IT WAS MIDNIGHT when we got to Bangkok. I was expecting a wall of humidity when we stepped outside to the taxi queue, like opening an oven door. I was expecting some profound moment when I arrived in Thailand, for old memories to stir up from the smell of orchids and motorbike fumes.
Instead, the air was hot, but not aggressively so. The scent of the air was familiar, yes, but not overwhelmingly nostalgic. Not yet.
I told the taxi driver where we were going in a sputter of broken Thai. On the plane, I’d been flicking through an old notebook with a hand-scribbled Thai-English dictionary in the back.
I thought the language would come back easily, but words came out in a jumble to the driver: directions given in broken Thai, with some Korean suffixes slipped on out of habit. My learned languages were all mixed up.
Frustrated, I scanned my notebook and strung together the first Thai sentence that came together in my mind.
“Do you like taxis?” This made the driver laugh.
Six years ago, I moved to Thailand. I was a freshly minted university grad, still sore from a breakup, still disoriented from the gaping freedom that comes from leaving student life.
I reasoned that a new chapter in my life should start in a new place. Somewhere far-flung and exotic.
I scanned ESL sites daily, and took a TEFL course where the students ate lunch together and egged on each others’ wanderlust. One girl had travelled in Thailand and spoke dreamily about it, day after day. I was sold.
I did too little research on health issues, culture shock, or my employer’s credentials. I did a lot of research in the photo essays of National Geographic and fat volumes of travel writing. I pictured myself beatifically bobbing through floating markets, or riding coolly on a motorbike past rice paddies. I pictured myself learning Thai and telling jokes that would make my new local friends laugh and laugh.
Never mind that I couldn’t drive a motorbike, and had never been great at languages. I was keen to become what I pictured a traveler to be: calm, adaptable, confident and fearless. The traits I’d always envied, and could never quite pull off.
Five years ago, I left Thailand, riding out on a wave of expat burnout. The job at a tiny, disorganized language school had been so-so. My expat friends were moving on, to new teaching contracts in China and Singapore. My Thai roommate had been acting distant for months. I later learned she had been siphoning money from me.
I felt the bite of travel envy when backpackers passed through my tiny town, telling stories of treks in Vietnam and galleries in Melbourne. I had wanted to become immersed in the culture, to fall in love with Thailand. Instead, the relationship had its rough patches, and I blamed myself.
Every time I ate cheese sandwiches or cried with homesickness, I felt guilty for not gliding seamlessly into this new experience. I still wasn’t adaptable, confident, or fearless. I was still pretty happy, but didn’t cry when I left. I felt guilty about that, too.
When I first met Nick, my now boyfriend, I told him stories of my time in Thailand. I would still laugh at funny memories, still wince at the uncomfortable bits, at my own wide-eyed naivete. He had always wanted to go.
Last fall, we planned a trip there, to the beaches and the mountains, to my old adopted hometown and my old haunts. Nick grinned at my descriptions of monkey temples and spicy market food, telling me how excited he was.
I felt anxious, wondering how different things were now, a half-decade later. I was wondering if the trip would cement all my fond memories, or stir up the tougher ones.
Days before the flight, I blogged:
When I talk to friends about the trip, I wonder aloud how the place has changed in five years. The truth is, I’m sure I know how it’s changed. The country and my old town are a little more wifi’d, a little more built up; the tourist bubble has expanded a little wider.
The question that gets louder as the trip gets closer is this: In five years, how have I changed?
Our taxi brought us downtown, and we found a not-too-grungy hotel. The next morning, we ate breakfast on plastic stools at a sidewalk foodstall, slurping noodles and drinking pineapple shakes. I chatted with the vendor in still-shaky Thai, and gawked at all the English signs. Were there always so many English signs?
We visited friends of mine, a fun witty couple who, five years ago, took me to concerts and introduced me to whisky stalls. Nick listened patiently as we reminisced about our old town: the characters there, our time there.
One remarked, “you look very happy.”
I started thinking about the last time I’d seen her. Was I happy then? Was I happier now?
It occurred to me then that the more I measured myself, the less fun I had.
It sounds like an obvious parallel, the kind of advice you give an insecure child, but I needed it. It was more fun to look at the past for what it was; to laugh with friends at the good memories and shrug our shoulders at the other ones.
I never did paddle through a floating market, or learn fluent Thai. On this trip, I spent a reclusive afternoon in watching British TV, and ate western bakery treats more than once.
If I still used the measure of the “perfect traveller” that I cooked up back then, I’d still fall short.
Five years later, I’m not too fussed about that.
Have you ever revisited a foreign country where you lived before? Tell us your experience in the comments.