I am writing this from a beautiful terrace overlooking tropical gardens and rice paddies. I’ve spent a day walking around in the sun, smelling the good smells of Southeast Asia–in fact, all my favorite smells, because Southeast Asia is one of my favorite places to be. I love the noise, the people, the bugs, the geckos in my bathroom, the sweat rolling down my back, and taking off my shoes when I go inside. I love the food, especially the unexpected green chili masquerading as a green bean that makes you choke and then cry like a baby. I love Thailand, where I learned a lot about myself, fell in love, and think about all the time.
But I’m in Bali, Indonesia, not Northern Thailand, where I expected to be this week and for the next five weeks. When the Thai army began firing on the Red Shirt protesters who had encamped in central Bangkok, things changed quickly. The university deemed the situation too unstable to take students there, and I didn’t want to disappoint them. I moved an entire program–with 26 students enrolled–to Bali, a place I’d never been to, trusting an organization I’d never worked with. Leaps of faith are pretty typical with me, but this was a big one.
I am asking my students to make that leap, too, and it’s a burden of responsibility that weighs heavily with me. When I travel with students, I’m the person they turn to when things don’t make sense: How did I offend that person? How do I ask for what I need? What is this strange rash? But more often, it’s the effects of culture shock and growing up that become most pronounced for them, and I’ve watched it so many times it’s almost predictable. I’ve seen the cocky, cool kid break down and cry with frustration. I’ve watched whole groups of students turn on a student whose cultural insensitivity was shocking. I’ve seen young men and women blossom into amazing adults who’ve suddenly realized their own capabilities. They are annoying, whiny, pouty, beautiful and magnificent.
I know that things will work out here–Bali is beautiful, and some of the things I love about Thailand are here, too, even the geckos. I will get over the disappointment of not seeing my friends this year, and I will get over the heartbreak of watching Thailand rip itself apart. I will remember, too, that my students, every day, at some level, will be asking themselves “how did I get here?” I may not really know that answer, myself, but I think Bali will tell us.