I know. I know. You’re freaking out because you have a friend’s birthday to go to. It’s also that time of year again – the holidays! I understand. Shhhh. I’ve got some ideas and tips.
My friend, who is somewhat newly moved to Thailand, was reflecting on what it’s like to be an expat: the culture shock, and then the struggle of not wanting to complain and feel culture shocked. As I walked to work, I thought about how much I had changed since living abroad.
I’m regularly asked about moving to Thailand (and now I’m being asked about Cambodia). There was a point when I was emailed so often I considered creating a standard reply, but in the end laziness reigned supreme. Interestingly, I’ve made friends though these initial inquiries. I’ve met up with a few and one time I even received a beautiful pair of earrings as a gift!
But as time has whistled by, I find myself feeling wary about giving advice. Here’s why:
// There are almost always unforeseeables. A family member back home becomes seriously ill and the newly expatriated must return home. The job you got turns out to be a nightmare, but your visa is tied to your employment. The country you are living in suddenly has a military coup, and you watch as friends are asked to leave for xyz bullshit reason. Welcome to the Jungle…
// Living abroad can create a strain or challenge on personal relationships. I don’t think anything really prepares you for this either. If I had known that moving to Thailand was going to break up my 6+ year relationship, I’m not sure I would have gone. Of course, you can argue that it would have happened anyway, but I don’t think so. We were fairly cozy. No regrets though. That’s life. (And don’t think for a minute, please, that my relationship was the only one. Many couples break up overseas.)
My friend K brought her two teenage kids over and one of them took to Thailand really well and the other just holed up in their house playing video games. He hated it. And so, you have to be okay with this kind of possibility.
// Being an expat just means you are living life, but with the additional work and trials that come with thriving in a foreign land. Obviously, this can be very exciting and life-changing, but it is also stressful as all hell. You won’t believe the amount of things you take for granted back in your passport country. Simple tasks like buying a towel or getting Internet hooked up can become an Amazing Race without the million dollar prize.
// Integrating back to your home country might be your biggest heartache yet – or you might get stuck living abroad. I was terrified when I learned that there were expats who were unable to financially return back home. Then there are those who have used expatriating as a way to “escape,” but now, the U.S. government has the power to revoke passports. Suddenly, you don’t feel as free as you once did.
I’ve also heard stories from former expats having a damn hard time finding employment back in their birth country. Given the economic climate, many find work abroad only to return and face the additional burden of not having any connections + a CV that looks like you played “hooky” for a few years.
The longer I live overseas though, the more impossible going back seems. Apparently, US expats are giving up their citizenship in greater numbers. Many are fed up with paying taxes for two countries (as America is the only country that taxes its overseas citizens). I’d consider giving up mine, too, if it wasn’t for my mom and the exorbitant price it now costs to do so.
Then again, I made the decision years ago to not return. Here’s why:
// Life’s an adventure. Sure, there is monotony and the droll of routine and work, but there is also the wakefulness and jolting awareness that you are living in another country. Every expat seems to go through this, “I live in ______” epiphany moment. It’s like a shot of “I’m alive!” that runs through your body and you can’t believe where you are at.
(And trust me, you need these moments of gratitude and wonder to offset those days when you experience great antipathy for your foreign environment.)
Yes, finding a place to eat becomes an endurance test, but each day holds the promise of a cultural encounter, a language breakthrough, and a beautiful awakening. You’re living in the NOW because sleepwalking is almost an impossible poor second choice. You have to pay attention or you might step in that oily puddle of kitchen waste that looks like solid ground (true story).
// Relationships, relationships, relationships. OMG! Never in my sexiest dreams could I have known how many people I would meet from all over the world. America, for all its melting pot ways, is not a hotbed of international individuals. Yes, there are exceptional industries and communities, but for the most part, you’re not going to be working + meeting Brits, Canadians, Australians, Kiwis, French, Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, South Africans, etc., etc., not to mention fellow Americans from all over, on a day to day basis.
// Being an expat brings out the best and worst in you. There’s something about travel and living abroad that tests every fiber of patience in your body. It’s easy to be enlightened when everything is easy. But when existing feels like a s-t-r-u-g-g-l-e, you GROW. Okay, you have mini-meltdowns, too, but you have to push to survive and thrive.
You also learn what’s important to you. (Do you like to stand out or fit in? How much living space do you really need? Are you okay with eating local? Can you be vulnerable?) You’re perspective on what you need and what you want gets shaken and stirred, and just when things feel like they have settled, they get shaken and stirred all over again.
All those trite sayings about how expanding your horizons make you a better person start to be part of your inner playlist – and it’s a song that can change the way you see yourself and the world.
