Readers' Submissions

What’s An Expat To Do?



So few of us expats are still here.  Still living in Thailand.  Still living, period.  All the “support” we took for granted when we decided to live here is crumbling around us.  This submission will explore the situation for expats still in Thailand now, speculate on some remedies, and invite further comments.

(Spoiler: This submission starts out with a dark and gloomy view, but picks up some very positive factors further along.)

Last week, Mr. Stick wrote about the “bar graveyard”.  Even for expats who didn’t spend any time in bars, the bars still were an important nucleus of supporting businesses: restaurants, hotels, massage shops, 7-Eleven, condos, and even doctors’ clinics sprouted up around the bars.  Those businesses catered to expats (and tourists), with food and products that we preferred, with shoes and clothing in our sizes, and with service in our languages.  As many bars die off, many / most of those allied businesses are going, too.  We remaining expats, what are we to do?

Even just a year ago, a white man walking into a local restaurant or shop would hear hurried whispers among the staff of “farang, farang” followed by a call for the person on the staff who spoke some English to hurry over to assist the arriving customer.  (Even if the arriving foreigner spoke mainly French or Finnish, the staff assumed the language would be English.)   But today the “looks” I see (not always in my direction) are looks of suspicion, “Does farang have virus?”  And nobody on the staff hurries to assist.  Some stay far away.  And there is a quiet sigh of relief when the farang customer finally leaves.  We expats still need food and clothing and other necessities of daily life.  What are we to do?

On-line shopping is the answer, of course.  Maybe.  Lazada, Shoppee, HomePro, Index, Thai Watsadu, and so on.  Some of those websites have “click for English”.  The result of clicking is some English, some Thai.  Often just a tiny bit of English and mostly Thai.  Some don’t even offer English at all.  For expats the problem is how to navigate those on-line websites.

To help with problems like that, we could “rent” a local lady.  Have her move in.  Pay her a regular “salary”, and let her take care of all the details.  And the ladies, many of them, were eager to do it.  Food buying, household supplies, searching for a house, condo, or apartment, she would lead the expat around and see to all the arrangements.  Some of those ladies arranged things so they realized 10 – 30% of the money spent, but so what? The expat was taken care of.  Now such helpers are still available, even more so than before the troubles started, but the suspicion of foreigners is growing.  Finding a reliable and somewhat-honest helper not so easy.

In the past, local people, many of them, were eager to learn English.  It was the main qualification for becoming an expat’s helper, or for working at one of the many hotels catering to foreigners, or restaurants, or resorts, or massage shops. English learning was in demand and English language schools flourished. But now, with so many expats having left and new expats not arriving and tourists not arriving at all, the demand for English learning among the locals is virtually nil. With less and less English ability among the locals (or any other foreign language for that matter) what’s an expat to do?

The expat can learn Thai, you say?  But so few expats here now, and no new expats arriving, where are the Thai language schools and teachers for the few expats that remain?  Used to seem like there was a Thai language school catering to foreigners, near almost every skytrain station.  No longer.

Learn Thai on-line?  I challenge anyone to learn to speak and understand Thai to a level suitable for daily use by learning on-line. The audio fidelity is simply not there.  The tones and inflections of Thai are so different than any Latin-derived language that it is virtually impossible to hear them and to imitate them in any other way than direct, face-to-face learning.  Or I should say, mouth-to-ear learning.  On-line just doesn’t offer the audio range needed to learn to speak and understand the basic sounds.

Without knowing the basics of the local language, what’s an expat to do? Food. Clothing. Shelter.  Food first, and that’s one area where things are looking good.  Grab Food. Food Panda.  And now many restaurants (like Arno’s and Wok Star Express in Bangkok) have started to offer their own delivery service.  And those delivery services are getting better and better with websites in English.  I don’t know about up-country, but in Bangkok and probably in Chiang Mai, there no reason for expats to miss even one meal.

