Note: สถานีต่อไป loosely transliterated from Thai to English sounds like: set~tǎa-nii-dtɔ̀p-bpai. The literal translation is “next station”.
I stepped onto the BTS above the chaos of Bangkok. Criss-crossing the city every day, the pristine train cars carry load after load of busy tourists, families, and commuters to their destinations.
I would clutch my iPhone in hand with Google Maps just a glance away. Gazing out the nearby window counting the number of stations to go, ensuring I could read the signs of the passing stations as we went. Moving to Thailand meant the release of control over the majority of things in my life. At least on the BTS, I wanted some semblance of control back. I needed assurance that I would arrive at the correct destination.
The melodic voice announces สถานีต่อไป to alert my commuting comrades and I of the next station. Two years ago these words didn’t mean anything to me. สถานีต่อไป…I wait for the announcement to replay in English.
Hopefully this is going the correct direction. If it isn’t, how will I know? Will the signs be in English? When do I get off? What if too many people get on and it’s too crowded for me to exit in time? What if I pass my stop? Am I going to be late? What if my phone dies?
I have something of a love affair with metro systems; whether it’s the overhead BTS in Bangkok, the female-only car of the Delhi Metro, minding my step on the London Tube, politely packing into the Métro de Paris, or waiting endlessly for the Red Line on the DC Metro. These places have a system, and systems can be learned. It makes cities feel do-able. It makes me feel capable of mastering transportation, and that’s a comfort to my methodical mind.
I spend more time in Bangkok that I thought I would at the start of this experience. I have to go there to get anywhere else in the country, and it’s also the most convenient place to meet up with other volunteers. Over time, my hand unclenched from my iPhone. My gaze and my mind traveled to places other than concern over whether I was going to miss my stop.
สถานีต่อไป the voice chimes. And that’s when I realize…I’m understanding the Thai before the station announcement repeats in English. Seemingly by magic, I’ve become so comfortable in this place that the melodic voice of the BTS no longer instills a heart racing concern or need for extra attentiveness. I’m comfortable. I’m in control.
That’s all about to change again.
Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVs) say that re-integration is the hardest part of the Peace Corps experience. Time, for yourself and everyone you’ve been away from, has marched on. Not only have you been changed as a PCV, but everyone else has been changed by their life experiences over the past two years as well. RPCVs aren’t somehow more special because our two years happened thousands of miles from the US.
That might be hard to swallow because in my village, I am special. For two years I was the shiny new toy, okay fine someeee of my shine wore off over time, but still. Here, getting through each day was a feat. Interactions were rich, and shallow, and deep, and annoying, and beautiful, and hard, and sweet, and confusing. Every moment contained a range of emotions. Living took work. That feels significant. It feels like everyone should understand it. But they won’t. They can’t. I won’t have all the words to explain and they won’t have all the experience to empathize. And that’s going to be hard.
In the States, I’m just me again. Another American in a sea of Americans. There is nothing shiny and new about that. I think about how comfortable I’ve become here. How easy it is to navigate this country that was once so foreign and anxiety-inducing.
Coming to the end of service means that my emotions are working overtime, but the thought that most consumes my mind is: the US you go back to won’t be the US that you left. So I worry. I plan ways to reconnect with old friends. I cling to my PCV friends wading through this transition with me. I brace myself for the impact of realizing that I’m more comfortable on the BTS in Bangkok than at a restaurant in DC.
Then I hear it in my mind, สถานีต่อไป.
Except now, the next station is home.