Here for the Long Haul…Maybe!
Where has the time gone! My God! It seems like only yesterday that we arrived, suitcases in hand. We had no idea what our new life in Lampang would be like. The only thing we knew for certain is that we “weren’t in Kansas anymore”…or Massachusetts for that matter! We were in a strange city. I was in a strange country. My wife may have been born and raised in Thailand, and she may have had a large family, but that was in rural Buriram, 700 + kilometers from where we were.
In my wildest dreams I could never have imagined what was in store for us. All I can say is life is really is stranger than fiction. There is no way on earth that I could possibly make up the events of our new life here. A new life! A new home! A new career! A new baby boy? Whoa! That last one was not in anyone’s “Master Plan”…not by a long shot!
My dearly departed mother and father would undoubtedly be astounded to know that 23 pairs of their darling little Sawadee’s chromosomes had done some serious “fooling around” with 23 pairs of chromosomes from far off and exotic Thailand! Well Mom and Dad, if you’ve been looking down from Beyond the Veil, you will have to admit that this genetic combination does seem to have produced one handsome little devil…and a clever one to boot! Can he really be three years old already? Little Sam isn’t the only one who's been getting older. The Big 60 is rapidly approaching for your humble correspondent. It seems like a good time to take stock of our life here in the Land of Smiles. Where have we come from? We are we almost five years later, and most importantly, where the hell are we headed?
My tee-rak and I have been married for almost ten years now, with our time together having been split in half between America and Thailand. That’s a fairly respectful amount of time spent in both worlds, and seems like a fair basis for some honest, if highly subjective comparisons.
Life in America was certainly a life altering experience for my wife. Her view of the world has never been the same since setting foot there. While she took some time to adjust to life in the West, she immediately appreciated the many people who did their best to welcome her to her new home. Hell, she wasn’t even out of JFK and she had received a green card…and a hearty wish for good luck from a smiling Immigration official!
Contrast that welcome to the one that every Farang receives when entering Thailand. You have to wonder if that as part of their “training”, the folks working at passport control received special instructions to be grim and unsmiling at all times. Are they actually told to suck on a rancid lime, or to insert a chili pepper somewhere! Welcome to Thailand…and don’t let the door hit you on the way out!
All in all, my wife’s time in Massachusetts was a wonderful one. There were so many new and memorable experiences: spectacular Autumn foliage, sledding down snow covered hills…followed by hot chocolate (with marshmallows) in front of a roaring fire! There were visits to maple sugaring houses, and 4th of July parades (she actually rode on a float down Main Street dressed in a Thai silk costume.) There were baseball games, barbeques, and a visit to see Mickey and friends at Disney World. During summers she attended concerts by the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Tanglewood, and dance performances at Jacob’s Pillow. She had dozens of new friends…none of whom never referred to her as “an Asian” or a “foreigner”. She learned like to swim like a fish. She learned to drive a car…in the snow no less…and in fact owned her very own car…a brand new silver PT Cruiser! She lived for the first time in her life in a vermin free house…a brand new house, which she helped design. She became an American citizen, free to come and go when she wanted…and to say whatever she wanted. This young Issan farm girl learned to think for herself, and discover a world she never knew existed. She liked this world! There were real opportunities to do just about anything she had a mind to.
I won’t detail all the reasons we decided to leave an affluent and comfortable life in America for an uncertain and less affluent one in Thailand. I detailed all of that in my first submission, How it all Began. Suffice it to say, my wife missed her family and I was ready for a change of scenery. I was not running away from anything, or anyone, although I must admit that being on the other side of the planet from my ex-wife was just about far enough for me!
So, how has life worked out for us? It has not been all mangoes and cream. You are probably way too familiar with my medical ups and downs, although these travails would have taken place whether I was here or back in Farangland. I can honestly say that for the most part, life has been good. Thailand if anything is not boring! There have been times when I figuratively wanted to bang my head against a wall…or throw a brick or two, but most mornings I am happy to get out of bed and just live my quiet life.
It is a quiet life. Many of you would be bored to death with it, but, hey, it suits me. We have a lovely home. We have nice neighbors. I have an interesting job. We don’t owe a soul a single baht. We have a little boy that no one can resist hugging. Do I really need anything else…except hopefully enough good health to enjoy it all?
