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.

Yearning to Travel Abroad (Again)

Warm Sultry Night Breezes Awaken the Wanderlust Once More; There’s Still Much of Asia to See …

Kanchanaburi Clouds a la HDR #1
For the first time since I got back from 14 months in Southeast Asia – about three months ago to the day – I found myself missing it. I don’t mean missing the food or certain experiences or friends made there. I mean truly missing it, as in finding myself wishing I was back there.

While other people were barbecuing yesterday – there are few people left who actually celebrate Memorial Day weekend in the traditions of previous generations – I was perusing photographs of Thailand and Viet Nam and pricing flights on Travelocity. In the still of the small hours before dawn, lying in bed and not reading the book in my hands, a warm intermittent summer (like) breeze coming through the window, I kept waiting for the silence to be broken by the territorial bark of a gecko …

I think it may be the weather. For the first time since I’ve been back, it’s been hot, this Memorial Day Weekend – yes, I know, but here in the Midwest of America, we rock the traditional. It’s not summer yet, but it is; correspondingly the first cool weather here presaging autumn usually happens around Labor Day. And I should clarify: it wasn’t hot as in Southeast Asia hot – hotter than Africa hot, incidentally — not by a long shot (long shots being measured in amounts of 10 degrees Fahrenheit and 40 percent more humidity). But hot for this part of the world — cool for the part of the world pictured above.

Or, for an Ohio native who has been acclimated to Southeast Asia, comfortable. It’s rather ironic; this time last year I was living and working in Suphanburi, Thailand, a couple hours northwest of Bangkok and thinking there was no way I could ever get used to the heat.

And yet now that I’ve been back home for three months, having returned at the tail-end of winter, I realize just how acclimated to the weather I had become. Friends keep remarking about how hot it is, to which I just laugh, because I’m thinking: “Ah, how nice, it finally got warm.”

After a few winters on the 45th parallel, I’ve never complained since about snow or cold. After a year spent in Southeast Asia, I’ll never complain about the heat and humidity.

In fact, I’ve come to believe that anyone who complains about the weather at all is just silly – weather is what it is; it’s generally not a surprise. Either appreciate the climate for what it is or STFU and move; there’s really only these two choices in that regard.

But I digress, as is my wont. I think the warm weather reminded me of Southeast Asia in a way that nothing else has (perhaps nothing else could) since I’ve been back.

At least that’s part of it. Another part of it was boredom. For the first time since I’ve been back, I found myself bored yesterday, which is unusual in and of itself. But it was a long holiday weekend, friends were off doing traditional Memorial Day weekend things and the weather was warm, heralding the sticky summer to come. I found myself uninterested in my usual diversions and daydreaming about traveling again, specifically to Southeast Asia; there is a lot of it I have yet to see.

I’ll get to Angkor Wat in spite of my dumbass self, someday.

Beth Orton's Central Reservation: a great album to listen to while wandering across lonely, corn-cordoned highways at 3 a.m. on a sultry summer night.Upon reflection perhaps it wasn’t boredom so much as restlessness; the change of seasons always makes me restless. The passage of time – or, rather, awareness of it – always makes me antsy in a vague, quiet sort of way, almost subliminal or instinctive. Anxious for movement.

Time marches on and so must I.

Yesterday for the first time since I’ve been back I thought seriously about buying a car – something that I really would rather not, if I can avoid it. But then, warm summer nights are made for restless, introverted souls to drive aimlessly and listen to Beth Orton.

Living Abroad vs. Traveling Abroad, Slight Return

The change of seasons is one of the things I missed most about America during my year abroad, though, and specifically my native Midwest. No surprise there; I missed the change of seasons when I lived out west, in Arizona (for 18 long months) and Northern California for five short years. Not sure why that is; I just know that stasis tends to make me nervous. And restless.

There are really only two seasons in Southeast Asia, hot and ridiculously hot – or, in more colloquial terms, fucking hot. The onset of ridiculously hot season usually corresponds with the region’s rainy season, so we could call it ridiculously hot and humid season. To a Midwest American native, there never seems to be any change of seasons there; it’s almost as if time just stands still.

Notably though, I don’t find myself yearning to move back to Southeast Asia to live there, but to travel there and across it. There is a considerable difference between living abroad and traveling abroad. I’ve had enough of the former for now; I’m not sure I could ever really get enough of the latter, at least not for very long.

I wondered when I came back to the States how long it would be before I began thinking about leaving it again. Nnow I know: three months.

I’ve remarked on this before, this living abroad compared to traveling abroad, but I’ve actually spent a lot of timing thinking about it low these last three months as I reacquainted myself with (mid) American life. Living abroad I think is something everyone should do for at least one year in their lives – it’s an amazing experience that will forever alter how you see yourself and the world (at least it should. If it isn’t and it doesn’t, well, that’s a reflection on you – a piss poor one). I’m sure I’ll want to live abroad again at some point in the not-too-distant future – where I couldn’t say, but somewhere abroad.

More on this tomorrow; this wall of text is long enough today.

Postscript: Wondering about that picture? I took that photo in Kanchanaburi, Thailand, near the border with Burma (Myanmar). Not from Bridge over the river Kwai.

Postscript, slight return: here’s the promised living abroad vs. traveling abroad pondering and pontification.

Pizza, Burritos and Guinness, Oh My!

Coming Home:
Reverse Culture Shock, Recalibration of an Expat Mind

Judy Garland: Jeffrey I don't think we're in Oz ... er, Viet Nam anymore!Forgive me Internet for I have been busy; it’s been more than a month since my last confession post.

What can I say? After 14 months abroad, being at home as been an endless distraction. I revel in the mundane of the every-day, middle-class life of Midwestern America; it has been a lot of reverse culture shock, but in largely good ways. My gods, the water pressure in the shower nearly knocks you down. And the water … it is so hot! Hot, hot HOT!

What’s more you can drink the water straight out of the faucet. And sometimes it falls from the sky, but not in drops, but in these strange and beautiful ice crystals, which sometimes accumulate enough to blanket everything in a whisper-sigh of white and silence.

What kind of crazy land is this?

