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Monday, November 18, 2013

27

13 Months Alone in Bangkok

Jessica Mack is a women's rights consultant living in Bangkok. 

So: how did you get here?

In a nutshell, I'm in Bangkok because my life sort of fell apart. I ended a 7-year relationship and I moved out of my apartment, leaving my cat and car and all my stuff—and I was staying with a friend, and then I got into a bad bike accident. Mentally and emotionally and physically, I was just done.

So I kind of took the opportunity to stop working for awhile—with my arm in a cast it was hard to type. I gave myself permission to drop out of that part of my life for a few weeks, and I started thinking about Asia. I had been to Bangkok the year before to visit friends, and I felt like it was a good place for me, and maybe I needed to go. At the time I wasn't sure what I needed except that I needed to go.

And I got my birth chart read, which is something I wouldn't normally do, but I was totally collapsed and I was just looking for a way to understand my life in any way I could. In the aftermath, I saw a shaman, an astrocartographer, a life coach, a therapist.

Which was the most helpful? 

Having really wonderful friends was the best thing of all. But with the astrocartographer, what they do is they read your birth chart and then identify places in the world that are better and worse for you, analyzing the meridians that are running all over. And I gave him places that were significant for me, and he told me that he’d found that southeast Asia was really good for me. “Don't go to Nairobi, go to Bali.” So this plan started to form in my head to go to Asia by the end of the summer.

So he was confirming a feeling you’d already had. What was it about Bangkok that made you feel like it was a good match for you, previously?

Oh, this amazing combination of energy and chaos, but also lightness. People were just warm, laughing more. It’s hard to explain, but I loved it.

So then, serendipitously, I applied for and got a job in Bangkok.

The same sort of work you’d done before?

Yes. I was working with the UN on gender-based violence projects. So that happened in a week or two, and I bought a one way ticket to Bangkok leaving 9 days after I bought it. I just jumped off. I was there for a six-month contract consultancy, so I thought, okay, a few months.

What did you do right when you got there? Were your friends from the previous year still there?

They were, but when I landed they were out of the country in Europe for two weeks. So I booked myself into a hotel and said, “I’m going to find an apartment in two days."

What?!

And I did, through colleagues. Yeah, it was really early on a Thursday morning when I landed, and I actually went to work that day and got caught in a monsoon, and then I found my apartment.

A monsoon! Holy shit. Okay, what’s your apartment like? Do you live by yourself?

Yeah, a furnished one bedroom. I just found it, and it was the first time I’d ever lived by myself, actually, and I got settled while my friends were still out of town. A week after I arrived, I had my birthday all alone, which was kind of perfect after everything that had happened.

What was your state of mind right when you got there?

I think I was little incredulous about what I’d done. I was pretty sad, too. I spent a lot of time crying by myself, which felt not even sad but necessary. It was a very extreme feeling of intense alone-ness, but in that way it was also exciting.

What was it like getting to know the city?

People here are really friendly to foreigners, so for being alone and nursing a heartbreak, this is a wonderful place to be. I just started walking around the neighborhood, getting to know the various food carts, street vendors, stores.

What does your neighborhood look like?

People say it's like the Williamsburg of Bangkok, but I don't even know what that means! I guess it's supposedly a cool, bohemian, artist hipster area. It's pretty bustling, tree-lined, big apartments and small little houses. There are a lot of wealthier young Thai people here, not as many foreigners. So it's got a good mix of cool bars and restaurants but also just nitty-gritty street stalls. My favorite all-time street vendor is this woman who sells pork satay: a dollar for 10 sticks.

What is the cost of living like?

Relatively low for expat standards and for an urban environment. I live in a furnished one bedroom for $600 a month, in the sort of building that has a gym and a pool. This kind of place in New York would cost four or five times as much, for sure.

You can get very fancy here—there are lots of big high rises, and people have full service apartments with maids. Every service you can imagine, you can probably have it done. It's a pretty surreal environment to live in if you're not used to that.

