The photos flood my Facebook feed. They’ve been doing it for ages now, thanks to all the different ways memories are shared.
Typically, I look at them, let my mind linger and then move on. But, there’s something different about the photos and moments popping up now: they’re no longer tangible.
Let me explain.
For three years, images would pop up and they would be of me in the jungle; me with elephants; me with rescued puppies or pigs or some other animal; me in a remote village on an elephant rescue. Or, they’d be less exotic and simple: me with my best friends at a floating restaurant; or, watching a breathtaking sunset in Madrid; or, even simply a photo of my beloved London.
When these showed up on my phone, I would gaze at them lovingly, recalling the particular moment and let myself get whisked away by my memories and then drawn back out by wherever I was, be it Thailand or somewhere else in SE Asia, London, Madrid or somewhere in between.
I was always somewhere. I was always doing something.
Not that now, in Las Vegas, I’m doing nothing. But, it doesn’t feel quite … the same.
Those photos come across my screen now, and there is a pang in my heart. A mourning of sorts for the life I lived. I made it a point as often a possible to remind myself how damn lucky I was to be living that life (both as an expat, and a solo female traveler) and to cherish every. single. moment.
But, with the advent of Snapchat, and seeing some of my cohorts continue to explore, I wonder … did I take it for granted? Did I not really live up every single minute?
Sure, there were times when I opted to stay in the air-conditioned comfort of my hotel room instead of journeying into towns, or wanted American food instead of Thai, but really?
I think no. I think I lived. Truly lived. However, I also know how easy it is to beat ourselves up. To look at the lives we have now and the lives we had then and be upset, angry, that perhaps Yesterday’s Self wasn’t quite up to par with Today’s Self.
So, in honor of it being four years since I hopped on that first plane that led me on a magical — and I mean magical— journey, I want to focus on how being an expat changed me. To the core.
For those of you who are thinking about becoming an expat, take note: you may want to book that ticket even sooner. For those already on the journey: relish, relish, relish. And, for those who have returned: treasure. Treasure. Treasure. Love the life you lead, and dammit, love the life you continue to lead.
Being an Expat Showed Me How Privileged I Am
It’s mid-December in Cambodia, only you’d never know it. The tiny remote village offers no sign of the holidays. It offers no signs of anything, really. It’s what us privileged folk would call “extreme poverty”. Chickens and pigs and puppies all run around under raised huts, likely going to be eaten at some point.
Children watch us from a distance at first: we’re strangers. And, although I’m traveling with Thai people, I’m the white western woman who stands out. They linger against wooden poles, behind large jugs used to capture water. They poke their tiny, dirty heads out from hammocks to peer at these strangers who have brought massive bags of clothing for them.
We’re on an elephant rescue, but today, the elephants aren’t our main goal. It’s the kids.
As Lek begins to open the bags, the children come closer. Moms, with small babies tied tight to their bodies, heads covered in scarves, faces adorned with powder to keep their skin from burning in the baking sun, pull them closer as we stand under the shelter of the main hut.
I snap photos with my camera and the children delight. Soon, they encircle me, all clamouring to see their faces frozen on a tiny screen. I snap photos, turn the screen towards them, and they giggle with delight.
They have no iPhones. They have no televisions. Chasing Pokemon Go will never be a thing in their lives. Yet, they are happy.
I see their happiness and it reverberates through me.
With so little, they can be happy.
I return to Thailand half-embarassed about the possessions I own, but more aware of how to own happiness.
Being an Expat Taught Me How to Grieve
I’ve never been good with loss. In fact, death, pain, suffering, I’ve always tried to go the opposite direction. Part of the reason is because I feel everyone’s pain. Their suffering. Their sorrow, their grief, becomes mine, and often times, that becomes far too much to bare.
Growing up, I was lucky. There was very little death in my life. A family friend at an age where I was a bit too young to fully grasp grief. Two people in high school. My grandfather my senior year of high school. My grandmother a few years later. Then, there was almost a decade between where I grew spoiled.
My other grandmother (whom I refer to as my Guardian Angel) passed away when I was at the tail-end of my solo travels in 2010. It was devastating. And, I was alone. Those few days leading up to my return to the States were some of the hardest I had faced — until I became an expat.
