A New Phone

P1170061 After my phone was munched a week ago by the Skytrain fare gate, I started searching for a replacement.  Fancy phone?  Basic phone?  iPhone?  PC-based interface?  What to do, what to do?

I though my problem was solved when I discovered Tawn’s old Motorola Razr sitting in his dresser drawer.  It looked like it was in okay shape and I thought that maybe it still worked. 

After charging it up and slipping my SIM card in, I discovered why he had abandoned the phone: it no longer reads SIM cards.  Pretty, but functionless.

With the LCD leak spreading, covering about half again as much of the screen as in the picture above, I realized it was time to act.

nokia1680-Black I was really torn about what to do, hesitant to spend the money on something really fancy (phones are super expensive here – an iPhone is about $800). 

Finally, after a browse in the local Nokia store, I settled on a Nokia 1680, a classic candybar model (pictured left) that is, in their range of about 40 models, about three from the bottom.

The only models more basic than mine were a strictly black and white model (what I had before) and a color model without a camera. 

My model has a color screen and a 3-megapixel camera, but not too much other than that.  Most importantly it looks super-durable.  the buttons are sort of “rubberized” and the case has a very solid feel to it.

Best of all, it was only $52, which for a phone here is quite a steal.  Hopefully it will last me several years.

Whew!  I feel so much better now that that decision has been made.


A fitting coda

As a fitting coda to my series on making friends in another country, last night Tawn and I went to a small “farewell dinner” for Stuart and Piyawat.  They have moved to Phuket, an island town on the Andaman coast (the western coast of Thailand’s ithmus) an hour’s flight away.

P1170126 Above, the “mega-bridge” project that opened last year.

Dinner was at Buri Tara, an upscale Thai seafood restaurant done up in an Asian modern style.  Located right on the Chao Phraya River between the Rama IX bridge and the “Mega Bridge” complex, we enjoyed some really tasty food, pretty strong drinks, and the slightly too loud crooning of the evening’s singer.

Left to right: Vic, Stuart, Todd, Piyawat, Tawn and me.

Most important of all was the company, a chance to get together and say farewell to two good friends who are abandoning the Big Mango for a slice of tropical paradise and new work opportunities.  We’ll be visiting soon, I’m sure.

Making Friends In A New Country, Conclusion

The story of my experiences making friends in a new country, continued from Part 3. 

If you missed it, you can start here at Part 1.



Encountering Differences


Along the way of meeting people and making friends in a new country, I’ve encountered situations where differences have shown themselves: differences between types of social activities and ways people like to socialize; differences in the ways people relate to the local culture and the effort they make to be aware of, respect and adapt to it; differences in the ways people treat their own intimate relationships; and differences in the ways people wish to see the world, the degree to which they want to try new things or not, the degree to which they are okay being at the edge of their comfort zone.


Certainly, you say, differences are to be expected because, after all, we are all unique, right? 


This is true, but for me it is a new set of experiences.  I wonder if, when you are making friends with people in school or through work, you tend to not notice the differences so easily simply because you start out with so much in common.


Maybe seeing the differences more clearly from the start makes building friends from scratch more of a challenge.  Maybe this challenge ensures that once those friendships are cast, they are more lasting. 


For example, you can compare friends made in school with bricks made from clay.  A freshly made brick can still easily disintegrate.  It can also easily be reformed and even disintegrate again.  But the effects of heat, time and pressure harden the bricks into a foundation for your life that weathers the decades well.  So it is with friends we make in school and work and, in general, our childhood.


Compare friends made from scratch in a new country to blocks carved from stone.  Initially, it is difficult to see the shape of the block within the stone.  The process of learning about the things you have in common with the person is akin to the labor needed to chisel the block to size.  This additional effort in initial construction creates something that is a good fit for the ages, just as the stones in the Great Pyramids lock together so smoothly.





In the end, I wonder when the point is that I will see these people that I’ve met here in the same way that I view the friends I left behind.  Will there be a point where I realize that I’m just as close to them as I am with my friends of old?  Will it just happen gradually?  Will there be some people for whom that point never comes?


Maybe it is simply a matter of not letting go.  Perhaps in some recess of my mind I don’t see this as my new home (although I think I do) and am hesitant to see these new people in the same way as I see my old friends for fear that it means that I’ll have to let go of my old friends.


