29 May, 2017

I am exactly who you want me to be.

Tyler West is a Fulbright-AMCHAM English Teaching Assistant in Chiang Saen, Northern Thailand, where he teaches English to Mattayom level students. This year is Tyler’s second time teaching English in Thailand for he spent a summer educating in Phuket during college. His experience in Phuket changed his perspective on his future, on the world, and on himself—immersing himself into writing and visual arts, which is now a common past-time. He is from Boston, Massachusetts and graduated from Claremont McKenna College as a Psychology major. He hopes to use the knowledge gained from this Fulbright experience to inspire others to discover and follow their intuitions. 

At first it was silent, a pure silence, one that I thought would never leave, it was oddly familiar and comforting, but it seemed so distant, like as if I reached for it, I would lose my hand. It was like this was what would be heard from the inside of a pristine, clear crystal. The way it cloaked my surrounding caused me to remain very still. On the first night in my new home in a foreign small town called Chiang Saen, located on the northern border of Thailand, that shared a scenic view of the Mekong River with Laos, I looked for someone to talk to. I knew no one was there, but I still looked. I had an idea what I was searching for, my mind blending thoughts with lyric with whispers, it was the kind of utterance that could be heard, but lost if focused on.

I knew no one was going to speak up from behind my bedroom door or rise up from under my twin-sized mattress and metal frame to greet me [believe me, I had checked], but the silence was starting to get under my skin and I wanted some thoughts to circulate that were other than my own. That night, I remember having the lights off as I laid on the blue stiff-sheeted bed staring at the tiled ceiling, dozing off, thinkin

I have been here before.

Odd how years ago look like last week from inside the crystal, and it is even odder that I am visited by questions I asked in my adolescence and the earnest statements spoken to me on my high school graduation day. This type of solitude, this deep deep deep deep dive, plays the same games as it used to, finding a way to move the dark, dashing the distance between you and the greater cosmos; that’s how I knew this was familiar. I knew that out there floats a nondescript pair of chanting, muttering lips that had a quiescent buzzing that never stopped

At that moment, I was keen, the room was at the surface and the space was empty besides myself, some basic bedroom furniture and three lifeless suitcases. The lips must be sleeping, I thought, catching up on the lag, figuring itself out, still lost somewhere over the Pacific Ocean, muttering. Then suddenly the silence of the room began to turn like I was strapped with vertigo, and a temperament wet the room. 

All the places you’ve been, and you are home.

[That was all I could make out.]

* * * * * *

The lilt of schoolgirls and schoolboys lingers around Chiang Saen Wittayakhom’s campus until about 18:00 o’clock on Fridays with a lightness sweet with thoughts of the next day, and in this particular case, the next three days as Monday was a national Buddhist holiday. I walk the two hundred yards from the English Teacher’s Office to my house on campus in less than three minutes. I get home, drop my bag, change out of my teacher clothes and open my shutters.

Light sprints into the room doing cartwheels, throwing spirals, and the final rings of worrylessness gleam by with the passing of a school van. Two weeks have passed without this room seeing this light and the floorboards' immediate reaction was this booming sort of crackling. Reaching my hands far above my head, I stretch to push everything out, 

trying to ready myself for the long weekend ahead.

* * * * * *

About a
 month ago, after spending Thanksgiving weekend in Chiang Rai City with other Fulbright peers, I left the city seated at the back of a green bus that looked like it had been designed in the 80s and running ever since. For the whole hour and a half ride to Chiang Saen, I had a restful feeling coursing through me, telling me that it was time to settle in. So when I got home, I went to find my paints and pens and pencils that were still in their boxes and spread them out on the table. Looking over the street and at the other teacher houses on campus, there was not a person in sight, and that recognition—for one reason or another— firmly gripped me and twisted my lid open. And there was a satisfying tingle that filled the air and my fingers, like when you open a fresh jar of pickles and feel the pop. 

