Years ago, before Covid-19, before the world lockdown, I saw a tweet “Back to the real world, San Francisco.” This was a seven-word epilogue from a young backpacker after he’s finished his long journey in a land half a world away. As a Third-tier citizen of the world scrolling, my Twitter feed, I wondered, ‘Wait a second. Am I living the dream?’
It gets me every time I see the term ‘real world’ used to dismiss the lived experiences of people on the other side of it. That happens so often, and the more I grow older, the more I feel my senses were numb by the pain caused by the irreversible force of the global mainstream interpretation.
I remembered thinking ‘Damn it. If he dreaded that life so much, I would switch place with him in a heartbeat.’
When I first moved to Bangkok, my plan was to leave after five years and go somewhere where writers live in the woods and survive on their victory gardens. Instead, my life story for the past five years has been full of corporate adventures (and misadventures), denials, avoidances, and inaction, with personal goals still over the horizon.
I deny the reality, kidding myself that corruption and political instability have nothing to do with me. I avoid the daily problems endured by other Bangkokians. I rent an apartment in the city’s business centre to cut out the commute, and use the time I purchased to eavesdrop on conversations at various Starbucks.
My inaction boosted by the sense of comfort I purchased with impulsivity throughout my years of living as an outsider in the city.
The following is based on my experience along with a string of impressions I have had from conversations with the other outsiders or people who consider themselves outsiders in Bangkok over the years that I’ve lived here.
Maybe it’s a relief that you’re away from the flock of assholes in your country, and probably, for good. But as you start to unpack your suitcase, it may reveal a totally different story that you might not have paid enough attention to.
Your pack may be the lightest possible as if you just left India. The weight of your suitcase will serve you as a kind of reassurance you’ll make it out of this country in a few years’ time.
As the days progressed the assholes you fleed are replaced with local idiots here. From immigration officers to colleagues, the struggle has just begun. Basically, all walks of life in Thailand agitate you. They can be either very shy or eager to talk to you as if you’re walking around with a “Feel Free to Practice Your English With Me” sign all day. Outside of business hours you’re, frankly, a walking ATM with unlimited cash.
The ups and downs make for quite a story when you’re on an across-the-time-zone video call with family and friends. Of course, you paint a mostly rose-tinted picture of them: the food is exotic, the hum of the traffic is quite a lullaby, the SkyTrain is super convenient and can take you anywhere.
It’s old meets new. You can lose yourself in the night market or weekend market. Don’t mind the sweltering heat. You may pray every time you are on one of those motorbike taxis but your time is priceless, maybe even more than your life.
Then there’s the flip side. The seedy Soi Nana is something you can easily ignore, but your curiosity gets the better of you. As you stroll past the bars and massage shops you wonder, ‘Are people here really that tired?’
Things will begin to get a little bit real. Surely a short trip back to a decent civilisation will redeem your soul for a while. But back in Bangkok you will see that the good old Bangkok you once adored is now a bit jaded.
You start to feel sad for the people who have to live with the olds (the hassles) that you’d managed to skirt around. But then it dawns on you that, one day at a time, you’re becoming more like them.
Cataloguing various things that could have gone wrong here is one of the things that you may have yet to realise as a new toxic trait growing within you as you are waiting in the line at the immigration that moves at a pace of a Sofia Coppola movie.
For an instant the bike accident, you’d preferred that to a taxi and wasting hours in the traffic. Now you’ve learned to communicate with the motorbike taxi driver, in order to make him slow the fuck down — you have to invent a story. ‘I just had my appendix removed.’ The guy will drive the vehicle slower for you for sure, but soon you’ll have to think about which part of your body to recover from an operation.
Things like domestic affairs, politics may have been things that you swore to never get yourself into upon arrival. But, three years on, haven’t you earned the right to speak out? If not for the public’s best interest, then, at the very least, your own.
What about your loser friends stuck on the corporate ladder? Now they might be getting married, divorced or you might have heard of their promotion or relocating somewhere fancier like Tokyo or New York City.
Meanwhile, your apartment comes pre-decorated with Ikea furniture, has an unmistakable vibe of a student dorm room. You may promise yourself that you’d invest in a nice oven and learned how to cook decent Thai food or take Muay Thai classes. Anything only those who spent years in this country can possess. Not knowing you may end up with a doomed relationship with a Thai person.
The motorbike taxi driver would roll his eyes as he’s hearing your carefully worded yet another reason why he has to drive his vehicle slower and think, “Which part of his body hasn’t been operated on?”
If you’re in luck you may get to live under ‘National Emergency Decrees’ as the military seize power and stage yet another coup.
At this point, you get it that the coups here are kind of a tradition, a once every four-year event (think the Olympics) but your friends and family do not.
This is the moment you will really begin to compare Thailand with where you came from. You miss the home comforts: liberal attitude, free press and elected governments. You want to put an end to this so-called ‘sex-tourism’ because you see how it damages people so badly. You wish you had learned Thai so that you could complain and make a statement every Thai would hear. You know they’d listen when a farang starts speaking in Thai. But you never did. Maybe next year.
Year Five (if you ever make it)
Along with your work permit, you also grant yourself a right to rant permit. You’re not just another self-proclaimed experts on ThaiVisa. You might even begin to write a book. Or something…
My teachers often used the term ‘real world’ to describe life after high school or college. But I think the real world is up to you. Either you’re a blind optimist living in a sugarcoated reality orchestrated by your rich parents or the unapologetic bloke who’s unaware that he is living in the city that millions of people would kill to live in. There’ll always be a real world for each of us.
When I look around, Bangkok is the shimmering pool of excitement. I love the way people here always smile no matter how hard their lives may seem, and I love watching well-dressed businessmen from affluent western countries riding heart-stopping motorbike taxis through heavy traffic.
Warm drops of rain splash on the hot pavements forcing people to run and hide under the shade food vendors’ stalls. All the good old Bangkok I love can still be found.
That’s what Bangkok means to me — so far. And it’s not just me who has joined the club: even during the 2020 pandemic, it was, still, impossible to walk outside (where I live) without passing at least one foreigner every twenty seconds.
This is the real world for me and while I’m feeling down about my own situation, I remember that everything’s relative. There’s that guy who tweeted about how San Francisco is the real world to him. That just makes Bangkok begin to feel like a home to me.