We chose well when we decided to make Lampang our home. For me it is a “goldilocks” kind of town…not “too big” or “too small”. Neither of us has ever wanted to live in a big city. For me, Bangkok is interesting…for about 24 hours, then I need to get far, far away. There are just too many people, too much noise and pollution. I likewise could never live in a tiny village, like where my wife grew up. I would go stark raving crazy in no time. Lampang is just the right size for both of us. It is big enough, so that there is always something we haven’t seen or done, and small enough that we can get out of town in a few minutes. Chiang Mai is an easy hour’s drive away; so it’s no big deal to go up for a day.
I am happy not to live in a Farang enclave. There aren’t too many foreigners here that I’ve ever run into, and all of them seem to be of a “certain age” and are married to Thais. The vast majority of Thais I know here are fine people. I may complain about what I perceive as problems in Thai society, but I have no doubt that most of the Thais I consider my good friends would not hesitate to help me in an emergency…hell, a number of them have done exactly that.
And so the seasons, such as they are here have gone by. Alas the cool season is not nearly cool enough, or long enough to suit me. Be that as it may, I have found some rhythm in Thai life to dance to…even with two left feet! Loy Kratong and Songkran are not just Thai holidays for me now. They are my holidays…and I enjoy both of them with gusto! Even the Buddhist holidays are part of my tradition now.
Am I slowly becoming Thai? Hardly! In fact, the day I actually start thinking and behaving like a Thai, please do be a big favor and slap me silly. I have however done my best to look for the best I can find in Thai culture…and sometimes I still have to shake my head alternately in wonder, bewilderment, disbelief, outrage, delight and stark disbelief. Amazing Thailand indeed! Despite the fact that I can, without much effort, find plenty to find fault with here, the fact remains that there is still more that I like about this place than dislike. That is why I have remained here…so far.
What about the future though? Do I really intend to remain here until the day I’ve been reduced to a pile of ash? That was the intention when we moved here. The plan was to
live here permanently. Having spent a lot of time with my in-laws down in Nong Ki, I certainly made the move knowing what life was like here…far away from what TAT presents as The Land
of Smiles. Despite all the surprises (not all of them pleasant) thrown my way, as I’ve said, I’ve managed to create a comfortable life. But is that enough to keep me here until
cremation time? Hmmm. I think it's time to get out the scales and start weighing the pros and cons of remaining here. Let’s see how things stack up. (Note: What I’ve listed
below is just what’s coming to mind at the moment, and is in no particular order. If you’ve read enough of my writing, then you know that I tend to drift along.)
1. I have a lovely home that is bought and paid for. This includes a wonderful garden. My home is in a quiet neighborhood, and I have nice neighbors. <I can verify this. It is the nicest home I have been to in Thailand – Stick>
2. I have thousands of books in my library, nice furniture, electronics, and lots of other “stuff”.
3. I have a nice Toyota 4×4 which is also bought and paid for.
4. I have many close friends.
5. I have a job, which while not making me rich, earns me enough money to live comfortably, if simply. While sometimes frustrating, I feel I am making a difference in the lives of my students…and I really do like these kids!
6. I have gained a high degree of respect, both at work and in the community. I get plenty of genuine smiles!
7. There are many new things to see and do.
8. There are fresh, locally grown fruit and vegetables all year long.
9. No snow to shovel!
10. There are easy opportunities to visit other places within Southeast Asia.
11. I don’t need prescriptions for my medications. Back in the U.S. I would need not only an initial visit to a doctor, but additional visits to keep a prescription current…at around $100 per visit!
12. While Thailand can be a dangerous place, I really do feel safe here in Lampang. That’s not to say that I wouldn’t be in danger if I wandered around in the “wrong part of town” in the middle of the night, but my old hometown had more than its share of violent crime.
13. Buddhism is much more to my liking than the insane screeching of Christianity. I enjoy simply sitting in wats and doing some meditation. No figures nailed to a cross to spoil my day!
14. There is plenty of lovely scenery where I live, some of which is two-legged!
1. I am allowed to live here only through the sufferance of the Thai government. The annual visa dance has become unpredictable. This year I was told that our joint savings account of 400,000 baht was now unacceptable as one of my visa requirements. I now, for what ever inexplicable reason, must have an account solely in my name. Needless to say, when old Sawadee departs this earth, the bank will undoubtedly refuse to give it to my wife. Welcome to Thailand.