Why, I can walk down the street, and no one pays me the slightest bit of attention; here I’m just another face in the crowd. I’m not the center of attention wherever I go; random passersby aren’t so astonished by my mere presence that their inattention knocks elderly women to ground. I’m just another nondescript citizen.

I like it; I can be the wallflower that I was meant to be.

But even after a month I still catch myself wandering out into the middle of the street in the middle of the block to cross, much to the aggravation of drivers who have little tolerance for my foreign ways. But do you know what happens when they come to an intersection here? Oh my various gods, they … they stop! If you’re turning left, do you know what the drivers behind you do? They either pass your on the right, or they actually just wait.

They wait for you to turn left! They don’t pass you on the left! And if you are the one turning left, you have to wait until no oncoming traffic is present! And get this – drivers generally don’t cut you off! No, really! It’s generally not done!

I know, huh? Crazy, whacky place this America is.

Pizza: Food of the GodsAnd the cheese! They have cheese here! It’s everywhere! In grocery stores, in restaurants, cheese! And cheese in burritos! ZOMG! Burritos! And pizza! And Guinness! My goodness my Guinness. I can actually walk. Walk down the street. Walk two blocks. Two blocks from here there is a bar. It is a bar that servers Guinness.

See what this means? I can have Guinness. I can drink Guinness whenever I want. It is only 1:20 am.; I could stop typing right now, put on my coat, walk those two blocks and have a Guinness. Because many of the bars here have Guinness. And they’re open – open until 2 a.m.

Astonishing. Simply astonishing. Think your Midwestern American city is sleepy? Try living in Southeast Asia for a year outside the tourist ghettos – your hometown will seem ridiculously cosmopolitan.

The Truth About Living Abroad: Is There One?

So what have we learned? We being the royal “we,” as in “I” – just because I feel in a third-person plural kind of mood. Giddy, even.

Well, I have learned many things during and from my time abroad. I’m still processing it all, which is somewhat confounded by the fact that I have to recalibrate my psyche to life in my home country and culture. As I’ve remarked before, I think I learned more about myself than anything else. There are certainly truths to be gained by living abroad for a year, but are they universal? I’m not sure.

In fact, the older I get and the more I travel and experience the world, I tend to think they are not; We may not go through life with blinders on, but we certainly do go through life with filters on, whether we realize it or not and whether we want to, or not. Your Viet Nam isn’t my Viet Nam; my Thailand isn’t your Thailand.

The truth is, we shall never be separated again, Guinness, my love.Show me someone who claims that they do see the unvarnished truth of a matter – be it the truth of what their neighbors are like or the truth of what their nation’s culture is like – much less someone else’s culture – and I’ll show you someone that is deluded and biased. That is not to say though that these other truths of other people are not of value or that we can’t glean something from them. As such over the forthcoming days and weeks – I have more time on my hands these days – I hope to elucidate my experiences and what they meant to me – my truths, if you will.

I’ll start with one big one: traveling abroad and living abroad are two very different things. Before I left I suspected it would be; now I know it to be true. Of course living abroad is also an incredible, amazing and  fun adventure. But at times, however, being a stranger in a strange land is a mental bitch-kitty, as my father might have described it.

But that’s all the truth and lessons learned for now; there will be more later.

In the meantime, let it suffice to say that I’m generally happy to be back. One can’t go home again, it’s true, but then half the fun of coming home is seeing what has changed and who has changed – and who and what hasn’t. And one doesn’t truly appreciate one’s own culture and country until you’ve been away a long time – there’s one of those subjective truths, to be sure. But I didn’t realize just how much I had missed some of the more mundane aspects of life here — logical, orderly traffic, pizza whenever the mood strikes, Guinness, fiber optics – the list goes on.

What Do I Miss? Cheating Death Daily

But it’s a two-way street (you’ll see how clever this bon mot is in just a moment). Every few days I catch myself thinking I’d love to get a bowl of phở and aCà phê sữa đá afterward; alas, I can’t do that.

The Boy Who Lived! (the urban bike nerd, Vietnamese edition)And I actually miss riding in traffic in Viet Nam on my bicycle, in much the same way that the seasoned veteran misses the adrenaline-fueled, danger-laden battlefield – happy to be home, perhaps, but the intoxicating lure of danger and violence beckons still. When I would get home from the grocery store or the bank in Bien Hoa, I would feel vibrant and exultant. I would look back on a thousand near-misses as I bobbed and weaved through the chaotic, exhaust-choked ballet of motorbike and taxi-cab death that was traffic that day (and every day) and think “Alive! gods, I’m alive! I live to ride another day! Victory! Hell yes!”

Traffic here at home is not nearly so crazy, and I grew up with it here, so I know how it works and what to expect. I don’t wonder if I’m going to buy the proverbial farm every time I leave the house. That’s good, yes, but it’s also not terribly exciting. When I get home, I’m just “getting home” – there is no laughing at having cheated Death once again.

Now see what I mean? How many people who have lived in Viet Nam – or , let’s broaden our scope and say, Southeast Asia – and now that they are back home in the West, would say that one of the things they miss most is riding a bike? Truth and experience – it’s subjective. But if I had to pick one thing I miss most about everyday life in Viet Nam, it would be that.

But then, that probably says more about me than it does about Viet Nam.

P.S. One of the aforementioned distractions is pictured here below; this post was composed on my new desktop rig. One of the common myths about Asia is that you can buy cheap-ass electronics. And you can – but there is a caveat. If you want leading edge technology – and I’m a nerd and I do – you’re going to pay more, at least in Southeast Asia. This same system you see being built here – Intel i7 950, Nvidia GeForce GTX 560 Ti, 6 gigs of DDR3 RAM, coupled with a 24-inch monitor with 2ms response time – would have cost me several hundred dollars more in either Thailand or Viet Nam. I know, because I priced a number of systems and components a number of times, because after about six months I was jonesing for video games – not to mention Photoshop and 3D rendering. And this is actually a generation behind the leading edge.

This is also true for camera equipment – I know that because I’m a dumbass.

Getting my computer and gaming nerd on: building my own rig.

Expat Life Passes One Year Mark

A puppy resident of the Sao Mai Hotel, Bien Hoa, Viet Nam
At least there are puppies ...

