The street had become my friend, and it was the street I knew best in Thailand. Many evenings and many mornings I strolled across its narrow pavement. The street was my particular companion at night, as the path to my apartment after a hard-pressed day at the CIEE Learning Center. I would stroll slowly down the humble avenue, sharply aware of the countless creatures chirping in the darkness. The little food shops and cafes—usually bustling under the warm sun—were empty and silent. It was the road and me, the black sky and heavy heat lingering above. With each step, weary thoughts emerged with questions and frustrations, wonders and prayers. The street reminded me I was in another country, but my mind had long accepted this. My mind became less concerned about the strangeness of the new place, and more overwhelmed with understanding of my purpose in this new place. On that street, the peace of God would meet me before I went to sleep.
That’s what I will always remember, and that’s what I acutely remember now, as I sit in the Beijing International Airport exactly where I was four months ago before I hit Thai soil. Again, my travels have come full circle. One last flight lies between me and the Golden State.
After spending a semester in Thailand, am I different now? Of course. Did I change the way I thought I would? I am not quite sure. I am sure, however, that God did amazing works across this time abroad, and enhanced my understanding of Him in numerous aspects of my life. Through my unique coursework, my internal struggles, my long-distance relationship, my culture shock, He has had me return to this essential lesson:
The world is complicated, but your duty is simple—to learn, care, and act in His name; to love God and love your neighbor as yourself.
This lesson, in its own way, is pure. At the same time, its execution can easily become challenging. During my experience in Thailand I encountered new pressures, uncertainties, and ideas that either reminded me of my duty or crushed my consciousness of it. Often times they did both.
These pressures, uncertainties, and ideas are encompassed by two core themes that arose while I was experiencing Thailand, or more so, God’s Will:
At the backbone of my academic program was the powerful concept of solidarity. As my student group explored various development issues faced by Thai villagers, we frequently witnessed how each of their communities—and more so their movement for justice—was majorly dependent on commonality. Was the community able to bond over shared struggles? Shared visions?
In general, the communities I observed in Northeast Thailand were very much alive. In stark contrast to the neighborhoods of my life, where families quietly mow their lawns and stay within their fences, Thai villagers shared food, shared stories and laughs, and opened their homes to all. Multiple generations cared for one another, from grandmothers to toddlers, and camaraderie was built between farmers and those of the same age. Nevertheless, this unity was strained. When a development project created a rift in the community’s way of life or relationships—such as a dam taking away the main occupation of the village, or villagers turning against each other concerning the local mines—devastating scars resulted.
Life was continuing on, but in the back or front of many villagers minds was a fear for the future. What will their children go on to do? Will the village remain in existence? Will more of the same top-down development deteriorate their remaining connection to their land and livelihood?
In my heart, I felt that communities were distracted from perhaps the most important factor for true solidarity—faith. A united dependence on God, unified contentment and determination in His power. Although I was enthusiastic to join CIEE in coming alongside these communities to further their social justice movements, I was wondering what this solidarity really meant… In the short term, I definitely agreed earthly justice had to be reached. These communities needed their human rights met—to have safe water, food, and shelter. Yet in the long term, or more so in the eternal perspective, these aspects of life cannot reach their full potential until heavenly justice is discovered. These communities not only needed to survive and live in their environment with physical confidence, but spiritual. Maybe, if one could see it this way, their “grace” right had yet to be met. The knowledge of Jesus Christ, and the peace He provides. This is a truth for communities everywhere.
2. CRITICISM— a.k.a. “FEED FORWARD”
Taking criticism has never been my strong suit, but when taken well it is a beautiful door to humility. Interestingly, during this semester abroad I was involved in many team efforts and journalistic projects that entailed constant criticism. Whenever I was planning in a group, my ideas and contributions were open and vulnerable—often dissected and agonized over, and often not used. The process of offering suggestions, sacrificing my own personal logic and feelings, and making team decisions was at times like pulling teeth. However, at one point someone caused a brilliant paradigm shift when she described the act of criticism not as the term “feedback” but instead “feedFOWARD”.
Rather than dread the attack on my work, I needed to hear the critique fully, humbly, and quietly, and then grab ahold onto the pieces that would assist me in moving forward—in improving and progressing. Although this may seem like common sense, how easy is it for us to let go of our pride and differences to consider another viewpoint? This is a weakness I am trying to work on, a solid life lesson. I likewise recognized my need to give critique with this feed forward mentality.
As I took part in these group activities, I was also trying to publish a news feature. The writing process is a long and tedious ride, with seemingly endless edits, made of both brutal and simple critiques. For weeks I was balancing on the crucial line of accepting the advice of those who were older and more experienced, while staying loyal to my style and desire for the story. I felt myself succumbing to others’ desires, wondering if my next draft would appear more professional or too conventional.
Eventually, with the encouragement of my boyfriend Nathan, I realized that in all of these circumstances (whether there was criticism from my classmates or edits from famous journalists in the field) God had given me these responsibilities, passions, and skills. He empowers me to write, to brainstorm, to listen and absorb, take and do. He also has instilled in me, as with every human being on earth, a unique mind with its own imagination and capabilities. Although I must consider the counsel shared with me, I must essentially seek His counsel.
“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.” –Psalm 1:7
In the case of writing, I need to be aware of the guides He has placed in my life, but also appreciative of the distinct way He has enabled me to communicate words for His glory. By the way, to see my final published news article CLICK HERE.
In the case of teamwork, my primary responsibility is to love those around me by sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ. This is not only done by sharing the amazing words of John 3:16, but living 1 Corinthians 13 and Romans 12 daily.
These are a few of the major lessons I experienced during my four months in Thailand. I hope to reflect further in the future, but overall I know the country will have a dear place in my memory.
I am now back in America, and I hope to continue to learn Thai at Cornell. By learning more of the language, I hope to continue to have a connection to the Land of Smiles.