Recently I went with my host mother to travel through a central province of Thailand called Kanchanaburi. Here, I was able to sit among and pet sleeping tigers at a temple that serves as a tiger reserve/zoo.
At a waterfall we visited I sat chatting with a boy from Mumbai as piranha-like fish in the clear blue water nipped at my feet, cleaning them free of charge. The day before we returned home, my host mother and I explored an unassuming vegetable market that flips up its tarp overhangs to let a commuter train pass dangerously between its stalls every 20 minutes. That’s the kind of year it’s been — a year of inexplicable joy, struggle, hilarity and triumph. I am privileged to have caring parents on both sides of the Pacific, unending support from those around me and endless opportunities for adventure. This year has been one too weighty to be able to convey in words. “How was it?” just won’t do as a practical question to ask me because there really is no simple explanation for the life I’ve lead here in Thailand for the past 10 months.
The only quick explanation I can offer for something such as hiking through a shrouded jungle to discover an ancient hill tribe or entering Angkor Wat is “breathtaking,” and even then the idea of compounding profound experiences like those into one word seems inappropriate.
How does one describe the sense of humility one gets when a princess of Thailand smiles directly at you after you bow to her, or the feeling of startled excitement when being investigated by an elephant’s wet trunk for the possibility of a second basket of bananas? Ohe feeling derived from sitting in the street amongst hundreds of people, chanting a Buddhist prayer in unison on Makha Bucha day, the day of Buddha’s first teaching, is one that defies description. You’d have to be present as I was to fully comprehend each such experience, since no single word or phrase seems to do justice to memory.
I could, however, elaborate at great length about the many challenges of exchange, the less glamorous moments that make up the majority of my early memories. My host mother recently reminded me of an instance early on in the year when she’d asked me “where are you going?” to which I responded with “I’m well, thank you.” My language was at a laughably mediocre level at the time and the struggle to communicate was never more irritating and exhausting. Failing to be able to read the Thai gender signs put me in the wrong bathroom once or twice and I can recall a few times when I hit my head in doorways, ignorant of average Thai height. Ten months later, however, my language and social adeptness has become so good that I am often asked if I am a Thai or farang, foreigner.
Despite my actual ethnicity, I feel Thai. I feel that the culmination of all my experiences up to this point in my exchange has created a second Zak, one which is not American but Thai. When my mother came to visit me she remarked, “You are totally in your element here!.” As I was comparing America with Thailand in a lesson I’d taught to English students at my school I caught myself saying “we” when referring to Thais. If it’s only my physical appearance that can’t adapt, I think that nearly all the rest of my being has. Adaptation, albeit a triumph now, is exactly what will make going home so difficult.
The next time someone asks me the question my host mother did so long ago, “where are you going,” the answer will probably be “back home” and thus ends this inexplicable year of youth exchange.
Zak Aldridge is a junior at Milford Central School. To read more from him, visit eightabovetheequator.wordpress.com.