Getting sick abroad is the worst. You’re far from home, you can’t read the names of different medicines at the pharmacy, and you have to stay in bed and rest instead of going out and enjoying your new home! If you’re studying abroad in Southeast Asia, though, Thailand is the place to get sick.
I was on the second week of Spring Break when I got sick. I’d just had a weeklong, whirlwind adventure in Bali and had flown to Hanoi, Vietnam, where I met up with some TEANers to explore for the week. I’d had a sore throat since the Songkran Festival a week before, but as soon as I got to Vietnam, it got worse – a lot worse.
My second day in Vietnam, I realized I needed to see a doctor. I opened my mouth to speak and practically nothing came out. I was in a very foreign country where I really didn’t speak the language, and now I couldn’t even try to communicate with anyone because my voice was gone. It was terrifying.
My friend and fellow TEANer Marcus, who lives in Ho Chi Minh City in Southern Vietnam, was with me, and he helped me meet up with one of the graduate students, Sarah, from our program in Chiang Mai. Lucky for me, Sarah was with her mom and a family friend, and they were flying back to Chiang Mai that afternoon.
Sarah and her mom were saints, helping me get on their flight back to Thailand and later navigating the airports, which I wouldn’t have been able to do alone. After traveling by myself the previous week, the comfort of just being around a mom, even if it wasn’t my own, helped me feel better about going back to Chiang Mai and throwing in the towel on my week of gallivanting around Northern Vietnam.
Back in Chiang Mai, life was pretty lonely. Everyone was still on Spring Break for another five or six days, and I worried that on top of being sick, I would be bored, eating every meal alone, or sad about having had to leave Vietnam so early. What I found was actually the opposite.
Our TEAN Resident Director P’Kai had his brother P’Daeng pick me up on Wednesday morning to go to the hospital. He waited the whole hour and a half I was there, drove me to a pharmacy after, and dropped me back at my dorm later in the afternoon. P’Kai texted me later that night, and then a couple times throughout the week to make sure I was doing okay.
In addition to the kindness shown to me by P’Kai and his brother, everywhere I went people I knew were going out of their way to help me. Phon, the owner and cook at our favorite restaurant, Penny’s, made me hot water with lemon and special Chinese soups.
Pii, the waitress at the vegetarian restaurant near our dorm, sent me home with huge to-go containers of ginger tea to reheat and drink throughout the day and wouldn’t let me pay for any of it. One of the Vietnamese exchange students brought me lemons from the market so that I could make hot lemon tea in my room.
I knew I had friends in Chiang Mai, but being sick made me realize I had a lot more than that. Aside from the friends I had made through TEAN and ISEAA, I had created a community for myself in Chiang Mai. My close friends weren’t even in the country, yet I had people every day asking how I was and offering to help me with this or that.
While being sick was a huge bummer, it also showed me what a wonderful life I have created in Chiang Mai, surrounded by kind, compassionate people who have become more to me than my waitress or my security guard, and to whom I’ve become something more, too.
Getting sick made me miss my mom a lot, but it helped me see that I actually have so much “family” here, 8,000 miles from home. It’s crazy that studying abroad and living somewhere for just a few months can change your life like that, but I suppose that’s the beauty of this kind of experience.
We all came to Thailand to grow, learn and find ourselves, to a certain extent, but I’ve found a lot more than myself since moving here. Robert Louis Stevenson wrote, “We are all travelers in the wilderness of this world, and the best we can find in our travels is an honest friend.” I am happy to report that not only have I found honest friends, I have found family.