By: Lizzie Reezay
I’ve spent the past two summers teaching English and sharing my faith in Bangkok, Thailand. The experience has transformed me and radically developed the way I understand the Gospel. It has opened my eyes to a different way of thinking and living and being Christian. Thai culture is beautiful. There are a lot of aspects of it that I prefer to America. Being fully immersed in a collectivist way of life for five weeks in 2013 and six weeks this past summer has changed me into someone who lives in peace, is more of a servant, less craving of control, and better at loving people.
At the Christian Center I work at in Thailand, I have best friends and people who feel like brothers and sisters to me. We have all these inside jokes from the Luke reading sessions and from hanging out so much. They know that my favorite food is cucumber, that I love dancing even with no music and that every time we pass something zebra print at the mall, showing it to me will make me feel incredibly excited. Their pictures are decorating my dorm wall, and the details from all our adventures together are treasured in the journals I kept while I was there. In my Bible I’ve written their names next to their favorite verses and the acronym of the Christian Center next to passages that encompass the love I feel from them. I miss them, and I think about them every day.
If you’ve read thus far, thank you. Thank you for caring enough to read, for wanting to understand. I’ve learned since coming back to America that most people in my life don’t put in much effort to understand about Thailand. The organization I do these missions trips through is called Let’s Start Talking and every mission’s team that comes back to America spends a day at their national office in Texas for an end meeting. It’s a half-day we spend processing the trip and preparing us to come home. At this summer’s end meeting, I was shocked when I was told that my family and friends would only want to hear a 30-second response to “How was Thailand?” I spoke out in our group discussion and told the director he was being pessimistic. I knew that my family and friends would be different. They had experienced working in ministry before. My relationships with them have intentional emotional and spiritual depth.
But then it happened. Again. And again. Some people close to me didn’t even ask, “How was Thailand?” Just…nothing. I feel so strongly that these people love me and support me. And I’m not upset or judging that this is recurrent, but it does feel isolating. It’s lonely. I feel misunderstood a lot. I feel like people don’t care enough and sometimes that makes me feel like I don’t belong here.
Last year, coming back to America was emotionally traumatizing. Sobbing at the Bangkok airport. Falling into a slight situational depression starting off my sophomore year at Pepperdine. During that time I felt emotionally numb and cut off from community and from love.
This summer, I was prepared for that to happen again. I was really scared. During some of the last weeks in Thailand, I remember crying myself to sleep thinking about how painful it would be to leave behind my Thai friends and be back in America. I prayed hard that God wouldn’t hurt me with the reverse culture shock again, but that if He needed to I trusted Him. It ended up being okay. The storm never happened. No uncontrollable crying. I was praying a lot, but not falling apart emotionally. No crying throughout the day. No excessive loneliness or shock at being back in an individualistic culture.
This year, I’ve felt the adjustment in a smaller, but more encompassing way. There are moments every day where I hear or see something that makes me feel like I’m on a different wavelength from American culture. When I was flying from my home to Pepperdine, the person sitting next to me on the plane was angry and cursing out loud when our flight was delayed by only 30 minutes. Then, after waiting in an hour line and hearing the flight was delayed for an unknown amount of hours, I remember feeling peaceful and it was confusing to me that people were upset.
But it’s not just strangers I pass by whose reactions confuse me; its my family and closest friends who I feel disconnected from. When one of my friends was helping me with an assignment the other night, she made a comment implying I was wasting her time and that she needed to go to bed. That attitude of someone else's work not being your responsibility is very American. I look at the people around me and I feel this chaos in a lot of their minds— that they’re worrying so much and controlled by their schedules.
The truth is—they don’t understand. They can’t completely understand. They haven’t walked where I've walked and seen what I’ve seen. They haven’t felt the type of love that I’ve felt.
My spirit has been made more gentle and patient through my Thai friend’s love. My eyes have been opened to this exhilarating experience of relying solely on God’s power to bring people to Christ. Doing Let’s Start Talking in Thailand has also been filled with times of exhaustion and fear. It has been uncomfortable, discouraging, and sad. But then there’s the vastness of the global Christian family you experience, when we sing worship songs in Thai at a devotional every morning. Feeling a new definition of love and friendship while sitting at a table for lunch surrounded by friends all speaking Thai, understanding none of the conversation but feeling so connected to all of them.
I feel like there’s this part of my thinking and the way I love and my outlook on the world that has radically shifted. I can never go back to how I was. So I’m left feeling isolated and confused in my own culture. I promise I’m not upset or frustrated. I’m the one who’s different. So this is all me. But, it just feels…strange, being in one culture your whole life and then one day seeing things done so differently. And loving that. And wondering if anyone else notices things feel different to you.