Keep the Change by Chris Wilkensen

Don't look back, only forwards (Photo Credit: The Digital Traveller Archive, 2018)

In our first guest-writer contribution of 2019, Chris Wilkensen talks about some of those first-time trepidations in a new land. He speaks generically—not mentioning any place by name—but in tones that represent similar feelings regardless of the destination; emotions that many of us 'veterans' can vividly recall.

I boarded the plane to this country, not knowing its people nor its language. I knew it would be hard, but still made the trip. The fourteen-hour flight was followed by a three-hour bus ride down a highway with a view of a mountain every minute.

People at home told me not to run away, but I desperately wanted to escape. I wanted to flee from a plethora of problems, but upon arrival, I wanted to escape Asia.

On the bus ride from the airport, lights attempted to lighten up my gloomy perspective. Unlike the bright lights of America, I would never become blinded by Asia’s white, red and blue lights. After getting off the bus, all I could do was look at the natives around me, hoping they wouldn’t notice me. 

Store signs showcased characters which were illegible to me, but occasionally I saw some English words. Buildings had several floors, a different business on each. The whole city was alive and awake, just for my arrival, it seemed. This could only be in Asia. 

I was analyzing everything, feeling born again, in a totally different context. Culture shock. I was staring at the bright lights from the tall buildings and the neon signs from the smaller buildings. Few natives stared at me, and most paid no attention to me. Somehow I had it to sleep.

That morning, I had to check my e-mail for a possible way out of this. I walked outside the motel, passing ongoing stares from the natives speaking in tongues I didn’t understand. The older passersby were tan, almost bronze, while the younger ones were pale like printer paper. 

It's hard to soar shortly after landing; give it time (Photo Credit: The Digital Traveller Archive, 2018)

My mission was to find an internet café, with signs in English. I dodged bicyclists, moped riders and cars on the wide sidewalks made from brick, while also avoiding bowls of vegetables the vendors sold. A man handed me a numbered plastic card when I walked into the empty room of fifty computers and monitors. I opened my e-mail, never seeing so many unread messages before. The messages contained good wishes but no back-up plans.

I walked the same way back, terrified of getting lost. It was unbelievably hot for early May, so I picked up a water bottle from a 7-Eleven, a small reminder of home. I was struck by the glowing white skin of the cashier who was texting and smiling. Then she looked at me, no longer smiling.

She said the price in her native tongue. The language barrier frightened me. Then, she rang up the bottled water and extended her hand.  I was too busy admiring how her black hair matched her black eyes and how her pink nail polish matched her pink lips. Finally, I gave her a green bill from my wallet.

The clerk waited a couple of seconds, smiled for some reason and said something else. I gazed into her eyes while hers broke contact to look around the store. I was in good spirits. This country was full of people just like her. 

“Keep the change,” I said, hoping she understood. 

She lifted her head like she were looking back at the coolers. I turned around, just to discover I was holding up the line. 

I dashed out the door, into the chaos of the sidewalk. Someone grabbed my hand, a soft palm with a strong grip. The clerk. She yelled something, placed some paper and coins in my hand and closed it.  She ran back into the store.

“Thanks,” I said, hoping she heard me. What a feeling to be respected, almost wanted somewhere I perceived as unwelcome.

This definitely wasn’t home, but that was okay. It could be, someday, somehow. 

I stopped looking behind me. No turning back. 

EditorialChris Wilkensen is the pen-name of a highly experienced ESL teacher who has taught in the Far East and the Middle East. Chris has since left the industry for the marketing sector.

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