Thursday, September 23, 2010

Blog #28: Stay or Go?

NOTE: I would appreciate any and all comments on this blog entry. It is an ongoing internal debate and whether it's coming from friends, family or strangers, I'd love to hear what people think. Thanks!

“People tell me what they think I should do, but again, there is no overwhelming consensus. So how does the input of others help at all when it only deepens the divide? There is no middle ground. There is no compromise. There is only do I stay or do I go?

“I take others input for what it is. It is easy to tell someone what you think they should do. It is even easy telling someone what you would do if you were in their shoes. But they are not me, and they do not have to live with the decision. They get to make it and move on like it never happened. Meanwhile, if I stay I have to face the what if? And if I go I could very easily end up asking myself why did I? Pros and cons.

“The temptation is there. I want to go. I also, conveniently, have no reason to stay, other than the fear of going, of course. At this moment in my life, I feel like I have become stagnant. The river of my life has flowed into a boggy marsh. But on the other side of the marsh the river has to flow again. The question is how do I get to the other side. Do I stay or do I go?

“I want to grow and I feel like my head is already touching the ceiling here. What’s worse is that I’m convinced that the ceiling is lowering itself ever so slightly each day. At first it wasn’t so noticeable, but recently it has become quite uncomfortable. I can deal with discomfort, really I can, but if I want to continue to grow and the ceiling continues to descend, I’m afraid discomfort will quickly become excruciating pain.”

I wrote these words roughly one year ago while in the process of making the decision about whether or not to leave behind my friends and family – my life – to embark on a terrifying, but hopefully life changing adventure. Reading them now as I sit in on my balcony and watch the mist creep across the mountains while the rain patters against my tin roof, it feels like a lifetime ago. So much has changed and I have changed so much. And yet, here I am, readdressing my decision-making process and trying to remember where I found the key that unlocked the door to this ridiculous experience.

So why, you ask, am I dwelling on the past? Do I regret my decision? Not in the slightest. But history has a way of repeating itself, and as I read those words, ones I wrote from such a different place in my life, they resonate and haunt me. Do I stay or do I go?

It’s decision-making time once again and that question is eating away at me. I came to Bhutan on a one-year contract, which I constantly assured myself (and my girlfriend at the time) was actually only ten months. Back then the mystery surrounding Bhutan made it sound like such a long time. But here I am, almost eight months into my contract, the mystery uncovered, and I’m trying to figure out where all the time has gone.

The problem is that as soon as I think I have come close to making the decision, the “what ifs” and “why did Is” appear in a puff of smoke on either side of my head and start whispering their arguments in my ears, driving me back into complete and utter stalemate.

It seems that with this decision the stakes have been raised. I actually would have expected the decision to come more easily this time. Before coming here I was caught between the fear of the unknown and the excitement surrounding it. This time I know what both choices have to offer. It should be easy to just examine what each option has to offer me and pick whichever one can give me what I’m looking for. But it’s not that easy. It’s not just what I’m looking for that I have to consider; it’s also when I’m looking for it.

This whole process has started to make me feel old. A part of me feels like I would be missing important “growing up” time if I stay here. I’ve started doing the math (despite being an English teacher), and just as they always have, the numbers are scaring me. Staying here a second year would mean that I would be 28 years old when I return to Canada. In some ways that’s not so old, but then again in others – like the live-with-my-parents, have-no-money, have-no-girlfriend kinds of ways – it does seem old. After all, remedying those wants in my life is something I’m looking to do, something that only coming home can achieve. But the question is does postponing those pursuits for one more year make a big difference?

One thing I am sure of is that Bhutan will never fully feel like home. I remember from Jamie’s book (for those of you who still haven’t read it, please do… “Beyond the Earth and the Sky”) that for a while she convinced herself that she was going to spend the rest of her life in Bhutan, only to realize later that her life was really in Canada. I don’t think I have ever deluded myself into thinking that this could be my home forever. Don’t get me wrong, I have fallen completely in love with this country and I think it will always be a part of me, but being here has only reinforced my love for Canada, and a part of me can’t wait to get home.

“So just come home already,” many people would say. Well it’s not that easy. What makes this decision so much more difficult than the one I made last year is the finality attached to it. The cold, hard truth is that once I leave here I will likely never return, and that stings. For me, the mystery has been uncovered and it has revealed something so absent in the western world. It has revealed a natural environment too magical to be captured in words or on film; it has revealed a proud, unique culture that understands the dangers of modernization and is approaching it with caution by preserving its customs and traditions; and it has revealed a people to whom kindness, compassion and enjoyment come as naturally as breathing. In many ways (not all) this really is the land of happiness, so how does one turn their back on that?

