The train station in Lopburi, Thailand was always the best place to play. It was an outdoor station, so when you waited for the train, you could look left or right and see the horizon where the train would suddenly appear.
It wasn’t uncommon for us to be at the train station. We would take the 10 minute drive to the station to pick up new missionaries coming to town. And At the beginning of the school year, we would drive my sister to the station and wait with her for the train to arrive. My friends were usually there too, to say goodbye to their older siblings. The missionary kids in the area would leave for boarding school together. That way there’s more of a support system for both parents and kids.
The kids leaving for school were always so serious and sad. They would be still… huddled with the parents, and waiting in silence. But to us younger siblings, there was so much to explore. We snuck close to the tracks and looked in the cavern where the beast would soon approach. I would rebelliously toss a pebble or a leaf on the rails and feel the pull to play in the forbidden area. But I was a good girl. I knew how to be safe by train tracks. We dared to venture further down the railroad with the hopes of being the first one to spot the train. We played tag, running and laughing between the groups of families saying their goodbyes.
Good things come to those who wait…
Yes, the train station was the best playground around. But the most exciting trip to the train station was the year when I would be the one boarding the train. I was 6 years old (my sister was 10), and I was about to embark on my first year at boarding school. I knew the year would be good because, for the first time, instead of waving goodbye to my sister, I would be going with her! I would be entering “big girl” territory.
I don’t remember being afraid.
I remember my sister being sad and my parents comforting her.
I remember being anxious for the train to arrive…hoping that it would come soon.
The train came with the familiar and exciting chink-chink… chink-chink of the wheels on each track. The thick growl of the engine stirred a fearful excitement in me. When you’re six years old, looking up at a huge, steaming metal beast … well, it’s a little intimidating, but it’s a thrill!
My sister had her strong face on, but it tends to break a little with the first train sighting. My dad walked us onto the train, carrying our bags. I wondered what would happen if he didn’t get off the train in time. Would he go to school with us? Would he have to spend the entire year at the dorm and leave mom alone? We saw other missionary kids already in their seats. The dorm assistant (our guardian for the trip) helped us find our places. We all sat together.
My dad got off the train. He hugged my mom, and together they waved… our strong parents. They put on brave faces. Faces that communicated “Goodbye, We love you, you’ll have so much fun, we’re not worried.” But I knew those faces from before… from when we would say goodbye to my brothers as they boarded the plane for their school in the Philippines, and from when we would say goodbye to my sister as she took this same train to school. They are faces that disappear when the goodbyes are over, and the parents finally allow themselves mourn the loss of their children for yet another year.
I didn’t think much of their sadness when I got on that train. I was going on an adventure! I waved proudly out the train window with a huge grin on my face. Yup, I was a big girl. This was going to be fun! When the train wrenched forward, my stomach tied itself into a knot. The train always starts so slowly. If I had wanted, I could have quickly jumped back onto the platform. But I didn’t want that. My big sister was there, so I had all the love and security that I needed. Of course, when you’re 6 years old, it’s obvious that your 10 year old sister knows everything about the world. There was nothing to be afraid of. The journey was just beginning!
Night on the Chiang Mai Express
I made sure to show my sister all the exciting features of our seats. There was the cool net pouch on the wall that was perfect for stowing our secret treasures, like empty candy wrappers. Then there was the light in our compartment that we could switch on and off. So we could stay up past bedtime and still see in the dark! And then there were the curtains that we could pull together to turn our spot into a secret fort. Though it was really a piece of junk, the train felt like a 5-star hotel in that moment.
When the sun finally set, the train attendant came around and turned our seats into bunkbeds. The group of us missionary kids gathered ourselves on two bottom bunks opposite from each other. We looking out the window. We talked excitedly and shared the candy and snacks that our parents had packed for us.
The chink-chink…chink-chink… chink-chink followed us through the night. When my sister and I snuggled into the bed we shared, the chink-chink lulled us to sleep.
A New Light
I woke up to friends talking. The sun was up and the other missionary kids were sharing stories and playing games. The window showed alternating scenes of green fields that stretched out for miles, high mountains, small villages, big cities…Thailand was revealing itself to me through those windows.
The new day had brought a new outlook on life. No longer were we leaving home… we were beginning a new year at a new home. A home that might not have our parents, but it had guardians who would love and care for us as if they were our aunts and uncles. It was a home where every kid under the roof was a brother and a sister.
The initial farewell is always the hardest, but the year isn’t as bad as you expect. We would consistently get letters from our parents, plus the occasional care package stuffed with candy and stickers and stationary. Our guardians would plan fun trips for us to the waterfalls or the elephant village or the zoo. We went on adventures and played cowboys and princesses. We had tea parties and painted our nails. And of course, we got the education that would prepare us for life in America, or wherever our parents would take us next.
It’s important to remember that it was just as hard, if not harder, for the parents as it was for the kids to say goodbye. But for many kids who grow up overseas, boarding school is sometimes the best option for a good education. I only went to boarding school for one year, but I have a lot of great memories from that year.