My Daily Roadtrip

Archive for the tag “expat life”

The 6th of each month and remembering

I still remember those difficult early months after moving here (April 6, 2013) when, as the 6th of each month approached, I would think, “Three more days and then we’ll have been here three months,” or “Six more days and we’ll have made it five months!” To be honest, I probably even counted the half-month mark of each month at that point. Successfully making it through each month felt like a huge accomplishment to me!

During the 2nd part of the year, the 6th of each month began sneaking up on me and almost always caught me by surprise. I suppose this was a sign of getting over some of those initial feelings and thoughts that come when your world is rocked to the extent that mine had been. It felt good to no longer notice the 6th of every month. And then do you know what happened?

April 6, 2014, came … and went. Despite the quietness that accompanied the day, I did take note of it and even though there was no huge outward celebration, Shun-Luoi and I did spend some time remembering. Remembering what it was like to step out of the airport in Chiang Mai one year ago after 30 hours of traveling and thinking that the “hot season” wasn’t quite as hot as I thought it would be (3 days later the temperatures jumped, keeping me humble). Remembering how our new friend Pam graciously picked us up and navigated getting us and our 6 checked suitcases and multiple carry-ons successfully to our guesthouse. Remembering going to a local mall in order to get lunch (Pizza Hut!) and to withdraw Thai baht from an ATM and remembering how utterly overwhelming being in a large Thai mall was (and still is – the mall scene may be dying in America, but it is NOT in Asia; malls are large, loud, and can be super busy). Remembering thinking how utterly crazy it felt to step onto multiple planes, step off a plane over one full day later and realize that just about everything about your life has changed.

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March 2014 – © Katie Friesen Photography

Since we made the decision to leave Thailand and as the day of our departure will soon be upon us, I find myself remembering more frequently. However, the recent remembering is also now coupled with celebration. I can easily remember the days I wasn’t sure I’d be able to drive here because of the different road “rules,” and because I’d have to drive on the opposite side of the road than I had been the previous 17 years. However, today I drove the kids somewhere and celebrated the fact that driving here no longer makes my back turn into pure knots every time I do it. I remember when I could only say “hello” and “thank you” in Thai and although I still only speak the language at about a one year-old level, I can now basically order food and drinks for my family at a Thai roadside restaurant. I remember when even a short venture out into local life here left me reeling and overwhelmed because of the sights, smells, and noises I encountered. I still feel that way at times, but can much more easily engage the culture for longer periods of time now without wanting to run home and curl up in the fetal position because of sensory overload. And on and on … remembering and celebrating, remembering and celebrating.

There is also much stress and mourning during this season of preparing to leave and return to America. But in the midst of it all, I will continue to take time to engage the fact that the time period between April of 2013 and April of 2014 will have been a rich time; one that has given me much to remember …

and much to celebrate.

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Good-byes and the expat

Even though I have only lived in Thailand for a short time, I have noticed particular aspects of an expat life that are definitely unique* in comparison to those who live within their home culture. This isn’t all that profound of a realization, but I’ve been thinking more about one of these unique aspects as of late.

The good-byes. The hellos are part of it as well, but at the moment, I’m especially noticing the good-byes. Many expats who live here work for nonprofits doing work in either Thailand or the surrounding countries. New people move here all the time – I’ve witnessed this even in just 11 months. People also seem to be leaving all the time. This is sometimes due to a job change that leads them back to their home country, because they’re returning home for a furlough in order to fundraise or catch a breather from the cultural stresses, or a move to a different country within their organization. Other people travel extensively for their jobs and are gone for weeks at a time. And then there are the good-byes on the other end; when they leave their home culture to return here for their jobs. The goodbyes at the end of yet another skype call, another trans-ocean phone call, another email to their loved one who lives thousands of miles away.

