A Life Abroad

A few years ago, I learned something valuable: girls compete with each other and women empower one another. It’s possible that we can all do our own thing and support one another’s dreams and ideas.


This blog itself was really scary for me to launch—I never wanted anyone to think I was taking myself, my writing or my passions “too seriously”… So I wrote. I observed. And I photographed. And I cooked. And I styled. And I mothered. And I dealt with my mental illness. And I lived my life…And then shared how I did so, and what I learned or took away with each new endeavor. Now, less than a year later, Forever Golden Living has reached 80,208 views, and I couldn’t be more thankful for the support I’ve received, and the people I’ve met along the way.

A little later than planned, I am launching my first post in May: A Month of Inspiring Women. I have taken time to interview a few females who lead meaningful lives (which to be honest, I think we all do)—simply by being themselves. Each woman I will feature has a story that inspires me to work hard, chase my ambitions, and to endlessly search for life’s golden opportunities. There are so many people and women who inspire me.

The first story I want to share with my readers is that of my longtime friend, Nicole Zibolski. She is one of the sweetest, most hilarious and genuine people I’ve ever gotten to know, and I’m thankful that we met in elementary school.

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Two years ago, Nicole packed her bags and moved out of the country. She has been living in Thailand teaching English as a second language since.  This April, she came home for a visit, and I was fortunate enough to spend some quality time with her.

Nicole allowed me to take some photos of her while she was home this April. She’s beautiful inside and out! 


Growing up in Small-town-USA, also known as Cannon Falls, MN, Nicole was a longtime fan of travel, and always knew she would live abroad at some point in her life.

After graduating from Gustavus-Adolphus College with a major in Anthropology and Sociology and a minor in Art History, Nicole was ready for something new, and something far, far away.

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I learned about teaching English, (and) signed up for the next Teaching English as a Foreign Language course (a certificate needed to teach abroad) and applied to three different countries I’ve never been to (Tunisia, Thailand, and South Korea). Thailand was the first to get back to me, so off I went!”

I remember Nicole sharing her news with our friends. We were sort of shocked, but also not so much. She was spontaneous. She was free. And she was destined to experience her life to the fullest.


She’s now traveled to 18 countries (four different continents!). Her favorite countries are the Philippines and Austria, two totally different landscapes and cultures, but she says both are equally beautiful and exciting.

The place in the Philippines I’m actually referring to is my fiancés hometown, which is a beautiful combination of mountains, rainforest, and ocean,” she told me.

That’s right, Fiance. Nicole met John through a mutual friend at her school. He’s been teaching in Thailand for almost six years, so she says he understands the struggles of being away from home and adjusting to life in a foreign country.

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He’s seen me at my highest and lowest points, and has always been there for me. And he never judges me either. No matter how big or small the problem is, he listens and helps calm me down.”

Nicole calls John her “person”… Her other person, back in the US, is her mom.

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She will always answer my Facetime calls, even if it’s 3am and I’m crying because my air conditioner broke. She never judges me either, and always offers comforting words and solutions.”

Nicole currently lives in Bangkok, but her journey started in a small village in Central Thailand called Lamnarai.

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I’ve experienced both the country and city life in Thailand. My first teaching job was in a typical rural community. There was hardly any Western influence in the area (Lamnarai), and even fewer Westerners! I lived alone in my own motel-style apartment next to the other foreign teachers. Living next to the other teachers was great, especially when you were feeling down, or needed moral support trying to capture a rogue bathroom scorpion! I was lucky enough to have a wonderful old Thai woman as a landlord (her name was Banye, but we called her Banye West), who acted like a grandmother to me. When I was sick, she would make me soup or a fresh mango smoothie. When a mysterious man followed me home one afternoon, she chased him away with a machete (like a legit machete).”

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Haha! Thank goodness for Banye.

I currently live in the crazy, chaotic, and crowded city of Bangkok. I have a small studio condo near the Chao Phraya River, which is so different than my apartment in Lamnarai. There is a rooftop pool and workout center in my building, and a wide variety of people who live in it. I’m surrounded by skyscrapers instead of rice paddies. I can’t say which one I like better, because there are pros and cons to both!”

I’m completely astounded by Nicole’s ability to pick up the Thai language, which has all been self taught. When she arrived, she didn’t even know how to say “hello”! She says she picks a lot of it up from the children she teaches.

I asked her what teaching a foreign language is like.

