Life is short, and precious. Danny’s ended far too soon, and he left behind countless people who would also give anything for one more day, one more laugh, one more hug, one more second with him. In every Facebook post or note people write to him, they all say the same things. “You’re gone too soon.” “I wish we had more time together.” “I miss you.” In the end, no amount of time is ever enough with the people we love.Read More
I'm scared of turning 30. I'm scared of what I don't know. I'm scared of having kids, or not having kids. I'm scared of getting married, or not getting married. I'm still scared of making mistakes. I'm scared of not being successful, of never writing a book, of never getting published in The New York Times. I'm scared of regret. I'm scared of getting cancer, becoming weak and frail. I'm scared of dying.Read More
To act like women are too emotionally unstable or irrational to be held accountable for their behavior is sexist. And it's a cop-out. Suggesting that women deserve a pass for bad behavior is as insulting and damaging as saying that men don't have feelings, so we should leave them to their case of Bud Light and ESPN marathon.Read More
The worst thing about "The Bachelor" isn't that it's sexist, or that it perpetuates negative stereotypes about women, or that it exploits emotionally vulnerable people, or even that it reinforces illogical ideas about what makes a lasting relationship. It isn't even the franchise's weirdness about sex. The most sinister theme on the show is the woman-on-woman slut-shaming.Read More
When it comes down to it, I guess I just feel ready and have that gut sense that it's the right time to go back. Does it make me all kinds of emotional? Oh yeah. I've already had several nostalgic crying spells and expect more before I leave. But it's still the right call. I miss the people, I miss this place that was always home before and maybe could be again.Read More
In spring 2013, right around my 28th birthday, I came back to one core desire. I wanted to meet someone with whom I could build something real. What that would look like or how it would happen I wasn't sure. But I wanted it. I was ready.Read More
I'm a freelance writer, but to what end? Presumably the writing I am doing now should be building toward something, should be part of a body of work that can be used to achieve a next goal. But what is that next goal?Read More
When you're removed from the realities of a place, it's easy to think you know the whole story, to think you can prepare yourself to be there, to understand what's happened. I didn't understand. I couldn't comprehend the realities. The recent past was present in nearly every conversation I had.Read More
"We are beginning our final descent into Washington, D.C."
I stared through the airplane window at the red and gold trees along the banks of what I thought was the Potomac River, though I couldn't be sure because it had been awhile since I had lived in Washington, D.C., or even been in the United States. Three years, eight months, 12 days, to be exact.
As the plane glided closer to the ground, I wondered if I'd set foot in the airport, finally back in America, and feel as though I had never left. I wasn't sure if I would be relieved or frightened if I did.
I left the United States in February 2010, with a plan to teach English in South Korea for a year. After that, I wasn't sure what I would do. Maybe stay in South Korea another year, maybe move somewhere else in Asia. Though it pained me to say goodbye to my loved ones, leaving America itself wasn't a problem. This was home; I could always come back here.
Home became a relative term during those three years and change, and took on a number of different shapes and meanings: a shoebox of a studio in Gangnam (yes, of "Gangnam Style" fame) in Seoul; a drafty apartment with a squat toilet in a Beijing hutong; a guest house in Chiang Mai, Thailand. I thought often of visiting the States but kept putting it off - there was always so much to do and see wherever I was, so many reasons to stay. And as I settled into each city, there were obligations that kept me there rather than popping "home" for a visit.
But in October 2013, it was finally time. I hadn't left Asia in more than three years and I was really feeling the distance between me and my loved ones in America. And I missed things like customer service and gluttonous American meals and clean, relatively safe roads, and consistent wifi. So I decided to go back for six weeks - enough time, I thought, to visit and evaluate whether or not I'm ready to become a full-time American again.
I had heard of reverse culture shock but never experienced it, until it hit me in the face about an hour after getting off the plane. My college roommate picked me up from the airport and as we drove up 495 to her house in Baltimore, diving into an epic catch-up session, I felt the first wave of disorientation wash over me. She talked excitedly about her new iPhone and the guy she's dating, and I listened enthusiastically because I wanted to take it all in, know every detail of her life I had missed between lengthy catch-up emails and "I miss you!" Facebook messages.
But my head spun as we passed familiar signs and landmarks. I had been on this road countless times during my combined five and a half years living in the Maryland-D.C. area, yet it all felt somehow as if they were memories from a different life. I flipped through the recollections in my brain, trying to reorient myself. During the first few weeks back, I often felt I was in some weird B-grade sci-fi movie and was waking up from a dream. Everything was familiar and yet not. I had the distinct sensation of not quite belonging where I was, even though at the moment, it was exactly where I wanted to be.
Crossing the Rubicon
Perhaps I didn't allow for the emotional impact of visiting America after so long. Sure, I knew it would probably be "weird" to be back, but I didn't dwell too much on the possibility of having culture shock in my own country. I fully expected to reassimilate with no problems, and to feel completely at home as soon as the jet lag wore off. I wanted it to feel right, to know that I could dip in and out of this culture and lifestyle anytime I wanted and feel perfectly at ease again.
That was not exactly the case. Seeing old friends was happily strange in that once we were together, it felt as though no time had passed at all. Of course there were things we'd missed out in the years I was gone, but our dynamic was wonderfully the same, and that made the rest of it much easier to deal with.
I tried very hard to be an American again during the next few weeks, reassuring myself that the sensation of having been plunked down in someone else's life would pass.
"See, I remember all of this," I would tell myself as . "Doesn't it feel good to be back?"
And it did, sort of. But it also felt foreign and I sometimes felt as though I'd never left America, that everything I had experienced, everyone I had met in Asia, had all been part of some elaborate fantasy. Other times, I couldn't help thinking something just wasn't clicking. I marveled at my friends' beautiful apartments, their nice furniture, stacks of five towels for one person. It made me laugh to think of the lone beach towel that hung in the bathroom of my small studio-like space in Thailand. Their homes were comfortable, organized, and filled with so many useful things I had never even fathomed owning. All of my possessions, save one Rubbermaid filled with clothes and keepsakes that's in storage somewhere in Beijing, fit into one traveling backpack and two duffel bags.
One night I had dinner with a couple of friends from grad school who are living in D.C. They had just bought their first home and it sounded lovely. I remarked to them how overwhelming it was to be in friends' homes and see how furnished and decorated they were, how settled everyone seemed in their lives. It felt so far from where I am and what I want right now.
"You know, maybe there's a line between living abroad and being able to settle down somewhere and be happy," one of them said. "Maybe you've crossed the Rubicon and you can't go back."
I don't remember how I responded, but his words stuck with me. Had I crossed the Rubicon? Had I stayed away so long that I could never be happy pursuing a traditional path in America? Would I always feel like an outsider in my own country from that point on?
The thought was unsettling. I love living abroad and have a long list of places I'd like to live for awhile or at least visit. But it felt like a slap in the face to wonder if this life I always thought would be waiting for me if I wanted it might be lost to me forever.
Should I Stay or Should I Go?
That conversation happened during my first week in America, when my head was still spinning from returning after so long. It took a few more weeks to adjust to the orderliness of life in America. When I first got back, my brain seemed to be on Asia speed, prepared to jostle and be jostled in throngs of people, bombarded by sounds and bodies and scents and exhaust. Life in suburban America was so...quiet, I tried to explain to friends. Things that had once been commonplace were now foreign to me - like using my debit card to pay for things. I've paid cash for everything from dinners to hospital visits during the past few years, so swiping my card at every store, restaurant, and bar became a novelty, and a financially dangerous pleasure. Convenience stores were their own kind of wonderland. I took every opportunity to purchase York Peppermint Patties, peanut butter Tasty Kakes, Twizzlers, and Raisinets, overwhelmed by all of the snacks I hadn't even realized I'd been missing. The amount of food, everywhere, was overwhelming. Now I appreciate all of the snarky comments about American portion sizes.
