Living Abroad: It Ain’t Vacation

*insert voice over* Previously on the Gecko’s Bark:Yearning to Travel Abroad (Again)

Living abroad ain't all double rainbows over Bangkok, you know. So in that last wall of text I was going on about how I found myself with the urge to travel, now that I’ve been home three months. Since I put up that post I’ve talked to a few friends – sadly, they’ve never been beyond the borders of North America – about living abroad vs. traveling abroad.

Keep in mind that this is my experience, and mine alone. Others I’ve talked to that have lived abroad have had similar experiences; others completely different. Your mileage (kilometereage, if you live outside the United States) may vary, of course, should you choose the expat life.

Whaddya Mean, I’m Not on Vacation? Living Abroad …
It’s All Fun and Games, Adventure and Excitement, Isn’t It?

But let’s define living abroad. After all, if you’re alive, and you’re abroad, technically, I suppose, you’re living abroad. Obviously that’s not quite what I mean.

Living abroad, as in you’re living an everyday life: you’ve got a place of employment and permanent place to live (semi-permanent, perhaps, but you get the idea). You become a regular part of a neighborhood; the people that run the corner coffee shop know what you drink without having to ask (although in most parts of Asia, they will anyway as a matter of course). You’re not on an extended vacation or trip; you’ve got a daily routine.

But therein lies the rub of living abroad vs. traveling abroad. The same things that you may not like, or are ambivalent about, at home, don’t really change once you get established abroad. If you have a commute to work, you’ve got traffic to worry about. The same problems you encounter renting an apartment or house in your own country can be the same problems renting in a foreign one.

Routine is routine; the mundane details of everyday life don’t magically disappear because you’re in some far off exotic locale. Novelty only goes so far, and what’s more, it won’t iron your work shirts for you.

Living abroad ain't sipping ca phe sua da in a coffee shop everyday ... well, actually it is, in Viet Nam.Furthermore, living abroad, you have the added layer of not speaking the native tongue or understanding the local culture, except perhaps in a very broad sense. Sure you’ve read the culture chapter in Lonely Planet, and watched a few indie films made in this country, but this will only get you so far (and not very).

Everyday things that you can take for granted back home – driving to work, going to the grocery store, meeting friends for coffee, going shopping for clothes – becomes an adventure abroad. At first, the adventure is fun and stimulating; you’re learning a new language and a new culture in ways you never could otherwise.

This is a good thing; this is what you signed up for.

But on the other hand, after a few months, you just want to buy groceries, as opposed to having an adventure. At some point, after that novelty wears off, not having an adventure everyday starts to sound pretty nice.

And trust me, even after you’ve been there for months, there never is a routine for the expat; every trip to the grocery store has the potential for adventure, if not outright debacle. I suppose if you’ve lived there for years, are fluent in the language and understand the subtle nuances of culture – you can avoid unwanted adventure.

Of course a lot depends on where you choose to live abroad. Speaking of which, I’m going to go off on a tangent, but one neatly encapsulated by a drop-down box, for your reading convenience. Feel free to skip altogether and come back later, if you wish.

[learn_more caption=”Morons Looking for the *Real* Culture”]People – especially those who really don’t have a clue about travel – talk about finding the real culture.

I must have heard it a thousand times before I left, a thousand more while I was there, and a thousand more in the months I’ve been back. But what about the “real” Thailand or the “real” Viet Nam?

You hear it all the time among travelers and would be travelers; it’s a near constant refrain in any backpacker’s ghetto. “I want to experience the real insert country/culture here.”

This attitude is so unbelievably racist and elitist as to boggle one’s mind. You know what? Do Thai people live there? Yeah? Well guess what? That’s the real Thailand. No, Suphanburi isn’t like Nong Khai; neither of those two towns are like Bangkok. But they’re all real Thai cities.

If I could give people traveling or moving abroad for the first time one piece of advice, it would be to get that stuipd idea of what’s real out of your head; lose that mindset that you need to see a quote-unquote real place. You’ll miss the real place, the real culture, and the real people altogether if you do. [/learn_more]

I think the level of everyday adventure you experience as an expat can vary with the type of place you chose to live. If you do live in a more cosmopolitan place abroad – say Bangkok or Hong Kong, Paris or Berlin, for example – you’ll find it easier than living in a smaller town – but not for the reasons you might think. At least if you’re like me.

In these places it’s easier to be anonymous – you’re just one of many foreigners. But in the small town, you will be one of a few, perhaps even the only one. This can be good; it can even be pretty cool – again, you’ll learn things about this foreign culture you wouldn’t otherwise. It can also be bad; you’re always “the foreigner.” Eyes will follow you wherever you go, and you will always be the center of attention – the least detail will be the subject of endless fascination to the locals.

