While I was passing time, adventuring to the local Buddhist temples on my motorbike (nicknamed Lil’ Snowflake) during the day and making friends with the Thai locals at the karaoke bars at night, the world around me was falling to shambles as the coronavirus continued to spread to new countries, whilst taking thousands of lives along its path of destruction. Teaching during a pandemic became one of the most difficult challenges I have ever faced.
It was March 19th, 2020 when I submitted the final grades for my students at Anuban Phrae School. I had been teaching English as a second language at a secondary school in a small city in Northern Thailand called Phrae for the previous five months, and I had just signed a contract to continue teaching the following term – Unfortunately, teaching during a pandemic clearly had its uncertainties. I had finally built trust and respect with my students and coworkers and I was beyond thrilled to spend another semester progressing as their English “teacha teacha”. My current teaching arrangement ran through the end of March, so I was told I had to stick around before I could venture off on my own and begin my backpacking adventure throughout Southeast Asia during the school break
My city in Phrae still had no confirmed cases at this point and the overall sentiment in my area was that the issue was still far enough away from us that we could keep going about our daily lives with little to no interruption. I still went to the grocery store as normal, to the local market on Thursdays and Saturdays and I hung out with friends at local restaurants and bars on the weekends. I knew that we were living in a state of blissful ignorance, but I welcomed it, as it was better than the toilet-paper-hoarding, xenophobia-induced fear that I had heard was spreading throughout the United States.
The following day on April 20th, 2020, my best friend (a fellow foreigner or “farang”) and I found ourselves pacing back and forth in my 20×20 square foot bedroom in Phrae, Thailand, trying to figure out our next move. We had both just received an email from the organization we worked through that our “teach abroad program” had been cancelled due to COVID 19. We were told to go back to our home countries immediately before travel restrictions were put into place. We also got notified through various sources that the U.S government was advising that “all U.S citizens working abroad should return home immediately unless expecting to stay abroad indefinitely”. We contemplated our options for several hours and made numerous phone calls to our families, our bosses/coworkers and our organization for advice. We quickly realized that although we could stay in Thailand, we would never forgive ourselves if someone in our family got sick or if something went wrong and we were unable to come home because we chose to stay abroad on our own. The fear of the unknown made us rush to book the quickest flight home we could find for fear that the U.S borders would close before we could make it back.
I packed up my apartment, returned my motorbike, said goodbye to my boss, my coworkers, and what had just become my friends and family and returned my keys in less than 24 hours. Throughout that time, one of my students texted me asking if I would still be there next semester to continue the pen pal program I had started, and I couldn’t find the words to answer him. My heart couldn’t really process what was going on until I was on my first flight home from Phrae to Bangkok. I was flying right over my apartment which was right next to the school in Phrae and my stomach curled in a knot and the pain just erupted. I wasn’t sure if I’d ever get to see this place again and I knew it would be a while if I were able to come back. The mask on my face caught the tears as they fell, and I let the rumbling on the old school propeller plane put me to sleep.
I got to the airport in Bangkok and looked at the TV to see my flight status. Ninety percent of the flights were cancelled but mine was one of the few still on time. The plane was packed and the fear of catching the virus was heard throughout conversations right and left. I knew that travelling during this time also increased my exposure, but I felt that the risk was worth it. So, after two taxis, five flights and a 2-hour drive with my mom, I made it safely to my parents’ house in Rochester, Minnesota where I will be residing until this pandemic comes to an end. I am still able to teach online which is a blessing. My mom has me remodeling her entire basement and I have found new projects and creative ways to stay busy like making cloth masks for friends and family. I am happy with my decision to come home because of the sense of security it provides. I am still counting down the days until I can return to finish what I started and to see my babies again.
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Margaux Camille Chloe