Stickman Readers' Submissions November 27th, 2007

How It All Began Part 4

Living in the USA

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If you were to listen to news reports over the last few years, you might think that Americans are hostile towards immigrants. Nothing could be further from the truth. We might resent tens of thousands of illegal immigrants waltzing across the Mexican border, but in general newcomers to the shores of America are welcomed. That’s because we are a nation of immigrants. Our parents and grandparents came from virtually every land to begin a new life.

Going through passport control, my new wife was actually greeted with a smile. (Contrast that with the usual frowns we farangs receive when entering Thailand!) After a brief interview in the Immigration office and a check of her visa, Som actually walked away with a Green Card in her hand…and we weren’t even out of the airport! We weren’t even legally married in the USA yet! (Contrast that with the fact that we farangs are barely allowed to even BE in the Kingdom, have extremely limited ability to work at all, and the fact we may be married to a Thai citizen means jack s**t!) As we left the INS office, the official in charge wished us the best of luck. As for Thailand…well no comment is necessary!

How can I sum up the next five years in so few words? First of all I should talk about Som’s adjustment to life in Massachusetts. It took a while for her body to get used to the difference in climate. Even though we arrived in the middle of June, she was freezing! It was certainly warmer than the “cool” season in Thailand, but while I walked around in shorts and a tee shirt, she was bundled against what she called “the cold air.” My God, if she was cold now, how was she going to cope when winter arrived? Temperatures then routinely dip down to minus 15 – 20 F! Oh well, put on some long johns and crank up the thermostat I guess! Eventually she did manage to adapt, and in the winter went sledding at a local park and snow tubing at a local ski area, even though she had on so many clothes that she resembled the Michelin man! I think she learned to appreciate four distinct seasons, especially Autumn, which is spectacular in Western Massachusetts.

I think she was surprised at her immediate acceptance into local society. Her Asian face turned no heads, except those that appreciated a pretty girl! She wasn’t made to feel like an outsider. No epithets like the word farang that we hear every day were thrown at her. When people learned that she was from Thailand, the only reaction was genuine interest in Thailand. Within days of arriving, Som was enrolled in two free ESL programs, and had a private tutor at the public library!

Berkshire County, where we lived is a cultural Mecca during the summer months. During July and August we attended classical concerts, Tanglewood and dance recitals at Jacob’s Pillow. I took here to her first 4th of July parade. We had picnics at nearby lakes, visited local waterfalls, and went blueberry picking. We played miniature golf and had ice cream cones at Ben & Jerry’s.

We also did a whole lot of mundane everyday things like grocery shopping etc. I attempted to teach her to drive, but that didn’t go very well, so it was off to driving school. I think she was amazed that there were actual traffic laws that people had to obey! Eventually I bought her own new car; a silver Plymouth PT Cruiser. She looked so adorable in it! She liked the fact that it had heated seats! Learning to drive on winter roads was tricky, and she spun around a few times before she learned about snow and ice. She eventually learned how to cope with it, but not having been born to winter, was always a little nervous, especially at night. She also learned to pump her own gas; something no one does in Thailand.

While we looked for a computer related job for her, she did temporary clerical work. It was nothing very exciting, but she was earning the equivalent of about 400 baht an hour, which to her was a fortune considering that farm workers in Nogki earned about 100 baht per day!

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After attending a “job fair” at a local community college, she got job with a company called Country Curtains, which called for programming knowledge. The pay was very good, and her co-workers made her feel at home. Unfortunately her immediate supervisor was a serious a**hole, who had a long history of abuse under his belt. After about six months, Som couldn’t take it anymore. She would come home in tears after being humiliated by him in public. I strongly urged her to file a complaint with the company’s human resource manager. Apparently 3 or 4 other people had quit because of this guy. Coming from Thai society, she was unable to bring herself to do so. Thai workers would never dream of complaining! They would be afraid of retaliation. And a Thai woman would never dream of complaining about a male superior, no matter how abusive! Personally I was ready to stop by her office and read the riot act to the management. Massachusetts is NOT a good place to try to cover up sexual harassment! (Yes, that IS what it’s called!) Unfortunately Som begged me not to. In her mind it was just easier to quit.

Niang’s next job was about as unlikely a field for her to get into as you can imagine for a shy, soft spoken Thai woman to get into…selling vacation timeshares! A Ukrainian friend from one of her ESL classes had started working for a resort a few months earlier, and was making what she called “big money”. She somehow convinced her boss to give Som a chance…and damn it if she wasn’t good at it! Perhaps it was her innocent face. Perhaps it was her honest and eager manner. Whatever it was, in ninety minutes she could convince a couple to plunk down 10 – 20 thousand dollars to purchase a time share at this ski resort! She was actually earning more than me! It wasn’t long before she convinced me to change jobs and join her. Soon we were both doing extremely well.