Suddenly, and I’m not sure why, death became so much more a part of life. Working with animals, of course, it is natural. But, people, too. Seemingly healthy people.
As I mentioned, I’ve never been good with death. It would cripple me. As an expat, I had no choice though. I had to face that horrible void in my life. In a culture where emotion isn’t really expressed, I had to learn how to grieve … gracefully.
When my last remaining grandparent passed away, I sobbed. But, I also gathered with my friends. Hands held, we journeyed to the roof of my apartment building and sent off lanterns to honor his life here and passage to his next. It was poignant. It was beautiful.
Even though I was nowhere near home, it gave me peace and let me move on and showed me the beauty of embracing another culture, another belief system, to help grieve.
Being an Expat Taught Me the Value of Community
//platform.instagram.com/en_US/embeds.jsThe air is thick and rain threatens as I leave the bar to catch a tuk tuk home. It’s late, but it doesn’t worry me. It’s Chiang Mai. Late is safe here, so long as you’re not a jerk.
I raise my hand and flap it up and down, the Thai version of hailing transportation, and the tuk tuk driver pulls up to me.
“Bai prat tu Chaing Mai,” I instruct as I am about to climb into the three-wheeled taxi.
Only, an older western man has other plans.
“That’s my tuk tuk, bitch,” he says, stepping into my path.
I’ve had a few drinks at this point, and when he calls me a bitch, I feel obligated — on behalf of women everywhere — to stand my ground, and stand up for myself.
“Excuse me,” I say, stepping towards him. “Don’t call me a bitch. I called this tuk tuk.”
It happens in an instant. His hands are around my neck.
“I know everyone in this town,” he says before he lets me go.
Stunned, I stand there as the tuk tuk putters away with him inside it. Then, it hits me what has happened and I go into panic attack mode. First, I walk to the lady boy and young guy who witnessed it.
“How could you not do anything?” I sob. “He had his hands around my neck.”
They stare at me dumbfounded.
I hail another tuk tuk and message my best friend, telling him what’s happened.
“Come back to the bar,” he instructs, and then goes off on a tirade on what would have happened had the guy done that outside of the bar we were at (spoiler alert: we would have all been deported).
Instead, I return to my apartment building where the entire entourage of expats who I know — some of which are my friends, some not — are at my side as I heave and cry and explain what’s happened.
“I know more people than him!” One exclaims. “What did he look like? Could you point him out in a crowd?”
In a matter of minutes, the motley crew at our little watering hole off the lobby of the building has given me tissues, beer, cigarettes and calmed me down, coming up with a plan for the next time I see this asshole.
The next night, my dear friend takes me to his bar and takes it upon himself to teach me self defense moves … and curses not being there to kill him when it happened. Me? I thank my — our — lucky stars because that would have been the worst.
I’ve written quite a bit about relationships as an expat and how they can tread on superficial, simply because that Expat Door is constantly swinging. But, there is also that crew. Even if only there for a little who stand with you. Who protect you. Who would move mountains to make sure you are ok.
In fact, this is only one of the many stories which involve amazing people who were only in my life for a short time. But, trust me, these are the people who make the journey special. And, the people who made mine so.
Being an Expat Taught Me to Fight for the Things I Want
“Diana,” Lek says as I walk into the office mid-April, just after celebrating my first Songkran. “You are in trouble.”
I pause. Actually, freeze is probably the more accurate description.
“You made every mafia angry,” she says. “The government is going to investigate you. Be careful.”
My beautiful Thailand life flashes before my eyes. But, my beautiful Thailand life has a purpose: to raise awareness about the realities of animal tourism, and it’s what I’ve done. The investigation comes on the heels of an article I wrote for The Huffington Post (don’t bother searching it, I had it removed the minute I felt I was in trouble), and on the heels of a podcast interview I did about the realities of elephant tourism (again, it’s gone). It also comes on the heels of working with a UK film crew who were shooting a documentary about elephant tourism (that’s alive and well and is available via the link above in this paragraph).
I don’t know what to do. I cancel my plans to go on an island vacation because I’m scared. Eventually, I gather my wits, talk to the people I have to talk to, and decide I’m not going to stop talking. I’m simply going to reroute my voice. So, for the next few years, I still speak for the animals, but I do it through providing information to other bloggers. To taking notes and, once I’m off my visa, writing about everything.
