Making Everywhere More the Same

There is a dynamic tension when you move abroad. You celebrate what is different about your new home. At the same time, you miss things about what you left behind. After more than nine years living in Thailand, a conversation with a Thai friend who is considering returning to Bangkok after a long time in the United States, made me realize that everywhere is becoming more similar.

As I put it to him, “In the nine years I have lived in Bangkok, I have gone from really missing many things about living in the United States, to now being able to find most of those things here.” The obvious exception being family and friends who still live back there.

But when it comes to brands, foods, and treats that I used to think of as specific to one area or another, more of those items are available in most major cities around the globe.

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Pinkberry is a Los Angeles-based frozen yogurt chain whose loyal customers’ cult-like adoration of the brand is similar to what you see when Krispy Kreme donuts opens in a new corner of the world. (Which happened here two years ago…)

I really like Pinkberry and enjoy getting some when I am back in California. No longer must I wait for a trip to the United States, though, as the first Pinkberry opened a few weeks ago at Central Chidlom mall in Bangkok. Certainly more branches will follow.

Harrods, Eric Kaiser, Fauchon, Laduree, Isetan, Uniqlo, Gap, Starbucks, Din Tai Fung, Krispy Kreme, Bon Chon, Muji, and now Pinkberry. The list of items you miss from home gets shorter and shorter as more and more of those items become available here. And that’s not to mention the items like tasty southern-style barbecue or European-style bread that is available from local providers.

That is a good thing, from a quality of living standpoint. But it causes me to wonder if there isn’t a downside to the ease and convenience with which I can get previously-regional items anywhere across the globe.

Does a place become a little less special when the local specialties are now available across the globe? Do we become a little more spoiled when an increasing number of our desires can be fulfilled, no matter where we are? And at some level, does “place” cease to matter?

No easy answers to those questions, but they are worth asking.

Ever Thought About Moving Back?

In response to my recent entry about my fourth anniversary of moving to Thailand, Jason asked a pointed question: “Ever thought about moving back?”

From such a question is born a good blog entry, so here is my answer.

Why am I here?

Before I can think about moving back, I should explain why I’m here in Krungthep in the first place.  Tawn received his Master’s degree at University of San Francisco in 2003.  As part of the educational visas the US government provides, students are usually allowed to work for one year following the completion of their degree in order to get some practical experience.  After that year, though, the student needs to apply for a non-resident visa, usually an H-1B.

Without going into a lot of detail, H-1B visas are difficult to come by, especially in the aftermath of September 11, 2001 when the quantity of these visas was reduced to 65,000 a year, down from around 150,000 previously.  Because of their scarcity, only people with highly specialized skills are generally able to get employee sponsorship for the visa.  In this case, Tawn’s skills didn’t meet that threshold.

Because of that, Tawn faced the choice of either overstaying his visa or returning to Thailand.  He chose to follow the legal path and, not wanting to end the relationship, I chose to follow him here.

The Big Mango: Love It or Leave It?

They say that expats in Krungthep usually either love or hate living here.  I find myself somewhere in between, but closer to the loving it side.  There are many benefits to living here beyond the fact that Tawn is here.  From a cost of living standpoint, for example, we live significantly better off than we would if were living in the US, especially if we were still back in the San Francisco Bay Area.

There are things about life in the US, though, that I miss.  Most of all, I miss being near my family.  My grandparents both turn 90 next year and my nieces turn four and seven.  Everyone is getting older and seeing them once every nine months or so isn’t often enough.  Time is short and the opportunities to spend time with loved ones are fleeting.

At the same time, we have ties here, too.  Tawn is an only child and his parents are more demanding of his time and attention than mine are.  While it is hard for me to be far away from my family, I think it would be harder for Tawn to be away from his.

Would I?  Could I?

Even if we wanted to move back to the US, could we?  Tawn and I were married this summer in Iowa, one of only five states that currently allow same-sex marriage.  Here’s the bad news – news that most Americans (even gay ones!) don’t realize:

We can’t move back as a couple.

Thanks to the poorly named Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), the US federal government does not recognize same-sex marriages.  Immigration is a federal matter, so as long as DOMA is the law of the land Tawn and I cannot move back as a married couple.  Tawn could only move to the US as either a student or by applying for one of those hard-to-get H-1B visas.  Even if he did get in, we would be facing a ticking clock with little prospect of him being able to remain in the US over the long term.

[Update: In June 2013, the United States Supreme Court struck down the section of DOMA that is referenced above. Read about the impact of that decision on us here.]

Where Do You See Yourself in the Future?

I am asked this question each year during my annual performance appraisal, not so much because my boss expects the answer to change but because it is part of the Human Resources-designed appraisal process.  If I had to pull out my crystal ball, where do I see myself in the future?

