an angel.
I am the queen of love/hate relationship with the internet, mostly because I realize how addicting technology can be. That being said, though the home we are staying in does not have WiFi (something I have actually come to love deeply because I NEED to unplug at night), it’s only a short trip to the office in order to get unblocked, free internet access (absolutely vital to running classes online).
Going through this situation, running classes online (when you were totally unprepared to do so), would be stressful for anyone. You know what would have made it more stressful? Doing it alone. I am so grateful to have Gloria and Grace beside me to bounce ideas off, to ask questions, brainstorm together, oh, and if we’re honest, whine and complain to someone who understands how challenging and impossible what we’re doing is sometimes.
It’s 90 degrees every day and there is not a cloud in the sky. I’m running every day and I’ve got a sandal tan lines to die for. I will never complain about being ‘trapped’ in such a sunny, warm, beautiful place.
I have been working out more in the past six weeks than I have in my entire life. Running over 5K, completing a 30 day yoga challenge, push-ups, ab workouts, you name it, I’ve been doing it in the name of getting out from behind the screen and finding some routine. It’s also a control thing. I can’t control anything in my life right now, except my body’s effort and the growth I see in my endurance and strength. Also, I may have totally called home to tell my family that for the first time I can see arm muscles that I never even knew I had. I am thankful to be growing fit and healthy during this time that seems full of nothing, but question marks.
It’s hard to explain what this situation has been like. At first, it was kind of fun and exciting. Wow! We get to stay in Thailand for another two weeks, it’s going to be so chill! Online school? How hard can it be?
NEWS FLASH: It’s not chill and it’s really hard!
First, there was the homesickness. Homesickness is something I’ve boasted that I’ve never really felt. Instead, I find myself wide awake at night thinking about how much I miss my house and bed left behind in China. I worry about my plants with no one to take care of them.
Then, there’s the nightmares. Nightmares of returning to China and running out of water. Nightmares of food shortages or graphic, horrible dreams of my family members dying terrible deaths and I wake up crying in bed.
After that, comes the neck pain and backaches from sitting over a screen just typing and video chatting with students and planning and grading and making a video for tomorrow’s class which gets interrupted when you have to troubleshoot a students’ technology issue, all the while thinking to myself “When’s the last time I took a break or had a drink of water?” I try and connect with every kid through email and video chats, but I still feel totally alone and disconnected from my entire world.
Meanwhile, this little hiatus keeps getting longer and longer with casualties and impacts and threats seem to be growing larger and larger. By the way, can people please stop telling my mother all the horrible things they read about or saw on the news? Because my mom is going to worry enough without you telling her the newest conspiracy theory that we end up talking about every time I call home.
On top of all this… have I mentioned that I’m job hunting? Nothing to add more pressure and uncertainty than applying and interviewing for international positions amidst a global pandemic. This is a topic for another blog all together.
As the days went on, the isolation grew. I’m alone in a foreign country where I can’t speak the language. I’m staying with the most wonderful family… with whom I also can’t speak. The adventurous little experience is growing into an unending, unresolvable struggle. It’s week seven of not being in my own bed. It is week seven of only having two people who I can actually have a conversation with face to face.
Things aren’t getting easier and the “end” remains unknown. Meanwhile I’m only two weeks from having to renew my Thai tourist visa for the second time (I had 30 days and was able to extend for another 30 days)…Thailand may be closing it’s borders soon and we’ve heard the rumor that officials have been rejecting second visa extensions.
I know that I don’t stand alone during this time of chaotic uncertainty, while I recognize that I have a lot to be thankful for, I feel overwhelmed by my lack of control and the uncertainty of my coming days. I would like to be able to return to China, finish the year well, get the closure goodbyes I need to leave China well, and then head onto wherever the Lord would have me go next with confidence and thankfulness in my heart.
At this time I ask for continued safety, healthy, and energy and motivation to continue to be an encouragement and role model to my students.
Blog completed/posted in July 2020
My roommate Grace, friend Gloria and I made plans late in the Fall of 2018 to spend Lunar New Year 2020 with Grace’s family in Thailand. It’s been an unticked checkmark on my travel to do list since arriving in China. It seemed that the Lord knew I needed to meet and become close friends with Grace (whose parents have been missionaries in Thailand for close to 30 years) for Thailand to finally happen. I truly had no idea what would be in store for us on this trip, and you all know I’m not just saying that because Grace did all the trip planning, haha. Still, this particular blog is going to focus on the wonderful vacation the three of us had, before things really took a turn for the unplanned. This blog is about our 11 day Lunar New Year holiday in THAILAND.