As a result, expats are forced to decide whether or not they’ll take the risk of opening up their hearts and lives to other expats, not knowing who will leave and who will stay, or for how long. I’ve seen both choices being made. Some seem unwilling to open up because everyone ends up leaving anyway, and then there are others who willingly let you in even though they know the leaving could happen at some point. Thankfully, I’ve met multiple other women who took the risk of letting me into their lives, even though they didn’t know how long we’d be here. After being here for a bit and seeing this part of expat life, I am very cognizant of the sheer courage it took for these women to do what they’ve done. I’m impacted deeply by it that because I realize they didn’t have to take that risk.

They didn’t have to drive me around different areas of town to help familiarize me with them. They didn’t have to arrange getting some papaya leaf juice made in order to help treat what we thought at the time was dengue fever in my husband. They didn’t have to care for our son when our daughter fell off a wall onto her face and had to stay in a local hospital overnight to observe her neurological status. They didn’t have to ask how I was doing, nod empathetically when I cried about how hard life felt, or tell me to call them in the middle of the night if I needed anything while my husband was traveling. They didn’t have to.

But they did.

I could cry (oh, and believe me – I have) thinking about it as I write this. What an incredible gift these women have offered me and my family! I am humbled and challenged by them in numerous ways. And you know what makes it even more profound to me at the moment?

We’re leaving Thailand.

Yes. Now I’m the one saying good-bye, and this is much to our surprise, because we had already planned to stay beyond our initial one-year commitment. Over the past 1.5 months, we’ve seen that God actually has different plans, ones that require returning to America. I’ll share more about that in another post, but I’d rather get back to my friends and their courage. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that I’m the best thing that has happened to these women; that they’ll be devastated when I leave. They won’t. What I am saying is that they took the chance on me and within a year later, that risk means they’ll have to say good-bye again. They invested in me and my family and while I hope part of the return for them was that I was a good friend to them as well, but do you know what another part of their return is? Loss. Yet another good-bye.

Before we finalized our decision to move back to the US, I cried a lot. The tears were cried for multiple reasons, but the biggest one was over the relationships I would leave behind if we made the decision to leave. I have met some incredibly brave and beautiful women here and it’s my loss that I will no longer get to live life with them or learn from them.

Chiang Mai friends (you know who you are), I respect and admire the courageous things you and your families are doing here. I am humbled that you took the risk to open up to me and invest in my life. Thank you for taking that risk – because of it, I’ve been changed. Being the recipient of your decision to open your hearts to me has been one of the very best parts of living here …

and I’m beyond grateful.

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* I imagine military families, or those with jobs that require moving at multiple points during their career would probably have similar experiences, but I cannot speak for those groups.

Not so different after all

Hands down, the best thing about living in Thailand is the opportunity to engage people of many different cultures. We get to engage Thai culture, but because there is a fairly large expat community here, we’ve also had the opportunity to talk with and learn from people from many different countries on numerous continents.

For instance, I am learning a lot about Swedish culture from our Swedish friends who just live down the road. My ancestry is largely Swedish, but learning about Swedish culture from family who is several generations removed from Sweden is very different from learning from those who have actually grown up there. It has been so fascinating and I at times worry that my consistent question-asking will be off-putting to our kind friends. Thankfully, they’re super gracious about it, so for now, I’ll keep asking my questions. And then there are our British friends – I am coming to appreciate the use of different words, such as “lovely” and “brilliant.” (On a side note, I think everyone should have some British friends; I could listen to that accent all day!) I am learning more about national health care, which countries make up the UK, and that the same English words often mean different things to them than they do to me. And although there are currently language barriers that prevent me from learning all the things about Thai culture that I would like to, I am learning a lot simply by observing, talking to others who have lived here longer, and talking with the Thai who speak a bit more English.

As you can imagine, there are many differences between the American culture I was raised in and the cultures of those we are meeting and now live amidst. Some of these differences are significant, some are slight. However, beyond the differences, there is much that is the same. Hopes, dreams, likes, dislikes; we all have them. Even more importantly, each person has incredible value, dignity, and something to offer those around them. In some ways, we aren’t so different after all.

