Year of Videos: Part 2

Two and a half years ago, I had the inspired idea to film one thing every day for a year. It’s actually not that inspired; it’s sort of a trend. But 365 days later, I had captured a really accurate, if not slightly more upbeat portrayal of my life. I took a 6 month break because that stuff gets tiring, but I missed it. There’s a newness to life when you force yourself to find something eternally memorable every day. So, on October 26, 2014, while riding a river boat through one of my favorite places in the world, totally in awe of the gift of Laos and my friends and family and the unpredictability of life, I got out my iphone 5 and started again.

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And here we are. Not a single day was missed, and while it’s likely that many shots look similar to the last video, for me, 27 and a half year old Emily Buikema, it bottles the terrifying, agonizing, exhilarating, promising passage of time. It’s also a sad reminder that my iphone 5 needs an upgrade.

The most precious part of creating these videos is that it has always been so much more about its subjects than about me. The family that makes up my community are the stars of this video. It belongs to them, because they (and my dogs) were the ones that made anything worth filming. And it was all worth filming.
If you were privileged enough to have me shove a camera in your face in the last year, I dedicate this to you, and hope you find your cameo(s) well worth the trouble.

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Diaries of a burglar

The answer to the question “What’s life in Laos like?” is long and robust, which is what you get for asking me to describe my life with a nice, neat answer.

“It’s good.”

True.

“It’s exciting.”

True.

“It’s fun.”

True.

“It’s an adventure.”

True.

But there’s more.

About a week ago, Lauren and I left for the afternoon while our house-help (hereafter referred to as the mae ban) stayed behind to do her job with excellence (it feels important that I add that detail because she takes away the dirt and dog hair, and for that, I owe her this sentence). We knew upon leaving that she didn’t have a key to lock our gate because our old lock was cut off by someone else who had lost their key, and we hadn’t given her a copy of the new one. Thus, we had no choice but to leave the protection of the yard up to the dogs and our reputation of being safety conscious foreigners.

“Do you think she’ll worry about not being able to lock the gate?” Lauren and I asked to ourselves and each other.

“Nooooo. She doesn’t have a choice but to leave it unlocked. It’ll be fine.”

After several hours spent in a team meeting and dinner, we arrived home to find she had magically locked the gate. Baffled, I got off my bike and wiggled the key into the lock and twisted it in every direction. Still locked, I tried a different key with no luck. Several more keys and one redhead hoisted over our wall later, we discovered that the mae ban had found a spare lock and key and secured the gate so well that its own tenants couldn’t get in. Shame on us for assuming she’d leave the gate open!

We called several friends to see if they had bolt cutters, and no one did because we don’t really cut bolts in Laos. It was rounding 11 P.M, so we were short on options. Finally, we had the idea to drive to the bike mechanic on the corner who we ALWAYS take weird stuff from. Rolling up to the shop with our friend, Christa, we saw a group of younger people drinking beer and gawking at the two white girls who just pulled up on a bike to…drink with them?

“No. We don’t want to drink. But…” we explained the problem to them, and after offering a million sort of helpful suggestions, we’re like “we just want some bolt cutters.” Of course, the owner of the bike shop, they said, was gone, and they had no access to tools. Shoot. We then turned our attention toward another group of people across the street, similarly drinking beer and enjoying each other’s company. I realized I know these people, and the place I know them from is the bike shop. The place the owner went was literally 20 feet away, but 20 feet may seem like a mile when your vision and judgment are impaired by Beerlao?

“We need something to cut the lock,” we said to the shop owner after crossing the street. As helpful as ever, he and his wife opened the shop to start rummaging through their tools looking for something and ultimately gave me a hammer and a screwdriver. They pantomimed using the hammer to pound the lock open. Not satisfied with this option, Christa mimed back using bolt cutters, and after another minute of rummaging, we were shown a four foot long set of shrub clippers.

“I’ll take the hammer. I’m strong,” I said.

“Yes, yes. Very strong!” they all assented.

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The lone picture from my days as a robber.

When we got home, Lauren saw the hammer and correctly guessed what I was about to pantomime for the last time. But as I placed the screwdriver into position and lifted the hammer up, we realized its trajectory was blocked by a handle and a pillar, so that I had only a foot of room to swing. It was time to show Laos what Emily Buikema was made of. Crappy swings, that’s what. Lauren tried from the other side. I tried. I cussed. We laughed.

