Sunday, April 22, 2012

All The Single Ladies

Justifying Life as a Single Female Expat

I really just have to write this post. It’s something all expats deal with to some extent, and it’s an issue that doesn’t stop bothering me. If you dislike sarcasm or reading posts with any cynicism or negativity, skip this one. I can only be who I am. But I feel my message is important.

1: If I were an American deployed in the military, I would have full support for being away. Regardless of your position on American foreign policy, it’s just too taboo to say otherwise about our men and women in uniform. Well, unless they are women that have been raped by their peers, then they were asking for it and we shouldn’t have to pay for them to receive counseling. *shakes head at the state of things* But really, my point stands: If I were deployed I bet not ONE person would have the guts to call me selfish or guilt trip me about not coming home more often. Because I’m making sacrifices for my country, so I must not be selfish.

2: If I were abroad following my husband. If I were married and my husband was transferred abroad, or if I moved abroad in order to marry someone, people might try and talk HIM out of it or talk him into moving to the US, but I would have full support. Oh, the poor expat wife, it must be sooo hard for you to be off in a foreign land where not all of the toilets are Western and the taxis don’t have seatbelts! The horror! And if you have kids: have you found a suitable International school? Will the kid’s education suffer? Newsflash: the idea that women can’t pee standing up is a lie. And guess what else? Urine does not carry diseases (95% of the time or so). As for education – don’t get me started on the state education being systematically dismantled.

3: If you’re just taking a ‘gap year’ to ‘find yourself.’ Oh kids today, they’ve just gotta get the travel bug out of their systems before they come home and ‘get their real job.’ It’s just a phase, they’ll grow out of it.

Tell me again, what’s a real job? How about a fake job? My personal take on the semantics of this is that no job is ‘real,’ because we all aspire to attain a perfect job that doesn’t really exist. Other views include the idea that all jobs are real – because, truly, when is valid employment NOT real? I added the qualifier of ‘valid,’ there are certainly scams out there.

4. And then there’s the rest of us. The Misfits. The true traitors of our country who dare to stay abroad for more than one year. There must be something pathologically wrong with us to stay away from the great First World Pillars of the planet, the land of milk and honey. The Patriot Act says so. Oh it doesn’t say that? Well do you know what it does say? That’s what I thought. Also, I’m lactose intolerant and it’s more like the land of subsidized high fructose corn syrup and cheap laundered Chinese honey. I know I know, there she goes again with her cynicism… Really though, the expat crowd, we’re all off our rockers. Every last one. Maybe we have neurosyphilis. Yes, yes we must test expats for that annually! Sluts, the lot of them! With dollar signs on their foreheads!

WHAT?!?! You’re not coming home?!?!? WHY?!?!
Uh, can I even get a job at Starbucks at ‘home?’ NO!
Do you realize it takes me exactly one month’s salary for that round trip ticket?
Do you have any concept of how a Thai Government school calendar operates? Yes I no longer work at a Thai government school. See point one, add relocation, visa reapplication and haven’t gotten my next paycheck yet costs. Consider this along with plane ticket.

But, is it safe for you to be abroad as a single female?
Seriously? Really seriously? Would you like me to pull up the crime statistics for YOUR city? That’s what I thought.

But you’re living in a third world country!
I have better access to health care here than I do anywhere in the United States. And if push really comes to shove, they can see me for cash. This has served me many times, where in the states I would have had to rush back to my mother to beg for grocery money when the medical bills came due (on her health insurance at the time, to boot).
I have greater access to public transport than I’ve had in any other place I’ve lived. I get on just fine with no car.

But, you could make more money in the US!
Again, working where, exactly, that would hire me in my field and that I would be happy doing, and that would provide health care and an actual living wage? There are millions of Americans that would like to know. McDonald’s is not a valid response to someone with a Bachelor’s degree. Your mom will give you money or you can save money by living at home is also not a valid concept for a 20 something when there are clear alternatives available. Not sorry they are abroad. If you’re a 20 something at your parents, I’m sorry – and I understand your pain, fellow graduate of the Great Recession. We’ll make it through.

