Our family made the move back to the States a little over four months ago. We’re now back in San Diego. I’ve been working at my old hospital in the ER since late March.
We’ve been living in our house for the same amount of time. I’m often asked if it’s difficult coming back. “How is the transition going?” Apparently, many are familiar with the concept of reverse culture shock.
I hope my response to those interested hasn’t been perceived as arrogant or rude. With all the challenges of living in a different culture for almost 2 years, I’m probably just as surprised by my response: “There was no transition. It’s like we never left.”
Some time ago, I posted a complaint on facebook. It’s something that I do my best not to do given that there’s already enough negativity. We had just purchased a pack of hot dogs, AKA “Chinese Sweet Sausages.” Imagine, if you will, a plastic liner, the same size and shape of a normal American hot dog, filled with sort of homogeneous meat paste. When you open the package of hot dogs, you discover that each dog is individually wrapped in a plastic sleeve. “Interesting,” you think to yourself. You peel off the sleeves. After cooking them, whether they are boiled, sauteed, fried… you sit down and begin to eat. What you first notice actually is what’s absent. That first bite lacks the *pop* that comes from breaking through the outer casing (because there isn’t one). Next, your mouth begins to feel confused because there is no varying texture or “meatiness” to this alleged sausage. Finally, you discover that the salty and spiced flavoring which accompanies the American hot dog has been replaced with an overpowering sweet and monotonous taste that stays with you long after it’s been swallowed.
My narrative may sound a little over the top. It was surprisingly kind of dramatic for me. Up to that point, I wasn’t missing “home” all that much. We had already experience many “lost in translation” moments. Bathtubs without a sufficient hot water source. Ovens with absolutely zero insulation. Mattresses made out of (styro)foam. But this happens, right? All cultures find certain items or customs desirable from other cultures, but reinterpret them in a way more consistent with their culture’s logic. I get it. But these “hot dogs”…. a line had been crossed.
I’m sure that if I took a Kirkland All Beef hot dog to the majority of Thai people and asked
them to compare it with their own, they’d likely stick with their own. We cling to the familiar. Introducing new foods, technologies or customs is never a smooth or easy process. It was the same for our experience trying to teach SRI rice farming in Thailand. Change is slow. But for me, in that moment, something was screaming out, “I want to be home.” I want to be in a place where someone can appreciate the pop, meatiness and flavor of a fine American hot dog. I want to be where people appreciate what I appreciate.
It was just a moment. My resolve to stay in Thailand didn’t break because of this. It was a moment that came and left. More than anything, it became another Thai “lost in translation” artifact that I could laugh about. More than this though, it’s allegorical for why we came back.
Up until the end of November, 2016, we had no plans to leave Thailand. I was completing work on a duck pond at the farm and had many other projects in mind. We
were still very active in our Home Church group that met regularly in our house. And I was involved with a church planting ministry that was breathing new vision into my own life. But then, we had a bad day.
It wasn’t a day worse than any other. In fact, it was probably less bad and more… normal. The cultural transition just never took for us. After talking about some difficulties, I could see that Shannon was steeling herself to keep pressing forward when something did break in me. Shannon had said what we’d both said countless times: “I want to be back home.” I countered, “Maybe we should really ask that question then…”
I was the sanest I’d been regarding this subject. It had been over half a year since our miscarriage and Shannon was pregnant again. Our vehicle had no recent mechanical failures. We had both found our stride in ministry and home schooling. Life was consistent.
So we started asking ourselves, friends and God what to do. Almost immediately, we began to see what was keeping us there: expectation. We were there in service of what we thought God or others expected from us. As we looked back at the motivating factors of many of our decisions, big and small, most were driven by words like should, must or ought to. I used to balk when one of my friends in San Diego would ask us all to seek after our dreams. “That’s crazy talk.” I surmised subconsciously that God didn’t care about our dreams. True confession: I still feel guilty for going to Thailand in pursuit of my own dream to manage a farm.
I started to realize that making life decisions in order to please others, family, friends, whoever, wasn’t just leading me to make poor decisions. It was keeping me bound by guilt and shame and not allowing me to share the gifts I have to offer with the world. Just imagine if, instead of forming the decisions we all make based on what the world expects of us, we began living out of a deep realization of who we really are. All of us, every man, woman and child. Living out an authentic love that we hold for ourselves, others, nature and our creator(s). Each of us individually in the way that only we can. I would love to see that world.
In the spirit of that line of thinking, we decided to come back. We weren’t lacking in finances. Our spirits weren’t broken. And we didn’t feel called to come back either. After surveying the landscape around us, we discovered that most of the friends we’d partnered with really really loved living in Thailand. It made them effective. It gave them life. That hadn’t been our experience. We wanted to live in a place that we loved. Sadly, Ireland was out of our price range, so we came back to San Diego. Just kidding… well, sort of. Maybe someday….
Do I miss Thailand? Of course. I miss motorbike rides in the country. I miss working with the guys on the farm, learning the language, and shopping along the street. I miss the friends we made most of all. But as much as I believe we were supposed to go there, I believe that where we are now is where we’re meant to stay.
It may sound cliche, but one lesson that we learned from our time in Thailand is to be true to ourselves. While taking into consideration the moral code of your family, culture and society, don’t forget who you are. We all have gifts and personalities unique only to ourselves. In this day and age, the word “selfish” has all to often been misunderstood. Making decisions that cause you to become a better you who is more connected to the world around you, being a source of good and light in the midst of the darkness that attempts to swallow us up…that is not selfish. That is the good life.