Moving to Chiang Mai #3: The Best and the Hardest

In November 2015 my family moved to Chiang Mai, Thailand, to work with the NGO Partners Relief & Development, to help bring free, full lives to children affected by conflict and oppression, particularly people in and from Myanmar (Burma). 

Two months in, here’s the third of a short series of updates on what life is like here. You can catch up on the first, and second, and read more about Myanmar and Partners here.

When I was about ten, I was shocked to see people laughing after a funeral. I had thought you could only be one thing at a time. If someone had died, you went around looking teary and miserable. It wasn’t that I wanted to impose this as a rule, I just thought it was how the world worked.

Most of us know as adults that you can be more than one ‘thing’ at a time.

But on the internet, and in the era of the global media machine, we’re still ten, still easily outraged at off-message disclosures. Comedians are supposed to be funny, reality show stars should be dumb, and woe betide a politician or religious leader who makes the smallest of public errors. And let’s not forget that parents should be perpetually, joyfully grateful.

So hurrah for a newish wave of real-life writers, making an effort to show that life is complex, and more full of both/ands than either/ors. Today’s post is inspired by one of them.

The best and the hardest things about expat life in Chiang Mai, three months in | Sacraparental.com

The other day, Lucy wrote a wonderful post on what life is like in her yurt these days. Yep, her yurt.

If you haven’t been following one of my very favourite blogs, Lulastic and the Hippy Shake, here’s the story so far: British Lucy, Kiwi Tim and their lovely daughters Ramona and Juno sold their London house a couple of years ago. They meandered around Europe in a tiny camper for a few months and then headed to New Zealand. After some more house-bus adventures, they settled in the Coromandel to pursue a free, wild life, off-ish the grid.

After plenty of planning and dreaming and hard work, they have now moved to their own patch of land, shared with another family, where they are putting up a giant yurt and spending most of the day in their own little paradise of forest and river.

It’s a life of jumping out of the average and into an unmapped way of life. Lucy’s work is online, and they’re living in the wilderness with no wifi. Each day is an experiment.

So her latest post was called Winning and Losing at Life and was an honest summary of the best and hardest parts of their adventure right now.

A slice of the fabulous:

Ways in which we are winning:

The girls and I are besties. We have so much fun. Dance parties and hammock picnics and movies in bed and playing all the Toca Boca games on the ipad.

I fermented and pickled a shitload of beetroot I grew last week.

Tim has built a bathroom and almost built a loft to go in the big yurt. (We are waiting for that to be done before we move in there.)

I painted our bath and painted the bathroom floor.

I planted more beetroot and lettuces and herbs.

Tim and I ate up an entire decade of marriage! yeah baby!

And some of the tough stuff:

I’m not really spending much time on the computer which, for a writer/vlogger/blogger/social media person means that I’m not being productive at all. I feel a bit down about it, a bit like I suck.

We still don’t have a bathroom. Or a kitchen.

When I fermented and pickled all the beetroot I got so frenzied by it all that I turned real angry at everyone.

But here’s where she ended up, and this is what has inspired today’s post:

And also, I do know that life isn’t about winning or losing. Even imagining a scoresheet is ridiculous and stupid, particularly if parenting is your main thing – it often looks like absolutely nothing has been “achieved” and the reality is the whole day has been a weave of tiny kindnesses and picking up of lego.

I’m aware of things like Instagram (pretty much the one internet thing I am keeping up with a bit) making people look like winners – my life might look like it is all harvesting coriander seeds and waterfalls because I’m not going to take a photo of me covered in beetroot juice with a raging face, hey? And I get comments like “Your amazing life!” and we have chosen this life, because we have come to value freedom and wilderness so much. But it isn’t free of frustration or melancholy or the occasional metaphysical EEK-WHAT-ARE-WE-DOING moment or simple root-vegetable-rage.

So yeah, I’m a winner and a loser and a lover and a mother.

How you doing?