So, as I write this I imagine a few of my friends back home are still awake, winding down their revels as the first rays of the New Year sun bathe the Midwest of America (in places where it isn’t snowing). Here in Viet Nam it’s New Year’s Day afternoon, which also marks the anniversary of an entire year living abroad, here and in Thailand. In that time I’ve learned less about these two lands and cultures than I would have thought – but then not even life as an expat can keep me long from my appointed navel gazing. In that respect, however, I’ve learned much, much more about myself than I anticipated.

It’s been a crazy, intense year; very exciting, enriching and rewarding, full of adventure and new experiences – all of which I’ve relished. At the same time it’s been a difficult, challenging and even frustrating year at times. There have been days when I just wanted to say to hell with it all and go home to America.

I suppose the most momentous thing in the last 12 months has been my foray into a teaching career; aside from the goal of living abroad, it was my whole raison d’etre for coming here in the first place – a change of careers. But – and it wasn’t completely unexpected – the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.

Teaching ESL: Not for Me

Despite my best efforts to the contrary, I’ve come to the conclusion that teaching, at least in an ESL context with young learners or otherwise low-level English students, is not for me. I suck at it, to put it bluntly. Furthermore, I didn’t feel any motivation to improve, but rather to just get out of it – it wasn’t fair to the students or myself, otherwise. There are cultural issues involved here, of course, but I think this is at the core of it.

I enjoyed working with adult, advanced students — a situation where I didn’t have to grade my language, and we could actually engage in meaningful discourse. I received largely positive feedback over the brief time I got to do this. But outside of that narrow context, no one was happy with me as a teacher, myself included.

Well, that’s not completely true. The folks in Thailand said they were happy with my performance, and I did establish a rapport with my first grade students that I did enjoy to a degree. Yet on the whole I was abjectly miserable in Thailand – but the how and why are beyond the scope of this particular missive.

I would also add that of all the negative things you hear and read about the ESL industry here in Southeast Asia, they are largely true, to one degree or another, depending on the context. This doesn’t help matters any.

But there is a larger issue at work here. After a decade of telecommuting, setting my own hours and to varying degrees being my own boss, I don’t want a structured work environment anymore. I just can’t — nor do I want — to handle it: one where I have to be at a certain place at a certain time for a specific amount of time, dressed a certain way, blah blah blah. No thanks.

It’s kind of ironic, but the part of the whole ESL adventure I enjoyed the most was getting the CELTA certificate. It was an enjoyable — if intense – course; I couldn’t help but enjoy learning about teaching methodologies, linguistics, and so forth. Like college, for me getting out and applying the knowledge gained wasn’t nearly so much fun or interesting as being exposed to and absorbing that knowledge in the first place. If only I could be a permanent student.

But then, aren’t we all permanent students, really? Well, at least some of us. But I digress.

Of course in my original grand scheme for my expat adventure, I was going to fall in love with teaching, be good at it, and live happily abroad doing it for several years. Alas, that was not to be, but I learned a lot, including some valuable lessons, so I have no regrets.

Living Abroad: Not the Same as Traveling Abroad

I’ve always enjoyed travel – although sometimes business travel could be a pain in the ass – and having a restless soul, I tend to only feel at peace when on the road. Home is always where I lay my head down at night, or so I’ve said. Give me the stimulation and adventure that new places provide, and the accompanying new sites, sounds, smells, and experiences.

But traveling abroad and living abroad are two different things. Being a traveler is not the same as being an expat.

I’ve found that after a time, I tend to want the comforts of home, for awhile – my own place (as opposed to a hotel room), for starters. A coffee shop where they know me and I can hang out for hours on end, writing, reading, or just navel gazing. A place to absorb, ponder, and process what I’ve seen and learned in my travels. A neighborhood where I know where the good restaurants are, and where the grocery store is, and what times it is open. A place where there is a quiet bar with Guinness on tap.

Simple matters, you say. However when you live abroad in a country where you don’t read or speak the language except perhaps a little, and the finer points of the culture escape you, then these simple things become complex matters. Just getting around can be a challenge.

At some point, the stimulation of travel evolves into trials and tribulations of everyday life.

And it is at this point that one misses home. Well, I should clarify and quantify that statement. This applies only to me, of course; your mileage may vary.

But while I do miss friends and family sometimes, what I miss about home is something much more fundamental. I miss being able to get around the neighborhood, buy groceries, or go to a restaurant and order takeout food – without any of it being a grand, epic adventure. Fundamental things, as I say – being able to speak the language, or having an implicit understanding of the cultural norms – a place where I don’t have to pause to consider why the cashier is doing what she’s doing in the manner in which she is doing it.

That’s what I miss most while living abroad: the simple ease of life at home, ease that’s born out of the simple fact that I was raised in that culture, and lived in it for 40 years, and have a native’s intuitive understanding of it, and know how to navigate in it.

At the end of the day, there really is no place like home. Who knew?

And in that sense, I’ve further learned that people really are products of their environment to very large degrees. I’m not discounting the influence of genetics, of course, but environment plays a big part of who we are.

Even if I were to spend the rest of my life abroad, to a certain degree I would always be American. Again, I don’t mean on a political or even a cultural level, but on a fundamental, anthropological level, if you will – my thought processes, the way I see the world at a very basic level – I’m a product of my upbringing in ways I never really considered before.

I used to think I didn’t have much in common with my fellow average American, but compared to the peoples of Southeast Asia, well, I’m a Yankees, beyond doubt.

Confucious Say Take a Picture: It Will Last Longer

Queen Ann of Bien Hoa, Viet Nam
... and pretty girls.

Which brings me to my next point. If you tend to be a bit of a misanthropic loner, then in a Confucian land you will stick out like a neon motel sign on a dark stretch of two-lane highway, ironically enough. If you prefer to keep to yourself more often than not, living in Southeast Asia can be difficult at times, particularly if you live in an area where foreigners are scarce and the people tend to be a bit insular. Community and family are paramount here; here there’s not much cultural room for the individual.