After continual failed attempts, I spoke, panting. “I think (bang) we should just (bang) leave the bikes (bang) out here tonight, because (bang) my arm is getting (bang…click) Oh my gosh! Guys! We got it! We…we got it! WE GOT IT!!!!”

We cheered and applauded, Lauren and I hugged, and I threw the lock deep into the meadowy weeds, never to be busted open again. I slept well that night, not only because I physically exerted myself, but because our mae ban refused to leave our house vulnerable, even at the expense of our convenience. We gave her a new key today.

So what is life in Laos like? It’s good. It’s fun. It’s exciting. It’s an adventure. It’s being locked out of your own house, then breaking in over the wall, then enlisting the help of some teenagers and mechanics to lend you stuff I’m sure they’ve never lent anyone else. It’s feeling so cared for by people who don’t need to care about you or your gate. It’s pantomiming, always pantomiming. And way more work than it feels like it’s worth sometimes. But when that lock unlocks, you feel the stupidest sense of triumph that could only be felt here, you hug and high-five each other, and you mentally catalog this memorable moment under, “Things that made me feel awesome,” and next to a little asterisk in your brain, you write “Laos.”

The blog I never wanted to write…

Every night, I pray for a husband. I’m beyond reluctant to start a blog with those words. Reluctant because this instantly categorizes me as someone I’ve never wanted to be—someone who, like, actually wants to be married. And now, I’m going public with it. #shamed I’m also reluctant to write because, oh my gosh world, enough with the “Beautiful Perspective on Singleness and Womanhood” posts and articles. I get that you want to share your wisdom with us and be vulnerable, but what do you have to say that I haven’t already heard?

What do I have to say that you haven’t already heard?

Nothing.

Every tip has grown repetitive, every verse, cliché, and every woman, left longing. All this talk of singleness has permeated our/my life and made me/us forget what defines me/us. We’re being worn out by marriage before we even go on a first date. So what do I have to say about being single? Nothing.

Stop being single and start being women.

Women shouldn’t find their identity in their relationship status according to Facebook. We shouldn’t let culture convince us so easily that we deserve love when God’s Word tells us we deserve death; nor should we believe the best is yet to come in this life when we know God is as good today as he is ever going to be. God is not withholding. He is simply (and confusingly) good.

I’ve been asked if I’m afraid I won’t get married as long as I live in Laos.

Yes.

Eligible bachelors in Laos are like an endangered species that can’t thrive in extreme weather conditions—but darnett if we don’t try to make it more habitable. So yes, I’ve worried about the how and the when and the where, and that is why this text is an open letter to myself. But what I fear more than a life of being awesome at Solitaire is a life lived safely in the arms of someone who was not meant to save me. That privilege and burden belongs to Christ alone. He was meant to bear it; we were meant to offer it to him.

One of the endangered bachelors of Laos.

One of the endangered bachelors of Laos.

No respectable woman is looking for a man to rescue her and jumpstart her life. No man worthy of that woman is looking for a damsel in distress. Every relationship I admire is made up of people who are honored to labor alongside one another because they’ve witnessed each other’s gifts in action. May we be worthy of the man of our dreams, even while he is still just a dream.

My nightly prayer doesn’t end with “Aaaaaand I want a husband. Amen” It is filled with utterances that desire to understand what I’ve just said. I long to be brave, rooted, gentle, loving, and balanced. I long to practice being a Godly woman, and trust that will carry over into being a Godly wife. I pray, even now, that I might make sacrifices for the Kingdom, but that I would never sacrifice the life God would call me to in order to preserve the mere hope of wedded bliss.

Dear women, dear Emily of the future, be women of God. Wait for no man, but wait on the Lord. Follow his call, to law school, med school, to crap paying jobs with awesome missions, to the ends of the earth, and maybe, just maybe, into covenant with someone who wants to go there with you.

When the Going Got Tough

I first came to Laos as a permanent resident on August 26, 2012. Two years seems like nothing when I think about it. I was in high school for twice that long. Spent three times as long getting my college degrees. I’ve been alive for 13 times as long as I’ve lived here. Laos is a drop in the bucket of my life, chronologically speaking. Chronologically speaking.            

I remember parts of who I was before I came here, who the previous 24 years of my life made me to be. I remember how I always had to sleep with a flat sheet, never had gas in my truck, and wore flip-flops in the snow like any true Colorado girl. I could not be in the presence of an insect, no matter the size, and had no emotions regarding the words “air conditioning.”

