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.

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