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.


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.

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…



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…


What’s it Like to Live in Thailand?

In the past year using Facebook, reconnecting with old friends, colleagues and classmates, several people have asked me upon learning that I live in Thailand, “What’s it like living there?” I’ve given short, snappy answers (“Well, the Thai food is amazing!”) in lieu of anything more thoughtful. This morning I took a stab at coming up with a better, more substantive answer to that question. What is it like living here?

Part of the reason for not coming up with a better answer in the first place, is that it is difficult to succinctly explain what life is like anywhere – especially when it is very different from life in the questioners’ hometowns. I get up, eat breakfast, work, watch movies, etc. It is the same and, yet, very much not the same.

On Language

The most overriding feature of living in Thailand is the different language. I’ve been here three-and-a-half years and have studied Thai all except two months of that time. It is hard to explain just how big an effect operating in a different language environment can have.

In my home (I work from home) I am immersed in a language in which I’m hyper-fluent. I look at a page of English text and meaning jumps out at me. Comprehension requires no effort.

2009-03-03 01

Above: the Thai consonant chart. Each consonant is related to a specific word, similar to “A-Apple, B-Boy” except the word is used consistently with that consonant.

When I step out of my home, I am immersed in a world that is as inaccessible as my English world is accessible. I see the printed Thai script but unless I specifically make the effort to find the words and their meaning, it is just a collection of now-familiar characters: 44 consonants representing 21 sounds, 18 vowels, four tone marks.

The best analogy: playing one of those hidden-word games where words are buried in a grid of letters. That’s how it is when I see Thai: When I look, I see a bunch of Thai characters. I have to look much closer to find the words. Finding the meaning requires yet another step, as I’m at the stage in building my vocabulary where I recognize that I’ve seen a word before, but am uncertain of its meaning.

It is much the same with conversation. If someone is speaking to me and I know what subject we’re talking about, then I am generally okay. I won’t know all the vocabulary, but I can follow along and even contribute a bit. If it is a random conversation into which I stumble, I’ll likely be lost, recognizing some words as they pass by but as unable to grasp onto them as I am unable to board a rapidly-moving train.

That’s the first and most significant aspect of my life in Thailand. I realize, upon rereading what I’ve written so far, that it may sound like a complaint. It isn’t. In truth, Tawn or any other Thai is likely very impressed with my progress. I’m well ahead of 95% of the expats who live here. But I’m also well behind the top 1-2% who are truly fluent in Thai.

Mai Pben Rai

The second notable answer to the question has to do with understanding the Thai mentality – heavily rooted in Buddhism – and the Thai way of looking at the world. Some illustrations:

Mai pben rai – literally, “it’s nothing”. This phrase is constantly invoked by Thais to indicate a “no worries” approach to life. You’re running late for class? Mai pben rai. Stuck on a flooded street? Mai pben rai. You forgot to run an errand? Mai pben rai. Not interested in completing the job as promised? Yes, you guessed it: Mai pben rai.

2009-03-03 02

Above: Flooded street leaves you stranded for hours? Mai pben rai!

At first, this can be infuriating. In many (especially Western) cultures, we make a big deal out of things such as being on time, doing what you promise, following up on details, etc.

2009-03-03 03

But Thais subscribe to the belief that you shouldn’t sweat the small stuff. And, it seems, nearly everything is small stuff.

The upside to this is that you learn to be much more sanguine about the world, much more accepting about the truth that our sense of control over most aspects of life is largely an illusion. Stuck in a traffic jam? Mai pben rai – don’t worry, you can’t control the traffic. Unable to watch a film you badly wanted to see? Mai pben rai – maybe it will be available on DVD soon. Caught in a rainstorm without an umbrella? Mai pben rai – just duck into a restaurant for a snack.

Thai culture’s Buddhist roots, with its emphasis on the impermanence of all things, is seen everywhere. From the lack of city planning to the way that most plants are potted rather than being planted into the ground to the quality of sidewalk construction, Thais are wired for short-term thinking.

2009-03-03 05

The Land of Smiles

The Tourism Authority bills Thailand as “The Land of Smiles”. Try telling that to a load of commuters on the un-air conditioned number 38 bus line in Bangkok.

