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My Journey Back to America

It’s taken me a while to be able to open this WordPress app to write about this seemingly un-ending pause in my new life. Even now, I can feel the dull pain of the knife that is this global shut down cutting into the pit of my stomach. It’s so hard to see all the work I had spent the last year doing being ripped away from me. It’s hard to remind myself that it won’t last forever.

Before I go into the episode that caused my last-minute return to America, I’d like to acknowledge how incredibly lucky and fortunate I am at this moment. While things are far from what I’d like them to be, I’m in this comfortable house with loving parents who have supported me through this ordeal. I’m currently unemployed but I still have job prospects. I have a bed and books and plenty of food. The lengths that my parents have gone through to make sure my assimilation back into (quarantined) American life is something I’ll forever be grateful for. I’ll discuss that a bit later, but let’s jump into the stressful last few days in Thailand.

The visa situation in Thailand can be a bit convoluted. As an American citizen, you can enter the country on a 30 day tourist visa. After that, you can either extend your visa for an extra 30-60 days at a Thailand immigration office (but you can only do this once), or you need to leave the country so you can re-enter for another 30 days. After being in Thailand for 30 days, I extended my visa for 30 days, as my plan was to go to Korea in March and Vietnam in April. By May, the school that hired me would have had my work permit. These would solve my tourist visa problems. Of course, the virus thwarted those plans.

Thailand is known for having thousands of foreigners living on tourist visas. There are companies that will drive you to the nearest country so you can walk across the border, turn around, and re-enter Thailand for another 30 days. This turned out to be my next best option. I booked myself a round-trip bus ticket to and from the Myanmar border for about $25 and prepared myself for the 13-hour journey. It’s 5 hours to the border, 3 hours to complete your border run, and 5 more hours back to Chiang Mai.

The morning of this trip, I was comfortably seated on the bus, happily practicing the Thai language. About 30 minutes away from the Myanmar border, I decided to check my Facebook. I happened to scroll through my news feed, only to find posts that Myanmar had suddenly shut its borders down and that visa runs were no longer accepted. I felt my blood run cold and immediately looked around the bus for other foreigners. I could tell that they had just noticed the bad news as well.

I suppose that myself along with the four other foreigners on the bus were in denial. As soon as the bus pulled into the station, we all headed to the border on a red songthaew to see for ourselves. Perhaps the facebook posts were wrong. Maybe we could be exceptions to this shut-down. It was a solemn ride to the border. We were crammed into this small red bus, along with locals, a bike, and two boxes containing live chickens. We all seemed a bit on edge (especially the chickens). The Thai locals even seemed a bit quiet for their normal bustling selves. Of course, as soon as we reached the border, we were quickly turned away. There was nothing else we could do but go back to the bus station and wait for our ride back home.

Chickens and a bike on the back of a crowded Songtheaw

As soon as I got home, I realized that my power had gone out. Exhausted, sweaty, and defeated, I turned around and went to one of my favorite nearby restaurants. I ordered myself a giant Chang beer and tried to figure out what to do next. I e-mailed the U.S. Consulate and Embassy, I searched Facebook and forums to see what the thousands of foreigners that were in my same shoes were going to do, and I prayed there would be a way I could legally stay in Thailand to wait out the virus.

Thankfully, the power came on the next day, but that seemed to be the only good thing that would come. By around 10 a.m., I had received e-mails from the Consulate, telling me that I needed to go back to America ASAP. Through the tears and the multiple phone conversations with my concerned parents, I decided to book a ticket back to America. I was able to get the 3rd to last seat on a plane home for the next day. Within 24 hours, my life in my new home would temporarily cease to exist. I had to scramble to tie up loose ends and pack up everything I owned. I had to say goodbye to friends who were either also going back to their home countries or braving the storm in Thailand. I was heartbroken and scared. However, I was still under the impression that I’d be back in Thailand within a month.

The flight home was surprisingly not bad at all. I arrived at the Chiang Mai airport very early for my flight in case of crowds. Our temperatures were taken both in Chiang Mai and Taipei. After a 24 hour trip, I was back in America. No one checked my temperature or asked me questions in the Houston airport. They just checked my passport and let me back into the country.

For the next 14 days, I would need to be in quarantine. My parents were waiting at the airport in two cars – one for me to drive alone and one for them to drive back home together. In my car, I found water and snacks that were lovingly packed by my parents.

As I followed my parents home, I had to be extra careful to drive on the right side of the road. For the past three months, I’d been driving on the left-hand side! When we got to the house, I was met with an equally humorous and touching sight. My parents, along with the help of some neighbors, had sectioned off a whole portion of the house for my quarantine! There were double-enforced plastic walls blocking off the entryway along with my bedroom and my sister’s bedroom. In this sectioned-off bubble, they had placed a mini-fridge, a microwave, a coffee maker, food, and plenty of whisky.

My little bubble

I spent the next 14 days mostly sleeping and reading. I was just too sad to do much else. As the realization that I may not see Thailand for quite a while sank in, I allowed myself to just feel the hurt. My parents took extra care to cook me food whenever I wanted something, and to make sure I was comfortable. Their actions were not surprising, as their lengths to make sure my sister and I are happy have always been great. However, I will forever be grateful for how they helped me through this.

So now I’m home and out of quarantine. I’m free to go on walks or bike rides, and I’m able to cook and bake. I can drink wine with my parents and hang out with my cat. It seems that I have endless time to do whatever I want. My original plan was to spend most of my time studying Thai and finding some sort of income. Unfortunately, as soon as I open up my Thai books, I feel pangs of sadness. The weight of this situation has taken my motivation away. I will start to look for work, but will quickly be discouraged. While I am in an extremely privileged position, I can’t help but feel out of control.

At this point, all I can do is accept that this is the new normal for a while. The fact that I’m even able to write this shows that I’m getting out of my slump. Hopefully it’ll only go up from here!


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