I relish meeting new people and experiencing new cultures; that’s one of the great joys of travel abroad. But there comes a time when I just want to walk to the coffee shop, sit down by myself, relax, read my book, drink my coffee, and not be bothered. When I’m not traveling I want the comforts of home, and that includes being left alone to my own devices. Furthermore, I’ve always been a bit of a wall flower, and happily so – I generally abhor being the center of attention, except on those rare occasions – usually fueled by alcohol – where I might seek the metaphorical spotlight.

Of course, living this way is not much a problem at home in America. But here in Southeast Asia, particularly outside the cosmopolitan centers of the larger cities, it becomes problematic, to say the least. I draw stares wherever I go in Bien Hoa. Complete strangers stop me and want to engage in conversation – some out of simple curiosity, some wanting to practice their English, some with singular motivations of their own that I can’t always divine.

And personal space? Forget about that; that’s a Western concept, and something else I really miss, I must confess.

Again, when one is traveling, this is great. When one is simply living, and dealing with the everyday concerns of day-to-day life, all this gets old – at least it does for the misanthropic loner who is content, more often than not, to keep to himself. The first time teenagers run up to you in the mall to take your picture, it’s amusing. By the third and fourth time, however, it gets fucking annoying.

Okay, there is much more to write about along these lines, but 1,500-some words are enough for now.

Mene, Mene, Tekel u-Pharsin. Or, Dammit, Jim, I’m a Teacher, Not a Clown!

"Attn. Jeff Chappell: give it up already ... So, I think the writing is on the wall – hence the post title – with regard to my nascent teaching career. After leaving a Thai public school one month ahead of the end of a semester-long contract to come back to Viet Nam to teach at a private language school, said school has handed me my walking papers after less than two months. D’oh! Apparently I’m just not cut out for teaching young learners – which seasoned TEFL teachers both here and in Thailand tell me means entertaining – as well as adults who are new to English study (damn n00bs). In fact the only students that didn’t complain about the difficulty of my classes were advanced learners; from them I even managed to garner praise, I’m told.

One might be inclined to say that I shouldn’t throw in the towel just yet – the Thai school didn’t want me to leave, and I had established a good rapport with my first graders (I miss the little buggers). But I felt relief more than anything else when I got news of the termination – via email at 11 p.m. after no prior indication that there was any problems (would have hoped for a little more class from a fellow Yank; alas, no), but that’s another story. That feeling of being awash in relief, I believe, is the impetus for the metaphorical hand writing that appeared on my Bien Hoa hotel room wall that night, rather than my abilities – or lack thereof – as a nubert teacher.

I had every intention of trying on teaching as a career change and not just a means to an end when I first came to Southeast Asia at the beginning of the year. But I think it’s clear now that teaching young learners – to use the vernacular of the industry – and new students is clearly not my thing. Furthermore, I don’t think I have the inclination to make it my thing; I just don’t want to do it. I made things work with my Thai first graders, but it was grueling and hard work to establish that rapport and figure out how to teach them in a meaningful way, and I don’t want to make a career out of that – Hell no. I left Thailand to get away from that. When I had my first class of Vietnamese kids – granted much smaller than a Thai public school class, but just as unruly – I realized I was in for more of the same, and in retrospect my heart wasn’t in it. Granted I didn’t have as many contact hours with kids as I did in Thailand, and I had adult classes that I actually did enjoy, but I think deep down I was rather dismayed – but didn’t want to admit it.

Dammit Jim, I'm a teacher, not a clown!I was grimly determined to make things work here this time; I enjoy being in Viet Nam much more than I did Thailand (more on that in a later post, as previously promised), and really wanted to do well at the private language school. I really wanted things to be a success on all fronts this time around. But I’m sure this feeling of dismay was affecting my attitude in the classroom; I know it was out of it. I used to dread going into school on evenings and Saturdays when I had kids’ classes. Didn’t want to prepare lessons for them – hell, I didn’t want to think about them. And those hour-and-a-half classes used to drag on seemingly for hours sometimes. What the hell am I supposed to do with these kids? How am I supposed to get them to settle down so I can teach them? It took me a couple of months to figure it out in Thailand; in a for-profit private language school, you don’t get that luxury of time.

Dammit, Jim, I’m a teacher, not a clown!

WTF Do I Do Now? Slink Back to the 4th Estate

Dammed if I know. My plan, insofar as I (ever) have one – I’m rather Southeast Asian, in this respect, heh – is to try and get some part-time telecommuting work back in ye olde field of journalism and couple this with income from private lessons; yet again I go slinking back to my professional mistress and beg her to take me back. Perchance all of the mad InterWebs skillz I’ve garnered over the past several years will come in handy.

I briefly toyed with the idea of going back to America and picking up where I left off – being an unemployed slacker half-assedly looking for work. But I quickly dismissed this idea; while I haven’t set Southeast Asia ablaze as a teacher, I have enjoyed my time outside of school both here and in Thailand. I figure I can be marginally employed here even more easily than I can back home in America – the cost of living is much cheaper here, after all. Besides, goofing off in coffee shops is a national pastime here in Viet Nam.

So the dream continues. I may eventually seek a university teaching position either here or in China; one long-time expat teacher here in Bien Hoa has suggested I seek a position with a university in Sai Gon. The fact that I have a journalism degree and many years of experience would make me a valuable commodity, he says, since most foreigners who come here don’t have a degree/experience in a field related to English. I think teaching at the university level would be fun and rewarding; in fact I’ve long had a hazy-long term goal to go to graduate school – always “someday,” and we know what that probably means, eh Dad? – and get a masters so I could teach journalism or English at the college level.

If Only I Could be a Full-time Slacker. Oh, Wait …

On the other hand, just doing part-time work to feed myself and pay the bills while I have leisure time to explore Asia further, while also pursuing my own writing and photography work, sounds ideal. When I ask myself, “Self, in your heart of hearts, if money were no object, what would you be doing?” The answer has three parts:

  • traveling/living abroad
  • writing – blogging and creatively
  • photography/art (as in 3D rendering)

Well, I got the first part down, at least for now. I fiddle with the other two, but not nearly as much as I would like. I’ve often thought about how I can make money with photography; I already know how to make money at writing from a non-fiction/journalism standpoint, but haven’t attempted to publish anything creatively in years. What’s more, when I read on the blogs of some of my favorite authors about all the trials and tribulations they go through, and talk with pro photographers about what they do to pay the bills, I think “meh.” I want to write and I want to make images, but I don’t want to do that.