As I said at the beginning, this is a new experience for me.  The first time in my life having to do this totally from scratch and as such, it gives me an opportunity to look at myself more closely, an opportunity to be observant of my thoughts and feelings rather than to let them happen without reflection.


Ultimately, maybe I am worrying too much about a process that will manage to sort itself out as all things in nature do.  Perhaps I should adopt a Buddhist mindset: treat others with compassion and kindness and don’t worry about who is a friend and who isn’t, right?  After all, the Thais say that the problem with farang is that we think too much.


I hope you enjoyed this series and I invite your thoughts and comments.


Making Friends In A New Country, Part 3

The story of my experiences making friends in a new country, continued from Part 2.  If you missed it, you can start here at Part 1.



Defining Friendship


One of the challenges I’ve run into when making friends from scratch, is understanding what “friendship” means to me.  I’ve not thought about it that closely before.


From what I’ve read and learned, different cultures define friendship differently.  In some cultures – the French, for example – families have known each other for generations and while people will be polite and helpful to newcomers, attaining the label of “friend” could take several decades, if not generations. 


In Southern California on the other hand, it seems that you can become someone’s best friend in less time than it takes to get stuck on the 405 freeway.  But those friendships seem to evaporate just as mysteriously as a traffic jam, with no rhyme or reason behind why it went away or what caused it in the first place.


Numerous guidebooks for expats in Thailand warn that the natural friendliness of Thais shouldn’t be mistaken as close friendship.  They may confide many things in you because they see you as someone outside the rigid hierarchy of Thai society.  It is that same hierarchy, though, that will forever keep you in a certain place that isn’t quite friendship.


A question that came up from some readers was whether I’ve developed any close friendships with Tawn’s friends.  While they are nice people and most make an effort to engage with me when we socialize together, we haven’t developed any unique friendships.  Looking back to our time in San Francisco, I think there are two or three of my friends with whom Tawn would hang out on occasion in my absence.  I can’t imagine any of Tawn’s friends here in Krungthep inviting me out while Tawn was out of town.



A Haphazard Process


I’ve met many people here – most of them nice people.  They come from many different countries and backgrounds.  Granted, there is a disproportionate representation of gay American men, but there is still some diversity to the larger group.


The process of meeting these people has been haphazard.  Sometimes it has been through chance meetings.  Other people read my blog or trip reports and, being in similar relationships to mine, have contacted me, giving us a common starting ground.  I meet other people when several degrees of separation are closed by a mutual acquaintance.


I continue to try other ways of meeting people.  I’ve attended events at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club and joined Democrats Abroad Thailand and met interesting people.  I’ve even posted an advertisement in the “strictly platonic” section of the Craigslist website that resulted in meeting one person, who has now moved off to Australia.


I’ve tried meeting Thais.  In general, the Thai women seem less comfortable making friends with a random farang.  Some Thai men I’ve met are attached to farang partners, so the group grows by pairs.  Other Thai men may or may not be attached, but Tawn gets suspicious of their true intentions – probably rightfully so.  On top of it, there is some truth to the previously mentioned expat guidebook warnings about the challenges of making friends with locals.


It is the haphazard nature of these meetings that I think makes the process strange for me.  Meeting people through school or work, as has been most of my previous experience, ensured that there were a lot of common interests and experiences to begin with.  Nowadays, the common ground is less clear at first, other than knowing we are all expats.


Slowly, connections and common ground have become clearer amidst the haphazardness.  Along the way, I’ve had some really good conversations, shared experiences, and situations that create unique connections with others.  I’ve learned from their many perspectives.  I’ve certainly had the opportunity to commiserate with others who are going through the same expat experiences as I.


But how many of these haphazardly-met people will really develop into friends?


To be concluded tomorrow…



Response to the Prop 8 Ruling: It’s a Red Herring

Pardon me while I briefly interrupt the series about making friends as an expat to provide this commentary and feedback on today’s ruling by the California Supreme Court, upholding Proposition 8, which defines marraige as “between one man and one woman”.

07 While my initial reaction to today’s California Supreme Court ruling upholding Proposition 8 was one of disappointment, I really am not that worked up over it, for two reasons:


First, the court was ruling on whether the ballot initiative process was a legal way to change the constitution.  For better or for worse, the supporters of Prop 8 did follow the process.  The problem here is less one of equality and more one of California having a dysfunctional ballot initiative process.  As a Californian for more than thirty years, I’ll be the first to say that the initiative process has caused many more problems that it has solved.  So, if you’re upset at the ruling, turn some of that righteous indignation towards changing the state’s way of creating laws.


