Having been in Thailand now for almost nine months, I have a firm grasp on the things I miss from back in the US. Thailand offers me joy on a daily basis. I enjoy my job, my friends are amazing, and my apartment may not be big, but it sure is cozy. I have an incredibly happy life here. But despite loving the food, the people, and the lifestyle, there are still things I miss about home (I use ‘home’ here as the place one comes from, not necessarily the place where one feels most ‘at home’).
Family and friends
Ok, let’s go ahead and get the obvious one out of the way. Yes, I miss my family and friends from the US all the time. I’m very close with my family, and I miss being around them. I’ve missed holidays, births, deaths, and numerous special occasions. I miss sharing those things with my family. I miss taking my grandma out to dinner, taking walks with my parents, and going shopping with my sister. I miss playing with my cousins in my aunt’s pool, holding my nephews, and arguing with my uncle about politics. I miss meeting up with my friends for an afternoon coffee date. I miss having a drink with my neighbors. I talk with my family and friends at least a couple times a week, but it doesn’t hold a candle to their physical presence in my life. Luckily, I have some wonderful friends here that have taken on the role of a family, and that has helped me cope very well with the absence of my US family.
Native English speakers
Of course I knew when I decided to move to Thailand that I would be traveling to a country whose first language wasn’t English. I didn’t realize, though, what a toll it would take on my psyche. Many of the people here can speak at least a little English, but when I say a little, I mean exactly that. Most of my student’s twist up their face in confusion if I go so far as to ask, ‘What did you do last weekend?’ Way too far outside their comfort zone of ‘How are you? Fine, and you?’ If I go to a local market, I may as well throw in the towel. I constantly find myself surrounded by people speaking in a language that sounds like little more than gibberish to me (despite my best efforts to learn some of it). Often, hand gestures are the order of the day. And something that is almost just as difficult is knowing that the Thais know that I have no idea what they’re saying. If I say hello in Thai, they’re almost jumping up and down with joy saying, ‘Pood thai dai dii maak!’ (You can speak Thai very well!). With my students, they know that Teacher Jen has no idea what they’re talking about if they speak Thai. And they get frustrated by that constantly. If they need to ask me a question, they have to seek out one of their friends who speaks a little more English to help them. It makes everything more complicated than it needs to be. My coworkers are always trying to ask me questions in Thai, certain that one day, surely, the foreign teacher will be able to speak the language. But most of the time they’re wasting their breath. I can pick out a few words, but it often isn’t enough to allow me to figure out the meaning of the sentence. I get frustrated with the language, and there are many days where I just want to be in a place where everyone speaks my first language. I want to be able to walk into a shop and ask for something without being looked at like I have three heads. I want to be able to order a meal and ask for something to be changed without having to stumble through various foreign words for ten minutes. I want to know that if my motorbike breaks down, I can take it to a shop and explain what’s wrong without ridiculous gestures. It’s mostly a matter of convenience, as I can often get across what I want with the right amount of time and effort. But living in Thailand has brought me a much greater awareness of just how much language affects every moment of our day, how it organizes our lives, and how it allows or stops us from completing various tasks. Luckily I’m living in a country where the people are incredibly patient with foreigners, and they are always willing to offer as much help as possible as I try to explain myself with what little Thai I have. Without that, I would be completely lost.
In Thailand, the temperature, no matter what time of year, almost never goes above 105 degrees Fahrenheit or below 70 degrees Fahrenheit. This January there was a freak cold spell that hit the north pretty hard, and temperatures got down in the 40’s and 50’s for a few weeks. But that was an exception to the rule. Thailand has three seasons—summer, winter, and rainy—but the changes that happen between each are much more subtle than what happens between the seasons in southern Illinois. Summer lasts from around March to June and brings in some intense heat and dry air. I can’t remember it raining more than two or three times during those three months. This causes a horrible buildup of smog and smoke as it also coincides with the burning season. After summer is the rainy season, which usually starts around the beginning of June and lasts until September or October. This season is, you guessed it, very wet. It starts with the daily monsoon rains, which eventually taper off to a good rain a few times a week. The rains also bring in cooler weather and it stays a nice 80 or 90 degrees during this time. Winter makes its move around November and sticks around until February. As I said, this year was much different from other years. Usually, the Thai winter is cool and dry, with the temperature rarely going below 70 degrees.