Gradually things became easier and I started to feel less like I was living a dream. Being in America was like being on vacation for six weeks. Sure, I still had to work, but there was an excitement to everything that I think lasted in part because I knew I wasn't staying.
But I considered it. Once the culture shock settled to a manageable level, I agonized over the decision of whether or not to get on the flight I had booked back to Thailand or to extend my stay in America. The location-independent life abroad still called to me, but I wasn't sure I wanted to be in Thailand anymore and I felt I hadn't had enough time to properly catch up and spend time with people. Everyone offered their couches up, inviting me to come back and stay as long as I liked. I was so grateful for those offers but ultimately decided I wasn't ready to stay. Will I wait another three and a half years before coming back to visit? No. Definitely not. But living overseas suits me, at least right now. I like the freedom of moving wherever I want, being able to work from wherever I am, and choosing where to go based on the entrepreneurial and cultural spirit of different cities.
By the end of six weeks, I was beginning to accept in a more visceral way that I had changed. I like being an expat, being part of a community of people who are eager to connect with one another, swap stories, hash out ideas on how to live a more unique, creative, and independent lifestyle. Traveling has led me to meet many people who are willing to challenge the status quo, question themselves and their beliefs, and get into passionate arguments about their favorite causes. These people inspire me to question and challenge myself, and they introduce me to places and ideas I would never have come across otherwise. Will I always want to live abroad? I don't know. Perhaps some incredible relationship or job opportunity will bring me back. Maybe one day I'll decide I've had enough and want to live in America again. But for the moment, I knew that the right decision was to go back to Thailand, for however long or short a time that might be.
The more I felt as though I remembered, really remembered, what it was like to live in America, the more another unsettling emotion worked its way in: guilt. There's just so much of everything everywhere, I kept thinking. So much food, so much booze, so many things. I knew it was irrational, but I sometimes felt embarrassed by the bigness and the abundance everywhere, and embarrassed that I was so free to take part in it. Don't get me wrong, I took full advantage of this privilege and am grateful for it.
But without getting self-righteous, I found myself thinking about some of the places I had been and people I had seen in various parts of Asia. People who don't know where their next meal is coming from, who get their health care in a bare-bones clinic that has wooden tables instead of hospital beds in the maternity ward, people who dream of visiting America but can't because visa laws are too restrictive or require them to have a sum of money in their bank account that is more than they make in a year.
I didn't know what to do with this guilt. On the one hand, there's not much I can do. I have no influence over the systems that establish the types of laws that prevent these people from enjoying basic comforts and the opportunity to travel. But I still felt sad and somehow responsible. Recognizing my privilege as an American citizen was humbling and I was reminded that I am grateful to have been born in the U.S. But perhaps that's the problem. Perhaps I feel guilty because I've done nothing to earn this privilege; I just happened to have been born on a specific chunk of land and that grants me certain opportunities denied to other people.
I am still not sure how to reconcile those feelings and suspect it's a question I'll be grappling with for a long time to come. In the meantime, I'll try to honor my experiences abroad as much as I can without forgetting where I've come from. And I won't stay away so long as I figure it out.
It's been a little while since I concluded my series on my year of living in Chiang Mai. I hadn't planned on taking a break from posting on here after I finished that, but it appears to have been a good time for a break. Writing that series helped me get closure on a lot of things that happened during my first 12 months in Thailand, appreciate everything I've had here and cleared some mental space for what's next.
I went into the last full month of the summer somewhat uncertain of what the rest of my year would look like, but knowing I was feeling restless and ready for some changes. Since turning 28 in April, I have noticed an underlying sense of...urgency, perhaps, to figure out what comes next, a feeling that I've entered a new stage of my life.
Birthdays have never freaked me out; I never fretted about turning a year older. After all, another year on the planet seems a cause for great celebration, not despair. But 28 did freak me out. It's close to 30. It's firmly in the late 20s. Suddenly things that I used to put on the mental backburner seemed much more urgent and important: my health and overall well-being and what I was doing (or not doing) to maintain it; my finances; my professional ambitions; long-term goals for a romantic relationship and starting a family.
Earlier this year there was a lot of buzz about Meg Jay's TED Talk on Why 30 is Not the New 20. While watching it, I had a moment of fleeting panic - what if I've wasted my 20s? What if I've gotten everything wrong?
The panic subsided when I evaluated just what I've been doing for the past eight years of my life, and considered the investments I've made in myself. I graduated from college and grad school, gained valuable professional experience working at a newspaper and freelancing for reputable publications, traveled, evaluated long-held biases and embarked on a path of learning about people and the world that has changed my life.
Most importantly, I have invested in self-growth and development, which has changed the way I see myself, solidified my values and laid the groundwork for the types of enriching, supportive, healthy relationships I want to maintain and cultivate.
So all of that is great, and I'm thankful for the experiences I've had up to this point. It's been an incredible ride so far.
But that doesn't mean that there isn't room for growth (isn't there always?) and that it's not worth asking questions about what comes next, where I want to live and travel, whether my priorities are shifting and if so, what are they, where do I want to be focusing my energy going forward.
I still haven't answered all of those questions for myself, but some priorities have become clear. The top priority is my overall health and well-being. Once I started reading seriously about fitness and nutrition, I was alarmed to realize how much of my diet and lack of exercise were likely exacerbating my feelings of anxiety and depression. I won't go into all the gory details here, but suffice it to say that some changes needed to be made.
This is an ongoing journey for me, but an important one, so vital to making real progress in any other area.
I'm not sure what the future of my work life is and for the first time, that excites rather than terrifies me. I love writing and will focus on creating a body of work I'm proud of, though I am eager to learn new skills, such as design, that will allow me to do more professionally and creatively. I'm excited to think beyond my self-imposed constraints of “I'm a writer and that's it; that's all I will ever be” and see where that takes me.
I'm also not sure where I will live next, though I have some ideas in mind and all of them have some great potential benefits. In the meantime, I've continued hanging out in Chiang Mai and have decided to visit America this fall.
It will be the first time I've been back since I moved to South Korea, and I am deliriously thrilled to have booked the trip. For a long time, the prospect of visiting the States seemed daunting for a number of reasons, not the least of which was how much I've changed and how much my relationships with people there have changed.
But I've wanted to go back for a visit for awhile now, and decided that this fall would be the time to do it. The idea had been there for months, and then one night, I found an incredible deal on a flight and took the plunge. I expected some waves of anxiety or a feeling of “What the frell did I just do?!” but to my pleasant surprise, all I felt for the first week after booking the ticket was elated.
The response I got from people when I told them I was coming to visit was so warm and enthusiastic, it was impossible not to get swept up in the moment. I felt totally at peace with the decision, and genuinely happy to plan for the visit.
I fly out a month from today and will be there six weeks. It's a short trip for having been gone such a long time, but I'm going to make the most of it. I'm looking forward to seeing everyone, to visiting some of my favorite places in the States and to spending some time in cities I've never visited before.
I planned the trip for October in part because that is my favorite month and I have missed autumn in America something fierce. I'll get to enjoy all the fall colors and the pumpkin and apple treat goodness for the first time in three years. To say I'm looking forward to that would be an understatement.
Oh and the food...I'm already fantasizing about the food.
