D-Day, one year out

Divided in Korea.  My first ever bathroom selfie

Asiana’s delicious food with REAL silverware

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.

my inquiring new interim housemate. well, I was the new housemate.

Housemate the elder, scoping out the newcomer.

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.

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Didn’t go as planned / Expect the unexpected

Amtrak is always a gamble.  Some trips are smooth; other trips, no matter how prepared you are or what you planned, turn out to be something wholly other.  This post is a mediocre comparison of my Amtrak trip for Thanksgiving and my arrival and departure from Bangkok.

My train ride to visit my parents for Thanksgiving was perhaps the smoothest I have ever had – all the passengers showed up, and so the bus to Bakersfield left five minutes early.  I had no seatmate; somehow I usually attract manspreaders or chatty Kathys, so this was a welcome reprieve.  Last trip, simultaneously everyone decided to eat their Subway sandwiches, which filled the bus with that unmistakably unique odor of the sandwich chain.  This time, peace.  No loud music, no traffic, smooth sailing to Bakersfield.  Empty train without any delays or prolonged stops.  I showed up in my hometown exactly when the train schedule said I would.

Amtrak'n

Amtrak’n

The return trip, however, starts with an angry woman cursing at the underpaid train station clerk (that woman was not me. I was the woman behind Angry Woman in line).  Since it is an early, crowded train, the tone s subdued, still waking up in the weak November light. I experience the meaning of the expression, “the unwashed masses,” as this car has the unmistakable smell of musty, sleepy bodies.

The train fills; loud phone conversations, crinkling plastic bags, and tinny headphones creates an unpleasant din. Four hours to Los Angeles and home. I feet slightly ill, my stomach unable to keep pace with the irregular jolting stops. We stop for 15 minutes without announcement in Corcoran, minutes from the station. And wait. Not unusual for Amtrak. “There’s a delay,” the conductor announces. They still have human conductors, not robots, as I initially hope. Robot train conductors would not make their first appearances on the San Joaquin 717 train, I reason. Definitely Japan.

The masses grow restless. The wifi has gone out, so we are clearly moments from a civil uprising. Just kidding. No wifi – how could we tweet about it? Folks from Corcoran argue with the conductors, asking to be let off the train. They can’t, we are too high off the ground, the conductors retort. Maybe they are robots. But I feel robots would come up with a much better solution than just say no.

Another hour passes. “We can’t move. An ammonia truck overturned and ammonia is spilling out of the truck. We have to back the train up. We are considering alternative transit options. The fire department must wait for the ammonia to completely drain before   they are able to clear the area.  We are sorry for the delay.  We have some options folks, but it’s looking like we will bring the buses up from Bakersfield.”

I begin dramatically texting friends and snap a photo of the llama watching the train with extreme blasé. Llamas aren’t that weird in the Central Valley. Breadbasket of America. Llamabasket of America. Why don’t we eat llama?

Illamanating

The train conductor is working up a sweat as she paces the cars, her radio cracking with distant, stressed voices.

I do the math. Two hours for the ammonia to completely drain before they can clear the tracks = a lot of Windex evaporating into the air.  I take a deep breath. Have they shut off the airflow?  THEY HAVE. It is warming up, the air grows pungent with greasy food purchased from the meal car. The buses could make it here and back in less than two hours.

The conductors announce their apologies and offer free snack packs from the cafe car.  A PLOY, distracting us from the fact that they are not sending the buses and we will wait it out. Devious, Amtrak. Wily. The snack pack has a fig bar so I am surprisingly ok with the deception.

A local man rides by on a horse.  He must be just as curious about the ammonia spill.  I hope ammonia dissipates quickly in the open air, because he and the horse he rode in on might have some problems.  Unless they are both robots.  We already have robot horses, so I reason the odds are good that he in fact has a robot horse and thus is immune to the ammonia vapors.  Have some of the vapors made their way into my cabin?

The train lurches as the conductor makes an announcement with obvious relief.  “We’re moving again, folks, sorry about the delay.”

Sorry?  We’ve been in Corcoran exactly 3 hours longer than anyone has ever wanted to be in Corcoran, on the map only because it has a state prison.  The train brakes squeal as we slow near the overturned truck, allowing every Amtrak passenger a long look at the source of our dismay.

I arrive in Los Angeles 4 hours after the intended arrival, as we hit traffic I had so optimistically hoped an earlier bus ticket would avoid.  This trip did not go as planned.

Getting to Bangkok was pretty smooth, all things considered.  I went fully funded, packed, having said my goodbyes, having closed well with various leadership and job roles.  Wrapped up tidy.  Ready for the next thing.

Returning from Bangkok was an unplanned departure with random items hastily thrown in a duffel (why did I think I needed both my swimsuits… in March?), eyes puffy from crying, exhausted from the day’s events.  No robots that I am aware of.  Didn’t go as planned.  Came out of nowhere and landed in Los Angeles dazed and shocked.

