From May 7-10, 2019, I attended the YES Abroad return orientation, located in Washington D.C., for the cohorts from Southeast Asia. I got to spend time with almost all of my friends from PDO, who I hadn’t seen since July of 2018! We had meetings about cultural adjustment and future YES Abroad alumni opportunities. I also had the amazing opportunity to meet with staff members of my Congressional representatives to thank them for my scholarship and give a presentation with my cohort about our favourite parts of our year in Thailand to staff from the Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs with the other Southeast Asia cohorts.
Trip to D.C.//
On May 7th, my YES Abroad cohort and I flew out of Bangkok and had a layover in Hong Kong for about three hours. We stopped at a little cafe for some pastries and coffee and then camped out at our boarding gate to play cards.
Here was my response to Luke asking to take a photo of us “looking interesting”:
Here is a video of Sydney attempting to take a bite of my muffin without putting her cards down:
We also passed time by doing each other’s hair. Here is one of my favourite photos that I took all year, with Sydney and Chloe doing Sofia’s hair with all of them laughing and happy together:
After the nice break in Hong Kong, we had an unbearably long flight to Dallas-Fort Worth airport. We watched movies, talked, and did face masks together. When we finally arrived, the security was hectic. We must have waited in line for an hour at least. However, we were in high spirits seeing all the American flags around and signs welcoming us to the U.S.. After passing through security and getting our bags, we found a bathroom and freshened up. I honestly felt disgusting after all the travel and I was desperate to take a shower. I also was eager for some American food! We went to our boarding gate and spotted a little kiosk where I got my first American food in eleven months: Cheez-its. We paid wayy too much money for little snacks and then camped out at this table in our gate with Internet connection and phone chargers. Later, when we started to get properly hungry, Sydney and I went to a green restaurant for smoothies and the others went to get Mexican food. I love Mexican food with all my heart but honestly, the jet lag had me feeling like it was morning and time for breakfast so I opted out. I later discovered I had made the right decision when Sydney and I walked over to the others’ table and found Chloe, Sofia, and Luke all grimacing at their over-priced and poorly made burritos. We returned to our gate and waited a long time for our flight to D.C.. I was seated next to Chloe and Luke in pretty close quarters with almost no leg room. Unfortunately, since the flight was under three hours, there was no on-flight entertainment so I tried to force myself to sleep. When I woke up, we were about fifteen minutes from landing and we pulled down our blinds to see the city, completely illuminated despite the dark. Sofia started to point out different monuments and places she knew as a D.C. local. It was beautiful and only made me more excited to be back and explore the city again. The flight landed at nearly 12:30 am and we got through security and everything quickly because it was only a national flight. The cohort was greeted by a YES Abroad alumni from the Philippines and some other YES Abroad staff.
We split up to get taxis with Chloe, Luke, and Sofia in the first one and Sydney, the chaperone, and I in the second one a little later. As Sydney and I recounted some of our adventures in Thailand to the chaperone, we could hear the taxi driver next to her audibly gasping out of surprise. I realized that our average, daily lives as sixteen-year-old girls in rural Thailand would be pretty shocking to other Americans. Not to mention all of our insane travel stories. We all had an interesting discussion and arrived at the hotel at around 1:30 am. Sydney and I thanked our taxi driver, said goodbye to our chaperone, and were met by Linnea and the rest of our cohort. She checked us in, went over our agenda for the following day, and gave us our orientation packets with our assigned roommates. Chloe and I were roommates, with Sydney and Sofia rooming together across the hall and Luke with other boys who had not yet arrived. The hotel was quite nice and huge. We walked to our rooms and heard music and laughter from the rooms next door. As we knew the entire hall was rented out by YES Abroad, we knew the other cohorts were there! We called out to them and the Philippines YES girls all chatted with us for a bit. Chloe and I took some much needed showers and fell asleep instantly after putting on tons of alarm clocks in an abundance of caution so as not to sleep in and miss our meeting.
Day 1: Workshops and Sessions//
On May 8th, I woke up at around 10 am to shower and get dressed. I was so excited to see all the other cohorts and have some American food!