In the near future – say the next three to five years – I see myself still here in Krungthep.  Even if Congress repealed DOMA, Tawn remains an only child and so I don’t see us moving back to the US anytime soon.

Looking beyond the five-year horizon, I think a lot of the future will depend upon events that happen, particularly regarding the health of both sets of our parents.  Changing circumstances may dictate where one or the other of us spends more of our time, be it here or back in the US.

As we get to about ten years, I think we will likely look for options outside of Krungthep.  Maybe that means having a country house where we can spend most of our time.  Maybe that means living outside of Thailand (not necessarily in the US) for a portion of the year.  If we could split our time between Paris and Krungthep, that would be great!  Of course, this all depends upon developing jobs where we can move about readily.  I already have that job.  Tawn doesn’t, yet.

Yes, but would you move back to the US?

In a way, I’m dancing around that question.  As much as I miss people (and a few restaurants) in the US, I don’t particularly miss life in the US for several reasons:

There is a lot of arrogance bred of insularity and ignorance.  Too many Americans not only have never traveled abroad, they don’t care to inform themselves of the perspectives and values of other countries and cultures.  Witness the horror with which Americans react to the suggestion that Canadians, French or Japanese might have something to teach us about how to run a health care system.

Discourse is increasingly shrill and intolerant.  Thanks to the splintering of the media, people increasingly seek out and find channels that serve only to reinforce their already-held beliefs and perspectives.  I don’t see how that serves democracy well and it certainly hasn’t improved the level of discourse within the US, either on political or social issues.  I want to be able to communicate with others, not be shouted at by them.

Finally, the influence of corporations on public life and politics in the US continues to expand to dangerous levels.  Many other countries have done a better job putting limits on the legal rights of corporations, deferring instead to the rights of individuals.  Many other countries have also done a better job of limiting corporations’ involvement in politics.

To answer your question, Jason, I have thought about it.  But even if the legal barriers to moving back were to fall away and even if there were no family ties holding us here in Thailand, I don’t think we would move back to the US, at least not full-time.

Musings on Southern California

Los Angeles area. Twice I’ve moved away.Despite this, I find myself returning from time to time to see what has changed.In some ways, little has. Los Angeles is an enigma, the literal expression of a Tinseltown ideal. But there are some signs of change, interesting ones. I think of the gentrification of post-World War II housing in the cities surrounding Long Beach, units that were sold to bachelor soldiers and new families working at the Douglas Aircraft plant in the late 1940s and 1950s as Southern California experienced its post-war boom. I think of an increase in community events such as farmers’ markets and street fairs. Slowly, I recognize signs of renewal, of things that were always so new that they seemed like facades on a movie set.

Perhaps the biggest strength of Southern California is the rich diversity here. Of all the places I’ve lived in the US, I’ve most noticed that creeping change brought about by immigration here. When I first lived here nearly twenty years ago, there were certainly many different cultures present, but it has been wonderful to see how those cultures have blossomed, become increasingly visible and become such a part of the Southland fabric. Not living here anymore, it is hard to say how integrated those different cultures have become.But their visibility is a first measure of health.

Despite that, I don’t know if I would enjoy living here again. The weather is nearly ideal, yes, but it is still too suburban and sprawled an area for my tastes. Despite the buses and bicyclists, signs that there are at least some alternatives to individual car ownership, it is an example of that American dream that existed hand-in-hand with the post-war era: a dream that promised prosperity, growth and limitless consumption. A dream that gave everyone a sunny optimism and friendly, if plastic, demeanor while isolating everyone in their steel and glass bubble, ensuring no real connection.

This critique isn’t just about Los Angeles, of course.It is symptomatic of American culture in general, a good example of what I don’t appreciate much about life here and what I don’t miss about it.

It is easy to get caught up in the list of the things I don’t like, easy to identify the reasons that I don’t live here anymore. It is worth the effort, though, to categorize the things that are positive about the Southern California culture. There is an admirable optimism here that contrasts markedly with the nearly fatalistic outlook of the society where I currently live, one that believes fate, chance and inescapable karma have pretty much written your destiny. There is a continual push here, even amidst the congestion and traffic, to improve the quality of living and the breathability of the air.These are no small things.

Maybe these are just the musings of an expat, required every time I cross the border from current home to previous. Required because I have to understand why I no longer live where I once did. Required because – a common theme of long-term expats – I cannot help but to feel a bit of alienation in my homeland, a sense of being set apart from the rest of the society in which I was raised.

Time, then, to set those musings aside, turn on the radio of my rental car, and make my way to the local In-n-Out Burger for a double double, animal-style, with grilled onions.

 

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.

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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.

 

 

Conclusion

 

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…

 

 

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…