Becoming An Expat, and the Consequences
Sawadee2000’s recent submission on being an expat made me want to put fingers to keyboard to give my take on what it means to be one. Becoming an expat is a pretty big move, up there with the much more usual dramatic events of a person's life – marriage, having kids, moving house (in your own county), maybe changing job. All those bring huge changes to your life and, to a greater or lesser extent, none are easy. Same with becoming an expat. You've got to be a bit out of the box to become one, either because of your sense of adventure or because you are sent overseas by your company because you have special skills that others who work there are lacking. That's why those who say that many of those who live in Thailand are only here because they are losers at home are often just plain wrong.
So why do we do it? Everyone has their own reason, and for some it happens almost by accident. Stick himself didn’t leave the shores of New Zealand and land in Thailand with the plan or expectation that he would lay down such deep roots. Old Crutch of the Bangkok Post was on a trip through Asia and just didn’t move on once he’d reached Thailand, over 40 years ago. Sometimes these things just happen. I made the decision to come, and stay, because my wife was Made In Thailand, but for me it was an easy decision because I hadn’t really lived anywhere for at least 10 years before. I’d given up all things comfortable and familiar for my work, which involved me travelling around much of the world (everywhere except South America and Africa) for at least nine months a year.
What I didn’t realise when I started was the high price I would have to pay. It was an adventure, a challenge, but when you’re away so much you begin to lose touch with friends. Whereas I used to meet up with a couple of chums from school days every weekend, it is now once a year. Big difference. We have a pleasant enough evening, but we have naturally grown apart by living such different lives – for them it has been the usual marriage, kids, mortgage, two cars thing, and for me – life in the exotic East, in surroundings that really are so different it would be difficult for them to fully understand unless they experienced it for themselves. And that’s before we even get into politics and the Twilight Zone that is Thai logic and the sometimes unfathomable way of thinking here.
When you leave your country you begin to miss the usual things that friends talk about. It might once have involved a TV series or personalities that, eventually, you have never heard of. There is stuff that appears in the newspapers each day that you used to read and which told you what was going on around your country, but none of it makes the Bangkok Post so you’re cut off from the grapevine of home-town goings-on. Admittedly, the internet means all that is much easier to keep up with now than when I first went on the road 20-plus years ago (try onlinenewspapers.com – especially good for local papers, or paperboy.com).
But who has the time. You can only really skim the surface. You no longer have common interests with those you knew and used to spend hours in the pub with. And although you are experiencing riches they are not, you no longer belong. You no longer belong. To some extent you lose touch with your own culture. Sawadee2000 says he still feels very much American, and having met him he is. But I couldn’t really say I feel particularly British. Maybe that’s because I’ve travelled more widely than him, met people from so many different countries and discovered that, basically, everyone is the same.
Apart from extremists, everyone wants to raise a family and make enough money to live comfortably, no matter where they come from or where they live. That’s why I detest nationalism, and why I couldn’t really get excited about the Olympics because it is about nations when it should be about individual or team achievement. I see nothing that would make me especially proud to be British or American or Thai, or anything else. I can’t see that one nation is better than another. They are just different, and all have their good and bad sides. So, I see myself as a citizen of the world. Nationalism is largely destructive, especially in a country as inward looking as Thailand when, so often, foreigners are looked upon with distrust, only because they are not Thai.
I’d guess it’s difficult for most expats to really feel at home in their new country because, deep down, you will always be seen as an outsider. Especially in Thailand, where your security is at the whim of a government who at its most generous merely tolerates you rather than welcoming you as a full member of society. And although many, most, Thais are polite enough, there is probably a deep-down envy of the perceived wealth that you, as a foreigner, owns. No matter that many Thai people are poor because they are bone-idle lazy, or they are prevented by their own rigid class system from getting on. The two often go together. Many have said on this site that they have few or even no real Thai friends, even though they may have been here for years. There are many reasons for that, too many to go into here, but different education levels and curiosity about the world and what goes outside their bubble pretty much covers it. Having to deal with the face issue every waking moment plays a part too, for them.