It will be an emotional trip, I have no doubt. I also think it will be an opportunity for me to reflect on where I want to live next, what I want out of my lifestyle and what I'll do in the coming year. There are some trips that I just know are going to be great opportunities for growth, which adds to the excitement and eager anticipation. This is certainly one of them.
2013 has been interesting so far, with many highs and some lows. But fall has always been my favorite season, and I'm going into this one looking forward to some wonderful things.
As far as Spinning Free goes, I'll be posting more frequently, and am working on moving the blog to a new platform that I think will give it a more elegant, enjoyable look. I hope to have that ready to roll out in a week and look forward to sharing it.
This is the fifth and final post in my Unexpected Year in Thailand series. To read the other posts in the series, click here. It is now exactly one year since I arrived sweaty, tired and elated in Thailand, not knowing that I would spend the next year of my life in Chiang Mai.
Even having looked back and seen my struggles with depression and anxiety during the past year, I find that what I feel more than anything else is gratitude for all I've experienced in these 12 months. Playing in the world's biggest water fight, releasing lanterns at the Yi Peng ceremony, sleeping in a bamboo hut in a hill tribe village in the mountains, volunteering with elephants, hanging out with friends at a (vegetarian) piranha fishing resort, interviewing a world-class chef in Bangkok. The list goes on and I know years from now, I will still treasure those experiences and what they taught me.
But most of all, I will treasure the people with whom I've shared those experiences. I've written a lot about the negatives and how badly I felt before I came to Chiang Mai. But to close out this month of reflection and this month of blog posts about this year in Thailand, I want to talk about the people I've met here and who are so important to me.
Back in September, when I found out my friends Will and Skeeter were planning to come back to Chiang Mai as well, I was stoked. Skeet was heading back to the States in October so I knew he'd only be here a short time (he has since returned to Chiang Mai with his partner - I'm telling you, this place has a way of getting under your skin) but Will was also planning to go back to Beijing. We figured we'd hang out in Chiang Mai for a little while and then head to China, just in time for a bitter cold winter.
But then people started giving us all of these reasons to stay: "You can't miss the Yi Peng festival or Loy Krathong; people come from all over the world for those!" and "The winter months are the best time to be in Thailand; not humid, not rainy, just perfect weather!" (This was quite a selling point for someone like me, who hates the cold.)
The real reasons to stay, it turned out, would be our friends. When I arrived in Thailand last summer on a quest to get my head on straight, I didn't expect that the journey would be aided by other people. I already had good friends in China and the States; I didn't expect or think I needed to make close friends in Thailand. I thought I'd find maybe a few interesting travel companions at best.
I don't believe in God or fate or destiny, but I believe deeply in the power of the unconscious and its intuition for what we need in order to heal ourselves and grow. I needed Thailand. I needed Chiang Mai. I needed a space to break down, really break down, to be afraid, to face my fears, to be sick, to be sad, to grieve. I needed that so much more than I realized, which is something I was unwilling to accept or see clearly until recently.
I needed to allow myself to be happy and appreciate the beauty in the world, too, and to really, fully enjoy being healthy and alive and engaged. And I also really needed friends and love and compassion; I needed to receive those things and to give them. And I had that, in an abundance that humbles me and makes me grateful in ways I'm not sure I’ll ever be able to fully express.
There are so many people I've met in Chiang Mai who have inspired me, impressed me, given me much to think about and been a pleasure to know. But there are a few in particular who I now count among the dearest in my life, and who I hope to know for many years to come.
Will has been my closest friend for several years now, and this whole Chiang Mai experience - the good, the bad, and the outrageous - would certainly have been less exciting and less enriching without him. He's a better friend than even he probably realizes, is one of the most genuine, smart, thoughtful and inspiring people I know, and a fantastic human being.
Ruby, Mika and Hilary - affectionately known as my biscuit sisters - will forever be woven into the fabric of who I am. Ruby, who taught me the meaning of Minnesota nice and who delivers even the harshest truths with love and support; Mika, who inspires me with her willingness to defy conventions and her passion for the oppressed; and Hilary, who I knew was a kindred spirit from our first meeting, when we talked religion, corporate America, writing and a million other things over beers.
There have been so many smart, interesting, passionate, kind women I've met here - Kailyn, who reminded me constantly to be generous and nice simply by so embodying those qualities herself; Sarah, whose effervescent personality and willingness to be unique and embrace the world (not to mention amazing dance skills) made me want to let loose and enjoy life more, too; Alyse, who is friendly, giving and game for a laugh no matter what else is going on; Jules, Laura, Agnes, and so many others who touched my heart and who I'm so glad to know.
Before I came to Chiang Mai, it had been a long time since I had had a close group of girlfriends and here, I was fortunate enough to become friends with a group of women who are all passionate, hilarious and warm. They reminded me of how vital it is to have a community of women you can relate to, cry to, and with whom you can drink copious amounts of wine and just really be yourself - scars, mistakes, dreams and all.
The men I know here are wonderful as well. In contrast to the stereotypes put forward about men's inability to emote and empathize (which I disagree with, by the way), Neil and Rob are both sensitive, compassionate, intelligent, well-read and also hilarious. Neil's earnestness and integrity, and Rob's candor and unique sense of humor make them both so much fun to be around. The romantic relationships between Neil and Mika and Rob and Hilary have taught me a great deal about relationships, and inspired me in their closeness, intimacy, and honesty.
Skeet and his partner, Ally, came back to Chiang Mai later than everyone else, but it has been great having them here, too. I have long been impressed by Skeeter's talent, creativity and passion for music, and his commitment to being a good person and standing up for what he believes is right. Ally continually reminds me to question my own biases, to consider the other side of the story or argument, and to be just in my considerations, an area that remains a challenge for me - but a worthwhile one.
Then there are May and Num, the wonderful people who run the guest house where so many of my friends and I have lived. They have really made Chiang Mai a home and made the place where we live somewhere special.
And there are so many others I haven't mentioned who have made this experience as great as it has been. Together, these people have taught me so much about relationships, honesty, bravery and about the world, and I only hope to be able to return the favor. And they have made me laugh, endlessly, which is such a gift in and of itself. It is a privilege to know each one of them.
A special bond developed among our group and while many have left Thailand to travel to new places and start new chapters, we'll always have Chiang Mai, and the hopeful plans to reunite and be part of each other's lives in another part of the world.
When I stop to think about all of the special occasions, the hangouts, the jokes, the stories, the experiences I have shared with the friends I've met in Chiang Mai, I feel overwhelmed by a sense of love and gratitude.
To commemorate this year in Chiang Mai, I decided to make a short video with some highlights of the time I've spent here. The music is "Safe & Sound" by Capital Cities. I chose this song because while listening to it one day, I thought, This is exactly how I feel about our Chiang Mai crew.
I'm not sure where I'll head after Chiang Mai or when exactly I'll go just yet, but I do know that I will always look back on this time as being among the most special in my life, and will be so grateful to have lived in this special place with such wonderful people.
This is the fourth post in my Unexpected Year in Thailand series. To read the earlier posts, click here. About two months ago, I was talking to a friend about feeling like I was in a transition period in terms of my professional life. I was trying to decide what types of stories I want to be writing, the type of work I want to be doing, and mapping out my goals for the rest of this year and beyond. A few days later, this friend sent me a link to "The Desire Map", a book by Danielle LaPorte.
Admittedly, some might read that title and roll their eyes, writing it off as New Age-y fluff about living your best life. And sure, there are some things in there that don't resonate with me, like aligning your chakras. But there is also a lot I have found quite helpful, not the least of which are suggestions for shifting your perspective from bitterness and negativity to one that brings your outlook into alignment with your desire to be happy and fulfilled.