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Baby Emily, pre Laos. Not knowing nothing, including how to hold a baby

Then there are things that I can only remember a glimpse of through journal entries or others’ stories. Even then, it’s hard to connect to that person. So I mean, what happened? What has transpired in the last 2 years that not only has changed who I am, but has made it hard to remember who I used to be? Laos. Laos, like a new lover, came into my life and turned it upside down. It changed the way I think, what I think about, how I act, what I care about, and everything. Then, like an ex lover, it chewed me up, spit me out, and left me for someone else to deal with.

Life is hard, am I right?

Oh wait, that’s something I remember about the old me. I refused to admit that life could be difficult, or have periods of intense struggle. Poor, sweet, naïve, baby Emily.

While Laos may make up so little of my life in years, it has blessed me with what America tried, but never fully could give—struggle. Yes, I am very consciously, painfully, at times even regrettably aware of my use of the word “blessed.” I don’t feel blessed. Not today. Not really yesterday or the day before, or the week before, or the months before I left for summer in America (which ruled). I haven’t felt blessed by Laos for a long time.

I feel tired, and confused, and so discouraged that after all this time—the rest, the counseling, the prayers—I still struggle to find joy in my daily life. There are moments, when I’m doubled over crying from laughter at our team Madlibs, or when I see a long forgotten acquaintance at school, that move me forward. But joy and peace sometimes feel like that old me that I can’t remember anymore, and that hurts.

         Maybe, you’re thinking, it’s just time to be done with Laos. You’ve done enough. And you would give me a long and understanding hug. And if we were good enough friends, I would melt into your arms and moisten your shoulder with my tears. If anyone reads this and is within hugging distance of me, I’d love a hug like that. Like every day. But in the safety of your embrace, I would know that leaving wasn’t the answer.

Laos Emily, looking like she knows everything.

Laos Emily, looking like she knows everything.

Suffering is good. It is also promised. It gives birth to strength and endurance, and even joy. To run from it would be to run from the blessing that I spoke of earlier. I don’t feel blessed. But I know that I am, because the Word of God says so. I am blessed to encounter various trials, because I know that the testing of my faith produces steadfastness. And if steadfastness has is full effect, I will lack in nothing (James 1:2-4). I don’t want to leave that blessing for the temporal delights of this world.

Two years ago, my world changed. It became real and difficult. It also became rewarding and so, so full. But I write to you today from the former perspective. I’m writing to tell you, and myself, that I’m grateful for this place because it’s taught me to suffer. It’s taught me to pray like I’ve never prayed before, and to kill bugs with my bare hands (just did it, not even kidding).

One thing I remember about the old Emily: she couldn’t wait to be in Laos. She loved it so much. I’ve forgotten her too often and disappointed her probably a lot. I hope I can both honor her and arm her for the future, let her know that it’s ok to feel discouraged, and throw a spider at her just to see her scream.

Year in Review (about 5 weeks after I actually wrote it)

It appears that we have arrived at the end of another year. I have no idea when that happened. Somewhere in-between the moving, unpacking, repacking and removing and reunpacking, I imagine. But here I am, with noting left to teach and a to-do list that feels increasingly more American (like “buy cute shoes this time” and “see a doctor about the rash”). Part of my to-do list, while not listed, is reflecting on this year, and what the heck just happened in the last 10 months. I mean…what just happened?

If you had told me a year ago that I’d have seen and done what I have seen and done, I would have soberly responded with a, “So I didn’t make it to year three?” But here I am, in my new house, with what feels like a new life, and I want to remember this year. Some terrible things happened, some wonderful things happened, some things that I can’t quite list just yet happened, and here we are. This blog is more for myself than it is for the casual passerby, of which there are very few, anyway. And if I were writing a blog to myself, I know that I would want it filled with neither universal nor personal truths, but memories. And so:

