I took my first solo international trip just a few weeks after turning seventeen. I’d had traveling companions on the trip from Bangkok to Nashville: my grandmother and two of her friends who’d come to visit us for a few weeks in Thailand. I was returning to the States to attend something called Nazarene Youth Congress (NYC) which is a quadrennial gathering of Nazarene teens. I’d had the choice of traveling to the Congress, which was in Phoenix, Arizona that year, with the Tennessee District or the Missionary Kid (MK) District. I chose the Tennessee District since I had a friend from Nashville that was going. So I traveled with over a hundred teens by bus to Phoenix and spent a week engaging in typical youth conference activities: attending worship services and concerts, participating in service projects around the city, meeting with a life group for prayer and Bible study, and bouncing on the bed in the hotel at night after drinking way too much Mountain Dew.
The feeling was the same one I had every time I returned to the States: I didn’t quite belong. I knew I would never be the popular girl at these youth events, mostly because I didn’t have the right looks, but also because I was terrible at small talk and fairly unfamiliar with American culture. I found myself hanging out with some of the other “outliers.” I could relate to them, and I didn’t have to attempt uber-confidence around them as I did around the cooler kids.
I made it through NYC, and honestly it was a really fun few days. However, I still remember being yelled at by my roommates for hogging the bathroom, being laughed at for witnessing to the shuttle bus driver, and being unsure of what to do at the widow’s house we had been assigned to renovate.
What I really wanted to say was that I’d never really been in a roommate situation and I honestly didn’t realize I was taking so much time. That as a missionary kid, witnessing was a pretty routine part of my life, as crazy as it was. That I’d done all night caroling with my youth group, helped plan church outreach events for the community, and made and delivered care packages to families in the poorest slums of Bangkok, but I’d never done much manual labor. But I couldn’t say those things. So I stayed quiet, retreating into myself and wondering if I would ever feel understood again.
This brings me to my first solo trip across the world. I was barely seventeen years old, and I was flying from Nashville back to Bangkok all by myself. I wasn’t scared. I’d made this trip twice before. Airports spoke a language I could speak. Unlike my home country, an airport was a place I could understand and navigate. I had a backpack packed with books, tapes, and my Walkman to keep me busy on the long flights.
My first layover was in Los Angeles, and it was about a two hour wait. I perused a gift shop and bought a couple of magazines. I picked up some lunch at Taco Bell (last time I’d eat that for a while) and then I wandered around the airport. I realized that I had my friend Beth’s phone number – she lived in Orange County – and I decided to call her. Her dad answered, and we had sort of an awkward conversation. It hit me that it was pretty weird to just randomly call someone from the airport with nothing to say.
Now, I understand what I was doing, though. Beth had been a fellow MK in Thailand. She was my best friend, but she was two years older than me, and I hadn’t seen her in a couple of years because she’d already come back to the States for college. In making that call, I think I was reaching out to someone who knew. I was trying to get my bearings after my quick trip back into American culture had shaken my confidence. Also, it was much cheaper to call her from LA than from Bangkok. I didn’t get to talk to Beth that day, but somehow, talking to her dad made me feel better. He was still my people, and that’s what mattered.
Shortly after that conversation, I hopped on the plane that would take me across the Pacific Ocean to Tokyo. When we got there, I followed the signs for Thai Airways as I’d done before, and I ended up in a familiar boarding area. People were everywhere, which was normal. I found a corner to sit down in and tried to doze while I waited for my last flight. Finally, I boarded and was in Bangkok in just a few hours. As I walked down the long hallway to immigration, I waved at the security cameras, knowing that my parents were watching on screens in the arrival lounge. After some waiting, I made it through customs and walked into the arms of my parents. As we entered the parking garage, the hot, balmy air of Bangkok felt like a huge welcome home.