A year is a long time when you’re 17. I went through a lot. It was not easy. The loneliness, the effort every day to perform, adapt, adjust. The utterly alien nature of the people, the surroundings, the life I was leading. Mentally, the stress was huge. There was nowhere I could just be me. The familiarity you have with your family and friends you’ve known for years, grown up with, allows you to just be, to mentally relax, to show your emotions, to be bad sometimes, snappy, awkward. I could not behave like that with my Thai family, my new friends, my new school. I was “on” all the time. Even when in a crowd, I stuck out as painfully different. People looked and pointed, children laughed at my size, the look of me in my Thai school uniform.
I had always suffered from an innate shyness. Going up to strangers had never been easy for me, and yet here I was doing it every day, unable to blend in. I used to watch my younger sister make friends on our holidays, playing with new kids, all of it effortless. Whilst I stood shyly by, envious that I couldn’t do that with kids my own age. I didn’t even know what to say to start. It frustrated me, I felt ashamed of the fear and trepidation that kept me from making new friends easily. I wanted to reach out.
So what was it that drove me to take on such an experience? I still don’t really know. I wanted to see the world, to do something a bit different. I was scared, but I also had my pride, and having committed to applying, I would never admit how terrified I was about what I faced. I bit my lip and went for it. Every day for a year.
I’ve since found myself in numerous situations where I’ve stepped back and looked at myself in puzzlement. Flying into the wild west city of Phnom Penh (as it was at the time) for the first time, or driving nervously to yet another appointment with a potential new client in the port area of Manila, or on the outskirts of Hanoi, I’ve occasionally thought, “I hate this. So why do I do it?”
I don’t really know. Perhaps it’s the relief I feel when I know I’ve faced my fear and survived. Perhaps it’s that I’ve never yet found a situation I couldn’t cope with (I’m sure there’s one waiting for me). Or perhaps I do it for the rewards I know are out there – meeting and learning about new people, making new friends, having amazing experiences in wonderful places, finding the humour in all sorts of situations. I would have missed out on a lot if I’d stayed in my comfort zone.
I said once to some friends I’d made in the last 10 years or so that I was basically a shy person. "YOU???” they screeched incredulously, before bursting into hysterical laughter.
Yes, me. They don’t know what goes on inside. But it’s worth it.