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In less than four seconds, I made a decision that would forever change my life. Riding down a dark midnight highway only illuminated by the occasionally passing headlights and the fluorescent ice-blue cast from the screen of my FaceTime Audio call, speaker button on, I heard a casual, albeit hopeful question from my Uncle Tom’s floating voice:“Well, could you be on a flight to Bangkok by Sunday?”Now I knew I wasn’t in the upper level of an international Fortune 500 company or VP of the United States, private jet waiting in the wings, so was he really talking to me? In the words of any well-versed, cultured and novel-consuming sixteen-year-old teenager would say, I brightly and wisely replied, “Yeah!”On a fourteen-hour flight to Tokyo and the connecting six-hour flight to Bangkok that followed, I had a lot of time to think about my summer vacation and subsequent first time out of the country to visit my uncle, but the personal growth I gained was more than I ever expected. I was elated that we would be bouncing around all over Thailand from Chiang Mai to Phuket, south to Phnom Penh, and over to Saigon, Vietnam—but I never once considered the people I would meet.
Before my stay was over, my inner orbit had expanded to others, scattered further out: it now extended to the endearing elderly couple at Frannie’s Ice Cream in Vietnam, who immediately engaged in a kind conversation with me in French when I insecurely muttered a few phrases I knew; to the kind-hearted elephant trainer who, atop Wan Pen the Elephant’s head, smiled warmly and, in Thai, said that he liked my American accent; to the Italian man in the airport who wanted to talk about soccer (or football, as he would say) just as much as ask about American politics; to the Cambodian bellhops who dutifully kept the 6 pack of Dr. Pepper that Uncle Tom had left for them months before, waiting to open and share a can with him; to the animated Australian group we met in Chiang Mai who was on a nonprofit trip to bring feminine products to underprivileged areas, and many more. But above all, a special piece of my heart went out to eternally stay with a little boy in Cambodia; he couldn’t have been older than four, sleeping on a thin, undersized mat on the grimy sidewalk behind his mother’s noodle vending cart. My inner urge to help him just then, even to give him a pillow or some socks, was far too overwhelming for me to ever forget. You hear about people on TV, from the mouth of a lecturing teacher, see names printed bold in the headlines, but you never consider the people on the other side of the world until you’re actually there. We are all different, but I discovered the vein of humanity that runs through us all and makes us the same, with care of life, family, love; just people making choices every day with vivid memories and ambitions as important as my own, these new people I met from countries miles from my own and how happy were with simple things. The surreality and complexities of that notion had me awestruck. And it stunned me that the only way it was even happening was all because my uncle had reached out his hand to me. Seemingly ever self-sufficient and independent, to me, people had always been just that: people. A population of fellow inhabitants, extras in the background, passing peers in crowded hallways, generalized lives with parallel lines never intersecting with my own.
However, my worldview was irreversibly broadened, my own Pandora’s box cracked wide open and new opportunities and issues that truly matter came flying out, painting my mind with a thousand colors. I saw the world through the same lens as Uncle Tom’s Aviators as we cruised down the highway overlooking the Andaman Sea, me on the back of the motorcycle sipping a fresh coconut through a straw—and I wondered why on earth no one else had taken him up on the offer to stay abroad. I have always had a strong bond with my Uncle Tom, as we are both bookworms, love to make people laugh, and even discuss a scientific controversy or two (mostly Bigfoot and aliens)—but I was very impressed how well he, with no children, treated me like one of his own and dropped everything to spend the time to travel with me all across Southeast Asia while being preoccupied with law school summer classes. And we even did it in style; sometimes in business class seats, always in beautiful hotels, and with his geographical knowledge and ability to speak Thai and some Vietnamese—he went above and beyond, all for me. Because of him, I gained an incredible insight and it changed me forever. I look back at those times and still can’t believe it. Wherever my path may lead me, after finishing a degree in Maritime Studies and law school, I know I want to give back, to reach out and touch peoples’ lives and make them better. I see my journey not only moving forward, but inward to evolve my self, and outward to connect with others and help cultivate a better world for our lives. And I know my Uncle Tom will be encouraging me every step of the way, and for that, I am eternally grateful and infinitely excited.
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