I am an expatriate. Sounds exotic and strange even to me, but this only means I am someone who has chosen to leave his or her native land to live somewhere else. Looking up expatriate on the Internet out of curiosity, I found loads of sites on where to buy the food one might be craving, how to save more money, how to make overseas investments, how to join an expatriate club, and various how-to-move-there and what-to-do-once-you-are-there sites. Learning how to survive in your new country is important. But what comes after that when the mystery of how to function and what is going on wears off? What happens when the charm of the Thai smile fades away? What happens when the mating dance has ended? Trust me, on some days it has.
I have lived in Thailand for three years. I now have come to accept the fact that I will always be viewed as an outsider no matter how long I live here. Part of this is, of course, due to the fact that I am not married to or dating a Thai person. I once saw an interesting question posted on the Internet, ““Thais and Foreigners: Oil and Water?”” I would have to say yes indeed to a certain degree.
Although I shop at the same store every week and my face is more than familiar, sales clerks will still point at me and say, ““Farang!”” which means ““Foreigner!”” It can get slightly aggravating. Sometimes I just point back and say, ““Thai!”” with a smile. But it serves as a reminder: I don’t fit in. Not just physically, but mentally, too.
Foreigners are often accepted in Thailand because of the money, status and/or knowledge that they bring with them. And believe it or not, many Thais still hold foreigners at arm’s length. This holds particularly true for the older generation. The younger generation seems almost too willing and eager to embrace western values and is more open to interaction.
Relating to Thai society as a westerner can be a tricky task indeed. Debate rages all the time about what life in Thailand is all about. You can talk about what it means to live in Cairo, Beirut, New York City, Zurich, Glasgow or Rome but such heated arguments would never come up. Everyone has his or her own firm definitions of the plusses and minuses of life here. Everyone eventually gets settled in and finds a niche.
Some join clubs. Others can be found perched on bar stools. Others shop until they drop. Golf is discovered. Some perfect the art of living off of almost no money and working as little as possible. Others work hard. Most play hard. And I’m certain every expatriate has ‘one of those days’ when they walk around scratching their head wondering what the heck they are doing here.
Although even in our own countries we all find our niches, here the niches become more exaggerated. Decadent behaviour, loss of personal moral code and/or spending too much time looking in the bottom of an empty but soon-to-be-full-again beer glass claims some victims. Others just buckle down and get on with life. Everyone’s perspective on reality changes; some seem to lose perspective entirely. From the guy perpetually angling for a buck to the ‘good time Charlie’ to the backpackers who never leave, to the high-flying executive or housewife, there is absolutely no one or correct definition of ‘Bangkok Expat.’
Being an expatriate often involves hanging out with other expatriates. It’s a diverse crowd indeed and I enjoy finding myself at tables where over ten nationalities are represented. Although Bangkok has no official downtown, expatriates tend to gravitate towards Suhkumvit Road or Silom Road and also tend to frequent the same restaurants or bars again and again. You meet a friend of a friend. They bring their friends. Before long you know almost everyone. Bangkok, although it is a gigantic city, can have a very small town feel to it sometimes.
You see the same groups of people weekend after weekend. You make friends, but what do you really know about them? Only what they tell you, usually. As Bangkok hosts thousands of cheap restaurants, no one usually bothers hosting guests at home. You meet up, you head out. Like everywhere, there are ‘good’ people and ‘bad’ people, but truth said, Thailand makes a great hiding place for many and a good place to forge a new identity. Sound strange? Well it is.
P.S. This observation is in no way intended to slight the excellent group of friends I have in Thailand, but a note to you: ask yourself what you really know about me and how you can be sure it is the truth. Then you should see my point.