I moved to Thailand ten years ago, after having problems getting my wife a US visa.

At Wat Pho at night, Thailand
At Wat Pho at night, Thailand

At the time, we both lived in Honolulu, Hawaii, both in grad school there.  I’m American, originally from Pennsylvania, but I haven’t lived in that state for quite some time.  Different expats have very different experiences in Thailand so I’ll mostly just focus on my own.

Before I started working I ordained as a Thai Buddhist monk for two months.  It’s typical for men in their 20’s to become a monk, most typically for a period of two weeks.

In the past, a temporary ordination would have usually spanned the Thai rainy season, for three months, but now people spare the time that they can.  Part of the idea is to accumulate merit (good karma).  This is a unique way that a young man can support his family since the merit goes to not just him but also his family members.  I’m not so sure about all that but it was an amazing introduction to that side of Thai culture.

Women can be “nuns” but what that means is different.

Baby at the temple
Baby at the temple

Later I started work related to my industrial engineering education, in Information Technology, working in a data center company.  The most typical work for foreigners in Thailand is teaching English, but in the past foreigners doing IT work and other specialized professional work was more common.

Adjusting to a foreign culture can be a challenge.

I’ve heard it described as relating to three stages:

  1. an initial period of loving the differences and unique experiences,
  2. followed by a more mixed experience of adjusting to the differences, and missing things back home,
  3. potentially followed by resolving those issues and shifting perspective, integrating to some degree.

I’ve heard that compared to three typical stages of being married.  Of course, someone could stop at stage 2, and never really achieve a relatively full integration into the local culture, and that might not be a problem.

It was a challenge at first.  It took a couple of years to really get a deeper feel for Thai perspective and a few more for it to seem normal.  It’s often mentioned in forum discussions that without becoming fluent in Thai someone could never fully integrate, and there is something to that.  I speak some Thai, badly, maybe a few hundred words, but given that my learning has leveled off I never would become fluent.

One way some foreigners adapt is by not integrating, if working in a foreign company is possible for them, along with making foreign friends.

Bangkok is so Western-oriented in a lot of ways that this is more practical than it might first seem.

In the long run expats who are successful at partly or completely adopting a local perspective seem to do better, since there would always be local cultural issues coming up, even within a life set up to avoid them (language issues, related to food choices, local travel, dealing with medical care, visa issues, driver’s licensing, etc.).

The standard take on Thai culture is that Thais are friendly, and they really are, and generally accepting of others of different race and culture.  It’s the next level of perspective issues that took me time to adjust to; how people interact in different social roles, what is assumed or not expressed, differences in sense of humor, and so on.

People are truly more the same than different across different cultures, but that still leaves a lot of space for differences.

One example: Thais are said to smile a lot, and they do, but it’s a common reaction to smile to signify disagreement and acceptance (versus happiness).  With practice, one can notice the smiles are different, based on different meaning.

Raising children in a foreign culture

After one year in Thailand my son was born, and after five more years, my daughter was.  It’s interesting raising a child as a member of two different cultures.

At the ages of 1 or 2 that doesn’t matter, but around 4 or 5 they become aware of the differences, and at my current son’s age (he just turned 9) they really start to appreciate the complexity of that status.

It would be easy to raise children mainly as a member of one of the cultures, most often the local one, but mine seems to have a foot in both worlds.  I suppose it helps that a lot of what modern children experience — cartoons, films from different countries, Youtube videos, video games — is more universal than was ever possible before.

It would be nice if all of this condensed into clear lessons, if not approaches that anyone might adopt to expand upon a single-culture based perspective, or a the least as a few summary truisms.  It sort of doesn’t work that way.

You can get some limited sense of a culture in visiting for a week or two but really getting in touch with that perspective requires a few years. It’s not hard work, just a gradual broadening of experience, and depending on the form that plays out in it wouldn’t always be pleasant.  It wasn’t “free” for my kids, not always easy for them, even under the circumstances. 

Both have attended both Thai and international schools, and both have dealt with being different, which surely comes with both challenges and some benefits.  Hopefully, in the future, they can serve as a living bridge between the two cultures, as a member of both, but if they end up choosing to live only in one or that other that should also work.

A hobby interest as an approach to culture and online interaction

It could be seen as strange to turn an ordinary beverage preference into a hobby but I’m a tea enthusiast.

Yiwu tasting, second group shot
Yiwu tasting, second group shot

I was interested in wine when I was younger, and cooking and the complexity of those interests lends to extending exploration further.  There is just as much to know about tea and a lot to experience.  If I lived in China or Japan it might make more sense as a way to connect to the culture since specialty tea isn’t that popular in Thailand, in spite of Chinese culture serving as one of the main foundations for Thai culture.  I do know Thai tea enthusiasts here, just not many.

In today’s world, such an interest doesn’t need to be limited to what someone practices at home, or meeting with others to share experiences.

There are dedicated forums related to an interest in tea, like Steepster and Tea Chat, and I co-founded a Facebook tea group that will have just passed 5000 members by the time this posts, International Tea Talk.  And I write a blog about tea, Tea in the Ancient World.

Online discussion and real-life meetings related to the subject of tea and Thailand have been limited but I have attended two local tea tastings and presented on the subject in a local group. This type and form of connection with others might work even better for a general food interest, or sport.

It can be strange to pursue meeting others based on the shared background of being from somewhere else.  There are expat forums and meeting groups for such a thing, and I’ve attended functions hosted by a couple of them.  That’s only one small component of common perspective, and expats tend to fall into separate broad categories, with individuals varying a lot in interests and personality beyond that.

Eye with kids at the zoo, Feb 2017
Eye with kids at the zoo, Feb 2017

I resolve all that by focusing on my family instead; I don’t socialize with other foreigners much at all, or even Thais, for that matter.

For parents of small children in any country, this can feel a lot like a limitation, a struggle to make time for individual personal interests, to maintain hobbies and social ties, but it sort of works out in my own circumstances.

I enjoy the company of my children, and the things we do together, and although it is strange tea fits in the space I have for interest, and online contacts work to add limited social depth to that.

All of this is a limited account but it sums up how I approach and like living abroad.  The balance and trade-offs work. I miss my home country and don’t get back as often as I’d like since it’s on the opposite side of the world, but I have a nice life here.

Thailand is an interesting and diverse country and culture to experience.

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