Second, while the word “marriage” is very powerful, same sex couples in California still have all the rights, responsibilities, and privileges of marriage through the state’s civil union process.  So, from a practical standpoint, a couple who gets a civil union tomorrow is afforded all of the same state benefits as couples who have one of the 18,000 same-sex marriages that the court ruled are still valid.


The fight over Prop 8, while important, is a red herring.

Here’s the real battle, friends: At the federal level, regardless of whether we have a “marriage” or a “civil union” in any of the fifty states or the District of Columbia, same sex couples do not have ANY federal rights.  There are 1,138 specific federal rights identified by the Government Accounting Office that married couples are afforded, including (most importantly for me and Tawn) immigration rights.


The struggle to gain full equal rights will be a long one.  Along that road we will face significant setbacks, obstacles and distractions.  We need to look at things in a broad context at each step of the way, making sure our efforts are focused on the endgame.  While winning back the right to have a “marriage” versus a “civil union” in California is important, and something that I look forward to, in forty of the states we can’t even have the civil union and at the federal level, having either doesn’t matter.  That’s where the real battle lies.


Making Friends in a New Country, Part 2

The story of my experiences making friends in a new country, continued from Part 1.   


Tawn’s Experiences


Not long after I turned 30, Tawn moved to the US to study for his Master’s degree.  He went through the process I’m experiencing now: adopting my friends – but generally never feeling a close connection with them – and making new friends locally but often finding the primary common ground was native language or country of origin.


There was one person in particular with whom it seemed certain he would become the best of friends: they were both Thai men from Khrungthep, both in relationships with American men, and both had worked as flight attendants for United Airlines.  Lots in common, right?  Even this was not enough as the friendship faded over time.


After our commitment ceremony in 2004, I spent fourteen months in Kansas City after Tawn preceded me to Thailand.  During that time I didn’t need to make any new friends.  Not only was I busy with work, but I already had my family members and a few long-time friends there.  Plus, just as in Hong Kong, I knew my time there was limited; no need to invest in new friends.



Moving to Thailand


Moving to Thailand in late 2005 I found myself for the first time in my life with a truly blank slate.  There was Tawn, of course, and his friends.  They are nice people and there are a few of them with whom I get on quite well.  But they are his friends, not mine.  They have their own history and secret language, their shared jokes and memories.


From what I can tell, creating friends as an expat is similar to the experience of creating friends any time you move to a new place, compounded by the challenge of a much smaller pool of people with whom you can readily communicate.  Sure, you can – and should – make friends with people with whom you do not share linguistic fluency, but most people will understandably gravitate towards others with whom they can communicate readily.


This is especially true the longer you stay in a place; the novelty of the experience of being in a new land wears off at least a bit, as does the willingness to smile, nod, and just be thankful you have someone – anyone – with whom to hang out.  Eventually, you want to establish real, meaningful friendships rather than simply acquaintances with whom to go do things.


The experience over nearly four years here has been a fascinating one, one that has caused me to really explore the meaning and nature of friendship, one that has enabled me to look closely at my own values and expectations, and one that leaves me smiling wryly at the intricacies of human nature – mine and everyone else’s.


To be continued tomorrow…


Making Friends in a New Country, Part 1

The past year has seen a lot of coming and going amongst my friends here in Thailand.  Roka left for Australia, Markus and Tam left for Germany, Stuart and Piyawat moved to Phuket, Todd has returned from Dallas after eighteen months away and other friends are arriving and departing regularly.  The subject of making friends in a new country has been turning over in my mind for almost a year; a blog entry in the making, if you will. 


This is a subject I’ve wanted to write about because the experience of making friends in a new country creates an opportunity for self-reflection: What are my interests and values?  What are my expectations of friendship?  What are the common denominators of my friends?  Most importantly, how do you make friends where none existed before?


I’ll present this in a four-part series of entries.  Sorry that there are no food pictures along the way; I hope you’ll bear with me.


Life in a Nest


For me, this is something of a first in a lifetime experience.  I spent the first 23 years of my life living in the same house.  During that time, I had many occasions to make new friends, but most of the time my friends came from a fairly consistent group of people, mostly classmates or members of my church. 