Downstairs, everyone had gathered and I ran over to Mena, Zoe, and the YES Abroad Indonesia group. I missed them all so much and it was cool to hear their stories in real life, though I’d seen tons of photos over social media. We also met the other alumni, including Henry, who had been on YES Abroad the year before us. Before I left for Thailand, I (kinda embarassingly) had stalked all of the social medias and blogs of the YES Abroad Thailand cohort before mine and we had even made a group chat of all of us to prepare for the trip. Henry also FaceTimed me and the other kids in my cohort a few times to give us advice. Therefore, I knew a bit about him and had talked before but it was weird and fun to actually meet him for the first time, despite being acquaintances since February of 2018. Our cohort got along great with him and he was easy to talk to about Thailand since he had also been through it all too. I liked the other alumni a lot too and, though I missed the other cohorts, it was a very different environment than PDO because of how small our group was. There was more time to talk with the alumni and they offered some useful advice for the next few months of cultural re-adjustment. At 11 am, Linnea, Allen, Adam, and Skye took us to a nearby Panera, which was such a sweet treat. As we walked, everyone was rushing and complaining even a little because it was absolutely frigid and, seeing as we had just returned from Southeast Asia, none of us were prepared or wearing enough warm clothes. I had been a bit chilly up in Nan before but nothing compared to this. It even made me a bit happy despite my discomfort because I’m from Chicago and I missed the cold there a bit. (Never thought I’d say that but it’s true.) We each got little combination meals. I got mac and cheese with a baguette and lemonade. It was delicious and I was delighted by the comfort food.
Here are some photos of Luke and I at Panera:
At 12:00 pm, we walked back to the hotel and went to a large conference room. We were seated by country. We had our welcome orientation, discussed the objectives of the next frew days, and reviewed our agenda and the rules of staying. At 12:15 pm, we did workshops and prepared for our Deparment of State presentations as well as our meetings on Capitol Hill. One workshop was called Looking Homeward: Re-Entry, which prepared us for some things we might experience while re-adjusting culturally and also had some alumni tips and reflections. Another was called Creating a Personal Action Plan, which helped us make our “elevator pitch,” of how we would describe YES Abroad briefly if someone asked and detailed things we could do to re-focus our energy back in our home communities while still staying connected to YES Abroad and our host countries. Each individual country group had to make a presentation of our highlights in our exchange year. First, we as a group talked about our language camps and how beneficial they were for us to learn Thai. I then talked about how special my school and my Thai friends are to me with anecdotes about playing for the soccer team for Sport Day and my Christmas traditions at school. Chloe also presented about her school and friends there. Sofia presented about how close she andher host family and host sister all were and how much spending New Years’ and Christmas with them meant to her. Sydney discussed how enriching volunteering at her local temple to work with Thai children was. Luke shared about his time as a novice Buddhist monk. We finished our slideshow thanking the KL-YES Abroad program and the U.S. Department of State for the amazing opportunity. We each wrote our parts on notecards and practiced them, making sure it was a cohesive presentation. We also prepared for our Capitol Hill meetings with Congressional staff, figuring out where we would go and what we would say. We left the conference room at around 6:30 pm and I was completely exhausted by then. We had dinner at a restaurant just a few doors down from the hotel and, again, I was a big fan of the American food especially fries! I sat at a kinda crowded table with my entire cohort, Henry, Linnea and Allen, some alumni, and more. Also at dinner time, we finally were joined by the YES Abroad India cohort! They had some flight complications so they arrived to orientation quite late. We chatted with them for a while and it was so much fun. Dinner ended far too soon at 7:30 pm and we went back to the conference room. Here are photos of Luke and I doing a “big heart” at our table:
The cohort and I worked on writing thank you letters for the AFS Thailand staff and a few other people, with me writing it all out because we decided that I have the nicest handwriting.
