On not having culture shock in Thailand

November marked two years since my son and I stepped off the plane in Bangkok, where Phil was happily waiting our reunion.  At that point, he had been in Thailand for two months without us because Levi and I were enjoying an extended visit to the U. S. after leaving China. In reflecting upon my life overseas, I’m sure I’ll write about culture shock and China in some future post or posts.

But one interesting thing I’ve noticed about being in Thailand:  I have not had culture shock, for the most part.  China really was like boot camp.  For example, we would have extended periods of time without running water in the apartment.  Sometimes the water was off without warning, too.  Think about how stressful that would have been with a newborn child who was bottle feeding.  Or how daily laundry was a must because clothes needed enough time to line dry.  Or worse, dealing with stomach flu and not being able to flush a toilet.

Not having water was a major source of stress.  In fact, I developed a quirk because of it.  Anytime I would pass by a faucet, even when I was visiting in the U. S. or at a hotel on vacation in another country, I would turn it on to check for water.  That’s because so often when I would do that in China, I’d notice the pressure was low, which meant we needed to hurry up and wash dishes or shower before it was off all of the way. I don’t recall the water being off for that long (more than a few hours) in Thailand.

About the only disruption we’ve had is that sometimes the power has been off.  At our old place, it was over for more than 24 hours a few times, but we actually discovered why:  a transformer had been damaged in a storm.  In China, we would never find out why something was happening nor for how long.  It was just another source of stress: never knowing when something would interrupt the routine of daily life.

Life in China was good training for moving here.

If holding a tiger didn't cause culture shock, what will?

If holding a tiger didn’t cause culture shock, what will?

Any time I start to think of what I could be frustrated by, I remember what China was like, and then I realize how much better I have it here.  So the comparison quickly causes any possible issues to fade. So sometimes people ask me if I had any culture shock moving here.  As an intercultural studies doctoral student,  I am well aware that culture shock is not a process that moves from one stage to another.  Instead, a person can move in an out of stages and even repeat them.  Any movement in and out of stages for me has been so minor it’s pretty much a non-issue.  Getting used to hearing a new language, living in a tropical environment, and orienting to a new place to get from location to the other were almost non-events.

I  don’t think I’ve fully integrated into Thailand, but I question if an outsider ever can do so (that’s for another post).  Perhaps if I were to spend more time in rural villages I may find myself struggling with culture shock again, but at the present, we tend to live our lives happily in Chiang Mai.

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Sojourn: ห้าปีนับตั้งแต่

September 10, 2008.  That’s the day I left the U. S. to live in China for what was supposed to be a year.  Now five years has passed since that day.   This photo, taken on the plane from Chicago to Korea, forever helps me remember the journey I took.004_2

Three years in China and two in Thailand.  Four of those years have included my husband’s presence overseas, too, making life easier and more enjoyable.  The first year was fun but very challenging.  Missing my husband, who was back in MN during that time, was one of the hardest trials I’ve endured.

I don’t write a lot here.  In some ways that is sad to me.  But I’m a wife and mother first.  Then an educator and student.  I’m juggling teaching for over ten colleges and universities, with a load of several hundred students at a given time.  I’ve been learning Thai and taking graduate courses.  Come spring, I will likely be enrolled in two master’s degrees at the same time.  I’ve figured out that studying culture is where I want to be, hence my pursuit of degrees in Intercultural Studies and Sociology.  My husband is also a graduate student.  And my boy is growing, growing, growing, all of the time.

Reflecting upon my life overseas isn’t always easy, because there was a lot of issues with adjusting to life in China originally.  I met some great people and had some wonderful adventures, even with the frustrations I faced.  However, life in Thailand is much easier and more enjoyable.  I don’t foresee leaving Thailand for years, if ever.  I never felt that about China.  I was always living with one foot outside of the culture, wondering exactly “why” I was there and wishing to be home.  But here, in Thailand, I feel settled, at peace.

One of the main issues that I have been struggling with lately is wondering “where” my son is from.  He was born in China.  He is American but has been on U. S. soil for less than six full months of his life, just visiting.  He’s being raised in Thailand.  So what is his hometown?  I don’t rightly know.  But I know I’m from Lakeville, MN.  It’s where my roots are.

Much has changed in five years.  I left before I turned 30 and now I’ve only spent my 30s overseas.  That’s a really strange phenomenon for me to grasp.

Next year in 2014, Phil and I will have reached the “halfway” point where we have spent half of our marriage in MN and half overseas.  From April 20, 2014 onward, the tipping point will be that more of our marriage is overseas.