Without a word, I was decanted and spread across the wooden floors of my new home. For that week, I stepped 
outside of myself and the world around me. I converted the second bedroom in my new home into a part-study, part-studio, and also took it upon myself to transform it into something more than that. This space was given to me for one year, a year that I am blessed to be gifted, and I wanted to make this space representative of that. I think that’s what was getting under my skin, scratching at my walls. My recent affliction for creating art and the rush that accompanies the process seemed to have been patiently waiting for this space and this time to become, and for once in my life, I knew exactly what I had to do and exactly where I needed to be.

A photo I took of one of my students preparing for the school's march for the commencement of sports day. Here, you can see the fog that rests over the Mekong River most mornings.

By the next weekend, I had grown these strange desires, ones of a wallowing recluse, where I did not want to witness another’s walking pace or spoken word or even their manner of washing their hands for fear that it may untie my focus and potentially tarnish my perspective and its inspirations. In my bedroom studio, hours slid by unnoticed like a black cat’s strut overnight sand; hours where I was thoroughly entranced and riveted, putting lines, colors, and water on the page. Everything I have learned about the world its motionsfrom human psychology to rhythm recognition to social dynamics to spatial awareness—were felt inside of me like leaves swirling in a wind tunnel as I put paint together with curves and paired angles with patterns and symbols. I was looking for what rules held a simple design together. And then I would tell myself to go crazy, and break the rules I just spent hours defining. And then I would be mad at myself and risks. And then I would take a step back and see it differently. And I would start anew. 

It was as if I were in a bowl of soup of my own making and I yearned only to bask, bathe and butterfly within it, all the while acknowledging the reality that just over the brim of this bowl, all ceased to exist. The rest of the world succumbed to this blossoming interest of mine and bowed, fading to black. Every evening it got darker. After the sun dipped its head in the ocean, there was an uncanny motivation inside of me to get to work, and this radiated through the floors and up the walls of my state.

A genuine thrill rose up from the space, and gradually I found myself no longer in a chamber of silence, but amongst company; ones of my kin. For with each creation and each development, there was a new character, interaction and relationship in my life to maintain and get to know, like each design and concept was an excitable, breathing child yanking on my end of shirt posing questions. And before I could realize it, I was surrounded, though isolated, on this island. Part of me knew this was all I ever wished for, part of me was speechless, but as the creations came to life night after night, the words emitted by the floating lips became more comprehensible, more guiding.

A digital collage piece that is mad compositing photos I've captured of flowers, a camp fire, my inspriation—my girlfriend, and a sketch that I created. This work took up many of my hours of solitude in my home in Chiang Saen, and for that I am so thankful.

I spent mornings studying Gaugin, Malevich, Kandinsky and his text Concerning the Spiritual in Art. Then I would indulge in writings of eastern philosophy, thoughts pertaining to Taoism, Buddhism, and the Zen mind. By night, I was filling my rooms up entirely with water, and letting myself be surrounded by its muted buzz, simultaneously trying to communicate, swim and fly. Entire days came and went and all that I asked for was no disturbances. 

Drawing inspiration from my studies and the depth of musical soundscapes, I returned to being a student, a serious student, one with more air

and thusly more fire. Novel phrasing, niche terminology, and different ideas took my understandings and altered them, changing how I approached creating an artwork and more so

my lifestyle, asking the rules and standards to no longer be boundaries but mere objects and props. One painter’s style sticks close to representation, another vies to completely reject it. 

[Asking: What do I do? Both? Something in the middle? Neither? What does “neither” look like?]

There was no proper side that I should choose; there was only my choice. And that was liberating. These were lofty, high-reaching thoughts to consider for a new man in a lone room. But I was lucky—it was not just me anymore, there was other life present in my works, and they could talk me through it. 

believe everything happens for a reason, when this line is drawn it give the possibility for the next line, the next angle to be drawn, and that how all the elements are related. For me, a component of the process that I find so very intriguing is the ability and challenge for the mind to see things that are not there yetto conceptualize and to feeland to be tasked with finding a way to make what you see come to be. What I knew to be true was that parts of my story and my experience somehow managed to be externalized in this artistic process and, with due effort, successfully put myself on display right in front of me—like my works were a mirror.  And I became obsessed with looking at myself, my past, my future.