LaPorte invites readers to identify their Core Desired Feelings, or CDFs. These are what you want to feel regularly in your life and can include everything from happy to sexy to wealthy to inspired - pretty much anything you can think of.
So I considered my own CDFs, and came up with a list that included happy, abundant, safe, debt-free, creative, loved and loving, and a range of other words. But the one that really stood out to me was generosity.
I've always considered myself a reasonably generous person. I enjoy buying gifts for people I love, I like doing things to brighten their day, and am usually happy to help a friend in need, whether that's with money or time or some other type of assistance. One thing I don't ever want to be considered is miserly.
But this past spring and early summer, I started to feel...well, like a miser. Not only when it came to money, but when it came to my time, patience, empathy, compassion. I found myself getting impatient with people, and with myself. And I stressed out more when lending people money, or covering a dinner here and there.
To put this in context, my year got off to a pretty rough financial start. I was robbed on New Year's Day, and had to spend money I had saved to cover my living expenses replacing some of what I had lost.
So that sucked. But it wasn't the end of the world. I knew I'd get back on my feet and that the whole episode would just be a good story.
But getting back on my feet was harder than I thought it would be, and I started to feel badly about myself. I kind of got stuck in a rut when it came to work and my finances, and those negative feelings made me crabby about other things more often than I would have liked. I was aggravated that I felt I always had to monitor my bank account, annoyed with myself for not making more money faster, and then even more annoyed with myself for not doing something to stem the tide of frustration I was feeling in general. This was all exacerbated by the fact that I was trying to decide where in the world to move next and what I wanted to do creatively - which are really exciting decisions to make, by the way. But I was blinded by my crabbiness and negativity and saw all these opportunities for growth as added stressors.
I really wanted that outlook to change. The negative thought spiral was hampering my creativity and drive, and I'm smart enough to know that you have to step out of that cycle and get some perspective in order to move forward.
So one afternoon, I took myself to lunch and went shopping for art supplies, deciding I'd try a new creative outlet. I read some of "The Desire Map" during lunch, and found that one passage in particular really resonated with me.
LaPorte wrote, "In the toughest of moments, what makes me feel better is thinking about my core desired feelings." Instead of staying stuck in a negative thought pattern, she reflects on the way she would prefer to feel in that moment. This helps her make choices that will bring on those feelings, rather than just bitching about how bad things are.
I loved this idea. I like to think I'm generally a happy person, but I have been known to latch onto a bad mood or a grudge, sit down in it and refuse to move for long past the sulking expiration date.
I decided to try LaPorte's tactic that afternoon. Rather than stress out about the cost of my lunch, I thought, "I desire feelings of generosity and gratitude, and a sense of abundance." I didn't want to be miserly with myself, or with other people. I wanted to do good things for myself, and feel positively about that, not go stare at the numbers in my bank account and raise my blood pressure by berating myself for spending $5 on lunch.
Armed with this consciousness of my desires, I set off to finish up some last-minute errands. It was hot and I was tired after eating, and annoyed that I couldn't easily locate the local post office. But I was determined to not get cranky. For every negative thought: "It's hot out", "I have work to do and this is taking forever", "Who insists on mailing hard copies of documents anyway?", I recognized those complaints but then countered with some gratitude. "I'm grateful I'm healthy enough to walk around and run these errands without assistance", "There's plenty of time to get things done today; I'm not on deadline"; "I'm excited to be working with this new client, so it's a positive that I need to go to the post office at all."
Surprisingly, this actually helped. And the more I was able to shift my mood, the more goodness I began to notice. I was grateful for the generosity of the cashier at 7-11, who not only gave me directions to the post office but walked me there herself and translated my request to the clerk who mailed the documents. I found myself feeling increasingly grateful to be in Chiang Mai at all, and reflecting on the many times people in the city had shown me kindness and generosity, even though they didn't know me.
When I arrived home to the guest house where I'm living later that afternoon, I found several friends and fellow residents gathered around a table on the porch, sharing food. They invited me to join them and before I knew it, I had a full plate of food, a glass of whiskey and a shot of some other type of alcohol that had been fermenting for a year and had just been opened by one of the guest house owners. He and one of the other men encouraged everyone to eat and drink, making sure we all had enough or did not go wanting.
Here, I thought, are abundance, generosity and so many things to be grateful for.
For the first time in awhile, I made myself sit down and relax and socialize in the middle of the afternoon, rather than rush to my room to get back to work. I enjoyed the food and the company and the warm, breezy weather. And I allowed myself to really reflect on all I had to be grateful for, and be thankful that I was in Thailand, among friends, surrounded by people who were willing to give and share what they had.
And I considered all of the people I have had the opportunity to meet this past year, all of the strangers who have shown me kindnesses, and the friends who have been generous with their time and patience, and with sharing their own stories with me. I'm not saying money isn't important or isn't helpful, but I think it's easy during lean months to get caught in a web of scarcity and forget that abundance and generosity aren't only the products of financial wealth.
I've been trying to be more conscious of when my thoughts and feelings turn toward annoyance, frustration, impatience and this overall sense of being in scarcity mode. And I try to shift out of that now by doing something for someone else, or treating myself to a massage or just thinking about what I could be grateful for in the situation. It usually does help and has made me appreciate all the positives in my life, rather than living in the negatives.
This blog post is a departure from my Unexpected Year in Thailand series, and from the usual types of posts I write in general. But I wanted to bring some attention to the plight of an ex-pat in Chiang Mai who was shot recently, and is in need of serious financial help. His name is Nic Brown, he's 35 years old and he has been living in Chiang Mai for about a year. While out with friends one night, he helped break up a bar fight and saved a drunk man from a serious beating. That man returned to the bar with a gun a little while later and opened fire. Nic was shot, and the bullet punctured his lung, shattered his ribs and damaged his spine. He's currently in the hospital, and doctors estimate it will be between one and four years before he walks again.
I interviewed Nic earlier this week in his hospital room, and was deeply moved and impressed by how good-natured he seems. It was also chilling to think about how easily any one of my friends, or even myself, could end up in his position. We go out to the bars in Chiang Mai all the time, and we have hung out at the bar where he was shot. This wasn't in some sketchy neighborhood nor was it a seedy bar to be avoided. Nic did nothing wrong and is now in a hospital bed, unable to move his legs, and faces years of physical therapy and recovery time.
You can read more about Nic's story at Asian Correspondent, where I posted an article on his situation. A friend of mine (who also wrote a piece about the shooting) and I were talking about what happened, and both said that when you're living abroad, you can only hope that when something terrible happens, the ex-pat community will come together and give you a hand. I know money is tight for everyone, but please give if you can, or even just share his story in the hopes that other people will help him out.
While working on this series of posts about spending the past year in Chiang Mai, I thought it might be useful to write about the city itself and what makes it so appealing for the many ex-pats and travelers who make it their temporary, and in some cases permanent, home.
If you've ever lived in a major city, such as New York, Chicago, London, Paris, Seoul, Sydney, or many other metropolises, Chiang Mai seems more a large town than an urban center. Once the capital of the Lanna Kingdom, Chiang Mai still bears the ruins of its ancient past.
A red brick fortification, albeit a somewhat dilapidated one, still rings the old city. The faded spires of old wats, or temples, peek over the roofs of guesthouses and busy streets choked with traffic from motorbikes and songthaew taxis. Chiang Mai is also the place to be when celebrating important Buddhist festivals, such as Yi Peng the lantern festival, and Songkran, the massive water fight that marks the Buddhist New Year.
