Expat

Society pages

Is it better to be part of society or to carve out a piece from it? Is that the same thing then? My Canadian friend had the observation while she was at a farang restaurant that she could be doing this exact thing, eating out with her white friends, back at home. It was as if this experience almost didn’t make sense in Thailand because shouldn’t she be out with Thai people doing Thai things, eating Thai foods?

I understood her point but for the same reason you see ethnic neighborhoods or nuclear groups back in the United States, you want to be with people you know, who understand you and whom you are comfortable with. I remember in college hanging out with folks who had the same dysfunctional family background as me. Sure each family had their own distinct brand of crazy but I felt so bonded with them because we could relate to each other.

There is no judgment here. I simply found this observation – interesting. Should expats feel guilty for not ‘going native’? It’s not quite the same is it when you see a Caucasian woman pretending to be African, dressed and acting a particular way. Or vice versa. When we see someone acting out of the realms of their cultural boundaries, we think hey why are they pretending to be something they are not?

Or course my friend’s statement could just be nothing more than a moment of regret. Regret that she is not having what she perceives to be a Thai experience. Because she wants to participate in Thai culture and get to know it. There are probably many expats and travelers who feel the same way. I mean expats will always be expats. You hear the stories of no matter how long you live in Japan or Thailand, you will never be one of them. In America this is not so – although I feel some hesitation in even declaring that.

I suppose you could equate it to US military bases around the world. These communities have carved out a separate existence with their own foods and stores conveniently located within a mobile’s throw of their foreign domicile. I imagine these places to be walled off like a woman’s prison but I don’t know if that’s true.

My friend’s thought is a good thought I’ve decided. It’s healthy to step back from time to time and question what you are doing and what your original goals are. Perhaps I’m trying to justify my own lack of motivation, my own lack of learning the language, reaching out and participating since I see nothing wrong with carving out your own sacred space. But there is always the question; could I do more, should I be doing more?

Now I should be clear. I’m not talking about the trust fund babies who wander the earth aimlessly looking for the next beer in a bong experience. I’m talking about those who have retired or who are working in another country. I think when you live in another country you inevitably experience what it is like to breathe the foreign air. How much time you spend outside taking deep long breaths is another pressure-filled oxygen tank altogether.

Remember we are a society that still feels guilty for taking a Personal Day. I think if we took more personal days we would be saner. And if hanging out with expats is like taking a personal day then I don’t mind taking many of them. It’s not about laziness necessarily but about feeling relaxed. Because I’m sorry even when you are participating in a different culture you inevitably feel tense even in your comfortable state of following what everyone else is doing. I feel very comfortable walking around doing my own thing but less comfortable with my grasp of the language.

But here’s the fascinating thing. Expats are out there experiencing another culture for some reason. Whether it is because they can’t fully relate to their own or because they want to live in another or because they chose a job that took them there. So if you are an American living in Thailand hanging out primarily with Westerners, do you feel sympathy or antipathy towards your own culture?

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11 thoughts on “Society pages

  1. After I read the first paragraph I though it would have been funny if you leaned over and said “but Thai people don't like you.”*stare, stare*

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  2. Before I came to Thailand I worked for awhile in Saudi Arabia. I lived on a compound; it was like a little city. There were a lot of people living there who never left the compound except to go the airport. It was like they were in jail. I met many who hated Saudi but had been there so long that they struggled to cope in the real world when they left; they kept on coming back for a new contract. Mind you, if I’d stayed in Saudi much longer I’d have been the same.

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  3. “shouldn’t she be out with Thai people doing Thai things, eating Thai foods?”I think it's nice to mix it up a bit. For instance I had a lovely lunch today with two farang friends, in a farang restaurant 😉 Other times, I eat with the locals at the food stalls or cafes…but I'm still sitting across from a farang (husband). A couple of weeks ago we took our Thai friend to a farang restaurant.I know what your saying though, I start to feel guilty about not making an effort to assimilate more, but the language barrier doesn't help. And, even if I do master Thai, I'm still going to stick out like a sore thumb.

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  4. Lani, great post. As an American expat living in Thailand I find myself hanging out with more Thai's and experiencing more Thai things. I know other expats that only eat western food and don't do much to experience Thailand.I can hang in either circumstance but I much more drawn to exploring the rich Thai culture and eating all the great Thai food as much as I can.

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  5. @Paul: Ah, yes the infamous Saudi compound. I've heard about this. It does sound like jail, doesn't it?@Snap: How dare you call me a farang :P@Talen: Thanks! Yeah I got the feeling you were more into the Thai xp. from your posts.I think the expat experience totally depends on the person. Do you want to xp. “real” Thai life? Or do you want to be comfortable with your native speaking friends?I find myself judging less but I don't want to hear the complainers. Whatever you do, enjoy life!

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  6. Lani, at the moment I only hang with Thai friends but it can easily change. It often does.Do I feel guilty for not going native? I'm too lazy to go native. In the countries I've lived in, where I fit often depends upon the county. Take the Muslim country I spent nine years in. Nice people, but a large part of the population and I didn't see eye to eye because there were too many differences. The differences can make everyone uncomfortable. They were worried about bringing up some subjects and ditto from my end.But in thinking… I usually end up with local friends who have strong western leanings or western experiences. They are more forgiving of my western faults.

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  7. In my experience its too hard to generalize between farang (or foreigner) vs. Thai. There are certainly a lot of very interesting and dynamic foreign expats with extraordinarily intriguing experiences and backgrounds in Thailand who are great to hang out with, and also some complete bores. Same with Thais. Having said that, personally I've found some of the most interesting people to meet and chat with are other Asian nationals who live and/or work in Thailand.

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  8. @Cat: Good for you for hanging with Thai friends! I feel like the most interesting folks I come in contact are my students and I don't think that is something I'm allowed to do.I also love my regular eats for practicing my pasa Thai. But all in all, I'm lazy. I have a Thai family so I'm spoiled that way.@Mr. T: You bring up a GREAT point. I've met some amazing people through my scant travels and living in CM is no exception.

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  9. Hey Lani–I feel like if I'm living in a place, I'm more likely to give myself a pass for eating at a farang restaurant or having pizza or whatever. And–this is terrible–but sometimes I'm so tired after a day of teaching English that I am just happy to be with my native-English-speaking friends. That's my fault for not learning Thai better (although I've only been here 5 months!). I have Thai friends in the places I travel for work, but not as many in BKK…more foreigners here, I guess.

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  10. @Lani, that's a technicality and I haven't worked out the answer yet ;)@ Megan, you're right. My usage of Thai depends on my energy levels at them time. I even balked at buying pineapple from a street vendor yesterday…I only need to use a few words:(

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