Well today marks two weeks since I returned from my four month stay in Asia, so I figured a blog post was probably long due. I’m sitting here with what feels like a stone in my stomach because writing about my experiences + my homecoming is actually way harder than I expected it would be. I keep wanting to either gloss over everything with a shiny happy overcoat or paint a dismal grey shadow of gloom, and neither picture would really fully encompass how it feels to be home and to think about all the things I learned. “In conclusion” blog posts are horrible and unfair and should be banned, but somehow everyone expects us to write them anyway.
For those of you who have been wondering, yes I am still alive and yes, I’ve had a good two weeks back in America. I’ve been to the beach and the city, I’ve gone dancing and window shopping, I’ve eaten milkshakes and Chickfila, and I’ve been reconnected with my family and almost all of my friends. I couldn’t have asked for a better fourteen days back in the States.
There’s a quote from F. Scott Fitzgerald that goes:
“It’s a funny thing about coming home. Looks the same, smells the same, feels the same. You’ll realize what’s changed is you.”
When I stepped off the plane in Richmond, I felt this heavy wave crash over me at the thought that everything was so familiar. I knew the shape of the airport. The weak arches of water in the drinking fountains. The smell of burgers at Wendy’s and hot wings at Applebee’s. I got in our family’s minivan and was almost a little stunned at how normal the itchy fabric seats felt, and found it strange how completely un-strange all the scenery was.
I was overwhelmed at how completely ordinary everything felt. Like I’d never been gone at all.
I collapsed into my bed that night and curled up into a ball and slept for hours. Like nothing had ever changed. Like this had been the same room swimming behind my eyelids for the past one hundred and twenty nights.
It completely terrified me. The fact that I could be gone for four months, eight thousand miles away from pine trees and biscuits and everyone I knew and loved, only to come home and find that nothing had changed.
It’s hard to look at yourself and identify the ways you have or haven’t changed in the past few weeks or months. It’s like growing. You go to bed each night and wake up each morning and then find one day that you can reach the top shelf of the kitchen cabinet and that your favorite blue jeans end above your ankles. It couldn’t have happened overnight, and yet you never saw it coming.
I can’t look back at my time in Thailand and identify when I changed or grew or learned things. I do know that it was hard. That God changed me in ways I didn’t fully see until I was back home. But I don’t know how or when that happened. I know that when I first arrived in Asia, I struggled. I was an eighteen-year-old girl in a foreign country where I didn’t know or feel completely loved by anyone. And it hurt to realize how strange that felt.
I guess I’ve spent most of my life taking for granted the fact that people love me. Not only do I have my sisters, who are like smaller, cooler versions of myself that are almost constantly around me, but I have a community of amazing people who just love me. And who show that love in incredible ways. And while that love is an incredible gift, somewhere along the way I had twisted it into a selfish dependence on others. I had grown really comfortable with the way others saw me. Not just as someone smart and talented, but as someone who was important. Someone who stood out. I knew that all my friends loved me, and that people who I hadn’t even met yet probably liked me too based on the things they would have heard about me from others. I never had to worry about making a good first impression, because I already just expected everyone to love me regardless.
My first two weeks in Asia were sobering. I remember sitting in my corner of the office one day and feeling completely overwhelmed with how small I felt. Invisible might be a good word. Insignificant would be another. I was in an environment where I knew no one, and where that fact really didn’t bother anyone else. I mean, people made small talk and were nice to me, but I knew I was the new girl who hadn’t quite settled in yet and found her place there.
It was the first time I had ever felt completely alone. Stressed. Tired. Jet lagged. Lonely. Unimportant. And while I was excited at the chance to spend four months exploring another part of the world and serving God in whatever ways I could, I also felt completely inadequate to the task and lacking in the energy it took to accomplish it. I went to bed at eight or nine every night. I made a friend and watched her leave. It was just so frustratingly hard.
I didn’t really recognize at the time that I was struggling, but I knew that I was losing weight and getting headaches and talking to people back home less and less. I missed my family and friends, but I just never felt like talking to anyone.