Do you hang out with mostly expats? Friends with your coworkers?

I mostly work from home now, but I started off working at the UN building and met people through that. With the expat crowd here, you have the development sector folks, the people who work in hospitality, the journalists, the teachers. But my friend group is sort of scattered in terms of any uniting quality—they're mostly expats, although I do have some Thai friends.

The only real common thing is that everyone has lived abroad elsewhere. Living internationally, traveling, existing in other cultures is part of everyone’s life who you meet here—and that’s a really wonderful connection. The friends that I have here, I haven't known them for that long but I feel intensely close to them. I trust them. It’s sort of like meeting at summer camp.

You’ve got such an interesting job—can you tell me more?

I've been working as a women's rights and reproductive health consultant for about three years.

How did you get into that?            

I actually did my graduate work in Buddhism, and wanted to be a professor of Buddhist studies. But then I had this really formative experience in northern India working with Tibetan Buddhist nuns—the most rad women, living extremely remote parts of the Himalayas—and I was like, "I can't be in academia, I want to be in the real world."

So I started working with Planned Parenthood in New York City, and then I got burned out and moved to Seattle with my then-boyfriend, and just was lucky to continue to get projects, these various combinations of research and writing.

What are these women’s issues like in Bangkok?

I’ve mostly been focusing on violence against women, which is a big problem in this region. What’s particularly interesting is the stereotype that there’s a passivity to Asian culture—this idea that it’s like, “Oh, no, we’d never hit our women,” when the reality is also sometimes “unless they burn the food.” So, in this region, governments are just starting to admit that there's a problem; in Laos, it was just a few years ago that the government ever addressed it, and people here don’t talk about it.

Bangkok is a very interesting place to be a Western feminist. A lot of people think sex tourism when they think of this city—and there’s definitely some element of that here, but it's way more complicated. On the one hand, Thai culture seems really open in terms of sex and gender, more so than American culture. There are a lot of people openly transgressing gender boundaries in the way they act and dress, and there is a pretty strong trans community here. I find that so inspiring, and so refreshing.

But at the same time, it's all underpinned by what seems to be, still a very strict and binary patriarchy. “Women are like this, men are like that.” Women are feminine and not that powerful, and men are in charge and can do what they want. That's the sort of entrenched attitude that makes violence here so pervasive. While I do think it's an open place for trans people, or gender-queer people, it's not a utopia. Violence and intolerance still happen and there's discomfort with the in-between.

Do people make exceptions for you because you’re American?

Well, it’s funny. I have short hair, and the other day I got in a taxi, wearing jeans and a tank top and short hair and glasses, and my taxi driver asked me if I was a ladyboy—there’s that term katoey, used for cis men who dress and live as women.

I really didn't mind, but I was taken aback. First that he would ask me that, and second that I would appear like that to him, but also I knew I just didn't register as what he thought a woman would look and dress like.

So by now you've stayed past your original work assignment.

Yeah. I didn't feel ready to go when the six months was up. I’d felt so lost in the life I’d had in Seattle, and being here and creating something that was completely new that was my own—it was great, restorative, really wonderful. Everything was fun. I told myself I’d stay until I had a reason to go back, and now I do—I’ve got a job in Seattle.

Was it ever tempting to you to just keep moving?

Yeah, I’ve always been open to that. If the right job had come up in Ethiopia or Cambodia, I 100% would consider it, would do it. But I care so much about my work, so I sort of let myself follow that. And I know I don’t have to stay in Seattle if I don’t want to. I can come back.

You’ve traveled all over while you were there—you mentioned Japan, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Malaysia, Kenya.

Yeah, I sort of just never said no. That's how I want to spend my money and my time. I’m lucky that my work is flexible.

What images come to mind from these trips?

Thailand—the green mountains, the rice paddies in the north. Also the beaches, that “Is this really real” feeling, when you think about those times you were in frigid winter wind and you can’t imagine. And I went to Japan twice and spent some time in Tokyo and Osaka—that was amazing, those streets, that mix of sophistication and ridiculousness. I think about staring out of a lot of windows, eating new things.

