Category Archives: Bangkok

Move to a country with less than 1% unemployment

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Just one of the reasons I love Bangkok, Thailand…

The first time I heard it I was totally blown away. Thailand, the county I had relocated to had less than 1% unemployment. Pretty much everyone that wanted a job had one. The job market was literally humming.

Coming from a Western employment context where people were spending months and years searching for jobs and thousands of those that had them were making unhealthy choices to keep them, I was offered multiple job opportunities as soon as I arrived in Southeast Asia. Never had it been more clear to me that travel and flexibility in where you choose to live can create excellent opportunities in life.

If you live in the United States it is easy to feel like this is as good as it gets. We’ve been conditioned to think that way. We are supposed to have the greatest opportunities, to make the most money, to have the best prospects in life. That’s how this is supposed to work. I spent at least 10 years believing this. I stayed in a suboptimal job situation because I believed that I had to make my American dream work. When I finally found the guts to realize that this kind of thinking was holding me back, it was as though the floodgates of real opportunity had opened.

The fact is that although I still live in the US for 1-3 month stints here and there, I don’t miss the scarcity mentality that has somehow supplanted the optimism that is traditionally associated with America. I am still inspired by the traditional American dream. I just think you now have to travel internationally to properly pursue it.

Life in Bangkok During a Military Coup

photo 5
Notice at one of my favorite supermarkets…

We knew there was a good chance of this happening when we decided to move to Bangkok for 2014. And sure enough, yesterday the Thai military made quick work of dissolving parliament, taking rival political leaders into custody, suspending the constitution and taking power. When I tried to get into one of my favorite malls to check out a bookstore, I was told they were closed early due to a 10 p.m. curfew.

Reality hits

I hurried back home, stopping by a supermarket that was packed with emergency shoppers trying to beat curfew. I got home just before 10 p.m. to the news that the military had taken over all television, including cable. Every channel was tuned to the same military broadcast playing occasional announcements interspersed with patriotic music.

Jammie and I looked out of our 16th-floor apartment window and saw increasingly deserted streets. Twitter was buzzing with updates. Commuters were stuck on buses trying to get home. All airports were operating as usual. There were rumors that social media would be next on the chopping block. Some even thought Internet access would be completely shut down.

Better off?

I started reading news analysis. The consensus seemed to be that as concerning as it was to experience a coup, the overthrow had been almost clinically efficient and completely bloodless. The coup meant that there was less risk of a violent clash between rival political groups; tension had been brewing between them  since October of last year (short story: Urban elites had been protesting to overthrow a government led by a a democratically-elected prime minister facing corruption charges.)

Bangkok reaction

I slept badly and woke up about an hour before curfew was lifted for the day at 5 a.m. Nothing dramatically new. I waited until sunrise before venturing out into an almost comic reminder that Thailand was very accustomed to coups (this was coup #19 since absolute monarchy ended in 1932). The mood was sleepy; people were more interested in the newspapers than usual, but overall the reaction seemed to be, “Here we go again.”

Markets came to life, traffic roared along the streets and everyone got back to business as usual. The last coup in 2006 led to the military eventually handing power back to the people. That was clearly the expectation for the outcome this time around as well.

Next up

As for us, we are taking it one step at  a time. Local expats in the know have a cautiously optimistic outlook. Many have seen this before and have a “This too shall pass” attitude.  As for us, we’ll give it some time. Our red line is social media/the Internet. If they go, we’ll go.

More updates coming…

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Chill pill, everyone: Bangkok is not that bad

I took this on my morning walk today...
I took this on my morning walk today…

Ignore the media hype. Bangkok is not that bad. Jammie and I landed a few days ago and our suspicions were confirmed: not much was different from when we left in December. As mentioned in my last post, we had postponed our plans to move back to Thailand because of the media hype about the violence and political protesting aimed at overthrowing the current government. From news reports it was sounding awful – explosions, deaths, shootings, fearful uncertainty. The reality, we are quickly noticing, is far less dramatic.

Business as usual

Some of the biggest changes I’ve noticed so far have been the renovations to my favorite super market, the completion of the pedestrian bridge over the insanely busy intersection next to the high-rise we live in and some major excitement about the fact that Justin Timberlake is coming to town. So much for revolution.

We're BACK!
We’re BACK!

Perspective

I’m not denying that some horrible things have happened – even this week there was a lethal clash as police were clearing protest sites. And yes, there have been several other deaths and many injured. As I have said a number of times on CultureMutt, Bangkok is no stranger to political trouble.  Here’s the thing though: the vast majority of Bangkok is continuing on as usual – the bursts of violence have happened at protest sites.  If you employ some basic common sense and avoid these places (just like you would avoid any bad area of town at home), you are safe. Day-to-day life for most people, including Jammie and I, is basically the same as always.  The picture the media paints of chaotic unrest simply is not an accurate reflection of reality for Bangkok in general.