Chiang Mai draws an eclectic crowd that includes backpackers, teachers, NGO workers, yoga instructors, would-be masseurs and masseuses, and online entrepreneurs. Western influence is evident in the shopping malls and variety of international restaurants throughout the city, but Chiang Mai has a heart and culture that is distinctly Thai.
As many who have lived here will tell you, it's a great place to write a novel, start an online business, take a massage course or simply allow yourself to be. And as many, myself included, can attest to, it's also a place that sucks you in and holds you far longer than you ever intended to be here.
Chiang Mai offers much in the way of things to do, but the people are what make this place feel like home. There is a generosity of spirit here that I have rarely experienced anywhere else, with the possible exception of Bohol, in the Philippines. The husband and wife who run the guesthouse where I live are two of the kindest people I've ever met, and their care for everyone living here has created what one friend and fellow resident described as a “little dysfunctional family”. They look out for us when we’re sick, offer us whatever food and drink they have, check in to make sure everyone got home safely after a night out, and keep (playful, not intrusive) tabs on our love lives.
Everyone has stories about the kindness of the locals in northern Thailand. That's not to say that such kindness doesn't happen in the islands down South. I'm sure it does, but I have only been to tourism-heavy islands where the relationship between local business owners and tourists was more antagonistic. I felt I had to be more on my guard about not getting ripped off, especially on Koh Phangan. Read my post on spending the holidays on Koh Phangan and you’ll see why my sense of caution was justified.
This sense of antagonism seems to be a product of a vicious cycle in which obnoxious and disrespectful tourists are rude to local people (I've witnessed some genuinely embarrassing interactions), and local business owners such as taxi drivers blatantly overcharge tourists, simply because they can. So as beautiful as the islands are, I strongly prefer the North. Which is stunningly beautiful in its own way.
Traveling Northern Thailand
Chiang Mai serves as a convenient gateway to this part of the country, as it is the largest and most well-known city in the North. From here, you can get to Chiang Rai, close to the Burma border; Pai, a backpacker paradise, and a number of other lovely but less popular towns and getaway spots.
I can be hyperbolic in my descriptions but I am sincere when I say that the landscapes of Northern Thailand are some of the most beautiful I have ever seen. On bus rides to and from Chiang Rai, I found myself unable to tear my gaze away from the green fields and mountains. Having now been here nearly a year, I feel I'm spoiled but still try to appreciate the scenery whenever I get outside the city.
The area immediately surrounding Chiang Mai is like a treasure trove of amazing places, such as Bua Thong, or the Sticky Waterfalls. Despite water cascading down on you, the limestone that makes up the rocks is sticky enough that you can actually walk up the waterfall.
It seems totally counterintuitive to go climbing up a waterfall but there you have it. Naturally, being the very un-outdoorsy person that I am, I still managed to slip on a moss covered rock at the base of one of the falls but successfully navigated my way back up.
Then there are the floating houses at Mae Ngat Dam, where you can spend a night in a hut built on the water, or Huay Tung Tao, the popular lake just outside the city. The views of the sun-kissed mountains at both of these places are surely what people have in mind when they think “serenity”.
Cost of living
This certainly has played a factor in my willingness to stick around Chiang Mai as long as I have. I was lucky to have been in Thailand when I got robbed on New Year’s Day, because I knew I could stay in Chiang Mai and survive my personal economic recovery thanks to the low costs for essentials such as rent, food and occasional medical care.
Rent varies depending on where you live in the city, but I currently pay about $220 a month for a furnished room that is essentially a private studio. I have a spacious living area, queen-sized bed, private bathroom and shared balcony. That $220 includes all my utilities: water, electricity, fast and reliable wifi. And I can get my clothes laundered right downstairs for $1 a kilo. Not bad.
When it comes to food, meals run the gamut from street food to pricier Western meals - and when I say pricey, I'm talking $6-7 for a decent platter of ribs or a gourmet pizza.
There are street food markets every night of the week where you can buy delicious meals for $1 a serving. My favorite is from a stand at the Chiang Mai Gate market, where a surly woman serves up one hell of a pad kra pow, ground pork and basil over rice. Most street food meals, such as soups, curries and stir fries are about $1 a dish, and the prices don't get much steeper than that. And then there are the fresh fruit shakes and smoothies, the best of which is also found at the Chiang Mai Gate Market from Mrs. Pa, for a whopping $0.64.
Booze is probably the biggest entertainment expense and even that isn't expensive when you consider beer prices in many American, European or Australian cities. A large domestic beer costs between $1-3, getting up to about $6 for a good imported beer.
Most people go in on bottle service with their friends, which sounds all kinds of glam and high-end until you learn what “bottle service” means in Thailand. You typically get a bottle of Sangsom, a brand of Thai whiskey, served with a couple of Cokes and two bottles of soda water as your mixers. All of this usually costs about $12 for the set.
For the record, I usually compare Thai prices with the U.S. prices I was familiar with before moving abroad. I had been living in New York City and Washington, D.C., so the prices here seem almost laughably low compared to living in both of those cities. One month of my rent in D.C. would cover about four months here. And I pay more than a lot of people do in order to live in the Old City. If you look outside the moat area, rent drops significantly even for beautiful, multi-story homes. One friend who used to live here rented a five-story home with two other guys, so each had his own floor, with plenty of space for entertaining. Total monthly rent? $500.
Another perk is the affordable health care situation here. A friend of mine was hospitalized overnight for a stomach infection and paid less than $500 total for a private room, round-the-clock care, and all his IV drips, antibiotics and other medications. That was all completely out of pocket.
The pharmacy around the corner from where I live sells a decent range of birth control pills, including my preferred Canadian brand for $1.68 a pack. That's right. Birth control costs me less than $2 a month. I think I was paying $20 per month as a co-pay when I was living in the States. Other occasional necessities, such as paracetamol, anti-anxiety meds, muscle relaxers, inhalers, vitamins, and antibiotics are also extremely affordable. I don't think I've ever paid more than $6 for any of them.
None of this is to advocate not having insurance or to say that the care and standards here are equal to those in the States. In many cases, they are not. The hospital my friend went to is a highly recommended and American-accredited hospital in the city, but the small, rural hospital I went to on Koh Phangan was pretty primitive.
Sure, it only cost me $400 total for two nights in a private room, the costs of my IVs and medicines, but I would have gladly paid more for better care, as the staff seemed barely competent at best (things like feeding me greasy pork dishes while I had a stomach infection, and not knowing when it was time to change my IV bag didn't inspire much confidence). But it is nice to know that you can afford health care and medical supplies if you need it, and even if you're broke and can't afford insurance at the time.
Travel within Thailand is also extremely cheap. A bus ticket to Pai, a great little town three hours north of Chiang Mai, costs about $5 one-way during the off-season. A train ticket for an air-conditioned sleeper car for the 13-hour journey from Chiang Mai to Bangkok is about $26. I'm pretty sure I've paid triple that for the three-hour journey between Wilmington, Delaware and Washington, D.C. on Amtrak.
Obviously, you get what you pay for. Cheap travel can be uncomfortable and nerve-wracking when you see how keen the drivers are to speed around tight mountain curves, and there are legitimate concerns about the level of cleanliness and maintenance at a budget hostel. But it is great if your priority is stretching your travel savings as far as it will go, or are in the process of a career/life change and aren't flush with cash, or are starting a business and trying to limit personal expenses.
Growth in progress
I was thinking the other day about how grateful I am to be in Asia right now, and have the opportunity to see cities changing and developing before my eyes. I often felt that way in Beijing, where neighborhoods seemed to shift overnight and the constant openings of new bars, restaurants, malls and shops gave the city an air of chaos and excitement.
