Tuesday, July 27, 2010


Living the life of an expatriate has its positive aspects as well as drawbacks. One of the most difficult challenges I face is the annual transition between two very different cultures: that of my temporary adopted home, and that of my native country. No matter which way I travel, whether from Thailand to America, or back, I find myself at an odd point for the first few days after making the trip. Regardless of how well I try to mentally adjust to the move, the change is so relatively abrupt that the 24 hours spent on the plane in transit is but a wink as if opening a door and stepping from one place to the other. And no matter how well I know each place, they both envelop me in an awkward embrace upon arrival, something like the eccentric relative you haven't seen for some time but feel obligated to attempt to hug: it just doesn't feel comfortable at that moment. But it may very well once you've spent some time together.

Part of the discomfort is, I think, the fact that there is always at least a twinge of regret I have in leaving one culture or the other. I love both places, so it isn't a matter of not being so excited about the trip that I can't wait to get there. It's more of a reluctance to let go of wherever I've been for a significant period of time even though I look forward to seeing the other.

So, here I am, Day 2 of my return to Thailand, gradually trying on the Thai culture, and hanging up America, not out of sight, as some of it will never come off, but rather laying it aside for a while. I don't hang it up completely of course; I wear much of it like a piece of jewelry. I can always be completely anonymous in America--it's possible to spend months at a time without an inkling of my other life showing--and equally impossible to do in Thailand: I could never hide my genetics here, even though I can hide my nationality fairly easily. Thais find it as difficult to tell the difference between me and other Euro-types as I do sorting Southeast Asians who live in the U.S. and speak English.

It takes me at least three or four days to take in the new surroundings, as familiar as they may be. I readjust to everything: Modes of transportation, the volume level of speech, currency value, culturally defined behaviors, interactions with others, which way to look first when crossing the street, even my humidity tolerance level is different depending on where I am. In America I sometimes feel as though I am eavesdropping when I suddenly realize that I understand what people around me are saying. In Thailand, it's easier to let conversations become part of the background noise, as my knowledge of Thai language is quite basic. It takes a few days to readjust to using Thai; I struggle to form even the simplest sentence that generally comes quite easily. It amazed me how long the pause was while I was giving directions to the taxi driver from the airport, struggling to determine the difference between the words for "left" and "right." I know it will come back, but not as readily as one might think.

As the days go by, I feel more and more "at home" regardless of which country it is, and I am able to--or perhaps unable to stop--letting go of where I've just been. Gradually I become more a part of the place where I have returned, and I push off from the "transition window" with increased confidence, the place where I've just left becoming a bit fuzzier, yet somewhere I will look forward to transitioning into again and again. That's the life one has when standing with one foot in each of two cultures.


Unknown said...

So, like, don't ever leave.

John Stiles said...

That's what they tell me in America!