At this point, I am no longer a tourist. Yet I am very, very far from being a local. A lot of people I have met so far have moved on from Chiang Mai to other destinations. As I am trying on this new hat of being a “learned extrovert,” it’s still a constant struggle of feeling isolated and alone.
Traveling is not all sunny beaches and perfectly Instagrammed cups of coffee. As someone traveling long-term, mental health issues have been much more of a factor in my daily life and pushing myself out of my comfort zone is a struggle every single day.
After reading Brene Brown’s The Gifts of Imperfection, and watching her interviews on YouTube, I am very struck by one word: enough. Am I enough? Am I doing enough? Am I skinny enough? Pretty enough? Smart enough? Funny enough?
The other day, I went to the Huay Kaew arboretum to exercise. They have a running track and some stations for strength training, plus it’s beautiful and cool in the shade. I was the absolute only white person there. The arboretum was crowded with Thai people just off work, walking around the track in their polos and khakis or having a picnic with their children. I hadn’t had a real workout in God knows how long and was craving some good old-fashioned cardio and ab work. I started running and realized that I was passing every single person on the track. Even the muscle-bound Thai man with his cut off tank top and serious headphones and the super fit woman in her matching Nike outfit. Every single person was slow and out of breath.
Yet they are all skinny.
And then it hit me. What if I never looked any different than I do at this very moment? What if I never lost that pudge around my midsection? What if my shoulders were always squeezing their way into shirts that otherwise fit nicely? What if my arms always looked like legs and my double chin never went away? What if the absolute only result of exercising and eating healthy was the way I felt and the things my body could do? Would I still pursue it?
I would like to think the answer is yes. That being happy and healthy are enough. That I can be taller and bigger than every single other person here and still be okay with my weight.
Already, I feel like I am not doing enough. I am teaching and living in another country, but that’s it. I feel guilty that I am not taking Thai classes or volunteering or working on another professional aspect of my life. I also feel like I don’t have enough friends, that I’m not outgoing enough or brave enough to go up and talk to people.
I love being alone and doing nothing. I love spending hours listening to a podcast, or playing on my phone, or reading a good book. But I am also anxious every time I give this time to myself. What else should I be doing? I’m in a foreign country with a brand new culture to explore. I should be out finding new restaurants and meeting strangers and exploring the mountains.
In Thai culture, it’s okay to take a breath. It’s okay to spend an entire day at a coffee shop doing nothing but chatting about life. It’s okay that your food doesn’t come out immediately after you order it. It’s okay that every single aspect of your life is not about production or accomplishments. Doesn’t that sound relaxing? It’s not. It adds to my feeling of being ungrateful for this opportunity. It means that not only am I not doing enough, but I’m not enjoying the freedom to do so. I have a long way to go until I feel that I am enough. That going to work, coming home, eating dinner, and laying around is enough. That I don’t need to be writing a Russian novel on the side to feel like I am worth something.
My goal for my Thailand experience is to reach toward a sense of wholeness. I’m not sure exactly what that means, but I want to shift my focus away from my fears and loneliness and anxiety, and toward love and compassion. I have tunnel vision all the time. I pick a goal and don’t stop until it becomes a reality. I had a very bad case of it in preparing for my trip, and now that I’m here, I have to say I am a bit lost. I am searching for another goal, something to go at full steam ahead. This is a very American idea about productivity and accomplishing what you set out to do. The Thai culture has no such sense of urgency. There is certainly pressure on my students to succeed in school and go to a university and become doctors, but the pace of life is so much slower and more relaxed.
I keep saying, “once I get a routine, it will be fine.” I’ll have my job, my exercise, my weekend excursions, my friends, my Thai classes (maybe?), my volunteering and my time to write and work on my own professional development. But I’ve been here for about 6 weeks and I don’t know if a routine is coming my way. True, the semester hasn’t even started, and once it does I will have my regular hours every week with my same students and same number of classes. But then comes Loi Krathong and the craziness of the lantern festival. And then Christmas and New Year’s and then my big English Fun Day project (a play that I have to put on with my students). And then my parents will be visiting and then Song Kran (the Thai New Year water festival) and then the second semester to start the madness all over again. Add in weekend trips and (hopefully) some visits to other countries and I can’t really see a good routine in my future, at least not one that mirrors an American routine. As someone who plans like a maniac, that really scares me.