I feel similarly about Chiang Mai, and am so thankful to be here when so much change is happening in this part of the world. There is so much opportunity here, yet the city has to this point retained its distinction and charm. I'm sure it will look very different in five or 10 years so I'm glad I'm having the chance to see it now, while it's still in flux.
Thanks to Mika Darja Machalek for the Sticky Waterfalls photo.
Read the first post in the Unexpected Year in Thailand series here.
The day I decided to return to Chiang Mai last summer didn't start on a high note. In fact, it was one of the lowest days I had had in the past couple of months, and that was saying something. I woke up around 11 a.m., exhausted as I had been when I went to sleep the night before and with a dark mood festering before I even got out of bed. My body ached with the effort it took to sit at my desk and work for a few hours. The pall of numbness with which I was becoming all too familiar had enveloped me by lunchtime and breaking through it felt like too great a feat to even attempt.
While making a decadent grilled blue cheese and olive oil sandwich I thought might cheer me up, I noticed a few bottles of wine leftover from the housewarming party my roommates and I had thrown a couple of weeks before. I wasn't necessarily fiending for a glass of wine at 1 p.m., but it occurred to me that wine usually brings out some kind of emotion in me, whether happy or sad. Perhaps if I got a little drunk, I could at least feel something. Lying in bed crying all day would have been preferable to this nothingness.
I sat back down at my desk and drank a few glasses of wine, waiting for rage or sadness or even an unlikely jolt of happiness to break through the malaise. I finished the bottle and crawled back under the covers.
Nothing. Still fucking nothing.
A few weeks earlier, I had finally confronted the fact that I was likely depressed, and that my life was in need of some major changes. On the surface, all was well - living overseas, career as a freelance writer, surrounded by good friends, lots of opportunity. But inside, I felt like my soul was being crushed slowly but steadily under the weight of cement blocks.
The intense feelings of despair, exhaustion, lack of direction and interest in certain parts of my life and general emotional chaos had been coming in increasingly large and long-lasting waves since sometime in May, but I refused to deal with it at first. Too many other priorities, too many deadlines, too many places to be, people to please.
One afternoon, I was editing some writing for a client named Noch Noch Li, who has written extensively about her experience with depression. I was reading over a passage about the symptoms of depression when something clicked. Headaches, lack of interest and motivation ... It all sounded too familiar. A cold sweat washed over me as I finally let my focus settle on one thought: “I'm depressed.”
The irony was that I had been working with Enoch for months at this point, and while I greatly admired her courage and strength in sharing her story, it never occurred to me that perhaps her work resonated with me for a deeper reason.
I realized then that this was not the first time I had gone through depression. Once I allowed myself to say the words out loud, I could clearly see the other times in my life when my internal world was screaming out for my attention and I refused to pause and give myself what I needed.
My first semester at grad school had long been a source of shame because I had dreamed of getting into Columbia Journalism School for years, and then felt I had let myself down entirely when I started to spiral into a place of darkness, discontent, and poor health. People would ask about my time in journalism school and my first instinct, rather than be proud of my accomplishments and the writing I had done there, was to rattle off some quick response while internally reciting a litany of perceived failures: I didn't network enough, I didn’t challenge myself enough, I didn't pursue more interesting stories, I didn’t spend enough time enjoying New York, I should have spent more time in Brooklyn, I gained too much weight, I didn't go on any dates. I recently reread some old emails sent to a college friend at the time, and see now that I was in a pretty rough state emotionally, and should be proud that I accomplished anything at all during those months.
The same happened a couple of years later, when I was living in Washington, D.C. On the surface, everything was great - good job, lots of opportunities, living in a beautiful house, close to college friends. But I spent entire weekends sprawled on the mattress in my basement bedroom, ordering Domino's takeout in my robe because I just could not muster enough energy or interest to leave the house on my days off.
And here I was again, longing only for the comfort of my bed, where I could sleep for hours on end and check out from the world.
When I realized things were off track in Beijing, I felt ashamed that I had gotten to this point again. Shouldn't I know better? I had worked with a therapist, valued self-work and personal growth, had invested hours and hours of my life in improving myself ... and I was depressed?! How mortifying.
Part of my emotional journey this past year has been to pause and gently shift gears when the shame and negativity spiral kicks in. I've learned how deeply parts of me fear negative judgement from other people, and dread the idea of being perceived as a “failure.” On some level, I thought if anyone knew I was depressed, they'd think I was a fraud, a poser, who didn't really understand or value self-knowledge, or who had burned out, wasted years of my life, become a loser.
I know this is harsh self-talk. I know it. I would never talk this way to someone else. But that's been another part of the process: learning to treat myself at least as gently as I'd treat someone else, and learning to compassionately unpack the negativity one fear and false belief at a time.
The day I realized I was probably going through depression in Beijing, I knew I wanted things to be different this time around. They had to be different. I had tools now, resources. I knew how to take care of myself, could see the changes that needed to be made. I was scared as hell but I vowed that I'd get through this and come through stronger on the other side.
After I finished working, that is. After this month’s client projects were wrapped up. After the party I planned to attend on Saturday night. After I had pitched another story, edited another page, scheduled one more date, one more lunch, one more interview.
I’d tell myself that the important thing was that I was aware that I was struggling, and aware that I needed a break. I'd take one. Eventually.
So looking back, it's really not a huge surprise that a few weeks later, I was still struggling to get out of bed, still seeing my future through a fog of gloom, still feeling like I was just barely keeping my head above water.
The tears refused to come that afternoon in spite of my best attempts at a wine soaked breakdown. But they came later that night, when I (soberly) started hysterically crying, finally admitting how scared and lost I felt, and finally able to say “Something's gotta give” and mean it. Drinking wine with lunch in order to feel something was not how I wanted to cope with my problems. I knew better than that, deserved better than that.
That's when I decided to get a change of scenery, slow things down for a bit. And I felt positively giddy about doing that in Chiang Mai. In addition to the slower pace, I looked forward to traveling again, which always brightens my spirits.
It's funny, the things that happen when you finally start listening to what your body, your moods and your emotions are telling you. When you finally stop pushing the most important things to the back burner and being honest with yourself. I wasn't immediately spry and chipper again after booking my flight to Thailand, but I felt more relaxed, more optimistic. I was taking steps toward helping myself. Things would get better.
At the time, I kind of thought that two months would be enough - I'd go to Chiang Mai, relax, write, journal, and come back to Beijing with a new outlook on life and a brand new approach to work. All would be well.
The thing is, my ability to work hard and achieve was never the problem. I had always worked hard. I can hustle. There has never been a major goal I’ve set for myself that I did not achieve. Which is great. And I love that about myself.
The problem was that I had long neglected certain parts of my inner world. Long-held, intense fears about failure, loneliness, shame, humiliation. Those don't go away overnight after a few good crying jags. And neither do ingrained habits, like working all the time, taking on assignments that don't yield that much in the way of pride or financial benefit simply because you can't conceive of not working, ignoring your own preferences and priorities because you think it's what you should do for someone else’s benefit.
These things take time to understand and change, and require consistent attention to and compassion for yourself as you move toward a healthier place.
And I knew that, on some level, when I started down this new road on my personal growth journey last summer. But that didn't stop me from falling down many more times and learning it over and over again during this past year.
My one-year anniversary of living in Thailand is coming up at the end of July, and while reflecting on the past 12 months, I decided to write a series of posts on this most unexpected year in my life. When I flew to Thailand last July, I planned to stay two months. I wanted to heal from burn out, ease back some of my work commitments so I could take care of myself mentally and physically and work on creative projects I had set on the back burner for some time.
