Today marks one year to the day since I left the States, clueless yet excited, to teach in a foreign country known as “Thailand,” where I’d spend my days basking in the sun on a jungle-island paradise, drinking pineapple juice, and teaching perfectly obedient and lovely Thai students.
Things turned out to be a bit different from my expectations, but despite this, in most ways they turned out better. Now, here I am a year later, teaching preschool in Burma, something I never dreamed I’d do.
I think a year abroad calls for some sort of celebration and reflection. So, here are the most important things I’ve learned about myself and the world during this past year in Thailand and Myanmar. They’re a bit random and unrelated, but here goes:
1) The world is far more accessible than you think. I remember reading travel blogs before I went to Thailand wondering: But how do they do it? How can you travel from one city to the other without knowing where it is? How can you find a job and place to live in a foreign country you’ve never been to? How do you get around when you can’t speak the language? It only took 2 weeks of being in Thailand to realize: it isn’t just possible, it’s fun to navigate these challenges. People will be kind, someone will speak English, and things generally tend to work out when you’re on the road.
2) College debt is so not worth it. I went to my second-choice university on a full scholarship, and I seriously considered turning it down to go to a school that would leave me with 40,000 dollars of debt at graduation. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve thanked my 18-year-old self over the past year for deciding not to take out those loans. In the ESL teaching world, a degree is a degree, no matter where it came from or how much money it cost. Too many people my age are burdened by debt and unable to live the life they want to live because they have to work to pay off their education. If I had student loans to pay off right now, I wouldn’t be here. Simple as that. I’m happy I had the foresight (and guidance from others) not to sign up for an education that would seriously limit me in the future.
3) Gender is a flexible concept. I’ve always said I’m open-minded about gender issues. I learned over the past year, though, that I had a deep-seated prejudice buried under my open-minded words. I think this came, really, from a lack of exposure to different lifestyles gleaned from 23 years of life in Indiana. This all changed when I got to Thailand. In Thailand, boys like boys, girls like girls, girls who want to be boys like boys, boys who want to be girls like girls, men walk around in heels and mini-skirts while women wear mohawks and baggy plaid shirts…you get the point. Gender and dating relationships are very flexible here. And, on top of this, most people in Thailand have a “sabai sabai” attitude, and don’t get worked up about other people’s lifestyles at all. I remember watching a cheerleading competition at my school, where the captain of the team was a 15-year-old boy in a miniskirt, dancing to Shakira as all the senior administration at my school looked on, chuckling and smiling. Essentially, what I’m trying to say is this: There’s a long spectrum between “man” and “woman” and a lot of people don’t fit perfectly into one category or the other. People are people, they will like who they like and act as they like, and that’s great.
4) I want to be more generous, hospitable, and open-hearted. Today I went out with my adopted Burmese family again, for a day of sightseeing and temple-visiting in some villages outside of Yangon. I have learned so much from them, just in the short time period I’ve been here. Everyone in their family–mother, father, 2 cousins, and 2 little children set aside their entire day simply to show me around. From holding my hand as we crossed the street, to holding an umbrella over my head to keep off the sun, force-feeding me all varieties of Burmese snacks, waving a fan on me as I ate lunch, and driving an hour out of their way to drop me off and pick me up on the other side of the city…they may have gone a little overboard on the “protect Alyssa” front, but I can’t express how much they’ve impressed me with their extraordinary hospitality. I want to be like this someday. I want to be like this now, actually, but I think it will take some work.
5) I learned what I want to do with my life. And that is…exactly what I’m doing now. Traveling, teaching, and writing. I couldn’t be happier or more confident in this decision.
I think that’s a pretty good start for my first year overseas. How about you: What’s the most important thing you have learned from your travels?