The things that I will remember when I look back on this year

1. Team. Every person dreams of working with a, well, dream team. Every person also hears horror stories of how their overseas team drove them to insanity and a premature throwing in of the towel. My team was the opposite. I don’t think I’d be coming back if it weren’t for them. Also, we were so much in love that they sent a film maker here to make a promo video about us. That’s love.
2. Finding out a plane carrying our friends, Joel and Angelin, had crashed in Pakse. I will never forget a Lao friend of ours showing up unannounced in the pouring rain (very un-Lao) and trying to explain what happened. I kept thinking my Lao is good enough to understand this, but it can’t be right. The following hours were covered in prayer, tears, hugs, and I love you’s, as our team agonizingly sought out accurate information and someone who knew what was going on. I will never forget sitting around our kitchen table, with nothing to do but pray and weep. It was heartbreakingly beautiful, and has forever changed my life.
3. Singing at Joel and Angelin’s funeral. My teammate, Julia, said she had a song she thought would be appropriate to play, called “Glorious Ruins”. After bawling when I heard it and knowing it was the perfect song, we performed it for the hundreds of mourners and officials coming to pay their respects, and shaky voice be darned, it was one of my life’s greatest honors to sing peace and hope over a largely hopeless crowd. I will treasure that moment and that song always.
4. Finding our new house. At one of our lowest times of the year, Lauren and I began desperately asking for a perfect house. We’d say things like, we know there isn’t a perfect house, especially in Laos. But then, one day, we were shown the most perfect house either of us could have imagined, and drove off with tears in our eyes at how amazing it was. Now I am sitting on the couch in the very same house, and could still easily tear up at how amazing a blessing this place is.

The whole gang

The whole gang

5. Singing karaoke on a boat at Fall Retreat. Karaoke is a favorite Lao past time, and doing so on a boat is even more so. At our first team event this year, we did just that, and it was one of those moments where you realized you are a part of something awesome, and that “Getting Jiggy Wit It” is a way better song than it gets credit for.
6. Christmas. I was so sad thinking about what Christmas would be like away from snow and mountains and material possessions that I still daydream about. But this year, Christmas held up. We sang carols with students, ate cinnamon rolls, watched Christmas movies, exchanged gifts, had stockings, sang the hallelujah chorus at midnight, saw Santa Claus in his pajamas, had cold weather, and I even got my annual beanie baby hanging out of my stocking, courtesy of Kenton. To top it off, I had absolutely no voice but couldn’t stop talking because, I mean, it was Christmas! It was awesome.
7. Hosting my parents. It was so cool to let them see what my life is like here, and they got to spend time with all the people I love most. We traveled to Vang Vieng, had a Q and A with my students, ate some traditional Lao food, (they) tried Beer Lao, and got a homemade meal courtesy of my Lao twin, Malavan. Best of all, they actually enjoyed it. It was awesome.
8. Riding and swimming with elephants in Luang Prabang. The video of Noah getting thrown off the elephant will never get old to me.
9. Getting matching tattoos with teammates in Chiang Mai. My students like to say, “Now you have Vientiane in your heart forever.” Yep. FYI, the tattoo is the coordinates of Vientiane in ancient Lao script, so that’s why they say that ☺
10. Spending the weekend with all of the girls from Savanakhet and having them stay at our house. One of my favorite memories was when we were all sprawled out on the bed talking about Christa having a boyfriend because we were all excited that there was even the tiniest bit of gossip in our world.
11. Sending our president an email saying why he should send someone to Laos to make a promo video about how much our team loves each other, and him responding with, “I think the idea may be gaining some traction over here.” 3 months later, I was sitting in front of a camera, being interviewed on what makes my team so great. I may consider this the greatest accomplishment of my life, and I’m dying to see the finished product!
12. My Lao tutoring time. Every Tuesday and Friday, my student would come teach me in our office. Many times, our sessions were interrupted/brightened by Matt (country director) asking questions like “How do you say ‘that exploding fart was memorable?’” which were usually met with laughter and rabbit trails from me, and an “Oh Matthew,” from my student.

Kenton <3

Kenton ❤

13. The time I was reading miscellaneous facts during a team meeting, and I kept reading “the Unicorn is the national anthem of Scotland,” which received a bunch of what’s??? I read it over and over and got frustrated at the lack of good English in the list, as everyone knows that the “t” in “the Unicorn” should be capitalized. After reading it a 4th or 5th time, I finally realized it said, “the unicorn is the national animal of Scotland.” Without missing a beat, Kenton was up on his feet, saluting some unseen flag, singing the words “Oh Unicorn, Oh Unicorn, how lovely is your one horn.” It has since been written into a complete song, with accompanying history of the unicorn and its relation to Scotland. This is what we will be losing in Kenton.
14. Working with a group of younger, at-risk girls who were content to just sing songs together and ask if my tattoos were actually permanent, or did I draw them on every morning? They were consistently the high of my week, and I can’t wait to get back to them!

