My first two months living abroad were an exercise in powerlessness. By powerlessness, I mean the feeling of “I don’t know what to do.” Everything around me came with a learning curve. Transportation, food, working the air conditioning…literally all of it took effort. But over time, I mastered them. And then I moved on to the next set of challenges: developing a social life. It took a while. Again, though, I eventually made friends and found a church and braved the masses playing tourist. The last two months I feel like I really hit my swing.
But there are days like today when the last four months rewind and I feel powerless again. When that happens, I’m generally not in a situation where you would expect powerlessness. I did not lose my debit card or miss my bus stop and end up on the outskirts of Bangkok again. I am not battling with hundreds of people to get my visa renewed. No, I feel powerless because all the little things keep adding up and I finally crack.
Little things like:
- My bus to school costs 14 baht instead of 13 baht. And I do not know why. Did it change permanently? Is it because I’m riding on a Thursday? Or because I’m riding ten minutes later than I normally do? Was I just taken advantage of? It is the same distance. The same bus. The same commuters. But some days I’m charged 13 baht and some days 14 and sometimes even 15. And I cannot find the pattern, the rhyme or reason. A tiny thing in the big picture, but then…
- My professor absent-mindedly starts speaking Thai, or shows a slide in Thai, or tells us “since you all took Thai Civil Procedure, I will not spend any time on this part.” But of course I have not taken Thai Civil Procedure. I do not know Thai. I feel like I am missing something critical. Maybe a classmate sees my confused face and leans over to translate. Maybe the professor apologizes and explains to me. Or maybe I am just left in the dark. A little thing, but for a few moments I feel helpless and like I am missing something critical. I feel like a failure for not grasping the subject.
- My school cancels class. Again. Or schedules a make-up class with less than 24 hours notice. Suddenly, I’m scrambling to remember what is going on and where I am supposed to be. Chances are I have a class conflict. Then I’m wondering which course I should attend and if someone will grab notes for me in the other one. I feel like a terrible student but I do not know what to do. I cannot be in two places at once. I haven’t been to Fundamental Rights in 5 weeks. I’m a failure.
- The convenience store lacks whatever I am looking for. I cannot find the pattern for when they carry certain things and when they don’t. Some days the store overflows with food. Some days the shelves look bare. Some days I can find cake; some days they carry Oreos. But then the next month they do not carry either. Such a weird thing to leave me feeling unstable, but I do feel unstable. I am used to stores running out, but I am not used to stores not quickly replenishing their stock when they do. Or, you know, not ever carrying that thing again. Imagine a Wal Greens where the snack options randomly disappear and reappear every few months and only endless rows of dried seaweed and ramen stayed the same. But you have no explanation for why. It just is.
In the big scheme of things, none of these things matter much. An additional class, an extra baht, one less day with chips. But added together, these little moments of powerlessness add up. I cannot find the pattern. I cannot accomplish the thing. Panic sets in. And even though it is just momentary panic, add enough of them together and I feel a bit like a pin ball machine.
Then add extreme heat, humidity, millions of other humans, and taxi drivers with a perchance for charging you triple the actual price and I start thinking nostalgically of the misery that was my schedule last semester.
My friend, Ginnie, sent me a quote from a book she is reading and I love the way it sums up the emotion (albeit of Vietnam, not Thailand specifically):
“Because life in Vietnam is one body-crushing, must-do, crowd-throbbing, mind-heavy, event after another. It takes all my energy just to react.” Listen, Slowly by Thanhha Lai
All my energy just to react. Welcome to life abroad in Asia.