But, how are you going to find a boyfriend? Why can’t you find a boyfriend there?
Again, this is your concern why? And that worked out so well in every case in the states, didn’t it? You know, it’s kind of nice to just book a flight to Chiang Mai and just go. I require permission from no man. If I were to get married, I would simply forfeit my rights to sign for many things on my own without my husband’s permission in many countries. I want to do that why? Last time I checked possession of a vagina is not considered a mental disorder (well, unless you were born with a penis in Thailand, then the Thai military DOES classify this as a mental disorder). Though I wouldn’t put it past the Republicans.

But, you keep getting sick!
And this is different from my life in America how? Right, in that I can afford to go to the doctor here, they speak English and the quality of care is just fine.

But, America has the best sandwiches!
Life is about sacrifices.

I realize that most American citizens will probably never understand my expat life. I will still be asked when I plan to come home, when I’m finding a boyfriend/getting married/getting pregnant (a global curse), when I’m going to grad school and I will still constantly be asked why I left the US in the first place.

I will be told to be more positive about my travel adventures; to tone it down, calm down, there will always be unsolicited advice. But you know what? I’m living a life that I am proud of. Can you say that? Or are you living vicariously through people that are following dreams you turned down or gave up? Well-behaved women rarely make history. And living your dreams does not play out in the utopian way that non-lived dreams are authored.

I’d like you to consider the fact that you would not question someone in the military, a married woman or a single male going abroad (at least not as much as us ladies), so effectively, you’re sabotaging the support network of us single ladies abroad when you ask these things and nothing else – and frankly, we would like the same support everyone else gets. We know things like the glass ceiling, sexual harassment, and unequal rights aren’t going away. But do we have to get the unintended, brain washed comments from those who care for us, whom we care for? I bet you’ve never thought of those questions that way. But think about how you’d feel if these queries comprised 90% of your communication from back ‘home.’ Does that compose 90% of your daily conversations? No, it doesn’t.

I’m sorry you made other choices in life, I’m sorry you wished you could travel, wished you were young, wished you hadn’t had kids, whatever. But that is your choice. And this is mine. I am not selfish. I am not unsafe. And I’ve done alright even as I’ve learned that people in my home country may never understand, and as my support network has retreated inwards and I’ve had to move on. I admit it bothers me now, to think that so many people I care about simply do not have the frame of reference or common experience to connect on the new levels I have found. I don’t mean to attack anyone’s lack of experience. And I realize to some, this will just be seen as more whining.

But I hope that perhaps you will start to understand the fact that, perhaps there is great misunderstanding even when you mean well. And the fact that I’ve chosen to lead a life quite different is simply that – different.

And I will never have to say, I wish I had traveled instead. Will you?

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Dear Americans considering teaching abroad in Thailand:

1) Immigration will need to see your original University Diploma. Yes, original. Yes, I'm serious. Really really. If you're told you don't need this, either they aren't getting you the right visa and you're not working fully legally or they've got strings to pull. This, is also not unusual but to get a one year teaching visa, you NEED your real diploma with you. Whether or not the policy is new, the enforcement has scaled up exponentially.

2) Female teachers must wear skirts in Thai schools. Internationals vary.

3) Do not be surprised when Immigration questions the legitimacy of your actual, legitimate passport. Also yes really. No advice on this one, just be prepared. If you ever deal with a police officer that claims a document of yours is fake, demand to go to the police station. It's possible the cop is fake, or just scamming. Asserting your rights to go to the station gets them off your back.

4) When applying for a Work Visa, never wear jeans to Immigration. When applying for a tourist extension, always wear jeans to Immigration. Or other touristy but not too obnoxious outfit. Don't wear sandals. Your approval or denial can hinge on how you are dressed.