We were soon able to afford to move from a nice but small apartment to a brand new house.

Som is one of the most likable people in the world, so it wasn’t surprising that over the years we lived in the U.S, she made many friends, but not many Thai ones. There simply were very few Thais living in our area.

We were able to return to Thailand every year for about 3 weeks. Naturally we were always laden with gifts. One Christmas I played Santa for Som’s family, which the children got a big kick out of. Lego for the boys, crafty stuff for the girls, and booze for the adults. The Jack Daniels and Tequila were much appreciated! Som’s parents were getting a little too old for farming, so we converted the front of their house into a convenience store, which has done quite well. In addition to being larger and carrying more products than your typical neighborhood shop, they sell a lot of produce and prepared food. (Som’s mom makes excellent Isaan fare.) We also put in running water, a telephone and a western flush toilet, much to MY relief!

We took various members of her family on short vacations. We took her parents to Chiang Mai, and her younger brother to Samui. We were actually in the air on our way to Thailand to take her sisters to Phuket, when the Tsunami hit. Everyone back in the U.S. was certain that we had been caught in it. Actually if we had arrived a day earlier, I would certainly have been on the beach when it hit! We brought Som’s mom to stay with us in Massachusetts for six months, and showed her enough to provide her with a lifetime of stories.

Som had always been interested in Thai massage, so on one trip we went to Wat Po to take a week-long massage course. One of her older sisters was also interested, so we took her along too. While I certainly did not have a future as a professional (I’m too old and stiff!) Som and her sister did. Her sister got a job as a massage therapist at Nongki Hospital. Som got a job back in the U.S at Kripalu, one of the premier yoga centers in the country.

It’s amazing how the years started to fly by. Like any marriage, life was not all peaches and cream. We had our share of disagreements. Some stemmed from differences in our cultural backgrounds, some from simple differences in personality and temperament. Such is life; laughter and tears.

After living in the U.S. for five years, Som was ready to apply for citizenship, and started taking a class to prepare her for her American history exam. By the time she was through, she knew more about the Constitution than most native born Americans! Although she was nervous, she passed with flying colors, and on a sunny Boston morning was sworn in as a citizen of the United States of America along with folks from dozens of other countries.

Ironically, now that Som was a U.S. citizen, we were talking more and more about moving to Thailand! Although she had adapted well to American life, she still missed Thai life, and especially her family.

I was definitely feeling ready for a change. I was tired of the day to day rat race that characterizes our society. Starting a fresh life in Thailand sounded appealing. Also I was getting tired of my ex-wife calling to harass me. Moving to the other side of the globe seemed just about far enough away from her! I wasn’t completely naïve. I knew that life here was not going to be easy. I knew that that we would be facing a change in lifestyle. I knew that we were going to face economic hardships. Som had made a difficult adjustment to a foreign culture, why could I do the same?

And so we put our new home on the market and started thinking about the practical details of moving to Thailand. First of all, where would we live? I made it clear immediately, that Nonki, and in fact Isaan was NOT on my list of possible destinations! People in Nongki still stare at me as if I had just stepped off of a flying saucer!

Why Lampang?

To qualify for a possible new home, any destination needed to have:

1. Scenic beauty.

2. Cultural attractions.

3. Local colleges and universities.

4. Hopefully a few farangs to talk to.

5. A modern hospital.

6. A modern supermarket (Hey, I enjoy going to local markets for my fruits and vegetables, but I like my meat refrigerated and fly-free, thank you very much!)

7. Not too far from a major city.

We had really liked the north of Thailand, but neither one of us wanted to live in Chiang Mai. Big cities are fine to visit, but I would want to live in one. Studying the map I saw Lampang, about 80 kilometers south of Chiang Mai. I went online to find out more about Lampang, but there was not a whole lot of information. There were some nice photographs though of the countryside and local tourist attractions. We were intrigued enough to plan a trip to Lampang, and check it out for ourselves.

The official motto of Lampang is “Clean, Green, and Ceramics.” It did strike me as we drove into Lampang, that is was noticeably cleaner than a lot of places I had been to in Thailand, of course it isn’t harder to be cleaner than Nongki! There is no place, in any country, that is completely free from litterbugs, and that is true in Lampang, but at least there are crews of workers out picking up trash everyday!

Lampang was definitely green (at least at that time of the year when we visited!) Perhaps the “Green” in the motto refers to the environment. The municipality does spend quite a lot of resources maintaining parks, flowers and shrubbery along the streets, and floral displays for special occasions.

