The Difference Is The Difference
Why is Thailand so alluring, invigorating and otherwise addictive to those of us from Farangland? When one really gets down to it, why is Asia as a whole a sizeable dose of the Viagra of life so many western males have been looking for? I think that is
really the point of so many of the submissions to this site, the central thesis whether the author intended it or not. Is it really the 23 year old vixen we “captured” at the bar, the food that burns a whole in you and out of you,
the scenery and weather or the myriad of other factors proclaimed here and in other sites? I for one think the answer is simple and can be captured in a single word – “different”.
I have been in Asia for only a few years. During this time I can offer only limited advice and really to call it advice is to offer it up for more than it is worth. Nonetheless, here is my meager little story, take it for what you may.
Not too many years ago I was stuck, like many, in a life I really was only occupying, not living. I had a good job making good money. I had no wife, a few girls I dated only casually and only a smattering of close friends as work was more important. I was close enough geographically to visit my family whom I loved dearly but far enough away that I could only do it on weekends and holidays. To fill the gap I did what many in the West seem to do. I bought a big house on a lake, bigger TVs, a bigger boat, a bigger car and many other things I had little use for and gained little pleasure from.
Though I was making more money than I ever had I seemed capable of spending it even faster. I was stuck in a big mortgage, car payments, insurance payments, a fair number of appliances and household items bought on no money for 18 months coming due regularly and a few credit cards near or at their maximum limit. This of course I shared with no-one as outwardly I wanted to portray success and happiness.
What was killing me slowly was the repetition. I read once, I am sure Dana or someone more enlightened than myself can quote the author, that hell is repetition. If so I was in hell. Each day became more like the last – up a 6:00am, let the dog out, coffee pot on, shave, brush my teeth, shower all completed by 6:20. First cup of several coffees for the day completed by 6:30am. I could actually set a clock to it and if I did one item out of order or was late my day was off. I then spent the next 12 hours (on a good day) managing a manufacturing plant that was always either just sold or in the process of being sold. I lived for retirement which was only 25 or 30 years away.
As the financial books always had to be improved to make the factory attractive to the next potential holding firm looking to increase its portfolio, the upper management of the day continuously cut capital, reduced staff levels, increasingly centralized administration and slowly began to move equipment. The plant was and is dieing a slow death with a workforce that knows it whether they want to admit it or not. As staff levels dropped and equipment wore down 12 hour days became 16 and life slowly became worse. I would no sooner get home and the phone would start ringing and continue to do so throughout the night and on weekends. That was my existence for many years working hard, living in fear of my own personal house of financial cards and praying I did not lose a job I hated. I am sure it sounds familiar to many.
My salvation came from a phone call from a friend. The firm he was working for was setting up operations in Asia and could not find someone with the type of experience they were looking for. In short they were looking for a manager in the type of manufacturing I did who could drop everything and travel at a moment's notice and eventually move to South East Asia. In essence they were looking for a manufacturing specialist who was single. I asked for a holiday and drove the 10 hours to the interview and was offered the job within 15 minutes. I spent the next 10 hours driving home elated, scared and my head generally spinning with the possibilities. The weekend was spent doing the math of what I owed and how long I could hold out with two homes if my present house did not sell. The math was tight but it worked and I felt I could hold out perhaps 4 months before things got really tight. This included running up a line of credit and another credit card. I hesitated only briefly and by the following Friday handed in my resignation.
The move was followed with the usual anxiety one feels with a new position, thoughts of could I do the job, would they release me prior to the end of my probation, alone in a big city all the while my credit card debt increased and money was tighter than ever. I will not lie. I spent many weeks and months really questioning my decision and on more than one occasion was sure that it was a mistake. When things seemed worse (or at least not better) I took my first trip to Asia and to the city I would eventually call home.
My knowledge of Asia and China in particular was limited, honed more on slanted histories in the west and bad war movies than recent fact. The 3 hour drive from the airport to my hotel did little to change my perspective. It was dark with only a few small hamlets with dim lights on. The hotel in the city of 5 million was on the outskirts of the city (I learned this only after my second trip) and as such made the city feel like it was empty and dead. The heat and humidity hit like a hammer and smells I had never dreamed of met my nose and overloaded my senses. The trip was all business and spent drinking Chinese rice wine with officials, hammering out contracts, sleeping and nursing hangovers. Really no different than life back home. Sadly my exposure to Asia on that first trip was entirely limited to hotels, conference rooms and hotel restaurants. On the return flight I was exhilarated but still not convinced I had made the right decision.
On my return life took a turn for the better. The real estate broker called and an offer for full asking price was on the table. I took it and the house closed 2 months later. At the top of the housing boom I made a good tax free profit and things took a serious turn for the better. I passed probation and was given a good bonus I wasn’t expecting. I moved from a 4 bedroom house (what was I thinking, it was just me and the dog) to a 90 square meter apartment. I proceeded to give away or sell 90% of my possessions. All those things that were so important and enslaved me months earlier slipped away and truly have not been missed. I cancelled all my cable, phones, and insurance and paid off all my credit cards. For the first time in over a decade I had no bills, a good balance in my account and a sense of peace I had not experienced since high school. Asia suddenly looked not so bad.
