Where is home for you?
If I had to pin a physical location, I consider Southern California my home. I only lived there for four years in college, but those were the best years of my life where I can truly say I felt at home. For some, home isn’t the same as where you grow up. It’s not determined by how long you’ve lived in a particular place or where your parents chose to settle down, but rather, it’s measured in the love and safety to nurture your authentic self. In reality, home for me is not a physical space, but within the circles of people I hold close to me. It’s true when they say that home is where the heart is and unexpectedly, I left a piece of my heart in Thailand this summer.
Upon arriving at Walailak University in Southern Thailand, we were welcomed with open arms and treated to an abundance of food. Thai hospitality is incredible; there was always somebody to show us around and take us out for food. Here, there is a culture of giving and looking after one another, even if you are a complete stranger. As I was leaving a roast duck shop, one of the cooks ran after me to hand me a bag of mangosteens, a common tropical fruit in Thailand. At first, I didn’t know how to respond; her generosity caught me by surprise and I had done nothing to deserve any of it. At a loss for words, all I could say in the end was “khàawp khun krap,” or thank you, one of the few phrases I picked up in Thai. Although it felt isolating at times not being able to speak the local language, it was touching to see the kindness of random strangers.
Walking into a restaurant near the university, a woman who the students refer to as “Auntie” came out to greet us and take our order. As a Chinese-American, I grew up with a similar custom of calling everyone my parent’s age, “Auntie” or “Uncle,” even if we were not blood-related. In terms of student-professor relationships, I learned that it’s normal for students here to text their professors, and even the dean of the medical school, whenever they need anything. The dean wants us to call him “Pee Menn,” meaning “big brother Menn,” implying that we are all family and here for each other despite the differences in our background and upbringing. In the States, it’s hard for me to imagine normalizing this level of comfort. I remember being hesitant in college to even email my professors, fearing that I would be a bother and take up too much time in their busy schedules. There’s a sense of closeness and connectedness in rural Southern Thailand that doesn’t exist as prominently in the U.S., where things are more “everyone for themselves.”
In American culture, independence is valued and it is much more acceptable to settle down far from home, but maintaining strong family ties is a common theme in Asian cultures. From talking with the Thai medical students, I found that they often felt homesick while studying at Walailak. However, one reason why many choose to study here is that the school strives to train doctors from underserved areas of Southern Thailand, so that graduates can return to their hometown and serve the community they grew up in. To cope with being away from home, the Thai students say that they treat their peers and mentors like a second family. As someone who found chosen family in college, I can deeply relate.
The summer before college, home was a foreign concept to me and my parent’s house was not the place for me to live as the person I wanted to be. When I told my parents that I was transgender, they expressed their disapproval and an already-difficult relationship turned into four years of estrangement after moving out for college.
I remember sitting in my pediatrician’s office, trying to verbalize why living with my parents was becoming unbearable...
Coming Soon: Read Mak's full reflection at the Global Health Diaries blog.