I’ve been living in Bangkok on and off for two years now. It’s become my base of operations, the place I return to when I am out of money and need to work. I’ve developed a network of friends, business contacts, learned the language, and mastered the city.
But now this chapter in my life is over. I must say good-bye to being an expat in the city.
I first came here with my friend Scott in 2005. We were on holiday and, upon landing in Bangkok, decided the first thing we had to do was figure out how to get out. We hated the city. It was dirty, crowded, polluted, seedy, and boring.
And when I returned to Thailand in 2006, I spent just 10 hours in the city before leaving for the islands. I couldn’t leave the city fast enough.
But, when I decided to learn Thai, I moved to Bangkok since this is the best place to learn the language (Bangkok Thai is proper Thai; learning it in one of the outside provinces would have given me a harsh local accent). I figured I would tough it out for a month and leave. But soon things changed, and I found myself living in the city. Then before I knew it, I had fallen in love. The city has a lot to offer if you know where to look.
As I leave, I can’t help but think about all the things this city has taught me.
Bangkok taught me that first impressions are almost always wrong. I hated the city when I first came here, yet the longer I stayed, the more the city opened up to me and the more I found it an exciting and riveting place to live. Had I judged it by my first impression of it, I never would have stayed and learned how to make it in a city. I never would have developed the network I would have.
Bangkok taught me that notions about safety are overrated. In the West, we’re super safety-minded. And if we aren’t, someone will be sure to sue us. But here you see little kids driving motorbikes and people running across busy streets, jumping on and off buses, and walking on sidewalks with gaping holes leading into pipes. Western lawyers would have a field day here. But by living here, I’ve learned that safety, while important, is not as important as having a level head. Few accidents happen because most people are just conscious of their surroundings and use their heads.
So are notions about cleanliness. Last night, I ate Thai food on the street next to a motorcycle stand. The night before I had chicken BBQ made with chicken that clearly had been sitting there for some time (on ice). The woman who cooks my Pad Thai uses her hands to make it. Yet here I sit, still alive. They say a lot of the reason children develop allergies is because we’re so hyper clean that their bodies don’t develop resistance. There’s no talk about peanut allergies and wheat allergies here. Our species lasted thousands of years a bit dirty. Bangkok taught me that a little dirt never really hurt anyone.
Bangkok taught me that I can be tone deaf yet still learn a tonal language.I love learning languages. I’m also horrible at learning them. It takes me a long time to pick a new one up. I still can’t roll my R’s when I speak Spanish even though I started studying it when I was in high school. Though I don’t believe it, my Thai friends tell me my pronunciation is very good. I’m not fluent, but I can hold a basic conversation with the taxi drivers. If I can get my head around Thai, my upcoming forays into French and German shouldn’t be so difficult.
Most importantly, Bangkok taught me I can make it anywhere. . I moved here not knowing anyone and spent the first weeks alone on my computer. Yet, I made friends, got a job, learned the language, found a girlfriend, created a social network. I managed to thrive in a foreign land. I navigated banking systems, rent, bills, and culture I didn’t understand. Bangkok showed me that I could be self-reliant and independent.
If I could start a life in a place like Bangkok, I could start a life anywhere. I could plop myself down anywhere and start a life. I could be who I wanted, make new friends, and live a life full of adventure. Now as I go to Taipei facing the same situation, I’m not worried about anything. If I can manage in one city, I can manage in another.
And now I wonder, after learning so much in Bangkok, what will Taipei teach me?
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Note: This article was originally published in 2009.