* * * * * *

Inspiration came from all angles—there is no other way to put it—I was experiencing the wonder that many minds have tried to outwardly explain, but could not quite capture its grandeur because, as I realized, it is too intricately constructed and uniquely personalized in each of us.

Though, one thing we all knew, the energy of it all was undeniable; it is powerfully distracting and wholly consuming. 

From this position, the crystal could not have been any clearer, and the words no sharper, for all the time alone and this personal space to create revealed a dormant, clandestine side of me that is closer to whom I really am than the person I wear on my back. A side—rather, a personthat I always have known was there, and for as long as I can remember, it was this someone that I constantly summoned and one [though I don’t know his name] who gave me veiled replies. But it was not until these hours, in this space, that he opened his door, opened his lid, poured me a glass, and sang me a song. It was as if I was meeting my legitimate father for the first time who had been my neighbor my entire life. I felt much older and at the same time as sprung as a child. 

Together—we talk and talk and talk. Together—we break down bricks and mold our own castes from its clay, marvel at the flame of struck matches and the constellations that form theories across our open sky. Looking down at the foothills, I don’t think I could have done this without him. In fact, without him, this mountaintop probably would not even exist.

A picture of three of my students and I on the last day of school before New Year's break.

When it has spoken and every of pencil lines has been erased, there stands another piece of myself, free of ever vessel. Togetherwe rejoice for the connection we have made is much greater than any single point or any single line; we achieved the impossible, the immaculate, for we created one from one. 

Looking at myself in this mirror I am proud of the person that I see, the person I have made. I would not take back any moment, any decision, I would not take away any line that was drawn as that would be jeopardizing everything else that followed. I am proud of my determination, proud that I can make what I envision a reality. I am proud I have made it past tomorrow. I didn't know this process would end in feeling a heightened sense of love for myself. All I knew was thatdeep deep deep deep downit was what felt fitting and good and right.

Taking a second, I looked at the four orange midnight-glazed walls that cradled all of me. And I thanked them. This discovery would not have reached the surface if I were not given this time, this space, and this opportunity to create my insides outwardly and to follow my gutmy illustrious intuitionwhich, I believe, is what led me to self-love.

* * * * * *

Three hours have passed since the light danced in through my windows and splintered the dust covered floor, but I remain in the same place, unmoved, oozed over immobile by some kind of glue and I can’t find that guiding voice. The long weekend ahead grows more daunting with each moment of stasis and beaded sweat in the confines of my part-study, part-studio. At the moment, what is circulating through my head is not the life that lived in this space a couple weeks ago, but the recent social life that recorded many memories and burns them bright. And I am stuck here, stunned by the past, tangled in the fact that I cannot go backwards and relive and redo, and therefore cannot go forward. The whirls get so 
wicked that I am suddenly asking myself:

Who are you? Who are you?

For some reason, the actions
 of my seventh grade self that caused my first love to fall and leave me disappointed come to haunt me, crippling me. I stand up to find my legs and go over to the speaker and turn the music up louder as if that would bring the voice back to me, but it didn’t. It makes things worse. And then the song changes, and it's my favorite, and chills turn my skin to brail, and there I am again—a younger me—singing the words of my youth’s religion, finding that the problems that shackled me then have not been broken away from me now almost a decade later. And my spine folds. 

A watercolor piece that I mixed with digital art, using an old photo of myself
when I was an adventurous kid and some digital lettering. 

From between the two parted wooden shutters, a bike’s wheel crunches a dry, open-faced, fallen autumn leaf and in a found rhythm, the bike’s bell chimes once, twice and I am instantly reminded of where I am. I stop the music, but mindlessly continue singing the words of my creed, urging myself to feel how I did when I first

heard this melodyto be inspired and hopeful and understood and angry and isolateddetermined and lost. But every color looked different in me now. I have gone places, I have changed.

1: Who are you?

2: Give me time, and we will see. Who are you?

1: I am exactly who you want me to be.

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