Yet your heart yearns for me from the brooding sky
As I crest the mountain in rain-washed hue
All through the winding journey home
Still, oh still, I am with you.
I am not sure how often and how long I have tried to write this poem, but each time, my words failed me. (This is the Purple Poem I wrote about in an earlier blog post). How to explain that feeling of God hand cupping over me as I do the monthly trip from Mae Sariang to Chiang Mai and back on my bike? How to weave into a poem the different emotions of the ride, the different scenes and backdrops? Finally, this morning I was able to somewhat put a tongue to it. Besides the obvious inspiration of those drives, Psalms 139 and James 4:5 were also inspirations for the poem.
I am also currently working on a new book of poetry and essays. I think it’s far enough along that I can say it’s going to happen, but it’s impossible to give any release date right now. I do, however, want to get it finished before I start my online course for my teacher’s license in January, which will take up all my spare time.
A unique thing about life is the various shades that seem to color different periods of life. Some seasons in life are gray and blue, misty and melancholy. Others, for instance the last month I spent in Saohin, are characterized by browns and reds. This past season has been a rich mix of golds and greens, framed with wild blue skies and crimson sunsets.
October 7 was officially my last day of work before school break, although I took on some tutoring over our time off. On the evening of the 12th, on one a day when the air held a crisp hint of autumn, I set off for Chiang Mai where I met up with Amy and the rest of our INVEST team for our annual retreat as a team. Amy’s parents, Paul and Dorcas, served as speakers for our retreat. I felt like our activities and input at retreat were like a well-rounded meal, with a good amount of personal growth mixed with relaxation. It was an easily digestible meal: some meat, a lot of vegetables and light food, with a little bit of sweetness added.
Monday after retreat Amy and I headed off for Doi Chang with three other friends, Abby, Nancy and Glenda. We drove our motorbikes up the soaring heights of Doi Chang and among Akha villages, sipped coffee at coffee shops way up in the mountains, ate pizza while watching the sun set over a pond, woke up early to see the glory of the sunrise and feel the wind blow in our hair, and then made our way down again.
I left the others and headed to Chiang Dao to stay the night at my friend Louie’s house, taking the road through Doi Ang Khang National Park. I had been to this park years ago with Louie, but I had never come in from the east side. The heights were stunning. While Doi Chang had roads that were built high above patchworked fields, Doi Ang Khang was full of hairpin curves on roads that hugged cliffs and required me to drive in first gear. Every now and then, I stopped to savor the view and listen to the absolute silence of the mountain.
I spent the night with Louie and her hilarious sister in Baan Mai Samakkhi (which I wrote about visiting here 4 years ago), laughing over old jokes from bygone school days and making new ones. We talked about the time our instructor forgot to close the zipper on his pants and how I once accidentally hit a stranger over the head with a sweatshirt. Louie and her sister needed to leave early in the morning for a youth camp, so I spent the next morning with her mom and her younger brother. Louie’s younger brother, who reminded me of my high school students, took me to buy coffee, and to get the chain on my bike fixed. Her mom then loaded me up with avocados and a vegetable I don’t know the name for, then off I headed for Pai and Pang Mapha. I had already reserved a room in Pang Mapha since I knew if I took that way back to Mae Sariang, I wouldn’t be able to make it back to in one day without exhausting myself.
The road from Chiang Mai to Pai and from then on to Mae Hong Son is renowned for curves, steep slopes, and the foreign, accident-prone tourists that drive them. I drove behind a motorbike with the typical long-legged, white foreigner look for a while, and thought to myself that it looked like one I might later see in the ditch. I stopped for lunch and about 45 minutes later I rounded a curve and encountered this very bike in a ditch with two bewildered foreigners standing beside it. I stopped, and we examined the situation, and I poured water over the young, excited man’s cuts. Whereupon, he sat down on a mile marker and then promptly pitched backwards into the ditch in a dead faint while I frantically tried to call 191. He then awoke and lifted one of the aforementioned long white legs and gravely stared at it as if trying to figure out how it was attached to him.
“Pound sign,” he blustered. “Exclamation mark, percent sign, pound sign, asterisk, pound sign!” I ignored the language and upon examining him further, we decided we didn’t need an ambulance after all.