My friends have changed but are forever in my heart.  Many of them have had a lot of life changes.  Some have fallen in love, gotten engaged, or gotten married. Most of my friends were married when I left.  So many babies, so very many babies, have been born since I left.  It’s nice to see photos of those babies on Facebook, but I often long for more.  I cannot wait until my next visit.  Though it will be just that: a visit, not a final homecoming.

I do hope to post more here before another year passes, but, if not, I’m not too sad about my lack of writing.  I know my priorities need to be spending time with my family and with balancing my work and studies.

I still cannot believe it’s already been five years.

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On not having jet lag for the second summer in a row

Phil was briefly in WA state last week for an on-campus class at his graduate school.  It was the first time he has been on US soil since September 2011.  Levi and I stayed at home in CM with the cats during his class.

His absence last week had me really ruminating on how it’s been almost two full years since Levi and I were in the US, visiting friends and family.  While it’s been frustrating to not be able to afford the crazy price of airfare for all three of us for a home visit, we were using our resource in other ways as we made the transition to Chiang Mai.  In 2012 we were figuring out “what to do” and settling in so we didn’t go to the US.

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We also bought our wonderful Nissan March at the end of the year.  So we view 2012 as the year we bought a car instead of going back for a home visit.  As 2013 started, we wondered whether or not we’d be able to afford a US trip.  In short, we found out that the cost of Phil’s trip to WA from where we would be at with family in Chicago, plus hotel, on top of a trip to MN later on from Chicago to visit everyone, would break the bank.  Hence, once again we found ourselves having to not get to visit home.  It’s fine, overall, though we do miss everyone.  There have been many babies born since we left that we have yet to meet amongst our friends.  When Levi and I flew in 11/11 to meet Phil in Chiang Mai, he was just over 18 months old.  Now he’s just over 3 years.  So much has changed as he’s gone through his toddler years.  Skype and photos are great ways to connect him back home, but certainly are no replacement.  His world is Thailand, even though he’s “from” MN/IL/China.

Having three years of whirlwind summer trips to the US and back to Asia from 2009-2011 was certainly wonderful in many respects.  We were able to catch up with those we missed, eat food we craved, and do other Americansy things.  While I wish we would have been able to all visit in 2012 and this summer, since we can’t it will just make our next visit all the more special.  We think it would be fun to visit in April 2014 so Levi can have a birthday on US soil. But it’s also sometimes cold back home.  This past April there was still snow in both IL and MN.  Phil and I have some of our winter gear here but Levi has none.  We don’t even own a pair of socks for him that fits at this point.  In fact, he is so used to shorts that the few times we put normal pants on him, he freaks out saying they are too big.  He just doesn’t have a concept that “shorts” are one kind of bottoms and longer pants are another where the material goes down to one’s ankles.

This summer, too, is extra busy for me.  I am in a graduate course online right now and have two graduate courses for my summer intensives that will take place in late July and early August.  Not having to conquer jet lag while wading through pages of writing, writing while trying to remember Thai and, further, grading my students’ work is a nice bonus, even if I have to miss seeing all of you back home for a while longer.

Here’s to hoping for a 2014 visit!

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จดจำไทย

My Thai is starting to improve. For the longest time I thought I would never really speak Thai however, we recently switched language schools. When the school, Phil and I are having one-on-one lessons. Our teacher is fantastic. I am starting to remember speak some Thai, remember it when I see it, and practice it easier than when I had been at the previous school.  One pleasant surprise I’ve had is that when I see Thai, I am fairly decent at guessing how to pronounce what I see, as long as I’m looking at a short phrase or a word.  Longer sentences are still hard because in Thai, there aren’t really spaces between words.  I’m learning grammatical rules from the new teacher, so I’m beginning to understand the logic of the language, too.  We are writing, not just speaking, listening, and reading.  Both Phil and I are finding that by writing in Thai, we are really absorbing the material.  I’m also hearing and remembering some of the tones.  I forget some of what I’ve learned but we review it enough that I am not feeling like I am getting behind.

Perhaps in another year I’ll be able to have conversations and read basic items like newspapers. Overall, the experience with this new school very good. I am really enjoying these lessons.  In fact, a few days ago I actually had my 1st dream with some Thai in it.  Of course, since I don’t know much Thai yet, the dream was mostly in English. I’m very pleased with the progress that my husband and I have made with this new school.  Finally, I feel confident in my ability to learn another language.  For the past several months, when I was attending the previous school, I was very frustrated since I wasn’t understanding or remembering.  I also had no idea how to study.  Our teacher gives us homework and has given us some advice on how to study.