By the time we finished that, we were like zombies. Here are some funny photos Sofia took of me after I had written all those thank you letters and my entire presentation, fully worn out from the day:
Here is a photo Henry took of us then:
We stayed like that until it was our turn to have Allen and Linnea review our group’s presentation. We brought props down from our rooms (like my soccer jersey and painting of my Thai friend group) and went down the hall where they watched us speak and gave us notes. It all went fine and we were dismissed back to our hotel rooms shortly after at 9:00 pm which felt like 2:00 am to my jet-lagged brain. We ended up going to Henry’s room to talk for a while and it was interesting to see what things we all had in common in Thailand and the differences of our programs. Chloe and I returned to our bedroom by the 10 pm curfew. Mena, Zoe, and some of the kids from the Indonesia group came over to swap snacks, a project we started in country. We had some cute lil candies from Indonesia and watched them try Thai snacks like the infamous milk tablets, which Mena surprisingly liked. Then, I took a shower and got in my pajamas. Chloe took a shower after and Luka (from the India cohort) came in our room to ask for some toothpaste. I gave it to him and then we somehow started ranting and talking about our exchanges. Chloe got dressed, came out, and joined us for a while. By the time he left, it was like 11:30 pm but it was such a good conversation that I didn’t mind. Of course, by then I was no longer tired because that would have been too easy. I watched some American Netflix (another thing I missed) until I fell asleep.
Day 2: YES Abroad on Capitol Hill//
May 9th was an earlier day with a much more packed schedule. I woke up at 7:30 am, got dressed up, and put on makeup for my meetings. At 8:00 am, we had breakfast at the hotel and then departed for D.C. at 9:00 am. On the bus, I sat by Chloe and Sydney and we talked or listened to music until we got to the downtown area at around 10:00 am. Once we arrived, we talked for a bit and then completely split up because each YES Abroad kid had different Congressional representatives to meet with at different times. Luckily, Sydney was the other person at this orientation from Illinois so we had all of our meetings together. First, we walked with Adel (from the India cohort) and some of the other kids to the Hart Senate Office Building. Adel and the India cohort, as well as the Indonesia cohort, dressed up in cultural wear and they looked stunning. Sydney also wore a pretty cultural skirt and Luke, Chloe, and Sofia wore their school uniforms. Sydney and I walked over to Senator Tammy Duckworth’s office and had a meeting with one of her staff members. On our way out, we happened across former President Barack Obama’s office from when he was a Senator. I am a big supporter of the Obamas so I was very excited to see this.
Our next meeting wasn’t for a little while so we walked over to the U.S. Supreme Court building. It was beautiful and I stood in awe, thinking of all of the revolutionary decisions that had been made in the place towering over me.
We got a text from Chloe, saying her first meeting was done so we decided to meet her in a nearby Starbucks at Washington Union Station a few blocks away. I got a relaxing tea and sat at a little table with Sydney and Chloe, discussing how our meetings had gone so far.
Sydney and I had one more meeting with a staff member of a IL House Representative at 12:30 pm. After that, we had some more spare time so we visited the Thomas Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress (which is actually the second largest library in the world, therefore a perfect place for me!) I had never been before and I was fascinated by the wide array of exhibits on display. Unfortunately, our visit was far too short and I would have loved to spend hours taking in all the historic documents and rooms. Here are some photos of the Library of Congress:
There were also little photo ops advertising the Baseball Americana exhibit so Sydney and I took some funny photos:
Our last meeting was back in the Hart Senate building with a staff member from Senator Dick Durban’s office. Again, we had plenty of extra time afterwards so we met up with Chloe at the U.S. Capitol Building. We took some photos outside together, with the Thai flag, and with our Dhurakij Pundit University t-shirts to show our teachers:
Next, we went early to our scheduled lunch at the Union Station food court. I could spot the YES Abroad India kids from blocks away in their bright cultural clothes and riding around on scooters (who even knows how they picked those up!). Plenty of others in my group and I immediately surged towards Chipotle the second it caught our eyes. This was a moment I had been hopefully waiting for and dreaming about for months: the day I could finally order a Chipotle burrito bowl with sofritas, cilantro-lime white rice, black beans, fresh tomato salsa, guacamole, Monterey Jack cheese, sour cream, with chips and a lemonade on the side. Sometimes, in times of hysteria when we craved American food more than anything else imaginable, Sofia and I would jokingly pretend to place our Chipotle order to