Seriously, though, two features of life here are illustrated by the concepts of suphap (“polite”) and sanuk (“fun”). Thais believe that, regardless of how they think or feel on the inside, the exterior should be polite and pleasant. Why should everyone else suffer just because you are feeling down? Keep a smile on your face and be pleasant to others.

2009-03-03 04

Above: Friendly and polite locals wave as we pass by in a boat.

At first a foreigner might mistake those smiles for happiness, agreement, being pleased, etc. Eventually, most learn that Thai smiles have a hundred meanings, only some of which are positive. .

Upon learning this, some foreigners disdain this outward veneer of pleasantness as being artificial. It is hard to explain adequately but perhaps it helps to see the Thai perspective on things:

A Thai walks into a store in Los Angeles and the cashier smiles broadly, asks how her day is going, asks where she’s from and how she likes the weather. The Thai is used to walking into a store in the other City of Angels and being greeted with a pleasantly soft “Sawatdii kha” and the prayer-like wai in which the palms of the hands are placed together in the center of the chest. To an Angelino, the Los Angeles cashier seems very friendly. To the Thai, that same cashier is being over-familiar.

But here’s the contradiction: in the west, if you walk up to someone on the street to ask for directions, their initial reaction will likely be apprehensive and guarded. Especially in an urban environment, they may well wonder if they’re being taken advantage of.

Here in Thailand, when we stop a person on the street and ask a question – “Hey, uncle, do you know where I can find that famous noodle shop with the tom yum broth?” – we get a friendly smile and helpful directions.

I’ve observed this among Thais, so it isn’t just a Thai-foreigner thing.

2009-03-03 06

The Food

Even though my original snappy answer to the question was that Thai food is really good here, it actually is one of the true answers: Thai food really is better here.

When I lived in the US, I thought Thai food was good no matter which restaurant you went to. “Bad Thai food?” I thought, “Surely there is no such thing.” Of course, once I moved here, I realized that there are few Thai restaurants in the US worth eating at unless it is a case of severe gaeng kiaw waan withdrawal.

But beyond that, Thailand has much more healthy, fresh, inexpensive food readily at hand than in the US (and maybe many other places in the west). You’re in the US, it is 3:00 pm and you want a snack. What are your options? Donuts, burgers, fries, tacos, ice cream? None of which are good for you nor really that satisfying.

In Thailand, a bowl of noodle soup, a plate of spicy green papaya salad, a stick of grilled fish balls in sweet chili sauce, or a bag of fresh fruit are readily available on most any street corner, are relatively healthy and are very inexpensive.

Sure, Starbucks’ venti mocha frappaccino with extra whipped cream and McDonald’s hamburgers are available here (and the growing incidence of childhood obesity testifies to that fact) but there are so many readily available, healthier options, options that I miss when I’m back in the west.

2009-03-03 07

Beauty and the Good Life

The French have their joie de vivre, the Italians their la dolce vita. Thais, too, are all about ease, comfort and enjoyment of life. Even with some of the world’s worst traffic, Bangkok residents make enjoying life a priority. There is always something fun happening, things are festively decorated, and thinking too much about your cares and worries is discouraged.

People interact more with each other and their surroundings here than in the west. People are more playful, too, but not in the sarcastic or mean-spirited way you see in the west.

There is great beauty. Thai temples and Brahmanist spirit houses are elaborately and colorfully decorated. Fairy lights – what North Americans call Christmas lights – are used to dress up the landscape for no reason other than the sheer fun of having little twinkling lights strung up in the trees.

Flowers are very inexpensive, very beautiful and very bountiful here. Every market and many street vendors sell beautiful blossoms and fragrant jasmine garlands. Again, in line with the Buddhist belief in impermanence, potted plants decorate sidewalks and balconies, rearranged endlessly and replaced when they die.

2009-03-03 08

Thais take great care to keep things (including themselves) looking neat and clean even in the midst of the city’s chaos and pollution. Even from the working class houses lining the murky Saen Saeb canal, carefully-groomed residents emerge on their way to work, shirts neatly pressed and great thought given to what handbag (probably a knock-off sold at a discount mall) to carry.