One silly goal Phil and I have is to know enough Thai that, when we are visiting in the United States, we can have conversations in front of people, like having our own “secret” language.  Of course, it’s not like we really want to confuse anyone.  It just sounds fun to be able to discuss a few things in another language.

 

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Four years overseas!

This week on 9/10, marked four years since I landed in China and began my life as an ex-pat.

I truly never expected to be overseas for this long, but life certainly has been full of surprises.  Part of me thinks that I will forever process how much living both in China and now in Thailand has changed me.  I can relate to moves like The Terminal on an experiential level and better empathize with immigrants to the US who don’t speak much or any English.  I know, however, my feelings run deeper than I can quite get my mind around.

I think about what I’m missing by not being back in MN.  I am missing out on my friends’ children being born and growing up.  When months, a year, or years pass before I see them, the shock of new additions and new inches wakes me up to my reality.  New jobs, new relationships, new homes, new degrees–and so many other intimate details that I once took for granted since I was right there, in the thick of it all–seem to have turned into a distance relative that I never see.

I am not in the church I deeply loved in MN, sharing my life, struggles, and joys with that family.  I do have a new church in my adopted country but I don’t really know anyone yet.  I’m such an introvert that the idea of “putting myself out there” to make new friends is exhausting.  Our lives are so busy with my teaching and our studies that there is barely time left over to invest in the stages of new friendship.  I’d love to transplant some of my friends here to Chiang Mai because with my dearest ones, it’s so easy to pick up where we left off if it takes a long time before I can see them again.  I would love to make some friends here that I’m close with but right now the idea of putting in the efforts for the initial stages of making friends seems, well, exhausting.  I just have so much on my plate that, even though I’ve met people, spending a lot of time with them won’t be an easy feat, unless something changes in my schedule.

I reflect on three years in China, still trying to process the full experience.  On the whole, I really didn’t like living in China, but that doesn’t mean there weren’t fond memories.  I still think back to the people I met and the places I’ve been.  Events like going to the Great Wall not once but four times is like a dream fulfilled.  Because of going to China, I got to travel to other countries, which led me to fall in love with places like Seoul, Singapore, and my new home, Chiang Mai.  Phil had a childhood wish come to fruition because of our time in China; we got to go to Japan during the cherry blossom festival.

Without China, I don’t know how likely it would be that we would have visited and decided to move to Thailand.

And now in Thailand, we enjoy an amazing mountain view in a rented house with a yard.  We’ve got an abundance of space and multiple bathrooms, all for a lower cost than what the same would be in the US.  Not having a winter is a really nice perk, too.  I may be a MN native but that doesn’t mean I love the cold.  I do miss MN falls with how beautiful they are, but after the crisp air starts to feel like ice, when the snow falls and the temperatures drop, then the weather is no longer enjoyable to me.  In Thailand I wear tank tops year round and only sometimes get a small chill.  Chiang Mai is not only beautiful but a culinary delight.  We have access to food for so many cultures that eating out is an adventure.

Life has certainly not turned out as expected, but how often does that happen to anyone?  Here’s to enjoying many more years overseas in Thailand.

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Ex-pats and the plight of street animals

Animal rescue isn’t a topic often discussed in the expat community.  But it should be.  Perhaps it should be discussed more amongst expat communities than it is back in the US (my home country).  While there are still horrific situations animals encounter in the States, there is more awareness of proper care of animals, supporting humane societies, and other concerns.

Humane treatment for animals has always been a passion of mine, but I’ve only become more of an advocate since I became an expat.  In China, when I first arrived, culture shock deeply affected me, as is normal for many entering a culture radically different than one’s home culture.

Consider this passage from Bernard Adeneny’s Strange Virtues book to help frame how deeply culture shock can disorient a person:

“When you become a strange and enter another culture, the result is a radical ‘defamiliarization’ of all you know.  You are forced to open your eyes and really look.  The simplest things do not make sense.  The unexpected happens every day.  What is normal to others is shocking or marvelous in your eyes.  If you can handle the stress, your strangerhood becomes a powerful stimulus to understanding yourself, your own culture, and the new world presented to your senses.”

China taught me how to open my eyes.  I could, have, and will write about how some of these simple, normal affairs we take for granted are different elsewhere and can be difficult to process for an sojourner.  For me, one of those issues I was encountered with almost right away was the treatment of animals.  I was shocked to see dozens of cats wandering around outside by where I lived.  Walking through the park on campus, a person could easily see anywhere from five to over ten cats just in our small park.  More cats were scattered around campus.  These two cats lived near the cement block by my first apartment building.  At any time, I’d see at least two cats and, in the spring when kittens were around, I’d sometimes see seven cats.  All told, it wasn’t

rare to see at least one cat if you were walking around somewhere on campus.  Or elsewhere.  My point is that cats are everywhere in China.