As for the “Ceramics”, Lampang is the ceramic industry center of Thailand. There are many dozens of manufacturers, both large and small. There are many styles produced here, but the region is probably best known for tableware with a rooster motif. The rooster is the official symbol of Lampang, and you will find it everywhere you go. There is a large rooster fountain a few minutes from our home that is lit up at night with colored lights. Why a rooster? The story goes that the Buddha was traveling through this region, and found people still asleep when they should be up working; and so brought a rooster to wake them up!

Oh well, it’s a good story anyway! Every December there is a large Ceramics Fair that features some top name pop groups, along with food, fireworks etc.

The other symbol of Lampang is the horse carriage. All throughout the town you will see hundreds of horse drawn carriages clip-clopping along. It’s a nice way to get around if you’re not in a big hurry. It can be very romantic as well, especially in the evening!

Our first exploration of Lampang was encouraging, but did it meet my requirements?

1. Scenic beauty: It was an attractive town, especially compared with your generic Thai city. Throughout the province were many National Parks, with everything from hot springs, to lakes, to waterfalls. The municipality obviously took some pride in keeping the city looking good. (If only they were so conscientious about keeping the traffic lights functioning!)

2. Cultural attractions: There are a number of historic temples, if that sort of thing interests you. (It does me!) One of particular note is Wat Phra Kaeo Don Tao, which during the 15th Century housed the Emerald Buddha that you now can at the grand Palace in Bangkok. There are also many beautiful Burmese style temples.

Lampang is well known for its Elephant Conservation Center. Here you can watch how elephants used to be trained to work in the forest. You can also be trained…to become a mahout! In December they hold an elephant “kantoke”. After a colorful parade there are traditional music and dance performances, followed by a special “lunch” for the elephants. Tons of fruits and vegetables are heaped onto special “elephant-sized” kantoke tables. Check it out here.

The two major festivals, Loy Kratong and Songkran are celebrated with much enthusiasm! But I’ll go into them in more detail later, when I talk about our life here. Suffice it to say, as I’ve said before, Thais do know how to have fun!

3. Colleges and universities: There are a number of institutions of higher learning in the area (I do use that phrase with a grain of salt.) In addition to Yanok College, there are branches of Rajabhat and Thammasat University. There are also a number of technical colleges. Theoretically, all these schools meant that there would be a fair number of relatively educated people in the area to interact with. There were a number of book stores in Lampang, and we all know how much Thai people love to read, right? 55555! Well, comic books anyway!

4. The “farang factor.” While I didn’t want to live in an “enclave” of farangs, I did want at least a few around to talk to. There aren’t a whole lot of foreigners living here, at least as far as I can tell. Lampang in not a very big place, so eventually you will run into everyone. I have made some good friends from Australia, the UK, Germany, and the USA, all of them men married to Thai ladies!

5. Hospitals: There are a number of government hospitals, along with a very good private one. I didn’t learn to be afraid of Thai government hospitals, until one almost killed me, but I’ll get to that story later!

6. Supermarkets: Lampang has both a Big C and a Tesco-Lotus. I prefer Big C myself.

7. Proximity to a major city: Chiang Mai is only an hour away. It’s a nice ride there through the mountains, so it’s no big deal to go there for the day. There I can find pretty much everything I need: Thai Immigration, the U.S. Consulate, Carrefour, Home Pro, Rimping Supermarket (for when you simply must have that bottle of Ocean Spray Cranberry Juice or Pepperidge farm cookies!) and Mike’s Hamburgers, (a Chiang Mai institution!).

Lampang seemed to meet all of my requirements. I’m sure if it was up to my wife, we would be living right across the street from her parents! We did actually own a small piece of land across from them. It’s something she had to have, along with a large tract of farmland that was supposed to be earning us some income, but in fact hasn’t shown me one baht since we keep letting her brothers and sisters use it!

My wife doesn’t ask for very much, in fact she is the only woman I have ever met who doesn’t enjoy receiving gifts! She did bug me once to buy her some diamond jewelry. One of the few Thai girlfriends she had in our area kept flashing her jewelry in my wife’s face. This woman had to be a former bargirl! Suddenly my wife, the woman whose favorite place to shop was the local Dollar Store, could not live without diamonds! Sometimes it is pointless to argue. Okay she wanted diamonds, I would give her diamonds! I drove her up to a jewelry store in Vermont that was noted for its diamonds. Go ahead I said, pick out whatever you want, we can afford it (at the moment!). I must admit she had excellent taste! She chose a gorgeous necklace that looked lovely on her. It was a mere $7,000! The woman who preferred budget toilet paper had no problem (at the time) with me plunking out my credit card and spending more than her parents earned in a year, on some shiny former pieces of carbon! And how often has she worn them? Well of course she had to shove them in the face of her girlfriend! Aside from that, she rarely takes them out of her hiding place. I do insist she wear them when she wears one of her Thai silk outfits. She did show them to her sisters, but she is afraid to wear them in Thailand! That sounds like a ringing endorsement of Thai society if I’ve ever heard one!