He then asked for something sugary to eat and I was grateful to be able to pull from my backpack mentos that had been gifted to us on retreat. He gulped them down like a starving man.
I ended up going with them and a helpful Thai guy to the next police checkpoint to look at the wounds a bit more, and then went with them to the hospital and stayed until they were looked at by a doctor and feeling less emotionally traumatized. Then I headed on to Pang Maphaa, racing the sun in order to get to my guesthouse before dark.
The last time I had made this trip, I drove through chilling rain and mist. The wet road had made me very nervous then, but I remembered the thrill of cresting a hill and the gorgeous views below. This time the road was half as treacherous, and I made good time, even stopping now and then to snap a picture. The sun was dying, shafting gleams of golden light over the mountains, nectar for the soul.
My guesthouse was adorable, and its price just as adorable at less than 8 dollars USD. There was one window and I kept it closed since it didn’t have a screen, so when I woke up to a dark room the next morning, I figured it was about 6:30. It wasn’t until I looked at my phone that I realized it was close to 9 instead.
As I sipped my coffee, I Googled Pang Maphaa and started looking at my maps in anticipation of the route home. As I studied the maps, I realized there was a road leading to the border, and that the border was only about 30 kilometers from my location. It didn’t take long to make my decision, and about half an hour later, I was at Baan JaBo on my way to the border. JaBo is a small tribal village, known for its restaurant where people can eat noodles while dangling their feet over the side of the mountain. (I thought it was a Lisu village, but I am seeing other sources saying Lahu)
Several times past Ja Bow, as I drove on towards the border, I was tempted to turn back. With the roads I have traveled on in the past, you would think I would have no fear of driving, but somehow the unknown road ahead struck a deep fear in me. They might be incredibly steep and stony, for all I knew. I kept on telling myself that I had driven worse than this, and that this was my only chance in a long time to do this. I knew if I turned back, I would always live with a feeling of regret.
About 3 kilometers away from the border, I came onto a lookout. I stopped to take a picture and ended up talking a while with the old man there. His gray hair was wild and unkempt, and he chewed on red betelnut as we talked, but he told me a lot about the village and surrounding areas. He pointed out a mountain in the distance. That’s Myanmar, he said.
I started off for the border checkpoint. The road ahead looked steep again, and I stopped again and almost turned back. No, I told myself. I won’t. Surprisingly, it wasn’t nearly as steep as I thought at first.
I still feel disappointment when I think about what happened next. When I came to the checkpoint, the soldiers came out. I stopped my bike to talk to them and see if I could cross. I was a bit flustered, not having rehearsed what I should say, so I asked, “This road goes to Myanmar, right?” The soldier, looking equally flustered at having to talk with this strange foreigner who came chugging along, said, “Umm you can’t go.”
It was one of those moments where I looked back later and wished I had asked for more clarification. Did he mean the road didn’t lead to Myanmar? Did he mean, I as a foreigner couldn’t get across? Did he realize that I wasn’t going over to stay, but only to hop across to say I was in Myanmar? I still don’t know, and I should have asked, but I am someone who hates to cause a fuss or make a scene, so instead, I swallowed my bitter disappointment and meekly turned around with an odd, heavy feeling in my stomach, even shedding a tear as I left.
The heavy feeling had lifted by the time I got to JaBo. I ate some noodles like a good tourist, and then faced the long drive to Mae Sariang.
About 6 hours later, by the time I crested the bridge over the Yuam River in Mae Sariang, the last of the pink sky behind the mountains was rapidly disappearing into pitch darkness.
I was home. And I had this odd feeling that God had given me a tour package designed especially for me.
*A note of clarification in case you are thinking I am crazy in even attempting to cross the border: in many parts of western and northern Thailand, it is possible to cross over into Myanmar by simply leaving your identification card at the border checkpoint as proof that you will come back. I did this in Saohin with Thai friends the first time I visited. However, I think it is easier for Thai people to do than foreigners.
**Secondly, as I looked at the map later, I noticed that the road doesn’t really seem to connect to other roads within Myanmar, but instead runs along the border, twisting in and out of the border line. It does lead to another village in Thailand, though, eventually. I am still unsure of the exact meaning of the soldier’s words and if I could have crossed if I would have argued my case.
Life is strange nowadays, but strange in a nice twisty kind of way.
