As we head north on a VIP bus, out of my window I can finally see the stars, perhaps for the first time since I’ve left home. Or it’s only now I’ve been still enough to notice them. I have a spark of excitement and anticipation. The quarter moon hangs low over the horizon, a light blood red. There is nothing to fear, there never has been, and there never will be. Fear is only an illusion created by the the uncontrollable, unknown, and unseen. All the while, the Father is in control, knows, and sees.
My third week of being an English teacher in the area of Muang Phayao is near complete. The transition was sudden – on a bus Saturday night, arriving at my new home Sunday morning, and straight to my school Monday morning, Fakkwanwittayakom School. On my first day, November 18, I was nervous and felt unprepared. But thanks to the kindness of the teachers in the foreign language department and decently l behaved students, I was more at ease by the end of my first few days.
Initially, with so much to think about and so much to get done, I was a bit overwhelmed. Having barely one day to arrive and prepare was taxing, between settling in, teaching right away, paperwork, meeting faculty, figuring out curriculum, discovering expectations, becoming familiarized with the area, and adjusting to all that is new.
The motorbike ride to school is around 25 minutes, and takes me around the southern end the large Phayao Lake – the obvious, gorgeous landmark of Phayao city. The drive itself is beautiful, quickly leaving the town behind and entering a quieter road that follows the lake. There are fields, trees, small communities, and open space. The air is fresh, damp and chilly in the mornings. The final road to the school is even quieter and lining the streets are homes (some wooden), a few small shops and restaurants, trees… It’s a beautiful, peaceful drive, and the mountains loom ahead as I approach the school. Even from the school, the mountains keep watch.
There are almost 900 students here, many of whom I have already seen in the classroom.
Every morning at 8AM there is an assembly in front of the school. All the students and teachers gather for around half an hour. During this time, a few events occur. First, the national anthem is played, and the flag raised. Then, homage is payed to the Buddha, the Dharma (his word), and the Sangha (the community of monks). Finally, there is a morning speaker before classes begin at 8:30 AM.
During my first week, I simply introduced myself to the students, and tried to learn a few things about them. Communication can be difficult at times, but it’s enjoyable when you see they understand something. This week I’ll have taught for 27 periods, which has been tiring, although the number should of classes I teach should soon drop to 23.
One day after school, I took a drive towards the mountains, and stumbled upon a group of men and women working the fields. I stopped to say hello and introduce myself, asking if I could take some photos. Some posed, and they all laughed; everyone was warm and friendly. Here, they harvest the “traditional” way – cutting the stalks with a sickle, and “beating” the grains off the stalks. They even let me have a go, and they got a good laugh out of watching me. It was a wonderful moment, observing a daily existence so different from mine, and I hope to go back again. These may be once in a lifetime moments.
My first weekend here, myself and some other TESOL teachers in town drove almost 3 hours to the northwest to go camping, at an area called Doi Chang. It was well worth it. After we turned off the main road towards the mountains, the scenery became immaculate. We climbed and climbed the mountain, and the mountains rolled out around us. It was one of those moments that was hard to believe – “I’m in northern Thailand, driving on a motorbike trough the rolling mountains.” We passed a coffee shop — Doi Chang Coffee Farm, some small towns, and I even saw some people from a hill tribe dressed in their traditional garb. The roads became steep towards the end, but the climb brought us to an amazing overlook. We found a camping spot there, on the top of the mountain – Doi Chang. The hills were spread out before us on either side. The stars were out in full, in all their glory, and it was beautiful; we spent time reveling in their splendor. It was a gift of a night.
Some days I need to come down to the lake after a long day at school to remind myself of how beautiful a place I’m living in. My tendency is to so quickly take for granted the bountiful gifts so undeservedly bestowed upon me. This is fitting, since it is Thanksgiving week. Yes, teaching can be draining and exhausting, but this is a rare opportunity to be involved in the lives of people (students and teachers) from an entirely different background and way of life than myself, and be involved beyond just the surface or a single visit. Sometimes we need to remember to relax, be at rest and peace, smile, and enjoy what we’re doing and where we’re at.
Sometimes I still fear of missing “it,” whatever “it” is. Opportunities, relationships, open doors, the stories and the moments that are so easily brushed by at the time… I fear of taking this all for granted, then looking back with shame and regret at what I missed when face to face. If I can conquer the small things, it amounts to much. Knowing the names of teachers and students; sitting with students at lunch, even if we can barely communicate; smiling at strangers on the street; learning and speaking as much Thai as I can muster; visiting farmers in the fields; being a student of the “local Thai” way of life; seeking to understand the people I’m surrounded by; seeking to understand where they’re coming from, even when I don’t understand… All this, I can do.
It’s thanksgiving, and I’m far from home in a place where Thanksgiving is as foreign as I am. But despite missing home and the family and food the holiday brings to mind, I’m thankful to be here. After school I took a drive, this being the early day. I drove into seclusion, into the quiet and silence. I found a lake with the mountains rising behind. These moments, this beauty, they reassure me. Though I’m far from home, I’m still at home. There are still many gifts to be found, and much to be thankful for. But while experiences come and go, family doesn’t – they remain. First and foremost, they are what I’m thankful for. So, be thankful for what passes quickly, and more so for what remains.
My third week of teaching is almost done. Again, I’m exhausted. But the little things make it worth it. Watching some students have “dance off” break dance competitions on their cardboard stage during free time at school — watching them do something they love. Watching some students play their very first concert — watching them do something they love. Laughing at myself with the class when I do or say something stupid. Laughing with the class at something funny. Having students be genuinely interested in learning about me. Having some students put forth their best effort in class. Having some students suddenly understand something they didn’t before. Having some students say hello when you walk past, and say thank you after class. Attempting to talk with some students outside of class, and seeing them light up when I take interest in what they like.
Sometimes, after a hard day, I have to ask myself the hard questions. Why am I here? Am I here to please myself however I can, or to serve others however I can? Am I here to take the broad, easy road, or to walk the hard, narrow path? What am I looking to find, what am I looking to fill? This season could be messy and long and dry, though really it is short. But I’m realizing we cannot question ourselves and our context at the first signs of difficulty and hardship. Maybe patience, perseverance, focus and commitment are what is required when we are especially doing what is right, rather than what is wrong. We cannot resort to questioning ourselves and God when things are not “easy.” We cannot quit when something does not always “feel” good. It could be that the greatest gifts are found in the fire, when all the temporary, meaningless ones have been burned up, and the true ones remain. So I ask of God, “Help me to see what is true, not the glib my eyes so often rest upon.”