each other. I couldn’t believe it when the bowl was finally in my hands. I began scarfing it down at my very small lunch table (the station was crowded as ever) and my friends were equally silent and focused on their food. It was all I could have hoped for and more. I still was not finished when they called us to get back on our bus at 1:45 pm since the burrito bowls are huge. Neither had anyone else though so we took them with us and ate as much as we could before we arrived at the Department of State! We had to do a security screening and then we were escorted to a conference room for our presentations. Talking to our hosts, all successful people working in diplomacy, was amazing in so many ways. We sat down and diplomats, ambassadors, and people working in the Bureau of Educational and Cultural affairs filtered in. Country by country, we gave our presentations. I learned a ton of new things about Southeast Asia and better understood the lifestyles of my YES Abroad cohort abroad. My section went really well and I felt that I was engaging well with my audience. The other members of my Thailand cohort all did great too. After we all had presented, we had a bit of a Q & A section with our hosts about our feelings on studying abroad and what we had learned. It was an incredible, once-in-a-lifetime experience that I am so grateful for. We got back on the bus and I sat by Madison and Dane (from the India cohort) and a few others. Some of our memories of living in Southeast Asia were pretty similar but they surprised me a lot with the differences of cultures. I felt like I got to know the two of them way better and we even played a little prank on Luke, who had fallen asleep in the back of the bus. All of a sudden, our bus stopped. We had no idea what had happened but Allen ran back on our bus a few minutes later, which led to the front of the bus clapping. We all did too in the back and word got around that there had been a car accident and Allen pulled someone out of a car! Everyone was safe and we carried on our way. It was pretty crazy and we were all so exhausted that it amplified our surprise. At around 4:45, we finally got back to the hotel and had some free time to rest and relax. From 6:00 pm to 9:00 pm, we had more workshops discussing our day and how we felt, as well as dinner in the middle. Then, we went back to our rooms and some other kids were having a little get-together. I was tempted to go but way too tired to even think straight, as was Chloe so we opted out despite Mena’s and Madison’s invitations. At around 11 pm, Luke came knocking on our door, saying that his room was full of people and he couldn’t sleep. I groaned but understood his struggle so we pushed the beds together again and all slept amongst the two twin beds.
Day 3: Alumni Meetings and Graduation//
May 10th was our very last day in Washington, D.C. and my last day as a current member of the YES Abroad cohort. I woke up at around 7:00 am to find myself cold and uncomfy sharing the bed so I decided to pull “a Luke” and texted Sofia asking if I could go to her and Sydney’s room. She said yes and I stumbled across the hall until I snuggled up in her bed and rested with my eyes closed but half-awake for about another half-hour. Sydney came out of the bathroom, since she is a super organized morning person, no matter what the circumstances are (I wish), and managed to get me out of bed. I walked back to my room, got ready, and finished re-packing my suitcase. We had breakfast again in the hotel from 8:00 am to 9:00 am and then had an hour of workshops, talking about the future opportunities for alumni. At 10:00 am, we had a Skype call with YAAA, or the YES Abroad Alumni Association, who further explained the things we could do as YES Abroad alumni to stay involved with the program. We had a little closing meeting afterwards and then, finally, our graduation! We all gathered outside in a little courtyard and the weather was flawless, completely sunny and bright.
There, each of our names were announced and we were given our certificates of completion. We cheered out for all of our friends except poor Zoe who didn’t have a certificate made for her yet! It was really sad but Zoe didn’t take it too personally and we were all joking about it lots. We took some photos of us all with our certificates, including some Allen took somehow from the rooftop of the hotel?? I have no idea how he got up there.
We had a little toast with sparkling apple cider and then all headed back in the conference room. Madness ensued as we realized that our airlines for our flights back home changed and therefore, some of our luggage requirements did too. Everyone started frantically re-packing their bags and weighing them. I started getting rid of all kinds of things I realized I had no need for at all including my destroyed sandals that were wrecked from a year of being my only shoes and (this made Allen laugh a lot) two full bottles of mouthwash?? I don’t really know what I was thinking when I packed everything up; I just took everything I owned that fit in my bag. After that, we checked out and raced to the lobby waiting to leave. I said goodbye to Elsa, Mena, Zoe, Luka, Madison, Dane, and the other YES kids in the lobby.
