Another Kiwi in Thailand
After reading with interest Stick’s latest column and some of the responses I thought I might add my own perspective. While there is much common ground there are differences – which I don’t think are simply explained by the relatively shorter time I have been in Thailand.
Most of the time I still enjoy living in Thailand but some of the time it drives me crazy. It is natural to discuss the latter with my Western friends because they understand my frustrations, but that is not to discount the great things I do enjoy here. I don’t know that I can agree with Korski’s assertion that we all revert to our roots. Personally I have spent time in many places where I could happily live. I lived and worked in Sydney for 14 years and never imagined I would leave until an exceptional job offer took me back to NZ. When I had a Russian wife I contemplated the possibility of living in Russia…and IF it had been possible for me to get a decent job there I think I would have adjusted to life there just fine. In fact I think I could live just about anywhere that has reasonable infrastructure if the conditions were right. But right now the overall conditions are right for me in Thailand.
To begin with the mundane, I still enjoy eating Thai food on a regular basis. In fact since I first learned to cook a few basic Thai stir-fry dishes from the Thai wife of my Italian friend in Sydney in the 90s, I have regularly cooked and eaten some Thai food even when living in New Zealand or Australia. I also enjoy Kiwi food, Italian food, Russian food, Indian food, Middle Eastern food… but I don’t universally like every dish from ANY country including Thailand. I loathe many of the things I grew up with – cabbage boiled to transparency comes to mind, and I also loathe Bplaa Raa. But when it comes to regular everyday food I am content to eat Thai food perhaps 60% of the time. When it comes to school food or street food, I greatly prefer the Thai version to anything that would be served in my home country. The rest of the time I like some variety. So I eat cereal, toast, or bacon and eggs for breakfast most of the time and spaghetti or sausages and mash occasionally for dinner – all of which my Thai partner happily prepares and enjoys eating with me. When I am in Sydney or Singapore or Auckland and eating out I still look for good Thai restaurants and I don’t find any shortage of either authentic Thai dishes OR inspired fusion. Of course, what is good about living in Thailand – even upcountry is that if I want to eat some other kind of food I can find it.
To move on to more substantial things, the thing that keeps me in Thailand (apart from my teerak…and really I am GREATLY blessed that she would be genuinely happy to live with me anywhere) is a relatively better balance of competing lifestyle aspirations. What do I mean by that? It’s complicated, but to start with I mean a balance between some degree of personal career satisfaction and my childhood dream of self-sufficient small-farming. In the West my career was always to the fore. I worked in a specialized area of Human Resources and was pretty good at what I did. That brought me a relatively high income and often (but not always) a sense of making both my mark and a positive contribution to some greater good. In turn that delivered a nice home, decent cars, overseas travel for both business and pleasure and standing in the community. But it also kept me on the treadmill – even if I had earned and saved enough to buy a hobby farm on NZ’s expensive dairying land, I would never have had the time to do all the manual chores I have dreamed about since childhood.
Of course I never moved to Thailand with a clear intention of seeking the balance or fulfillment that eluded me. I washed up here by collusion of both positive and negative forces: I met my beloved, who belies all the unhappy stereotypes of Thai women one reads about, and then her family, who have shown me nothing but kindness and never asked me for a baht. At the same time I found myself going from cheerful voluntary redundancy (having literally worked myself out of a job) and still at the peak of my abilities to being just slightly too old to figure in the succession plans of the multinationals I once worked for, and without the stomach for a step back to the grind of operational analysis.
With time on my hands I took over the project of building my beloved’s home about which I have written much earlier…Initially I never imagined living here, but little by little the project seduced me in the direction of my childhood dream: I began a vegetable garden, a fish pond, planted fruit trees, bought some chickens, then some more land, planted rice this year for the first time, and then put in a bigger fish pond. I aspire to a well and solar power…
I moved here when the pull of my beloved and the push of some personal and professional disappointments in the West reached critical mass…but not until this year did I finally conclude I was here for the duration, whatever that may mean. I took a job teaching English at a local school for multiple reasons: the long term visa, a sense of continuing to make some sort of contribution, a modest income and something to do when I wasn’t on the end of a spade (I brought my own from NZ). My early experiences confirmed many of the worst things I had heard about teaching in Thailand but now I find myself in charge of the English department and with that the challenge to try to make things better instead of just complaining about them and the satisfaction of utilizing some of my management skills. I work longer hours for slightly more pay but I still have weekends completely free for my little farm and the long holidays to pursue my latest development projects. Yes, sometimes the job drives me nuts and I go home ready to give up and try to get back into HR, but I dust myself off, get back in the saddle and have another go. I enjoy the support of the school director, occasional golden moments when even my worst students show they have learned something, and a diverse team of teachers who in the main are serious about education, care about the kids and support each other and me! Does it get any better anywhere?
