Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Expat or Immigrant?

Thai officials detain Burmese migrants and Rohingya Muslims in Nakhon Si Thammarat province.

Next month, if all my documents are in order (never a certainty!), I'll renew my "non-immigrant" visa and work permit for the 10th time. I call myself an expat, but this label has become controversial. An expatriate is someone who no longer lives in the country of their birth. An immigrant is someone who comes to live permanently in a foreign country. If permanency is the issue, I never plan to leave Thailand. But why can I call myself an expat while the dejected men in the above photo are referred to as migrants? Is it because I'm a white westerner and financially self-supporting? Has expat become a racist term to distinguish between haves and have-nots?

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 are a variety of expats in Bangkok where I live. Some come for sex in the "entertainment" zones of the city, many for medical treatment in the upscale hospitals, and most have probably been transferred here by their companies or embassies. No one seems to know how many non-Thai resident expats are here on a long-term basis but I've seen the figure of 85,000 for Bangkok alone. Then there are the semi-expats, more than tourists, who come to Thailand every year for a month or two on a temporary visa. Expats have "Hi-So" status in Thai culture which may be one of the attractions. They feel at home in the high-rise condominiums and super-malls.

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.

I had a choice.  I came by plane and not in a leaky boat or after a trek through the jungle.  I didn't need to work but found a job by accident as an English teacher at a university for Buddhist monks. Though only part-time, it's become a calling, a vocation, and has brought me more satisfaction than any of the career paths I followed back in the U.S.

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).

For the next few years my only trips were up north to San Francisco where my aunt and uncle lived in Tiburon with a view of the Golden Gate Bridge, and to see an elderly cousin in Berkeley who lived in a lovely old turn-of-the-century house. I preferred the green of the Bay Area to the bone dry landscape in the south. A few years later, despite my poor high school grades (I flunked band!), I managed to transfer from junior college to the Berkeley campus of the University of California. Majoring first in English and later in journalism, I found student life difficult.  In the run-up to Christmas vacation, I lay in bed reading science fiction rather than attend class.  I wrote of my unhappiness to my father's gay twin-brother and he invited me to stay with him in Cuernavaca, Mexico, where he lived in the winter months 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.

My next trip was to New York City the following fall, arriving by train not long before the Cuban Missile Crisis. First I slept on a mattress in Alicia's nephew's apartment. Then I moved to the basement room of an Italian lady's house on Leroy Street in Greenwich Village and got a job with United Press International in Newark, New Jersey, that required an extended commute. Back in California, I met the first love of my life at a party and we moved to Berkeley where I went to work as a summer replacement reporter on the San Francisco Chronicle. At the end of the summer we got married and took a train to the east coast, but were delayed by a train wreck on the Texas-Louisiana border.  In North Carolina, where my parents lived once again, we all watched the events surrounding Kennedy's assassination on TV before the two of us continued up to Manhattan.

After a short period of poverty, my wife and I found subsistence jobs and enjoyed life in the big city. But wanderlust called again, and I set my sights on Europe. At the end of the summer in 1964 we flew via Icelandic Airlines, then the cheapest fare, to Glasgow, Scotland, where I had a pen pal from high school who promised to put us up. The day we arrived his wife went into labor with her baby and we had their house in Ayr to ourselves for a week. Down in London we shared a flat at first with a friend from New York and I talked myself into a work permit so I could get a job with a London publishing firm, writing about American TV shows for the television program journal in the Midlands. Our son was born the following year and we made plans to return to the U.S. where it seemed more normal to raise a family.

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.

Living outside the country as an expat was unthinkable during these middle years when the children were growing up. I worked for a music magazine, and later decided to return to university study. Through fits and starts, I completed a BA in philosophy with a concentration in religious thought, and began graduate study in history. My first interest was 19th century intellectual history in France.  But when it became difficult to find research money for the Ph.D. I switched to U.S. environmental study and wrote a dissertation about a social movement that saved redwood trees in the first California state park in the early 20th century.

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.

Without a wife and with children old enough to take care of themselves, there was nothing to hold me in California. I had been living in the same area for 20 years and it felt almost too comfortable. Friends were active in Habitat for Humanity, and my first trip on my own was to Guatemala to build houses. Next I decided to work on my Spanish and went with a group from the local community college to Oaxaca in Mexico where we studied for a month and lived with local families.  It had been over 20 years since my visit with Uncle Ted in Cuernavaca. My language skills improved a little, and so my next trip was with the same college program to Buenos Aires in Argentina for another month of lessons and delicious steaks at midnight (Argentines eat late). We took a couple of trips outside the city, one to visit poet Pablo Neruda's grave in Isla Negra on the coast of Chile.

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.

By 2005 I was actively looking for someplace to live other than the U.S. Mexico and Chile seemed possibilities.  The sights, sounds and smells of India were exciting but the crowds and trash put me off. That year I took several tours, one to England to visit cathedrals, and another to Vietnam with a group of priests to celebrate the feast day of the 117 Vietnamese martyrs. Later, I went with one of the priests to Angkor Wat for three days of walking around temples with the help of a car, driver and guide. After the cathedral tour I flew to the island of Menorca to stay with a friend I'd met in Mexico, and I took a boat to Barcelona especially to see the amazing architecture of Antonio Gaudi. From Barcelona I flew to Rome, walked around the city, and rented a car to sample the country, ending up in the mountains at the headquarters of the Camaldolese order, mother house for the monasteries in Big Sur and Tamil Nadu.

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 stayed at a small guest house near my friend's apartment in the Sukhumvit area of Bangkok.  The city is huge and spread out with no clear center other than the shopping district of Siam, to which Sukhumvit led, and the backpacker headquarters around Khao San Road across the city near the Chao Phraya River. I was enchanted by the bird songs and the sweet smell of flowers, as well as the heat and the manic bustle of the city around me.  That first visit was followed by a few days in the country at my friend's farm in Surin.  Then I took the train farther east to Ubon Ratchatoni and spent 10 days at a Buddhist monastery, Wat Pah Nonachant, where I got to shave my head, long a bucket list plan, and wear all white clothes. What I learned most there was that becoming a monk was not in my future.

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.

And that's what I did, arriving as a permanent resident in August 2007 and finding a furnished studio apartment not far from my Sukhumvit friend.  I stocked up on new and used books at Kinokuniya and Dasa Books on the history and politics of Thailand and Southeast Asia, and on how to learn Thai (a losing proposition it seems).  I set out to walk over as much of the city as I could, and learned the Skytrain, bus and river taxi routes for what I couldn't reach otherwise.  Bangkok, from the tiny alley sois to the penthouse of skyscrapers was my oyster and I wanted to learn all about it. I bought a yellow shirt (the color of the King's birth day) which impressed the women who did my laundry, and under my friend's tutelage I explored the underside of the city: Nana, Soi Cowboy, and Patpong.

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?

No comments: