"I should like to bury something precious in every place where I've been happy and then, when I was old and ugly and miserable, I could come back and dig it up and remember." - Evelyn Waugh
Southeast Asia: the name of the region brings up associations with coconuts, bananas, beaches, the infamous Golden Triangle, beautiful women, and adventure. People often expect me to have stories like a character in a Graham Greene novel or a National Geographic anthropologist.
And Bangkok: city of angels, food, sounds, smells, traffic, cacophony, piety, sin, contradiction, luxury malls, expat lewdness, ostentatious wealth alongside abject destitution, and a truly idiosyncratic sex industry. How did I manage to live so far from home in such a strange place for several years? And how have I changed as a result of my experiences there?
I cannot answer these questions right now. My self-awareness hasn't caught up with my new surroundings. What I have noticed, however, is that there are many things about Asia that I miss. I believe it was Warren Miller who said, "Once you take that first lift ride, your life will be messed up forever." Warren was of course referring to skiing, but I guess it's the same when a man travels to Asia. That singular mixture of chaos and confusion becomes an addiction, and wanderlust has no cure but more travel and novelty.
I have been living in the US for the past several months, living a peripatetic and nomadic existence that is in many ways far more adventurous than the relatively quotidian and pedestrian life I lived as a teacher in Bangkok. To my surprise, there has been little reverse culture shock. In fact, I even like the comparative lack of bureaucracy and increase in order. How does Thailand manage to have more bureaucracy and yet more chaos as well? God knows, but that's part of its appeal, isn't it?
Then again, there are far more petty rules in the West: no smoking outside of bars in New York (I don't smoke, but really?), open container laws, jaywalking laws much stricter than those in Singapore, etc. I suppose I will have to get used to this before I try to bribe my way out of a traffic ticket.
With climate change increasing the heat, the temperature in Colorado, where I am currently working on an organic farm, has not even been all that different from Bangkok's, though the humidity is of course greatly lessened. Western toilets are a nice perk, which you don't always find in Thailand.
I find that there are many things about life in Southeast Asia that I miss. Here are a few notable ones:
There are certainly some foods I am enjoying eating more often in the US, including French and Mexican cuisines, which are hard to find in Bangkok, but finding authentic Thai food has been near impossible so far. That blend of chili, Thai basil, and garlic that stimulates the senses isn't there any more, and I find myself adding copious amounts of garlic to everything I cook. The variety in the States is nice, but it's hard to beat the flavor of a good, Thai meal.
Everything in the US is at least twice as expensive. Certainly, things such as shaving cream are much cheaper, but overall living costs go up significantly. This does come with better infrastructure, but not as much better as you would expect. It seems like the US is pretty far behind the rest of the developed world when it comes to public transport, health care, and Internet access.
Overt Friendliness and Smiles
In most of the ASEAN region, but in Thailand and Laos especially, people were so friendly and helpful, accompanied by ubiquitous smiles. Even the language barriers did not mask the genuine curiosity and kindness of many people I encountered, particularly in Isaan and southern Laos. Almost everyone I have met in the US has been incredibly polite, helpful, and kind, but the playful mannerisms and smiles are gone. The kindness is there, but the hospitality and joviality are gone.
Pace of Life
I may not be living in a fast-paced area of Manhattan or Chicago, but there seems to always be more pressure to "do something" here in the West. This isn't necessarily a bad thing. The "mai pen rae" attitude in Thailand usually frustrated me. However, now that it's gone, I sometimes miss the days I spent idly wandering the streets of Bangkok, looking for serendipitous adventure.
In Thailand, you can show up to a bus at 11:00 pm at night to go from Bangkok to Trat (about 6 hours away). Most bus routes longer than an hour in the US stop at about 7 pm. It certainly takes some getting used to. Taxis are far too expensive in the US. Ubers may be more reliable here than in Thailand, but you would be surprised how many towns still don't have Uber in the States.
Sense of Community
In many ways I would prefer a more integrated expat-Thai community in Bangkok, but many expats tend to congregate together. I disliked it at the time, but now that it's no longer there for me, I miss that sense of community. In a country with people from similar backgrounds such as the US, you have to work harder to find your own community of people with similar interests. Thank God for apps such as Meetup.
Now, I am off to new adventures. In September, I will be moving to Monrovia, Liberia for at least four months. T.I.T. (This Is Thailand) becomes T.I.A. (This is Africa). I am excited for my new travels, but I do hope to see Thailand again. Off to sign up for The North Face 100 km race in Khao Yai I suppose!