Lucy is a good mate (our friendship started when I stalked her and commented on EVERY POST SHE WROTE, because I loved every word of her website. But now our kids have played together in a couple of different parts of the world and I’m hoping we’ll see their new yurt for ourselves one day), so I thought I would answer her question for reals.

So here’s an update on what we’re really enjoying about living in Chiang Mai, and also the stuff that we’re finding hardest just now, in no particular order.

[You may want to also check out my introduction to the elephants, poodles and sidecars of Chiang Mai and some of the particularly fun stuff we’ve done since we’ve been here. And if you have no idea about our move from New Zealand to Thailand, feel free to start here.]

The best

We are here! After 18 months of planning, organising and fundraising, we are living in Chiang Mai!

We have a house that suits us well, with a (somewhat rare) fair-sized yard for the kids to play in.

More than that, we have electricity, internet, and air-conditioning, so we’re better off than the vast majority of the world. Oh, and even western toilets.

Apart from the cold snap that took all of East Asia by surprise a couple of weeks ago, it’s delightfully warm every day and we swan around in t-shirts, never bothering to take an extra layer ‘just in case’. There’s not a day I’m not grateful for that, and I hope I won’t turn into a complainy complainer when the hot season kicks in soon and New Zealand is shrouded in its long white cloud.

We’ve bought a car. A seven-seater car. Still making my peace with that, but it’s certainly handy. Actually, it’s excellent.

Both kids are thriving.

SBJ has several good mates he’s strongly attached to, and he’s just started his first ever organised ‘class’, an 8-week soccer clinic with his ‘best friend in the whole wide world,’ Ms O. The only time I’ve heard him say ‘I wish we were in Wellington’ was when we were shivering under four layers of t-shirts and New Zealand was having a heat wave.

 

Oh the hours I spent as a child mastering outline lettering. I started with SBJ's name as a surprise, and then instead of colouring it in like I'd imagined, he instructed me to add his friends, one by one.

Oh the hours I spent as a child mastering outline lettering: all for this! I started with SBJ’s name as a surprise, and then instead of colouring it in like I’d imagined, he instructed me to add his friends, one by one. We were interrupted after three.

 

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At thirteen months, Baby H spends her days dancing, climbing and demanding things in a very loud voice. A few weeks ago she suddenly discovered books, and now she frequently seizes one, thrusts it urgently at the nearest adult and gives her total attention to it. One of her favourites has a cow in it, so she is working on perfecting a round-lipped ‘moooo’.

James has discovered The Wild Kratts.

I can speak Thai! Well, some. Veeery slowly. I’ve just started with a tutor and have been filling in gaps and adding vocab. Here are two sentences I have said (haltingly) in Thai, to give you an idea of my progress:

Matt had to go to Bangkok to take some documents to the New Zealand Embassy.

On the 16th of March, you will go to the hospital for a blood test.

Every day or two I reach another milestone and manage to communicate something I couldn’t say before, or understand someone better. Last week I had a five-minute conversation on the phone in Thai with Nong Rat. To be fair, it would only have been one minute if we both hadn’t had to repeat ourselves so often, but I’m still proud.

Related: I’m thrilled the kids will grow up bilingual. I’ve always had unrealistic dreams of raising children with multiple languages in the home. I never would have made it happen in New Zealand, but here it’s like the air around us is doing it spontaneously.

We have good friends here. We are very lucky in that department already.

We’re slowly mastering where to buy different grocery items.

New small shops are opening up each week on our block as a new development of townhouses (with a business in each lower floor) is being finished. A Thai cafe, a hairdresser and a Chinese food shop are the most recent.

Our house, like most here, is fully-fenced, making constant vigilance not quite so constantly necessary.

There’s a walk-in Thai massage therapist on the next block.

Today I biked there. If she’s booked up, I can drive five minutes to the nearest shopping centre where there are two massage places with half a dozen therapists each, so you can always get a slot somewhere. For about ten or fifteen bucks an hour.

