Expat · Writing Memoir

An Expat in Gratitude

The flavor of gratitude tastes stronger here. And I savor every bite of kindness.

At first I thought when you pull yourself out of your passport country and decide to live abroad that you’d experience life differently. I couldn’t imagine how you wouldn’t. But then I realized, it doesn’t matter where you put people or where they live. There will always be those who let the elements control their behavior, and those who control their elemental behavior. Of course that begs the question: Who is shaping who? The environment or the person? There is no spoon, right?

With that said, I feel as though Thailand has made me a much more grateful person. It’s a raw environment where death and tragedy are met on a regular basis. Recently I reconnected with a woman who I had met a couple of years ago, and we caught up by her telling me that her baby girl died soon after birth, and that she was just returning from a funeral. It takes a long time to honor the dead in the Gin Salat ceremony.

Suddenly the grievances of the expat community feel insipid and stupid. The quality of life is simply not as good as the Western world. Let’s not pretend that poverty is something noble or the pollution – charming. You have to desensitize or distance yourself from the sickly street dogs, open sewage smells, trash and emaciated looking people. Or you’ll end up like the very things you despise.

After we returned from our family vacation in Thailand, I was very much affected by the limbless street beggars and poverty that my sweet 16 American ass had never seen before. I understand it’s all relative, and I’ll listen to myself and others complain about life, but there’s a threshold of anti-tolerance that wasn’t there before. I don’t know. Sometimes you have to stop stirring the soup.

groundHere, I experience an isolation or an isolating feeling that makes everything seem much more vivid like the rhododendrons of Portland that pop under the cloudy skies. I notice that I am more emotional, moved to tears, and no I’m not menopausal. The best comparison I can think of is when folks, back in the day (think Little House on the Prairie), received a homemade gift that took time to make like a doll or a dress, or when your neighbor brought by freshly baked bread or a stranger stopped to help you change your wagon wheel. When the elements are bleaker or seemingly so, thoughtfulness goes a long way to sustain you and your sanity.

When I meet friends for lunch, get a ride anywhere (since my modus operandi is either walking or bicycling), receive a smile, a sympathetic ear, a borrowed book in English, or successfully order lunch in Thai I feel mee kwam sook or happiness. Now these are things I would treasure in the States. (Well, maybe with the exception of ordering lunch.) And I have a gratitude journal that I keep, writing down at least 5 things that I am thankful for on a daily basis. But as I’ve said, it’s Little House on the Prairie out here and if we don’t help each other out – it gets real hard to survive. And many head back home or move on hoping to stake their claim elsewhere. We all want to feel loved and welcomed.

One of the things that I commonly hear back in the U.S. is how difficult it is to make new friends. You either get lucky at work, never move from your hometown, go to school or join a club (and let’s face it most of us don’t make it past work). Although I think when you are a foreigner in a foreign land you make friends more easily. I struck up a conversation with a Caucasian woman at a flower market because I knew the chances of her speaking English were good, as well as her being an expat since she was looking for plants like me. It turns out I was right and we exchanged emails after we looked at a few more plants and talked to the guy who hit her motorbike.

Now back home, I might have made small talk but the chances of us “reaching out” and then following up are much less great. You want to hang out with people who are in the same situation as you. At least I do. Sometimes it’s exhausting to stick out and fumble your way through the day because you can’t read anything and you’re catching 30% of the conversation. So it’s nice to hear your native tongue and to be able to relate to people on a cultural level. And there are so many interesting people and stories to meet, and amazing coincidences – I love it.

It seems terribly fitting then that when I decide to write about gratitude my Thai family calls to say they are heading over with a refrigerator, TV, hot pot, bananas and comforters. I had asked for the comforters because my bed is a cleverly disguised plywood board with a “harder than a futon but softer than rock” mattress. But I hadn’t expected anything else. Especially when I told my mom that I didn’t need a fridge or a TV but then again things get lost in translation. So now my modest apartment looks very Thai with its kiddie-themed blankets, teddy bear TV cover and Christmas “wrapped” refrigerator.


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