Any foods that you would have not expected to find yourself eating?

In Vietnam, I was on a snorkeling trip, and they fished out a sea urchin from deep water, cut them open, and we ate them.

What was that like?

A delicious paste that tasted like wind and water! Oh, man, it’s really just the quality of the food, not the weirdness—the ridiculous Kobe beef in Japan, things I would never order in the States, because I’m still like a child when it comes to cooking and eating. I’ve eaten lots of really, really spicy things. Fried bugs.

What do you think makes you such a flexible traveler?

In terms of personal traits, I think being a good listener and good observer. You can't help but stick out in a new environment—you are a foreigner, there's so much you're not going to know—but I just sit back and take things in. I’m not a big planner, I don’t think about how I want a trip to be. I also try not to be in my own world. I care about connecting with people: I don’t want to miss responding to anyone, to the woman who sweeps the street who’s going to stop what she’s doing and say hello.

On a practical level, I always have earplugs and an eye mask and eye drops to take the edge off of any environmental things.

Is Bangkok really polluted?

Yeah. I get sinus infections a lot. Actually, once I had a sinus infection and went to buy a Neti pot and my nostril were too big for it. Cultural nostril profiling!

Do most people in the city speak English?

Most people do learn it in school, but fewer speak it comfortably. I’ll speak English in a hotel environment or something, but I almost always try to speak Thai, whatever Thai I can.

Did you start learning the language as soon as you got there?

Yeah. Answering "how tall are you" in Thai was one of the first things I learned ("185 centimeters" is my answer). I have a friend who's fluent in Thai and I’d ask him what things meant, and then I had a Thai tutor for several months. It’s been really fun. People laugh at you a lot for everything but it never feels hostile, never makes you feel shy. And the level of connection just goes up exponentially.

How would you describe Bangkok at large?

Eclectic chaos. There's stuff to buy everywhere, every street corner, shopping malls and food carts and total sensory overload. And the nightlife—the very famous hardcore red light districts, crazy clubs, staying up till 8 or 9 AM. It’s a place where anything seems possible. The weather is amazing, it's super bright and colorful—the normal taxi color is bright fuchsia, the other is bright yellow—the whole city is just pulsating.

I love to ride motorcycle taxis, some of my favorite memories are at 60 kilometers per hour on the back of a motorcycle. And here, you go out, you meet people, you get invited places. It’s open and unpredictable. Of course, it’s also smoggy and there’s crazy traffic and the bad experiences you’ll have anywhere.

Basically, Bangkok reminds me of NYC if everyone was super high on life. The Thai New Year, in April, is this three-day countrywide water fight and it’s the most fun I’ve had in my whole life.

I also once saw Snoop Dogg.

What?????

Yeah. At the end, he was like, “It’s time to smoke a fucking J,” and just lit up this giant blunt onstage. Bangkok is very strict on drugs, as strict as they are lenient on prostitution, so it was really, really funny to see Snoop be Snoop.

These are very inspirational details you are giving me. And now you are leaving! Do you feel like being here has cleared out your head the way you wanted?

I don't know that I’ve cleared my head out completely, but it's okay. We're all in a lifelong process of clearing our heads out. And this has been such a ridiculously transformative year for me, such a hard and fun adventure. I feel like I’ve been in this snow globe, an isolation chamber that's been awesome. And now, I don't know, I don't know what I’m going back to, but I know this experience will continue to serve me in ways I haven’t anticipated yet, and ways I didn’t anticipate when I sort of dropped the mic on my old life.

I’m going to miss—well—the motorcycle rides—the pork skewers—and just that feeling of possibility. I’ve been lucky to travel so many places in my life—three months here and there, India, countries in Africa. And it's so different when you really live somewhere. To commit to a home that's so far from your real home, and then have it become your real home—it's magic, in some way.

