June 1, 2011

A Reflection: 6th Year in Bangkok

I could still recall how I felt when I was due to leave for Thailand on a job posting in 2005.

I was excited, but apprehensive.

I felt liberated, but wary.

I was sad having to leave family and friends behind, but hopeful.

I was, in a nutshell, slightly all over the place, a little overwhelmed and full of anticipation of the unknown. Despite all of that, I was certain of one thing and one thing only: It would be good for my soul.

Looking back, right around this time six years ago, the move to Thailand had indeed paved a way for all the remarkable things and marked a new beginning for everything that has so far happened in my life.

I have been told by our Thai colleagues that most foreigners feel that Thailand is actually one of the hardest places to survive and fit-in, especially in the workplace, mainly because of the culture. To that, I personally could not agree more, and given my love-hate relationship with Thailand, I do sometimes wonder: a) Why am I still here b) How could I have tahan-ded (Singlish for tolerated) and survived here this long?

I’ll be one of the first to concur that yes, living here surrounded by the complexities of Thai culture was hard, but I believe when in Rome…

But then again, to be able to live here and keep some sanity, one really has to find a good balance and learn to adapt well without losing your own value system. It is probably one of the most difficult things I have done to say the least. At the end of the day, it is about knowing when to when to pick your battles.

I have to, in the course of my work, remember that Thailand is a very much “face” culture. As a non-Thai, it takes a long, long time before one can earn the respect of a Thai subordinate and colleagues. While respect is given to a certain extent, a large part of it needs to be earned…and that means having to eat your sometiems not-so-humble pie, and to really listen without judgement. That also means keeping your pie-hole shut, keep your thoughts to yourself, walking away and stay detached.

It is not always as straight-forward as you’d like it to be, and from my personal experience, it takes time to figure out the complexities of Thai culture in the workplace. It is HARD.

I am certainly no expert in this area as I have been confused and frustrated many a time over; but I have understood a thing or two to be able to maneuver my way through without overtly offending anyone (I hope!) and still get a decent job done.

What I have been exposed to here is beyond words, and certainly not easy for me to describe. The few tips which helped in my survival here is to just be open to what you see and hear, while not be too set in your ways. In my case, having Silver Bullet as my sounding board saves my sanity as he would more or less have the same experience and sentiments that I usually face.

If anything, regardless of how you feel, sincerity in your words and actions do go a very long way with the Thais. Sometimes, just sometimes, certain things are just not worth pursuing and then it is just time to let go and move on.

Time and again, my thoughts would then drift to our life here in Bangkok. While it has been “home” to us, it does not exactly feel like home. You know what I mean?

In a way, while we do like living here (sometimes! and depending on the context), we both started feeling a little less passionate about staying here longer. For us, it is not exactly HOME since:

  • Our families and friends are so far away
  • We do not own anything to our names
  • As a foreigner, we cannot own a land to call it our own

Because it is hard to really integrate with the locals here, it sometimes feel like we are just living in our little own cocoon…oblivious to what else is happening outside our little, perhaps, sometime deluded world.

It becomes a little scarier with Spud being born as schooling becomes a major problem for us when she gets to the schooling age – the international schools are horrendously expensive and something which we cannot afford, whilst the public schools here are a bad fit for us.

Besides, even if by some miracle that Spud is able to go to the international school later on in life, I don’t like the idea of her schooling being a privileged one. To me, that means missing a good chunk of time in her formative years being in a proper public school just like any other ordinary kids and actually get into the real groove of social dynamic— growing up with kids with ordinary parents, leading very ordinary lives.

While it was work that initially brought us here, we can only wonder how long it will be before we say enough is enough. Living in Thailand is nice, but is not quite the reality for us. As I found out, a true friendship is quite hard to forge, given how superficial things and people (foreigners or not) can be. I guess it accounts for a lot of things given that the few people we know and enjoy spending our time with have all left Thailand.

And, as every year gets added to our time in Bangkok, I can’t help but think that our time here is numbered.

That being said though, I feel nomadic, and somewhat lost, as after being away from home for so long, I don’t feel the affinity to a particular place for us to call our home.

As of this time, we both are still paying our corporate dues for at least a few more years before we make a decision to leave Thailand. At this stage, we both don’t know where we would like to be or where we can go as a lot of it depends on our jobs.

I guess, only time will tell where in the world we will eventually end up in.

I really wish I knew.

Posted by:    |    1 Comment
  1. Helen

    You are so right about Thai culture in the workplace – one of the most difficult places I have ever worked in, it’s so hard to penetrate through the hierarchy and the face system. You three need to go bush with the wombats!


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