2. There is no freedom of speech. On principle this rankles me, but for all practical purposes, I have no reason to shoot my mouth off, and I could care less about. If I am in the mood to complain about anything, my wife is always ready…or at least generally ready to lend a sympathetic ear.
3. The year round sauna that Thailand’s weather produces can be draining. REAL seasons would be nice!
4. There are no bookstores where I live with English books, other than dictionaries and other assorted language books.
5. Driving here is extremely dangerous. No matter how carefully I drive, it’s a crapshoot every time I get behind the wheel. Will Somchai stop for that red light or stop sign? I’ve learned to simply assume he won’t. No matter how many pairs of extra eyeballs I grow, I will never have enough to see some nitwit on a motorcycle attempting to pass me on the left!
6. The Boys in Brown. I just hate being shaken down for traffic offences which I did not commit.
7. The Farang is always wrong! This is an immutable fact of life.
8. The lack of regulations…or the fact that whatever regulations do exist are not enforced, is appalling. I’ve had two car insurance companies here go belly up on me. I don’t keep a lot of money in my Thai bank accounts, but who knows when one of my banks will go bust?
9. NO FREE MEDICAL CARE!!!!! (at least for Farangs) No money? Bye-bye white boy…and if you are going to die, please go do it elsewhere, where you won’t offend us! Even when you can pay for medical treatment, you may very well end up being treated by Dr. Hackenbush.
10. To say that Thailand is politically unstable would be an understatement. The mother of all upheavals is inevitable before too long. While I actually believe things won’t get ugly up here in Lampang…well, who knows for certain.
1. I can say any damned thing I want, any time I want, to anyone I want! Barring yelling “fire” in a crowded theatre, I can express my opinions to my heart’s content. That is not the case in most of the world.
2. The media is not controlled by the government.
3. My old home in New England had four real seasons! Autumn there is “heaven on earth”, and even winter has its delights…at least if you are a skiing fanatic like I was. My home county boasted half a dozen ski areas.
4. The variety of food available is much greater…both in the markets and in restaurants.
5. Better TV selections. I don’t watch that much TV, but Thai television is simply dreadful.
6. Faster and more reliable internet connections.
7. Service in general is much better. If you go into a restaurant, chances are you will be waited on!
8. Government corruption…at least on level the average person has to deal with it, doesn’t exist (99%) of the time.
9. The police are hardworking and honest (99% of the time).
10. The U.S. military does not stage regular coups! I’ve lost track of how many Thailand has had!
11. Foreigners (for the most part) are welcome! Whatever the failings of American culture, the USA is still a “melting pot.”
12. There is a virtually unlimited selection of books. The average American may be becoming a dunderhead but plenty of people still do read real books, not just comics or romance novels. There are still excellent libraries.
13. When it comes to the arts and sciences, there is simply no comparison. Thailand is a wasteland. In the USA there are plenty of museums, art and music festivals, theatre etc. Alas, I never had a chance to take my wife to the Smithsonian, or the New York Museum of Natural History, although she has been the Boston Museum of Science. Wow, did her eyes bug out of her head when she saw “Sue”, the T-Rex that was on display!
1. I own nothing there! No house, no car, no furniture, no “stuff”. Nada, nothing, zip, bupkis! I brought half a container’s worth of things to Thailand. It cost a lot of money to do so. I will never be able to afford to ship it all back to the U.S. Can you imagine starting life over again with only the contents of your suitcase? If I were single it would be bad enough, but with a family, it would be unthinkable.
2. The job prospects, even before the current the recession were not very good, especially for someone of my age. Now I would be lucky to find a minimum wage, menial job. I’m not eligible for social security for a few more years…if the system is still solvent! I never have received and never will apply for any type of government welfare. I’m too stinkin’ proud to go on the dole!
3. Alas, my former homeland has gotten to be an ugly place…really ugly! Right wing demagogues, have stirred up their even nuttier right wing followers to the point where the hatred in the air is beyond anything I have ever known. Folks, the asylum inmates, and conspiracy theorists are running amok…and waaay too many of them are armed and dangerous. I am sad to say that someday (and I can’t believe I’m actually saying this), there is the real possibility of violence on a scale we haven’t seen since the Civil War. Hell, I very well might be safer here in Thailand. Isn’t that a scary thought! The hard core Yellow and Red Shirts might be willing to duke it out, but for the most part, your average Thai, whatever his political leanings, still is content to let life go on without any unseemly rancor. Can you believe I’m saying? The Thai smile might sometimes be disingenuous, but for the most part, folks here really don’t hate each other’s guts. Back in my corner of Farangland, people seem to be unable to disagree…about anything, without spewing vitriol.
