Hitting a Plateau
Although I recently made the transition to riding a motorbike (thanks to the new Grinnell Corps policy set in place this year), I spent the first six months of my time here in Thailand using a bicycle as my main source of transportation. To be honest, I was a bit nervous to hop back on the bicycle. The last time I had ridden a bike (excluding the times I managed to find a functional yellow campus bike) was when I was ten, and that was more for fun with the family on weekends while strolling through the park. Coming to Thailand, I knew I had to not only regain my balance on the bicycle, but also manage to maintain it while zipping and navigating around motorbikes, cars, buses, and the rest of Chiang Mai traffic. However, after a few wobbles and tilts, I found my footing (or should I say, pedaling?).
While I quickly came to enjoy cycling, my muscles had to make the biggest adjustment. The side of Payap University where Alison and I reside sits a good five miles away (one way) from the center of town. Although this shouldn't be too daunting of a distance, it was to a pair of legs that hadn't faced that vigorous and daily of a workout since dancing many years ago. My first excursions into town were full of sweat-stained shirts, shaky knees, and sore thigh muscles. Coming back to my room in one piece after cycling around for the afternoon became minor, yet notable personal victories. As the weeks went on and my desire to better get to know the city increased, so did my stamina and willpower to stay on the bicycle. Eventually, after a month or so of nearly daily cycling, my body overcame those former strains. I could navigate myself around the city with relative ease, both geographically and physically. The time it took to get to town lessened from twenty-five minutes to eighteen minutes. Even with the sun beating heavily on my back, I felt the endorphins pump through my system and add to my sense of joy and pleasure at the end of every ride. I felt like I had adjusted to a sizable part of my new life abroad.
If my first few months in Thailand were about discovery, these past few months have been all about acclimation. By the time my first report had been published, it was safe to say that I had settled and established a firm routine. Mondays through Thursdays from 9 AM to noon, I taught my intermediate-level Intensive English course. Wednesday evenings from 6 to 9 PM and Thursday afternoons from 1 to 3 PM, I worked as an English tutor at our two volunteer-run drop-in centers. Thursday evenings were reserved for spaghetti dinner at a friend's house, Friday mornings for laundry and errands, Saturdays for friends, and Sundays for church and bi-weekly pizza dinner with the other Payap volunteers. Occasionally, Tuesday evenings were spent soothing a small ounce of farang-food homesickness by chomping down on nightly special burgers in town, but apart from that, I mostly stuck to this weekly routine. For me, this fairly regimented schedule translated into a smooth transition to living in Chiang Mai. After all, creating a routine was what helped me through my other bouts of homesickness when I was abroad in England and South Africa. Shouldn’t this tactic have worked again, especially since I was going to be here for a longer period of time?
At least, I thought it would.
Upon my return from Taiwan where I spent the Christmas holidays with several other Grinnellians, I felt a foreign byproduct of my established routine: restlessness. Maybe it was because I had enjoyed the thrills and adventures of visiting a new city, and that I had a travel bug-induced itch to continue exploring Asia rather than return to work at Payap. Maybe it was because I felt that there was little progress made by my students in the classroom; I didn't receive as much enthusiastic feedback as I did during the first half of the course, even after modifying the curriculum to cater the students' interests. Or maybe it was because everything just felt too darn familiar to me and I was sad that some sights, smells, and sounds started to lose their lackluster. Whatever the cause of my restlessness was, I felt stuck. This resulted in a minor panic attack, because at the beginning of my fellowship, I vowed to never become complacent and hit a plateau.
Typical to such episodes in my life, I took a moment to reevaluate where I was and what I was doing. After a lot of thinking and talking with local friends, I realized that much of my frustration stemmed from the fact that I was unconsciously resisting a large part of my cultural adjustment to Thailand. As many long term travelers would tell you, part of adjusting culturally requires seeing life through the lens of the locals. At least then you can obtain a sense of understanding about the place, and reach a new level of empathy for those around you. The lens I had difficulty seeing through was the one related to time, which obviously plays a large part in our everyday lives, whether we want to admit it or not.
In my last report, I alluded to the fact that I'm very much an event-oriented person – to-do lists and color-coded calendars keep my life in order. As I've learned, though, such is not the case in Thailand. Rather, Thais are people-oriented, meaning that building and maintaining strong relationships sit at the forefront of day-to-day interactions and activities. Time remains relative, and the clock seems to act as more of a cute or professional wall accessory (depending on where you are) or a gentle reminder of events to later come in the day. This approach works hand-in-hand with the widespread sabai sabai, mai bpen rai, “no worries” attitude – just go with the flow. For a planner like me, this mentality was difficult to adjust to, let alone understand and adopt. I first chose to fight it. I wanted everything to be quick and efficient so I could get as many tasks as possible completed in a day. Subsequently, my time-driven mentality dictated the way I conducted my classroom, social life, and volunteer projects. Everything became meticulously planned with a date and time. Over time, though, the monotony set in. I didn't feel stimulated enough, or at least at the same level I had encountered towards the beginning of my year. And that's when my restlessness kicked in.
