Found in the Middle of Nowhere

Asia, Burma, English Teacher, refugees, Rohingya, Students, Thailand, Uncategorized

“Ahhh! Teacher!! Helloooo!” Absolute chaos erupted the moment I swiped to the right of my incoming Viber call. I usually ignore anonymous Viber calls. Most of the time, it’s just another die-hard Burmese fan who’s trying to ask me if I have a “lover” (No really, I wish I was joking). I had no idea who was on the other end of the phone, but after seeing my phone ringing constantly for 5 minutes, I figured I should probably pick up. A slow, pixelated video showed up on my screen. My heart jumped when I saw their faces appear. It was one of the Rohingya families from the refugee shelter in Thailand.

How in the world did they find my number? They must be calling me from the shelter. They were excitedly trying to tell me something,  but I couldn’t understand amidst the simultaneous yelling of six people on the other end. When things finally settled down, I asked them what they were trying to tell me. “Teacher, America! America!”

Yeah, yeah, yeah. That’s all the kids really talked about at the shelter, so this was nothing new. I figured they just wanted me to tell them about how America is, so I started speaking. Just then, I looked at the video and realized that one of the little boys was wearing a jacket. A snow jacket. That’s definitely not something you wear in Thailand.

“Yasin Zuhar, where are you right now?” I asked, hoping to hear the answer that I dreamed of, but knew I would never hear.

“Teacher! I’m in America!”

Suddenly everything stood still.

“What?”

Then the whole family chimed in and yelled, “Yes, Teacher! In America! Right now!”

So it’s true. The impossible finally became possible. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing, so I just started laughing uncontrollably. Then I started crying. I left this family in Thailand, thinking I would never see them again. The odds of them being relocated to the US out of the 65 million refugees in the world were incredibly slim. The UNHCR officers told me there was no chance I would see them again. It would take years for them to be resettled in the States. And here they are.

I asked them where they were in America.

“Sheboygan, Wisconsin!”

Never been there, but I immediately booked a flight to Milwaukee. I thought I left this family forever only to find that I’ve found them again…in the middle of nowhere…in Sheboygan.

When I knocked on their front door, Yasin Zuhar answered. He was one of the first Rohingya children I met in Thailand, so it was only fitting that he was the one to open the door. He was wearing giant snow pants with a beanie and long-sleeved adidas shirt. Already such an American. 

When he saw me, his eyes lit up and he jumped into my arms. His sisters, brothers, and mother joined and within minutes, we were all reunited.

There were two things I noticed about seeing them for the first time since Thailand. First, their English had improved tremendously. It was amazing to see the progress they’d made since I first met them as shy, fresh-off-the-boat refugees in Thailand.

They could barely speak two words of English and now they are telling me about their new school, their American friends, and how cold snow is on their feet when they try to run outside without their boots (no kidding).

The second thing was the sheer gratitude they showed me. They were so shocked that I would actually come visit them. They called every family member they could contact…this included the mother’s eleven siblings, first cousins, second cousins, aunts, uncles, mother’s sister’s husband’s distant relatives, etc. Contacting all of the relatives took roughly the entire trip’s duration, which spanned over a couple of days. I was shocked at how they were able to stay in contact with so many friends and family, despite their transient lifestyle.

I guess the only thing that they noticed about me was the fact that I had lost some weight since I last saw them. “Oh no, Teacher! Very small! Not good!” So they decided to make it their mission to provide me with food at all hours of the day and night. When I say all hours, I mean all hours. They woke me up at 2:00am and prepared a fully cooked meal for me (after giving me 3 cups of instant coffee to stay awake for the meal). Any time I would finish something, they would prepare a new meal. Not just a snack. A homecooked meal. That was their way of showing their gratitude for me. Apparently they were trying to make up for the hours of English class I gave them in Thailand…in food.

It was a never-ending cycle of food on my plate; absolute heaven for a 15-year-old high school football player. Not so much for me. I reached a point where I wanted to cry because I was so full. So they saw my face and thought, “She must be hungry!” and whipped up some homemade green chicken curry.

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Breakfast at 6am.

They were so excited to show me to their favorite hangout spots, which included Walmart and McDonald’s. They were enamored by the fact that we could visit Walmart at 1:00am; so that’s exactly what we did. The children showed me how they can bike around town to get everywhere. They told me how they aren’t afraid of the police here. They took me door to door and introduced me to the other refugees in the area. They told their story to the neighbors and I instantly became the token English teacher. This also meant I was invited over to all of their homes for a home cooked meal. I felt as though I was in a foreign country…in Sheboygan, Wisconsin.