Given enough time I could come up with a more extensive list, but this seems to be sufficient for my purposes. So, how do things balance out? Even though Thailand is lacking in many ways, I have a comfortable life. Pulling up stakes and heading back to a “home” that is no longer my home doesn’t seem to be all that compelling at the moment. Of course I have left two important factors out of the equation…the future of my family!
My darling wife, the lady who couldn’t bear to away from Thailand, is now singing quite a different song. Oh, how she now pines for the good old USA! Five years there changed her more than she could have imagined. She can be a harsher critic of Thai society than me…if you can believe it. Having had a taste of life in a country where things generally run well, she has now has no tolerance for Thai ineptitude, corruption and the inability of Thais to simply get off their collective asses and improve things. When we packed up to come to Thailand, she was doing Thai massage at a very prestigious yoga center. She earned more in an hour than she currently earns in a day…and she was just starting out there!
My wife, who is one smart and hard working lady, looks to the future in Thailand with no expectation that things will ever improve for her. When I am no longer here, how can she afford to live? The answer is that someday, she undoubtedly will return to the U.S. Along with her of course will be our son.
Ah yes! The Samuel Thongkam G***** factor! Like the elephant in the living room, it can hardly be ignored. Before my wife and I got married, we discussed having children. Both of us said we didn’t want to have any. I really did not need to go through fatherhood yet again, especially at my age! Not three months after moving to Thailand, I had my first round of heart surgery. It was that close call which caused my wife to re-think her position on having children. “You could die anytime!” she cried, “and I would be all alone!” In the end, with no little trepidation, I acquiesced to her wish. Nine months later, little Sam came along. I have no regrets. He is the greatest joy in our lives, even though he is a little monkey!
Still, I have to say that if I had known that he was to be part of our future, we would never have moved to Thailand. It’s one thing for two adults to traipse off halfway around the world. It’s an entirely different proposition to consider bringing a child to what is, let’s face it, a “developing country”.
Undoubtedly, some of you are thinking, “What an idiot! Why did Sawadee burn all his bridges before moving to Thailand in the first place?” I may well be a complete smurf, but in my defense, I have to say, that I came here intending for the move to be a permanent one. I was, come hell or high water, to make a life for myself in Thailand…and, at least according to my own standards, succeeded.
“Okay then Mr. Sawadee. You have a comfortable life, but let’s face it, how many years do you have left among the living. Before too long, you’ll be checking out. You made a choice to live here. Your little boy had no choice whatsoever as where he was going to grow up. What about his future? Do you honestly think Thailand is the best place for him to spend the rest of his life?”
Folks, I’ve spent countless hours wrestling with this dilemma. Here’s how things stand now. For now at least, we are here for the long haul…maybe.
Sam started nursery school four months ago, here at my school. I didn’t want him sitting around the house with a babysitter. The nursery school has warm and loving teachers, a very clean room full of colorful things to play with…and learn from. There is a nice playground to run around in, full of swings, slides and merry-go-rounds. He is served a nutritious lunch and snacks. Sam has learned all kinds of new songs, including, the Thai national anthem, which he can now belt out with the best of them. (I have to admit that it is a lot easier than the Star Spangled Banner) His room is conveniently located next to my office, so I can look in on him from time to time. He has a good time here and is learning how to be away from Mommy and Daddy, to follow instructions, and to co-operate with other children.
Next year he will begin the three year Anuban program. K-1 (Kindergarten 1) would be what I would call pre-school. Here is where the first tentative steps of the road of formal education begin. It’s amazing how much children can learn if given the opportunity…and aren’t pushed beyond their abilities. Next year, for the first time, they will begin learning English at this level. Hey, it’s never too early to begin learning a foreign language! Have no fear though; it will be very laid back.
Kindergarten 2 is more like the traditional kindergarten many of us remember, many, many years ago. Among other things, it’s time to learn the alphabet. Here however, there are two alphabets to master; Thai and English! There are plenty of other things to learn as well, such as numbers and counting. The English program begins to shift into a higher gear. This term I have taught them to answer the following questions. How are you today? What day is it today? What is your name? How old are you? Where do you live? What is the name of your school? For a bunch of four year olds, they have done very well indeed! Next term I will have another half dozen questions for them, along with phonics instruction.
