There are lots of different reasons people come to live in Thailand. For some it is for work, but for most people they come for the lifestyle and work only because they need the money or because they are bored. For some people they come because they have started a relationship with a Thai person. There are also people who come to live in Thailand because they are on the run from the police or something else equally worrying. Whatever the motivation for coming to Thailand the key determinant of how well they get on in the Land of Smiles is their ability to integrate with the new world around them.
Why Integrate Yourself in Thailand?
This may sound like an obvious or facile point. A ‘truism’ often stated by only those with a romantic view of Thailand, or people with an unrealistic liberal viewpoint. Not so. Being able to integrate is important on practical and emotional levels and very few foreigners who come to live in Thailand really get it.
Preconceptions of Foreigners coming to live in Thailand
From my experience, people who go to live abroad do so with a number of preconceptions:
Firstly, they believe that they can change the bad aspects of their life at home, such as the weather or the expensive cost of living, whilst maintaining the good aspects, which largely relate to a ‘first-world’ living standard with comfortable homes, good medical services and digital entertainment whenever required.
Secondly, they believe that they only need to understand the language and the culture to the extent that it allows them to enjoy where they live: to be able to order food in a restaurant or attend a religious festival like Loi Kratong. Because they got on OK on holiday with no communication skills or wider cultural understanding they think they can do the same when they come to live in Thailand.
Thirdly, they think it will be easy for them to build relationships with Thai people, because everyone was really friendly with them when they came on holiday, but also that they won’t need to because there is an ex-pat community they can spend time with and if they need a Thai person to do something to help them they can simply pay for the service.
All these Preconceptions are False
Now let me tell why these preconceptions are really wrong when it comes to living in Thailand, and hopefully at the same time prove my case to you that the number one most important thing an ex-pat in Thailand has to do is to integrate.
Falsehood Number 1: Life in Thailand is not a ‘pick-a-mix’ of lovely Thai culture and weather to be selected alongside the better aspects of ‘first world’ living. It is a complete change. You can’t live in the same way as you do back home. The infrastructure is not up to the same standards as in Europe. Power and water stop regularly. Public transport breaks down often. Roads get closed. Things are not always available for purchase. The hospital cannot provide the right level of care. It is too hot to go out in the day during some months. The list goes on and on. The only way to cope with all this to start to do as the locals do – which means ‘making do’ with what you can get and not worrying about what you can’t. A key part of integration into a new country is replacing what you cannot get with what you can, so that you don’t go entirely without.
Falsehood Number 2: You need to learn at least some of the language and about the culture simply to function on a day to day level, and this becomes increasingly important the further away you are from Bangkok. Most Thai people have a poor grasp of English, even the younger generation who study it at school, except of course that is Thai people who work in the tourism industry. If you come to live in Thailand you are no longer a holiday maker and unless you are rich (and you like wasting money) you will not be able to afford to buy everything from people catering to tourists. The difference in price of buying things from vendors at local prices and buying things at tourist prices is massive – often as much as twice the cost. And it is not just about buying thing cheaply. Many of the highlights of life in Thailand are cultural. Interesting foods, interesting and unusual places to visit, celebrations, family occasions, and the such like are things short visit tourists are unlikely to experience. This is a great loss because, for me at least, they are the best things about Thailand and never experiencing them means that you never get to know Thailand and you will always feel detached and isolated in the country where you have chosen to reside: an outsider doomed to roam Thailand alone with a metaphorical ‘mark of Cain’ on their forehead only ever observing but never participating.
Falsehood Number 3: It is not easy to build genuine relationship with Thai people and a failure to do so can create real problems for a foreigner living in Thailand. On many occasions during my time in Thailand I have needed the kind of help which is not provided for money, but out of love or friendship. Without this help I would have been in serious difficulty. The problem in building these types of relationship is not for the greater part, as many foreigners in Thailand believe, because Thai people are racist. The issue is that European or North American culture is so different to Thai culture, as different as Latin languages are to Asian languages. Without realising it foreigners in Thailand do many many things that are really off-putting to Thai people and this makes them very reluctant to want to form genuine relationships with foreigners who are seen as being very rude. The kinds of behaviours which are seen as positive in Western cultures, particularly being assertive, are big negatives in Thailand. I see foreigners in Thailand unsuccessfully interacting with Thai people on a daily basis, and the conclusions which foreigners tend to come to about this lack of success are startling. For many foreigners in Thailand they view Thai people as being somehow defective in their attitudes, and that these attitudes need to be adjusted. This is often the root cause of the problems they encounter interacting with Thai people. I am not an advocate of some kind of cultural relativism which attempts to justify the unjustifiable. Some things are wrong even if they are a long standing feature of a cultural. What I am though is a realist. Thai people are not going to be changed into thinking your way, you need to start thinking their way. And that is the final step in really successful integration.
‘When in Rome..’ as the saying goes.
If Are Not Prepared to Integrate Then Do Not Move to Thailand
If you are not prepared to integrate with Thailand and its people then do not come to live here. It will become a living nightmare for you. You are better off visiting every year and enjoying the good bits. If you come it is a ‘warts and all’ experience and part of that experience will be unpleasant. The question is whether the good out weighs the bad and it never will if you don’t attempt to integrate yourself.