I knew I needed a break back then, but I didn't know how badly I needed it, or the extent to which some serious emotional healing needed to happen. I expected to return to Beijing by the end of September 2012 and more or less resume life as it had been when I left.
I ended up staying in Thailand for a number of reasons, all of which I will cover in forthcoming blog posts, but wanted to say a few words of introduction to this series of musings.
The past year has been one of the most beautiful, difficult, emotional, messy, exciting, maddening, and rich I have lived so far.
As I wrote in a post last summer, I initially left Beijing for a couple of months because I was burned out. I love Beijing, and fully intend to return at some point. But last summer, I just needed a break.
I was working to the point of exhaustion most of the time, often on things that didn't mean much to me. With the exception of a few projects, I didn't feel I was building a body of work that I could be proud of. I started to feel ashamed and unhappy, angry at myself for what I perceived to be a squandering of the opportunities and experiences I had had in the past.
My personal relationships were also in flux. Some relationships became strained, while others were strengthened. It took me a long time to realize how deeply those shifts affected me and contributed to my endless feelings of exhaustion.
There was a lot of good in my life at the time, but sometimes I just felt like I was drowning. I was often sad and angry, but more than anything else, I was just so damn tired. No matter how much sleep I got, I was always exhausted. Things that once seemed appealing now seemed either altogether uninteresting or simply too much effort to even conceive of doing.
I had been in Thailand earlier in the year and wanted to spend more time in Chiang Mai, so that seemed an obvious place to go for a change of scenery The city is small, and manages to be both lively and relaxed, which seemed a good mix for me under the circumstances. It's a place that attracts those who are trying to "find themselves" or are making big changes in their lives, and the idea that I'd be around other people trying to figure some things out appealed to me. The cost of living is generally significantly cheaper in Chiang Mai than in Beijing, so that also made it seem a good choice of place to stay while I wouldn't be working as much.
Despite an exercise in extreme travel frustration when it came time to leave Beijing, I arrived in Thailand at the end of July and knew immediately that I was right to have come. What the subsequent 12 months have brought me has been unexpected and wonderful, and I will treasure the time I have spent here for many years to come.
When I decided to write something about this upcoming anniversary, I quickly realized that a single post wouldn't do. So I decided to write this series, which is not only about Thailand, but about friendship, depression, doubt, self-care, travel and growing up.
The topics of these posts have been bouncing around in my mind for awhile, but I couldn't bring myself to write them until now. I'm so grateful for all I've had and experienced and shared this past year, and hope that by writing about it, I'll come to appreciate and learn from it all even more. And if anyone reading these posts relates to some of what I've felt and been through, so much the better.
To read the posts in the Unexpected Year in Thailand series, click here:
Back in May, I had the opportunity to visit Chai Lai Orchid, a small resort in Mae Wang, in the mountains outside Chiang Mai.
I had heard interesting things about the resort, which is run by an American woman and employs at-risk members of local hill tribe communities. Many of these employees are women who, due to economic circumstances, were at high risk for being trafficked.
The people of the ethnic minority groups that make up northern Thailand's hill tribes face a precarious situation in this country. Even if they are born in Thailand, they are not considered Thai citizens and therefore are not entitled to the same rights, protections and opportunities afforded ethnic and natural-born Thais. In many cases, this leaves them ripe for exploitation, an all-too-common situation for disenfranchised groups in this part of the world.
These ethnic minorities have rich and in many ways self-sustaining cultures and environments, and I have had the privilege of getting to visit a few. My experiences have been but a glimpse of what the villagers’ lives are like, but they've moved me all the same.
Last fall, I spent a short amount of time in a Lahu village, where I was struck by the beauty and generosity of the children living there but also by the abject poverty in which many of them live. I later visited a Karen village and had a chance to observe stunning women wearing traditional Karen clothing, men weaving bamboo baskets and preparing freshly harvested coffee beans, and get some sense of life in the village.
I am eager to learn much more about the political and cultural background of these tribes, and so was intrigued when I learned about Chai Lai Orchid’s mission.
I spent only one night and two days there, but the experience was both uplifting and jarring. The resort itself consists of several cozy and elegant bungalows built in a clearing on a mountain. These overlook the Mae Wang River, and the resort sits directly across from an elephant camp, which means that you can enjoy your morning tea while gazing at elephants or listening to the river run by.
The staff are friendly and attentive, and it's just overall the kind of place you want to escape to for awhile. (In the interest of full disclosure, I was offered free accommodation for a night at one of CLO’s bungalows, and wrote about the resort for Travel Wire Asia. The positive review was not a condition of the free accommodations; my opinion of this place is genuine.)
While I enjoyed all of this, I wasn't at Chai Lai Orchid to enjoy the view. I was there to interview Alex Pham, the resort’s founder.
Pham is from the United States but relocated to Thailand to commit herself to combating human trafficking and helping women here. She has long been involved in anti-trafficking work, but wanted to be involved at the ground level and decided to open a resort where she could help women develop job skills that might keep them off the streets or being exploited.
“It's great to be here and see the girls and guys here getting stronger and to be able to do more preventative work,” Pham says.
The women who work at Chai Lai Orchid go through a training program, spending about three months a piece in different departments, such as cooking, accounting, housekeeping, and working in the resort cafe. Pham also teaches English classes, in the hope they will develop a skill set that qualifies them for a range of jobs if they decide they want to move out of the villages.
None of the current employees are victims of trafficking, but live in communities where there is a risk for that. Pham said she hopes to eventually be able to employ women who want to leave the sex trade but said she does not yet have sufficient resources to make that a viable option for them (such as offering counseling treatment).
Pham recently hired a mahout, or elephant trainer, from the nearby camp. She invited him over to join us while we talked, and Ning, her Thai business partner, translated for me.
We sat and drank a couple of beers and I learned that this man, whose back is covered in traditional Shan tattoos, is originally from Shan State in Burma and was once a child soldier in the Shan army. Like other ethnic minorities in Burma, the Shan have long faced violence and aggression from the government.
As has increasingly become the case since I started traveling in Southeast Asia, I found the contradictions in this part of the world staggering. Here I was enjoying a couple of cold Changs in a beautiful mountain resort while talking with someone who has faced challenges in his life that I can never fully understand. The women surrounding me grew up in a community that gave them no incentive to pursue an education or life outside the village, and have essentially become trailblazers for their villages. And here was Alexa, who has centered her life around the work she does at Chai Lai Orchid and in the surrounding areas.
Pham also does sexual education outreach in the villages, teaching people to use condoms and offering free and discreet HIV tests to anyone who requests one. She has a strict policy that any employee who gossips about someone who takes the test will be fired. Not only would it be invasive and insensitive, but the stigma could ruin someone’s life whether they were HIV positive or not.
Pham is only a couple of years older than I am, and I was humbled to hear how much she has been able to do for these women and how much she has overcome to make Chai Lai Orchid a success. The resort has not yet been open a year, yet she has had to grapple with a former business partner who ripped her off badly (and never disclosed to her that he once facilitated the trafficking of women), cultural politics, and corrupt police.
But she has also clearly developed a strong bond with the women and men she works with, and her passion for her work is clear.
Chai Lai Orchid isn't the biggest or most elaborate resort you will find in this country, by a long shot. But the people who work here and the mission behind it (not to mention the quality service and gorgeous surroundings) make it so worth visiting. Everyone there left a lasting impression on me and made me aware of how many people in this country, and this region, fall through the cracks of society and are at risk for being exploited and abused in horrifying ways. My visit there reminded me of this darker side of Thailand, while also reminding me of the astounding beauty, warmth and generosity of the people who live here.
