I’ve lived in Bangkok for six years now. I didn’t think I would be here this long—when I came, I imagined staying for three years before going somewhere else, maybe somewhere in South America. But Thailand unexpectedly got its claws into me and I find myself, now married, still here, though for how long, I’m we’re not sure.
I’ve been thinking lately about what a different life I live here than the life I lived in the US. It seems like everything is different, but is that even possible?
Before I came to Thailand, I lived in Fort Worth, Texas, where I taught middle school English for 3 years. I lived in a comfortable apartment from which I drove about 5 minutes through an older, upper-class neighborhood to get to work. My apartment was close to everything—almost across the street from the library, just down the street from the grocery store, the mall and Walmart, and down the street and around the corner from Target and Barnes and Noble. Church was about a 7-minute drive and my parents’ house just past my church. Because I wasn’t really interested in cooking, I ate a lot of chips and salsa, Bagel Bites and ice cream—in my defense, it was my first time on my own. Life was easy, easy, easy.
Living in Thailand is not exactly difficult, after you get used to it, but it is definitely much less convenient, the biggest reason for me being primarily my dependence on others. In the US, I know what to do, how to do it, where to go to get what I want—I can do everything on my own. Of course there are some situations where I need help, but I know how to get it, and when I get it, I can understand it. Living in a foreign country, though, and one where information I need isn’t easily available in English means I have to depend on others. Constantly.
We foreigners are incredibly dependent on those at our workplace whose job it is to complete all the paperwork for our visas and work permits; if these are not properly taken care of, we cannot legally live or work here. We often need local friends or friends who have lived in Thailand for awhile to help us find a place to live (apartment? condo? house?) and then we need them to teach us which bus or songtao (a small red truck used for public transportation on smaller roads where buses don’t go) we can take to get home from work. Then there’s the food. We Westerners are usually familiar with pad Thai, but there’s a lot more here and we have a lot of questions: What is that? What’s in it? Is it spicy?
Six years in, I find myself still asking friends and strangers questions: Where’s the best place to buy a plant? Does this van go to Central Plaza? Is December 4th a national holiday? Locals may, of course, also ask these questions, but it takes time for foreigners to build a knowledge base that can come even remotely close to that of an average Thai.
The questions I ask most often are a result of my limited spoken Thai and nonexistent reading ability: Can you translate for me? Can you read this rental agreement/sign in our condo’s elevator/text message from my phone carrier? Since I have yet to take a formal Thai class, I expect these questions will continue.
Many Thais, if not most, rely on public transportation, and so do we. We don’t really need a car at all; if we had a car, we would spend a lot more time in Bangkok’s notorious traffic, which is something to be avoided at all costs. To get to and from work, I take the subway while Worchihan takes a motorbike taxi. We normally take taxis to church and home from the grocery store and take the bus to our favorite Indian restaurant and to Bangkok’s main shopping area. While I miss the freedom and ease of having a car, it’s better for us, especially as we don’t have kids yet, to take the train or the boat or the bus or the songtao (see Thailand Top 8 for more about public transportation in Thailand).
So we don’t own a car and we also don’t own furniture or appliances, other than a small oven. Most condos in Bangkok come fully furnished and some, including ours, come with washers on the balcony. Not owning big, expensive things is freeing; we have a lot less to worry about, a lot less to take care of and a lot less to move.
Food, of course, is a big one. We rarely eat Western food, though I eat it (usually on the rare occasion when I make it at home or when I go to McDonald’s before Bible study) more than Worchihan because he doesn’t really like it—he can’t get over the fact that our main spices are salt and pepper. Worchihan grew up cooking for himself so he cooks most nights—dal; beans from his village; Thai-style omelettes; chicken cooked with tomatoes, onions and garlic; chicken biriyani—which is why I eat much better than I did in Fort Worth, and we get food on the street—rice porridge; fried chicken; mixed vegetables cooked in oyster sauce; spring rolls—on the nights he doesn’t.
For all of the differences I appreciate, there are a few I don’t, including traffic, how taking public transportation at rush hour means a physical proximity to others that I am not used to, being shoved onto the subway on my way to work, traffic, being taken advantage of by people who assume I’m a tourist and traffic.
My world is a lot bigger here, which could be because Bangkok is significantly bigger than any city I’ve lived in, though I think it’s really because I have worked at 4 schools, gone to 3 churches and, for the last 3 years, have been a part of an international Bible study with women from various Bangkok churches. I’ve been able to meet so many people from different countries and backgrounds: Just a few weeks ago, we went to a party with my colleagues where the 15 of us represented 10 countries.
When I first came to Thailand, I wasn’t impressed. I wanted it to be like Fiji, where I lived in high school, but it wasn’t. Over the years, though, I have become grateful for the life we live in Thailand. It’s a privilege to experience life in another country and to grow and change as a result.