I don’t want either one to become a job. I used to be passionate about journalism; I still am to some degree. I can still enjoy doing it, if the story I’m working on is a subject I find particularly interesting. But at some point over the years it became a job, and not a passion. And I get bored with jobs quite easily. I don’t want writing creatively or photography to ever become just a job. I don’t want to take pictures of weddings or products or CEOs – I want to take photos of things I want to shoot; of things that I find visually appealing/arresting. I want to make images of things and ideas that I’m passionate about. As cliché as it sounds, “I wanna make art.”

I could get into photojournalism, but again, having worked as journalist so long, I know it would more than likely become a job very quickly, except when I was working on a story that I personally cared about. It’s the same with writing creatively. I’m vain enough/confident enough in my ability to believe that I could write fiction and eventually get published enough to make a bit of dough at it, but again – to hear established authors tell it, it sounds like a job. Even after they have put years into their craft, they don’t necessarily get to write what they want, and even when they do, it often has to be tailored for a market in order to be salable/publishable. And how many of our favorite authors have we read that clearly “phoned it in” on subsequent novels published after a brilliant one, in order to fulfill a three-book contract? Screw that. It sounds too much like work – like a job. So why even try?

I think at the end of the day I can only be happy doing what I want to do – can anyone be truly happy doing anything other than something they truly want to be doing?

So now whut? That’s why I like having my own website – it’s nothing but me being self indulgent. Show me someone who edits his own copy and I’ll show you someone that has a fool for an editor. I firmly believe this. Nevertheless, I enjoy having my own site and populating it with my epistles and expostulations merely because I have no editor other than my own muse. I write what I want, post what I want, put up whatever pictures/images I want – no copy editors telling me that my em dash or semicolon should be replaced by a period and a new sentence begun. No managing editor telling me to dumb down the language or to cut 200 words to make a dogleg fit. No editor-in-chief or publisher telling me we can’t print that because it will piss off an advertiser. I do what I want, and when I don’t feel like it, I don’t. After years of working in journalism, it’s a wonderfully liberating feeling.

It’s funny, but I don’t even care that my site has so little traffic, in spite of the hours I spend on it. I could do more on various fronts to increase said trafic – but then it becomes work; at that stage, it’s a job. It’s here to make me happy, and it does (I’m quite pleased with this latest theme). Now if only I could find something that makes me as happy as my own writing and photography make me, and also puts food in my mouth. But then I suppose that’s what every human being has been trying to figure out ever since we started planting crops and invented leisure time.

Essence of Chicken: Thais are Fatist

I don't know about gold, but there's a pot o' something in Bangkok ... So, it’s been a month since I’ve been back in Viet Nam. Did I make the right decision to leave Thailand ahead of schedule to return here? Most definitely. I’m still digesting it all, but I’m starting to draw some conclusions about my experiences in Thailand. But that is still another topic for another time; let it suffice to say that life is much better here. It is not without its problems and challenges; Biên Hòa, Viet Nam is no Shangrila. But the situation I’m in here is much, much preferable to the one in which I found myself in Suphanburi, Thailand, in no small number of ways.

But then I knew I made the right decision before I ever left Thailand – I was given nothing less than a SIGN. As I took a taxi from Mo Chit bus station into central Bangkok – the bus having delivered me for the last time from Suphanburi – the skies greeted me with a double rainbow (forgive the craptacular quality of the photo above; it was taken with my phone — click it to big it). A sign from the Heavens? Buddha? A rather common result of the time of day coupled with the fact that it’s the rainy season? Make of it what you will; I took it for a favorable omen. And I certainly had fun in Bangers for the next week, while I arranged and waited for my Vietnamese visa to be processed. Bangkok is a great city in which to have nothing to do for six days.

Redshirts? What About the Fatshirts?

Fat Buddhist kids make baby Jesus cry.

One observation I will offer up for now, though, about the Thais: they are fatist. Okay, not really, or at least not anymore so than any other culture (actually probably less so than most Western cultures). And to be honest, I tend to loathe political correctness. Maybe that’s why I found this poster that was hung in a hallway of the school where I taught in Thailand to be rather amusing. It’s a poster discussing Buddhist precepts and good behavior vs. bad behavior. Note that the “good” kid is a skinny with a conservative haircut; the “bad” kid is fat and has an 80s British New Wave/New Romantics haircut. Every time I walked by this poster I couldn’t help but a) say to myself, “Hey! I resemble that remark!” or, b) start humming Flock of Seagulls’ “I Ran” to myself. Yes, I know the poster is not a “remark” per se, but if I have to explain my bon mot, then it’s no longer funny, so if you don’t get it, resign yourself to ignorance and move on.

Here are some more curious odds and ends to wrap up the move from Thailand and introduce the return to Viet Nam. First up: Essence of Chicken.

Mom, I'm thirsty. Can I have some chicken juice? In Thailand it’s pretty common for students and parents to bring teachers gifts of food. One of the packages I received contained two jars of Essence of Chicken. Chicken juice in a jar. This is what I love about the culinary aspect of traveling in Asia; just when you think it can’t get any weirder by narrow Western standards, it does. And I confess, my usual gastric courage failed me; I passed on Essence of Chicken. Big-ass fried bugs from an Isaan (Isan, Issan, whatever) food stall? No problem. Fish head soup? Eat it up, yum. Chicken juice in a jar? Er … even I have my limits.

Not the first hairy thing I've seen with long legs in the Sao Mai Hotel. Speaking of big ass bugs, there are a lot of these in Southeast Asia. Here are two examples from my current residence, the lovely (in a backpacker/no-tell motel/short-time-fun kind of way) Sao Mai Hotel in scenic downtown Biên Hòa. First up, a spider nearly as wide as my foot greeted me in the hallway one evening. I wish I had had my DSLR handy; this spider was a beauty. As it was, I was stuck with my phone. I love my Nokia 5800, but it’s image sensor is crap in any but ideal lighting conditions. Anyway, I’ll take spiders over roaches any day, particularly in this part of the world (where the roaches are many, varied, and even fly about as a matter of routine), as spiders eat other annoying bugs, of which there are a lot here.

