To Have a Home
Over the course of teaching English to non-native speakers this year, I found myself stumbling through several explanations about the mechanics and technicalities of the English language. After all, as a native speaker, I don't think much about the rules when I speak, read, or write everyday; things come naturally after having spoken the language for so many years. Of these moments, however, I found it particularly challenging to explain certain abstract concepts to my students. Often, their puzzled expressions sent me back to square one, scrambling for another definition. For some, one-on-one conversation and repetition helped ingrain the concept. For others, it required the aid of several (bad) drawings on the board. At least with each conquered hurdle, I felt more confident in my developing skills and knowledge as an English-as-a-second-language teacher.
The other day, one of my more advanced students wrote the sentence, "I am going to home," a common mistake I saw in the paragraphs I received over the year in both beginner and intermediate classes. When I crossed out the preposition in the sentence, she asked me why I had done that.
"We usually say, 'I am going home' in English." (because that was the best explanation I could muster at the moment)
"But isn't 'home' a place? Why can't you use 'to' like when you say 'I am going to the store'?"
"It's more of an idea. A 'house' is a place that you live in, but it can also be your home."
"... I don't understand."
Later that day, I did some research to see if I could come up with a better explanation for my student. I first looked up the grammar surrounding the use of "home." After reading pages about prepositional phrases, article rules, and exceptions to certain patterns, I switched to the dictionary, thinking that my student was partially correct. The Oxford English Dictionary defines "home" as a place of either "permanent residence" or "where one lives" (or "an institution for people needing professional care or supervision" - but clearly, that's not the one I was thinking of). It was only when I scrolled to the definition for the phrase "at home" where I got the abstract meaning I was looking for and told her about: "comfortable and at ease in a place or situation," "confident or relaxed about doing or using something."
The idea of "home" has been on my mind lately, mostly because I am facing my imminent departure from Chiang Mai. To think how foreign Chiang Mai felt when I first arrived thirteen months ago is absolutely surreal and difficult to describe in full. The differences, however, from what I had left behind and what I had come to were stark and immediately noticeable: the language, the (spicy!) food, the (humid!) weather, how I blended in more easily with the locals. Over time, though, everything normalized; I felt "comfortable and at ease" with my new life, and felt "confident [and] relaxed" about my day-to-day interactions with those around me. In many respects – apart from my just demonstrated usage of its dictionary definition – over the past year, Chiang Mai became a new home for me.
This wasn't always the case, of course, nor was I ever expecting it to be. Adjusting to my new life, responsibilities, and surroundings took lots of patience, time, coffee dates with friends, and prayer. It was difficult at times to keep a level head when I couldn't communicate effectively with my students on assignments, when I couldn't string together a coherent sentence in Thai, or when I couldn't accomplish half of my day's to-do list because I depended on other people's much slower calendars. Now that I have the gift of hindsight, though, these struggles and incidences of personal and cultural clashes proved to be opportunities for me to analyze and better understand another layer of both myself and Thai culture. With each revelation came a deeper sense of confidence in not only myself and my abilities, but also in my decision to come to this wonderful country.
Building relationships with all sorts of people – both Thai and non-Thai – especially helped me feel more settled in Chiang Mai and see the city as a new home. Leaving the Grinnell community at graduation was emotional, hectic, and difficult; it was hard to imagine life without Grinnellians constantly around me everyday. But the Grinnell network is truly global, and apart from having Alison as a wonderful co-fellow and friend, hanging out with the multi-generational group of Grinnellians in Chiang Mai made me feel like I carried a piece of my Iowa years with me throughout the year. I also built a core group of friends while communing with like-minded volunteers from around the world. I often felt that with our combined skills, interests, and passions, we were truly brought together to help better, serve, and empower the local communities. The idea of a collective calling made Chiang Mai feel like an even more special place to be. Meanwhile, my Thai friends were a constant source of fun, smiles, and cultural commentary. They showed me their favorite local hangouts, kindly corrected my Thai tones, and endlessly teased me about my guy friends (with love, of course). I know that without them, I could have easily chosen to live life in a bubble, one that was separate from the Thai community. But without these friends – or any of my friends for that matter – my year in Chiang Mai wouldn't have been as lively, exciting, entertaining, or transformational as it has been.
