Monday, September 17, 2012

The Sweet Life of an Expat in Thailand

An internet group called InterNations contacted me about featuring my blog on their web site.  They asked that I put their badge on my blog (you can see it on the right, a bit too big for my tastes), fill out a questionnaire and send them a photo.  I spent a bit of time thinking of answers to their questions and began to ruminate on a post about expatriation in general and my experience specifically.  The photo I picked is above; Here is the rather simplistic questionnaire and my attempt to describe this adventure I'm on.

1.    Please tell us a little bit about yourself. Who you are, where you come from, when you moved to Thailand, etc.
Born in Ohio in the U.S. Midwest, the son of a plastics salesman and his Canadian bride, I grew up after World War II in the south and as a teenager in Southern California in the 1950s. I was married twice and helped raise four kids, now grown.  My working life included careers in journalism, entertainment public relations, and magazine publishing. Twenty-five years ago I redefined myself as an academic, got a Ph.D. in environmental history and taught classes in philosophy and U.S. history.  After retiring, I traveled the world and five years ago settled permanently as an expat in Thailand.  Now I teach English several days a week to monks.
2.    When and why did you decide to start blogging about your experiences?
In the spring of 2006, I began writing an opinionated blog about my travels and thoughts on spirituality and world events, not to mention the perils and pleasures of aging. I chose for the title "Religion, Sex & Politics" because I was taught these were topics that should never be discussed in polite company.  But they happen to be the categories of life that interest me most.
3.    Do you have any favorite blog entries of yours?
All of them (and none).  I've written more than 500 posts and almost never go back to read over them.  The most popular have been posts about the conflict over ordaining women as nuns in Thai Buddhism and the playground for sexpats in Pattaya. It's more of a sequential memoir than a travel journal, but my life in Bangkok always provides food for thought.  I'm happiest when I've succeeded in saying something honest about myself. Quite often these are confessions of failure and hope for acceptance.  As for religion, I've traveled a path from practicing as a devout Catholic (with social justice leanings) to a deep respect for the Thai mix of Buddhism, Brahmanism and magical animism.  Mostly the spirituality I affirm is all about being a good person in this world with no thought for institutional rules and an afterlife.
4.    Tell us about the ways your new life in Thailand differs from that back home. Did you have trouble getting used to the new circumstances? Did you experience culture shock?
Before I left the U.S., I was a elderly, retired bachelor living in a converted garage in northern California whose major daily event was a trip to the café for cappuccino.  Now I'm married to a wonderful Thai woman and we live in a 9th floor apartment with a spectacular view of the city I have come to love. I took to expatriation like a duck takes to water and never experienced culture shock.  This is perhaps because I visited Thailand three times before moving here for good, and an old friend living in Bangkok and Surin schooled me in the ways of Thai culture.  At the end of my first year, another friend nominated me as expat rookie of the year, which pleased me enormously.  I am fascinated every day by the life I lead here and the adventures that take place all around me.
5.    Do you think you were fully prepared for what awaited you in Thailand? If you could, would you change some decisions/preparations you made?
When I was younger I traveled to many foreign places, living in London for two years in the 1960s, and in the years after retiring from teaching I spent extended periods in Buenos Aires and in Tamil Nadu, India.  Although I never dreamed of expatriation in Asia (Paris or Mexico was a more likely choice), on my first visit to Thailand, a side trip after India, I became quickly hooked and never looked back.  If I had it to do over again, I would have moved to Southeast Asia at a younger age.  Learning Thai when I still had my hearing and memory would have helped.
6.    Every expat knows that expat life comes with some hilarious anecdotes and funny experiences. Care to share one with us?
At first, it was impossible for me to figure out why Thais, even in the big metropolis of Bangkok, walked so slowly. I constantly found myself rushing to get passed them, like the broken field running of a quarterback.  Eventually I had an epiphany: The real goal is not to get anywhere quickly but to stroll leisurely and enjoy the sights. Thailand taught me this.
7.    Which three tips would you like to give future expats before they embark on their new life in Thailand?
First, stop thinking in dollars, Fahrenheit temperatures, the 12-hour clock, distances in miles and weight in pounds; Thailand and the rest of the world do it differently.  Second, don't try to sit on your heels or eat food as spicy as the Thais like it; you have to be born here for that.  Finally, keep an open mind and jettison your preconceptions about differences between human beings.
8.    How is the expat community in Thailand? Did you have a hard time finding like-minded people or fellow expats?
Expats come to Thailand for work, retirement, the beaches, or sex.  And too many of them constantly bitch and moan about Thais and Thai culture on the expat Internet discussion boards, or in letters to the editors at the two English newspapers in Bangkok.  Politically, they side with the upper-class royalists against the democratic aspirations of the majority of Thais who live outside the capital.  I've found that many of those who move here to retire and/or come to find a life partner generally keep an open mind and are curious about their new home.  My friends read articles and books, and attend talks on politics, Buddhism and culture organized by the Foreign Correspondents Club, the Siam Society, Little Bang Sangha, Bangkok Art & Culture Center, and the National Museum Volunteers.  Bangkok is a big city; it has something for everyone.
9.    How would you summarize your expat life in Thailand in a single, catchy sentence?
The sweet life in Thailand is just a bowl of mangoes -- "Don't take it serious, life's too mysterious" (borrowed from the song by Lew Brown and Ray Henderson, sung by Ethel Merman in  the 1931 musical "Scandals").


Roxanne said...


What a great blog entry. I enjoyed reading this.

I like that ending photo of you standing in front of the field. You look so relaxed and happy.

Take care,

Ed Ward said...

InterNations is a weird outfit. They send me invitations to get-togethers with the other Montpellier bloggers in their net, yet they want me to put up a badge like yours for Nice, which is a couple of hundred miles away. I tried writing them about this, but to no avail. If they have other bloggers here (and who are they?) why do we have to be lumped in with people at the other end of the country? Guess I should go to one of the events and see if I can figure out who they are.

Ian H said...

What's the difference between an expat and an immigrant?