It is nice to meet Amy’s mom and dad again when they come to see her and we go together on Monday night to eat dinner at the church so that they can meet our Thai pastor and his delightful family. We eat crabs and talk about jobs and places to visit in Mae Hong Son. Later that evening, I find out that some IGo friends are traveling through on their way to the border and stop in to say hi to them and chat for a while.
The next day we go out to eat again with Amy’s parents. Amy and I need some photos for the IGo newsletter so we take shots in a rice field as the sun goes down. Coming home, I find a nice, jolly toad posing perfectly in front of the house.
Wednesday is quite normal. Amy’s dad goes to Chiang Mai. In the evening, I check out the walking street that is open because of the Aukwa festival that is just starting in Mae Sariang and then go home to enjoy my supper with Amy and her mom.
The next morning, I wake up to a message from Amy, who has gone over to where her mom is staying, “My parents both have Covid.”
I try to shake the sleep from my eyes. Surely, she must be kidding. “I wish,” she replies.
And so begins another Covid whirlwind. Thankfully, the restrictions are not nearly what they were a year ago. Amy and I isolate, but we still leave the house for supplies. Amy brings food to her mom in her rooms and buys a huge box of Covid tests. We make plans and then change them, and make them again and then change them. Finally, Amy and her mom leave on Saturday for Chiang Mai to see a doctor there.
In the meantime, I bake and read and study Karen and play my ocarina and watch the moon rise over the valley and call my mom and watch the ants climb up the papaya tree behind the house and eat pumpkin pie for breakfast since I made two and I am the only one who eats them. Is there something like eating too much pumpkin pie, I wonder?
Isolating can be difficult, but it can also be just what the doctor ordered. Especially when it includes pumpkin pie.
On Sunday, after taking my 4th Covid test, I go to church. This too, is just what the Doctor ordered. We sing worship songs in Thai that were some of the first songs I learned in Thailand and the words cut to my heart and pull tears from an aching part inside of me. Our pastor preaches on Matthew 11:28 and 29, “Come unto me all ye that labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest.” He talks about different kinds of burdens and the need to rest. I feel God speaking to that aching part of my soul again and the words I hear are beautiful.
In the evening, I don my mask and go to see what Aukwa is like by now. Aukwa is a festival celebrating the end of Buddhist Lent, but it is uniquely Mae Sariang. During Aukwa, the streets are lit up with lanterns, hundreds of small shops selling food and other items pop up beside the road, and there are musical competitions, shows and dances, a mini marathon and hundreds of other activities. It is sort of like Yoder Heritage Day at home. But different. Aukwa lasts for about 9 days, with the main activities happening the last three days.
It is colorful and bright and sparkling.
One of my students, Happy, sings in the competition, so I sit on the front steps of the police station beside another student, Achira, and wait for Happy’s song. Achira’s dad has a big bag of peanuts. Here, he says, holding out the bag. Have some.
So, I painstakingly crack open boiled peanuts and munch on them as I wait. Soon they move on, kindly leaving the bag of peanuts with me. An hour later, I see a friend I haven’t seen for over a year. He is with another friend and has moved back to the area after living in Chiang Mai for a year. They sit down and we try to chat for a while over the blare of the singing.
I don’t get home until close to 11. This is a Mae Sariang that I have never seen before. The quiet, sleepy town nestled in the valley has suddenly become a buzz of activity and late-night revelry. Even from my home 3 kilometers away from the city center, I can hear the music throbbing into the wee hours.
The next day I munch on more pumpkin pie before leaving to tutor some students.
I feel rested and at peace. Rest for me isn’t always just flopping down on a bed and doing nothing. Sometimes it means doing something different for a while. Sometimes it means fleeing into the mountains for a time to savor the silence and the cool air. Sometimes it might mean walking aimlessly by yourself through crowds or finding a seat and watching the throngs of people around you. Sometimes it means squatting down and watching ants for a while, or baking something just for fun.
Recently someone asked me what I would say if I were accused of having a “White-Savior” complex. I told them I would reply by saying that I have received much more from Thai people than I have ever given. I have also learned much more from Thai people than I have ever taught them.
I have no way of measuring it, but living in another culture is an education in itself. I have learned hundreds of things over the past 8 years, not even counting the Thai language.