My biggest lesson learned so far in 2014

For me, this confirms a personal belief that has been gaining strength over the 15 months or so since I quit my stateside job to pursue my dream of international travel and work: risks are less scary once you take them. This is perfectly illustrated by our situation in Bangkok: as much as the media depends on hyping the unrest here to fatten their profit margins, when we actually took the risk and flew over, we were greeted with the same smiles, politeness, incredible food and sunny weather as always.

So often we sit on our dreams and goals and do nothing because of nebulous, ill-defined and often unfounded fear. My biggest lessons learned in 2014 so far is that this tendency is a huge pity. Don’t give in to it.

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Bombs in Bangkok and how they are Affecting our Plans for Living There

“People are gathering in the streets everywhere awaiting your arrival,” joked a Bangkok-based expat friend in a Facebook conversation asking me when Jammie and I were arriving coming back into town.

Protests and grenades

The gatherings my friend was referring too are no joke.  The attempts to overthrow the government had already started around the time we flew out of Bangkok to return California for the holidays in December of last year.  Since then they have picked up steam.  “There have been a few hotheads firing and shoving grenades at protesters so, you need to keep your senses about you when wanting to go somewhere and do things,” said my friend.

Our empty Bangkok apartment

For about two and a half months now, we’ve been paying rent for our apartment in Bangkok that has been unoccupied.  We had intended to only spend December in Los Angeles.  The unpredictable nature of the protests had kept us in Los Angeles to try to wait them out.

Here’s the background:  Protestors consisting of mostly urban Thais are trying to get rid of the current Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra claiming she is being controlled by her brother, ousted former PM,  Thaksin Shinawatra who lives in exile.  Since the start of it all there have been several deaths and scores of people injured in the protests.

What to do?

It was hard to know how to react.  The government scheduled an election and later declared a state of emergency in Bangkok.  The election took place on February 2, 2014 and because they were disrupted by protestors, they will need to be held again.  There is not much of an end in sight.  The flow of tourists into Bangkok has slowed.  Many foreigners are staying away.

Putting it all in perspective

Having said that, Bangkok has seen a lot of political turmoil over the years.  No tourists have been hurt yet since this round of protests began.  So a lot of the local and expat population is continuing with life pretty much as usual, confident this too shall pass.

Part of the confusion comes from the the tone of these protests.  As the people that are protesting are generally well-to-do urbanites, protest sites have take on a kind of carnival-like atmosphere, complete with celebrity sittings, pop concerts, food vendors and hawkers.  The airports are open as usual.  And the fiercest protests seem to be over.

Our decision… and our Plan B

We have finally bought our ticket to return and will be flying in early next week.  This is certainly an interesting start to the year but we are determined to follow through with our plan to live for a year in Bangkok.  We do have a Plan B though – if things get too bad we’ll head for another regional capital – Manila or Kuala Lumpur.

Overseas living teaches you a lot about flexibility.  As my expat friend said:  “am sticking around man … no plans to leave yet, but it’s always at the back of my mind”.

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“People that say they don’t care about money usually don’t have any.”

No, we are not claiming enlightenment BUT...
No, we are not claiming enlightenment BUT…

“This obviously isn’t about the money.”  Late in the fall of 2012 my father-in-law was digesting the news that Jammie and I had quit our jobs to travel the world and volunteer.

“Nope,” I replied, faking a lot more confidence than I actually felt.

There was no denying it. At least for the next 12 months, this kind of a life decision was not going to be lucrative.  It was going to be a huge drain on our resources.

Here are the thoughts that gave me some peace:

Money doesn’t matter until it does – There are times when money really does matter.  If you can’t take care of the basic needs of you and your dependents, you have a problem.  Food, shelter, healthcare, education, retirement, emergencies – these are all things we should plan for (and as I have explained in prior posts, we had.)  Saying “money doesn’t matter” to someone that does not have a chance of meeting the above needs is entitled, heartless, irresponsible and rude.  BUT, simply running on the hamster wheel of fear-based greed is not a smart alternative.  If you do, you will continually want more and more and you will never think you have enough.  Without realizing it, you will make horrible compromises (working a soul-crushing job, ignoring your family, developing a cold, corporate disregard for basic human decency) that will make you and those around just that little bit more pathetic.

Observing the rich is a great education – My job for years after college was in fundraising.  Much of my work involved spending a lot of time around wealthy people.  It was an interesting life.  Some of my best, most trusted friends were millionaires.  I learned a lot from these very rich people.  Many were very happy.  Money had not skewed their values or their respect for those around them.  They lived carefully, enjoyed their wealth and helped others.  I recruited several of them as mentors and have made a point of keeping in touch.

