That which induced my ire was a blog post written by an expat based on Phuket – she was bemoaning the lack of availability of her favourite brand of make up. I read it with the knowing smile of someone who has lived in Asia for over four years. Yep, all those products that look like the ones you can get back home but have whitening cream in them. It can be a nightmare.
I remember being in China and trying to find suncream that was just suncream without any chemical that would make me look like I was in a death metal band. My Chinese is pretty bad and the conversation went like this:
Me: Hello. [points at suncream] Don’t want white, don’t want white.
Shop lady: Well…that one’s blue.
Me: [Pointing animatedly at suncream and then at my forearm] No white, don’t want white.
Shop Lady: [Wordlessly picks a random bottle off the shelf and hands it to me] Please go away now.
Feeling triumphant I went home with my non-whitening suncream only to peel off the chinese sticker and see, in English – bold as brass – ‘Ultra-Mega White “Look Like a Corpse!”
I was very quick to point the finger of blame. At myself.
Had I have made more of an effort to learn Mandarin beyond the ‘more beer, thanks’ then I would have been more successful. But I didn’t, so I wasn’t.
Part of living as an expat is an acceptance that people will struggle to understand you and that things are not like home. That’s rather the point.
Unfortunately, the blogger in question has spectacularly failed to understand this key aspect of living in a foreign place. Her post very quickly moved from an amusing story of cultural miscommunication to a childish and ignorant rant about how come Thai people don’t speak better English and how life is hard and why it’s more expensive to buy Western goods here and oh my god it’s…so…unfair.
Petulant, poorly written (which is ironic) and just plain dumb. Something to perhaps be written off as someone having a bad day. Happens to the best of us.
The thing is this is just a tiny example of a wider issue that seems to affect long-term expats living in Thailand. To wit, the sudden and real loss of all logical thought, manners and respect for the people around them.
Take Sandra. Her life up until this point has been somewhat standard. Lived in the same area her entire life, married a guy she met at university and settled down with two kids of secondary school age. Had a part-time job in doctor’s surgery. Might have one too many glasses of port at Christmas. A comfortable, if not extravagant, life.
Suddenly the husband gets a job transfer to Thailand and her life is so utterly different. She has a maid, a nanny, a driver. Her children now go to a major international school and are surrounded by the Thai equivalent of aristocracy. She is surrounded by other expats ladies ‘what lunch’ and now regularly goes out until 3am most weekends. It starts as a novelty, the maid, and the nanny and the driver are so polite.
But very quickly what was unusual, fresh and exciting become de rigour. The politeness of the few Thai people she converses with now seems to be obsequiousness and that fawning deference seems right and proper. “Oh I told the maid five times that she needs to clean the whole underside of the table with an exact blend of linseed and bee’s wax but she just didn’t get it, kept mixing up the ratios. They really are like children at times. Oh, another G and T? At nine-thirty in the morning? I shouldn’t but I will, it is Tuesday after all.” Then it’s a just a hop, skip and a jump to an inflated sense to self-worth. Entitlement creeps in and colours all of her interactions with people from the check-out girl at the supermarket to her daughter’s teachers. Because no one tells her to go to hell and grow some manners she continues unabated, a singularity of indignant racism dressed in the mask of cultural superiority.
Slowly but inexorably she will be persuaded that she should invest in some plastic surgery her physical appearance will come to resemble the grotesque nature of her character. It should look like an improvement but becomes a chilling warning against the over use of Botox. Her facial expression is akin to a surprised tuna, her breasts are so heavily augmented that they are able to independently flag down a taxi in stormy weather, her nails so long and plastic that she could stand in for Wolverine.
The only point at which this facade is in jeopardy is on return visits to her home nation. Former friends will be confronted with an arrogant, tanned, remodelled version of their old tennis partner who they have increasing less in common with. This only goes to reinforce the idea of isolation and superiority. “They just don’t get how hard it is”.
We all encounter frustrations when living the expat life. Sometimes it can be something as simple as an inability to buy Lemsip when you feel sick. Or the driving. Or the bureaucracy. The danger comes when that frustration moves into intemperate judgement. The yardsticks of money and western individualism become dangerous barometers when used to place value on a section of society for whom these things are alien.
Ultimately, being an expat means accepting and adapting to the culture and society you now live in rather than attempting to strong-arm your idea of society onto a culture that is a thousand years old. If that means you need to drive like it’s a demolition derby then so be it, if you need to smile and bow when you want to punch someone in the face then do it, if you have to spend four hours in a queue to renew your driving licence then you’d better suck it up and take a book.
And if you going to have an apoplexy when you can’t find your favourite brand of mascara, then maybe you should go home.