When will I find time in my schedule to be enough? When will I have the ability to lose the last excess weight that I’ve put on? When will I have time to volunteer and fill my life with some purpose? When will I have time to become fluent in Thai and then see every country in Southeast Asia?
And if I did have time to do all of those things, would that be enough? Is that success? Would I be satisfied or just crave more “enough”? How is it that I moved myself to the other side of the world, I saved my money and became (mostly) financially independent, holding down my first full time job doing (what I consider to be) a very worthwhile position, and I still don’t feel like I am doing enough?
I have basically always known that I wanted to be a writer. And I am still trying to figure out in what capacity I can get paid for that. But, even writing this blog, I have always been scared to share it with people. It is so personal to me, not just what I’m saying, but the quality of my work. My biggest fear has always been someone disagreeing with what I’m saying, or worse: not thinking that I’m a good writer. I was fine with not being the best journalism student, or athlete or PR associate, because I always knew that those things were not my passion. But I have never been okay with being a substandard writer.
In The Gifts of Imperfection, Brown talks about how our biggest fears are associated with our sense of worthiness and the shame of failure and embarrassment. This seems like a fairly straightforward concept, but the more I think about it, the more layers I have unpacked in my own life. So much of our life is driven by fear. The fear of not succeeding, of wasting time, of being a bad friend, coworker, parent, spouse, son/daughter. The fear of change, and the fear of staying the same. It’s a very hard cycle to break. Even though I am face-to-face with my fears in a foreign country, I still struggle to confront them.
No matter where you are, life still happens. I would like to think that I am not running away, but rather running toward something. Toward a wholeness and sense of purpose that I have needed so badly in my life. That even without any family or friends or conveniences of home: I am still enough. I am strong enough and smart enough and capable of success. It’s much easier to say that it is to believe.
Everyone (ladies especially): you are doing enough. Am I doing what I love? Absolutely. Then I am doing enough. My “enoughness” is not tied to any exterior accomplishments. I can sit around on my bed and do nothing on a gorgeous day and not feel guilty about it, because I, as a human being, am enough. This is much easier said than done. In a world where you see perfectly baked s’mores brownies next to an inspirational quote on top of a girl with a 6 pack in a sports bra on Pinterest, it’s easy to say that you’re the one doing it wrong. You’re the “only one” who isn’t working their own tech startup or doing AIDS research, while simultaneously raising three beautiful blondes. Life is not Pinterest. It’s messy and it sucks, but it’s beautifully imperfect and it is more than enough.
3 Comments Add yours
Now I have to read that book you mention! Annie, thanks for your wonderful honest post! As your relative, I want to rush in and remind you of how more than “enough” you are and wipe away all the insecurities and self-doubts. But of course, that’s not how it works! Which is the whole point of your post – you describe the individual, personal challenge (even as it is a universal issue). I’m glad you are allowing yourself the time and space to meet these challenges head-on. (and if you ever need a little reminder of how beautiful you are inside and out, you know who to call!).
Fortunately, you’re not “vacationing” – that is when you need to feel guilty for not getting out and filling every moment with new experiences because your time is limited and you’re there because of the place. And you’re really not “traveling” either, although, traveling is not necessarily “fun” like vacationing – it is fraught with challenges and hardship, which is part of the journey, I guess. Traveling DEFINITELY requires downtime, however. It’s important to balance all the effort (navigating a new culture) with recharge. But you are LIVING – in another culture and country, for sure, -but you need to be true to your sensibility. The beauty of living in another country is that you can take time to travel or vacation, but it’s all very close to where you are living! But you have the luxury of pacing yourself as you need to.
I have never really lived in another country but have always wanted to. But language is such a barrier! I remember how draining it was (when traveling in Asia) to never get past a cursory, 3rd grade level of conversation with anyone! By living there, you’ll either learn the language, or you’ll meet the people who know English so that you can make deeper connections with the people.
And knowing that you are a good writer, I am getting self-conscious about my grammatical errors! Hope this makes sense!
Looking forward to future posts!
love aunt barbara
Hmm, are my comments getting to you, Annie? Just curious! They seem to disappear!
Whoops, I only check WordPress every once in awhile and always forget to approve people’s comments. Thank you so much for taking the time to write such kind words, Aunt Barbara!! Love you so much and would not be where I am today without the amazing support system I have back home!