It’s entertaining and hilarious, but also challenging. I really try to keep it light and fun by playing games, which the students love, but when I’m teaching technical grammar like the past perfect, it’s difficult to play fun games and keep the students attention. Sometimes I get a bit nervous when it’s English grammar that I MYSELF don’t even know, and hope that no one asks a question that I don’t have an answer to! I also really love to do art projects with my students because they are so creative. I’m amazed by their ability to think outside the box and create something so unique.”


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Along with the creative spirit of the students, Nicole says the schools in Thailand have a large emphasis on FUN, and activities like a Battle of the Bands, Dance Competitions, Sports Week, and more. These festivities ALWAYS trump class.

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When asked about relationships with her students, Nicole said it varies, depending upon the town she’s in.

Thai students are very sweet and thoughtful. I’m always receiving little gifts from my students, like flowers made out of soap or Thai jelly candies. On my birthday, a few students made a bunch of happy birthday signs, ambushed me in the hallway, and gave me a big chocolate cake! But the seriousness about school was different. In Lamnarai, it was very difficult to have all the students listen because I often had 50 students in each class. It was also a public school, where most of the students were children of farmers, so learning English wasn’t high on their priority list.”

The culture is a bit different in Bangkok.

(Now) I work at a private, all-girls school and have 8-25 students in each class. There are less distractions in class and a higher focus on preparing for the future, so my students are more serious about their school work.”

Her relationship with the teachers is centered around R-E-S-P-E-C-T. 

Hierarchy plays a very big role in Thai culture, so showing respect to people who are “higher” than you is very important. I’m constantly wei-ing (a respectful gesture where you place your hands together and bow) to the teachers around the school.”

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When Nicole began her first job, she had been informed that all of her materials and lessons would be provided. They weren’t, and she was forced to think fast and make plans from scratch.

Although she didn’t know it when she left, much of the Thai lifestyle is “go with the flow.” Nicole says she’s become much more relaxed since living abroad. The plans she makes for herself often get changed, and she has to be ready for essentially anything.

My first day of teaching went like this: I was told it was “orientation” day and that I wouldn’t need to bring anything to school. I thought this meant that I’d meet the Thai teachers, walk around the school, and go over the curriculum. I was taken right to my desk and told that I had a class in 10 minutes. WAIT WHAT?! I thought this was orientation day?! I don’t even have a pen! What age are the kids? Where is the classroom? WAIT WHAT?! And all I was told was, “Oh don’t worry! Just play a game!” AHHHHMYGAWDOKAY.”

I was really sad when Nicole told me about a particular part of Thai culture. She said the people are very vocal about appearance. 

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been called fat here. Every day. Multiple times a day. I would be walking through the market, and a street vendor would call out to me saying, “Big size! Have big size!” and I would just smile and keep walking, but definitely not smiling on the inside…They’re not saying it in a malicious way, it’s just a different mentality that Westerners aren’t particularly used to.”


One of the biggest changes Nicole has seen in herself is her transition from “party girl” to someone who is respected and takes her career seriously.

I know I probably could have changed my behavior on my own at home, but when everyone you know is in their early twenties and all social events revolve around drinking, it’s a bit difficult. But when you’re forced to change your behavior for your job, and so you don’t commit cultural taboos, it’s easier to get your act together. It was time that I changed, and I wanted to change! I didn’t like the person I was becoming, and Thailand was able to help me do that.”

I asked my friend if there has been a moment where she felt like she was somewhere she “belonged”…

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There are little moments that happen where I just smile to myself and know this is what I should be doing. Like when I’m on the motorbike taxi on the way to school and I see the monks collecting their offerings, or when a student drops off a sweet note for me, or when a monitor lizard gets loose in the market and everything turns into chaos. Little moments like these make me smile and know that this is where I belong for now.”

From Nicole’s interview, and watching her experience abroad evolve the last couple of years, I’m inspired to be a little more fearless.

She’s brave and has made for herself the life she longed for.

Although she does not have solidified plans for the future, she says at some point, she sees herself returning to America with John. The best advice she can give to anyone considering travel is…

JUST DO IT. Don’t think too much about it and just GO. Fear keeps us from doing so many amazing things. Don’t overthink, don’t say, “What if…” JUST GO. And if you do go, remember it’s about the journey, not the destination. Have fun, laugh, and enjoy the moment.”

**Photos from Nicole’s adventure abroad come from her Facebook page.


Published by

Kelly Jo Johnson | Forever Golden Living

wife & mama. blog author. photographer. style obsessed. for booking & collaborations 📧: kellyjophoto@gmail.com

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