Graduating to a new school meant meeting new people, but there was always a large group of people around me who spoke my language, attended my classes, and with whom I had a lot in common – even if they came from different countries or cultures than my own, which was often the case.


Even when I started working at age 16, I developed friendships with my coworkers readily.  That is common in most jobs, but it was especially so in my workplace – a cinema – because our work schedule was primarily evenings and weekends, the same times when most other people would be out socializing.


Throughout university, things were much the same.  The friends I made at school were classmates, leaders of other student organizations (I was the president of the gay and lesbian student group), or other disc jockeys at the campus radio station.  Common interests and studies created fast and, in many cases, lasting friendships.


Leaving Home


After nearly a quarter century in the same nest, I moved from the Bay Area down to Los Angeles and then, a year later, to San Diego.  In both cities I continued to work long hours at busy cinemas.  Other than the occasional date here or there and a few university friends who lived nearby, most of my friends were coworkers.  Again, there was not much effort needed to build a circle of friends as people with common interests, experiences and working schedules, were readily at hand.


My first experience having zero friends and having to start from scratch came as I turned 28 and moved overseas for the first time, accepting a three-month assignment in Hong Kong.  Actually, I did have one friend of a friend there and he was very nice about including me in his social circle as my schedule allowed.  Outside of that I did start making some friends but, like most expats who know their time in a place is limited, I didn’t worry about developing a robust circle of friends.  Having a handful of acquaintances with which I could explore the city was enough.


Returning to the US, even as I made new friends, they were always an outgrowth of either existing, long-established friends or they were coworkers or other people I met through work.  Because of the “friend of a friend” nature of this networking, most people I met and all of the friends I made were essentially “pre-screened”: their interests and values, while diverse, were generally compatible with mine.


Continued in Part 2…


Raising the Wall

At the mouth of our soi, right next to the Thong Lo BTS Skytrain station, is a nice large property.  This area of town is “old money” and decades ago was considered to be out in the countryside.  Many of the larger properties here started out as weekend homes for well-to-do families in business and politics, whose homes in the heart of the city could feel suffocating once they had enough money to buy a weekend home.

Over time the city grew and this area became indistinguishable from the rest of the urban sprawl.  Khlongs (canals) were filled in and paved, rows of trees were felled to widen the streets, and decades later an elevated train put the “countryside” just ten minutes from the heart of the city.

Yet some of these large estates still exist, large gardens and mature trees hiding them from the march of progress that knocks at their walls.  And, so, the answer is to raise the walls.  At least this was the case last week for the large property next to the Skytrain station.


Walls that used to be about six feet tall, topped with another two feet of iron work, have been increased to ten feet of concrete block.  During the day and early evening, some vendors park their carts along this wall, selling coffee, food, vegetables and, in the evening, magazines and books.

Above, looking over the wall, there is a large pond and several trees.  The house is set back about 150 feet / 45 meters.

Of course, I don’t mind that they want to increase the wall.  It is a busy street and their privacy is their right.  Hopefully, though, they will do something nice to finish it, so it doesn’t end up looking like a miniature Berlin Wall.

Sometimes in these tropical environments, it becomes hard to tell where man-made ends and nature begins.  While sitting in traffic one afternoon on Sukhumvit Soi 31, I noticed this interesting wall.


More precisely, this interesting wall-utility pole-tree combination.  Why don’t they just cut down the tree, you ask?  My first guess would be that the tree is holding the rest of it up.  But for a better guess, a good clue would be the faded ribbons and jasmine garlands on the tree. 

Thais have a healthy dose of animism running in their hearts and they generally believe that all natural things have spirits in them, particularly the land and trees.  Old trees like this often survive for a long time and have offerings at their trunks precisely because the locals believe that the spirits of the developed lands are now living in the tree.

That would be an interesting strategy for western environmentalists to employ!


A Little Sunday Brunch

It was a small brunch on Sunday, just five people.  It seems that when we get more than six or seven, the table’s capacity is exceeded and the dynamic just isn’t as intimate.  Also, eating while sitting around the sofa just isn’t as comfortable.

Left to right: Suchai, Ken, Tawn and Doug.

The menu was a fairly simple, mostly vegetarian and vaguely Mediterranean one.