Emily, if you have just read this and are at once teary eyed with a wildly wide range of emotions, then you have remembered this year well. Because, as evidenced by this list, there was great joy, laughter, and promise, but it came in the wake of great sorrow and solemnity. You were cranky in the heat, but blissful in the cold. Your dogs got neutered after they spent a week howling for a dog in heat, whose collar teasingly read, “love me”, you found Ban Gai, you finally saw Angkor Wat, you watched your students nearly sweep the talent show with their singing, acting, and speaking, and you learned what true road rage is. The only thing I hope you remember more than these things are the people you went through them with. They were the best.

My year in videos

About a year ago, I had an inspired, albeit rare idea. I was going to film one thing, every single day for a year. Just under a week ago, I accomplished that goal, turned off the daily reminder to “Record” on my phone, and looked back at what happened. Maybe I’m lucky, or maybe I’m intuitive, but I just captured the greatest year of my life.

In the past year, which spans all but 2 days of my 25th year and the first 2 of my 26th, I have put my feet in the Pacific Ocean from 2 continents, bathed with elephants, driven 8000 kilometers on my motorbike, gotten my first tattoo (or 2), skipped rocks on mountain lakes, seas, and rivers, and thrown what was most certainly the first and greatest Kentucky Derby Party in Laos.

I felt the sorrow and ache and shock of death for the first time. I attended and sang at my very first funeral, grieved for those I love, and saw that death is just one more opportunity to talk about Life.

I was unbearably hot and unseasonably cold. I taught English and studied Lao. I found Mexican food in Laos. I constantly had to throw videos out because I was laughing so hard I was shaking. I recorded boring stuff because sometimes I was bored and recorded my dogs because they are cute. I lived my life. And I caught it on camera.

Days of Note:
May 1: The epic Derby Party.
May 15: The only day missing from the video. It was the hottest day of the year, the day I came down with a sinus infection, and the day my dog died. So yeah…I forgot.
July 12: The day I arrived back in America.
September 19: The day I arrived back in Laos.
October 16: The day our friends, Joel and Angelin, died in a place crash. The video was filmed mere moments before we got the news.
January 16: The day my parents came to Laos.
April 15: My 26th birthday.

Also, this was filmed entirely on an iPhone. And it shows. I also thought I chose really cool songs that no one would know, but I’m pretty sure I chose the homemade music video song of the year.

Eggs

If you’ve ever studied the Lao language, then you have most assuredly found an enemy in classifiers. If you have never studied Lao, you may be interested to know that classifiers are in no way important to communicating clearly, and I refuse to believe otherwise because it would mean I have to start using them. They’re basically just a way to differentiate between different objects, which you’d think would already be accomplished by using the correct word to identify what the object is. Are you annoyed/confused? Good.

Recently, I made a visit to our regular market to buy some food so I could watch Lauren cook it. When I went to order the eggs, I was greeted by one of Lao’s token grandmas who always lean between thinking I’m cute and an idiot. I told her I wanted 6 eggs. She just stared at me and chewed harder on her beetle nut. “I want 6 eggs pleeeeeeease?” More chewing. Desperate for my dinner, I told her I wanted 6 eggs but included a classifier at the end with a cocked head to mirror her confusion. Well that did it. “Ohhhh you want 6 eggs (plus the correct classifier, which I hadn’t used)”. What else could I have wanted? The following conversation ensued:

Her: “You used the wrong classifier”
Me: “Oh. I always forget” and always remember to try not to remember to use them.
Her: Slowly says the classifier.
Me: Slowly say the classifier wrong.
Her: Repeat
Me: Repeat
Her: “Do you speak Lao?”
Me: “Yes!!! I just asked you for 6 eggs like 10 times!”
Her: “Well you said it wrong. You should practice.”
Me: “Yes ma’am.”
Her: “If you don’t practice every day, you will not get better.”
Me: “I’m practicing now.”
Her: “Do you have time?”
Me: “Now? I’m kind of hungry.”
Her: “Come with me.”

The next thing I know, I am being paraded through the market and shown every fruit and vegetable that I’ve studied in the last year and a half. By that time, both patrons and merchants alike are telling me what stuff is, stuff I learned in my 3rd week of Lao classes. Annoyed with their pitiful opinions of my language skills, I started saying the words before they could. Soon, I was just pointing to everything I saw and saying its name, getting more excited with each perfectly pronounced tone, dancing in a circle around the aisles like the star that I truly am! When I finished, I gave them a look that said, “See? Told you I spoke Lao.” Yeah, well then they started laughing.