This includes things like learning how to wash dishes Thai style, eating with your spoon and your fork in each hand, cutting things with the knife turned outward (ok, I am not very good at that) and learning the nuances of communication outside of spoken word. (And I am still learning that too).
And then if you count language, I have learned even more. One thing I was reminded of recently when talking with Amy, is how much space language can take up in your brain. We were talking about how we tend to forget some of the simplest English words when speaking Thai. I remember learning about some bilingual theories at Payap from dry Dr. Saber at whose name was horribly mangled by us in both Thai and English. The theories were about bilingual children and whether or not the brain can absorb both languages at once, or if one language is absorbed at the expense of the other, or if you go into modes, like using an English mode and a Thai one.
I can’t remember which theory won out in the end, but if I examine my own brain, I would say that I have several modes. One is English. One is Thai. One is Pennsylvania Dutch. When I am in one mode, it is hard for me to switch to other modes. For example, I might be teaching a low-level English class, so I am speaking Thai. When a student asks me in Thai how to say a certain sentence in English, sometimes my brain freezes and it takes me a bit to think of how to say it in English, if I can think of it at all.
Other times when I am speaking a lot of English, my Thai starts coming out stilted. It seems as if once I am in one mode or the other, it’s hard to immediately switch. This is tremendously exhausting when you are translating for two parties in both languages. More than once, I have caught myself speaking the wrong language to the wrong person.
While I have gained so much and learned so much, a constant battle remains. That battle is to feed myself mentally from quality sources in the English language. I am not talking about a spiritual battle of making sure I get my spiritual food, but more of a battle of reading good literature. Books are scarce here, and although I have a Kindle, I do need to pay for books. Libby doesn’t work for me to borrow books since my home library does not participate. Not only that, coming home tired from a day of school, it takes discipline and energy to read. If I want to learn to write well, I must also feed myself well.
I am hungry. I am hungry to sit in a library surrounded by shelves and shelves of books, books and books. Big fat books with collections of short stories and poems. Books you can touch. I would give almost anything to study at summer term or winter term at Faith Builders and discuss what I am learning with like-minded people. I would love to join in on a book club and attend discussions from knowledgeable people fluent in English. I want to talk about the beautiful things we have read. I love my Thai friends, but our tastes in literature are as far apart as the North and South Pole and few, if any, are fluent enough in English.
But in the meantime, I make do. I read from some high school readers I brought over with me. I find books of poetry on Kindle, some of which are free. I recently discovered Spotify (yes, yes, I am wayyyy behind the times) and discovered that you can listen to poetry on Spotify. I try to follow blogs that stimulate the mind.
This hunger is one reason I like the Curator so much. The Curator is, in their own words, “an organization dedicated to developing a literary conversation with values sourced in the Christian worldview, particularly as Christianity has historically been understood by Anabaptists (but not confined to the Anabaptist community). We want to build a community of writers and readers who inform each other, a culture that recognizes quality and strives to create things of value. Our mission is to provide good content to engage in and to train writers and readers to be able to engage in it.”
I often find myself out of my league here, but I look forward to each Thursday morning when the Curator releases their weekly poem. Not only this, but they also provide the occasional short story or essay, and an annual collection of art, poetry and stories called The Leaf. Last year they had some Zoom seminars, which I actually managed to attend several times, despite the time difference.
Do you have any suggestions for ways to keep my brain mentally stimulated in English, and my mind cultivated when it comes to the arts? Any resources, books, or websites you would suggest? Let me know in the comments!
I love languages. One of the fascinating things I have found about languages is how after a period of time, some languages lapse into your subconsciousness until one day they randomly poke up without being asked to.
I’ve noticed this with both Pennsylvania Dutch and Thai. At first when I move into an English-speaking only environment, my brain is alert. I speak English clearly and choose my vocabulary carefully. After a few weeks, however, my mind becomes relaxed and suddenly a PA Dutch word or a Thai word will pop out in the middle of a sentence, leaving me apologizing to my listener, especially if they cannot speak the language.