To begin with (after appetizers of celery sticks with white bean hummus), I pulled together an interesting salad based on a suggestion from Tawn.  A Hawaiian papaya half filled with a shrimp, mango and cucumber salad.  Flavored with nigella and cumin, it was really wonderful.


The main meal included scrambled eggs; oven-roasted asparagus; a quinoa salad with feta, corn and cherry tomatoes; and a roasted red pepper fougasse.


The fougasse, a stuffed flatbread from Southern France, came from a website I was recently recommended: Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day.  It is really easy to make.  After roasting some red bell peppers under the broiler and skinning them, I rolled out a basic olive oil yeast dough.


I cut a few slits on one side and spread the peppers on the right.  Next time I’ll roll the dough a little thinner and add more peppers.  I then sprinkled coarse sea salt and thyme on the peppers.


Then, I folded the dough over, sealing the edges firmly.  A brush of olive oil (I would use an egg white wash next time) and another sprinkle of thyme and it went into the oven on a pre-heated bread stone.


After about 20 minutes at 450 F / 230 C I pulled it out and let it cool a bit before cutting and serving.  Easy!

In the afternoon, after everyone headed home and Tawn went to his parents’ house, I tackled a long standing project: finish scanning various recipes from old Cooks Illustrated magazines and sorting and shredding old bills and receipts.  What an exciting Sunday, I know!


Little Hanoi Bangkok

For a few years, there was a vegetarian restaurant on Sukhumvit Soi 20 called Tamarind Cafe.  It was owned by French-born Sylvie Bruzeau and Taiwanese-born Luka Wong, two women who met in Japan and decided to open a restaurant.  Tamarind Cafe was a chic little place with a small gallery on the second floor.  It had a wide variety of vegetarian food, done in a variety of culinary styles.

Little Hanoi Sadly, the lease on the space ran out and the owners did not renew.  However, they opened several ancillary food places at some department store food halls, including a Vietnamese place called Little Hanoi, located on the fifth floor of the Emporium shopping center.

Vietnamese food is one of my favorites, so when I discovered that Bruzeau and Wong had opened Little Hanoi, Tawn and I made it a point to visit.

The restaurant is small, as you can see.  And it wasn’t nearly as busy as the picture from their website shows!  Sadly, the Emporium remodeled their food court, leaving several of the businesses in sort of a blind spot at the back of the floor.  Not good for foot traffic, I’m afraid.


We began with a vegetarian variation on what is traditionally beef skewers wrapped in betel leaves.  Instead of beef, Beuzeau, who is the chef, creates a mixture of herbs and potatoes.  It was tasty, although a little under-seasoned.  Gorgeous presentation.


While Bruzeau emphasizes vegetarian options, there are plenty of meat items on the menu.  We enjoyed this spring rolls with shrimp, which were very fresh and plump.  Lots of beautiful herbs accompanied the meal.


For a main course, we were feeling like fish, so we ordered this white fish, fried with spices and greens.  This was served with a plate of banh trang, the rice paper crepes used to wrap spring rolls, and rice noodles.  We wrapped our own little dumplings with a little fish, some greens, noodles and fresh herbs.  The fish was tasty, although the portion (which was meant for two people) seemed a little small for the price. 

For dessert, we tried their beignets, little puffs of dough friend up donut-style.  These were light and not at all oily, but they had the faint aftertaste of fish, making me think that the oil in the deep-fryer was perhaps a bit old.


A return visit a few days later for lunch and I tried their pho, the hearty beef noodle soup, and a vegetarian banh mi, the French roll sandwich.  The soup was excellent, very flavorful, but something that I could probably find for half the price at the small shop run by the Vietnamese lady near Thong Lor Soi 12.  The banh mi was inventive, with roasted pumpkin.  The menu announced that it also had cheese, and I was expecting a nice goat cheese or something.  Instead it was a single slice of oily cheddar.  In addition to a slathering of much too much aioli, there was plenty of cilantro and carrots.

All in all, Little Hanoi gets high marks for creativity and beautiful presentation.  The food was good but not great, kind of b-grade food from the standpoint that it makes a good effort but just falls a bit short of excellence.  For the money, there is better value elsewhere, but if I’m in the mall and going to eat at a sit-down place as opposed to the inexpensive food court, Little Hanoi is still a decent option.