Eating out is easy and inexpensive. Like, really inexpensive. Sometimes the cheapest dinner option is eating out.

There are 44 consonants in the Thai script, and I know them all! I’m not as confident of the 30-odd vowels, but I’m getting there. (Hey, by the way, please leave a comment if you’re interested in what it’s like to learn Thai. I could talk about it all day, but I won’t here unless there’s interest!)

Baby H is still at an age where she’s happy to be adored and photographed by the general public. This smooths our way in all manner of interactions.

The time difference between here and both NZ and the UK is convenient for skyping family and friends.

We have a small army of immensely helpful people in New Zealand helping take care of our affairs there. My Dad keeps a monthly spreadsheet of our mail (and unsubscribes us from most things!); our friend Paul is overseeing extensive repairs to our house in Wellington; Jenny is cleaning in between AirBnB guests, allowing us to get some income from our home to keep us here; neighbours are keeping an eye on things. Various other professionals in our lives are providing their services from afar and keeping things ticking over while we’re away. We’re very lucky to have so much practical help.

I remembered yesterday that at first I had been a bit nervous at the prospect of driving around Chiang Mai. Oh, how I laughed. I love driving here! I feel pretty confident about where I’m going, and I’ve got into the groove of the polite anarchy that is Thai traffic. I may turn out to be a menace when I next have to drive somewhere with road rules, though.

 

Nong Rat and Hazie at Horizon

 

By far the biggest blessing of our time here so far is meeting Nong Rat, who helps look after the children and the house, and has taught me more Thai than anyone. She’s an excellent teacher. She is tremendously kind to us all, encouraging to the point of delight as we stumble along in Thai and master things one by one, helpful beyond measure and fun to be around. She makes things possible. And yes, I am acutely aware of how lucky I am to be able to have regular help at all, let alone someone who is so wonderful. Thank you, God.

It has been a long four and a half years of postnatal depression in my life, but over the last couple of months I’ve felt better than ever. I’m learning the ukulele and I’ve got myself a bike – two things I have not had mental capacity to even consider until now. Who knew, right? All I had to do was uproot my family and move to Thailand!

 

My new bike, parked outside a cafe THAT I BIKED TO. This is momentous.

My new bike, parked outside a café THAT I BIKED TO. This is momentous.

The hard stuff

This is our ‘study’:

 

Winning and losing at life in Chiang Mai, Thailand | Sacraparental.com

 

The cutie doing peekaboo (or ‘ja e!’ in Thai) in the doorway is the highlight of the room, clearly.

As for the rest of the wasteland: the house came mostly furnished, and because we had the essentials – like beds, sofas, dining table – furniture shopping for the next things – like chests of drawers, desks and chairs for the study – hasn’t risen to the top of the long To Do list that is our life. But with language learning starting in earnest and plenty of other work to do, we really need this space to be useable.

[Update: Matt just bought a desk and chair and is revelling in having a workspace. He’s even put a whiteboard on the wall! Huge progress!]

We are not known here. People are very warm and welcoming, but (especially with small children preventing speech-in-full-sentences) it is just going to take time before we feel like our friends and colleagues really know and get us.

That To Do List. Ach. The combination of low-tech Thai administration (you have to pay most bills in person, for instance, rather than online or over the phone, and queue lengthily for administrative services) and the hours of driving that go with city sprawl mean that we mostly achieve one errand a day. Some days that’s grocery shopping, so I guess it’s not surprising that our list seems to get longer rather than shorter.

Most of the things on our list are genuinely pressing and important, so there’s a constant weight we feel of the numerous important things we haven’t got done yet: visa documents, vaccines, furniture, air filters, bills, project deadlines, and so on.

Last week our baby narrowly avoided electrocuting herself (she’s fine, but we weren’t). Matt discovered that most of the power outlets/plug sockets were unearthed and had no shutters, and the plugs of all the cords and appliances we’ve bought here don’t have protective sleeves on the prongs. A death trap combination. Suddenly there was a new entry at the top of The List and he spent the next two days replacing and repairing electrical fittings around the house, bless him.