So, you make sacrifices and fit in as best you can. You find new interests in your adopted home, new things to do in your spare time, new foods, a different culture to appreciate and try to understand. Some things are better than home, and some are not. You miss some things, not others. It’s a personal thing, and hopefully the gains outweigh the losses.
What do I miss about the UK? I do miss the change of seasons, although I know I would have enough of winter by the end of November, with four or five months of it still to go. There is nothing better than a fresh summer morning, something we can only rarely experience in Thailand and usually only outside of the polluted capital. I miss walking in the fog. To someone who has never experienced it, it must be quite unnerving, not being able to see where you are going or what lies ahead. They’re not as bad now as the smogs of my youth, though, when you literally could not see your hand held out in front of you. Imagine that. I miss snow, but not the thin stuff the UK usually gets. The big flakes. Amazing to walk through that as it tickles your nose, with your shoes squeaking or crunching the ice as you go. I miss trying all the local English beers, warm or not, and decent fish and chips which, somehow, are so difficult to replicate elsewhere.
I am the only person in the world that misses Fray Bentos meat puddings, and as well as stocking up with some on my annual trip back to the UK I have friends bring them to me when we meet up somewhere for work, be it Dubai or Melbourne. I like ginger beer, but although Tops used to sell it that seems to have disappeared from the shelves. Can't even find it in Villa. Or Siam Emporium. Anywhere. Help, anyone? Proper English tea, instead of Liptons. The good stuff is comparatively expensive here, so I bring some back from the UK or Oz, but it's bulky. I've recently tried Tops English Breakfast, and that passes and works out at 2 baht a bag so that might be the answer. I was never a great concert-goer, but wouldn’t it be nice to at least have the opportunity to indulge in some real culture. I’ve tried a couple of visits to the theatre here, but it just cannot match London or New York. Not really a surprise. I’ve missed the quality of British TV, although it might not be what it was. How would I know? I’m an expat. But I’ve amassed a huge collection of TV shows on DVD, invested many hundreds of pounds for watching in my future retirement. I miss discussions about sport, what was on TV. Talking about politics too. Here it’s almost impossible because many are so brainwashed and rigid in their opinions. I also found that in the USA, which is largely why, after 2002, I stopped going there. That may be about to change.
What I don’t miss is the eternal dampness in the UK, and the grey summer skies. Summer should mean warm sunshine, guaranteed. In the UK sunshine at 9 doesn’t mean there will still be sunshine at 11. Planning a weekend barbeque on Friday because the weather is nice doesn’t mean you won’t instead be eating indoors on Saturday because of the rain. I don’t miss the high price of living in London, especially the astronomical fares and barely-working infrastructure of public transport. I don’t miss the danger of being out late on a Saturday night when I run the risk of running into a group of drunken louts who want to challenge me just because I’m there.
I win, because much of what I miss about the UK can be found in Thailand or on the internet or cable TV. And even the rainy season is okay, because it is warm rain and not the chilly UK drizzle that gets inside your bones. Certainly there are challenges, especially the uncertainty of everyday life – not knowing what mood a public official is in and therefore what rule they will choose to invoke, whether the noodle stand will be open today or not because the owner has something more important to do than run her business, whether the visa rules will be tightened tomorrow, how the locals will respond when millions are out of work and we will be seen even more as figures of envy. But, overall, I’m happy to be an expat.
This submission reminded me that I have changed. I mean I have really changed. For the first few years friends from home would always find a list of things in their email inbox to bring but now the list contains….nothing! You do change and while you may always consider yourself a Kiwi, a Brit, a Yank or whatever, the longer you stay away, the more you change. It's almost imperceptible at first, but you do change… You might be an expat, you might consider yourself local but there comes a point when friends from home look at you and think you're more Thai than Western…