Losing myself Part 2: Losing & Finding Myself in Bangkok, Thailand

In 2000, I had graduated and completed four years at a wonderfully small Christian college (Gardner-Webb University), full of cherished friends, late-night talks, movie nights with lots of M&M's . . . and, oh, a wonderful education too. 

But they didn't let me stay once I finished my degree, so I was cruelly catapulted into the real world of student loans, work, and living in the dark corner of my parent's unfinished basement. For me, this was a recipe for depression.

My degree, honor society plaques, and good grades weren't the ticket to a career I expected them to be. I don't fault my degree or my education; I really didn't know what I wanted to do and didn't have much experience (other than working at Domino's: "Would you like chicken wings or breadsticks with that?" Once I asked, "Would you like chickensticks or breadwings with that?"). 

That year after college put me flat on my face, desperate and hungry for hope and purpose. I began to live on God's words, eating them up like peanut butter and jelly sandwiches after a long hike. 

After a year of floundering (and starting an anti-depressant--I'm a fan of modern medicine in case you haven't heard me gush about epidurals), I pulled out an application I had stuffed in a drawer a year earlier and submitted to what I felt was God's call to work with the International Mission Board as a two-year journeyman. I would have preferred to go a married woman, but that required a man, and there was no man in sight, so I, at first grudgingly and then excitedly, embraced "the call."

And that's how I ended up in the monster city of Bangkok, Thailand in January 2002 for what would turn into two and a half years of teaching English to adults in the Baptist Student Center and working with a local church.

I remember talking to my youngest sister, who was still in high school then, on the phone when I first moved to Bangkok. As I looked out at the highrise apartments and tangles of power lines crowding this section of the megacity of 8 million people, she asked, "Do you like have electricity there?" I think she pictured me in a different kind of jungle. Later she got to come and spend a Christmas with me there and experience it for herself.

How can I describe the sounds, the smells, the feel of it? Motorcycles, banana-grilling street vendors, sweat, car exhaust, jasmine flower garlands, horns honking, TRAFFIC, mangy street dogs, keyboard-playing beggars, pushcart vendors hawking fried bugs, gold-leaf covered statues, and did I mention the traffic? It was my adventure, and I loved the place from day one. I still do. 

And the people. How a whole nation of people can be almost uniformly friendly is amazing. They are Thailand's true treasure.

But it was hard.

I had been a 24 year old blooming with confidence in my own personality, sense of self, and sense of humor. Suddenly I was unable to communicate even the simplest "turn left here so I can get out of this taxi and get home." I carried my home address in my backpack for weeks to ensure that if I ever got lost, a taxi driver could at least take me home--like a lost puppy.

The Thai language is wonderfully simple in its grammatical structure, but mind-wreckingly difficult in its tones. For example, the word "glai" can mean "near" or "far" depending on the tone. I believe one is a low tone and the other neutral (Thai has five tones). I still can't remember which one is which (kind of how I can't remember the difference between a nickel and a dime). This creates a problem when you're wanting to know if the restaurant you're looking for is near or far. Will I be walking one block in the 90 degree, 100% humidity weather, or eight blocks? Tones matter, you see.

So I sat through conversations and jokes and bus rides understanding and contributing nothing. I wasn't funny. I felt tall, and white, and quiet. My sweet friends would try to translate jokes for me, but by the time they came out in English, I could never really get the point.

Besides the difficulty communicating, the norms for a single girl my age in Thailand were different than I was used to. Suddenly this girl that craved alone time was in a culture where girls hold hands and do everything together. It revealed what a self-centered existence I had been living up until that point.

And most things are just a little more difficult to accomplish in a big city. No, we weren't hauling our own water or driving somewhere for internet access, but it had its challenges. To get to school each teaching day, I took a motorcycle taxi to the top of my street (riding "side-saddle" in my skirt, of course) where I hopped on the sky train. From there I would take another motorcycle taxi or walk to my school building, depending on how sweaty I was willing to get. 

My friend and fellow teacher Arlene tells the story of trying to buy a plunger. She found herself in the middle of a department store, surrounded by puzzled employees, giving her very best plunging impression. We all got very good at charades.

I began to realize that the self that I had come to embrace in my mid-20s just didn't work in Thailand. If I wanted to make relationships and share the love of Jesus with these people, I had to change. I had to joke differently, talk differently, function differently. The first year and a half there felt like a constant rubbing the wrong way. But God began to change me slowly . . . 

And in time, life in Bangkok got easier. Things I found grating in the beginning no longer bothered me. I began to understand how to relate, how to communicate, and how to fit in. 

Looking back I see that the self I loved was much narrower than what God had planned--much more me and a lot less Him. Jesus said, "Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it" (Matthew 10:39).  

Jesus set the ultimate example of losing oneself:
"Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.  Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.  And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Philippians 2:4-8

Jesus didn't cling to His identity as God or the advantages of that position. He was willing to lay all that aside to obey the Father's designs. He "emptied himself" in order to connect with us, and He empowers us to do the same for others.

Life since Bangkok has continued to be a series of big and small losses of myself. There are small losses like seeking to know people without needing for them to know anything about me.

There are bigger losses like when I decided I wanted to be a stay-at-home-mom (SAHM for you internet-savvy people) when my oldest was one. I had enjoyed a short career as an ESL teacher for adult learners, and I felt good at it. I remember taking my daughter, Sarah, to story time at the library with all the other SAHMs and then coming home and whining to my husband, "I'm a stay-at-home-mom!!" 

"I thought you wanted to stay home?" replied my husband, perplexed.

"I do, but it just feels weird!" I lamented. Little did I know that staying at home would open the door to homeschooling (Now who am I??!), this blog, a little home business, a renewed love for art, and a new love for graphic design, not to mention all the joys of so much time with my children and other mommy friends. Dying to one thing gave life to other beautiful things.

As I write this, I realize that I'm back in a Bangkok of sorts. This life as a stay-at-home mom of three now, trying to figure out homeschooling, not much time to myself, and little people who I adore, but who need so much. Some demands are very real, and others are the ones I unnecessarily lay on myself or let other lay on me (no, I haven't sorted all that out). I am disoriented at times, and stretched. I'm still in the "rubbing" stage. The me I have been must change in order to care for these little ones--my current "mission." 

I'm reminded that one day I will look back and see all the adjustments God has made in me, and once again, praise His perfect ways. 

Just a slice of life. Mommas, tell me you've never . . .

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