The Social Ladder

Thailand has a very hierarchical society: When two Thais meet, they try to determine who is higher than whom on the social order. This ranking has great effect on all aspects of their subsequent relationship: how to address each other, who serves whom at the table, who pays the bills, who walks out the door first, etc.

This chafes western egalitarianism and takes a long time for foreigners to get used to and understand. It is hard to overestimate how important it is for Thais to understand where they are on this hierarchy.

2009-03-03 09

Above: Students behave appropriately, approaching the monk on their knees then crawling past him. Females are especially careful to avoid coming into direct contact with him.

The ways in which this impacts foreigners are numerous and subtle. One expat incorrectly explained to me that foreigners, being guests, always rank highly, just below politicians, royalty and monks. He couldn’t have been much more wrong.

Foreigners are in their own category, separate and measured by another standard, namely, the extent to which you understand and play by the Thai rules.

What’s the practical effect of this? On the Skytrain, for example, I move out of the way for those above me on the social ladder – elders, for example – but not for teenagers.

When I walk past puu yai – literally “big person” or “adults” – who are having a conversation, I duck my head ever so slightly, showing my respect by not towering over them.

2009-03-03 10

Above: Even the leaders of the September 2006 coup were careful to visually emphasize that they knew their place – still below the monarchy.

Remember the scene in the musical “The King and I” (banned in the Kingdom of Thailand) in which Anna Leowens and the King of Siam debate over how high she should hold her head in comparison to the king? It is the same thing – your head you should be lower (or, at least, bowed a little in respect) as you pass by or sit with someone who is of a higher rank than you.

When speaking with monks, I should hold my hands in a wai at my chest. When hanging out with peers in my age group, I can relax and not be so concerned as we’re equals. When teaching at the school and helping a student with his work, he offers me his seat and then kneels next to me as I explain the assignment. Everyone has his or her place in the hierarchy and that place is relative to the people with whom you are interacting.

Small things? Maybe, but ones that show that you know your place in the order of things.

At the very top of the order are the religion and the monarchy. Pictures of His Majesty King Rama IX adorn nearly every house and place of business.

2009-03-03 11

Above: Street decorations celebrating the 60th anniversary of the King’s reign.

At the start of movies and concerts, the audience stands for the royal anthem. If a royal motorcade passes, people stand quietly and respectfully at the side of the road and, if it is the king or queen passing, bow at the waist as their car goes by.

One important facet of this respect for the monarchy is that you don’t – don’t – discuss the affairs of royalty. You don’t ask Thais what they think of the Crown Prince or Crown Princess. You don’t speculate as to who will succeed the King. You don’t debate the merits of a constitutional monarchy or the appropriateness of still having (and enforcing) lese majesty laws.

Even with a Thai with whom you think you’re close, you are best advised to leave this topic alone.

My Final Answer

The final answer to the question of what it is like to live here lies in an additional Thai concept: samruam. Roughly translated, “restrained”. It is related to the previously-mentioned concept of suphap – “polite”.

The thing that keeps this culture going is the emphasis on external appearances, most significantly, keeping up a polite and appropriate appearance and being restrained in your behavior.

For example, Thais believe that the feet – the lowest part of your body – are the dirtiest and least polite part, too. Resting your feet (especially with shoes on) on furniture or the wall, pointing your feet towards someone or an image of the King or the Buddha, or touching someone, moving something or gesturing with your foot, are all hugely mai suphap – impolite.

In fact, the slang term for “foot” is muu farang – foreigner’s hand. That’s because westerners are more inclined to push, gesture and touch with their feet – actions the Thais associate with being coarse and unrefined. In other words, being a foreigner.

You see this in the way people sit in public: feet flat on the floor or, if a woman crosses her legs (not very suphap), it is done with legs tightly together and the foot pointed down. On the Skytrain last week, I observed a foreigner sitting with his legs stretched out across the aisle, pointed towards a lady on the other side of the car. Had he not been absorbed in the pictures on his phone, he might have noticed the dirty looks other passengers were giving him.

Samruam – restraint – is related to suphap. Thai culture is about moderation in behavior, voice, feelings, etc. Thais are fun-loving people but rarely boorish, loud or obnoxious. Thais get upset but rarely do you see public bursts of anger.