Sometimes you’ll even get treated like you’re their to entertain people, like they expect you to break out into a song and dance routine for their amusement. It’s a rare occurrence, but it does happen. In Thailand, where it happened more often to me than in Viet Nam, I came to think of them as “hey falang!” moments.

Hey! You! Funny Looking Foreigner! Amuse Us!

A hey falang! moment is when you are walking down the street, minding your own business and some guy(s) will literally jump in front of you, get in your face and shout “Hey, falang! HELLO!” and then laugh maniacally with his friends at your nonplussed expression. It’s something that someone would never do to their fellow natives, but don’t think twice about doing it to a foreigner.

Even the Thai Ronald McDonald is mocking you, falang! I keed, I keed ... Again, it’s rare, but it happens. It happened to me a number of times. Sometimes it’s just alcohol and curiosity combined with self consciousness that fuels a hey falang! moment; other times it’s people genuinely being assholes.

But it can happen in any country; I’ve seen my fellow Americans bust out the U.S. version of hey falang! and treat foreigners in a public place, such as a shopping mall or restaurant, in ways they would never even dream of treating another American. I’ve seen it happen the streets of Paris; I’ve seen it happen on the streets of Dublin, too. It can happen anywhere (except maybe Japan) so please don’t get the idea that it’s a Southeast Asian thing. It’s a human thing; we’re dicks like that, homo sapiens.

Ignorance knows no political, social, economic, ethnic or cultural barriers, unfortunately.

But I’d say the hey falang! guys you run into are the exceptions that proves the rule: the large majority of the people you meet in Southeast Asia will be very polite and treat you with courtesy and respect. Once they get over their embarrassment that they don’t speak English, that is.

Can you imagine being in any Western country where people would be embarrassed because they met a foreigner on the street and couldn’t speak that person’s native tongue very well? Me neither.

But the bright side of the hey falang! experience is that it gives you a new found respect and sympathy for immigrants. It isn’t easy always being under the spotlight; it can be particularly unpleasant when you’re just trying to go about your everyday life. In fact, sometimes being the foreigner is just plain depressing.

Being the Big Man on the Foreign Campus

Brando as the Ugly American in not-quite Viet Nam.It can be particularly distressing if you don’t like being the center of attention, that is (like me). Some expats love it, though. They get off on the fact that they are the center of attention wherever they go – that they have de facto rock star status. That they are the big expat fish in the small foreign pond.

And I’m not just talking about the stereotypical fat, ugly old guy who has been there 20 years and still can’t speak the language – the one with the cute local girlfriend young enough to be his daughter. Sometimes you’ll meet expats that have a deep love and respect for the local culture who have gone native to a large degree, while still enjoying and even encouraging the attention derived from their foreign rock star status.

I have trouble comprehending both of those types of expat. But live and let live; to each their own.

For myself, I found that after a year living abroad, I was tired of being the foreigner. I was tired of being a rock star and not being able to set foot outside my apartment without stopping conversations and traffic. I got tired of causing a ruckus at the supermarket or a snarl of traffic, just by mere presence. It made me spiritually tired in a way that doesn’t happen here in my native land, where I can walk down the street and I blend in with the scenery – no one gives me a second thought.

On the other hand, there is that lack of adventure in the life at home. Stimulation – the constant moment-to-moment simulation of the alien that one finds abroad – is lacking. It’s perhaps telling that one of the first things I missed about living in Bien Hoa, Viet Nam was riding my bicycle in in the chaotic maelstrom of potential death that is traffic there.

That’s the beauty of traveling abroad: you get all the benefits without all the hassles of living abroad, aside from the occasional hey falang! moment. Or any inopportune moments you choose to be a dumbass.

I think for me there needs to be balance between travel and home. I don’t think I could be happy staying at home for very long at this point;  but then I don’t think I can live abroad indefinitely, or even travel, indefinitely, had I the financial resources to do so. If only I could find a way to travel and work in some meaningful way, something that I enjoy that I can do on the road … hmmm …

Balance: the ability to return home to the familiar and process all that I’ve seen and experienced while away, then once that’s done and I’m spiritually rested: it’s time to hit the road again. When the restless sets in – when the passage of time and the sense of motionlessness becomes acute: then it’s time to go.

As for you, well, again, your kilometerage may vary.

Postscript: Almost forgot: “falang” — it’s actually spelled farang, but the “r” is pronounced as an “l” anywhere in Thailand except Bangkok (in my experience). Just like the r in “krap” is usually omitted and pronounced kap (as in cop) seemingly everywhere but in hiso Bangers.

Anyway, it’s a Thai word that means foreigner, but specifically Western, caucasian foreigner, as opposed to say, someone from another Asian country. To my knowledge it has no negative connotation, but like any word, in a certain context I can see how it could be perceived as an insult.