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© D. Shun-Luoi Fong

My husband recently started a new project called, “A Shared Humanity,” which explores just that; the things that show we are, at the core, not so different as we might think. He has been spending a considerable amount of time each week meeting and engaging with people from around the world in order to learn more about their own life and story. He also creates a portrait of each person and then shares a piece of their story on the site. Shun-Luoi leaves it up to you to engage with each story and see how you may or may not identify with each person, but even if the circumstances of that person’s life are drastically different from yours, chances are that you might just find some commonalities between you and them. This is your chance to engage people of cultures you might not have the opportunity to engage. Take it! I encourage you to click on each image, to really look into the eyes of the people in each imagine, and to consider the things they’ve shared.

In addition, strongly consider getting out of your own cultural comfort zone and seek out people from other cultures in order to learn from them and possibly even share of yourself with them. If you keep at it long enough, I think you’ll be surprised at the ways in which you’re more similar than you expected.  I promise you these experiences will be rich, even if different than you might expect. There will be probably be cultural faux paus committed, one of you or the other might have to muddle through a concept that doesn’t translate easily into the other’s culture, and there might even be language barriers. I realize I’m in an unique position in which to do this, but I think the majority of us can find someone of a different culture (and think of “culture” a bit more broadly than even just nationality, ethnicity, and race) who lives around us. It might take a bit of work, but do it anyway.

I’m not trying to minimize our differences, because I admit that they can be significant, and even challenging at times. But you might also come to discover, that in some ways, we’re not so different after all …

What I’m realizing about “home”

Home.

I’ve heard the word, the discussions on what “home” means to different people, and have read numerous blog posts about the concept in the last year. And as you might expect, it’s a fairly big topic for those living outside of their passport country. If I’m honest, I have to admit that I’m even a bit tired of the conversation; not because it’s a bad one, but because I’ve been, in a sense, forced to consider the topic a lot these last 10 months.

I wasn’t looking to explore the topic of home, but moving away from the country you’ve grown up and known, and in which you are known to a degree you can’t be outside of it, somewhat forces you into considering it whether you want to or not. With that being said, I thought I’d explore what I’ve learned about the idea of home by writing about it. I’m comfortable – well, as much as someone who would, if left to my own preference and devices, put all of life into neat little boxes – knowing that my thoughts about home will shift and change the longer I live and the more I experience.

Before we moved to Thailand, I would have probably said, with about 95% confidence, that home is wherever I am with my husband and children. I’ve seen some pretty cool-looking wall decor that says, “Home is wherever I am with you” (denoting being with that special someone) and I like the thought. I really do. However, I could not hang such a sign in my house after learning what I have in the past year. My sign would have to say something like, “Home is largely … but not completely … wherever I am with you.” As much as I think such decor would bring about some interesting conversation with dinner guests, I think I’ll probably pass on having such a sign made for our walls at this time.

That idea that home is wherever I am with my husband and kids? It’s true, but I now would add some additional factors to a place being home. In the past year, I’ve discovered that, for me at least, the concept is a much more complex one than I had originally thought.

As I get older, I understand more and more that to be truly home is to be fully in the presence of God, the one who created me, knows me perfectly, and who made a way (Jesus) that I could be in perfect relationship with Him. The One in whose presence all that is broken and wrong with this world will fade away. I’ve now personally experienced or witnessed enough pain and consequences of both my own brokenness, as well as that of others, to be convinced deep down in my soul that this world is not as it should be. Because of this, I long for that eternal home more than I ever have, in varying degrees based on the day and my current circumstances.

But since my residence is currently set up on this earth, I now wrestle through what this concept of home currently means for me. As already established, it does, among other things, currently include being in the same place as my husband and two children. But beyond that, I now believe it includes being in a place where I am, in large part, understood by the culture and where I also understand – at least somewhat – the culture.

a few different aspects of "home" to me

a few different aspects of my current “home”

I remember the day months ago when I realize that I would never be very understood within Thai culture. This doesn’t sound like a profound realization; after all, why would I? I’m a guest in Thailand and I get that. We speak different languages, have very different histories (both as people and as the countries we’re from), and are very different culturally. But to feel in my gut that I live in a country where the majority of those around me will never culturally understand me? (Knowing that I’ll never completely understand them is also something I’ve considered, but that’s something to explore later.) That I’ll always be different? That, even if I could understand the language well (which I can’t beyond a very basic level), there will always be cultural nuances that I would have to explain because the way I think as a foreigner, and as an American, is very different? It brings about emotions hard to process. Such a realization can lend itself to a general feeling of lostness – how can I actually find my place here in Thailand if I’ll never “fit in?” It can also bring about a sense of loneliness, a general gut and heart “ache” at times.

