The summer I revisited my first home country

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Summer has always been special to me. Not only does it signify a break from the stress of school, time to sleep in and warm weather — above all, it gives my family a chance to travel.

Ever since I was young, I grew up more familiar with moving trucks than the homes to where they shipped our stuff. Before moving to San Francisco, my family moved from three other locations — the first of them Khon Kaen, Thailand, where my siblings and I were born. Usually, this fact raises eyebrows, as my white skin and blonde hair aren’t reflective of someone who is Thai; but my parents were Christian missionaries in Thailand for seven years, and during that period, I was born.

Last summer, my family and I had the opportunity to revisit Thailand for two weeks.

As with every chance to fly, we were thrilled to go through the whole experience again: the excitement-filled shopping trip beforehand, closing the last zipper on a suitcase, boarding the plane while ceremonially touching the outside shell for good luck and sitting down for the ride of my life.

This was a trip of many firsts, but also many seconds. Returning to Thailand was a full-circle moment for me: I had known my entire life that I was born here, but I didn’t remember anything about it. I recall all the times I flipped through photo albums where my family could be seen posing with Thai friends or family. I had seen these pictures, yet never fully, never in person. This trip was closure on a story I had heard of but never seen. And when we arrived, my eyes were opened to a people who met me with open arms. 

My family visited three different cities: Bangkok, Khon Kaen and Koh Lanta — each a world of its own. While in Bangkok, we went shopping, had lunch overlooking a river, visited the tallest building in Thailand, walked around the Grand Palace, had mango shakes (my new addiction for the time being) and rode tuk-tuks.

A tuk-tuk is essentially a five-person vehicle that resembles a golf cart, but more colorful, more practical and more capable to maneuver through traffic. Also unlike a golf cart, there is no bench facing backward, and it moves much faster.

King Power MahaNakhon, Bangkok, Thailand. (Photo: Elizabeth Wilson)

Split into two different tuk-tuks, my family wove through the city streets on an exhilarating ride. My driver was so charismatic (and maybe a little lead-footed) and made an effort to make us laugh with his jokes and odd facial expressions. I don’t think our smiles and laughter even stopped at the red lights. Maybe America is missing more than just these vehicles — I can’t recall a time when I saw an Uber driver as happy to be doing their job or engaging in a conversation that provoked a real, genuine and wrinkle-filled smile. 

Koh Lanta was an island that provided a more relaxing experience than the fast-paced buzz of Bangkok. Here, we relaxed on the beach, went on a four-island boat tour, kayaked, visited a national park, saw monkeys, got massages, and some of us even took a Thai cooking class.

At our resort, we had stretching views of the ocean wherever we were — inside the villa, eating meals and, of course, on the beach. The very wind seemed to carry relaxation in its breath, and the food was rich enough to put me in a blissful slumber. We also had access to a private beach — a mini-cove of sorts — where we would relax, listening to the waves creep up on the shoreline, and where I would later find seashells with my dad.

Although we went to multiple places and saw many different things, Khon Kaen was by far the highlight of the trip for me.

Although Khon Kaen is only an hour or so from Bangkok, the aura is drastically different. As our small plane descended onto the pavement next to a minuscule airport, green fields painted the landscape around us, what I assumed to be rice fields and other agricultural work. But, as people say, smaller can be better. And in this case, it was.

I can’t think of much else that is as fulfilling as revisiting where you were born — visiting the hospital you entered the world in, seeing old friends and soaking in the smiles around you. I found all this and more in Khon Kaen.

We went to the church that my parents had helped start, meeting the people that remembered me before I remembered them. I recall all the faces I saw: their eyes bright, cheeks lifted and smiles glistening in the brightly lit room. Gathered around a table fit for many handfuls of people, we sat, ate and smiled.

Later, my family went to the hospital where my siblings and I were born. Almost as soon as my family walked through the sliding glass doors, some of the nursing staff near the entryway recognized my parents.

One staff member led us down the white-tiled hallway where I met the nurse who helped care for me in my early infancy.

It was as if we were seeing an old friend: the nurse’s face rose from excitement, possibly a sense of unspoken longing that we had in fact returned and met again. Tears and laughter filled the room as she remarked at how we had grown, how it had been so long and how she could not believe we were there. 

After fifteen minutes of taking pictures, saying our last remarks and leaving a kiss on the cheek, my family left to visit our first house.

We took pictures in front of the tan house that was now encompassed by an overgrowth of jade bushes, ivory and garnet flowers spurting out of them. While my parents were telling stories in front of our former home, a man riding a motorcycle drove up to us and expressed that he recognized us as his old neighbors.

I can only imagine what that man must have been thinking about when he saw us. I hope he is still smiling.

Hotel views in Khon Kaen. (Photo: Elizabeth Wilson)

The next day, we went to church, and though I did not comprehend what was preached that day nor the words printed on the screen for us to sing, I understood the passion expressed was not the language of their tongues, but the language of their hearts.

Later that night, while some church couples had their own meeting, my siblings and I babysat the younger children. Typically, I am wary of kids, and am not really sure how to enjoy interacting with them. This time felt different, mainly because the kids were more active and wanted to have fun. I enjoyed playing basketball and tag; I enjoyed reading a book to a toddler; I enjoyed the time I spent with them; and honestly, this night was possibly one of the best in Khon Kaen. I could not stop smiling.

Another memory that resides on the “happy island” in my brain (if you watched “Inside Out,” you’ll understand the reference) was the day-trip my siblings and I took with a family friend of ours and his son. Our drive ended at a rice field, with us seated at the bank of the marsh. The breeze gently lifted each strand, each blade of the green crop, so that it rippled, making it appear as if the entire field was actually someone’s hair blowing in the wind. We watched this very moment crouched on pillows, each of us taking turns scooping a bite of bingsu, playing a hand at Uno, our teeth beaming with the sunlight.

Thailand is known as “the land of smiles” — and the statement holds. Even the name itself brings a smile to your face, as you curl your lips upward to mouth out the “Thai” in “Thailand.” Yet, it is more than simply the name or location of Thailand that makes it the land of smiles. It is the people. During my time there, everyone — strangers, friends, waiters — were all so kind, and despite the language barrier between my siblings and the Thai people, a smile was always reciprocated. I truly miss those smiles.

And though I don’t remember anything from my infancy in Thailand, I still feel connected to this country. I still consider it to be home. After all, Thailand welcomed me into the world first.

Contact Elizabeth Wilson at elwilson ‘at’ s.sfusd.edu.

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Elizabeth Wilson is a high schooler writing as part of The Daily's Summer Journalism Workshop.