5) What bank you use will be determined by the school where you work. There are no fuzzy lines blurring banking and education whatsoever, at all. *cough* Many banks will not give you an account without a work permit. This also varies by branch, bank, and mood of who you talk to.

6) Murphy's law requires that you will be seen by the same woman every trip to Immigration, and she hates your guts and thinks you're a teenage dirtbag even when you're in your mid 20s. That or she really just loves enforcing her rule book of logical procedures.

7) Visa runs are like changing the oil in your car. Completely normal procedure. If you start to get worried that going on a visa run is shady, you're in the wrong country. Oil change for your passport.

8) Don't even try to use PayPal abroad as an American, make sure your banking institution is not going to dump you because of the Patriot Act when you move abroad, and yes, you do have to file your US taxes both federal and state and maintain a US address (not P.O. Box) even if you don't have to pay any, you can't file electronically if you earn foreign wages, and you will find new reasons to hate the IRS you never dreamed of. Thank you, Patriot Act renewal and additions. They do give expats an automatic month extension to file taxes. Also realize any non-Thai cards incur a 150 baht ATM withdrawal fee for every transaction. Get a card that refunds fees if you cannot get a Thai card; or withdraw in maximum chunks to go awhile at a time. Also, many Thai banks will only withdraw from your savings account and not checking, because personal checking does not exist here. Be aware of this when choosing ATMs, it might take from your savings or simply say it cannot handle your foreign card.

9) Realize there is a very good chance you may be the only American at your work place. Some places are full of Americans, but I'm on my second job as the lone Yankee on staff. Be prepared for as much or more culture shock from this as from Thai culture.

10) Don't believe the myth that American automatically means better. My thieving, fake plane ticket issuing travel agent was US based. There is a travel agent here in Bangkok that never steers me wrong traveling in Asia, and I have found a more reliable US agent for flights back home. Do your homework.

And PLEASE, don't tie your shoes to the outside of your pack in a country where feet and shoes are reviled, and when all else fails, there is a large Leo beer and a Mai Pen Rai with your name on it.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

It’s Been an Eventful Couple of Weeks

I’m sitting in an Irish pub near Sala Daeng station, drinking 7-up and enjoying a live band. I’m embarrassed to say that at first I thought the guy’s voice was coming from the female vocalist. But surely I can’t be blamed considering where I am. I did think she was very, very pretty to be a lady boy.

Tomorrow I start my first day at my new job, so I’m celebrating with Irish stew. There’s a football match on two screens, TRON legacy on another. This vocalist is really good. Really, really good. I hope she finds her way out of this pub. But who knows.

I haven’t blogged about the royal cremation, my visa run to Laos or my trip to the island of Koh Kood (on the Gulf of Thailand side – the quakes and tsunami watches are on the Andaman Sea side). But that’s a heck of a lot for two weeks and moving apartments and all. Just saying.

I’ve arranged for a motosai ride to school in the morning and established myself with a motosai win (motorcycle gang, but think of it more as a co-op than a gang) in my neighborhood. This involved the translation assistance of a Family Mart cashier. I am going to be learning more Thai outside the backpacker ghetto. Sure, the backpacker ghetto has its charms in some ways, but I’m thankful to be out of it. In some ways it is tamer than where I currently sit, the Irish Pub is adjacent to the Japanese version of Soi Pat Pong. And that’s exactly what you think it is, and probably some things you haven’t thought of. Heh, you ever accidentally wandered into the red light district of a new city when you’ve only been there for less than three weeks? That was eye opening.

I’ve learned to dodge, ignore or deal with most, though not all of the less savory types that approach me on the street for whatever reason; and the ones catering to males only in these areas usually ignore me. Still interesting what they think a white girl wants in Bangkok. A few Thai phrases go a long way to mitigate this, as does being dressed in work clothes versus “you look like a teenage student tourist” clothes.