// Where ever expats end up, the people, the culture, the language and food are sure to be a massive part of the reason why they are there. Learning another language gives you exciting and playful insight into the way people think and view the world. Living side by side with folks so unlike you allows for more barriers to fall away than the opposite (which is radically different than what the media wants you to think). I’ve learned more about my own culture, too. It’s crazy how much we are the products of our culture and how boxed in we can become in our thinking as a result.
At the end of the day though, choosing to be an expat can be another rite of passage, a birth into adulthood (or childhood), but it ultimately depends on you.
What do you think?
It started off with shoes, but then it became a bigger question. Does where you live change the way you dress?
Yes. A resounding yes.
Eating as a kid – in the beginning, there was sugar.
My brother and I pretty much had free range over the foods we wanted. But not in a “Do you want sushi or beef wellies?” kind of way, more like we rode the shopping cart down commissary food aisles with reckless joy throwing in Twinkies, Ding Dongs, and Ho-ho’s – kind of way. We enjoyed our junk food and took full advantage that our immigrant mom didn’t know any better. I’m also sure she wanted to give to us what she didn’t have as a child in rural Thailand.
My mom is chubby, but I never saw her starve herself (she grew up too poor for that nonsense) to lose weight or reject food. She’s not a picky eater. She’s very good about trying new foods, actually. In fact, I was the picky one growing up, but I got over it (young parents rejoice). So, I think she was a good food role model.
Despite growing up working class, we ate a good balance of packaged conveniences and healthy foods. Thankfully, my mom cooked often, grew herbs and fruit in our yard and didn’t put crazy restrictions on what we could and should eat. Of course, she admonished me for not eating enough vegetables or eating too much junk, but she wasn’t strict and I think this has helped me have a balanced palate.
Dieting fails – dairy is the devil.
When I was in high school, I eliminated butter and mayo from my diet to see if I could be skinner. I was briefly obsessed with being skinny and quickly caved because I like fats. I don’t know what I was thinking. I was probably reading too many fashion magazines at that time.
During my 20s I was a vegetarian for a year until I realized how bad I was at finding protein and better ways to feel full. Before that I was on a 75% raw food diet because a friend of mine convinced me that cooked food was evil. When I was dating that MMA guy, I didn’t eat pork because he convinced me that pork was evil.
But generally speaking, I haven’t restricted myself. I suppose that might sound like a contradiction, but I guess I see food restrictions as painful choices and my decisions have been relatively easy because I know how important my health is. When I do restrict myself it is when I know my eating habits have been out of balance. In other words, I need to cut down on meats or sweets.
College – I miss my mom’s cooking.
There is nothing like being taken out of your eating element to make you realize that yes, you like food a certain way and that you have your particularities. I didn’t recognize how lucky I was to grow up around great food until all that good food was no longer available.
You see, my mom is an accomplished cook. I was eating Thai food before it was trendy (sooo needs to be a t-shirt). And I grew up in Hawaii, which not only has amazingly perfect weather, but excellent dishes from all Asian ethnicities under the rising sun.
So what happened? Well, I wanted to go out of state for college, and being the “I’d rather walk in the woods then lie on the beach” type, I fell in love with Colorado. Now, for those of you who are not familiar with this Rocky Mountain State, it’s colder than Hawaii – and it snows.
There are more mountains over 14,000 feet (58 to be exact) in Colorado than any other state. And there are were not many Asians, 1.8% during the 1990s, and they were probably all in Denver where I did not reside. Now let’s consider Hawaii, during the 1990s, there were 68.8% Asians. Let’s allow those numbers to sink in…
But I thought you were talking about food, Lani? Yes, and this is related because there was not much in the way of Asian flavors in the little podank town of Durango, Colorado. Of course, we had the Golden Dragon which was like eating Chinese food from the frozen food aisle.
Suddenly – food mattered.
I gained weight during my first year away because I was freezing cold and starving for good food. During cafeteria hours, I’d watch my roommate’s friend Rachel carefully weigh her food on a little white scale then later I would order pizza or subs because the school food was so horrible. My mom sent me Top Ramen and Cup ‘o Noodles. I thought I was going to die from the lack of edible food.
I didn’t die, but I got really sick. I blacked out on the toilet (always a good place to lose balance and sight). A cyst formed on the back of my neck that has never completely gone away, and makes appearances when I’m sick… So I went to the school doctor and found out I was slightly anemic. I also received a bizarre checkup that involved the good doc putting his hands down my pants to see how my other glands (some sort of lymph nodes) were fairing. I never went back.