Tower, This Is Delta-One-Niner-Mike-Oscar-Tango-Hotel Requesting clearance for Takeoff

Next up is this supersonic-looking moth-like thingy (as seen below; click it to big it). I’m not sure what this little guy was, other than a case of natural and mechanical verisimilitude. I spied it on a windowsill in the stairwell of the Sao Mai the other day (I’ve rotated the picture to make it easier to look at); he was a good two inches long from nose to tail. I say moth like, because it looks like a moth, but when it flew away it made a loud buzzing sound, almost like a beetle would (almost as if it was prop-driven, as opposed to the fighter jet it resembles). Of course what struck me was the resemblance to some delta-winged fighter aircraft, replete with two-finned tail assembly. And you thought all those engineers at Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Hughes, EADS and whatnot came up with their own ideas – they were just borrowing from Mother Nature.

Believe me, he sounded like he could break the sound barrier.

It’s All About the Size of Your Dong

Last but not least, although it has nothing to do with food or bugs (which are sometimes the same thing in this part of the world, as I noted previously) is Vietnamese cash. This is something that is naturally confusing to a Western traveler here, particularly one of my own breed (Fatuous Americanus). Denominations of American money are all the same size and color, true, but we have different dead guys on each denomination, which makes them fairly easy to distinguish. Plus, in our every-day lives, we typically only have to deal with bills with one zero on them.

Both the Thais and Vietnamese like to put the same guy on all their money – the Thai’s their venerable current king, and the Vietnamese have Ho Chi Minh, naturally. Thai denominations tend to differ considerably though, and even use different portraits of the king. But denominations of Vietnamese dong – yeah, the “dong” jokes just never get old for me – all use the exact same portrait of Uncle Ho. Granted, they are generally easy to distinguish, thanks to different colors and sizes, with the exception of the 10,000 dong notes (not quite 50 cents American) and the 100,000 dong notes (about $5). My Vietnamese friends point out that they are indeed different colors, and even different sizes; the 10,000 is admittedly slightly smaller. However, I maintain that in dim lighting, in one’s wallet or purse, with all those zeros, it is easy to confuse the two. Here, judge for yourself:

And they say size doesn't matter ...

Not a huge difference. Of course, I’ve confused big denominations for small ones twice (that I know of), both times, the server/cashier involved pointed out my monetary faux pas immediately. In fact, this happened on my second day in Viet Nam.

Okay, that’s enough for now. I have to go home, get cleaned up and prepare for tonight’s classes.

P.S. As I was posting this, I realized there was one more photo I wanted to throw in here. You don’t see a lot of graffiti in either Thailand or Viet Nam (at least not in the places I’ve been). The only graffiti I ever saw in Sai Gon (Andre the Giant stickers don’t count) was the word “graffiti” misspelled “grafirti.” I have seen a bit of more artistic, Western-style tags here in Biên Hòa, but the Thais seem to be a little bit ahead of the Viets in the graffiti-as-art category. To wit: wall tags in a vacant lot outside the Phloen Chit skytrain station (click it to big it). Again, sorry for the craptacular phone-cam quality.
Cool tags in a Bangkok empty lot.

Bat-Shit Insanity: Initial Thoughts Upon Leaving Thailand

Bat-Shit Insane in the MembraneWell, it’s been more than four months since my last post, and what a long, strange, interesting, fascinating, frustrating, and largely miserable trip its been. My first official foray into teaching English as a second language has not been easy; in fact I’m leaving my position in a Thai public school (and Thailand, for that matter) one month ahead of what I contracted for.

In answer to the obvious question, no, I definitely could not have toughed it out. If there is one thing I know, it’s myself. I’m usually the stubborn-as-a mule type who never knows when to quit. The never-say-day-die type who insists on toughing it out to the bitter end. The loser who just … can’t … let … it go. But after 40 some years, I’m finally learning to distinguish when its best to stick things out and when it’s best to cut my losses, tuck my tail between my legs and haul ass. This is one of those situations that falls into the latter classification.

There have been three points in my life where I’ve traversed the rocky bottom of depression and despair: after the respective deaths of my parents (Mom, January 19, 2001; and Dad, December 16, 2008) and the 18 months (seems like 18 years) I spent in Sedona, Arizona (indisputably the most beautiful asshole of the world) that drew to a close in December 1999. An aside: it’s (not really) funny how I’m damned if I can ever remember birthdays or anniversaries and whatnot, but I can instantly recall the specific dates of my parents’ deaths.

While I haven’t sunk that deep here in Thailand, I’ve gotten deep enough at times that the sunlight no longer penetrated and the waters turned dark. So without getting into the wrist-slitting details – speaking metaphorically, of course (and I’d like to keep it that way) – I figure its best for me and my students if I move on as soon as possible; a month’s notice of my pending departure will have to be good enough.

As my father used to say, “enough is enough and too much stinks.” It’s time to go.

Ever since I gave notice, I’ve struggled over what to write here – and oddly enough, I’ve felt the urge to write for the first time since, well, since the last time I posted. I suppose I’ve just been too wrapped up in my first teaching gig, what with it being in a foreign culture and all – that, and wanting to slit my wrists (again with the metaphor; I’m more of a scotch and pills sort of person, anyway — I keed, I keed.). Usually, with so much mental stimulation I feel the urge to write, but my muse has been far away during all this – I’ve done naught with my camera or keyboard for the past four months or so, as I’ve had no creative urges whatsoever.

Another aside: is this a symptom or part of the problem? I digress; this is the third version of this post. I feel justified in leaving – my letter of resignation was two pages typed and single spaced (!), and reading it over just now, a month later, I feel it is accurate and justified (albeit a bit self righteous in tone, but I’ll forgive myself that much). But that first post was all about why I was leaving, and it was just way to much pissing and moaning; it needed cheese to go with its w(h)ine. In the second version I just tried to edit the first version, but that was the editorial equivalent of polishing a turd, hence this start from scratch. As one of my writing teachers from college would have said, I am perhaps “too close to the moment” to achieve the proper perspective to write about it.