Ultimately it comes down to people. There are other factors that come into play like money and experience, but ultimately it’s all about the people. I have made the most amazing friends here and they have in turn made my experience what it is. UK has become like a brother and I have slowly become close with his extended family as well, joining them at family dinners, playing with his little cousins while we wait to eat. Namgay and Choki are amazing friends who worry about me when I need to be worried about, and feed me when I need to be fed! Namgay is probably the bravest and most forward-thinking of my Bhutanese friends (even more so than UK probably) and that makes it easy to have serious, intellectual conversations with him, and Choki is so sweet and bubbly that even when she is in a bad mood she breaks into spontaneous giggles. And then there is an amazing supporting cast, some of whom have been friends since day one and some of whom I am just beginning to discover.

Then there are my students. Recently I have realized just how close I have become to my classes. I am lucky enough to teach some of the smartest students at the school, and as a result I am able to take some liberties with them that I might not otherwise be able to take. For instance, I take advantage of any and every teachable moment that presents itself in class. In fact, I think I have become somewhat notorious for going off on tangents in class. But when an opportunity presents itself to teach these kids about the genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda or Sudan and why it is that the world doesn’t react in the same to these atrocities as they do to human rights violations in Afghanistan and Iraq, and I look down at sea of eyes glued to me, fascinated by my every word, I feel like I am giving them the type of education they so desperately crave and deserve.

And we have fun together! The shyness has given way to an almost disruptive familiarity, but in many ways that is better than the pin-drop silence that once filled the classroom because I can reign it in and extract some sort of meaningful idea out of the silly comments that are so eagerly contributed. And sometimes I don’t even have to do that.

Class XI Science ‘A’ has become my favourite class to teach because they are not only the most intelligent of the grade, but they also exhibit the greatest maturity. The have come to understand what I’m all about. They are not shy to crack jokes in class, but the jokes are usually relatively intelligent so I get a genuine laugh out of them as well, and on top of that they understand when it is appropriate to joke around and when it is time to buckle down and get some work done.

It was in that class last week that, for the first time, my students asked me about next year and whether or not I am coming back. I told them that I am in the process of deciding that and that I will let them know when I make my decision, at which point they essentially begged me to stay. How lucky am I? I’d be lying if I said it didn’t feel amazing to have that kind of positive reinforcement and to feel like I am actually getting through to them. It was validation that I have been doing at least something right (there is, after all, little feedback from the administration). I was truly flattered to know that they all desperately want me to stay. How can I disappoint them?

But then my family and friends at home pop into my head, and I remember that this amazing experience and my students’ exposure to a Canadian style of teaching doesn’t come without sacrifice. This deliberation has resulted in my first real bout of homesickness since coming here. Sure, I have missed people and things before, but not like this. Now I can picture get-togethers with friends; I can taste delicious family dinners; I can hear my band performing on stage in front of a crowd of screaming familiar faces; and I miss it. I honestly do. And then, any and all progress that I thought I had made towards making this decision is lost.

So all I can do is revisit my thought process from last year and find solace in the fact that I was this confused back then and that everything has worked out. My head no longer feels like it is touching the ceiling and my life no longer feels stagnant. I have crossed that boggy marsh and landed in a beautiful valley. But without the ceiling over my head, as I look out onto the vast expanse of mountains and valleys, it feels like there is still so much room to grow. So the question remains, do I follow the setting sun which is just now starting to dip below the ripple of mountains or do I wait to see if tomorrow it rises even bigger and brighter than before? Do I stay or do I go?


  1. Don't let the being twenty eight thing hold you back.

    The "like the live-with-my-parents, have-no-money, have-no-girlfriend" could happen at any age and is not going to improve/worsen much by a year either way. (besides, there is a kind of freedom to it, no?)

    Freedom may well be the biggest thing you'll miss when you return.

    On the other hand - there is a lot to be said for a good meal. You will form the bond you describe with your classes back in Canada.

    Good luck.

  2. This is a beautiful post. Thank you for sharing. I help Canadian teachers move to teach in London, and this very dilemma comes up every year.