Both things made me realize that America – or maybe more accurately, American culture (or at least parts of it) – is part of home for me. If I remained in Thailand for the rest of my life, I’m sure it would come to feel more like home. But knowing that I belong, in a sense that I never will here, in America, makes my passport nation – and its culture – part of home to me. That realization came as a surprise to me, although maybe it shouldn’t have. I just thought that home would be only wrapped up in the living of life with particular people, not with being part of a particular culture.

Maybe my thoughts on what home is will shift, maybe even in the near future. I’m guessing it will. Ah yes, yet another concept that refuses to be put away neatly in its own little box. As a result, I guess I’ll keep on living, considering, and understanding more about just what home means to me.

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My husband has an ongoing personal project that explores the concept of home through interview, still photography, and video footage of various people of different ages, race, and geographical location within the United States (hopefully to be expanded soon!). Check it out here – look for “the home project.”

My phrase for 2014

I have read multiple blog posts lately about the one word that people have chosen to guide their 2014. I like this idea better than making a list of specific goals for the new year. While I believe that making yearly goals and starting with one word to characterize your year are very similar in purpose, I like how beginning with one word sets up a framework, more of the big picture from which to work, for the year. That works better for who I am because I naturally tend toward getting sucked into the details of life and forgetting, or not even knowing in the first place, what the big picture is; why the details are important, and what the smaller ideas all point toward.

I liked the idea, but when I thought about 2014 and all I was hoping for in it, I just couldn’t come up with one word. All my thoughts came in phrases. So, I decided to throw the whole idea out.

Just kidding. I didn’t. And while you may laugh at the idea, there are those times when I throw something out because I can’t get it to “fit” just right within certain parameters, even when there’s plenty of freedom in which to move and flex the parameters. But I’m learning that more of life than not doesn’t fit all nice and neat into the little categories and the “black and whiteness” that I want it to fit. But I digress. Back to my phrase for 2014 …

Settle in. 

I find that it can be hard to settle in at times … to different roles I play, ongoing tasks that are just part of life, and to where I live (both geographically as well the specific house we currently view as part of our “home”), among other things. And by “settling in,” I am referring to the mindset and actions through which I embrace all of those different things, get comfortable in my own skin in each of them, become content in particular areas in which I’ve been discontent, and put down roots where needed.

I realize this sounds fairly vague, but bear with me as I continue to think it all through myself. Here’s an example. When we first moved to Colorado back when I was finishing up graduate school, we decided that we were just moving there for the summer. Well, things changed and we ended up staying for five years. Even during those years, we thought we might be moving on from Colorado at some point, but didn’t know when. As I result, there were areas in which I didn’t settle in. I never full decorated any of the 7 houses/cabins (yes, 7!) we lived in during those years. I probably wasn’t as intentional in some relationships as I should have been and wanted to be, because I wasn’t sure when were were leaving. In some senses, I never mentally settled into the mindset that “this is home” until we neared the end of those 5 years – and by that point, we knew we were going to move to Thailand.

Although it’s hard to have the “this is home” mindset (key to settling in, in my opinion) when you’re somewhere for an undetermined amount of time, I know it has to be possible. I’ve seen it happen. When we lived in CO, we got to know a family who was living in Colorado Springs for 1 year due to a temporary transfer with the husband’s company. I watched them jump right in to life in the Springs as they got involved in a church, in community goings-ons, and in relationships. It was incredibly inspiring to watch them seemingly not hold back merely because they were just going to be there for one year. And you know what? They ended up extending their stay for one additional year and then, when given the opportunity to stay indefinitely with the company office in the Springs, they took it and are living there indefinitely. But what if they hadn’t settled in that first year because they knew they were leaving? I think they would have missed out in multiple ways. But  they didn’t and I learned a lot from watching them.