Funny enough, in the midst of this period of introspection, dealing with “plateaus” came up in conversation with a new friend. While chatting over coffee, cakes, and homemade peanut butter chocolate cookies, our conversation about books led to a discussion about healthy lifestyles, which then became a talk about life highs, lows, and “plateaus” (you know, such topical transitions happen over coffee). We all face those frustrating periods of diminishing returns in various areas of our life – health, spirituality, academics, you name it. However, it's really what you choose to make of it. Such moments can actually prove to be blessings in disguise. My friend shared with me the idea that “plateauing” could serve as a useful period for personal growth and development rather than stagnation. Breaking the perceived-to-be monotonous cycle requires reflection, refocusing, and readjusting of goals, aims, and perspective. Ultimately, making use of these moments works towards building your “core strength” (be it physical, mental, emotional, or spiritual) for the next unforeseen challenge in life. Although I was certainly familiar with these ideas, the concept didn't sink in my head until perhaps a few hours after the cookies sank comfortably in my stomach. If anything, they were words of encouragement that came at the right time.
I therefore focused on resolving the tension between my concept and the Thai concept of time by attempting to adopt a more sabai sabai mentality. As silly as it sounds, choosing to embrace less of a calendar-driven mindset and more of a laid-back nature – and thus (somewhat belatedly) enter another stage of cultural immersion – took a bit of courage. After all, “busy-ness” was my comfortable norm at Grinnell. I knew I had control of my schedule and, to some degree, what was to come. Giving up that sense of knowing, therefore, made me feel exposed and vulnerable. But what mainly drove me to change was the fear of leaving Thailand with regrets. While I could forgive myself for plateauing, I would never be able to forgive myself if I wasted the year away, fretting over work instead of investing time in building relationships with the amazing people and places around me. There was absolutely no excuse to not enjoy every moment here. And how else was I supposed to grow myself if I constantly stayed in my comfort zone?
Total change didn't occur overnight and it certainly won't in the future – after all, this is still very much a work in progress project – but a renewed attitude and perspective has already produced some fruitful results. I have sought opportunities and moments to strengthen my relationships with the people around me and sink my roots into the city rather than to fill empty pockets of my schedule. For example, I started to volunteer with a local NGO, hoping that working with people's stories about human rights abuses will help me better understand the social landscape and intricacies of the region. I've come to appreciate more on-the-whim get-togethers with friends, grabbing a quick bite to eat in an unexplored area of town and favoring the company of people over the company of lesson plans and teaching materials. I've modified my class period to start with more conversation, not only to cleverly get to know my students better, but to also help them feel comfortable in their language skills and to demonstrate that they could trust me. I've also ventured on small trips out of town, alone or with friends, to explore and appreciate the tree-covered mountains and the wide open plains of northern Thailand. All the while, I've tried my best to slow life down a bit, to take one step at a time, and to let things occur naturally. It's helped me fully appreciate how Thai people operate and live their lives, especially in the midst of debilitating pollution and heat (at least during this past month). It's also helped me value the smaller details and joys of everyday life, like the way my favorite fruit stand lady smiles and greets me in northern Thai when I buy pineapples and mangoes from her; the way the crickets, cicadas, and jing-jok geckos create a pleasant background soundtrack while I read on my balcony; and how rainfall can make the earth smell so much fresher.
There is a Thai proverb that reads "“น้ำขึ้นให้รีบตัก" (nám kêun hâi rêep dtàk), which roughly translates to “when the water rises, hurry to get some.” Ironically, this was the proverb I picked to use as the title of the blog I'm keeping while here in Chiang Mai. Even though I update every week or so, I've always skipped over reading the translation (to be fair, though, since arriving here, it has never stuck out to me because, despite the appearance of knowing Thai, I'm still illiterate). It was only as I attempted to try to see and live my life through a Thai perspective that the words began to ring true. I wouldn't say that this change in attitude has made my life perfect or worry-free, and it'd be foolish to say that I have everything else about Thai culture and life figured out. However, coming out of my moment of plateauing has given me a fresh set of eyes to look through for the rest of my time in Chiang Mai. I'm thankful that I experienced some difficulty in adjusting, as it's helped me learn a lot more about myself as an individual and member of this global society. Now, with six months under my belt and a little more than six months to go, I'm ready to – figuratively – hop back on the bike for the next leg of the ride. I might hit a few road bumps and get some muscle aches along the way, but if I continue to learn to adapt with the lay of the land, I know I can comfortably cruise by and enjoy the ride. Besides, who knows what little things I'll continue to learn and discover about Thailand and myself along the way. In the years to come, I know that those will be the moments I'll look back on, truly cherish, and hold dear to my heart.