Then again, when does anything in life really go as we plan it?

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Look Up

my favorite comic series

The Awkward Yeti – Look Up

I love this comic strip.  One of the perks of being more thought-oriented is that when my heart feels afraid, overwhelmed, or sad, my brain can step in and remind me of what is true.  Sometimes the reminder really helps.

Look up – look at the vastness of the stars, remember Who made them!  Remember you are small, and He is mighty!  Sink into the mystery of the sky.

And look at that li’l heart.  So cute.

121 I lift up my eyes to the hills.
    From where does my help come?
My help comes from the Lord,
    who made heaven and earth.

He will not let your foot be moved;
    he who keeps you will not slumber.
Behold, he who keeps Israel
    will neither slumber nor sleep.

The Lord is your keeper;
    the Lord is your shade on your right hand.
The sun shall not strike you by day,
    nor the moon by night.

The Lord will keep you from all evil;
    he will keep your life.
The Lord will keep
    your going out and your coming in
    from this time forth and forevermore.

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Live the questions now.

“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”
Rainer Maria Rilke

 

Having to answer “I don’t know” to the myriad of questions that swirl around my life as it is and my life in the future would have deeply unsettled me even 2 years ago; now, I sense that God has used this season to help me say that with an abiding trust that it really doesn’t matter if I know or not. What matters is that I am attentive to Him, rejoicing in His love, and obediently faithful to Him, today.

 

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I’m going through a whole thing.

 

I don’t blog much anymore.  After the cancer series of posts, I felt uncertain how to move forward with writing.  I was (likely) headed to Bangkok.  Then I went to Bangkok.  Now I’m back in the U.S.  I don’t know what’s next.

While in Bangkok, I made multiple attempts to write about what I experienced:

  • Entering a wholly different culture.
  • Learning who I was in another context.
  • Being a Christian when 99% of the people around you are not.
  • Understanding the eastern worldview.
  • Understanding what it means to be an American.
  • Experiencing unyielding spiritual warfare.
  • Being new in a huge city, trying to make friends.
  • Being an immigrant.
  • Being illiterate.
  • Starting stuff from scratch.

It wasn’t so much that the internet needs another white foreigner writing about Thailand.  That’s been done by thousands of ex-pats who all write better than me.  I didn’t want to be an ex-pat sampling Thai culture and commoditizing it into a blog entry.  I tried writing because I needed to process.

For the most part, though, I had no words to describe what that was like, evidenced by the long hiatus from the blog.  Words, once nimble friends I wielded confidently and often sarcastically, were now vague, loose, hard to find, hard to handle.  Learning a new language does funny things to your brain.

I focused on learning the new language, enfolding myself in a new culture, discovering how Thais think and feel, discovering how my expression of thoughts and feelings could be done in a Thai way.  My life became very small – I stopped reading American news (imagine coming back to the US to discover that the Donald Trump campaign wasn’t just a joke!) and struggled through Thai news articles.  What does it mean to be Thai?  What does it mean for me to love and appreciate Thais and Thailand?  How is the gospel good news to Thais?  How do I give my life faithfully to this place and these people I hope to call my own?

Abruptly, I was wrenched from this focused life.  I had oriented myself around Thais and Thailand. Then in a span of 24 hours, I went from sweating out the early days of hot season to waking up cold under a pile of blankets on a mattress in a friend’s office.  Bewildered is a kind word for the discombobulated state I was in.  What happened?  How am I in America right now?  What language am I speaking in?  Thinking in?  Is this a dream, or was Thailand?

Now I’m going through a whole thing.  Thailand was turbulent, rough, destructive.  Thailand was also joyful, full of intimacy and growth with Jesus, hospitable.  In this liminal space I am in stateside, I feel many things keenly and questions are rumbling up from the depths: is my heart in this?  Is returning what I want?  What do I want?  What do I feel?  Ugh, is my heart even in this, or is Jesus calling me somewhere else by letting these embers cool?

I mean, do I even WANT to smash cities anymore, or is that just what’s expected of me..?

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Ch-ch-ch-changes

Admit it, you read the title in David Bowie’s voice.

Last night, not only did I begin to write 8 by spelling it out, but I got so far as to write “A-E-ก” before realizing:
1) Who spells out numbers?
2) Eight does not have an “A”
3) I used a Thai letter for the G sound (ก)

What is happening in my brain?!?

Immersive language learning does strange, strange things to your brain.  It’s remarkable to think that I started Thai a year ago from zero and am now able to (mostly) function in day-to-day stuff.

But language learning isn’t just a matter of memorizing vowel sounds and vocabulary.  Proverbial expressions and informal pronunciations and regional dialectical twists and a wholly different religious structure blend, re-form, and create an art medium for communicating.  It’s no wonder that jokes go right over my head, or one dropped consonant at the end of a word leaves me mystified as to what is being said.