Finding a spiritual home in Chiang Mai helped me further sink my roots and invest in a community I had come to love. After renewing my faith journey while attending Grinnell College, I made it a priority to plug into the Christian community and find a home church, which wasn't difficult considering Chiang Mai's long history with missionaries and various church organizations. Though I "church shopped" for several months, I started attending a friend's Thai church not too long ago. While my initial visits were nerve-wracking considering the language barrier, my new church family quickly adopted me with a respectful wai, and numerous meal invitations. Weeks later, I still don't fully understand the sermons, but I have built many wonderful friendships with fellow brothers and sisters in Christ, all of whom have provided invaluable support, encouragement, and love through both the good and difficult times.
Although I often felt content with my surroundings, it also took time away from my everyday life to truly realize and remember how much Chiang Mai had become a new home. I noticed that whenever I went out of town or traveled abroad, there were always a few days where I felt homesick. This wasn't homesickness for America with its relative glitz and glamor to Thailand, but rather homesickness for all that had become familiar and normal for me in Chiang Mai. When I faced abrasiveness at the open markets in Bangkok, I longed for the friendliness I encountered at their Chiang Mai counterparters. Heavy rice dishes from Taiwan and Hong Kong – while delicious and much needed after long stints without proper Chinese food – made me crave lighter Thai cuisine. I even missed the Chiang Mai traffic, which is comparatively a lot tamer than in Hanoi, where – as a friend aptly put it – I often felt like I was playing Frogger with my life. This is not to say, though, that I didn't enjoy my travels; on the contrary, having the opportunity to explore different parts of Asia was an immense blessing and helped me fall in love with the continent I had left at infant-hood. However, whenever I arrived back to Chiang Mai via car, bus, or plane, I always felt a wave of relief soothe my travel fatigue, the feeling you can only get when you know it's good to be back at a place you call "home."
These feelings of acclimation all aren't to say that Chiang Mai is my only home. I still call the San Francisco Bay Area home (in the physical sense), and I look back fondly at my four years at Grinnell as a time when I truly felt at home (in the abstract sense). If anything, I have found it a blessing (and possibly a gift) to be able to call so many places "home," even with all the changes that have occurred in my life. It's also further proven the fact that I am a product of my global relationships, and because of who I know, I am in the fortunate position to be a daughter, sister, teacher, student, and friend to many. Having that combined sense of place and belonging, I believe, has helped make so many of the communities I've plugged myself into to feel like home.
At some point, though, one chapter comes to a close and another one has to begin. These days, I feel like I am back at a very familiar crossroad, one quite similar to what I faced when leaving Grinnell and my Grinnell family at graduation. It's been difficult for me to start to say goodbye to the people I have come to love over a relatively short period of time, and it's upsetting to imagine life without them or their laughter close by. Likewise, it's been nerve-wracking to continue through life's journey without really knowing where to go next or what will happen.
But just because I have been experiencing the same motions as I did a little over a year ago doesn't mean I have the same anxieties, or at least to the same extent. This time around, I feel a bit more confident and focused on what I'll be doing next. Thanks to a year full of lessons in flexibility and adaptability, I know it's okay to not necessary have the clearest picture of my future, be it tomorrow or a few years from now. While I'm better at going with the flow, I still like to have a few solid goals to work towards in the midst of ambiguity.
Thanks to a year of reflection and cultural and personal discoveries, I also know that this isn't my farewell to Thailand or Asia... at least not yet. I feel that my year here barely began to skim the surface of potential projects, opportunities, and adventures to be had. I will be back soon – in what capacity, though, I'm still not entirely sure. What I do know, however, is that I can always come back to Chiang Mai. While it's hard to predict how much I or Chiang Mai will have changed by the next time we meet, there is one thing that (I hope) is certain: because of the relationships I have built here, the roots I have planted here, and the fond memories I have from over the year here, Chiang Mai will continue to feel like and be a home away from "home," wherever that new "home" may be.