I wrote this about a week and half ago at the end of my travels. I plan to continue my blog as I continue my travels and new experiences. I will also blog occasionally on re-integration and processing lessons and experiences from my travels. Please stay tuned! (And forgive the lack of posts towards the end, I got busy assisting with the conference!)
Many places I’ve been most, if not all, of the workers are not proficient in English. I understand that I can’t and shouldn’t expect everyone to speak my native language–the fact that most the world does to some extent is very lucky. However, communicating food allergies, directions, and other logistics necessary in conducting a conference has been much more challenging in Thailand. Perhaps because they weren’t as heavily influenced by the British…I can’t expect everywhere to be Delhi! (And frankly, as much as I enjoyed it for a few days, I would not the whole world to be Delhi anyway).
Perhaps even more challenging than the Thai has been the conference I’m at on disability policy. I was charged with airport pick up for the students in the masters program on disability policy. This was definitely a challenge for me, as I was waiting at the Bangkok airport–sometimes with a colleague and some days alone–armed with a welcome sign. No indication was provided as to what type of disability the person had.
I realized that shouting out a person’s name is useless if they are deaf, as is waving a sign in front of a blind person. I was unprepared once again for what lay before me. I would have to spot them in the crowd and adapt to my situation, as many of these students have done their whole lives. Then, after meeting up with each one, I had to call the driver who only spoke Thai to let him know he was needed and where to meet.
I also had to go on a quest for table cloths for a banquet. I don’t think I’ve ever mimed the act of putting a cloth on a table so many times. I went to 3 stores–the third finally having one possibility. A bolt of fabric hung out of my reach as I tried to explain to the store associate that I needed 15 tablecloths, 85cm long each. She spoke no English. She cut one and tried to send me to the cashier. I tried explaining 14 more and got one more…and was once again sent to the cashier. I needed 13 more. The message finally was understood, only to lead to more difficulty. She had to communicate that there were not enough centimeters of fabric for 13 more and I had to ask if there was any more bolts of fabric in the back. Between her calculator and my drawing skills (thank goodness I doodled my way through undergrad), I think we came up with a mutual understanding. And we laughed at our charade through the whole process.
Talk about frustrating moments. And, honestly, uncomfortable moments. To be almost completely unable to communicate with those around you is somewhat scary. What if a van driver got lost or didn’t understand where we were trying to go? What if someone had a medical emergency? Luckily, at least we were spared an emergency (I won’t comment on getting lost…).
I don’t speak Thai. I don’t speak American Sign Language. I don’t read braille. I didn’t learn Hindi or Oriya or Nepalese. And more importantly, I’ve come to realize that no matter how much schooling I have, how many countries I live in, or how many new places I visit, I will never be able to speak every language in every corner of the earth. That sounds so obvious when I spell it out like that, but I have a desire to adapt and fit in with my surroundings. I want to learn Thai, sign language, and every other language I have the opportunity, but realistically, I won’t learn every one.
This realization is an acceptance of my limitations.
In a society where children are raised to believe they can accomplish anything, it is actually difficult to come into your own–able to both identify your strengths and assess (or admit) your weaknesses; it is a challenge. In my two weeks at this conference and in my classes with these disabled students, I have learned something that many of them are already highly skilled at–adapting to their situation and capitalizing on their strengths. It is very true as one of my friends in the program said (and I paraphrase) that before this degree program, they were seen for their disability, but they are now recognized for their abilities.
Seeing yourself accurately in your abilities also means accepting and adapting to your limitations–skill-wise, monetary-wise, opportunity-wise or otherwise. I think that in expanding my wings and seeing more of the world, I have come face to face with my limitations. And accepting that is hard. But perhaps it is only when we are confronted with are limitations that we are most challenged to grow. To see ourselves for who we are and to use what we have been uniquely given where we are able to make a difference.
I think in summary that this is my internalization of the mantra think global, act local. I cannot single-handedly learn every language, visit every place, or even cure all of the poverty I’ve seen in my travels. But this journey has taught me more about what I want out of life and why I want it.
Riding camels through the desert I thought to myself, I love every life decision that has led me to this point. And I have no regrets about the decisions I’ve made and actions I’ve taken.
However, I have learned a lot during my travels. Life is a lot harder without a support network in close proximity. Achievements and successes mean less without my family around to share in them. And just because I have the opportunity to do something or the ability, that is not the same as the obligation to take it. I never want to stop traveling or to stop learning, but there are so many people I want to share my experiences with–as in experience it with them. I’ve also realized that there are also many things that though I am confident I could adapt to if I had to, there are somethings I don’t want to do or try and that is okay too.
This summer has been challenging. Definitely not an easy trip, but most things I can handle. I still don’t like squat toilets, but I can deal with it. However, the most difficult part of the summer was not material. There’s a line in the film Sweet Home Alabama which I’ve always related to that articulates the most difficult part of doing what I love. “You can’t have roots and wings, Mel,” the dreamy blue-eyed (you know what I’m talking about, ladies) Josh Lucas says to Reese Witherspoon’s character. But I think that describes my biggest challenge pretty accurately–I can be so restless in one place, but I hate to be far from friends and family. To a certain extent it’s definitely a limitation. I will not be moving to rural Peru to do fieldwork with a tribe anytime soon (though how cool would that be?!)–I couldn’t stand to be that far away from my family for that long or out of contact. And unfortunately, it’s difficult to pursue international politics from Oklahoma or Texas. However, as far as limitations go…what a gift it is to have the desire and opportunity to experience the world, as well as amazing friends and family back home!
If I walk away with only one lesson this summer, I hope it is a deepened appreciation for life. My life-the new friends, friends from home, family, my education, my opportunities…the amazing support network. And also, the lives of others that are different from my own.
I can’t wait for my next adventure…I’m thinking Africa. Who’s with me?!