Sydney and I’s van arrived and we hugged Chloe, Sofia, and Luke as tight as we can. I started to tear up looking at them and quickly distracted myself with getting my luggage in the van. I said goodbye and thank you to Allen, Linnea, and the other YES Abroad staff and hugged Henry and some others goodbye too. We hopped in the van and drove away, waving at Chloe, Sofia, and Luke.
Returning to Chicago//
I talked a bit with the others in the van, almost all from the Indonesia group, and we arrived at the airport in no time. We went to get checked in and Sydney realized she was still over the luggage weight limit. She went to the side and started pulling things out left and right, wearing all kinds of silly layers of clothes and adjusting things to her carry-on. I even put on some of it too to lessen her load and we looked hilarious in our mis-matched outfits. After that minor delay, we checked in and took the train down to our terminal with the YES Indonesia kids. Our gates differed so we said goodbye to everyone. Sydney and I started to get hungry so we went to Pret A Manger for lunch. We walked to our gate and ate our food as well as read until 3:30 pm, our boarding time, came. I sat down in the window seat and put in my headphones, looking out at D.C. and thinking of seeing my family in just one hour. Suddenly, I heard Sydney talking to someone but it was muffled from my music. Sydney looked up, as did I to see what was going on, and, shocking me so much my jaw dropped, MY MOM was asking if the seat next to us was taken! I had a billion questions but immediately tore off my seatbelt and ran into her arms crying because of how much I had missed her. We hugged as tight as ever and I heard the entire plane clapping while a flight attendant yelled out that I hadn’t seen my mother in a year and I had just come back from Thailand. I looked up at my mom in disbelief and started to laugh. We shuffled into our seats and I hugged her again. Apparently, my mom who has never before travelled for work had a conference in D.C. at the same time as my orientation! She was in the Capitol Building while I was taking photos outside of it! She received her flight information back home the night before and realized it was the same one as mine. She contacted the flight attendants, explained our situation, and begged to be seated by me. They agreed and helped her put the whole surprise together. At our gate, she disguised herself with sunglasses and a sweater so I wouldn’t notice. I was dumbfounded and over the moon. Here is the video of the whole surprise:
We sat back down and Sydney and I told my mum all about D.C. and Thailand in general. About fifteen minutes later, after the flight had taken off, the flight attendant came back and told us that somebody on the plane had anonymously asked to buy us whatever snacks we wanted from the menu! That was just the sweetest thing and we appreciated it so much. The three of us enjoyed the rest of our catching up over some pretzels and hummus and some mini cookies. An hour later, at 4:30 pm, we were back at O’Hare airport, where this whole journey began! My mum and I were going to catch a taxi back home but we waited until Sydney had found her family. We got our luggage and were standing by the carousel when Sydney broke out into a run and met an also running Delaney, her younger sister, with a huge hug. Then, she ran over to her parents and they all looked so overjoyed. We took some photos of them and I said hello to the Chestas as well before we had to go catch our taxi. I gave Sydney a hug but it wasn’t too sad, as she lives only forty minutes from my house! I was certain we would be hanging out again in no time. My mum and I had a forty minute ride home, talking about all the things new happening at home and what I had missed. My dad and host sister greeted me outside with huge hugs. I had never met Rino before but we had texted so much that it felt like I had. The gate to my garden opened and my brother, somehow taller than me, walked outside and gave me a hug. MY brother! The one who had a squeaky high voice and was at least a foot shorter than me when I left! Now he was 6’1” and his voice was all deep. It was so weird for me. I opened the front door to our house and a little dog jumped up in excitement at me! My parents marvelled at this since apparently our semi-new dog Jake had never jumped up before. My dog, Wrangler, died in August and my parents got a new dog, Jake, in November so this was my first time meeting him too. My house was super clean and in tip-top shape. My parents got new furniture so my living room somehow felt familiar enough to make me think “home!” but also totally different in a surreal way. On our piano was a huge poster my brother had made welcoming me home with photos of me and also some of us together from when we were kids. He also made me a cute, little card saying how happy he was to have me back home. It was a perfect day and a great way to start my new life back in Chicago.