Life in Thailand is a balancing act

by Shane Irvine
Bangkok

I didn’t come to Thailand to escape the United States and I didn’t come here to get married. I came here on a whim. I ended up getting married and living here nonetheless. My life in Thailand’s ‘land of smiles’ has been a balancing act. I’ve had to examine and consider the benefits of living in Thailand compared to the drawbacks of living here. One has to weigh both the positive and the negative. While living and trekking in Nepal for several months, I had been introduced to a Thai woman online through a good friend that knew her. After messaging back and forth for several months I decided to meet her during a visit to Thailand. I came with the intent of spending a few days in Bangkok and thereafter going to Pia. One thing leads to another and a year and a half later I’m married and living in Bangkok. Still haven’t made it to Pia, yet. Sometimes we build visions in our mind of what a place is going to look like and we have mental fantasies about what’s going to happen. Daydreams can be the joie de vivre that give us hope for happiness and ultimately becoming content with our lives. But, we know in the back of our minds that there is a difference between our fantasies and our realities. Nonetheless, I love living in Thailand and I want to stay here, at least for now.

Thai people tend to live for the moment. That is a trait I’ve learned to appreciate since coming here. As I say, I didn’t intentionally come here to escape the United States, but in reality, I have. I don’t like the direction my country is headed and I don’t like seeing old friends become politically adversarial. Every BBQ or social gathering becomes a breeding ground for contempt and disdain when politics are inevitably brought up. I’ve been back to California a couple of times and whilst there, in some ways I felt like I had never left and in other ways, I felt like I was in the twilight zone. Upon returning to Thailand I’ve felt a sense of rejuvenation, a sense of tranquility, adventure and a feeling that I’m truly living in the moment. Thailand has its flaws and I don’t deny that. No place is perfect, except where you’ve been and where you’re going, of course. But for me, life in Thailand is a balancing act. I’ve grown tired of the opulence and grandiosity of the United States where everybody is expected to be wealthy and successful. Where people are basically judged by the clothes they wear, the car they drive or the neighbourhood they live in. I’m learning to accept the laid back lifestyle Thailand has to offer and I now appreciate being mediocre. I wear shorts, aloha shirts, and sandals.

We have a 125cc scooter and I live in a 2 bedroom, 2 bath townhouse in a moderate neighbourhood. This is all we need. If we want to travel we either take a bus or hire a driver. My wife and I were married in our local Catholic church and are members of the church community. Instead of travelling around Thailand on commercial tour excursions, we go on church excursions all over central Thailand. It’s like being a member of a yacht club or a country club, except the people aren’t so snooty. Several times we have been up north to Ban Tok to visit with her relatives. I get to see Thailand from a perspective most tourists never get to see. Living in Thailand means that learning the Thai language is a priority. If you don’t learn the language, you are dependent on others to interpret for you. This, in turn, can foster feelings of isolation. Unlike Thailand’s next door neighbours, such as Malaysia, Thailand has proudly never been dominated by a western government. Malaysia was colonised by the British. Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia were previously colonised by France. Myanmar and Singapore were both colonised by the United Kingdom. In SE Asia, Thailand has had the least exposure to the European culture and has only in recent decades started teaching English in its schools.

One can go to Malaysia and find that almost 90% of the population speak English. Not so in Thailand. I have learned a vocabulary of several hundred words so far. I have also learned to read Thai on a limited basis. I can at least look at a Thai word and decipher the sounds. But, trying to understand replies in Thai has been my biggest obstacle. In English, we speak differently than we write. When we speak English to others who speak English, we tend to use phrasal verbs and cliches that don’t seem to make sense if you were to look at just the words themselves. When we say, “go for it, dude,” it’s in English but it doesn’t make sense unless you understand American slang. Even an Englishman might ask, “Aye? Go for what? And, my name is Charles, not Dude.”Thai people are the same way. They use phrases that they understand, but those phrases can be confusing when just looking at the words. In English, we have declarative, interrogative, imperative and exclamatory sentence structures. In Thai, a sentence is structured starting with the subject followed by the object and finished with the verb. They do not use tenses the way we do. Therefore, if you try to translate a sentence from Thai to English or vica versa, it just becomes a word salad.

Bangkok Life

One has to balance the qualities of living in Thailand with the drawbacks. Bangkok is known to be the hottest major city in the world by mean temperatures. It doesn’t cool off significantly at night. Drivers are less disciplined than in most western cultures. The language barrier is momentous and can cause many lone foreigners to feel isolated. When juxtaposing these negative factors to Thailand’s tropical easy lifestyle, low prices and beautiful venues, it becomes obvious that there are significant offsetting factors. This tells me that there is no one true answer to the question of balance. The balance will be different for each individual depending on each person’s values and personal preferences. Having lived in Nepal for a few months before coming to Thailand gave me a comparison of living in one of the poorest countries in the world and having been raised in one of the richest nations in the world. I view Thailand as somewhere in between. They have fairly modern highways, people drive recent model cars and they have huge shopping malls that have everything. Bangkok pretty much has everything one would expect in a major metropolitan city.

Like most normal people, I don’t feel like I’m normal. I sometimes feel like a pariah. I’ve felt that way all my life. Because this is the way I’ve always felt, I’m good with being a foreigner in a foreign land. I sometimes think of the song by the Doors, People are Strange. I just replace some of the words with farang (the Thai word for foreigner); People are strange when you’re a farang. Faces look ugly when you’re a farang. Women seem wicked when you’re a farang. Streets are uneven when you’re down…Boom, boom, boom, boom. When you’re farang. Faces come out of the rain…
Different cities around Thailand have different atmospheres. In areas where tourism is minimal, I find people to be more genuine in how they perceive foreigners. In tourist areas, they smile a lot but they have a pretty good idea of how foreigners can be. Being American, English or Australian gives you no special love from the Thai people. I hear horror stories about how some of my countrymen have rudely treated people here and I can see why foreigners are viewed with a certain amount of reserve. Fortunately, Thai people are generally quite friendly and I believe that a big part of this is their Buddhist upbringing. They tend to be philosophical and respectful of others. In areas where tourist are seldom seen, they tend to look you in the eye and greet you with a genuine smile.

I spent time in a northern community during a funeral for my mother-in-law. The Buddhist funerals last for several days and involve a lot of communal gatherings at a temple and a lot of food. By the time the funeral is over, people seem to be more at ease with the passing of their loved one. I could walk through the village and people would come out of their homes to greet me and let me know that they knew my mother-in-law many years ago. Because I was her son-in-law and married to her daughter, they did not look at me as an outsider. If I stumbled on my words, they would laugh and help me out. I didn’t get that same feeling of camaraderie in Bangkok. People are friendly in Bangkok, but not to the same degree. In the balance, I think it helps if you’re a little bit different. I’ve met westerners from all walks of life here. Some have lived here for years and say they’re okay with the lifestyle, others not so much. It’s a mixed bag and each person is going to view life here, differently depending on various external factors. As I say, Thailand’s not for everyone. You have to balance the positive with the negative. In my case, as long as I’m not looking for normal, Thailand’s my kind of place.

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