Last August, I stepped out of the airport in Chiang Mai and realized that through all my preparations to study abroad — all the required readings and mandatory pre-departure meetings, vaccinations and State Department registrations, the shopping and the packing—I had forgotten to think about what it would feel like to actually be in Thailand.
The thick, humid night made me feel drunk. Exhausted from 25 sleepless hours of travel, I walked off the plane on autopilot. Past the blushing customs officer who called me “my angel,” through baggage claim, and into a waiting room where a woman from the International Sustainable Development Studies Institute (my study abroad program) greeted me with a necklace of fresh flowers. Woozy and numb, I followed her out of the airport and into the back of a converted red pickup truck with benches welded into the bed.
The woman spoke to the driver. Through the static in my brain I registered that this was what Thai sounded like. As the truck shuddered into motion, the woman told me how to find a bank the next morning, where to buy water, and at what point in the next few days I would be delivered to my host family. I nodded and smiled — and forgot everything she said. She dropped me off at the Mountain View Guesthouse and, alone in my room, I felt the magnitude of this place’s foreignness wash over me.
I sat down on the edge of the bed and admitted to myself for the first time that I was scared.
Throughout my time at Yale, I have attended numerous “orientations” — for classes, for jobs, for campus sexual climate, for leading a student organization. The University takes great care to ensure that its students know how to navigate the many resources and potential pitfalls that accompany the college experience. This is what you need to do to meet your distributional requirements. This is what sexual consent means. This is how to register with the Student Employment Office, or contact your personal librarian, or locate KBT. Yale supplies us with endless maps and teaches us how to read them.
But there is no map for studying abroad. In his essay “Why We Travel,” Pico Iyer writes that travel “whirls you around and turns you upside down, and stands everything you took for granted on its head.” When I first arrived in Thailand, I didn’t know how to cross the street. I didn’t know what any of the food for sale at any of the street carts might be, or how likely or unlikely it was to make me sick. I didn’t know about lèse majesté laws or how to tell if something was expensive.
In an email home, I wrote, “I feel like a giant pair of eyeballs, looking and looking and looking. I wish I could open my eyes wider so that I could take in more at once.”
In Thailand, I was a child again. I showered when my host family told me to (at least twice a day), wore the clothes they instructed me to wear (never skirts when it’s raining), and ate when and what and how much they thought I should (if you don’t eat rice, it doesn’t count as a meal). On weekends, I would pile into the family car with my host parents and sister, not knowing where we were going or how long we’d be gone. I learned to trust that my host family would take care of my needs, which I came to realize were far more basic than I’d ever thought. I let myself float along in the current of their lives, all pretense of steering and navigation abandoned.
While relinquishing control was often frustrating, I found that not having it was, in a way, liberating. Not only did I feel like a child, but I was free to act like one. I asked question after question, like a child, in my child’s vocabulary. My host parents sat with me each evening and helped me with my Thai homework. My naïve mistakes were forgiven. I ate what my host parents chose for me, letting me try foods that I never would have known to sample. “We travel … to become young fools again,” Iyer writes. Disoriented and decontextualized, bumbling and eager, that is just what I was.
In college, we don’t often let ourselves be fools. To apply for internships, to get into seminars, to take on leadership roles in extracurricular activities, we sell ourselves as capable, expert and assured — anything but foolish. There is a lot to be gained from a confident bluff. Faking it ’til you make it can sometimes help you make it. But there is also something lost. You don’t get to ask questions like a child when you have to present yourself as someone who knows how things work. You don’t get to learn like a child, either.
This is one of the unparalleled values of studying abroad. In a foreign country, you can try something new and fail, and try something else new and fail, and try something else new and fail again. And that is okay. Nobody expects anything else from you, because you are a foreigner and don’t know how things work. For Yalies, steeped as we are in expectations of success, this can be freeing. For me, it meant that when a village farmer walked out of the kitchen with a bowl of steamed crickets and offered me one, I said yes, and washed it down with the swig of rice whisky he offered me next. It meant that when my host mother asked me to sing a Thai folk song in front of all of my classmates, I practiced with her every night until the performance. I forgot the words halfway through and she teased me for days afterward.
I became comfortable with these risks, and the more I was willing to risk, the more — in terms of learning, relationships and experience — I stood to gain.
My study abroad program billed itself as an “experiential learning” program, and so my classes were designed to encourage this kind of nurtured risk-taking, prioritizing cultural and interpersonal interactions over classroom learning. In addition to reading about political and environmental challenges faced by people throughout Thailand, we held community meetings in different villages and asked them about their experiences. We lived with them in their houses and worked with them in their fields. If we didn’t play the fool and ask the most basic questions, we didn’t learn anything. There was no textbook to fall back on, no Wikipedia entry. So I learned to inhabit my own cluelessness, to bear my own blundering and laugh at my ineptitude. I stopped trying to tell people about things and learned, instead, how to ask, and how to listen.
While my particular program emphasized this kind of skill, I don’t think you need to study with an experiential learning program to access it. As Iyer says, travel — any travel — puts us in “a heightened state of awareness, in which we are mindful, receptive, undimmed by familiarity and ready to be transformed.” Rather than orientation, travel provides us with the lesson of disorientation.
I’ve had people tell me that they’d love to study abroad but won’t because they can’t imagine giving up a whole semester at Yale. I try to be patient with this perspective. Yale is a unique institution, with incredible resources on offer. It is hard to be away from extracurriculars that you find rewarding and friends that you love. But in comparison to the opportunity for learning and growth that studying abroad offers, one semester at Yale feels insignificant. When you study abroad, you are learning with every cell in your body — because you want to, and you have to. There is no amount of pressure or incentive that can create a parallel situation back in New Haven. As for those extracurriculars, they will be there when you get back. And if those friends of yours are worth loving, they will encourage you to go, support you while you’re gone and welcome you back with all the warmth and enthusiasm they can muster.
That first night in Chiang Mai, I was scared. I was exhausted. I was alone. I was disoriented. But that’s the thing about disorientation. It removes the filter, changes the angle. For the first time, I saw the world through open eyes.
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