Anyway, getting back to my story, Lampang looked like a good place to live. The next questions were where in Lampang? What land was for sale? How did we find an architect and a builder?

Finding available land was NOT easy, because there are NO real estate agents in Lampang! There are NO listings in the local newspapers! Those of you living in Bangkok or Pattaya or Chiang Mai have real estate agencies. But in Lampang, if you want to buy, sell or rent, it is strictly word of mouth. You need to talk to somebody whose uncle’s friend’s cousin thinks he knows someone who can help you! We spent a long frustrating day making enquiries to anyone who would listen, but were coming up empty. We were shown some ridiculously overpriced pieces of land that were not even suitable for what we wanted.

We were just about ready to give up, when we literally stumbled into an office promoting a housing development. Now the developments I had seen in Thailand were not exactly what you would call “top-notch”. I have seen some of the shoddiest pieces of construction, where nothing is level or plumb, being touted for premium prices. But what the hell; we’re here, it can’t hurt to take a peek. So we followed the sales girl through the gates of “H****** Homes”. (I’ve change the name because there is no freedom of speech in LOS, there are absurd libel laws, and most importantly, when it comes to the law, the farang is always wrong!)

There weren’t actually many homes there at that time. Usually these places have rows of house that look as though they had been formed with a cookie-cutter, with a minor variation or two. Two things struck me at once. One was a large attractive “park” in the center. The other was an equally attractive teak home, done in the northern “Lanna” style. Now that’s more like it I thought. This looks like my idea of what a Thai home should be. It was small, but looked like something out of a magazine. We were shown to the sales office where we were introduced to the developer, who I will call The Monkey. He was short and did remind me a little of a monkey, but I will eventually get to the reason I gave him his moniker later on.

The Monkey it turns out was a former doctor turned developer, and he was definitely a character! He was immediately welcoming us like long lost friends. This guy immediately wanted us to relax, have a cold drink, while he pranced around smiling, laughing, and joking. He would burst into song, belting out his favorite Elvis tunes while shucking and jiving like your best buddy.

He showed us through the house I had admired, and I could actually imagine us living in a place like that, if it were just a little bigger. It had a few out buildings, one of which I envisioned as my kitchen. It was nicely landscaped, with a small fish pond. We liked what we saw. This place seemed to have real character. We asked how much it would cost to build a house like this, but somewhat larger. We told him exactly what we wanted in terms of size: Two bedrooms, two bathrooms, a large living room, an office, a library, and a large veranda. No problem! Immediately The Monkey was whipping out a pencil and scribbling calculations. We were pleasantly surprised at the price, 1.2 million baht. Back in the USA, you could barely build a shack for that price, let alone a teak home. Of course that didn’t include the land, or things like air conditioning, appliances etc. The land wasn’t cheap. We wanted a double building lot, so we could have a nice yard. I forget how much that was in baht, but it came to over $10,000. This was a major decision. We needed to take some time and think about such a commitment. We thanked him for his time, and went back to our hotel to talk it over. It was time to answer some hard questions? Were we definitely committed to moving to Thailand? It wasn’t going to be easy, but yes. Is Lampang the right place for us? I definitely thought so. She liked Lampang, so although she said would have been just as happy to be in Buriram, near her parents, in the end she thought we could be happy in Lampang. What about building a nice home in that development for the kind of money we were quoted? Even my wife thought the price of construction was reasonable, although she would have preferred a large piece of land for a vegetable garden. (Hey, you can take the girl out of the farm, but not the farm out of the girl!) But I had owned a large piece of land in the past, and had too many memories of mowing, weeding, raking and other fun activities. I could live with something that required less upkeep.

The quality of the construction seemed good. The location was ideal. Although quiet, we were only a few minutes from the center of town, and a few minutes from the highway to Chiang Mai. We liked the “park”, and at the time we liked The Monkey. Hey this is the Land of Smiles isn’t it? So we made the decision to “go for it”!

Next day we returned to tell The Monkey that we wanted to be a part of “H****** Homes! There was much smiling and congratulations all around, then we starting making an actual plan. We selected two prime building lots directly opposite the park, with plenty of mature shade trees along the street. Papers were drawn up and signed for the land purchase. Since farangs are not allowed to own property, the sale would be in my wife’s name. We agreed to transfer money into The Monkey’s account when we returned to the U.S. Any plans for construction would have to wait until we sold our home in Massachusetts, but that we weren’t really in a hurry. There was plenty of time when we finally moved here to sit down with an architect and drawn up house plans. All in all we were feeling pretty good about our decision.

Stickman's thoughts:

I have heard many good things about Lampang and it is one of the few places list on my to visit list.

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