So, rather than rant about all the things I don’t like/problems that I’ve had while teaching first and sixth grade at a Thai public school, I think I shall use this blog-cum-prism to look at the light at the other end of the spectrum. Lo these last four or five months I have learned a lot, both about myself, teaching, and about Thai culture. While it had hardly been all fun and games, it has most definitely been an adventure.

And isn’t that what I wanted? Isn’t that ultimately why I set out for parts unknown? I wanted the experience of living and working in a foreign culture, both for the personal enrichment it could offer me, as well as just for the hell of it – for the adventure it offered. True, given my past travel experiences abroad, I assumed that this adventure would largely be fun; that was naive, in retrospect (and always suspected that it might be thus). But I can say that outside of my current but soon to be ex-teaching position — outside of that, the adventure has involved more fun than not.

So what have I learned? To be honest I think I’m still too close to the moment to discuss that as well, to any significant degree; I’m still processing the huge amounts of data. To place things in the realm of simile and metaphor once more: it’s like opening a ginormous photoshop file – say a composite image with 20-some layers or something – on my five-year old Toshiba laptop with its pokey 1.3GHz dual-core processor. It’s gonna be awhile (unless I can figure out how to convert my brain’s OS to Linux).

But here are a few gleaming, golden nuggets of wisdom gleaned (not to mention some alliteration):

What I’ve always loved about foreign travel is what I like to call, in my colorful, colloquial, R-rated manner, the absolute “mind fuck” of the experience. It is constant stimulation; even simple things become an adventure. Being a stranger in a strange land way the hell out of his comfort zone is an amazing mental trip; not only do you learn things about the world around you – foreign languages, customs, cultures, etc. — but you learn things about yourself and your own culture through your own reactions, as well as the reflections and perceptions of yourself and your culture in the eyes of those around you.

But be careful what you wish for. Travel is one thing; living and working is another. The things you find interesting and even fascinating about a foreign culture can become troublesome, burdensome – even a royal pain in the ass – when taken on an unavoidable daily basis. There are things that I like and admire about Thai culture; there are some aspects of it I think we in the West would do well to emulate, to a degree. But some of those same things have driven me absolutely bat-shit insane at times, working in a Thai public school via a Thai-owned-and-run placement agency.

I don’t say this to get down on Thai culture; I’m merely making an observation about living abroad vs. traveling abroad. Maybe once I’ve digested this whole experience I’ll put pen to paper (boy, there’s an idiom that’s rapidly becoming outdated).

In fact, I’ve got a new-found respect and admiration for any foreign immigrants back home. I have the luxury of having had an education and a white-collar professional background, in addition to having a skill set that is in demand in the countries I choose to visit. Furthermore, that’s just it – I choose those countries and this life and I’m doing it for the hell of it, really; with relatively little inconvenience I can go back to my home country whenever I want to. Many immigrants to the United States don’t come there under such ideal circumstances, and on top of that have come there seeking a better life – and yet they have to deal with these same issues. I can now imagine what that must be like, and thank the Fates and various gods/goddesses that I only have to imagine it.

Which leads me to my next point, which is a bit of a cliché but nevertheless true: you don’t appreciate home until you leave it (and I’m not talking about tacos and burritos, although I do miss those). I can now appreciate things about America that I took for granted or just never even thought of before. Not that my home country and culture is without its faults; to be sure they are not. But I wish I could take all the chronic America bashers (the domestic ones) — as well as all those über-patriotic morons wrapped up in the flag – and make them live abroad somewhere for six months. Let ’em walk in my shoes for a bit. It would give both groups of people a number of things to think about – and maybe shut them the hell up for awhile.

America: leave it and learn to love it.

On the flip side, the things that used to get me constantly bent out of shape when I was still on American soil no longer seems to bother me – namely politics, as you can see if you go back through the archives of this here blog. I still see the same old stupid shit going on as always back home (meet the New Boss, same as the Old Boss), the kinds of things that drove me bat-shit insane when I still lived there. Thanks to the series of tubes, I still get the same exact news feeds I got before I left. But being on the other side of the planet, and not being immersed in it, I just don’t seem to get worked up about it. If I ever do return to the States to live permanently, I think I’ll still arrange to be out of the country during election years (while the rest of you — Democrats and Republicans alike — stick your head up your ass).

Okay, that’s enough navel gazing. The next post will likely be made from Viet Nam, where I’m returning to (and in retrospect probably should have stayed in, in the first place).

But one more thing before I go. Bat-Shit Insanity: its the worst kind of mental illness, and official recurring theme of this post. I had planned to eventually rename my blog the Gecko’s Bark, given the amusing noises Southeast Asia’s most prolific inhabitants (outside of homo sapiens and 10 bezillion species of insects) make – I’ve got a great closeup shot of a tokay to use in the blog header – but maybe I’ll rename it Bat-Shit Insanity Abroad. Kinda has a ring to it, no?

Sabai Dee Phi Mai Krab!

Ah, where to begin? The fact that I’ve been involved in celebrating the dawn of a new year — for the third time this year? The fact that I’ve been volunteering my time to help teach Thai kids English at a non-profit learning center in northern Thailand? Or that I went with the same non-profit to visit kids at an orphanage that specializes in children with HIV/AIDS (some of the loveliest children you’ll ever meet)? How about the fact that I’ve also been helping said non profit — Isara, by name, which means “freedom,” in Thai — get their computer lab into shape, pretending I’m an admin?

Once a nerd, always a nerd.

Or how about the fact that In a few weeks time I’ll begin my first paying job as a teacher, teaching kindergarten and first-grade Thai kids English, math, and science (ye gods, what have I gotten myself into this time)!? Or maybe the fact that it routinely hits 100 (Farenheit — say 39 Celsius) or more here, and I drink liters of water per day yet never have to pee because I sweat like a yak constantly. Or perhaps that I’m surrounded by geckos that bark and other strange, exotic critters (not to mention the strange, exotic, people, culture, and food)?