My next trip came on the heels of my new found good fortune. Without the burden of a house to sell or employment probation over my head I looked at the world with a new set of eyes. We landed at the Shanghai airport on a Friday and stayed the weekend before traveling to where we were setting up operations. My partner and I explored the city at length and my heart raced with excitement. We went to “western bars” and local watering holes alike, we moved with the masses, explored all the tourist areas and some of the older parts of Shanghai. We shopped at the famous fake market which is now closed. We ate from food stalls on the streets and consumed stranger fair at local restaurants where even in Shanghai we were the only white men. Rather than a private car we took the train to our little city and the roughly 3 hour trip was an adventure. The train car was packed (so many people) and again there were only one or two other white people in the car. People played cards, ate continuously (I still do not understand why they are so thin), tried to talk to us, smiled all the while and seemed happier than most in the west I had seen on the subway or train. The women (though not Thai) were thin and pretty and feminine in a way they are no longer back home. I had fallen in love with China; my affair with Asia had begun.
I moved to China 2 months later with two suitcases, the rest of my worldly belongings in storage on a single pallet back home. I was now a minimalist. The first few weeks took some getting used to as I was living out of a hotel room while I looked for a decent apartment. Some of the old feelings of whether I had made the right decision inevitably sneaked back. The city was no Shanghai. Though 5 million strong, the Chinese referred to it as a small city and were not joking when they said this. There were no Western restaurants or bars, few Chinese watering holes and basically little too do. My first meal ordered alone in a family restaurant was done by pointing at the menu to three dishes at which time the cute waitress smiled, laughed a little and proceeded to take 3 fish from the same tank which were cooked three different ways and presented to me with another smile. I found myself living again for the weekends hopping the train on Friday for weekends in Shanghai. Slowly though I got out more and more and explored the city and the local area and fell in love with it for its simplicity. I now go to Shanghai only infrequently and refer to it with disdain as do my fellow Chinese.
The Chinese calendar has 3 main holidays, Golden Week, Chinese new year and the May holiday. They all extend to roughly a week and provide an opportunity to travel to the neighboring countries with great regularity. I have been fortunate to travel through China, Japan, Korea, Phillipines, Indonesia, Vietnam, Cambodia and of course many times to our beloved Thailand. I have spent New Years in Hanoi watching fire works in the sky and could not help but think of Nixon's bombers in the 70s. I have walked through Cambodian villages and marveled at the simplicity of life there. I have been welcomed into homes for fantastic meals by those who by our standards are poor but seem much wealthier in spirit to me than most back home. I have snorkeled in the waters off Phi Phi island and saw more fish in one place than I thought possible in the 21st century. I have taken a small boat up a smaller delta and ate at a fruit grove under the jungle's canopy. I have received many a shoe shine by the same little girl in Nana Plaza who does not beg but works hard and smiles from ear to ear when I give her a few extra baht for her effort. She always questions the condition of my shoes, the smell of my feet and I love her for it. I look for her every time I am in Bangkok and though I wish a better life for her I am always happy to see her. And yes for those who are interested I have shared my bed with women who were out of my league in looks and spirit. Then again my grandfather was fond of saying “show me any man with any women and I will show you a man who is out of his league”. I even had my own Bangkok bar girl story in the form of a gorgeous gogo dancer from Nana called Ting, allowed her to take me for a modest financial ride and truthfully enjoyed it all the way. I still think the memory of her will get me through a good portion of my 80s if I ever get there so a small price to pay. In short, I ventured to places the man I was not so many years ago would have declined to go and am far better for it.
So my fellow lost men, my summation is simply this; the reason we love Thailand and Asia so much is the difference. The stark contrast to our old lives. The food that is everything that pizza, chicken wings and McDonalds can never be. Driving down a street with cars 7 across when it should only be 2 and your driver making it 8 but loving it none the less. It's looking across the Shanghai landscape and counting more construction cranes than thought imaginable in one city. It’s the spirit of the people, the beauty of the landscapes, the peace of the temples and the smells both good and bad. It’s the freedom we feel every day which is slowly being choked out in the west. It's bars that never close, smoking in restaurants (no longer allowed back home) and it’s the lack of political correctness which has you guarded with every word you speak back home. It is knowing your neighbors and co-workers and choosing to get to know them better because people here would rather be with people than zoned out behind a TV. I actually learned to love reading again which the mindless TV killed in me for so long, what a joy. And yes it is waking up beside a beautiful young woman sleeping beside you for the first time and forgetting for a moment that we are all born dieing.
As for my advice, I think I promised some. It is simply this, live different. Whether you are a dock worker or executive, live a simpler life. Don’t buy so many things, don’t get caught in the cycle of consumption that only adds more stress and emptiness. If you cannot get to Asia, Africa or elsewhere for now, seek out the difference in your home towns. Venture to where you may never have gone before and make friends with those you thought you had nothing in common with. You will be better for it. A great poem in the New York times sums up the meaning of life best “the race is long but in the end it is only with yourself”. I hope each and every one of you wins your race.
An interesting perspective on things. I agree that we need new stimuli and that avoiding being stuck in a rut is a big thing. The one thing I do wonder is this – if the key is to doing different things, would that apply equally to people in the places we go. For example, do Asians need the change of scenery of say the West?