Float Like A Butterfly: A Study Abroad Story

Reported by Megan Stewart

Epiphanies can happen anywhere. Emma Laurion’s occurred on Suthep Road in Chiang Mai, Thailand, a few months before she was scheduled to return to the U.S from her study abroad adventure.

It was just before sunset on a rather unremarkable evening when Laurion slipped out of her program’s apartment housing and wandered through the streets. For two weeks, she could barely bring herself to do anything but attend class, occasionally catch dinner with a friend, workout, and then hole up in her room. Ever since her exposure to the tourism of northern Thailand and reintroduction to the shallow side of American culture, she’d felt herself slipping into a depression.

In addition to watching a lot of Netflix, Laurion would stare outside her window, observing the mountains and the tops of buildings as they grew like buds from the jungle soil.

Finally, she couldn’t take it anymore. She needed to get out of her “funk” and regain her sense of wonder.

Earbuds in, she listened to Hippo Campus as she searched for a place to eat. Students clad in uniforms milled around and motorcycles puttered along her street, Soi 7, which was situated right across from the university. At the bottom of the hill waited a much larger crowd. Laurion felt the urge to make a detour.

The further she walked, the fewer people and establishments she encountered. The jungle became more prevalent and the sounds of the city faded, replaced by the chirps of cicadas. Her skin gleamed with sweat, despite the recent drop in temperature. As the sun started to set through the trees, she heard behind her the sweet, contagious laughter of a family. A butterfly fluttered past, and in that moment, a smile formed on her lips; Laurion knew it was a sign.

Before Laurion left for Thailand during fall semester of her senior year, she had attended George Fox for three years. She’d considered traveling to Europe instead to meet her requirements for her International Studies major, but chose Thailand because she felt it would be more of a culturally enriching experience. She also expected that it would spur more personal growth.

Turns out, it was the right decision for her.

From a young age, Laurion knew she perceived the world differently than her peers. Even in high school, she held many hippy-like beliefs, influenced perhaps by her dad’s side of the family, which was densely populated with the “peace and love” promoters.

As her father was in the military, she also bounced around a lot, moving back and forth between Oregon and San Diego. To the students at her primarily Christian schools, most of whom had never been out of the country, she gave off alternative, exotic vibes. Laurion recognizes now how “fake” her hippy persona was compared to who she is now.

When she stepped off the plane, Laurion was not only greeted by a wave of humidity but also wonder.

“I was like, ‘I’m here, I’m here, I’m here!’” said Laurion.

Surprisingly, unlike some students when they study abroad, she didn’t experience any culture shock. In fact, she felt like she belonged for one of the first times in her life, and that she could truly be herself in Thailand.

“The people and the culture are so accepting and just open and loving,” Laurion said. “They don’t care who you are, who you love, what you do. Everyone is respectful and respected.”

While the government, parents, and teachers could be strict, the hierarchical culture was but a small blight on the trip.

“Even with those limitations of being higher than you, they still respected you and you still respected them for who they were. Everyone was free to think what they wanted to think,” said Laurion.

“I think the world views I took away from it: everyone is living their own reality [in which] they see things,” Laurion said. “The way I see this is different from the way you see this, even though we’re from the same culture. So, it’s just about accepting that. Not judging your own thoughts and not judging the thoughts of others in a way. I think that’s the biggest thing. It’s made me really patient with people and open to listening.”

What she also loved about Thailand was the Buddhist influence.

“They have a lot of values on life and what you consume,” she said. “Eating to live, not overeating, which was really cool.”

As a vegan herself, Laurion found living in a place that practiced the same nutritional habits refreshing.  

However, the “honeymoon” didn’t last forever. A few months into her trip, Laurion journeyed to southern Thailand, where she came into contact with American tourism. The tourists well outnumbered the Thai living there, and the vendors only seemed to want her money; compared to the people living in the north, everyone seemed cold, greedy, and shallow.

If anything, Laurion said, she experienced reverse culture shock. In addition to her experiences in the north, Laurion admitted she struggled to connect with her American peers, who were noticeably different from her friends from GFU.

After witnessing daily life in Thailand, Laurion’s enthusiasm waned and she slipped into a brief depression.

“It kind of made me think, ‘Oh my God, when I get home, this is kind of what it’s going to be like,” she said. “It’s funny that it had nothing to do with being homesick, it was actually my being sick of home. Like, ‘I don’t want to go back to that,’ you know?”

Once she returned to the north and started investing her time and energy into the activities and people on the trip who brought her joy, she began to feel like herself again.

Her greatest transformation, however, came in the form of a spirituality shift.

Raised in a strict Christian home, she’d seldom been exposed to any other religions or spiritual customs. In fact, she once thought that ritualistic practices of any sort were evil. Now, she believes she simply misunderstood not only how eastern religions work, but religion in general.

“A lot of religions have core stories from the past that are the same and people don’t really connect those dots very easily,” said Laurion. “Or they’re not open to it because a lot of people are very into it [religion] being one way and one truth, which I respect if people believe that, for sure.”

Laurion believes most religions “overlap” and that people can find truth in every faith.

“I think if you’re living a good, positive life and shining a light, seeking understanding and peace that you’re doing fine for yourself,” she said.

Despite hating labels, the closest religious format to what she subscribes is Universalism. Since moving back to the U.S, she has practiced spirituality a totally different way. She meditates frequently in either her mind or through listening to music. She also watches documentaries and reads articles on spirituality. Additionally, Laurion prioritizes self-reflection. That meant prioritizing activities that she had once put off, like biking, artist endeavors and personal health. She’s found a spiritual mentor as well in her best friend and former GFU student Jordyn Brenneman.

Occasionally, she’ll attend church with her family or friends, but only because she’s open to all different religious experiences, not because she prefers Christianity over all others.

Above all, though, Thailand revitalized her thirst for adventure and opened the door for new opportunities.

“It reminded me that it is possible to live somewhere else and sustain myself and work and do whatever needed to live wherever I want to live,” said Laurion. “It kind of encouraged me that I don’t have to find some huge job with Nike in their international sector. I don’t have to do that to travel and still make money. I can live where I want to live, whether it’s long or short term, and I’ll find something that fits me.”

Jessica DaughertyComment