Pham invites volunteers who want to teach English or work with the local community to get in touch with her. If anyone in the States wants to donate or help Alexa’s cause, she welcomes donations of Oraquick tests, over-the-counter home-use oral HIV tests that are available in the United States.
"Before we go any further, I have to tell you something."
Eric looked at me expectantly but I could feel my nerve wavering. This was the talk I had been preparing to have for days, but now that the time had come, I wanted to forget the whole thing and go back to making out.
We had only been dating for a few weeks but things were going well. Eric was nice, funny and respectful. We liked each other. It didn't hurt that he had a ridiculous body. There was no apparent reason not to keep heating things up between us.
"I'm a virgin. I'm waiting to have sex until I'm married. So we can't have sex."
"Yeah, that's fine. We don't have to do anything you don't want to do."
I should have been relieved. Hadn't my fear that the virgin card would bring things between us to an end been abated? Instead, I turned away from him, tears in my eyes. I was embarrassed, and angry that I felt so hemmed in by the constraints of Catholicism, the religion I had practiced for most of my life. I was 24, and seriously sexually frustrated. But at least I was making God happy, so that was some warped consolation.
I had been raised on the promise of Heaven for the faithful, Hell for the wicked, and the latter group included fornicators. I was told that God had a man chosen for me and I was to trust in His plan and wait for "the one." No sex before marriage. The message had been burned into my brain during 12+ years of Catholic school. Never mind that the vast majority of my classmates and fellow Catholics seemed to have disregarded the abstinence lesson. I was convinced that if I stayed pure, I'd be rewarded one day.
But when I was 23, I started questioning everything about my religion. And that included the Church's mandate against pre-marital sex. I wanted to be having sex, but fear of being damned in the eyes of God prevented me. I felt that I was missing out on a huge part of my young adulthood and was feeling increasingly out-of-place and uninformed during conversations with my friends about our love lives.
When I think back now on the beliefs I held then, I shudder. There are few things more irrational than telling human beings that they must utterly refuse themselves an act that they are biologically wired to perform. Forcing people to deny their most basic impulses or to feel shame at every hint of a stirring in their loins is cruel and foolish. We've seen how well such practices have worked out for the multitude of Catholic priests exposed as child molesters, and in the many cases in which abstinence-only education has resulted in high rates of unplanned pregnancies.
Having abandoned Catholicism, and religion, altogether three years ago, I can see now how warped and backward my thinking was. I used to cling to the promise that God would lead me to the right man and that it shouldn't matter to a guy whether or not we had sex. It's absurd to me now that I ever believed such a thing. I know that I would not marry a guy or commit to a serious relationship with him if he refused to have sex with me. It's an essential, intimate part of a romantic relationship and I would not expect someone to pledge his life to me before we had determined if we were compatible in that way. Yes, I realize there are a number of other areas that are vital to a long-lasting relationship. But this one is a requirement of mine.
I resent the fact that sex, and all of the fun related activities, were such a source of guilt and fear during my formative years, all because of the teachings of a corrupt and antiquated institution. But I am grateful that I awoke to the realities of the Church's teachings in time to heal and get to know myself as a sexual being.
Things between Eric and me ended before I made the leap into atheism and decided to become sexually active. When I did start having sex, my early experiences came with what I suspect are the same insecurities and uncertainties that accompany a lot of people's first forays into that area. But I felt no guilt. I felt no shame, and no fear of burning in the pit of Hell for all eternity. The only judgment that concerns me about my sexual activity now is my own.
The Buddhist New Year festival, Songkran, was celebrated in Thailand this past weekend. It's the biggest festival of the year and the celebrations go on for at least three days. These celebrations are not your average holiday festivities, however. Songkran is a massive, multi-day, city-wide water fight. Everyone buys water guns and buckets and plays outside for three days, the only goal being to soak everyone who passes you as much as humanly possible. It's quite possibly the greatest holiday in the world.
Friends who had been in Chiang Mai for the holiday before had been telling stories for months, getting the Songkran newbs pumped for what promised to be the most epic waterfight we had ever seen.
I marveled at the stories; I watched the videos; I saw the pictures. I was not prepared for all that is Songkran.
The day before the holiday officially began, people were already lining the streets with Super Soaker knock-offs, PVC pipe syringes, buckets and hoses, ready to take down anyone who crossed their paths. Street vendors lined Chiang Mai's famous moat selling sausages, sweet corn, spring rolls, water and beer.
My friends and I donned t-shirts we had made for our crew, the Songlorious Basterds, and spent a wonderful pre-Songkran afternoon eating home cooked Thai food and drinking Sangsom, a sweet Thai whiskey, in between bouts of unleashing hell on every passerby who dared walk past our guest house.
Already, the holiday was off to a glorious start. But even that didn't prepare me for the real deal.
In some ways, words fail me when I try to describe Songkran. On the first full day of the festival, we took to the streets and found the best party you could ever imagine: an entire city playing, eating, drinking and dancing in the sunshine. It's absolute mayhem and you can't walk two feet without getting soaked to the bone. There's no place for vanity or reservation. You simply jump into the fray and enjoy.
Celebrating Songkran in Chiang Mai was, without exggeration, one of the most wonderful experiences I have had since moving overseas. There were many times when I couldn't stop smiling from the sheer joy I felt at being there, and being surrounded by friends and a city full of people in celebration.
There were countless instances and interactions that made me smile or laugh out loud: getting covered with foam and dancing in front of Thapae Gate, having children smear talc on my face to stave off the heat, being beckoned by a laughing old woman eager to throw her bucket of freezing water on me. But I will never forget the way I felt on the first day of Songkran.
The water symbolizes a time of cleanse and renewal at the start of the new year, which is why it factors so prominently into the celebrations. On Saturday afternoon, the first day of the festival, rain clouds rolled over the steaming hot and already drenched city. People had been in the streets all day, blasting each other with water guns, dumping buckets of ice water on each other's heads, clinking cans of warm Chang beer in a toast to the new year. But then the sky opened up, punctuating what had already been a perfect day.
If I was Buddhist, or religious in any way, I would have taken the rain as a sign from God that the coming year was a blessed one. Instead, I stood there in the middle of the street, arms wrapped around my friends as we laughed and hugged one another and I was grateful that I, and they, are alive.
That's the kind of celebration Songkran is. The generosity of spirit, the abundance of people and food and drink and water and music - it makes you happy to be alive. And when you're dancing to Bruce Springsteen in the middle of a reggae bar, sopping wet and surrounded by people who are just so damn happy they could burst, you can't help but love them.
And when you start teaming up with Thai kids to attack trucks full of people with squirt guns and buckets, and see groups of strangers helping a drunk old man who's done a little too much celebrating for the afternoon, you can't help but really like human beings as a species. And when you watch a little girl celebrate her first Songkran with shrieks of delight and demands to be doused in water, you want to cry a little out of happiness because it's moments like those that make you think that maybe humanity does deserve to exist.
Songkran is the sort of holiday that helps you continue to believe that people are good, even when you wake up the morning after it to the news that people were murdered and maimed at the Boston marathon and that 55 others were killed in Iraq on the same day. Yesterday morning, when I read about this wave of horrors, I held on to the memory of Songkran. Seeing people in such a pure, happy state, in a communal moment of joy, sharing and celebration ... I have to keep that in mind in the face of senseless tragedy, and believe that decency will eventually triumph.