First Days in the Land of Smiles

Tuesday, January 17, marked the beginning of an adventure unlike any previous embarkations. I watched the same sun rise in a foreign place and found myself navigating a flurry of emotions, wondering where the next several months, days, and hours would lead.

I have spent the last two weeks doing my best to answer that query.

During my first hours in my temporary home of Khon Kaen, Thailand, I was welcomed with an opening ceremony lead by a community spiritual leader. Before the ceremony, we were informed of a cultural belief, stating that each individual possesses an inherent spirit of happiness that is sometimes lost in the time and space of travel. In order to enjoy our travels in the most genuine of ways, we participated in a ceremony to call this spirit of happiness back.

870x579-img_7572While listening to the spiritual leader’s continuous chants, I found myself remembering leaving my dad behind at the Grand Hyatt in Singapore and wondering why following my dreams required leaving those I love behind.

As I watched his hands clasp together in reverence, my mind flashed to waking up that morning in an unfamiliar room with lime green walls next to a girl I had only known for several hours. I thought about my first impressions of Khon Kaen University, the immensity and structure so unlike The University of Tulsa’s campus back home.

As I responded to these chants in a language I did not know, I thought about returning to my new dorm room after the ceremony with a roommate who is not fluent in the language or culture that I hold so dear. I considered the many meals, moments, and musical experiences I will miss with my family and friends.

At the end of his ceremony, the spiritual leader tied a ribbon around my left arm, and I felt the touch of the others on this program, a reminder that I am not and will not be in this alone.

870x-img_7387I have since learned that Thailand is considered the land of smiles, due to the friendliness of its people, the beauty of its landscapes, and the charm of its culture. I have come a long way from the initial fear of this study abroad experience, and I find myself waking each morning with that stereotypical Thailand smile on my face.

Each day, I feel my spirit of happiness return and am grateful for the opportunity to study in Thailand and befriend individuals of different cultures and backgrounds, learning about myself each step of the way. In less than three weeks, I have learned enough Thai to hold basic conversations, watched millions of bats fly out of an enormous cave at sunset, experienced the sun rising over the jungle, befriended peers from more than four countries, explored three different night markets, attended a concert by a famous Thai band, and sampled enough Thai honey toast to send me into multiple sugar comas.

870x579-img_7588I will fill these next months with independent travel to places I’ve only ever dreamt of and in-depth community stays in order to observe, discuss, and learn from the quality of the universal health care system.

As an American student, I am privileged in many ways, one of which is the ability to spend a semester immersing myself in another culture. In doing so, I am humbled and inspired by the kindness I have been shown. If there is one thing I will take from this experience, it is that the world is both so big and so small. In each country, humans struggle with issues of faith, access to healthcare, economic adversity, and political upheaval. These institutional structures unite us, just as the basic human values of kindness, respect, thoughtfulness, and open-mindedness do.

We all have a place in this world, and I am grateful each day for the acceptance that has been shown to me by the students at this university and the leaders of this country. We can all learn from each other, and I plan to spend this semester embracing the beauty of diversity and experiencing amity in a land that is both foreign and familiar at the same time.

Abbey Marino
University of Tulsa ’17
Thailand, Spring 2018