Stickman Readers' Submissions April 3rd, 2007

Back To The West

China Hotel Guide
• Noble Hotel Changchun
• Overseas Chinese Hotel Changchun
• Redbuds Flower Hotel Changchun
• Shangri-La Hotel Changchun

Two months ago, I returned to the US after living in Asia for almost a decade. Specifically, I returned to the small northwestern college town where I grew up.

The town's grown a bit but not that much. It's essentially the same place it's always been. By contrast, I seem to have been replaced by an alien pod. I can't even remember my old self well enough to make a comparison. I vaguely recall having a lot of concerns revolving around my rock band and girls in smoky clubs, but that doesn't seem to mean a lot now. Not after all the experiences I had in Japan and all over SE Asia.

He Clinic Bangkok

Long story short: I've changed. Most significantly, I'm a lot more married than I used to be, and I've returned to the US with a Thai wife in tow. This poor girl has been burdened with the responsibility of maintaining my sanity, since I don't believe I have the resources to maintain it myself – not in the face of the excruciating levels of stultifying normality that now fill my horizon.

Yes, after a couple months here, I'm beginning to feel withdrawal symptoms from my life in Asia. For example, I'm used to seeing at least one significantly weird thing per day. That doesn't happen here.

Instead, I have to settle for vicarious weirdness: watching my wife as she enters her new life in the US. Not quite as entertaining as dealing with weirdness first hand but good for a laugh or three.

CBD bangkok

So, for the edification of those expats and exiles who are pondering a return to their homelands, and also just to get it off my chest before an understanding audience, I thought I'd enumerate the good and bad points of my return to the West.

Let's start off with the bad. In no particular order.

1. Bars are an altogether dour sight in comparison to the wild free-for-all zones of Thailand and Cambodia. I like a good game of pool, and heaven is a bar full of flirtatious Asian women lined up to kick my ass at eight-ball, to the lilting strains of AC/DC. That will never, ever happen here. A good pool table is not hard to find, but it will be dominated by either hairy bikers, or college guys in the process of trying to figure out what manhood means while college girls criticize any behavior that might be remotely masculine. The poor saps. Incidentally I can now beat any of the locals at pool. Once my turn comes up, the table is mine for the rest of the night – a perhaps sad testament to my use of leisure time in Bangkok.

2. Along the same lines, there is a woeful dearth of foxy Asian chicks. Now, in four years in SE Asia I've never seen a girl swinging around a pole that could hold a candle to my wife. Yet I miss the bars, department stores, restaurants, streets and skytrain filled with women, none quite as beautiful as Mrs. Lucky, yet still worth an ogle. Now, America is not a desert of beauty. L.A., as I remember, has a fair population of women who are easy on the eye, but if beauty exists in my little college town, it's well hidden. My neck-muscles are about ready to atrophy from lack of use.

wonderland clinic

3. Credit. It's not something I really thought of or planned for, but one of the surprises awaiting me on my return is the fact that I no longer exist in the US, financially speaking. Despite the fact that I maintained a bank account here, a lack of activity has lead them to assume that I am economically comatose. So while I once walked into a Phuket Honda dealer and drove away in a new, 90% financed car the same morning, it took two weeks to accomplish that feat here. In fact, I couldn't get a car loan against the vehicle itself. I had to take the loan against cash in the bank. I could have just paid cash for the car, I guess, but the bank manager convinced me to take the loan instead, "to establish credit". The same went for a new credit card. Visa gave me a $500 limit as long as I leave $500 in the bank. For big purchases, I'll have to use my Thai credit card, I guess.

4. The weather. It sucks, of course. I don't really need to go into that here, except to say I do sorely miss snorkeling at Ao Sane Beach.

5. The driving. Now, I never liked sharing the Thai roads with corrupt cops, homicidal bus drivers, drunk hicks in pickups, yaa-baa-crazed taxi drivers and motorbikes buzzing around traffic lights like swarms of Africanized bees. Yet when my mood was right, I could really enjoy the whole Road Warrior aspect of driving in Thailand. Here in the US, it's a lot safer and more relaxing, but I have to keep reminding myself that cops have radar and that they're driving cruisers that can go at least as fast as I can, and it would cost a good bit more than 200 baht if I got pulled over. I miss flying along those windy coastal roads by the Andaman Sea.

6. Everybody speaks English. Yes, I'm listing this as a bad thing. Like the guy in the Twilight Zone episode who could suddenly read minds and then went insane because he couldn't shut out the voices, I can now understand every stupid conversation at every table in a restaurant, and in every lame TV advertisement. It was so easy to tune out evil verbosity that didn't concern me when it was in Thai. Ignorance really was bliss.

7. The food. Of course, I miss the cheap, delicious Thai food. I miss eating a big lunch and drinking from a fresh green coconut in a bamboo hut on a cliff above the Andaman Sea, and paying less than 100 baht for it. Thai food is popular in the US and there are a dozen Thai restaurants in my town, but the food is just not the same. Most of the Thai places are actually Chinese restaurants that are marketing themselves as Thai. Luckily my wife is a good cook. I found an online Thai kitchen supply store and bought a "gok-gok" (her word for the clay mortar and wood pestle used to make papaya salad) and even found some of that nasty Isaan fish sauce. We can now make real somtam. I must admit to being a somtam junky. I seriously get an urge for spicy papaya salad, with sticky rice and barbecued chicken, about three times a week. American food, on the other hand, I can really do without. At first I indulged in some things that I had missed when I was in Asia – good Mexican food, fresh bagels and lox, New York – style pizza, Cinnabun rolls. Yet somehow they didn't seem as delicious as I remembered them. I'm not sure if I've changed or if the food is worse, though I do know the Cinnabun rolls are about three times larger than they used to be, and a small movie-theater cola is now bigger than my head.