I’m not a fan of winter in Illinois. Ok, that’s an understatement. I hate winter in Illinois. It’s freezing, it’s grey, and you don’t see the sun for weeks at a time. The occasional snow isn’t enough to make up for all the depressing days that winter brings along. So no, I don’t miss winter, and I love that Thailand doesn’t have its own proper winter. But I do miss the way it feels in Illinois when the seasons change. I miss that little chill in the air that tells you the leaves will fall soon, that fresh scent in the grass that marks the beginning of spring, and the first day you throw on your shorts to welcome summer. And yes, I even enjoy that first day that I wake up to frost crackling on the windows. There’s something magical about the way the world around you changes with the seasons, and it’s not as noticeable here in Thailand. Yes, certain trees only bloom during the summer, the air feels refreshing during the rainy season, and wearing a jacket in the winter was a welcome shift in routine. But it’s different.
English food labels
I’m one of those people who can spend hours in a grocery store. I enjoy eating healthy, and I like knowing exactly what’s going in my body. I like to buy organic, local foods when they’re available to me. In the US, I loved walking up and down the aisles, reading ingredient lists and nutritional labels. In Thailand, it is a rare day when I find any item at the grocery store with an English label. Even at Rimping, where most of the food is imported from western countries, Thai labels are slapped over the original English ones. I have learned where they place the number of calories, and I can usually get a decent idea of how good it is for me by looking at the percentages on the nutritional information, but it only allows me a fraction of the information I could glean from an English label. The only thing I can get from the ingredient list is whether there are many or a few. They are pretty good about labeling organic or non-GMO foods in English, which is helpful, but it doesn’t make up for the mysteries on the rest of the packaging. The local markets are nice since I know I’m buying local foods, but again, I don’t speak enough Thai to ask if the products or organic, where they come from, how long they’ve been sitting in the heat, etc. I miss just being able to pick up a product, taking a quick look at the packaging, and knowing what it’s made of and whether I should put it in my body.
Ok, I know this one sounds weird, but I really do miss proper napkins. In Thailand, napkins are no different than toilet paper. At many stalls at the local markets, they will simply put a roll of toilet paper on the table and call it a day. Some will go so far as to get little separated squares of toilet paper, but it’s all the same. They’re tiny, thin, and disintegrate within a few seconds of wiping your hands. They’re mostly useless, unless you want to pull out ten at a time. I miss a sturdy napkin, one that I can wipe my mouth and hands with and then be able to set it aside to be used a second and third time.
When I was living with my family in the US, I cooked dinner for everyone almost every night. I love spending an evening the kitchen, trying new recipes, preparing a meal from start to finish. My parents called the kitchen ‘Jen’s kitchen’ because I was in there far more than anyone else. I enjoy baking as well and would often experiment with new desserts. Here in Thailand, my ‘kitchen’ consists of a small fridge, a rice cooker, and a hot pan. I don’t have an oven (most houses and apartments here aren’t equipped with one) which eliminates the possibility of baking, and I am incredibly limited on the kinds of dishes I can make due to the lack of a stove. Mostly I do simple stir fries or pasta with my hot pan, but that gets old pretty quick. I miss the variety of cooking I was able to do in the US and the space that was available to me in my kitchen.
I will leave the list there for now. There are many things that I miss about the US, but that doesn’t diminish the love I have for Thailand or my life here. Just as there are things I miss about the US now, there will be things I will miss about Thailand when I leave. It is natural to think of things we love, enjoy, or find convenient. It is not healthy to brood on these things or let them cast a shadow over the things that are different in your present life, but I think it is healthy to acknowledge the good those things can bring to you and allow yourself to think of them with appreciation.