Wednesday night I picked up a friend from the airport. No big deal, except for the fact that exactly one year ago, on a Wednesday morning, she picked me up from the airport immediately after I was deported from Thailand. D – Day. I like the parallelisms. I even wore the same sweater.
This sweater was the warmest thing I had passing through Korea at 22°F (note the flip flops in the photo), landing in Los Angeles at a frigid 60°F. I made it as far as seeing her at the Tom Bradley international terminal before bursting into a fresh round of tears. How did I have any liquid left in my body? I had cried most of my last day in Thailand – ugly crying, tears of shock, of stress.
Sometimes I am speechless, but very rarely am I ever thoughtless, unable to think. Nothing on my mind. But the flight leaving Bangkok that got me home to Los Angeles was absolutely, utterly thoughtless. I couldn’t process what had just happened. 12 hours prior I have been sitting in immigration, all my paperwork tidily organized, on what I thought was a routine trip. Two visas: the correct visa, I’m sorry to say this, you’ve overstayed. You have to leave the country.
“You’ll be banned for a year.” When the Thai government clerk noticed my look of confusion and shock (which is distressing for Thais – you only display (sadaeng auk) positive smiles, not negative emotions), he tsked me with a “It’s only a year! It’ll fly by!” I had already paid for a visa already stamped in my passport in meticulous Thai script. He scratched it out and wrote void as I watched. Well, that’s ugly.
It’s only a year? Are you kidding me? I gave up a life in Los Angeles and started over in a totally foreign context; I’ve been building a life here for a year and a half, and you’re telling me to wait, to let that small little life atrophy for a year, since it’ll fly by? I better not ‘sadaeng auk’ a very un-Thai angry face.
Devastated. Only a year? Build what is only seedlings of a new life, and now you’re telling me to step away? Be in limbo for a year? You can’t be serious. My work was in Thailand. My life was in Thailand. A conscious choice to move to a totally foreign place, root myself, make these people my people, give my heart to them. Give myself the place. And now you’re telling me, it’s no big deal, only a year.
It’s hard to articulate the feelings that run through your heart in a situation so intense and fast as the day I got deported. What did I do wrong? What will happen if I can’t return for a year? Will I be able to return after that, or am I looking at a totally closed door? Cold fear, adrenaline, disbelief, dread, disconnectedness, anger, shock, stomach pains, locked muscles, dry mouth, not hearing what people are saying, cold cold cold. After a day saying quick goodbyes and packing a bag, I had to walk through the airport, to immigration and overstays, alone. See the clerk frown at me in disapproval, even with my letter from the immigration headquarters. “You shouldn’t have done this. You overstayed. We have rules about this.” “Yes, that was not my intention. See my year visa in my passport? We all thought this was my valid visa. See, it expires today? That’s why I went to immigration this morning. All my paperwork was in order to renew.” I watched her stamp my passport with the ban as I handed over baht for the fine (yeah. It was not cheap). “Cannot re-enter before 1 year from this date,” it read. “Go.” “Yes ma’am, thank you.”
I walked past duty-free luxury shops, blinking under the bright terminal lights. How different this is from where I woke up – my home in the slums! I stared at the foreigners, wondering where they were from. Spoke to the Taiwanese flight attendants in Thai, much to everyone’s confusion. Thoughtless. Cold. Woke up on the plane, woke up in America. I am not in control of my life, but I know Who is.
I had cold sweats and serious dehydration from ugly crying for hours. It was intensely lonely and confusing, drifting in and out of sleep, forgetting what had happened only to wake up and have to remember again that I was on a plane, bound for the U.S.
Then I found myself cold, in America, out of place. Lord, what is happening? What do I do now? Why did I pack two swimsuits for early spring in LA?
I crashed on a friend’s floor for a month – a comforting reminder of my mat-bed in Bangkok – and was comforted by their family’s rhythms, and by time with their children who often fell over themselves laughing as they did yoga stretches with me. A pretty bad launch from Thailand was smoothed by a soft landing in Los Angeles.
What a year it’s been. I turned 30 just a few weeks after deportation, so my new decade of life has started off quite unexpectedly. I am not in control of my life; God is. I have more questions than answers, I feel my emotions much more quickly and keenly, but most importantly, through all the upset, I am deeply grateful for what God has done in this year. It gives me great hope for what He will do and is capable of doing, and though I don’t know what’s ahead, I know with Whom I go.
A year out, I sometimes wish I had more answers, more control, a game plan, some logical explanation of how this last year fits in with my life trajectory and calling. I don’t. But I don’t need to have those things all settled, crossed Ts and dotted Is. I know Who goes with me. Who I am following, Who may only be giving me one next step, but He lights the way.