The worst thing you can do when you’re feeling lonely is to avoid people. But I was making absolutely zero effort to find friends in Thailand and I wasn’t really keeping in touch with too many of my friends back home either. I felt myself becoming smaller and smaller as I traveled more and met more people and gained deeper insight into what God was doing in Asia.
And then an amazing thing happened. As I shrank, everything else got bigger. I think your prayer life changes when you’re in a stressful situation. I didn’t realize that until my first two months in Thailand. My view of God was just magnified. I started going on afternoon walks with just my camera and no idea what anyone around me was saying. I watched. I took pictures. I was completely moved and broken over songs I’d heard a thousand times and verses I’d known since I was five. I realized that no matter how small and insignificant I am in the grand scheme of life, God cherishes me. I felt my relationship with him expand into something I’d never known. He was my Savior, but He was my Friend. I saw Him provide for me in ways I hadn’t expected. He gave me friends. He gave me a Thailand family. He deepened my relationship with my roommate. He opened the door to ministries and trips I got to be a part of. He showed me how much He loved me through the sweet words of my new friends and the little gifts they unknowingly gave me, like nicknames and inside jokes and the knowledge that I was wanted there.
And somewhere around the end of my second month in Thailand, I suddenly realized: I was happy. Not just “I’m having fun with my friends wearing cute clothes and drinking milkshakes and dancing until midnight” kind of happy. The deep happiness that comes with realizing that I was different from everyone around me, but that we all deeply appreciated and loved each other because we could see God moving in each other’s lives. Here were fifteen people with completely different backgrounds, worldviews, stories, and personalities than me, and I probably never would have met or been friends with any of them in America. But it was beautiful. And I found that I honestly didn’t care about how they all perceived me. I certainly wasn’t the prettiest. I didn’t dress the best for sure. I wasn’t the funny one. Or the witty one. I could never claim to be the smartest and I wasn’t the most talented.
But I was happy. And I knew what it felt like to be completely stripped bare and forced to look upon the ugliness of your own heart. But because of that, I also knew what it was to be covered. Covered in grace; in love; in the knowledge that Christ is enough. I could laugh and tease and go to bed early and skip out on sushi and have long talks in the car and not worry about anything because I knew that nothing I could do would ever add to enough.
I didn’t expect to miss Thailand this much. The night my friends took me to the airport in Chiang Mai, they slipped notes in my bag and attempted to break dance in the international departure lobby and bought me piping hot tea and pressed their faces up to the glass making silly faces until I disappeared. And I feel like I left a part of my heart behind. That doesn’t make me broken, or unhappy in America, or miserable until I return to Thailand, but it does make things different. I left parts of me in Asia that no one will ever know about or see again, and I brought pieces back that I don’t think I’ve fully recognized yet.
There are mornings where I wake up feeling like I want to cry. I just want to go back to that place where I felt so happy and free and where I didn’t feel like I needed to seek after God because He was always right there, wrapped around me. But I’ve realized that happiness doesn’t depend on your circumstances. And I honestly believe that God would have taught me all those same lessons right here in Virginia if He’d chosen to do so. Which means that there are more things for me to learn in the coming months that He didn’t want to show me in Asia.
A friend recently asked if I felt like I’d grown up in Asia. I told him that I wasn’t sure yet. That maybe growing up is a process of growing alone. Thailand was the first time I felt like I had to fully deal with someone alone. Just me and God. It was hard, and it was a mountain that required scaling, but that I climbed without my family and without my friends. And maybe that means I grew up a little. Became one step closer to being an adult.
So yes, it feels good to be home. I love seeing my family and spending time with the people I grew up with and care about deeply. But I also love living in the freedom of knowing who I am to God. I’m special because I’m His. Not because of anything I am or do or think. It feels so good to just rest in that while I wait to see what He’s going to do in my life next.
P.S. Sorry for the longest blog post ever. Truly sorry.