Having been back in New Jersey for about four days, I can confidently say that I am the same bland, lazy homebody that I’ve always been. I still love staying indoors, drinking coffee heavily diluted with milk, and napping. I’d say my cabbage has grown more than I have these past two weeks. If you or I were expecting a profound change in my measly little character, I suppose we would be disappointed.
That’s not to say I didn’t learn anything. This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make myself very uncomfortable, and I’d say the further we are outside our comfort zones, the more we can learn.
In terms of development, Thailand was basically what I expected: some areas with modern, western-style buildings and structures, and other areas reflecting the rich culture and history of the country. I was not expecting the prevalence of Buddhist “spirit houses”, royal family imagery, 7-Elevens, and stray dogs. Neither was I expecting the gentle politeness and amicability of Thai people everywhere we went, nor the ubiquitous sense of being surrounded by nature, even walking along the streets of Bangkok.
As a person of Asian descent, the crowded, colorful markets full of people, produce, and food safety concerns was not terribly new to me, though still interesting to look at. In terms of cooked food, Thai flavors are unique and rich, albeit much too spicy, in my opinion. A lot of things in Thailand are very intense, e.g. spicy food, 90-degree weather in the winter (and people still wearing jackets or long pants), and Thai massages. Also, plastic waste – I recall passing by a small yard piled high with nothing but plastic water bottles, and you can’t go very far at all in Thailand without seeing a plastic bag. It’s really too bad that we could only drink bottled water while learning about sustainability.
I also think we are too clean in the United States. The younger generations have too many allergies and weak immune systems. We should really go outside more, whether it’s taking a walk through the woods, practicing agriculture, or hey, eating street food. We should learn the names of the plants and insects around us and what use we might have for them.
Adjusting back to life in the U.S. was not very difficult. I just spent two weeks thinking it was weird that we were driving on the left side of the road. I’m not particularly sad about being able to brush my teeth with tap water again. The 20-degree NJ winter weather is refreshing.
If I were to give you the main takeaway that I got from this study abroad program, it would be that nothing is as simple as it seems. Many of us like things to be clear-cut and straightforward in life, but in our complex society, so many things are head-on in conflict, and there is no easy solution. Food safety or sustainability? Is it possible to find a balance? Should we waste enormous quantities of food and the resources that went into producing it, or should we risk public health? How can we make regulations fair for everyone?
We’re never going to have a perfect world, but there are some things we have the power to fix. In order to do that, though, as much as I hate to admit it, it probably helps to go out and see how people live in different places and how they solve their problems. And of course, it’s best to know some science, too.
So in short, I would recommend that those who can, should go do some Science Abroad.
But remember to come back (and bring us some souvenirs)! Because on this planet, there’s no place quite like home.