Pad Thai Fulbright

Last August I was in Whole Foods. The one near Logan Circle, next to the expensive yoga studio. I tried to eat “healthy” and “consciously” in those days, but somehow I found myself in the frozen food aisle staring at a cardboard box with “Pad Thai” stamped across the front behind some fogged glass. I was going to Thailand in less than 2 months, so I figured I should try some Thai food. And said Thai food might as well be the contents of the first mass produced box behind the industrial freezer door. Actually the second. The box in front had a little dent, and I didn’t like that.

I went home and heated up the Pad Thai in the microwave. When I took it out, steam rose and I burnt my tongue a little bit, but it didn’t taste half bad. And I thought to myself, “Hey, maybe I can eat Thai food. Maybe I can live in Thailand for a year.” It’s a good thing I thought that since the paperwork was already signed and visa received.

This memory hits me hard in the face as I walk through the Sunday market and pick up warm Pad Thai, wrapped in paper held together with a red rubber band from the elderly woman who knows me by heart. I think about the sad deflated noodles and the too perfectly chopped carrot slices that I’ve never seen in Thai Pad Thai, only in microwavable American Pad Thai. Or Pad American. I don’t know. I think of how I will never be able to microwave that meal again and be satisfied. And I feel sad rather than thankful about the delicious meal I’m about to consume.

I put the bundle of noodles in my bike basket alongside some fried dough and an orange smootty. Then I ride along the river, across the main street, past my old house, around the corner with the two scary dogs, through the school back gate, home.

I think about how different I am now from a year ago, yet still the same. People often talk about how the differences they are intangible after living abroad. How they cannot quite put their finger on them, but they just “think” differently. And I think that’s honest. But that’s also frustrating. So on my ride home I think about all the tangible differences.

Now, I can ride my bike with only one hand on the brakes — the left one because the right brake doesn’t work — and eat peanuts, Creme-O’s, or the fried dough currently making it’s way to my mouth with the other hand.

Now, I can drive a motorbike on a busy highway with another passenger on the back. I laugh, thinking about my first ride to school clutching onto my roommate’s waist, much to her discomfort, the whole three minutes to Building 2.

Now, Thai slips and slides off my tongue and out of my mouth naturally, though still coated with a thick, syrupy Midwest American accent. Now, I can accidentally call someone a penis while attempting to ask for a banana.

Now, I can wage war against bedbugs and clean a house until it shines.

Now I can run 13.1 miles fast enough to receive a shiny trophy. Though I think being able to eat while riding my bicycle is far more valuable.

Now, my students tell me their hopes, challenges, and fears. Now, my students call me their teacher and their friend.

I think a lot about how thankful I am for this year as a teacher in Si Satchanalai. How I am scared to leave the happiness and love I have found in this place.

I think about how it could have slipped through my fingers. I remember the meeting in the Career Center when the Man told me that doing a research project about English as a Second Language in Utica, New York “wouldn’t be the best career move.” I wanted to say something back to him, but I bit my tongue. Hard. So hard that it bled with emotion and desire to make this bad career move.

That summer I loved working with students until their faces brightened when they understood something. I loved sharing snacks between English sentences and math problems. Some of the snacks my students introduced me too, I’ve seen in Thailand. But I didn’t recognize them until I felt the familiar rough texture and fishy taste against my tongue.

I think about the professor who served as an advisor to that project. He asked if any of us were interested in the Fulbright Program after we graduated. I think about the advisor who spent hours with me meticulously going over my application essays.

And I think about how not all advice is good advice, but some advice is golden.

Some Fulbright grantees came to Thailand, well prepared and well versed in Thai culture, having been here before or having Thai family members. I wasn’t one of those teachers. I messed up a lot in the beginning. I still mess up a lot. But I needed Thailand. I needed it so badly. Everything was so new. Everything is still so new. And it teaches me. Outside of bicycle eating, I’ve learned that letting go of worry about what others think about me makes me feel free. I’ve learned that I am happiest when I am giving to others. I’ve learned what it feels like to go months without being kissed and then feel your lips crushed against another human’s lips. I’ve learned the ecstasy of finally embracing someone after not seeing them for ages. I’ve learned that love, in all of its forms, knows no linguistic or cultural boundaries. I’ve learned that love is in moments. Sometimes it is lasting and enduring. Sometimes it is fleeting. That’s okay.

Everyday, Thailand is my teacher. My P’s are my teachers. My local friends are my teachers. My fellow Fulbright grantees are my teachers. My students are my teachers. Every class, my students say, “Thank you, Teacher.” Every night and every morning, I think, “Thank you, Thailand.”