Although an international move has its own specific set of nuances, many of the principles of the need to “settle in” remain. I don’t know how long we’ll be in Thailand, but what does it look like for us to settle in here?

And beyond that specific example, what does it look like to better settle into the role of being a mom and wife in ways I have not previously? Into being an adult in areas where I’ve resisted and wanted to remain a child? Into other areas of life where I, for whatever reasons, have not settled in?

I’m not sure. But I’m hoping and praying that 2014 will be characterized by such things. Here’s to the new year … and to settling in.

When you think of the new year, what words or phrases (or long, run-on sentences ;)) do you want to guide and characterize your 2014? 

Making new friends (or not)

The process of moving to a new location and making new friends is always interesting. When moving here to Chiang Mai, we had multiple contacts; a few of whom helped us extensively via email prior to us coming. But friends who chose to be our friends because they really knew us and not just because they knew someone else we knew? We had none.

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photo credit: central @ Stock Xchng

I have moved multiple times as an adult and know about that initial period after each move that can feel a bit lonely. I realize that period can last for just a few months or sometimes a much longer time. And even if you happen to know a few people in your new location, there could very well be no one who knows your “back-story;” no one who knows the brokenness that story includes but who still chooses to love you. I knew all this coming to Thailand, but had no idea what it would be like starting over with local friendships in a culture that was not my own.

Before arriving in Chiang Mai, I was aware that there is a fairly large expatriate community here. Many humanitarian organizations that work in the SE Asia region base their headquarters, or at least a regional office, here. Because of this, seeing other westerners is not all that uncommon of an experience, especially if you live in certain areas of the city. However, I am coming to find out that living in an area with this many western expats also brings with it some interesting dynamics I didn’t anticipate. The one that most relates to this post is the fact that many westerners here, for one reason or another, are not necessarily looking for more friends. Whatever the reasons for this, whether they seem “good,” or “bad,” it’s just a reality.

I remember the first day we were here … one of our contacts had picked us up and took us to a local mall to withdraw money in the Thai currency. I remember seeing a white woman and smiling broadly at her, thinking, “She’s western, I’m western, we can at least connect with a smile!” (Hey, I’m from the midwest – that’s how we do things!) Nope. I don’t even think she acknowledged me because, as I would soon find out, seeing another white person is not uncommon here. I also remember those first weeks where I would meet other women at a playgroup or at church and feel this almost desperate, “We’re both western and speak the same language – shouldn’t we be friends?!” kind of attitude, to which interest would often not be reciprocated or other circumstances would prevent further meetings. Just to clarify – it’s not that I don’t want to develop relationships with the Thai people I come into more regular contact with. I do, but the language barrier currently (until I learn more Thai) is a large deterrent to these relationships developing. As a result, as well as for other reasons, meeting others who speak the same language I do is something I’m really thankful for.

I also remember that period of time when I came to accept the reality that many others here were not looking for more friends or community. It was then that I stopped internally striving for friends (I doubt anyone I met would have sensed this striving, but I did). It was then I decided that I was going to reach out to encourage or make that first contact with the other women I met, no matter what I got back in return. It was then I decided to trust the Lord with the friends He has for me here, as well as the timing of them. And because of this decision, I have hung out with different women in the last months while holding loosely to whether or not those times will lead to deep friendships. I have tried to be a good friend, but try not to strive to make friendships happen that God does not have for me here. I feel a deep peace about it all, which is definitely a result of God’s grace, because the desire to have close friends in the same hemisphere (well, I do have a dear friend several countries away, but having close friends in-country could be nice) has not diminished.

I still don’t know how the whole friends “thing” will turn out here. But I have met several women (who I really enjoy) who have already gone out of their way to encourage, help, and show kindness to me, for which I’m really grateful. Yesterday my son became pretty sick, something that was unnerving for me in this unfamiliar place. While experiencing some fear that he may have dengue fever, I texted 2 friends here to ask them to pray, to which they both responded in encouraging ways. Throughout the day, other women here offered information regarding the doctors they take their kids to and several offered to help in any way they could. I believe their offers to be sincere and am acutely aware that it can be rare to know a few others who are willing to care for me and my family so early into living in a new location.