Where there’s a will, there’s a way. I came to Thailand to help speak for the elephants, and yes, I did have to adjust that, but I did — and continue — to speak for them.
It also moved into other aspects of my life. I’ve learned to fight for love. To fight for my worth. To fight for my boundaries. For the things which matter most to me.
Being an Expat Taught Me That I Am Me … No Matter Where I Am
This one is short and sweet. Everywhere you go, there you are. I knew it when I left America, but for some reason thought living abroad would be my magic bullet. Guess what? I was wrong.
I write about this so often, I feel like a broken record. But, being an expat really showed me no matter how many miles you put from your “home,” you can’t put miles from yourself.
It took me until my three-year expat anniversary to come to terms with that, and at that point, it was too late in the game.
No amount of elephants, Thai whisky, plane tickets, tropical islands, British accents, or Spanish men can change who you are. And, if it does, please tell me your secret.
Being an Expat Taught Me That Generally the World is Good
The trucks, cars, motorbikes, tuk tuks and bicyclists whir by me as I stand at Chiang Mai Gate, waiting to cross the road to the market. It’s an onslaught of dicey traffic and I can’t seem to find the rhythm to Frogger my way across the damn street.
It’s one of those hot, sticky mornings where I want to retreat to my AC, but there I am. Waiting in the diesel-filled air to cross.
Suddenly, I feel a warm, leathery hand in mine. I jump at first and then look. To my right is a tiny Thai woman.
“I cross with you,” she says, pulling me into traffic as it halts for us.
She owed me nothing. It was kindness. Pure and simple.
And, another instance, I’m in a songthaew and a woman gets in with a large bag of dog food.
“You have many animals?” I ask her.
“No,” she says, smiling. “I feed all the animals on my street.”
My list of kind moments can go on and on. If there’s one thing I’ve noticed the more I travel, is the more kindness and love actually exists in this world. Too often, people focus on hate. On fear. On the negatives of a place because it takes them out of their comfort zones.
Even the other day, I read a sad and disappointing post by someone who is a travel blogger, talking about hating a place because of one thing: fear.
But, what people fail to see is behind that mask of fear are people who want to do good. Who don’t want to be clumped into a stereotype.
I saw it in Thailand. I saw it in Palestine. I saw it in my neighborhood in Madrid. I saw it with the refugees I met there.
Being an Expat Taught Me Not to Judge a Book by its Cover
When I first journeyed to Thailand, I was disgusted by it. I judged. And oh-so- quickly. Even when I moved there, I still cast a stank eye at them.
Until I got to know some of them.
Once I shed my judgements, I realized they weren’t gross old men looking for sex, they were people. With feelings. With pain. Wanting love. Companionship. And, isn’t that what we all want?
I have a post coming up that really delves into this, but it’s so important to note that being an expat in SE Asia really taught me how to be more open-minded when it comes to this particular aspect of expat life there. Some people are so quick to judge — and I get it — but as quick as I was to judge, I am so thankful I was also open to getting to know them.
Truth be told, some of them — one in particular — ended up being my favorites.
Being an Expat Taught Me How to Come Home
When I first started my expat journey, I swore — up and down — I would never, in a million years, return to the States. However, over the years, while I was learning all of these other things, ideas began to shift. Things which weren’t important became important. And, the idea of a place to call “home” began to seem ideal. Lasting friendships. A more stable life. So, I traded in my Spanish visa for a Nevada drivers license.
I had to be an expat to find value in the things which I used to take for granted, but now? These are the pillars of my life.
And, as those images fill my feed of a life I lived, I know this: it wasn’t without its struggles. If I want to return to Thailand, or London, or Spain, there is nothing stopping me.
Will I ever want to be an expat again?
I teeter. Right now, on my tough days, the first thing I want to do is retreat to my jungle paradise. And, lately, I have found myself trying to conjure up the Spanish I learned while in Madrid.
I also am trying to start my life here. To establish meaningful and long-term relationships. To focus on health and wellness. To embrace a kinder heart in regards to how I treat myself, and I feel that is best done here.
Take note though: I have every intention of returning to all of my old stomping grounds. To visit.
For more on my expat life, check these expat anniversary posts or simply the “Expat Life” category.
What did being an expat teach you?