Kindergarten 3 is more like first grade. Kids learn to write the Thai and English alphabets. They begin real arithmetic. Hell, I sure as hell didn’t begin doing addition at five years old! At this age they also have their first computer class. In addition to learning more and more English conversation, they acquire a large vocabulary.
I really can’t lavish too much praise on the Anuban program here. I may have issues with Thai education, but at least at my school, children get as good a start as anywhere in Farangland. The teachers are true professionals and love what they do. I have no problem with Sam spending the next three years here.
As for his education in Pratom (elementary school) and Mathayom (high school), well, here my fountain of praise abruptly dries up. Classes can have as many as fifty students. Classes are noisy. Textbooks are a joke. Students rarely have homework. In short, most students graduate having learned little…or nothing!
Ideally, I would send my son to an international school. Alas, I simply don’t have the money to do that…and it would mean commuting to Chiang Mai anyway. I am going to have to come up with an alternative strategy.
First of all, I, unlike most Thai parents, intend to know everything that is going on in each and every one of Sam’s classes. I will not only be reading his coursework, but supplementing it. He will need to attend after school programs, such as those in Kumon. I actually think I will enroll him next year in their math program, which looks like a lot of fun. No one is trying to “create little Einsteins”. It’s all about learning through structured play.
Libraries here exist in name only. Luckily I have a pretty fine library. I will of course be buying many more books over the years. I think, with some planning, the internet can be a valuable resource. There are so many education websites out there that the hardest thing will be sifting through it all to choose the best of what we need. I want him to enjoy all that is worth knowing about Western Civilization.
One thing that encourages me are students I know who have managed to acquire a good education. Not only that, but they are good, well adjusted kids…not brats! If nothing else, as long as I am around, I will simply not allow Sam to become a brat!
Above all else, I do not want him to become another Thai ignoramus. Spare me your outraged e-mails! Don’t lecture me that I “don’t understand Thai culture”. I mean exactly what I said! Way too many Thais…and I mean those who have nominally received a university education, don’t even know how little they know. Not only that, they don’t want to know! Yes, I am aware how educational standards have fallen in Farangland, but they are still light-years ahead of what exists in Thailand.
One of my biggest challenges then is going to be not only instilling “facts”, but an outlook towards life. Here I hope to lead by example. I intend to point out whatever wisdom I’ve gained, whenever I can…and to “preach” only what I am willing to practice in everyday life. I want my son to be curious about everything and to question everything. From me at least, he is going to learn to speak his mind, and not adopt the Thai obsession with “face”. I want him to be his own man.
As far as moral education is concerned, there is plenty to be learned from Buddhism. There are of course many Thais who pay lip to this teaching service while leading lives that are anything but moral. I do though have some good Thai friends here who are the “real deal”. They are fine folks that I would be proud to have my son emulate.
Whatever the game of life has in store for my little guy, I am happy to know that he holds a few aces up his sleeve. Both he and my wife are American citizens, holding American passports. They can leave here any time they want, and head to the U.S. of A… and I know that will happen when the time is right. My wife certainly wants to go. She is still a young woman, and I know that after I’m gone she could build a new life for herself and Sam. America may not be quite what it was a generation or two ago, but there are still vast opportunities for success…if you’re willing to work your butt off to achieve them! That my friends, is one lesson I want to tattoo on to my Sam’s cerebral cortex. If you want anything in this world, you have to make it happen! TANSTAAFL! “There Ain’t No Such Thing As A Free Lunch!”
Sounds like a plan, eh? Like all plans though it is subject to change without notice. There are a lot of factors that could come into play. Chief among them is what will happen in the future. Will it be civil war? Hopefully the Thai penchant for apathy will see the nation through the inevitable chaos. It would be foolish though not to consider the possibility of widespread violence. That is why the very first thing I did after Sam was born was to get him a U.S. passport. If need be, I want to be able to “get out of Dodge” in a hurry.
I’ve my fair share of complaining about Thai society. Some of you may think too much! Be that as it may, there are still aspects of life here that I admire. That of course is why I’m still here.
How will all this turn out in the end? Your guess is as good as mine. Can the best of two cultures exist in harmony in one little boy? It would be nice to live long enough to find out. Stay tuned to find out.
A wonderfully honest account of life in Thailand.