Previously: "Six Weeks Alone on the Camino de Santiago Pilgrim Trail"



27 Comments / Post A Comment

lasso tabasco

This is great! I am starting to think about living abroad again for a little while. I love reading about how and why other people do it! I'd love to learn more about the nature of her job and what it specifically entails, it sounds fascinating.

carolinaclay

omg so good thanx ^_^@y

apolsasam

Wow! Awesome! This would be totally such a great adventure. Nice. This seems really cool though. - Paul Kadri

                      O

Oh man, I am dying to live and work abroad (especially in SE Asia), but I just can't figure out how to make it happen. Great interview, glad these traveling/living abroad alone interviews are back!!

xxAnniexx

I love this series, what a great addition! Related question: How does one find a job overseas (or in New York, or anywhere, ha, ha!)? Any tips from those in the know?

katzenklavier

@xxAnniexx I have some tips! I moved to Rio de Janeiro two years ago and it was a great decision. Way more fun than New York.

It totally depends on your skill set, but unless you already know a foreign language or are really high up in your field you kinda have to start out teaching English. I moved here without only a volunteer job set up ahead of time and found work teaching private English lessons after a few days. (Depending on the country, it can be useful to get a TEFL certification. I got one but I wish I had just lied about it because no one ever checks. I think Asia is generally stricter though.) Many volunteer positions offer housing, especially in Latin America. I found good stuff on this janky site: http://www.volunteersouthamerica.net/

If moving without a job stresses you out you can look for jobs on a site called eslcafe.com. In my experience, though, private lessons usually pay better than formal jobs at schools. I found my students by talking to people on buses and posting on the local craigslist type site.

I hate teaching English so I've also supplemented my income doing translation, voice overs, nude modeling, and working online for an American company.

Once you get established somewhere you have a better chance of finding real job opportunities. I work in international development type stuff so I got a paying job at an NGO. You can also look for grants and fellowships in your field.

Visa rules are really different in every country though, so you should research that thoroughly. I'm not allowed to work in Brazil so all my work is under the table.

Good luck!!

xxAnniexx

@katzenklavier Ah thank you, this is great info! I had a feeling that teaching ESL was the most efficient way to get my foot in the work-abroad-door. It sounds like you really worked it in Brazil from all angles, that's inspiring to hear! And now that you mention it, Rio definitely sounds more fun than New York...

titsgrande

I lived and worked in Prague for 10 months without knowing anyone going there. Best 10 months of my life so far.
Makes me want to do something like that again!

mochi

@titsgrande How is this done?

mochi

@mochi accidentally liked my own comment...

titsgrande

@mochi for most people I met in Prague they had their TEFL (teaching English as a foreign language) course, as English is only the 4th most spoken foreign language in the Czech Republic (After Slovakian, German, Russian and Polish), so lots of opportunity to teach it, especially to young kids.
I got lucky because I grew up in Romania and knew people who knew people who got me a job there (doing HR for a media company).
Try Expats.cz which is a Czech website for foreigners has everything from houses to jobs and restaurant reviews. There are similar ones for all European countries.
Hope this helps!

Brunhilde

Oh man, Seattle is the worst city to fall apart in. Way to get out!

Lila Fowler

Where is the 'Williamsburg' of Bangkok?! I live in wayyy rural Thailand and have very little fondness for Bangkok, mostly because it just seems like an endless maze of malls and traffic. But, anyways: Recommendations for good places to drink/grub/hang out in BKK?

Sea Ermine

@Lila Fowler Maybe she's talking about Soi Ari?

Gene

Jessica uses the term "cis" incorrectly here, right?

simone eastbro

@Gene in an american context it would be incorrect, but not necessarily in the context she's using it in? it depends on how the folks she's talking about think about themselves, mostly--it's entirely possible they identify as men? the internet says that "kathoey" can refer to transwomen OR to gay men OR to folks who identify as third-gender and/or that folks who self-identify as kathoey identify as male. (this is all based on very cursory research on my part. not claiming anything irrefutable.)