And even though my first year was the unhealthiest I had been, I never been that unhealthy again. Thank god. My roommate and I moved out of the dorms into an apartment and I learned how to cook. And this was the beginning of better eating and my adult relationship with food.
Cooking for myself – I can cook?
Despite cooking setbacks like when I burned rice (uh, what kind of Asian burns rice?) or when I mistook salt for sugar for my chocolate chip cookies (we were high), I actually enjoy cooking for myself and others. I learned a little from watching my mom, but not as much as I should have because when I was younger I’d rather be reading a book rather than learning how to cook. So, in college, I learned how to do some basic Mexican and Italian cooking from my roommate. Then, I started to get into cookbooks like Betty Crocker, finding and trying recipes and eventually subscribing to food magazines.
Baking became a novelty because I didn’t grow up in a household that used the oven, except for Thanksgiving turkey or storing pots and pans. And because I still have that serious sweet tooth, baking became a way to feed my need for sugar in a variety of confectionary ways. At my worst (best?), I was baking cookies every night.
I was also saving money and controlling the food I ate. Eating out in the US is expensive and the portion sizes are waist-ful. I think cooking at home makes you very conscientious of what you buy at the grocers, how much this or that costs and it’s much easier to reuse leftovers than reheating takeout that may or may not have retained its taste.
Eating overseas – Where’s the beef?
My best friend who also resides in Thailand occasionally braves eating like the local, which means plopping himself down and ordering something new. So, on fine afternoon, he ordered “Yen ta fo”, and was soon awarded with a hot bowl of cubes of blood, octopus tentacles, fish balls, noodles and anomalous bitter vegetables. And since he does not like food to go to waste, he gulped down as much as he could.
Eating overseas (especially someplace like SE Asia) can truly be a gut-twisting experience because the food is so foreign. Yes, I had the advantage of recognizing some of the food from my mom’s kitchen, but there were plenty of surprises in store for me. I also had the experience of dating a person who hadn’t been exposed to Thai food and his “food culture shock” reactions were interesting.
He started to eat at McDonalds and stick to one or two Thai dishes that he liked. He lost weight and has yet to gain weight back despite learning to eat a variety of Thai foods. But when he was first acclimating, I don’t think he acted differently than other expats who are not used to the food here. The smells, sanitation (or lack thereof), salt to sweet ratio with main dishes versus desserts and so on, hit you like a tide you didn’t expect.
We started to look at the food back home differently. American food is calorie dense. Portion sizes in Thailand are tiny in comparison. Quality beef is rare, expensive and usually tough, overcooked or buffalo meat. Diarrhea and food poisoning are commonplace. Frogs, snakes, critters and other creatures are writhing and twitching at the market for you to stare at.
It feels like you are on another planet and so you reach back for what you recognize and know. I can’t begrudge tourists or expats for eating Western food. I certainly crave pizza, pasta, sandwiches and things I can’t even remember anymore. I love this quote, “We travel to find something new, only to seek out the comforts of home” because it’s so true.
I think food (not unlike friends) make us feel at home, welcomed, and connected. So when we don’t like the food, an integral part of the expat or travel experience falls flat-footed. When I lived in Ecuador, I did not enjoy the food very much. It seemed bland. Often, I felt gassy, bloated and unhealthy despite walking quite a bit.
Living abroad has definitely open larder horizons that never would have occurred had I stayed in America. So in that sense, I feel my connection and appreciation for food has grown. Food is incredibly personal and cultural and it’s fascinating what we eat. I’m not as picky as I was when I was a child, but I definitely have a tongue for: salty, sour, bitter, sweet and savory.
I consider myself lucky because even though I enjoy eating – I don’t count calories and generally eat whatever I want – I’ve never had a weight problem. And even though my mom constantly asked me, “Are you fat?” after I left the nest, I never let that bother me. I just laughed and said, “No.” (She also asked if I was brushing my teeth. Yes, mom.)
When I think about the culture surrounding food, the haves versus the have-nots, and how much food has changed (profits over people), I’m grateful that I have never experienced real hunger, I have healthy food choices and my relationship with food has been, overall, a balanced one.
What about you? What is your relationship with food like?
1) Ever since we moved to Chiang Rai, I was concerned about the lack of access to English books, as there are not as many expats here as there is in Chiang Mai. So, I decided to buy a Kindle. They are more expensive in Thailand, so I had a friend who was visiting the States bring one back. Thanks JP! Zing!
A friend of mine posted this challenge and I thought, Yeah, I can do that, too. So, I announced on FB that I was going to stop liking things for 2 weeks and instead of liking things, I made more comments. But this didn’t last long. In fact, I think I only lasted a few days.