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?