Towards the end, I sat the kids down and asked them a question I had been wondering for quite some time.

“Are you happy here?”

“Yes, Teacher! Very, very, very happy.”

After over a year of worrying and wondering how they are, it was such a relief to hear those words. Everything I dreamed for these kids is coming true. They are on a path to achieve their goals.

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Thailand, July 2016

The best part is that I can be part of their journey. I can see these kids grow up. I get to be here to watch it all happen…and gain 10 pounds in the process.

I’ve spent most of my life moving around, so I’ve become fairly accustomed to saying goodbye. People come and go in certain chapters of your life. You may not see them ever again, but they were there for you during a time when you needed them. That’s what I’ve always thought and that’s how I’ve always lived. Very rarely does someone from my past come back into my life. I’m still trying to process that these friends who I thought I’d never see again have unexpectedly come back into my life.

And they’re not the only ones. I’ve discovered that more families from that shelter in Thailand have been relocated to the States. It’s my goal in the next couple of months to visit all of them. Teacher Sophie’s “Tour de Rohingya” shall commence all across the United States! I’m so excited to finally have them back in my life again. They’re here to stay and so am I. It’s moments like these when you realize just how truly beautiful and surprising life is.

Around the World in 38 Days

Asia, Burma, English Teacher, Thailand, Travel

I always admired the movie, “Around the World in 80 Days”….mostly because Jackie Chan proves himself to be the studliest Asian that ever existed. But I also loved it because of the idea of traveling around the world. I always wondered what it’d be like to travel all the way around the world. I always wanted to do it just to say that I did it…and now I finally can! When I left Thailand on April 13th, I flew from Phuket to Seoul to Los Angeles to Colorado Springs. When I left Colorado on May 21st, I flew from Denver to New York City to Dubai to Phuket.

Granted, I spent the majority of my time people-watching in airports and trying to keep down the “mouthwatering” airplane cuisine. Since I sat in the emergency exits every time, I had the pleasure of sitting next to not one, not two, but three screaming children. One child even jolted towards the emergency exit and tried opening up the door several times. I only notice after I hear a scream in terror from a mother…a scream so horrific that I thought the world was going to end….then I look to see some toddler trying to pull the emergency exit door. After that, several adults would jump up to grab the kid. This happened a total of 11 times. I counted. Crazy Asian children.

I’m glad the airplane emergency exits aren’t that easy to open. It really would be embarrassing to have my family find out that I died because some toddler opened up the door during my flight and I got sucked out. Glad that didn’t happen. I prefer to leave this world in a more majestic and mighty manner.

I can still say that I made it around the world in 38 days. Woohoo! Making my way up (or should I say “around”) in this world.

So yeah, I guess that’s my big claim to fame. I can pretend that I am now old and experienced in traveling since I’ve done the big round-the-world excursion. The only thing that I realized (well I realized this a long time ago, but it made me realize it even more) was how small the world really is and how many places I want to visit before I die. I’m having a hard time staying put, even in my luxurious spider-infested apartment located in (what I call) “Little Burma.”

I used to think that I’d find my special place somewhere on the other side of the world, immerse myself in the language and culture and “settle down” for a while. But now, all I want to do is get up and go see a new place with new faces and new cultures. But for the moment, I guess I’ll stay put.

One of the greatest “welcome home” presents I’ve received since I came back to Thailand is what any foreigner would get: the typical “Wow! You’re so fat!” comments. This is a shout out to all white people who have ever lived in Asia before: If you’ve ever been called fat by your Asian friends, know that you are not alone!

Ever since I’ve been back, I’ve somehow become the town gossip. All people talk about is how fat I am (they really seem to highlight that), how ugly I look with pimples, and how white my skin is. The white skin part is the only positive part, apparently it makes me 50% more beautiful (yes, there is a formula to beauty, according to the Asians). As for the pimple part, I can’t help it that I’m still getting over this whole puberty thing. And the fat comment thing is just normal. I still haven’t gotten used to the fact that the guys will literally look me up and down, walk around me, and then finally say, “Ohhhh Sophie is so ugly and fat!” Gotta love cultural immersion, eh?

The other day, one of the girls picks up my arm, rubs my arm hair, looks at me and says, “You have very hairy arm. Your skin is pink. Your arm is fat. The same pork.” So that’s been my new nickname around here: Pork Skin. Apparently it’s catching on in the Burmese community, much to my excitement.

