Thursday, March 06, 2014

Tourist, Traveler, Expat

"We shall not cease from exploration 
And the end of all our exploring 
Will be to arrive where we started 
And know the place for the first time.” 
T.S. Eliot Four Quartets

Tom Eliot started out in St. Louis, Missouri, but left for Paris in his twenties to study philosophy and write poetry, and he never looked back.  Settling in England, he converted to Anglicanism and took out citizenship, and became thoroughly British in everything but birth.

What is the difference between a tourist, a traveler and an expat?  At one time or another, I've been all three.  It doesn't seem quite accurate to call Eliot an expat, for he was a convert, trading one country for another. Although I've lived in Thailand now for almost seven years, I remain caught between two worlds, with one foot in the country of my birth, America, and another in this place I now call home.

Home, of course, is where the heart is, and that muscular organ in the chest that pumps our life's blood is always with us until the end.  Where we feel "at home" is another issue.  Some of us are never comfortable in our own skin and seek out comfort and peace ever elsewhere from our demons, through distraction, digression and even pilgrimage.  This "home" is a chimera, a carrot to drive the donkey cart of our self ever forward.  We think we can leave our troubles behind by going to a new place. Unfortunately, they're intimately connected to who we are and tag along.  There's no escape from the self, for that pesky traveler always finds a place to hide in our luggage.

Recently I was accused of pretending to be "an old Thai hand." Funny expression, that.  An "old hand" is someone skilled at something through long experience.  Back in 2008 when I was a newbie in Bangkok, a long-time resident in Southeast Asia jokingly nominated me "rookie expat of the year."  I accepted it with pride, but dreaded the day when I might lose my naiveté. Traveling around the world and living outside the U.S. for extended periods has been a joy because I find myself continually surprised by the unexpected.  I do not think surprise can be heightened through skilful means.  It must sneak up on you when you least expect it, and when you may in fact be looking for something else, like "home."

There's a definite pecking order between tourists, travellers and expats.  The traveler feels superior to the tourist and the expat looks down on both.  Tourists often travel in groups and follow an itinerary.  Their experiences are either of the "gee whiz, look at that!" variety or are followed by complaints about the food and the natives.  They collect destinations like playing cards (Grand Canyon! Angkor Wat! Disneyland!) Tourists take photos and buy souvenirs to share with friends back home.  They rarely visit the same scenic site twice.  Travellers seek out the unknown and unspoiled, take pride in spontaneity and the collection of visa stamps in their passport.  They make repeat visits and condemn change ("too crowded and noisy now that everyone's discovered it").  Some travellers become preoccupied with authenticity and hold out for surviving pockets of the "real" Africa, or Thailand, or Costa Brava, before it gets ruined by developers and bus loads of tourists.

Pico Iyer has written that "perhaps the real distinction lies between those who leave their assumptions at home, and those who don't: Among those who don't, a tourist is just someone who complains, 'Nothing here is the way it is at home,' while a traveler is one who grumbles, 'Everything here is the same as it is in Cairo -- or Cuzco or Kathmandu.' It's all very much the same." Tourists are looking for the familiar in the strange (and finding it lacking), while travellers are finding the strange to be all too familiar (and overly developed).

And what of the expats?  I suspect that most of them live outside of the country of their birth for economic reasons.  The majority have jobs that take them to far flung outposts of capitalism. They work for international corporations, NGOs, agencies of their governments.  Others, like myself to some extent, seek out places they can survive with a diminished (or non-existent) income where the cost of living is lower than back "home."  Attracted by prices more than people, these expats usually retain their habits of origin and often complain about everything in their adopted land (here in Thailand, they bitch and moan on  Some are fleeing past misdeeds for a blank slate future.  Perhaps a few expats are what used to be called "remittance men," exiled by their wealthy families for their dissolute ways.  Southeast Asia attracts expats who came here initially to kill small yellow people in wars of conquest but who fell in love with the place instead and found their home countries had paled by comparison.

Thailand was never on my radar growing up, India even less. But after my marriage ended and my family splintered apart, I took to the open road to fulfil a childhood dream for a life of adventure. I'd also been diagnosed with prostate cancer and was determined to live fully until I died. With enough money after my mother's death and the marriage settlement to pick and choose, I set off to see the world. Of course the model I was following was a mish-mash of movie plots, travelogues, and history books.  Reality always plays hell with the imagination.

I already had some experience as an expat.  Dropping out of college, I stayed with my uncle at his house in Cuernavaca, Mexico, for a couple of months which included a journey around the south of the country. In the 1960s, my first wife and I lived in London for two years where I wrote for a TV program journal and my first son was born.  We were too poor to travel much but did visit the continent a couple of times. During a long second marriage, my wife and I confined our trips within the border, traveling from California to New England, Florida and Hawaii.  When we separated I lived in a succession of small rooms and dreamed of wider horizons.

Sometimes I would embark on a series of journeys as a tourist, sometimes as a traveler.  I went with Habitat for Humanity to build houses in Guatemala, and studied Spanish with students from the local community college at schools in Oaxaca, Mexico, and Buenos Aires, Argentina.  With a group of Catholics I toured cathedrals in Britain, and continue on my own to visit places and see friends in Italy, Spain and Germany.  With another group I traveled to India for the first time to stay at a Catholic ashram in Tamil Nadu.  I returned there three more times, twice on my own and once as the leader of a tour group from Santa Cruz.  On that first trip to India I added a visit in Bangkok to see an old friend, traveled with him to his upcountry farm and continued to a monastery in the northeast where I wore white, and shaved my head and eyebrows for a 10-day stay.  That visit hooked me, and I returned two more times to Thailand, traveling north up to Chiang Mai and south to Koh Samui for some sun and surf, before I made up my mind to live here permanently.

If Pico Iyer's definition rings true, I have always been a traveler because I've been able for the most part to leave my assumptions behind.  All of my trips have include plenty of surprises, most of them welcome.  Even when I returned to places, like Mexico and India, I was able to see it with fresh eyes.  At the same time I have always been also a tourist, taking photos and collecting experiences which I could relay to friends in letters, emails, and now this blog.  I've checked cities off my bucket list, like Barcelona where I went to experience the marvelous organic architecture of Antonio Gaudi.   I went to the Sistine Chapel in Rome, Neruda's grave in Chile and Halong Bay in Vietnam because I wanted to have lived a life in which those places were in my memory.

Eliot's poetic plea to "know the place for the first time" has guided my wanderings as a tourist, traveler and expat.  Nothing is sadder than the jaded complaints of a traveler that "everything has changed, nothing is the same, it's all spoiled."  They will never be at home outside the borders of their native land (much less their mind) if they cannot take joy in variety and change, even if it may look at first glance as if paradise has been turned into a parking lot.  No expectations is the mantra. Bangkok feels like home to me even though I cannot understand the language and will always be seen by Thais as an outsider, a farang. Walking in the familiar byways of the city, even in the upscale super shopping malls, is never a disappointment so long as I have fresh eyes to see. This has been and will be the goal of my explorations.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Good day teacher, my region is Northeastern, it has variety of traditions. Especially, Roi-Et which is my province, in there are famous tradition namely Boon phawet festival. I am very proud to convince you to visit it. Have a nice day, sir.