I know this is just the beginning of the process of having friends and being a friend here in Chiang Mai. I don’t know what that whole scene will look like 3 or 6 months down the road. But God is at work. And I am at rest.

A first time for everything …

There have definitely been many interesting, fun, and nerve-wracking “firsts” for me as of late. Some have been interesting and fun, but some were neither of those and only nerve-wracking. :/ When you’re in your home culture, it is fairly easy at times to control how many “firsts” you attempt and at what pace you attempt them. Here, it’s a bit different. Well, I could try to keep a tight control on such things here, but it would really keep me from things that are only going to make our time in Thailand richer, as well as “easier,” in some senses. Because of this, I find myself saying, “Oh, why not?” or thinking to myself, “C’mon, Dawn, you need to ‘put yourself out there’ on this one!” way more than I probably ever have. The process is tiring, exhilarating at times, and …. tiring. However, I’ve already done things I wasn’t sure I could do and my confidence is growing; more slowly in some areas than others, but nonetheless, growing.

Recently, for the first time, I have …

… driven a manual vehicle on the left side of the street while sitting on the right side of the car and shifting with my left hand. I think I got tired merely just typing that all out – wow. Driving here makes me feel like I am 16 years old again, except for the fact that my husband is in the passenger seat coaching me instead of my dad … and my 2 small children are in the backseat literally cheering me on. That is just plain weird.

… gotten a Thai massage. I know, I know, I lead a rough life. But you must know this about me; I don’t particularly like massages. I am ticklish and the amount of mental energy I have to put into not wiggling during the entire massage generally makes getting them a total waste of money and is antithetical to relaxation. But here? I decided to go for it and actually enjoyed it! For a variety of factors, the massage was done much better than any massage (um, all 2 or 3 of them) I’ve ever had done in the U.S.

… made my first batch of homemade spaghetti sauce and french toast – in one week. If you don’t think this is a big deal, ask my family. They’ll tell you they are very, very grateful for a bit of variety in our menu. 😉 Making meals I would have back in the States has come slowly as I find out which ones I can make with cost-effective ingredients here. Because of that and because I am just beginning to learn how to cook Thai food, that sauce and french toast is a big deal.

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See, Mom? I wear a helmet – no need to worry!

… driven a motorbike out in traffic! The previous few times I had ridden our motorbike was just around our neighborhood, so getting out into traffic was one of the nerve-wracking firsts for me. I literally had to give myself a verbal rear-end kicking to make this happen (anyone else out there have to do the same sometimes?) – I’m not joking. I just drove down the road a bit to a coffee shop and back, but it was a start. I was possibly the slowest one on the road at the time (not a problem, other vehicles just drive around you – road rage is not an issue here) and one time I gave it gas instead of using the brakes, but all was well.

… gone out for a “moms only” night with a few new friends. This was huge because it meant that a) I have met some other women who are willing to spend their Friday evening with me, b) there were no children present which = coherent, adult conversation, and c) I had the best chocolate I have had in the last 3 months in the cafe we went to. Need I say more?

eaten fried insects! Ok, ok, I didn’t do this one, but I did have the opportunity to buy some at a market last week. I passed, deciding not to “put myself out there” on this one quite yet. However, I did try durian, which could be a close 2nd. Regarding durian, people either love or hate this particular fruit and it’s actually banned from some public places because of its smell.

… gone to Burma/Myanmar.  Granted, it was just to renew our visa and we spent most of our time in the immigration office, but we did it. It represents the opportunity we have to go places in the surrounding areas that I never dreamed I would go. These opportunities are one of the amazing perks of living here.

All these “firsts” are definitely stretching for me, but I’m forging ahead!

How about you? What “firsts” have you attempted lately? What things are you needing to try for the first time that you are putting off? C’mon … get out there and do them!

And, if you need someone to lovingly give you a “verbal rear-end kicking,” just let me know. 😉

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