Some treat street animals, both dogs and cats decently by giving them scraps and generally not hurting them but it was more culturally acceptable to be cruel than I’m used to back in the States.  I’ve heard some horrific stories and have seen some horrific things. I’ve seen people kicking animals, locking them in tiny cages, and abusing them in other ways.  It’s commonly known there is a meat market for cats and dogs in China and other countries in Asia; all it takes is a google search to find some disturbing and heart wrenching news stories, photos and videos.  I’ll spare you that on this blog by avoiding links though the information is easily gained for yourself.

In China I found one animal rescue group.  It’s in Shanghai, which was not at all close to Dalian. There may be more, perhaps in Beijing, but no others had a web presence.  Believe me, I searched for the information high and low in Dalian because I couldn’t believe that no one was rescuing cats to help find them homes.  Again, I was being fairly “American” here.  I would have even gotten behind and supported a catch and release program to help reduce the population of street cats.  Street cats do not live very nice lives.  Dalian also happens to get very, very cold in the winter, so consider the extra odds that an outside animal has when the snow, frozen air, and ice enter the picture.

Back in the States we rescued three cats: two litter mates from a farm and one young kitten from a humane society.  We felt pretty good about saving their lives and being charitable with American pet rescue groups.  But nothing stirs a passion for a problem like having it in front of you on a daily basis.  In my first year in China, my heart was broken, daily, for all of these wonderful cats who struggled to survive.  I fed many of them myself.  Four of them wanted to be “mine.”  Two of them even tried to get inside my apartment building with me.  Trust me, not letting them in was one of the hardest things I’ve done, especially as one of them disappeared after a cold snap.

I thought I would only be in China for a year so I didn’t think I could lay down roots. I also didn’t think I could adopt a cat in China and take him or her back to the States upon my return since we already had three at home with my husband, who was at home during my first year in China.  Of course the story changed for us and we ended up in China together after my first year.  We couldn’t, according to airline regulations, take all three of our cats with us.  So we found someone to take care of the boys, Pippin and Merry.  Then, we went through the daunting task of exporting our girl, Galadriel.  This is not an easy process but it was eventually all figured out since in September 2009 we boarded a plane with our kitty as a carry-on, went from Minneapolis to Chicago, Chicago to Seoul, and Seoul to Dalian.  She was one tough little cat, doing fairly well during the entire ordeal.   We were happy to be in China, all together, and with a cat who, thankfully, did not have to be put into quarantine.  Fast forward a few months.  Galadriel was quite lonely, missing her brothers.  My relationship with street cats continued, as I fed and loved on them; my husband did this too.  At one point we met a little white cat who was further away from the usual cat “colonies,” which meant she probably had a harder time getting food.  We soon had a relationship with her.  She was friendly and when she saw us, only wanted to be loved on, though she was grateful for the food.

After a lot of talk, we decided to adopt her.  We swooped her off the streets one cold night following a few days of snow and ice, bringing her into the warmth of our apartment.  Since it was so brutally cold, we had spent several nights looking for her.  We had’t been able to find her, so we weren’t sure if she had survived.  Thankfully, she had.  With the help of a Chinese friend, we got her checked out at a vet.  Amazingly, she was almost disease free, except she needed to be dewormed.  This is pretty shocking, considering how most street cats have other issues, like ear mites and fleas.  We kept her separate from Galadriel during the treatment.  After she could have access to the entire apartment, we wondered where she was all our lives; she was that loving, sweet, and amazing.

Soon we knew what her name would be:  Avigail.  We call her Avi for short.  She is still one of the kindest cats we’ve both ever encountered.  After the adoption of Avi, we continued to love on the street cats, though it was hard to know that the cats we hadn’t adopted weren’t fairing as well as Avi was.  Sometimes you have to distance yourself from the empathy enough to stop your heart from bleeding and breaking so much at the plight of the broken when you can’t possibly fix all of it that you encounter.

Fast forward another year.  It became clear it was time for us to leave China, though we weren’t sure of the next step.  As the direction became clear to us, we knew Chiang Mai, Thailand was the next stop.  After figuring out how to get our cats to leave China and enter Thailand, we arrived with our two girls in July 2011 and were able to get them into the country quite easily.   After a whirlwind in the States, Phil returned to Thailand.  One day after he arrived, a cargo plane carrying our two boys arrived.  After two years apart, Phil was reunited with the cats missing from our lives.