8. Cost. Obviously, things are more expensive here. The cost of living in Thailand has often been discussed on this site, but I haven't seen much discussion about the cost of going back home. For the curious, since stepping off the plane, I have spent at least $8,000 to set us up in a small US town with a clean 2-bedroom apartment, furnishings, cable, internet, and a car. This does not include the cost of obtaining my wife's visa, sending boxes to the US and, of course, airline tickets.

OK, enough of the bad. Now, the good:

1. My wife. I'll say right now that whatever else is good about being back in America, she is 98% of it. It is such a blast to watch her deal with all the new stuff that is coming at her every day. She's being a real champ, and I am amazed at how well she is adapting. Culturally, she is in heaven. She loves how direct and honest people are here and she's really blossoming with the new sense of social freedom. No one cares which part of Thailand she came from. No one cares that she's married to a white guy. Maybe someone cares that I'm twelve years her senior, but they'd never be so rude as to fuss about it. English is the only real difficulty for her, but she's working on that. Professionally she's doing better than her husband. With the help of an Isaan girl we met in a Thai restaurant, she has landed a pretty good job with decent pay and benefits (insurance for me too – yahoo!). She's really enchanted with how straightforward her new bosses are. She's amazed that an 8-hour day is the norm and that when the whistle blows, she is expected to drop everything and head home. Her Isaan friend has taken her under wing and, as my wife has a strong work ethic, everyone else on the job adores her. It's also an interesting study to see which bits of my culture appeal to her. For some reason she is completely fascinated by the dozen or so reality courtroom shows that plague daytime TV here. She loves to watch how the judges rule on all these bizarre small-claims cases. She records them while she's at work and watches them back to back in the evenings. She also loves Jerry Springer and World Wrestling Federation Smack Down.

2. Transparency. Every bit of business I've had to deal with – apartment rental, utilities, car purchase, insurance, bank accounts, health checks – has been clear and above-board with no big surprises. In most cases there was a good chunk of paperwork, but even that was to our advantage in a way. We have a paper trail for everything, and in case something goes wrong we just yank out the paperwork to show the difference between what was promised and what was delivered. Very refreshing. I'm even kind of looking forward to getting my first speeding ticket from an honest cop. It'll be a lot more than 200 baht but I'll pay it with pleasure. Heck, maybe I'll even take it to court – they usually knock it down by half if you just show up.

3. Nothing's gone wrong. Everything has gone smoothly and to the letter. The transition has pretty much been a breeze, really. A breeze that blew away a chunk of my savings, but that was to be expected. Everything just works the way it's supposed to and as long as you keep an eye to the fine print, there are no unpleasant surprises. So far, anyway.

4. Seeing old friends. When I was in high school and university, I made some great friends. From that sampling I assumed the world would be full of unique and intelligent people. Boy, was I wrong. It turns out that some of the best friends I ever had were those ones I met during my formative years. Nice to see them again. However, I wish I could talk to them more freely about life in Asia. These guys are not saints, but few of them could suspend their American-style political correctness long enough to enjoy a good Bangkok story.

5. Nature. I love to walk in the woods, climb up mountains, jump in streams and paddle across lakes. Of course Thailand has lots of nature, but my wife always dissuaded me from taking long walks through the forest primeval. She was worried that I'd run into cobras, kraits, scorpions, spiders, leeches and glue-huffing hillbillies with homemade rifles. Here in the US, my little hometown has won national awards for its extensive park system. Despite the cold, we've been having a blast walking around the trails and parks. We even have a pretty impressive waterfall in a forest not five minutes from city center. The other day we took a drive into a nearby national forest and my wife oohed and aahed over the giant trees and the lack of encroachment on public lands.

6. My wife. I said it before and I'll say it again. My beautiful Isaan wife. Going grocery shopping with her in arm, going to the mall where we have to buy pants in the teen's section then wander over to women's section to buy a D-cup bra, just puts a big, s**t-eating grin on my face. She really makes this move back to the US possible for me. I couldn't have done it without her. She is my link back to Asia, as well as a new pair of eyes through which to see my old home. It would really be deathly boring coming back without her. In fact, if it wasn't for her, I couldn't possibly consider staying longer than it takes to manage the family business that brought me back here. Whatever America has or does not have for me, my home life is pretty great, thanks entirely to her. Better than I could ever have imagined for myself, actually. To have been still unmarried in my late 30's and to have been smart enough to know this Isaan farm girl was the one, well, that's why I'm Mr. Lucky.

So we have eight bad points and six good points. Yet so far, I'm pretty happy with our move back to the States. I may feel differently in the future, but for now, the weather is getting steadily warmer and I am looking forward to one of the glorious summers we always have in the northwest. And to the serious gloating time I'll get when my wife breaks out her bikinis.


Stickman's thoughts:

Very nice submission indeed. It is interesting that you put the weather as a negative in the West. Where I am from at least, the weather is much better than what we get in Thailand. For me, Bangkok is just too hot for 10 months of the year.

nana plaza