Departure from China, Arrival in Thailand
We flew from Qingdao Airport to Incheon Airport in South Korea and our first order of business was to hit up the fast food restaurant I find myself missing the most living abroad—Taco Bell. You might be surprised (or not) to find out that China doesn’t have a lot of Mexican style restaurants, much to my disappointment.
We traveled first from South Korea to Bangkok, Thailand, where we stayed overnight with Grace’s ‘aunt’ (the missionary kind). The next day, we had breakfast in Thailand before flying up north to the city of Chiangmai. Here, Grace’s mom picked us up and welcomed us with fresh handmade Thai jasmine leis.
The rest of our trip can be split up into about five big categories: Thai Markets, Thai Food, Thai Culture, and Thai Village Life.
During our time in Chiangmai, we were enjoyed visiting a variety of Thai markets. These markets included Warorot Market, Meecho Plaza Temporary Markets, Sunday Walking Street, the Chiangmai Night Bazaar, and Baan Kang Wat Arts and Crafts Market. The Thai markets each have their own feeling and charm. Sunday Walking Street and the Night Bazaar are two of the most well-known and popular, staying open late into the night. Vendors sell souvenirs, collectables, handmade [insert anything you can think of], clothing, bags, keep-sakes and more. The street food is delicious and fun to try.
Two things that surprised me about the markets, was how many streets would be closed off on the weekends or for one evening simply to host hundreds of sellers and tradesmen.
Another thing that surprised me was when we were at the Sunday Night Walking Street. An announcement was made and Grace told Gloria and me to freeze. I was taken aback with the busy street full of shuffling shoppers and loud, motivated sellers suddenly became still and quiet. Everyone turned to face one direction along the street as music suddenly blared across speakers set on every street corner. The vibrant market was frozen as the music played. When the song was over, the voices began to echo again and the shifting movement of crowds slithered down the streets again. Grace explained that they had played the national anthem. There is great pride in not simply for Thailand, but also reverent respect for the Thai Royal Family. Grace explained that even before watching a movie in theatres all the movie patrons are asked to stand as the King’s Song is played before every film.
I discovered once again that I’m a poor barterer (especially when I cannot speak the language), but walking amidst the music, colors, smells, and feeling traditional roots of these many markets was not only fun, but a real cultural experience.
Thai Hot Pot (MK), Mama Pad, Kuey Teow, Kuey Teow Tom Yum, Khao Man Gai, Khao Soi, Pad Thai, Bahmi Giew Moo Daeng, Niu Kao, and Rotti. These are just a few of the different food dishes I tried while in Thailand. Grace’s family is definitely a foodie family, so she were determined for us to try every traditional dish there was to offer in Thailand. I don’t know that I’ve ever eaten so well in my life.
Then there were the variety of fruits we tried, guava, mango, pineapple, watermelon, rose apple, strawberries, coconut, and papaya. It was hard not to be obsessed with the fresh fruit.
Grace is obsessed with Thai Bubble Tea, served cold and sometimes with whipped cream on top, it is very different from the bubble tea I have become accustomed to in China.
Thai Massages and Thai Hot Springs
Grace’s mom insisted that most Thai thing you can do in Thailand is get a Thai Massage and visit a Hot Springs bath. I wasn’t sure what to expect for either experience. The massage parlor was a little room above a shopping complex. We changed into loose fitting, almost pajama like capri pants and a button-up top. Then, for two hours these little old ladies find every sore muscle, tight knot, and aching ligament. It was very relaxing at most points, when they weren’t working in a spot where you’re thinking “OW!”. I’ve had more than my fair share of Chinese massages and I have to say that the Thai massage was far more relaxing and pleasant than the, you’re going to be sore for weeks because of how hard I’m going to work this trouble area attitude of Chinese massages. I must be a bit of a pain lover though because I keep going back.