Again, if you’ve ever studied Lao, you know that there are 6 tones, which are a foe far greater than any classifier. If you haven’t studied Lao, tones are the worst, but sort of hugely important to make any sense at all. In my pronunciation of Lao’s most exotic produce, I called “potatoes” “gum”, mistook “lettuce” for the word “smart”, and also said something crass about the mushrooms (the most provocative fungi). And I mean what the heck, man? Is Lao really that hard? Am I so bad after a year and a half of living here that I can’t buy food without the help of 15 people (which has happened on multiple occasions)?!

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Yes. Sadly, so sadly, my Lao will never be where I want it. But more importantly, it will never be where my Lao Grandma, or my next-door neighbor, or my language tutor, or my students want it. However, not once during my procession through the store was there a frustrated face. There was joy, and maybe a smug smile or two after I failed at turning the market into a scene from The Sound of Music: Southeast Asia. Their laughter was out of encouragement, not embarrassment (unless there are a set of tones that distinguish kinds of laughter…there might be). And their desire for me to speak Lao was nothing more than a desire for me to succeed at buying eggs the next time I go to the market.
When I finally made my escape, the woman grabbed my arm and said, “You must practice with me every day!” Unsure of whether to be flattered or terrified, I responded with, “I don’t buy eggs that often.”

Her: “If you ever study Lao, you know there are many classifiers. It’s very difficult.”
Me: I think I know how to start my blog! “Yes, I never use them.”
Her: (smiling) “I know.”
Me: “I’m sorry. Foreigners are dumb.” (when in doubt, bash foreigners, especially if you happen to be one)
Her: Laughter
Me: They can take away my language but they can’t take away my wit!
Her: “Go eat your eggs. EGGS. Say EGGS one more time.”
Me: “EGGGGGGS. EGGGGGGS” (walking away)
Simultaneously: “EGGGGGS. EGGGGGGS.”

As I made my exit, I heard her mumble to her friend, “Foreigners are so crazy.” About 40 feet away now, I gave her one more chuckle with a final and dramatic “EGGGGGGGGS” and a Breakfast Club victory fist in salute of the classifier. May it live on, tripping up foreigners who are so often worthy of being bashed. And may you, ever the lucky native English speaker (or not), remind me that cactus and cacti will poke out the right eye, but if it’s the wrong eye, it might be your right eye; threw sounds like through, but though sounds like toe, went doesn’t share any letters with go; English is hard, but Lao isn’t soft, and don’t even get me started on trough. At least we didn’t invent the haiku.

If you want me to stop oozing love for you, then stop loving me so much (please don’t)

One of the worthwhile albeit limited benefits about being far from your friends and family is that when you come back, everyone buys you presents and food to make up for lost time. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, if you feel lonely, move. One gift from a particularly awesome friend was this awesome journal that asks you a question every day for a year and then repeats for 5 years. So you get to answer the same question once a year for 5 years and see how your answers change. Isn’t that so awesome you can’t stand it?!Image

The other day it asked, “If you could give any advice to a group of second graders, what would it be?” Now, my favorite part of answering the questions every day is racking my brain for absolute perfection. I’m never content with my gut response. When teachers are like, your first answer is usually your best, I’m like What horrible person came up with that advice before thinking twice about it? So every day I sit and search within myself for what I really believe to be the most accurate reflection of me on that exact day so as to not lead myself astray next year when I reread the answer. I don’t want my future self to think down upon my current self.

Be quick to say thank you.

That was my answer. And if you must know, my original, unused answer was this: If you read the book first, you’ll be disappointed by the movie, but if you forego the book, whenever you tell people how much you like the move, they’ll be like “did you read the book?” and then proceed to shame you for not understanding anything that has ever happened. Ever.Image

Be quick to say thank you. I mean, is there a more effective way to cultivate a heart of gratitude than by outwardly practicing it? There isn’t. So dear second graders that will never read my advice to you, practice saying thank you. Use it early and often. Use it on strangers and parents and friends and waiters and cab drivers and teachers and public officials. And see here my attempt to bring that advice to life.

