expat • noun & adjective informal short for expatriate.
expatriate • noun /ekspatrit/ a person who lives outside their native country. origin: Latin expatriare, from patria ‘native country’. Oxford English Dictionary
There are some events during our brief sojourn here on earth that are indelibly etched into our minds. I remember precisely where I was when I first heard that John Fitzgerald Kennedy had been assassinated in Dallas. I was sitting in the library at Crosby Junior High School in Pittsfield Massachusetts attempting to figure out my algebra homework when the principal made the announcement. Even at the age of thirteen, I was worldly enough to understand the full magnitude of what had happened. I may have only been an adolescent, but I was capable of feeling grief, and it was a powerful wave of grief, mixed with fear and stunned disbelief that washed over me that day in November 1963.
Now it was November 2008, and another wave of powerful emotions was sweeping over me. I was sitting in the café across from my school when I heard that Barack Obama had just been elected as the forty-fourth President of the United States of America. The emotional tsunami this time was not one of despair, but one of joy, and I must be honest, a sense of relief.
Bye- bye Dubyu! I must also admit that the intensity of my swelling sense of happiness took me by surprise. I was certainly hoping that Obama would be victorious, and I had sent in my absentee ballot. It’s not surprising that like most of the civilized world I was happy to know that Obama would soon be in the Oval Office. Hell, maybe, just maybe our long national nightmare would be over and we could at least begin to regain a sense of purpose not based on fear and jingoistic slogans.
But politics is not what I want to write about today, but rather what it was like to living so far from my former homeland as this momentous event unfolded. America is so many thousands of miles away, and I have only spent a handful of days there in the past four years. I’m now a permanent resident in Thailand, even if my status as one remains in the capricious hands of the visa Gods. Yes, I am indeed truly an expat.
If truth be told, the word expat doesn’t exactly roll off my tongue. It has a rather unpleasant sound, like the often used word born of the Internet age, blog. Does anyone honestly like the word blog? Blog sounds like some kind of tropical skin disease. To me, expat sounds all too like Ex-lax, a well known laxative in America. (Of course some out there in Forumland have accused me of being full of shit, in which case the word might apply to my babblings!)
An expatriate is of course “a person who lives outside their native country”. That pretty much describes me, as well of thousands of other former residents of Farangland. Baring an unforeseen disaster, I am likely to remain here until the funeral pyre reduces me to a small pile of ash. Even then I’ve told my wife to put my ashes in the ground and plant a nice tree there. So I plan on sticking around even as some well carbonized fertilizer! Wow! I guess I do like my adopted homeland!
I’ve written often enough about how I came to be living in “The Land of Smiles” and why I’m still here. I certainly did not “run away” from America and I definitely do not feel “trapped” here in Thailand. This is simply where I’ve chosen to spend the last part of life. I’ve been here long enough that Thailand does feel like a second home, although one which constantly makes me shake my head in disbelief much of the time. But although I’m comfortable here, I still think of myself as an American living abroad. While I have happily adopted many Thai customs, my identity is still firmly rooted in the USA…and gladly so I might add. Someone once asked me back in the States if I planned to become a Thai citizen. Since it was a fellow Yankee asking me that question, I could without any fear of repercussions (like getting the crap beat out of me) laugh out loud. My God I laughed so hard that tears were streaming down my face. Become a citizen of Thailand? Now that’s a joke if I ever heard one. Yes, if I was a Lao, or Khmer, or Burmese, that notion of being Thai might hold some appeal. Economically and politically things are so grim in these places that pledging loyalty to a different flag would be a small price to pay for having enough to eat, access to medical care, schools and plenty of material “stuff”. But who, I ask would want to give up their citizenship in a western democracy to become Thai? Not me folks, not in a million years.
Recently someone submitted a piece asking the question, Proud to be Thai? Some of you may not have agreed with the points raised, but I found it difficult to argue with most of the points raised. This is not to say that the vast majority of Thais are not as “good” as anyone back in any corner of Farangland. Most of the many Thais I’ve had the pleasure to meet over the years have treated me quite well. Are there a fair share of bastards, bitches, selfish ingrates (in-laws!) and just plain nasty Thais? You betcha (Sorry for the Palinism) but I think we have all known our share of these sorry specimens of humanity back in Farangland. Of course since many expats spend a disproportionate amount of time in the company of bar girls (and I’m not criticizing a fun time with the ladies), it’s not hard to come to the conclusion that all Thais are lying, black-hearted schemers. Hmmm…though on second thought there are a large number of other “enterprising” Thais who would happily cheat you with a straight face and a big shit-eating grin on their faces. Most of these, at least as far as I’ve experience are in the places where tourists visit. Personally, here in Lampang, aside from “The Monkey” and his cronies I’ve rarely been lied to or cheated. Still, although I know some nice people, I am still bewildered at the inflated sense of Thai pride. To MAD’s list of Thai misconceptions I would like to add: the belief that their “System of Education” is not a complete and utter sham, and that Thailand is a shining “Beacon of Democracy”. Both of these, by any rational standard are demonstrably a load of manure.
