By Marieke Oudejans
When I was seven and a half years old, we moved from a small town in the Netherlands to the big bustling city of Bangkok, Thailand. I was woefully unprepared, but adapted amazingly well. The farewell gift from my classmates had been a collection of their drawings depicting my future life. It showed me in front of a wooden house on stilts, lounging in a hammock strung to palm trees, holding monkeys in my lap. This was an era when people did not travel far. No one in my school ventured beyond our neighboring countries. Travel TV shows did not yet exist on our three public channels. Quite frankly, we didn’t even own a TV. There was little to fuel my imagination.
I remember every detail of the days of our transition. We left behind a brutal winter; the frost was so severe that we were ice-skating on the streets. Our departure coincided with the strongest blizzard of the century. Our flight to Bangkok had a six-hour delay as workers painstakingly plowed a runway passage. The next morning, we entered an unbearably hot, humid new foreign habitat. The taxi that took us from Don Mueang airport to our hotel had plastic covered seats that stuck to our sweaty legs as we sat in insane traffic for over two hours. As if that wasn’t bewildering enough, the cab’s horn got stuck so for the majority of the trip we were accompanied by a deafening honking. I remember all of the intriguing smells that I took in for the first time. The stench of the Klongs (the city’s filthy canals), the fried garlic and prickly spices evaporating from food stands, the fumes of the tuktuks stuck in traffic, the scent of burnt garbage from nearing slums, the intoxicating incense that was everywhere.. It became immediately apparent that this city was loud, dirty, smelly, busy, overpopulated and huge. But it was also magical and mystical. With gilded temples, sweet fruits, colorful silk, rich traditions, mesmerizing religions, and smiling faces. This city, in all its splendor and grandeur, was overwhelming and addictive at the same time. Within twenty-four hours, my world had gone from small and predictable to huge and exciting.
I look at my oldest son who is almost the age I was when we moved to Asia. With the stay-at-home order, his life has suddenly and dramatically changed. He was woefully unprepared, but he is adapting amazingly well. His busy and large LA world has imploded to a small, intimate life at home. I am proud to see him adjust so quickly. The home schooling, his new virtual world. Playdates restricted to fun (or fights) with his toddling brother. The small radius in which we move. His new responsibilities; a growing independence. He is rapidly maturing while also, fortunately, still being a fun, wild child who loves to ignore parental guidance.
By the time we moved back to Holland after four phenomenal years, our family had changed profoundly. Not only had we lived in a sensational city, we had also seen the world. We had trekked the Himalayas in an era when you would walk for days without seeing a single traveler. We had explored Japan, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Malaysia and the United States (Disneyland!). We had seen wealth and extreme poverty, co-existing. We had grown to love exotic flavors, religions, history, and culture. We had made friends of all ethnicities, and learned foreign languages.
My brother and I left behind dozens of international friends in Bangkok that we would never see again, a difficult concept to grasp and accept. There were no email addresses, phone numbers or even physical addresses that were exchanged. Most expat kids would travel on to destinations unknown. It felt as if I had left behind a world that I would never meet again. As I look at my son, I wonder whether he will ever truly meet his familiar world again. Will he forever have to miss “our way of life before the Virus”? Will his life ever be carefree again? My biggest wish for him and his little brother, for any child, is to be able to be just that, a kid. My fear is that there will be some form of collective trauma that will taint their future forever.
I was eleven years old when we moved back to Europe. We returned to a world where most people had still not traveled far. None of my peers ‘back home’ had flown on a plane. What was difficult this time around was that we were met with little understanding of where we came from, and how we had changed. Former friends were looking to resume a friendship with the girl that they had known previously. Whenever I would talk about my life before “the return”, I would sense a collective sigh. “Here she goes again, another Bangkok story”. The truth was, I didn’t have any other memories to share. I couldn’t talk about my camping trip to the Dordogne, or our domestic biking trip. I did not share any of the recent experiences of my classmates.
I learned early on that people are mostly interested in stories that they can relate to. The Virus will be our collective story. Everyone is experiencing the ramifications of this pandemic in some shape or form. It gives me solace that the outcome of this stay-at-home life has encouraged us to recalibrate our priorities and intensify our relationships with family, friends, and sometimes even with strangers. We are connecting, while living a universal experience. It gives me hope that my sons will not feel alone in the new world that emerges. They will relate to the experiences of their friends. People, young and old, will find each other in shared memories and in an intrinsic desire to live life to the fullest, with new priorities and stronger connections. Trusting this outcome will help us carry through.
We were woefully unprepared, but will adapt amazingly well.