I am on a train to Chiang Mai. I am finally free. I finally feel like me. We are in 3rd class seats instead of 2nd class sleepers because the guy behind the counter booked our tickets for the wrong month. It’s no bother. I have the wind in my face and the world on my back and nothing seems important now. Outside, the sky is crimson and the air smells like gunpowder mixed with charred leaves. Nothing is comparable to life experienced on a train. A deluge of emotions flood my being–its waves bring me hope, optimism, inspiration. On a train you are going to a place that is beyond your destination. A journey to the forgotten self, a necessary retreat for reflection.
It is here that I will banish any notions that I’ve lived a life of paradise. In Chonburi, I have learned infinite lessons and I would not change this experience for anything. But, I would also never relive it. It is here that I was broken and here that I rebuilt myself. I’ve been cleaning up the pieces of an inner catastrophe for quite some time now.
To have people staring at you as if you were an alien all day and all night, every day and every night, is a disorienting experience. It makes you awkward, unsure of yourself, unable to relax. Some days it is profoundly maddening. Not a day went by in Chonburi that I was not reminded I was an outsider, that I did not belong. Sometimes the attention was overwhelmingly, unequivocally negative, overt and malicious. Sometimes the stares and whispers were subtle and innocent. Just curious people with well-meaning intentions. I noticed them all, however, and could not harmonize with my surroundings because of it. It made me perpetually incomplete and unable to feel like this place was my home.
Here, every action of mine was closely monitored and scrutinized. I could not eat an apple on the beach without someone taking note of it. They would point, gesticulate, shamelessly exclaim “Farang gin apeun!” (“The foreigner is eating an apple!”) A dissonant susurrus constantly played in the background and became the soundtrack to my life. To the people of Chonburi, I was an unknown organism that needed to be closely analyzed and sent to the lab for further inspection. And so I spent five months under a microscope trying to remain invisible. Predictably, my efforts were futile, as there is no way to appear small when one is always under bright lights, always magnified.
As a woman I am quite accustomed to unsolicited male attention. I am no stranger to the creepy grins and verbal harassment that make a female’s fists clench, stomach turn, muscles tense. In Chonburi, not only was I a woman, I was a foreigner. And my skin was three shades too pale to fit in. Not only was I a foreigner, I was a teacher. Respected, admired, and severely judged by the thousands of students, parents, and teachers that constantly surrounded me. Someone was always watching. And I was surprisingly quite susceptible to the heavy gaze of these vigilant eyes. I was not used to this attention and unsure of how to react. Because of this, Chonburi made me hyper-conscious of the way I carried myself, the face I chose to wear. I had to shield myself with thick skin and inviolable confidence. Often vulnerable and uncomfortable, my smile was my only defense. But, in the Land of Smiles, a smile can mean many things and can elicit an array of disparate reactions.
Sometimes a passive smile is an offering of friendship and will ease the tension, bridge the distance. Sometimes a smile is a sign of weakness and timidity–an open invitation for unsavory men to make lascivious pursuits and upset my equilibrium. And sometimes a smile and a friendly ‘Sawadeeka’ are met with a blank, hostile stare–the harshest reaction of them all. I could never know what these people were thinking. Like statues, they remained indifferent–unmoved by my presence and inhuman to me.
In this town, I have felt detached, dejected, unwanted. And though these feelings can be frustrating and disheartening, I think it is important that I have felt them. I think it is crucial to my inner evolution that I have known what it’s like to be a minority. To have no comfort zone, no social circle, no security. To be plucked from the familiar and plopped into the unknown, armed with no aegis but my tenacity, my intuition. An experience I could not have had back home.
As I reflect on my time in Chonburi, I realize that it has been far from ideal. But the challenges I’ve faced and the discomfort I’ve felt remind me of the only important thing I need to remember: I did not come here for a better life, an easy life, a life of paradise. I came here for a new perspective. I came here to be shaken awake from the dream that my life in Atlanta–a perfect, self-sustaining biome of everything and everyone I love–is all there is to know. To be reminded that my reality is not the only reality that exists. To feel so firmly planted and to be willingly uprooted. I have no roots but those which sprout from the seeds of change. And now, with more than two months on the road ahead of me, I have room to grow.