To everyone who made my summer: the hosts, the cooks, the huggers, the criers, the donors, the drivers, the lenders, the cop who pulled me over in a construction zone and let me off with a warning, thank you. Before heading home, I was given the following warning (that I would not share with any second graders): Don’t expect too much. People just don’t get it. And while that is the unfortunate truth for some, it couldn’t be farther from my own.Image

So thank you. Thank you for understanding, for trying to understand, for remembering me, for asking questions, for letting me ask you questions, for feeding me, and paying to feed me, and being like “do you need any money?” and “do you need a place to stay?” and “I miss you” and telling me you love me and are proud of me. I’m proud to have your pride and support behind me. Thank you for never letting me feel like I am alone, or forgotten, or like I’ve expected too much of you. Thank you for making it hard to leave. Thank you for being quick to tell me thank you, and honestly, I usually have no idea why you’re thanking me, but darnett if it doesn’t make me wanna go out there and return the favor.

To each of you: from the top, bottom, middle, inner, and outer regions of my heart, thank you. And don’t forget to tune in on October 10, 2014, when I decide what 26 year old Emily considers to be the most vital advice for small children. I hope it doesn’t consist of withholding your feelings, or we are in for a tumultuous year.

When I was so weird

Don’t be weird.

Do not. Be weird.

Those who have called me friend, family or roommate would argue that these are words that, when used together, have no place in my life, or at the very most have failed to resonate with me in any capacity. Well the joke’s on you because I’d say the same right back. However, this story is about me, my weirdness, the attempted suppression of my weirdness, which led to even weirder weirdness, and the eventual embrace of the weirditity that brought me back to normal (which is to say, weird).

On the night before I left for America, I lay wide awake in my bed and told myself these very words: “Don’t be weird. Do not. Be weird.” After a year of screwing up words and cultural offenses and towering over, like, everyone, I was afraid that I wouldn’t fit in. In America. Now, there are some of  “our kind” who embrace this. They’ll be like “Oh I can’t remember this word in English,” and I’m like Really? It’s yogurt. Stop pretending you’re not from the most powerful country in the world. Anyway…

So I resolved to give the people what they wanted: The Old Emily.

There’s danger in using the term The Old anything. I feel like it implies I’ve been rehabilitated, reeducated, or re-somethinged. What it means, in this blog, is that I thought it best to act unchanged from one year ago. I believed pressing the rewind button on my life’s progression would be more honorable than acknowledging the ways that I have grown. Evidently, using my brain was not one of the areas in which we saw growth.

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My tour of America thus far: Oregon Coast

So, after my re-immersion into America and several days of running around wide-eyed looking at fast food and malls and interstates, I started to feel–weird. Colors seemed duller, food lost it’s taste, stuff like that. I’m kidding. That didn’t happen at all. Actually, food did taste (good) different and made me full twice as quickly (a problem that has quickly been solved at my ever-expanding waistline’s expense). I wasn’t mad or unhappy or experiencing any extreme emotion. I was kind of a dud. You know when you get a phone call when you’re dead asleep, and you’re clearly dead asleep, but your answer to “were you sleeping” is always “No not at all! Just resting my eyes.” Everyone who has ever said that is a liar.

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The prettiest place on earth

So my sleepy-headed solution was to ignore my weirdness and act like I was being normal, which was super weird and confirmed that my pre-flight pep talk about staying cool actually kicked off my uncoolest of uncool tour of America.

The crime here isn’t that I was strange. It’s that I pretended I wasn’t, and in so doing, I denied people the opportunity to see the New Emily. The one who speaks Lao and has stories about calling ice “butt water” and has new friends and family that care for me like everyone hoped. And contrary to the behavior described above, the New Emily is more loving, more compassionate, and wiser.

I think my wisdom suffered from jet lag a lot longer than I did, because it eventually started to wake up. Slowly I revealed the secret that I was not acting like Imagemyself and that I felt weird, and that I had hidden those feelings because I thought people would be like “Oh you feel weird about being home? Thanks jerk. I missed you too” and never be friends with me again. Like friends are supposed to do. And wouldn’t you know it, not a single person felt that way. Not. One.