Ay caramba. I’m too tired for a lengthy, meaningful entry. A city-wide water fight — this is how the Thais celebrate their New Year — that lasts for hours throughout the heat of the day and on into the early evening, well, it takes it out of ya, even if it is hellafun. Let me just say that while protests in Bangkok have lead to bloodshed, out here in the Thai hinterlands, it’s life as usual.

Also, a reminder: GO to Isara and make it your homepage, as well as the start of all your google searches; your clicks help fund this most worthy of charities. Better yet, come over here and volunteer your time; it is free to volunteer at Isara, unlike all of these other places that make you pay to “volunteer” (at that point, you’re a customer, not a volunteer). And yet, Isara still manages to give you a comfy place to stay, and Ming will show you all of the good Thai (as in non-farang-catering) places to eat. She’ll even go with you to the optometrist to help you buy new contact lenses.

Now here’s some interesting photos in lieu of my usual prattling on at length:

Celebrating the New Year Thai Style:

Songkran 1

A Barking Gecko

No, That Wasn't Me Barking ...

Tokay Under Glass

Noisy Tokay

Big Momma and her Brood

Big Momma and the Kids

Funky Thai Spider

World's Oddest-Looking Spider

The Deck at Isara (HDR Makes Everything Look Fab)

Isara's Jungle Oasis in HDR

Mali and the Sarnelli House Kids

Mali and the Sarnelli Kids

English Camp at Isara


May You Live in Interesting Times (in Thailand)

So things have a way of working out – for ill or naught – and often in ways we don’t anticipate. And I suppose life would be rather dull and boring if it were otherwise. With that in mind, I’m headed to Thailand to work – a country I’ve never been to, but always wanted to see. Now I’m going to get a good seven months or so of it, perhaps longer – if things work out that way.

So what happened to remaining in Viet Nam for a time? Well, long story short: when I started applying for jobs, I noticed that there were a lot more jobs listed in Thailand – this has to do with the time of year, more than anything else — so I dashed off a few resumes to places that had decent reputations. An agency that places native English speakers in Thai public schools was the first to get back to me; it is with this agency that I eventually accepted a position (and no, I don’t know where yet; the school year doesn’t start until mid May, and the agency is still parsing its schools and available teachers and whatnot).

Of course, after I accepted the position I got a couple of offers for part-time work in Viet Nam, including an opportunity that almost caused me to recant my acceptance of the Thai job. But I figured a) I have always wanted to go to Thailand; b) I had given them my word and vice versa (and knowing that I would want to go there someday anyway, if I stayed in Viet Nam, it might not be good to leave a flaky impression with this agency); c) I had already arranged to do some volunteer teaching at a non-profit in northeast Thailand; and finally, d) breaking my word twice just seems like bad ju-ju, or karma as it were, these being primarily Buddhist lands.

So it’s off to Thailand I go. Yes, I know I’m heading there at an interesting time. But, as a Thai person recently said to me, “Thais are a passionate people. That’s why it seems to outsiders that our politics are constantly in upheaval. But it rarely gets violent.” I would hasten to add that there was one notable exception in 1992, in which several hundred protesters were killed — but that does seem to be the exception rather than the rule. So there you go. And coming from a country that is supposedly the guiding light for democracy and freedom on earth, and having watched conservative elements literally steal the 2000 election out from under the rest of that country while it sat and watched and DID NOTHING — and we all know how that turned out for us — well, good on the Thais for taking their government seriously. But don’t get me wrong; I’m not taking sides here. While I’ve followed the story since Thaksin’s ouster in 2006, I don’t feel qualified to offer an opinion on who is right and who is wrong, not being Thai and not having ever lived there.

I do want to come back here to Viet Nam and live and work someday, and the contract is only for six months, or one school semester, with an option for a second if I’m so inclined at the end of six months (and a tidy little signing bonus if I do). So I figure if I don’t like where I end up – and never having been to Thailand, I really have no preference – it will only last six months. And I’m not too worried about it; everyone I’ve talked to who has actually spent a significant amount of time there tells me I will love it. The only placement request I made of the agency was that I didn’t want to be placed in an extremely small, rural village, as I’m a new teacher and I don’t speak a word of Thai yet (Rosetta Stone, here I come).

For a beginning teacher in Thailand, the contract is pretty reasonable. The biggest plus in my eyes is a regular schedule with weekends and evenings off, as well as all public holidays and the weeks between semesters (which comes to two-months a year – of course one isn’t paid when school isn’t in session). Considering most new teachers in Asia end up at private schools, which means working evenings, weekends and holidays, public school becomes attractive. Plus, the agency offers a housing stipend. I’ll still be making very modest money by western standards, and would be able to make a little more, relatively speaking, here in Viet Nam, most likely – but I think I’ll be able to live reasonably well in Thailand on what they are paying me, particularly if I’m outside of Bangkok (which I hope to be). This is provided all my research and what people who have taught there tell me proves accurate, but I have no reason to believe it isn’t.

I’m going to miss Vietnamese coffee and food, but then I’ll have the solace of Thai food, and I hear the Thai’s have their own coffee that’s pretty good. I’m sure I can find someone to put sweetened condensed milk in it for me – that is, If I can’t find Vietnamese coffee there; there are a lot of Vietnamese immigrants in Thailand, particularly in the eastern portion of the country, according to ye olde Lonely Planet.

But all this goes to show, one should always keep one’s plans malleable. One could argue this was fate or predestination (or karma); others could argue that I made my own future by applying for a job in Thailand in the first place, and accepting it in turn (or even getting on the plane from America with a one-way ticket in the first place). I’m enough of a pragmatist that I’m inclined to believe in the latter, but enough of a romantic to ponder the former. For one such as I, a stranger wondering at will in strange lands where kingdoms were rising and falling and empires waxing and waning while my my European ancestors were wallowing in the Dark Ages, where the predominant religion was already ancient when Christianity was born, I suppose it is easy to believe that is indeed a bit of both.

In any event, in a few days time I will be eating Thai food … in Thailand. And regardless of how or why I got there, this momentous occasion has been a long time coming, as far as my palate is concerned. After all, the palate and the stomach do not concern themselves with matters of the spirit, philosophy and the existential, but rather the immediate appetites and their fulfillment.

Which reminds me … ye gods, I still would kill for a burrito.