Last week, my mother made the 25-hour plane trip out to Thailand to visit her son, me, after nine months of having only choppy Skype sessions and scattered emails to give her an idea of what I look and act like since having left home last August.
We spent a week together touring beach resorts, temples and being spoiled by host families and Rotarians. Her presence in my new life proved a powerful reminder of who I was nine months ago in America before undergoing the life changing experience of Youth Exchange.
Even before I met her, my mother was received by Thailand in typical hospitable fashion — on the plane to Nakhon, my city, the passenger next to her gave her a mango. Why not? Mangoes are in season now. Although that would have caught me off guard too, months of living in Thailand has set my perspective of what an American would consider “surprising” far from my mother’s and spending a week with her reminded me of all the things I once found astonishing.
Cattle tied up in the median of a highway, for example, is odd, I recalled. A family of four crammed on to a moped that could comfortably fit two is frightening. I forgot that an elderly woman walking the streets with baskets of peanuts hung over her shoulder by a yoke and blind beggars in front of temples was jaw dropping. Fried cockroaches won’t ever be palatable to either of us, but I’m no longer aghast at seeing them at night markets because for months, all of these things have vanished into what is now my ordinary life.
Some things haven’t changed in our mutual perspective, though. The joke I once heard by a Thai man kidding that his wife was Burmese instead of Thai is still as lost on me as it was on my mother. A man I was once introduced to promptly told me that his wife was from Burma. I replied “Oh, how nice, it’s a pleasure to meet you,” wondering if she could understand Thai. The man, then grinning and chuckling, blurted out “No! She is Thai!” before losing it completely. Funny, right? Thai pop culture, we also agree, is as absurd as the Thai wife from Burma joke.
Trivial things aside, I think the most startling surprise my mother was left with was my language. Having only heard me speak once before with my hosts during a Skype occasion months ago, I am sure the nasally, tonal, gibberish that she heard from my mouth upon our first meeting took her aback. My fluency in Thai, too, proved to serve me as usefully as ever since the task of organizing everything from peanut-less food to hotels and tours was up to me. These tasks were much less difficult than I originally thought they’d be and, once completed, reflected the overall success I’ve had this year as an exchange student.
Reflecting upon my year in general it’s hard to forget the early months of slogging clumsily through life with only rudimentary language skills, bungling cultural norms and, although never really despaired, feeling incompetent at every turn. Those less savory memories make my current place at almost complete language fluency and societal adeptness feel earned. Playing the part of tour guide, translator, and one might even say, mother, for my mother reinforced my already existing sense of strength and comfort in my new environment.
Exchange is about confronting steep challenges, struggling with them and eventually conquering them. As I bid my mother goodbye at the airport with “see you soon,” a wry yet legitimate truth, I felt more pride than gloom. The last time I said goodbye to her at an airport was a lifetime ago, in New York, with me sheepishly wearing my Rotary blazer and smiling eagerly. It will indeed be a short time until I am home again and that’s a reality I can embrace since my mother’s visit proved to me that I have come full circle, regretting nothing.
Zak Aldridge is a junior at Milford Central School. To read more from him, visit eightabovetheequator.wordpress.com.