I’ve noticed this phenomenon of knowledge diving into my subconsciousness in more than one way. A few weeks ago, I moved back from Thailand on short notice for about 4 and ½ months to wait out the Covid-19 crisis until my university can open again in August. At first driving on the right side of the road was no problem. As I grew more relaxed, however, I found myself struggling with remembering which side of the road to drive, and made several mistakes because of it. Also, the longer I am home, the more I find myself randomly wanting to “wai” people when I greet them or thank them. (The wai is a greeting in Thailand done by pressing your hands together like you are praying and lifting your hands to face level). It’s like you can stuff those languages and habits into your subconsciousness for a certain amount of time until suddenly they come popping out again.
This, I think, is the same way with stories. Coming home, my world changed drastically. Now that I am back in the states, living like a “normal” American, every now and then memories coming rushing at me unexpectedly. It’s as if my brain stores snapshots of life and then in my subconscious moments flashes them across my mind. The longer I am here in the states, the more they pop up. Sometimes I come to myself, realizing that I have been staring out of the window for the past few minutes, halfway across the world. Some of those memories are hard, hard memories. Others are ones I can laugh at. But all of them bring to me the scent of a country that I love.
How do I share those stories? Stories that seem somehow sacred?
Starting last July, I began working as a volunteer translator at the Mueng Chiang Mai Police station helping with communication between foreign tourists or expats and the Thai police. One day a week of volunteering became two days a week, sometimes three or even four. My time there changed my life more than I imagined it ever would and now many of those stories are submerged in my sub-consciousness. Between this, school, and the teaching ministry on the side, the stories are abundant. Eventually, many of them burrow into my mind, becoming a part of me.
I developed friendships with many new people, some of who I admire and respect wholeheartedly, and others who I love but cannot admire because of some of the things they are involved in.
I sat across from a fourteen-year-old girl, asking her to consider not getting married the next month to her fourteen-year-old boyfriend, and instead finish at least two more years of school, which would get her at least into the 4th grade.
I sat with a man who had found his young friend dead in his bedroom of a suspected drug overdose. I listened and translated for him as his voice cracked with grief as he described the details of walking into the room and finding him dead on his bed. I listened as he talked with his friend’s girlfriend on the phone, beside herself with grief.
I communicated with a British man whose brother committed suicide in Thailand, trying to figure out the complicated details of funeral arrangements. The police report gave details of the death, but it was all in Thai. That was the saddest piece of written translation that I ever did.
I went to court. The first time in my life. My job was to translate for a European man who had tried to pickpocket another foreigner in broad daylight, since he was running out of money. I stood on very shaky legs and translated for him as he received his six-month sentence to a Thai prison. I also got warned twice by court police for sitting with my legs crossed.
I translated for a case in which a girl walked into a supermarket and randomly stole a fruit knife, attempting to carry it out with her as she left. The evening was filled with moments of tension, hilarious laughter, and an odd feeling of camaraderie with both her and the officer, as well as the supermarket employees.
I sat across from a fellow American from a state not too far from my own, and listened to him as in obvious shock, he told me how he found his wife lying lifeless in the kitchen. His beautiful 5 year-old daughter watched him uncomprehendingly as he sobbed. Tears flooded my own eyes when one of the older officers at the station put his hand on the American’s shoulder and tried to comfort him in a language he couldn’t understand.
I sat in the waiting room office of the prosecuting attorney with a Canadian hippie and a Russian lady and listened as they quoted poetry and waited for papers that needed to be signed.
I went with an immigration official and a foreigner who was being deported for having possession of marijuana, a grave mistake in the Kingdom of Thailand.
There are so many, many more stories, many that impacted me deeply, and some that I am not at liberty to share. Tears push my eyelids as I think of them. So many small memories, like the coffee that one officer would offer me whenever he saw me. Or the time I accidentally erased the video games off one of my “uncle’s” computer while trying to help him free up space, much to his chagrin. Or the time I joined my friends in their small flat for a delicious meal and a rousing discussion of the latest police news, the same friends who accompanied me to the airport to see me off in March.
These are the stories that God has given me, and yet they are more than stories. I share them, not to boast about my experiences, but because they so much a part of me and who I have become. They are people, lives, friends, souls. Some people I see only once, for a few fleeting minutes or hours. I have failed many times in reaching out to them, but I pray that the presence of Jesus inside of me will give them an awareness of God as they leave.
The pain of loving and losing is intense, but I am richer for it.