And of course, even if we had completed all our initial set-up things, we’d be feeling under a bit of pressure, just with the juggle of family and work. I have about a million ‘work’ things I would love to be getting onto, but my main obligation at the moment is language learning, so I’m grieving the many projects that won’t get attention for months to come. I know many of you will find this familiar.

I haven’t quite got my head around how this all works with my supposed primary role as a mother of small children. I think I’m working on some dodgy maths that says I can be a full-time mum, and learn Thai full-time, and blog and write, both for myself and for Partners, all at the same time. That means that whichever one I’m not doing, I feel either guilty about or wistful for. I am working on cultivating a sense of being properly present where I am, and also trying not to multi-task. Both are difficult.

I haven’t found a single bar of fair-trade chocolate in this city (though brownies and other treats are both plentiful and delicious).

Skype is an astonishing life-changer for people like us. You should hear the people I’ve met who’ve been here for 40 years, through the days of aerogrammes and cassette recordings, who now get to chat to their grandkids online. And yet, family and friends still feel far away. We miss you guys!

We don’t have an oven. Send me your best no-bake ‘baking’ recipes!

We’re still feeling our way into what life can be like for SBJ. He’s four now, and while he’s an active, self-starting little guy who is never bored with his own company, he would love to have more playing time with friends, and more one-on-one time with us. He’s at home with a combination of parents, Nong Rat and Baby H a bit more of the time than is probably ideal, and I’m thinking hard about what’s next to address that. It’s pretty complicated given the options and constraints here.

 

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This could go in either category, kind of: Chiang Mai is a hard place to be a greenie. Everything comes over-packaged, and lots of green options I’m used to don’t exist here.

The upside is that it has motivated me to be much better about things like taking my own bags (I learned the phrase ‘I don’t need a bag, thanks’ very early on) and even, inspired by the Rubbish Free folks years ago, supplying our own containers when we get takeaways or doggie bags. Styrofoam/polystyrene is so prevalent here that I can’t bear the amount of it that would come into our house otherwise. It’s also true that recycling is incentivised by the state of the economy here, as we see when the rubbish collectors on top of the trucks sift the waste for anything that can be sold to the recyclers. (We’re careful to separate it out for them ourselves, in appreciation of their thoroughness.)

The smoke is coming.

I really enjoy learning Thai. And here’s the both/and: it hurts my brain. Last week I had two two-hour solo lessons and by the end, my brain was more tired than I remember it being ever. I was fried for the rest of the day.

I love the style of driving here, but driving so many hours of the day is a drag, especially when accommodating kids, and when we don’t have a system for music in the car at the moment. (Add it to The List. Fairly far down.)

Here’s the hardest thing, by far: immigration bureaucracy and paperwork. I feel like we’re hapless victims in an episode of Fawlty Towers crossed with Yes, Minister. I appreciate the opportunity to be a guest in this country, and I’m more than willing to pay for the privilege. I just wish the currency were only money and not sanity as well. I am trying to be more ‘jai yen’ about it all, but it’s hard when meeting the dozens of requirements (the six-hours’-notice overnight trip to Bangkok was part of this) pushes everything else out of our brains and schedules.

Owning the both/and

There’s no doubt that my life, even on the hardest days, is easier, by far, than a) the billions of people who spend hours a day fetching drinking water or working for a dollar a day; b) missionaries and ex-pats elsewhere or in earlier times, even a decade or two ago in Chiang Mai; c) many of you reading this.

And, like Lucy and Tim, we have chosen our life, and willingly taken on both the perks and the drags.

So here’s the both/and:

I lament the sad and hard things about this life, among you, my friends.

I thank God for the privileges of this life, and thank you, my friends, for supporting us in being here.

