I’m so glad I made the decision to move to Thailand in 2002, but it hasn’t always been easy living here. The first few years were particularly bumpy due to my enthusiasm for drinking alcohol in super-human quantities. Here are the five biggest mistakes I’ve made as an expat in Thailand:
1. I Became Convinced The Thai Way of Life Was Superior
I arrived on Phangan Island for a two-weeks holiday in 2001 after being inspired by the book The Beach by Alex Garland. It turned out to be the best holiday of my life – I wasn’t too disappointed when nobody asked me to join them living on an uninhabited island like in the book. Thailand felt incredibly exotic but most important of all, it felt liked I’d found something I’d always been looking for.
I decided that Thailand had to be the most perfect place on earth – there weren’t enough adjectives in my Thai dictionary to describe how great everything was. I came back to Thailand a year later, and I’ve never left.
My expectations for Thailand were naive and incredibly unrealistic. I became obsessed with the culture, and I wanted to make the Thai way of life my own. It took a bit of time before the horrible realization hit me that Thailand wasn’t as perfect as I’d believed. I felt betrayed, and I began to experience culture shock.
2. I Became Convinced That Moving to Thailand Would Fix Me
I wasn’t such a happy-camper before I arrived in Thailand. I had a good career as a nurse, but I also had an alcohol problem that was getting harder for me to hide. I’d experienced a complete mental breakdown a few years earlier due to alcohol, and I could feel myself moving rapidly in that direction. I blamed my environment, and I became convinced that moving to Thailand would fix me.
I somehow managed to survive as a drunk for my first five years living here – my wonderful wife deserves much of the credit for this. It turned out that Thailand wasn’t such a swell place to escape alcoholism at all – sort of like a binge-eater moving into Willy Wonker’s Chocolate Factory. I found out the hard way that moving to Thailand not only meant bringing my problems with me but also having them magnified.
3. I Became Convinced The Thai Way of Life Was Inferior
Culture shock can be tough to deal with because it involves many of the same symptoms as depression. Cracks begin to appear in my unconditional love for the Thai way of life at about year two.
I remember one day becoming absolutely furious with the way the workmen were laying down tarmac on the road near our house – they didn’t seem to be doing it the way I’d seen it done in Europe. I had this almost irresistible urge to tell them how shit they were at their job – even though I knew nothing about laying tarmac (I didn’t know about Google back then).
After the incident with the tarmac it became impossible for me to ignore the reality that I’d developed culture shock. The problem wasn’t the Thai way of life at all – the problem was me.
The irony of culture shock is that it is usually the things we originally loved the most about the new country that become the the focus of most of our suffering. The thing I really admired about Thai people was their laid back ‘mai pen rai’ attitude to life. Within a few years this unhurried approach to everything began to bug the shit out of me.
4. I Expressed Open a Skepticism About The Beliefs of Thai People
I lived in a Thai village in rural Thailand for about 5 years, and I was surrounded by people who believed in ghosts, magic, and the ability to make merit. I saw these beliefs as cute, but I also felt they were due to lack of education.
I took to the role of super-skeptic and tried to save the locals from the horror of non-scientific ways of thinking by explaining how ghosts didn’t exist. I also upset my wife by mocking the beliefs of our neighbors. I was an insufferable arrogant prat, and I feel embarrassed by my attitude now – thankfully this phase didn’t last very long.
5. I Tried Using Assertiveness to Get My Way in Thailand
I come from a culture where the ‘squeaky wheel gets the oil’. I’d attended lots of assertiveness training courses, and I felt confident in my ability to assert my rights. The problem was that this type of assertiveness doesn’t work in Thailand – in fact, being assertive is probably the worst thing you can do if you want to benefit from good service.
How to Avoid My Expat Mistakes in Thailand
- Have realistic expectations if you plan to move to Thailand – nowhere is perfect
- Sort out your demons before you come to Thailand – don’t bring an alcohol problem to Thailand because there is a huge risk it will end badly for you.
- Be aware of the symptoms of culture shock and don’t allow it to destroy your life in Thailand
- Don’t come to Thailand to save the locals from themselves – you’ll just end up looking like a twat
- It is far more effective to use a smile and humor to get your way rather than assertiveness