In Elizabeth Sue Brewster’s book, Bonding, she writes that the life of an incarnating minister is that of becoming bi-cultural.  And it’s true.  I’m learning to interpret body language that means something different that what it communicates in the US.  What is unsaid is just as important as what is said.  What topics are taboo changes.  I’m becoming hyper-aware of my tone and volume and facial expression when I address others, and look for clues as to what they are communicating as well.

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What is your new life like?

So, what is life like when you’ve left your native land and begun cultural acclimatizing in a new place?  Instead of writing something deep and pithy, here are shallow reflections on new elements in my life:

Seven 11
This should start with an apology to my mother, who worked really hard to teach me how to eat a healthy, balanced diet.  Mom, I’m sorry.  I remember everything you’ve taught me, but 711 is a mecca of junk food with flavors unknown to the Western world.  And given that reading stylized Thai is still difficult, I’m a total sucker for packaging.  I mean, look at these:

2015-01-26 19.08.082015-01-26 19.08.57

 

This tin looked so cool and smooth that I thought, man, maybe these breath mints might make me hip like a saxophone player.  But then the mints were herbal and gross.
2015-01-28 18.04.00

Lime lemon soda.  I was slightly addicted for a while.

2015-01-31 15.43.09

Bugles are still alive and well in Thailand.

2015-04-19 13.10.08

Did not try these for obvious reasons.

Sweat
Prior to Bangkok, I’d consider myself a below average sweater.  Not profuse, probably less than other people, typically.  Lo and behold, I am not suffering the slums – instead, I have a free spa treatment everyday that clears out my pores.  Welcome to the tropics.

Umbrella-ella-ella
God’s gift in tropical climates for rain AND shine.  Sudden downpour?  Ready.  UV index of 12 mid-day with skin-blistering sunshine?  Bless the Lord for his synthetic fabric protection.

Living alone makes you a weirdo.
Always had a roommate?  Always lived with someone?  Then living alone is untested ground for all the weirdo bad habits you’ve never had the space to explore.  Living alone might be the hardest aspect of life in Thailand for a woman who even had a roommate in the womb.  Thus far, I’ve discovered the freedom of neurotic cleanliness (clean all the things!  All the time!) and the disgustingness of drinking straight from large containers.  Am I ashamed of these habits?  Only when visitors come over and I realize mid-pour I’ve drank straight from this carton and every other carton in my fridge.

Plastic water bottles
Perhaps another apology is in order.  Dear Earth, I am sorry that I replaced my busted aluminum water bottle with a glass one that is heavy and that I am too lazy to carry.  I am sorry that I use plastic water bottles that are slowly destroying you.

Da Mall

2015-03-24 12.01.32 2015-03-24 12.01.41 2015-03-24 12.01.36

I wish I could explain these neon animal decorations.  I can’t.  But the mall is a hub of commercialism, McDonald’s, and aircon, conveniently located a 5-minute walk away from our office.  I have been to the mall more often in Thailand than all my teenage years combined.  Malls are hip places to hang out – one of the biggest in Thailand, Terminal 21, is themed as a major city on each floor, with decadent bathrooms to match (I recommend Old Tokyo and Turkey, fyi).

Stickers/ emoji

8 year old me would be super jealous of the digital ability to send stickers to any of my facebook friends at any time.  Am I a grown adult?  Yes.  Do I regularly send stickers as responses to questions or conversations over facebook.  Well…

McDonalds
On average, my siblings and I ate fast food twice a week when we were growing up.  In college I discovered that fast food consumption was shameful, etc. etc. so I quickly swore off the evil mega-corporate death meals.   Fast (food) forward to living overseas and not being so rigidly dogmatic, and all of a sudden, McDonalds has become oddly appealing.  French fries and American ketchup…

Chocolate
Chocolate doesn’t really fit in the Thai palate, so my chocolate consumption has dropped from “-aholic” levels to infrequent treat.  

Taylor Swift
My teammates, not Thailand, are responsible for the repeated exposure and eventual love for TSwift’s 1989 album.  Justine, you can thank them later.

A little barf never hurt anyone
Food poisoning / “broken stomach” is par for the course in a land of delicious spicy food.  A 20+ year strong aversion to vomiting has been swiftly disarmed.  I’ve now learned that a little barf never hurt anyone and might even make you feel better.

Cold intolerant
Yeah.  I’m not sure how I’ll survive in the US.  I had to leave a coffee shop because I was cold in 25* C with a sweater.   

Clothing alternations
Hang drying all my clothes has lead to strangely stretched-out necklines, meaning all my shirts are becoming immodestly low cut.  I swear I am not trying to be inappropriate!

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