Sea Ermine

@Gene So I am not thai and I am not kathoey but I did live in Bangkok for a number of years and I'd say that she's using it incorrectly in this context, but mostly because the English language doesn't really have a word for this.

In Thai there is a third pronoun that is used to refer to kathoey. If you're speaking in English generally the polite thing to do is to use the pronoun that the person prefers. If you don't know, or if you are speaking generally it's polite to use the female pronoun if it matches the way they present themselves, much as you might do when speaking about transwomen in the US.

Based on my experiences, and what my Thai friends told me it wouldn't really be polite to consider katoeys the same as cis men who happen to dress like women while identifying as male, unless you knew that that's how that person identified. I mean that's a thing that happens, just as there are also many many katoey who under go sex changes and identify as female, and many who don't but identify as female anyway and all of those people may still be called katoey. And individual people who are considered kathoey may identify as male or female or as a third gender (the last two are probably more common, especially the last one). But it's not really the same concept as an American cis man who presents and lives as a woman and I think Jessica's explanation presented a very narrow view of what katoey are and I don't really feel like the term 'cis' would be correct here.

I mention all this because I think it's common in Western media for katoey to be presented as cross dressers or "chicks with dicks" when it's much more complicated than that and many (but not all) kathoey identify as female or as a third gender, rather than male.

I hope I didn't make things more complicated, it's super hard to explain since it's a word and a concept that doesn't exist in the US or in the English language.

Sea Ermine

@Sea Ermine Just want to clarify that I don't think Jessica was suggesting they were the same as cross dressers, just that I think she hasn't spent enough time there or around Thai friends to get a bigger picture of what being katoey is.

JMack

@Gene You're right I misspoke. What I meant was that kahtoeys are born male and either transition or present as women - they are not necessarily trans women but can be. Kathoey does not really have an equivalent in Western culture, as per my understanding, so I Ithink it's inherently hard to explain in English terms. I was not suggesting that Kathoeys are simply "cross dressers," though some can be and the identity is also closely tied to careers available here (thus I think it's less "open" here gender-wise than initially seems). It seems to me that kathoey includes a really big range of individuals and identities (though they are always bio males I think). Anyway, there wasn't room to explain all this, and in brevity it came across incorrectly - thanks for catching that. Hope this clarifies!

anh
anh

awesome story. Having known you for a million years I'm not surprised you have had such amazing adventures. Keep it going; I love reading your work!You do our hometown proud!! You are the kind of lady to whom I'm excited to introduce my daughter.

glitterary

I'm really glad to have read this, because I need stories like this at the moment--I'm planning to leave my country and feeling rather trepidatious (is that a word?) about it, because I don't have any particular career skills beyond general admin and higher education university sector, and I want more. I don't think I'll find that in the UK, but I'm not sure I'll find it abroad, either--so it's a tough move to make. It's good hearing about people for whom moving worked out so well! And I went to Thailand earlier this year and yes, it's amazing. I loved it there.

PrettyPoe

@glitterary I am in the UK right now doing exactly that kind of work having come from Canada from that background. I'm not sure if you are going to or leaving the UK, but good luck!

glitterary

@PrettyPoe Thank you! I'm leaving--partly because I don't feel like I'm getting on here, career-wise, and partly because I've just got itchy feet and want to live abroad before it becomes harder to do so because I'll be too old for Working Holiday visas in a few years. How are you finding the UK? What made you decide to move?

MrsSekone

Hey Hairpinners,
So I just moved back to the US after traveling and studying in New Zealand for over two years. I am only a month into being home and I already want to get abroad again. Who knew I would feel like a foreigner in my own country?! I want to work and travel all over the world. Does anyone have any advice for zeroing in on expat opportunities? Thanks guys!

Manatee

I laughed and laughed at the astrological cartographer.

jacobmicheal19

It’s good, like it, but there is always a question that kept hitting my head and that is how to easily think of a heading to the topic I intend to write on?

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