And then I have my dear Noy. No, I didn’t come to Thailand to find her, and while some of the things that endear her to me are undoubtedly Thai, the most important things transcend culture. She is no doormat but she is totally devoted and loyal, and she puts up with my too blunt words, an impatience that I was often criticized for in the West not just in Thailand, and innumerable other bad habits which would embarrass me to mention with amazingly good grace, good humour and dare I say love. By the latter I mean neither the helpless Shakespearean romance that so many Stickman readers attribute moral superiority to, but which many psychologists view as a kind of temporary madness, nor the transactional kind, but something deeper than both, stable, rooted and self-giving. Many readers complain that the bond they have with their Thai partner is significantly less than the bond of mother and child but my experience has not been such and Noy has made tough decisions at times for me in that area.
Of course no-one is perfect and no one person can meet all our needs: to demand that a partner does is to ensure failure from the outset. Noy is a product of her environment. Poorly educated, relatively ignorant about the world and its problems, and with limited analytical ability, if not typically Thai, then she is at least typically Isaan Thai. Sometimes that too, drives me nuts. When she follows the completely fallacious advice of an ignorant Thai neighbour rather than my own rationally based explanation sometimes I want to bang my head in frustration. But then I have to remember that my previous Russian wife, who had an excellent education, avid curiosity about the world and in the main superior logic could sulk for days if I slighted Russia or her…and was prone to occasional fits of temper or depression that nothing could breach. Yes I miss the intelligent conversation but I don’t miss the heartache – Noy frustrates me sometimes but never hurts me. For intelligent conversation there are friends and I am blessed with some good ones, Kiwi, Italian, English, Russian and Chinese…
But no Thais! The most resonant point of common ground with Stick and the deepest disappointment. Why is this? Is it because so many Thais are shallow – in their pursuit both of sanuk and of the physical benefits (financial etc) of relationships outside their own families? Or is it because my lack of ability in Thai or Isaan/Lao prevents me from developing friendships of any substance? Or my relative isolation on the farm 35km from the city and with no car limits the interactions that could develop further? Perhaps all three! I do find many Thais quite shallow and not a few quite mercenary in their approach to relationships. But I have also met some salt of the earth characters who have shown me nothing but kindness, and with whom I might have been able to develop more of a friendship if I was fluent in Thai and/or if I had time to spend with them. Is this a fatal flaw in my pursuit of happiness here? I don’t think so. My closest friends are overseas but keep in touch regularly and visit me periodically. I know they are always there for me as I am for them. Distance is inconvenient, not disastrous. I have good Western friends in Thailand now too, and they provide good conversation and periodic advice. I am certain that even if I can never have friendships with Thais as close as my Western friends, I can still at least improve these, not least by improving my Thai language skills.
The things I dislike about being in Thailand have all been said before, but none of them is overpowering to the point I want to be somewhere else in my circumstances. (of course if I won the big lottery prize I might…). Nor am I convinced the bad things here will never change (although they may not in my lifetime!) Change happens everywhere, and the global information age means even the most determinedly nationalistic and xenophobic Thais will never prevail long-
term. I don’t believe the desire for change is futile nor that to desire to change something is wrong behaviour for a guest. Yes I am a guest of the Thai people and government in my role as a teacher, and we may well have very different ideas about
what being an effective teacher means but we also aspire in common for Thai people to have a better educational experience, so I see my role as both an invitation and opportunity to try to change for the better what I can. This might involve systemic
change to the way English is taught at school or subtly subverting the way students think about a problem by the way I choose topics for their homework. I work to change what I can, and try to manage my frustration about the rest.
Unlike Stick and some of the other writers I never really imagined becoming more Thai. I am not a Buddhist or an animist and never will be, so I have no interest in imitating Thai religious behaviour. The monks didn’t bless our house, we don’t make offerings to the spirits and if Noy wants to go to the temple she goes alone. Neither am I a resurgent Kiwi. I still enjoy watching the All Blacks but don’t go far out of my way to do so. I seldom read NZ newspapers. My main interest in NZ is simply that most of my family are there, so of course I keep regularly in touch with them.
I forget which multinational first came up with the slogan “think globally, act locally” but I guess this for me sums up my existence in Thailand. I will never be Thai, and have no desire to be (although I would wish for the rights that normally come with long term residence in Western countries). Neither am I an expatriate Kiwi living a Kiwi lifestyle in a strange place. Rather, I aspire to be a responsible world citizen, who living in Thailand thinks and acts locally with an appreciation of the local landscape but also with the information and experience of a world citizen.
Of all the people I know in Thailand (for the readership, Rahiri is a close friend), you almost certainly live "the most Thai". What is also interesting is that you're probably also one of the happiest. I don't believe that there is a correlation between living like a Thai and happiness though, I just believe that you've chased your dreams – as you outline in this piece – and done a damned good job of it!