The revelation here is for me, because you, my friends and family of above average intelligence, had assumed I’d be weird long before I was ready to admit it. Change is good. It carries with it neither shame, guilt, nor the abandonment of the past. I’m changed today, at age 25, because I spent the last year in Laos. At age 24, I was changed because I’d spent a year getting my Master’s. At 23 I was changed because I’d learned what I was supposed to do with my future. At 22 I found a new family in Kentucky. At 21 I started drinking. Kidding. I started way younger (still kidding). I am changing now, because after 25 years, 4 months, and 4 days, I’ve realized that being weird is way less weird than pretending you’re not weird. And that’s as normal as I’ll ever be.

A belated and heartfelt thanks

On the eve of my 24th birthday (just over a year ago), I cried my eyes out like a 23 year old baby. I don’t totally remember why specifically, just that there were a lot of breakdowns that year (as it happens, I would like anyone considering moving overseas to know that the “not there yet” part is way worse than the “oh good, everything/one I love in the world is somewhere not here”. It’s not too bad, I promise). I do remember sitting on my best friends Emily and Travis’s porch and feeling pathetically and irrationally nostalgic. This is the last time I’ll be 23 in America! I cried. Newsflash: it was the last time I’d be 23 anywhere.

The day itself played out like most birthdays do, which is to say quite sweetly and with much love from those whose birthdays I forget every year. But ultimately, and this is my first public admittance of this, it was a crappy birthday. As a matter of fact, it was a crappy birthday because it was a good birthday. I have this horrible tendency to grieve things before they happen, and so with every birthday wish, I felt as though someone was saying goodbye to me. Of course they weren’t saying goodbye at all, they were saying happy birthday. The real goodbye was another 3 months away, but now you know what it’s like to live inside the head of a crazy person who keeps mental note of the anniversary of every fun thing I’ve done with everyone I know, not at all unlike Leslie Knope.

My birthday sucked because I felt too loved, and I was focusing on preparing myself for April 15, 2013, when I would turn 25 alone and with papaya salad substituting for chocolate cake that says “We love you and will never forget you and wish every day was your birthday! Congratulations on living!”.

And so, on the eve of my 25th birthday, just 3 weeks ago, I found myself similarly pensive. I thought about the last year, and remembered the fated goodbyes that ultimately became one more in a long series of I love you’s, each with its own tear, joke, hug, or combination of the three. I remembered the awkward hellos with the strangers/teammates/friends who, upon meeting, I knew would both eat at and nurture my sanity. And then, at Midnight, amidst my rekindled nostalgia, I was attacked by a very wet and red headed blur bursting out of the bathroom yelling “IT’S YOUR BIRTHDAY IT’S YOUR BIRTHDAY!”

ImageLauren’s assault snapped me back to the present, where I found myself in Vietnam, in the home of awesome friends in an awesome city and, to my suspicion, an awesome birthday ahead. My friends, both near and far, had thoughtfully orchestrated a social media blitz in my honor that displayed pictures of me with my friends, each with its own thoughtful birthday wish and a “We love you and will never forget you and wish every day was your birthday!” Or something like that. Equally wonderful were the pancakes and decorations I woke up to, courtesy of Jenny, Aaron, and Lauren, names that would have meant nothing to me on that porch a year ago, but now mean…a lot.

All my irrational thoughts and fears that characterized much of my 23rd year and that pitiful meltdown on April 14 centered on one thing: leaving. “I’m excited to go, but I don’t want to leave” I said a bazillion times. What I meant was: “There are no more friends left for me in the world.” No more cool people to meet. No more I love you’s to be exchanged. Laos was calling, but it called me to come alone. Have you noticed my melodramatic paradigm through which I view the world? (this can be good and bad, but never subtle) So on my 25th birthday, while surrounded by friends–something I didn’t dare dream about last year–my birthday played out the way all birthdays do, but it (happily) did not play out the way I expected. And thankfully, papaya salad was absent from the menu.

ImageLater that day, Aaron took Lauren and me to the beach where we collected seashells for an art project we knew would never be completed. Upon realizing that, we waded into the ocean, our pockets filled with shells, and started throwing them into the water. With every shell we wished something. “I wish we would be rich. I wish we would find rich husbands. I wish our husbands would be best friends. I wish we would have students for the new semester. I wish we would get a movie theatre in Laos.” Some wishes were frivolous while others were more practical. We wished things for our own friends and for each other’s friends. For babies, weddings, money, health, you name it. We had a lot to cover. On oneof the last throws, Lauren cast her shell into the water and yelled “I wish Emily would have the best birthday ever!” And in Vietnam, in an ocean, in a place where I thought, Oh good, someone I love in the world is right here, her wish came true.