    In fact, I was on the phone just yesterday with Alex who recently returned "home" after almost 2 years in London and is now questioning her decision. That question "should I stay or go?" will be with you forever. I've lived abroad many times, and now live in Victoria, BC but I'm still asking that question, only this time I'm looking at moving to Austin, TX (because...well, why not?). Family, friends and home will always be there and the more you go, the more they change & go with you too. But for you, in Bhutan, it's just harder for them to visit. Facebook and blogging are wonderful, wonderful things for keeping family & friends close by.

    Here's the advice I gave to Alex yesterday: Whatever decision you make will be the right one. I asked her to think back on her past decisions and to ask herself if she regretted any of them, and she said no. So, there you go - judging by her past experiences, there's no reason to think that she would suddenly start regretting any new decisions. Is it the same for you?

    Keep on writing :-) Love it!

  3. "One thing I am sure of is that Bhutan will never fully feel like home" Dude!!! No place will ever feel like home. Most likely if you did go back, home would not feel like home. Other than the fact that there objects and ppl there that will take you back to a old memory of playing ball in the back yard, or/of something of that nature. If you go back to canada your old home will never feel like the home you have in bhutan.
    Stop looking to your past like it is your future, dude.
    Your dilemma to "stay" or to "go" should be decided on what you "want out of life".

    This I can not help you on

  4. Thank you for sharing your posts. I am seriously considering teaching abroad for a year or more and your post have given me a lot of insights. I've only taught abroad in a short term assignment in Central America, but in my teaching experiences I know how difficult it is to say good bye to students after just one year. This is your decision and I know it is not an easy one. The question you need to consider is was 1 year really enough for you? Did you accomplish everything that you wanted to accomplish prior to coming to Bhutan? If you can say yes and feel at peace with everything then maybe it is time to go home. But if something is tugging within you to stay then I would explore that. Did the joys upstage the struggles? Did you see the experience as a quest or as a survival? You accomplished a year there..and that says a lot. I know it is especially not easy when you have students who are are begging you to stay. But if the only reason to stay is because you feel you are disappointing them, then that is not being fair yourself. Do what is best for you. You are young..and have your whole life ahead of you. I wish I would of had the opportunity to teach abroad when I was in my late 20's. I'm now in my late 30's and only now considering it long term. Just know that after having this experience you won't be the same..and chances are that when you do go back to Canada that you will get homesick for Bhutan. I taught in rural El Salvador for a short while, but the experience made such an impression on me that I was so homesick for the country, the people, the culture for months. I still am. I wish you all the best and hope that you come to the decision that is right for you..

  5. Thanks for your comments and insights, guys.

    To respond to you, Victoria, I think there are two really difficult factors complicating this particular decision. Firstly, there is the finality attached to going home. I don't think that I would regret staying here, even if my second year wasn't as great as my first. Worst case scenario is that I'm just extremely homesick, which really only makes my eventual return home that much more exciting. But if I come home after this year there is a very real possibility that I could regret that decision because there is really no coming back to Bhutan once I leave. Not to undermine your experience, but the places you have mentioned in your comment are relatively easy to get to if you ever wanted to go back.

    Secondly, again, unlike the places you have mentioned, Bhutan and Canada are really two extremes in terms of lifestyle, so it makes the decision a little more complicated. For example, I live in a tiny town with only one restaurant and a fixed (and tiny) population. Staying here means sacrificing many things, including food, entertainment, relationships. I can't just go to Starbucks and grab a coffee or meet with friends here. I can't watch go see the newest movie. I can't meet a girl. Life here is extremely different from life at home, and so the decision becomes that much more dramatic.

    Brenda, I think you have raised some great questions, some that I have actually considered over and over again. I think that coming into this experience I was just hoping to get through it, and by that I mean cope with the difficulties of adapting to a new culture and lifestyle. After being here for just a short amount of time I realized I would definitely be able to do that and so my goals changed. I think that staying here another year would allow me to really accomplish what I would like to accomplish professionally (at least in Bhutan). I will definitely be better at my job here if I stay another year, so it's something that is influencing my decision somewhat.

    And one year really isn't feeling like enough, but a friend emailed me a few days ago and pointed out that one year might not be enough, but to keep in mind that extending would essentially double my time here to another 14 months, and that sounds like a VERY long time to me right now.

    The joys here have definitely overshadowed the struggles here, but that isn't to say that I haven't been painfully frustrated at times. There is something very alluring and charming about this country. One moment I will be really pissed off about something, so much so that I'm sick and tired of being here. But then just moments later something will happen that totally wins me back over and wipes my memory clean of those frustrations. It's very hard to explain.

    Anyway, still no decision just yet. Thanks for you comments. I really do appreciate them.