As we all settled into Thailand, we learned that street animals have a lot of issues here, too.  Sure, a lot of them live at temples where they are dumped as people think the monks will care for them.  The reality is that the monks don’t have enough food to pass along so dogs and cats often end up eating rice, which isn’t good for them.  Further, the cats are often injured by dogs.   There are rescue groups for both cats and dogs here and more of them that exist in China, so it’s a start.  But there are still horror stories of abuse, like a poor little cat having hot oil thrown on her just because a food vendor didn’t want her begging.

Being in a house, we knew we could handle up to two more cats, so in June 2012, we ended up with two Thai cats that we adopted who were rescued from the streets.  One of them is a little boy kitten, who was around 8 weeks when we got him. He was separated from his mother too young, but is one of the sweetest kittens I’ve ever been around.  He and our son adore each other, too.  Jack and Avi became fast friends, as well.  At the same time we adopted Jack, we said we would adopt another cat the rescue group had, though where she was located, we weren’t able to get her for a few weeks.  So a few weeks after Jack  Lewis came into our lives, we brought home kitty #6, a beautiful female cat who was just under a year old.  She was nervous at first but quickly found herself enjoying the other cats and us.  We didn’t know what to name her at first, but settled on the name Ayla.  Since she came into our lives, we’ve really enjoyed having her around.  Both Jack and Ayla are cats we could not imagine life without. 

So we have six rescued cats from three different countries.  It’s pretty amazing to think about our cat situation sometimes.  Knowing we saved these little lives pales in comparison to the joy they give us.

Coming back full circle, I’m quite bothered that many ex-pats go overseas, adopt a pet, and don’t bring that pet back with them.  I understand some countries have strict quarantine regulations.  But honestly, it’s probably a good idea to not adopt that pet in the first place as that animal will be bonded to the person who looking to re-home the pet.  I realize this happens in the US; it frustrates me there though it makes me more upset here since how animals are treated is far worse.  On a weekly basis I get a email “ads” list for the Chiang Mai expat community; a week has not passed without someone trying to re-home their pet because they are moving back.  These run along side listings for available cats and dogs at the shelters who are looking for a first chance.

It’s an ideal to believe that a pet is a pet for life.  I hold fast to it, considering how hard of a life these little ones have.  I have had to give up one pet previously without having her for life, because she was attacking our other cats; this was years ago in the US.  It’s hard to have tough choices, so I know that giving up a pet isn’t always easy.  I hope more expats will consider this idea of having that pet for life  before adopting overseas, unless they plan on bringing that pet back home when they return.  While some countries have strict import/export rules about pets, the US and others have fairly easy ones.  Airlines can be a hassle to deal with, so persistent in talking to the right person is key.  Eventually the process makes sense.

Cats and dogs have a hard, hard life on the streets.  Animal abuse prevails everywhere but more common in some countries.  Realizing this can make an expat take adoption more seriously, I hope.

And, if we ever move back to the States, the answer is yes, no matter what it takes, all of our cats are coming with us.

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The American dream….in Thailand

A house! The American dream…having an affordable house.  However, for many people, including myself, this dream seems like it’s been fading, becoming a distant memory.  I will be honest.  I never thought I’d be able to buy a house back in MN.  I still doubt that I could, if I were suddenly back there.  Even renting a house is hard, too, as the prices are just high.

So I thought I’d have to be happy without one.  In China the norm is apartment living, so after having an apartment in the US, we had one in China, too.  Actually, we had three in three years, but who’s counting? 🙂

When a friend, back in February 2011 told us that we could rent (easily) or buy (not as easily) an actual house in Thailand for less than what we had spent on rent in MN, it was one more reason that I thought going to Thailand was a next step.

It’s been close to a month since we found “the one” and moved in.  Our three bedroom house has a yard, which will let us garden.  It has stairs, which makes it feel like a house to me in ways I can’t really describe.  This house even has three bathrooms, which seems like a lot, but at least we are no longer sharing just one.   Our son loves it here and so do our cats.  As we unpack and find places for everything, it’s nice to see this place take shape as a home.  Since it’s mostly unfurnished, we’re having to buy a lot of household goods and furniture.  It’s like being a newlywed again, except it’s far less stress since we already know each other and don’t have to figure out how to live together.

I love when dreams that once seemed impossible take life and form right in front of our eyes.   כבוד שם יהוה.  This house may be one we are renting, but it’s a glimpse that someday we may be able to buy one.

We’re actually living the American dream….here in Thailand.

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