Because I’m a natural optimist, let me end with this: I would not be anywhere else. I am profoundly grateful for the opportunity to be here. I love that I can aspire to making the world a better place for the poorest of the poor, and that my children will know that doing so is part of our family’s way of being.

And you can’t beat a ten dollar Thai massage.

What else are you interested in hearing about? Let me know in a comment below. 

You can read more about Partners and our work with them here:

Partners Relief & Development website

An introduction to the current political situation in Myanmar and Partners’ work there

Why our family has moved to Asia

How we can each make a difference in Myanmar

As always, you can connect with Sacraparental conversation in other places too. You can follow the Facebook page, see what I’m squirrelling away on Pinterest (mostly raw cookie recipes right now), and exchange nerdy links and political rants on Twitter. Please say hi :)

 

The best and the hardest things about expat life in Chiang Mai, three months in | Sacraparental.com

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5 comments on “Moving to Chiang Mai #3: The Best and the Hardest”

  1. Heather Reply

    That’s pretty impressive language acquisition in just 3-ish months!
    Are the kids starting to speak Thai as well?
    So neat you have Nong Rat. When I lived in Switzerland (working for a pharmaceutical company for a year – I was en route to becoming an industrial chemist when I got sick), one of my lab-mates was my absolute guru – correcting my language, explaining local customs, telling me where to buy stuff when it wasn’t obvious to me what shop would sell what, teaching me how to pump my bike tyres when I couldn’t figure out the valves, telling me local history, suggesting sites for me to go see…. People like that are gold! I hated feeling stupid so often (especially when I couldn’t even pump my bike tyre – something I’d been doing since I got my first bike at age 11!), and learned a lot about the emotional/psychological difference between being someone who enjoyed welcoming foreigners and someone who actually was a foreigner, but it would have been so much harder without Markus.
    And fantastic news re. having more brain space all of a sudden – who’d of thunk it?!
    Heather recently posted…Working with peopleMy Profile

  2. thaliakr Reply

    Thanks, Heather!

    Yes, it would be a VERY different experience without Nong Rat, for sure. She’s gold.

    Yes, SBJ is speaking Thai, just when he feels the desire. He picks it up pretty quickly but of course has a very turbulent relationship with wanting to, depending on who is around. But he has a pretty good grasp of ‘tourist Thai’ for courtesies, ordering in restaurants, introducing himself, etc. He can say ‘mai ao!’ (don’t want!) whenever any stranger touches his hair, and knows lots of other vocab for things like animals, colours, foods etc. He can’t/doesn’t create full sentences very much, but does have a few full-sentence phrases for the important stuff like ‘will you play with me?’ for Nong Rat :)
    thaliakr recently posted…Moving to Chiang Mai #3: The Best and the HardestMy Profile

  3. mrsganye Reply

    Thank you for sharing some tidbits of the realities of your relocated life! That idea of the “both/and” is something I’ve been mulling over constantly since reading this (http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/14/opinion/sunday/death-the-prosperity-gospel-and-me.html) just yesterday. “Life is so beautiful. Life is so hard.” It can be tempting to use the balance of good and bad as some kind of barometer for whether or not you’re in the right track, or for that “winning at life” to be something to aspire to, or as the piece I linked discusses, trying always to find meaning in tragedy and suffering, when that’s just not the reality of the human experience. I’m trying to learn to accept that.
    Also, super impressed at how much Thai you have learnt in this time! Language is possibly the most intimidating part to me of the prospect of moving overseas.

    • thaliakr Reply

      Yes, I read that piece too!

      I’m really happy with the language. But to be honest, if I stopped now I’d have plenty to get by, at least in the city, and probably beyond, as long as I brought a smile and maybe a dictionary with me. People are so willing to help and communicate, and English isn’t exactly commonly spoken, but there are still plenty of English speakers around.

      But I’m keen to keep going and be able to talk about more than just facts, if you know what I mean. Feelings and opinions are where it’s at! And I’d really love to be able to preach one day…

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