But amazingly, even given all those negative aspects of Thai culture, there is still more here that I enjoy than I despise. Others are free to disagree. This is only my personal opinion! I do believe that is possible to have a wonderful life here…although it may take more than a little bit or work.
Getting back to my train of thought, I could live to be a hundred (wishful thinking) but I will still identify with the country where I was born. For better or worse, I am an American, and proud to be one. (Note to America haters out there: please you can stop reading this and just read the latest “golden words” from Aha or Bart.) Hell, I would venture to guess that no matter what corner of Farangland we come from, that most of us still think of ourselves as citizens living abroad…expats.
I would be very interested in hearing how some of you deal with being so far from where you were born and raised. What do you miss (or not miss one bit)? For what it’s worth, here is my short list of things I miss, at least occasionally.
1. seasons: I mean real seasons, not just hot and dry versus hot and wet. I actually like cool weather and even cold weather from time to time. The “cool season” has finally begun, for which I’m profoundly grateful, but it ain’t that cool, and doesn’t last for all that long. My last visit back to the U.S. was last February, and it was great to have a small dose of New England winter. I would have to admit that I don’t miss shoveling snow, and driving roads glazed with ice is enough to induce a severe case of white-knuckled panic. Still there is something to be said for skiing down the slopes on a “mild” winter’s day under a crystal blue sky.
2. books: lots and lots of glorious books! I’ve written about my passion for reading. Thank goodness I brought thousands of books with me to Thailand, because outside of some bookstores in Bangkok, books in English (or other western languages) are few and far between. Of course that’s understandable. Why should Thailand carry books in someone else’s language? And as for public libraries, hell what passes for libraries here have a pitiful selection of books in Thai! I do miss browsing in bookstores. On my rare trips to Bangkok I spend a good part of my time looking through the ones in the Emporium or Siam Paragon.
3. bread: Man might not live by bread alone, but for me at least, I can easily make a fine meal out of a loaf of fresh, crusty slathered in butter and a salad. Folks living in Bangkok or Pattaya have good bakeries. Here in Lampang the bread is simply not worth eating. Whenever I go to Chiang Mai I try to stock up, but alas my freezer is pretty small, and there is still nothing like bread fresh out of the oven. It’s a pity that the French never colonized this place like they did elsewhere in Southeast Asia. At least in Cambodia you can buy fresh baguettes on the street!
4. beef: Yes, I know that eating too much beef is not good for your health, but damn but every once in a while I NEED to have a steak or some roast beef!!! There is no beef to be had here, except if you happen to know a farmer who is slaughtering a cow. Even then, it is likely to tough, stingy and flavorless. The last steak I had was about 8 months ago at the Londoner in Bangkok. It wasn’t cheap, bit it was good!
5. movie theatres: I have been to the movies precisely once since moving to Thailand. This too was in Bangkok at Siam Paragon. Now that was a fine movie going experience. Here was a cinema that was superior to any that I had ever been to in the U.S. Nice comfy seats, a great sound system, fresh buttered popcorn…what else could a movie buff want? I’ve heard that some theatres in Chiang Mai show some films in English, but I’ve never seen one. Thanks to bit torrent, I’m able to download and burn plenty of movies, but watching them on my small screen just doesn’t compare to seeing them at a cinema.
That’s about all the material things I’m missing. What I miss the most is intellectual stimulation. I do have a few close friends here, one American and one Australian with whom I have some great yak-fests with. Thank goodness for them. I don’t have too many chances to get together with Stick, but when we do we have a wonderful time just talking about almost every subject you can imagine. Thanks also for CNN, BBC, The Discovery Channel, The History Channel and National Geographic. If I had to depend on Thai television for world news I would be clueless about virtually everything. That would be hard because I am a self confessed news “junkie”. “Enquiring minds want to know” reads the byline of a notorious tabloid paper you can find in checkout lines in American supermarkets. Well, I’m not much interesting in alien abductions, Bigfoot sightings or a tortilla that purports to have the face of Jesus on it, but I am genuinely interested in everything from politics to science. This brings me back to where I started this story, Mr. Obama’s election victory. While life here in Thailand is certainly never boring, a part of me still hungers to keep informed about what’s happening back “home” in America. I have no idea when I will have the opportunity to visit there again. It may very well be many years. Until then I will have to be content to sample the American experience vicariously, through a prism that projects everything at a distance. I suppose that’s part of what being an expat is all about.
We're all expats here, forever outsiders. Whether we admit it to ourselves or to, that is how we are seen. Perennial outsiders.