Grocery delivery is looking good, too.  TOPS and Villa Market have excellent delivery services for groceries.  Probably Rimping in Chiang Mai, too.  Okay, not everything in the stores is available on-line, but that situation is steadily improving.  On-line grocery web-sites are offering more selection and even special meals.  Here in Bangkok, Villa offered complete dinners for Thanksgiving and Christmas, complete with all the side dishes.  Just order a few days in advance and dinner would be delivered hot (okay, warm) on the day and time you specified.  As more actual bricks-and-mortar grocery stores follow the bars to the “graveyard”, on-line ordering will grow and expand.  Again, no reason for any expat here to go hungry.

What about expats up-country?  For example, expats in deepest Isaan could just make the drive to Khon Kaen to luxuriate in the cornucopia of Western foods at TOPS Central Plaza. But with foreigners starting to disappear all over, that cornucopia will shrink.  But even so, there is good news.  The best of grocery services in Bangkok are starting to offer delivery service to the smallest village behind the most remote rice field.  With dry ice and Styrofoam boxes, they ship just about anything with delivery by Kerry Express or Thai Post.  For one encouraging example, see the outstanding choices of fine food at Bangkok Bob’s online shop.   Plenty to satisfy the pallet of the most finicky expat living out in Nakorn-Nowhere.

Transportation networks, including delivery services and Thai Post, have always been superb.  Not fancy.  Not always easy to figure out the routes or costs or delivery times.  But they do deliver to the right place.  And the theft and loss ratio is so low that it’s almost non-existent.  If something goes into the Thai Post, chances are very high that it will come out at the proper destination.  I’m very impressed with the delivery services here.  Thais seem to have a knack for delivering things people need.   I see in my suburban soi where a pickup truck comes around once in the morning and once in the late afternoon.  Husband driving and making announcements on the loudspeaker.  Wife sitting in the back, surrounded by plastic bags filled with all kinds of foods.  In future, as the general economy continues to shrink, I expect little mom-and-pop delivery services like that to grow and expand into new areas of business.  For us expats living away from the central city, that will be a huge convenience.  (I just wish the quality and hygiene would improve.  But it won’t.)

Another thing the locals seem to do well, is “at home” services.  They are willing, even quite happy, to work as household helpers.  For about 10 years now, I’ve been getting Thai massage at home, and manicures, too.  When the troubles started I asked one massage lady if she knew anyone who could come in to give me a haircut.  “Me!” she said.  “I can do for you!”  And since then I haven’t seen the inside of a barbershop.  There are laundry services in probably every city in Thailand, but I have a lady who comes in, puts my coins in a wash machine in my building, hangs the clean laundry on a rack on the balcony.  After two days to dry, the ironing gets done, along with any mending needed.  Perfect for expat living.  As the traditional economy sinks, I expect more and more local women will be available to do that kind of work.

Now I’ll wrap this up by returning to the topic of learning the local language.  It is, in my opinion, the one thing an expat can do to improve life here in an uncertain future.  I’ve been studying the language for more than 10 years. Very difficult. But possible.  Countless times I thought about giving up,  but I kept going and now can have a basic conversation with most local people.  And now it’s not necessary to travel to a language school for classes – a school that likely has now closed.  Even with the troubles, learning the language may be more convenient that before.

I see many ways to continue a good life here.  Changes, certainly.  Problems, of course.  But still, in my personal opinion, a good life for expats here. To accomplish that, I offer my personal resolutions for comment and critique:

– Accept the reality that most everything I relied on in past years is changing and many things that I used to depend on are disappearing.

– Make use of those services that are likely to do well and even to expand, like delivery services.

– Enjoy the personal attention of local people who are willing and eager to help with the chores of daily life.

– Learn the language in the convenience of my own home, taught by a local person who is grateful to have some income from teaching their language.

Finally, there’s one more aspect to this question of “What’s an Expat To Do?” that will be important, perhaps critical, for some expats.  It is the question of what to do when the money stops coming from back home.  Pension.  Investments.  Rental income from a house back home.  What if that stops?  What’s an expat to do?  But a discussion of that topic would be a whole ‘nother submission.

I welcome comments on any of this.  My email:  [email protected]