Bigger Than Ourselves
Perhaps the most unfortunate aspect of being a long term expat in Thailand is watching fellow westerners self-destruct. It was well over a decade ago that I witnessed my first, and just recently the last. And frankly some of them have been close enough to really hurt. If Thailand has taught me anything, it’s that there will be more. And once again I’ve learned there isn’t much you can do at this point but become an observer.
And all the while I’m getting email after email from people who read my site and my column here on Stick’s site asking “I really envy your life in Thailand and can’t wait until I’m able to do the same” or something to that effect. And they ask how much money it takes to live, where they should live, should they buy a car, but they’re never asking the most important questions: “How does one stay mentally healthy in this very different world?” and finally “How can you tell when it’s time to leave?”
The best part of my time in Thailand are the friends I’ve made. Looking back I’ve made really good friends with fellow expats, some who visit a few weeks a year, and some who have visited for long term projects. Perhaps the most special is my Thai friend. I think my Australian and NZ friends are most like Americans overall, where the English see me as “he’d be okay if not for all those annoying American traits”, while my European friends just excuse me as a curiosity. All in all the best group of people I’ve ever had the pleasure.
And who can help but observe the plethora of those you meet or observe more casually, while eating at your favorite eatery, in the same stoop you walk past on the way to the sky train, or if you visit neighboring countries the lost souls living in small enclaves of like users. All but forgotten and already gone.
After long and considered thought I’m of the opinion this begins when the western man who has long been culturally responsible for the family, the family's spirituality, and of course to his employer, friends, and extended family, where only a forensic accountant can identify all the leeches attached to his checkbook, comes to Thailand most often after cutting these responsibilities. They arrive free, no one else to care for, no drain on their wallet, and because they’ve often just “cashed out” their life they have both pockets full of loot they can’t wait to be separated from.
For a “vacation” length of time this works out great. They drink too much, barfine too much, sleep too much, and most often “think too much..” With no responsibilities, with no oversight, with no one who cares. And it’s this last part I believe is the catalyst for the end.
Up until the day she died, when I was leaving her house, my mother would never fail to say “drive carefully” or “call me when you arrive home..” Or my grandmother would remember all the small stories from when I was a tyke. Or the weekly calls from my siblings or even the ex-wives who would keep in touch. There was always someone who cared at least a bit to make me feel warm inside. Or translated: makes me feel there is something bigger than myself.
I’m not speaking of religion though I’m sure it qualifies. I’m talking about having something or someone bigger than ourselves in our lives to keep us going in the right direction when we otherwise wouldn’t. To get us out of bed in the morning because they need our help at 0900, or a ride in the afternoon, as part of your community you’ve become an integral part of many people’s lives. As humans we thrive on such need. Without it we will slowly perish.
And this is where most expats find themselves. That wonderful feeling of “I’m not responsible for anyone any longer” turns into “I don’t feel needed” or worse “no one cares..” What a terrible feeling that must be, to really believe no one cares if you live or die.
I’m not one to highlight a problem without having some idea for a solution so bear with me a minute longer.
I’ve had more than a few tell me they don’t want to be friends with someone, or part of a group, because they don’t find it worth their trouble to adhere to whatever code of behavior or standards that group has. Small things such as being on time. Or wearing clothes to a certain level of acceptability. Or even maintaining oral hygiene to the minimum level necessary to avoid being offensive. How sad is that?
In our own western societies “acceptability” is the first prerequisite to the things in life we enjoy most. Education, employment, a significant other, family, we’re indoctrinated in our roles early in life and we’re not really allowed to stray too far from our societal norms before being noticed or even marked as someone undesirable. A troublemaker in some instances. We study, we watch our appearance, we are careful with our words, and we try not to offend which has the reciprocal benefit of reducing others who might offend us.
I sometimes use the term “when your mother isn’t watching..” I’ve seen it in the military when young men are first away from their familial home and I’ve seen it as an expat in various countries, once a person is no longer under the watchful eye of “mom” their behavior becomes abysmal to varying degrees. For these individuals society often plays the role of mom.
We see it with those on vacation and also with long term expats. They walk down a regular city street (not a beach city) without shirt or shoes, they go without shaving for long periods of time, and they appear to have just got out of bed as the late afternoon turns into evening. And these are things we can see as outside observers. What do you think is happening inside their home? Are they eating well, changing their bedding several times a week, or perhaps once a year? If without service are they cleaning well enough to avoid most molds and germs where the flu and other sicknesses breed?