Later, when we went to the hot spring I really had no idea what it was going to be like. Many, many Asian countries enjoy public bathing houses/parlors that Grace and Gloria have been going to since they were children. Public bathing… not really a Western thing. In fact, when we arrived at the front of the mineral springs bath house, Grace told me the receptionist said to her co-worker with shock, “A foreigner!” upon seeing me in line to go into the bath. Mineral hot springs have been identified in many cultures and countries as having great health benefits. That being said, my only context for ‘hot springs bath’ was visiting the ancient Roman Baths in Bath, England in 2015. You know, where there’s a giant pool with hundreds of people walking around naked? I know, I know, not the mental picture you wanted. It wasn’t the mental picture I wanted either, so I was a little nervous. Thankfully, this was not that. Instead, within the bath house there were many little rooms with a single bath inside. The mineral water is scalding, so you have two faucets one for the mineral water and one for cold water… basically to keep your flesh from burning off. You then can spend as long as you like in your little room with your bath. Do people walk around with no clothes on, you want to know? I mean yes, but not if you don’t leave your little room, haha. The minerals are said to be really helpful for all sorts of skin irritations and inflammations. I don’t think this will be on most people’s Thailand “Must Do” List, but Grace’s family has come to these baths for years. She assured me it was a, “very Thai experience.” Mind you, prior to going to the hot springs I’d been struggling with some severe itchy, dry skin (probably brought on by the dry Qingdao winter), but after the hot springs, the itchiness stopped. Could it be due to the Thai climate or a result of the bath in the mineral hot springs? Anyone’s guess, I suppose.
I was unaware of the sheer number of shrines and temples I would find decorating every street and shop when coming to China. Every little store, no matter how small, has some sort of family shrine on display. Usually the little shrines are kept with small gifts of food or drink placed on or beside them. Even as we drove through the most remote mountain regions of Chiangmai province, if you squinted for a closer look into the surrounding mountains you would find giant statues of Buddha on display. The more gold in the temple, the more money people give, and the more likely your wishes and prayers are to be received.
The most famous Buddhist temple in Chaingmai is known as Doi Suhthep. After being in Thailand for a only a few days and passing hundreds, I am not exaggerating, hundreds, of temples along the busy streets and narrow mountain roads, I asked if it was possible for us to visit one. I had never visited a proper Buddhist temple before and I wanted to see it, but also have the opportunity to lift up the lost people of the world, whose hope is in good words and gold statues to bring them peace, hope, and salvation.
We traveled up the mountain in the back of a Song Teuw, packed in tight with eight or nine other people. Not for the faint of heart-or motion-sick prone (me). I would like to say it was an enjoyable experience, but I’ll leave it as an experience. Song Teuws are the most used type of public transportation in Thailand. There are buses and taxis, but Song Teuws can get you there quicker and cheaper.
Doi Suthep Quick Facts
Doi Suthep Info
"A Thai saying goes, 'If you haven't tasted Khao Soi or seen the view from Doi Suthep, you haven't been to Chiang Mai.'
The main reason many visitors come to Doi Suthep National Park is to visit Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, a venerable and venerated temple that is one of the most holy Buddhist sites in Thailand. Wat Phra That Doi Suthep is a major pilgrimage destination, especially during the Buddhist holidays of Makha Bucha and Visakha Bucha (February 13 and May 11, respectively).
This awe-inspiring temple is crowned by an elaborate Chedi (Monument), 24 meters (79 feet) tall and gold plated from top to bottom." [Travel Source]
We climbed up over three hundred steps to get to the main temple. Women were asked to wear a skirt to cover their legs and everyone had to take their shoes off. It felt eerily to me. Statues of every size and shape covered in gems or gold. Incense being burned constantly. Money poured out over little golden money boxes. The larger statues were placed in rooms, surrounded by expensive décor, framed by large ivory tusks. The unexpected element was the temple dogs, who lay down and slept amidst the crowds of worshippers and tourists who came and went. Worshipers bring money, food, and flowers to bow before these statues and give out their requests. Some monks reclined in corners of the temple, observing and praying.
"In Thai culture, the status of kings have been rated by the number of white elephants that were in their possession and they have been historically considered a symbol of the King’s majesty. Hence, the late King Bhumibol owned the greatest number of white elephants. He had 21 white elephants and this can be regarded as an unprecedented achievement. Eleven of these elephants are still alive but only five of them have royal titles." [Phuket News Source]
Thanathon Tangerine Orchards
In the town of Fang, close to where Grace's parents work is Thanathon Orchards. This orchard is famous for being the location where oranges were farmed for the first time. The orchards now boast more than 10 orange hybrids. The grounds were really lovely and we had an amazing time walking around and seeing the many different fruit trees spread across acres and acres of green land.
Chiang Mai Umbrella Making Center
We spent a short afternoon at Bor Sang Village in Chiangmai visiting the umbrella making center. This is where thousands of paper umbrellas are handmade and designed. These umbrellas are an icon of Chiangmai. Visiting the center you can walk through and see each step of the umbrella making process, from the creation of the fine paper to the wooden frames that are designed one by one. Finally, the master painters created elaborate designs on the umbrellas that ensure each and every umbrella is 100% unique.