The recent prime minister, Samak Sundaravej, caused quite the stir because of his famous outbursts. When questioned by a female reporter once, he avoided answering by accusing her of not having enough sex. In general, prime ministers aside, losing your temper diminishes your public standing. To berate someone publicly is an invitation to revenge.

Thais dress modestly. When a foreigner is sitting at a restaurant on a sunny day and takes off his shirt to enjoy the sun, Thais are taken aback. (I’ve witnessed this. I wanted to say something but restrained myself – confrontation is seen as even worse than being not samruam.) Women in spaghetti strap tops are assumed to be bar girls or sex workers. If they are foreigners, the fact that their foreigners (again, course and unrefined) is their excuse.

2009-03-03 12

Above: Even at the Erawan Waterfall, Thais are dressed with relative modesty. Only foreigners and young children show bare shoulders.

On the surface, this may sound prudish. But to really understand it, you have to remember that in Thai culture, it is important to keep up appearances. Loud, obnoxious, revealing and unrestrained clothing/behavior/manners don’t keep proper, considerate appearances up. They make life less pleasant for everyone else.

And that’s an important part of life here. That’s why, despite the heat and humidity, I rarely wear shorts (even cargo shorts) out of the house. And when I do, it is only for Saturday morning errands in the neighborhood, never out for dinner.


So what is life like here? Living in the environment of a different language makes it very challenging but opens worlds of understanding. The mai pben rai attitude is more relaxed, less worried, and occasionally frustrating when you want to get something done.

Politeness, appropriateness and fun are values that influence all aspects of life and behavior, generally making social interaction smoother and more pleasant. Knowing your place in the hierarchy of society makes you more considerate of others and, in return, you receive more respect from others, too.

Finally, from food to flowers to music, life here has a lot of good things to offer, even when they aren’t expensive or are surrounded by a chaotic environment.

I hope that I’ve given you a bit of an answer to what life is like here. As you can probably see, it is hard to describe it succinctly. The only short answer I can think of is:

“Requires different operating instructions.”

First Thanksgiving in Bangkok

Thanksgiving weekend came and went and not a single turkey was sighted in Bangkok.  In fact, Thursday was another “regular” day for me – not that I’ve been here long enough to have truly established a routine.  The good news is that I was able to get several days’ worth of work done while my colleagues in the US were busy eating and then digesting their holiday meals.

On Friday morning – Thursday dinnertime in the US – Tawn and I started two separate phone calls to the States to talk with relatives.  The day concluded with the gala 32nd birthday celebration and housewarming for Tawn’s high school friend Eddy Ritthiworachart.  Eddy and his partner, Lek, purchased a 3-bedroom house in a suburban Bangkok development almost two years ago.  Eddy’s responsibility since then has been to take it through an extensive finishing process to create a tranquil oasis for Lek, a doctor who usually works seven days a week and wants somewhere to unwind on his occasional days off.

Eddy partnered with Ble, a fairly well-known designer here in Thailand, to shop for antiques and pull together a design for the house.  The results, as you shall see below, are fantastic.

Sadly, Eddy has no experience throwing parties so he asked us to host the party for him.  His new kitchen is still unfurnished, so it really turned into a catering event of sorts for us.  Things worked out beautifully and the dozen or so guests had a wonderful time.

Image 1: Living and dining room area in Eddy’s house with a gilded Naga horn in the style seen atop temples in northern Thailand.

Image 2: Tawn with his friend and Hill & Knowlton colleague, Mon.

Image 3: Tawn looks on as Ble, the house’s designer, unveils his contribution to dinner – a variety of Thai-style appetizers very creatively presented in a huge bamboo steamer.

Image 4: Chris and Tawn in the lovely outdoor courtyard of Eddy’s house.

Image 5: Eddy figures out how to handle the trick candles we put on his birthday cake.  After blowing them out, they would relight, much to his shock and irritation.  The house ended up filled with smoke.  Finally, some water was brought in as the solution.

Image 6: Tawn’s friend Kat, Eddy’s boyfriend Lek, Eddy, and Kat’s friend Candy have a good laugh in the foyer.

Image 7:Tawn and his friend Tao have a good laugh over an antique Chinese drum that Ble and Eddy used as a side table.

Image 8: Party-goers – from the left: Ble, Mon, Eddy, Tawn, Candy, Kat, and Lek.