I’ve been trying to find ways to avoid being called fat, but there’s no way around it. Every day I get about 10 comments or so. I was even sitting in a meeting and was so thirsty, but I knew if I got up during the meeting, someone would look at me and comment on my weight. But I didn’t care. I was dying of thirst. So I stand up and walk towards the water cooler. Two seconds later, I hear someone say, “Ooooh Sophie! Wa de, no?” (‘Wa de’ means ‘fat’ in Burmese) and then everyone is agrees.

I would really like to find a place to get up and drink water where I’m NOT called fat. But apparently those places are non-existent here.

But you know, that’s just another perk of living with some crazy Burmese people. You never know what’s going to come out of their mouths. Even when my sister came, one of the guys says, “I don’t think you and your sister are related. She is very beautiful and you are very ugly. Why is she beautiful and you ugly?” Yay! The brutally honest words of Asians! Gotta love it.

I just thought I’d address this issue of Asian honesty in case any of you “body conscious” and incredibly insecure people want to come visit. You’ll soon realize that my gap year hasn’t been filled with smiles and laughs and feeling awesome while speaking Burmese. It’s basically a fat middle-schooler’s worst nightmare.

So what have I learned after traveling around the world in 38 days? I could be praised in America for being the “crazy non-conformist 18-year-old who put off college to teach some Burmese kids, ultimately carving their paths for a better future” and I could gain the nickname of “Pork Skin” all in 38 short days.

I guess we’ll just have to wait and find out what other nicknames I’ll be given!

This is Pork Skin signing off. Oink oink.

Let It Go

Uncategorized

I am still debating whether I made the best decision or the worst mistake when I showed my students Frozen. Yes, I did actually expose that movie to the Burmese children. Just like all of us after we first saw Frozen, their lives will never be the same. Can you imagine a life without Frozen? That would be a life without Olaf quotes, a life without the Elsa “Do It Yourself” hair tutorials on Pinterest, a life without the ultimate Tangled vs. Frozen debate.

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But more importantly, it would be a life without the legendary and epic song, “Let It Go.”

Yeah, that’s right. There was a point and time in history when the song, “Let It Go” never actually existed…I’m sure it existed in our minds, but once again, Disney was able to perfectly express everything that we had been feeling…and create the most popular song yet.

I’m not quite sure what it is about “Let It Go” that gets everyone pumped up so much. It’s either the girl power nobody-tells-me-what-to-do message or the catchy chorus, but all I can say is that I have never met a tween who hasn’t fallen in love with the song. Even in a small rural school in Thailand, “Let It Go” was able to work its magic for the kids. Alas, Disney, you’ve done it again!

I didn’t think I’d be that teacher, but I am…I’m the cool teacher. The fun teacher who comes in during lunch to teach kids songs, such as “Let It Go” and “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?” I was even cool enough to choreograph a dance to “Let It Go” for my students, who somehow convinced me to perform with them onstage at my organization’s 14th anniversary. Of course, when I agreed to dance with my students, I didn’t realize that it also meant I was to wear a transparent blue nightgown in front of the entire school. I looked like Wendy (from Peter Pan). Highlight of my career, right there.

“Let It Go” has been a hit song in the school. I hear students sing it everywhere. As I pass through classrooms, I hear them sing it in class. I hear them sing it on the football field. I hear them sing it when playing with their jump ropes. Sometimes they’ll yell it across the football field to catch my attention.

Not only has “Let It Go” haunted me at school, but it seems to have become a theme song during my time in Thailand. After hearing my sister, Jenna, blast that song in the car every time she has a bad day, it has started to grow on me. I can relate to the song in so many ways. Take my motorbike for instance:

When my sister, Bethany, came to visit, I realized that I couldn’t drive her around on my dorky Mr. Bean-like bicycle, so I decided to rent a motorbike. Excited about our new form of freedom, we decided to venture out to the beach. Of course, that is where I accidentally hit on a Burmese guy and now he stalks me every time I go to the beach. That is another story that I covered in my previous blog (check out blog post 120 Days for the full story). Frustrated at my blonde moment, I had to remind myself to just let it go….I’ve accidentally hit on guys before, so it’s not a big deal (although it proved to be a big deal in the future because I go to that beach everyday…and now he’s my official stalker…oh well. Just let it go).

As we get to our motorbike, I realize that I can’t even turn it on. Great. I just rented a new motorbike and I can’t even start it. Of course, there a ton of Thai guys around (always there when I need them!) who were staring at us…probably wondering why two extremely white girls were even attempting to ride a motorbike together. They started laughing at us…luckily it was dark, so nobody could see my blushing red face. Finally, one of the guys steps in and turns it on. I need to establish the fact that he struggled for quite a while to start the motorbike, so it wasn’t just me! I’m not an idiot, don’t worry. As embarrassing as it was, I needed to remember to just let it go.