The center boasts not only full size "hand-painted umbrellas," but also "tiny cocktail umbrellas, large parasols for gardens or patios and other handmade products – all made from sa paper (produced from the bark of the mulberry tree) and, a more recent development, cotton. The design has also evolved, from the original floral patterns to depictions of Chiang Mai’s rural scenery and even abstract patterns" [Travel Source]
THAI VILLAGE LIFE
After a number of days spent in Chiangmai city, Grace’s mom drove us three hours north, toward the Myanmar/Burmese border to a little town called Mae Ai. Mae Ai is the town where Grace’s parents have worked as Korean missionaries for almost thirty years.
Thirty years. In two years I’ll have been alive for thirty years, so I really have no context to understand what thirty years of mission work in one place looks like. From my observations on this trip, staying with Grace’s family, thirty years of ministry looks like shopkeepers who know your order before you arrive. It looks like restaurant owners asking where your dad is every time you come to visit. For Grace, it looks like being away from Thailand for two years, but when you return the old men and women of the village get so excited over seeing how pretty you’ve become. Grace’s mother took us to visit a small village outside of Chiangrai (a neighboring province), you could only get to this village by walking across a narrow bridge over a huge river and as we’re crossing a girl on her motorbike almost jumps out of her seat because she recognized her. They hadn’t seen each other in a few years, but they knew each other.
I love that my family has served as missionaries in so many different locations: France, Cameroon, Senegal, Lancaster Country, PA to Waxhaw, North Carolina. It means we have people we know all over their world who we love to reconnect with, but it’s fascinating for me to see and interact with people’s whose whole world are built around one tiny little town.
Grace’s family has been working with a Thai minority group called the La-Hu. A really cool connection between Grace and my missionary families is that the La-Hu Bible was translated in the early 2000s by Wycliffe Bible Translators. Grace’s father took Gloria, Grace and I to visit the Wycliffe branch in Thailand, called Wycliffe Thai Foundation. Grace’s parents run dorm facility for La-Hu students who want to get an education. Currently, their complex is home to over 40 middle and high school students from the surrounding villages.
Village life is just as slow and laidback as you would imagine it to be and I LOVED it (little did I know I would get to spend far more than four days living it, but that’s another blog). Who knew how much I would love bucket showers after morning runs along rice patty fields, below mango trees and around hillsides of pineapple plants (Did you know pineapples grow in the ground?! Why am I the only one that didn’t know this?).
Plus, every home has at least two or three dogs (most of them friendly) and the people here smile all the time (Did you know one of Thailand’s slogans is ‘Land of Smiles’? They’ve earned it).
Grace’s mom cooked some of the most delicious Korean meals I’ve ever eaten with, get this, no oven, no microwave, no stove, and a sometimes empty well. This is village life. It’s sort of sad that I long to be a part of some grand theatre ministry, but am absolutely in love with life in quiet, rural agricultural villages. Just a reminder, I guess you can’t have it all.
This getaway, this quiet, peaceful rest found along the mountainous border of Burma and Thailand, living and watching Grace’s parents service with Thai and La-Hu people was really rejuvenating. I certainly didn’t want to leave when it came time to go from the little village, but I was able to be pulled away with that knowledge that I had the world’s largest mammal to meet!
ELEPHANT JUNGLE SANCTUATY
Our trip was almost finished, but before we left I had one request, “Grace, I don’t have any requirements for what we do in Thailand. You can plan whatever you want. I just REALLY want to meet an elephant.” This was my one wish and I had repeated it over and over again to my roommate even two years before when we planned the trip in 2018. So, on Monday, January 27th we headed to spend the day with three families of Asian elephants at Elephant Jungle Sanctuary in Chaingmai! This is an adventure I will save for another blog (which I will link here when it is finished).
THE UNEXPECTED DELAY
Throughout the time we were on this trip, there were murmurs, whispers, and many a message from my mom with information about the spread of the CoronaVirus in China. On January 29th, the day we were scheduled to fly to Bangkok in order to return to China, Grace, Gloria, and I received an email from our company/school that the government was mandating that no school in mainland China was permitted to open their doors while the threat of the virus was rising. The plan was to resume with school after two weeks of an online initiative we were calling HBL or Home Based Learning. We decided to extend our stay for about 12 days longer… and more on this unexpected turn of events will be another blog… detailing how our 11 day Thailand vacation turned into (currently) seven weeks displaced and working in Thailand.
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