Thai officials detain Burmese migrants and Rohingya Muslims in Nakhon Si Thammarat province.
Conflicts in the Middle East and Africa have produced a flood of immigrants seeking refuge elsewhere, particularly Europe, the U.S. and Canada. Many are fleeing to save their lives and hoping for a new life in another country, preferably one with opportunities for work. But no one describes the Muslim migrant in Indiana or Stockholm as an expat. Objections to the influx of immigrants and rising Islamophobia have resulted in conservative political movements that call for closed borders. But while I face irritating bureaucratic hurdles each year, no one in Thailand is calling for a ban on expats.
There may be several hundred thousand immigrants in Thailand, legal and illegal, mostly from Myanmar and Cambodia. You can see them on construction sites and in the nearby shanty towns built for temporary labor. Many beg on the streets. Migrants have little status and are tolerated more than accepted. There is clearly a class difference between expats and immigrants.
I've reflected on these distinctions here before. There are many labels for the traveler who leaves home and goes to another place elsewhere. Some seek adventure and others leave because they have no choice. Their home has been destroyed and their neighbors are being killed. My reasons pale by comparison. California simply became too expensive on my retirement income. I received a small pension from the University of California along with health insurance (the minimum is $1,000 now which makes it only useful for catastrophic care), and a decent sum from Social Security because of a few high-salary years in the music business. In California, I could afford a garage studio apartment and not much else. In Thailand it is a princely sum.
Still, I imagine my homebound friends asking, why become an expat? Why leave your friends and family and everything that is familiar and move permanently to a strange place where people look odd, think differently and speak a language you cannot understand? In retrospect, I believe that I was raised to be an expat.
Toledo, Ohio, was my birth home. I remember little about it except for the Art Museum where I watched cartoons on Saturday and the girl next door who let me play doctor behind the tree in full view of my mother's kitchen window. After the war when I was six, we moved to Greensboro, North Carolina, where my dad got a job selling plastics. I remember vacations on the beach at Nags Head and in Florida where my father grew up. After a couple of years we moved to Lenoir in the western part of the state where my dad sold glue for plywood to make furniture. Moving so often meant it was difficult to find and keep close friends. A year or so later we moved again to Atlanta where my father managed a lumber warehouse for a year. Our final move as a family in 1953 was to the foothills of Southern California. I couldn't have been happier to start my teenage years not far from Hollywood where I hoped to work someday as an actor (I know, some kids want to be firemen, but I was different).
after working the summer as a maître d' at a hotel on Cape Cod.
It was my first trip out of the country and the Tres Estrellas d'Oro bus took me from Tijuana to Mexico City where Ted met me. Mexico was surprising, scary and wonderful to this first-timer. Ted had a tiny apartment on a dirt alley and friends all over the city that included Helen Hayes and Barbara Hutton, as well as with numerous "remittance men" sent south by their wealthy families to avoid scandal. When his friend Alicia arrived from New York, we traveled south to the peninsula by bus and around to Veracruz and back again. He had a writing table made for my Smith-Corona and I pounded out bad poetry under the jacaranda tree in his patio.
And that was it for overseas travel for the next 40 years. My wife and I had two sons we raised in Southern California. After that marriage ended, I met my second wife in Northern California and we had two children, a daughter and a son who was born in Connecticut where were lived for a couple of years when I worked in magazine publishing in Manhattan. We traveled several times to Florida to visit both sets of grandparents, and we also went to Hawaii to stay in a rain forest with an old friend. The tropical climate was wonderful and we considered moving there, but the living was too expensive.
My second marriage ended as I finished writing the doctorate and I taught a few courses in California history and environmental history. Going through another divorce turned my world upside down. I slept in borrowed rooms and tried to reinvent myself as a single man in his mid-60s. The prospects did not seem great. First my mother died in Florida, and then my ex-wife bought out my share of our house. I sold my mother's house, split the proceeds with my brother, and suddenly I had traveling money. I had been teaching a few classes but the students were more interested in partying than in reading books and I was fast losing any desire to help them. The road beckoned.
Religion determined the next trajectory. Influenced by the writings of Thomas Merton and Simone Weil, I'd converted to Catholicism in the 1980s. But I also retained an interest in Buddhism going back to high school. I began meditating in Connecticut and continued with a local sangha in California, a mixing and matching that I felt Merton would approve. I spent time at a monastery in Big Sur and read about an ashram in India founded by Catholic monks from Brittany and continued by a British priest. I learned of an annual tour to Shantivanam in Tamil Nadu, India, and joined them in January of 2004. It was an eye-opening experience and I returned several more times over the next three years, sometimes in a group and sometimes by myself.
Finally Thailand, where ten yes ago I became either an expat or an immigrant, depending on your point of view. My daughter had been an exchange student in Chiang Mai in 1992, bypassing Bangkok by changing planes at the international airport. There had been demonstrations in the capital and people had been shot by soldiers. The north, we were told, was peaceful. She brought back a collection of straw hats and funny shaped Thai pillows that her Thai family had given her. I flew to Bangkok from Chennai after my first trip to India in 2004 and was met at the airport by an old friend from the music business days and his Thai wife. From the taxi I could see huge photos of the king on the side of numerous tall buildings.
I returned to Thailand two more times after trips to the ashram in India. Each journey was planned to see more of the country. On the second visit I traveled by train and bus up to the north, stopping at Ayutthaya, the monkey city of Lopburi, Sukhothai and Chiang Mai with a side trip to the valley of Pai near the Myanmar border, a backpacker outpost. For the third trip, I landed on the island of Koh Samui where I spent a week on and off the beach with a lady of the night. It's amazing how much you can say without a language in common. That week I decided that Thailand was where I wanted to stay for the foreseeable future. I would return to California, dispose of my possessions and return for good within six months.
Coming next: Why was I voted Expat Rookie of the Year for 2008 by my Bangkok friends? Why would a farang want to live in Thailand the rest of his life? What's to like and what's not to like about Bangkok life?