I think my neighborhood, or at least some of it, is highly amused with the new female farang on the block. And by amused I mean I was invited to join a street side drinking party of about a dozen Thai guys as I walked by to get dinner. Most of them introduced themselves and one of them drove me to the end of the soi on his bike. Thankfully my smiles and ‘ajarn, kha’ pleas got me out of sharing a drink without much hassle. I anticipate more amusing anecdotes.

Any way, that’s it for now folks. Wish me luck tomorrow!

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Step Back

It’s often really difficult to see the forest for the trees, especially in regards to life as an expat. You’re isolated, but you’re surrounded. Everyone thinks you are brave, or having the adventure of a lifetime. People that haven’t been abroad don’t realize you have the same everyday frustrations, the same need for simple conversation you had when you were home. There is a dreamlike quality to the life of an expat that does not allow citizens at home to see the full reality of expat living. It’s not malicious it’s the sheer fact that people at home have no basis for comparison. And frankly it would probably be more nerve wracking if everything were easily understood.

It’s easy to get sucked into a negative loop here. You’re far from home, you don’t speak the language (a few words and phrases help a little), there ARE a lot of people that don’t want you here, are angry that you are taking jobs away from them, just the same as some American citizens are in favor of border fences and expelling certain ethnic groups from the country. There is wage discrimination against the local people, as a white person you’re going to make more than them automatically. Of course there is friction. The situation is not my fault, and I truly hope, like the Red Shirt movement, the Thai people will continue to learn to find their voice and fight for their own rights. But in a culture of saving face, mai pen rai, and social status based on skin tone that is systemically rampant, I don’t know what I can do besides egg on my Thai friends to stick up for themselves.

And then, you have Immigration.
Rather than discuss my Immigration mess, the mutual racism I encounter on a day-to-day basis, politics or anything like that, let’s take a step back.

The Thai colleague that assisted me with the Immigration ordeal was on my side. She bought my lunch in my state of Ugly American shaking with anger.

The taxi driver that took us back to Immigration for round two passionately defended me, cursed Immigration and agreed their supposed rules were unfair in the way they were being executed against me. My colleague acted as translator, but I could tell from his mannerism and glances at me in the mirror he sided with me and not his countrymen’s officials. He was not among those that didn’t want me in Thailand. He held respect for me as a farang teacher.

A Thai citizen working for a placement agency that instructed us on how to get me out of the situation; who then heard my boss would not allow the simple paperwork adjustment remarked that her decision ‘was cruel.’

The visa run agency that took me to Laos cared for all of us the whole way, including my “I’ve lost my wallet, I’m a hysterical American at 3 am” meltdown. They offered to loan me money to get through the situation.

The local people in my neighborhood know me, know I’m a teacher, and are genuinely kind to me. They help me read notices in Thai I receive in the mail, rub my shoulders when I’m feeling bad (in a restaurant), and generally look out for me. My regular motosai driver has been telling me ‘I will miss you every day’ for a couple of weeks now.

It took a long time to realize how many Thai people would help me, namely because my first experiences were not so pleasant and I live in the backpacker ghetto – you have to establish yourself as a local when you look like a tourist in the most dense concentration of tourists in the capital.

I’m not going so far as to say what occurred at my place of employment was fair, or indicative of Thai culture. What I will say is that many aspects of my employment were very typical for a westerner working in Thailand, many were better, and some were the unique positions of my employer alone. And I refuse to let the most negative parts of that be how I feel about this country and its citizens. Which is a big reason I needed to find a new job, and an even bigger reason I needed to stay in this country longer. I am not so gullible as to believe Thailand is nothing but the land of smiles. But I am not so bitter and coldhearted to want to believe all Thai people want to kick farangs out the day they finish their contract, come tour and spend money then get out! Just like not all Americans are so ridiculously anti-Immigrant.

In a couple of years, if I still harbor such negativity about the farang experience in Thailand that I am disgusted with myself, I will move on to another culture. But I cannot say I have adequately explored this culture based on my experiences thus far. The backpacker ghetto and one job are not enough to summarize a culture. And as I must keep reminding myself, Immigration is the worst part of this country.