Intense

Intense “action” shot of the next Evel Knievel.

Then we went out to eat at one of my local restaurants where they all know me. Of course, when we get up to leave, I can’t start the motorbike again. It was starting to get really embarrassing as they all stared at me as my motor would be sooooooo close to turning on and then “blaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah.” Nothing. So I turn to one of the waitresses and ask her to help. She simply walks up and barely twists the starter. And it turns on. I swear, I had been doing that for the past 4 ½ minutes and NOTHING HAD HAPPENED. Everyone looked at me like I was some sort of a stupid white girl…which I guess I am. It’s too bad it happened at the restaurant where I’m a regular. Now they’ll always remember me as the dork who can’t start her own motorbike. Oh well, who cares about what people think about me in Thailand. Just let it go.

Then we went to the market, where we explored, saw some weird things, had some Thai guys hit on us and give us some free drinks, the usual. As we head back to our motorbike, I start to tense up, realizing that I parked right in front of one of the fancier restaurants in town. This fancy restaurant also had several Thai guys standing outside, waiting to greet the customers who came in. I immediately tried to point out which guy would help me start my motorbike because, knowing my luck these days, it was not going to start. As I cautiously get on the bike, I close my eyes as I put my key into the ignition…it starts. “VROOOM!” Ah, the most beautiful sound in the world! It worked! I was so excited, I screamed with joy. And we were off!

We went probably a couple meters until I realized that our motorbike tire was incredibly and unmistakably flat. Great. As if starting it was hard enough, now I can’t even move it after the engine works. Also, I forgot to address my helmet issues as well…I had a broken helmet, so I was unable to adjust it. Therefore, whenever we would drive on the highway (Thai highway…a little different from I-25) the helmet would fly backwards and I would be sitting there, choking from the latch that was attached under my chin. People say that helmets are safe…honestly, I probably had a higher probability of choking to death from my helmet than getting into an accident. Ironic, isn’t it?

Of course, we were nowhere near a petrol station, so I decided to drive on some road until I could brainstorm some solution. Yeah, probably not a good idea to keep driving on the flat tire, but YOLO (did I really just type, “YOLO”?)! I drove on and finally stopped at a store that had several Thai guys sitting outside. Yes. All I need are a couple of guys to see two helpless foreign girls. What could possibly go wrong with that situation? Ok, a lot could go wrong. Definitely. I realized just how stupid I was and how terrible this situation could be. But I didn’t care. Asking for help when one is living overseas is essential, especially in my sort of situations. I showed the guys my flat tire and they pointed to the man in the store. The man comes out to help me, dials a couple numbers in my phone, tells me to sit down and wait, and so we did. This is the part where you’d expect Bethany and me to get kidnapped, taken away somewhere, never to be seen again. But yet again, Thailand seems to pleasantly surprise me. Within a couple of minutes, a man came in a pickup truck. The man in the shop comes outside, points to my motorbike, and the other man gets to work. As I held a flashlight for him, he quickly begins to change the tire.

All Bethany and I could think about is how much these guys are going to try to rip us off. It’s the middle of the night, we’re at some random convenience store, and the mechanic drives to us from his shop to fix our motorbike. Without a doubt, this is a great opportunity for him to take advantage of two foreign girls and take all of our money. After he finished, he turned to me and told me the price. I was shocked. Not only was it cheap, but it was the same price any Thai or Burmese person would pay if they were in my situation. That usually doesn’t happen with foreigners, especially with two foreign girls. It’s refreshing to see people in this country actually treat us like human beings and not try to take advantage of us. So amidst the random issues we had with our motorbike, I was happy to witness a dose of humanity that was shown to us by the Thai men.

Before the motorbike issues.

Before the motorbike issues.

After the motorbike issues.

After the motorbike issues.

Looking back at all the little quirks my rented motorbike had, I realized that it was a great time for me to learn to just let things go. Sure, I might have embarrassed myself in front of dozens of people. I continue to embarrass myself on a daily basis here, whether it’s saying that a guy is super-hot when I want to say that my drink is sweet, or walking into class with my skirt on backwards and blue marker all over my face, I have learned to just let it go.

If you learn anything when living overseas, you will learn that there is so much truth in the saying, let it go. You will seldom be in control of situations. You will always be in a constant state of confusion. You will continually embarrass yourself and stand out amongst the crowd. Your motorbike won’t work. You’ll accidentally flirt with people in a foreign language. Everything will be the opposite of what you planned. Nothing is predictable. Everything is unpredictable.

Big deal. That’s life overseas.

Just let it go.

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