And if they’re taking such bad care of themselves and don’t seem to care how others see them, do you think they’re taking care of their financial lives the same?
Substance abuse in some form is often a direct contributor. They tend to limit their exposure to Thailand to the frequenting of bars and areas where money is made from the sale of alcohol and then begin to believe all of Thai society accepts such behavior is common. Where it used to be acceptable to go have a few drinks one or two days a week, now they’re drinking every night. And the nights extend into the early mornings where with little effort you find yourself drinking during most if not all of your waking hours.
Folks, every hour you have alcohol in your system is an hour you won’t be taking classes, learning a new language, visiting historical landmarks, or traveling outside what I’ve always called the magic mile centered on the intersection of Soi 3 and Sukhumvit.. Your perception of Thailand starts to become limited. Unrealistically limited. And as you can tell reading the submissions it often becomes outrageous and insulting. It’s much more common than it should be for men to think all women are for sale, all Thai men are drunk women beaters, all Thai fathers abandon their children, everypne is on the take, everyone is out to get you, etc, etc.
How long will an average person last while in the process of pickling their internal organs and rejecting the reality of the society around them? Some only weeks before joining the Pattaya Flying Club. Others are professional drunks in a serious state of self-denial who can hang on for decades until it IS their reality. They’ll join the same club, but you don’t need to make it yours.
Let’s answer that question on how to stay mentally healthy long term. WAIT, HOLD THE PHONE.. I had to stop myself when I was on the third page of “don’t drink much”, “personal hygiene is essential”, “learning new things”, and “socializing with the rght people.” Not because it’s bad advice, but because it’s everyone’s advice. We ALL know these things and how important they are and how easily it is to miss a step thereby starting that long terrible slide down the proverbial slippery slope. No one wants to misstep. But we sometimes do. In Thailand it’s much more possible. Even probable for some.
What I wanted to say, what most often is never said, is to introduce something bigger than yourself into your life. Something which demands your time, forces you off the sofa, will do its best to compete for those extra calories, and which actually aids the socialization process. Something that makes you smile inside and requires your attention and time once more. Something bigger than yourself.
That something is as simple as some type of pet. A dog works great, maybe a cat. Even a parrot will amaze you with their ability to require your time and return your affection. And friends, this is a good thing. Even when you hate giving up that time. This is the point. Serving something bigger than ourselves. Something that needs us, cares if we’re home or out late, and can always tell when you’re feeling a bit down. And something many of you will scoff at.. but something to love and to feel unconditional love from while in an environment you can’t comprehend much less control.
Caring for a pet is usually simple. And for those of you who already have full lives I’m not at all suggesting this for you. This is for the guy who goes home to an empty apartment night after night and never sets the alarm because there’s no compelling reason to wake. And it needn’t be a pet. Remember Wilson?
It could be volunteering at a local orphanage, you’d be surprised how many there are even in the big cities. Especially in the big cities. Teach English to a university student who otherwise couldn’t afford quality advanced English lessons. Perhaps you can find a way to share your professional expertise to such an end that you help make your host country better for your presence.
This sounds an awful lot like getting a life, something you could hardly wait to get away from back home. But now we can make it different, we’re not legally obligated so we can set our own conditions and if we must, walk away and look for another situation.
If you were mostly an introvert before coming to Thailand, put on your acting shoes and become the extrovert you always admired when it was someone else. You have so have more choices than the day is long. But I find nothing like a pet who needs to eat, sleep, relieve themselves, and will chew you out of house and home without enough attention in their lives.. to get you out of bed in the morning, out in the soi earlier than ever before. An opportunity.. or rather a gift.. to think about someone or something more important than those last few hours of sleep you didn’t need anyway, or a reason to visit a grocery store and buy food for both of you. Get out walking and meet people who notice your pet, nothing draws attention like a cute puppy or kitten. Bigger. Yourself.
There is an entertaining man who visits Chuvit Gardens (a very nice park near Korea Square built by massage parlor entrepreneur Chuvit Kamolvisit) sometimes 2-3 times a day with his pet Cockatoo. A large white gregarious parrot often referred to as “the Golden Retriever of Parrots.” They perform tricks and different antics for the enjoyment of others and then they move on down the soi. This was one choice and there are thousands of others.
Whether it’s the phone ringing with family on the other end, a puppy whimpering to go outdoors, students waiting for their lesson, children hoping you brought fresh fruit, or a small child you’ve helped arrange medical care for.. whatever you choose, make it yours, make it special to someone, and above all.. make it bigger than yourself..
Until Next time.