Readers' Submissions

Our Shrinking Worlds




I offer this contribution as a response to Klaus’s recent and interesting submission (Breaking the Chains – Part One). Having lived and worked in a neighbouring Asian city for over 25 years I can appreciate his viewpoint and Stickman’s own feelings. Why is it that what seemed so exciting and different, perhaps even intimidating for a few years gradually becomes more and more tedious and unexciting?

I think a large part of the problem can be put down to what I would call ‘shrinkage’. Our world progressively shrinks. Why does this happen? Well, it can be the result of various things. Maybe we get a bit bored, take our adopted home for granted, become complacent and / or just too comfortable in an environment that gradually ceases to challenge us. Maybe it really is a case of familiarity breeding contempt.

I think many long-term foreign residents around Asia experience exactly the same feelings, although each responds and adjusts in their own particular way. I would classify long-term as anything over 10 years. A Chinese professor who held a good job at a famous US university once told me that he decided to return to China after eight years away because he felt that if he stayed away any longer he would never be able to readjust to life back home and would have to stay in the USA permanently although this was a very comfortable option. He thought the watershed came at around 7 – 8 years – stay longer and you are locked in but then you have to confront the kinds of issues described by Klaus.

When I think of my own experience which extends way beyond the 8 year threshold I can certainly detect a pattern. This is also linked to age of course and all the things that go with the family life cycle. I arrived in Asia at the age of 33 with a wife and two young kids. Now I have no wife and two grown up kids who thankfully live in the same city and who I see on a regular basis.

By the way, while we oldies may ponder on our shrinking world, give a thought to the children of long-term foreign residents who have grown up in our adopted world. Many have few if any links with their country of birth other than relatives who they may see from time-to-time. They tend to lead a privileged existence as they are often, though not always, the children of well-paid professionals. They go to local international schools, live in nice houses or apartments, travel extensively and generally enjoy a relatively safe environment. Not surprisingly, many of these kids grow up with various problems and have serious adjustment difficulties when they head off to college, usually in their so-called ‘home’ country – but where is home really? Anyway, forgive the digression but it is relevant to the shrinkage problem for some age groups.

To me the shrinkage problem has two main elements. Firstly, our daily routine comes to dominate our existence and unless we really try hard to maintain our interest in the place we live in, our local world just gets smaller and smaller. I live in a small place anyway – Hong Kong – just 400 square miles and of this most of the city action is concentrated in a few square miles of Hong Kong Island and Kowloon. I have always lived on the Island but for about the first 10 years of my time here I regularly crossed the harbour to Kowloon, often with the kids at the weekend. Sometimes we would go to one of the other islands or to the New Territories. Now I maybe make the ferry trip to Kowloon 2-3 times a year and jokingly refer to it as visiting the ‘dark side’ to my friends. Most of the time my daily life is concentrated into a tiny area that includes my office, the places I do my shopping and the places I go to eat or drink – maybe 5-6 square miles. Sure, I travel quite frequently to other Asian countries – including Thailand – but my local world has definitely shrunk.

But the second and far more important part of shrinkage is to do with people. Now this will affect people at different ages in different ways. However, one common feature for foreign residents almost anywhere (well maybe not in retirement havens) is that your social network becomes more and more fluid and probably progressively smaller like the space you move around in. People come, you get to know them and then they are gone. I’ve lost count of the many people I have known for maybe one or two years here… must be many hundreds. This includes the people that you see most of – usually those where you work. They too move on to other jobs, some retire and some die. The group of people that you feel comfortable with, your real friends, gets smaller and smaller unless of course you really make the effort to develop new friendships and extend your social network. But this becomes more difficult I think as we get older. Who wants to listen to old (or even younger) farts talking about how great, how much fun and, above all, how much cheaper it was in Bangkok, Hong Kong, Manila, Kuala Lumpur or wherever 25 years ago? Well, maybe other old farts staring into their Singha, Tiger, Carlsberg or San Mig! We get set in our ways and become less and less willing or able to move outside our comfort zone.

So to me it’s about a shrinking world – our own little world that we move around in and in which we live out our own existence. And it’s about the people we know and want to know and be with.

Can we turn things around and expand our world? This to me is a very personal thing. It surely depends on each individual’s personality. Some never let their world shrink – the proverbial life and soul of the party. Some never had a social world to shrink anyway – the loners and quiet men of this world. I have no solution for the ‘in-betweenies’. I guess for me the fairly frequent forays outside my shrunken world are a partial antidote. I use them often just to unwind and relax. Yes, sometimes they may involve ‘fun’ – but more of this perhaps in another submission.

Am I happy and content? The answer is yes. By and large I am. Maybe I have reached a stage that can be called quiet acceptance. I’m also fortunate in having a secure and well-paid job that I enjoy. Would I ever return to my home country, the UK? Never! I am more of a stranger there now than in my adopted home here in Asia. It is not the country I left 25 years ago and I hardly recognize it. But I sometimes ponder on my future. Is it here or somewhere else in Asia? But I have a few years before I need to decide on that tricky question.

I don’t believe, by the way, that these issues are just an inevitable part of the life of the foreign resident in Bangkok or any other Asian city. I’m sure they exist for expats anywhere in the world and even for those that have never been more than 50 miles from home. I don’t mean to sound cynical but really the only thing to be said is – that’s life!

So is there a message here? Well maybe, just maybe, if you have any doubts about your ability to cope with shrinkage and perhaps to make the transition to quiet acceptance then do not linger too long in your chosen temporary home from homes. Know it, enjoy it, love it and leave it with fond memories. And I guess much the same can be said for the women unless you do find that extra special one!

Stickman's thoughts:

Excellent.