With other wealthy types, the opposite was true: money emboldened all the worst in human nature.  They seemed to think they could say anything they wanted because of their wealth.  They cut you off in conversation.  They would openly patronize people.  They yelled at anyone that challenged their views.  They took an insecure pleasure in reminding you of their money and power.  When the markets were down they panicked like little children.

I realized, after spending six years working with this slice of American society, that having money was very clearly not the factor that decided if you belonged to the happy first group or the wretched second one.  At first glance, this looks like basic conventional wisdom: money cannot buy happiness or peace.  Something deeper hit me on a personal level though. Even if I agreed that more money couldn’t buy me what I wanted, my life reflected a subconscious belief that it could.  I made all kinds of life compromises to stay on the career and overall life track that I thought would bring the security and prosperity I craved.  Simply put, the realization that I was fooling myself led to our year-long experiment and what has, over a year later, proven to be a far better life.

How much is enough?

Some will say that the reason Jammie and I were as unconcerned with the financial ramifications of our life decision was that (compared to the wealthy), we didn’t have much money in the first place.  Maybe they are right.  Maybe we should have continued living the traditional, default life.  Maybe we will live to regret this.  But after this first year’s experience and after talking to people double my age that made similar life decisions, I doubt it.

I’m looking forward to your thoughts on this one.  I’m serious.  Let’s get some debate going.  I don’t expect you to agree with me.

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How I told my Filipino Father-in-Law I was Quitting My Job to Travel with his Daughter

The happy "after" pic. With Jammie's dad atop Baiyoke Tower II - the tallest building in Bangkok.... if only we could have skipped the "we're leaving" conversation...
The happy “after” pic. With Jammie’s dad atop Baiyoke Tower II – the tallest building in Bangkok…. if only we could have skipped the “we’re leaving” conversation…

I’m not going to say it went perfectly.

Just over a year ago, Jammie and I sat down with her dad and two brothers to give them the news that we had both handed in our resignations and were leaving on a 12-month service and travel trip around the world. It easily ranks as one of my most-dreaded conversations EVER (As a Swede in a Filipino family, there has been a steep learning curve on what to say and how to say it – see my last post for some of my lessons learned)… Here’s how we did it:

I practiced on my parents first – Since my own parents raised me all over the world, I decided to break the news to them first.  They were pretty good about it although there was definitely a little resistance to the idea of giving up good jobs for travel and freelancing.  The Swedish “hands off” approach to parenting adult kids made the conversation fairly easy.  Having done it once, I geared up for round 2…

Timing, timing, timing – Since Jammie’s parents lived 8 hours away from us (as opposed to on a different continent like my parents), we decided that we were goings to tell them in person.  Luckily, we had a reason to drive down to them (A LARGE family wedding).  We waited until about two hours after the wedding before dropping the bomb.

Group Dynamics – We gathered Jammie’s dad and two brothers around the table in the formal dining room that hardly ever gets used, took a deep breath and went for it.  “We have some big news…”  Everyone tensed up…. “We’ve done a lot of thinking and planning and…”  Yikes, this was harder than our practice sessions in the car on the drive down… “We have handed in our job resignations and we are going to be traveling around the world and doing service projects for a year.”  THERE! We said it!!

Charts and Projections – I pivoted quickly to the prep we’d done for the move.  I knew that a Filipino dad was going to be very no-nonsense about practicalities, i.e. just how did we plan on surviving?  So we talked about finances – how we’d saved up and found other ways to make money.  We talked about why we were doing this – the year was supposed to be an idea and relationship harvest for the future.  We wanted to make international connections for future career moves.

Prepared Answers – I’d done a lot of prepping for how to respond to family concerns and objections.  And sure enough, there were some (although, not a lot, surprisingly):  I had info on what the cost of living would be in the countries we were visiting.  I had planned a lot to make sure that career-wise, this trip would enhance my marketability rather than hurt my resume and I made sure everyone heard this.

Being real – We talked about risk.  The cities we were visiting were generally safer than your average American city.  Jammie’s dad made Jammie promise she wasn’t going to do any crazy exploring of back alleys on her own.

Wrap-up – As the conversation wound down we thanked everyone.  Amazingly, everyone gave us their blessing. We got out without too much lingering.  All things considered, things had gone well and we breathed a sigh of relief.

Final word – We were actually surprised by how easy most of our “we’re leaving” conversations turned out to be.  If you are planning on breaking big news to family, I think my big takeaway would be: be prepared but don’t over-think it.  It is hard to predict how it will go but don’t delay the talk because of imagined disastrous outcomes.  The most important thing thing is that you actually have the conversation.

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Our Next 12-month Experiment

Enjoying a $0.67 Thai lunch:)
Enjoying a $0.67 Thai lunch:)

What’s next?  What happens after your travel year? Everyone’s asking us the same question so I figured it was time to answer it.

Now that we have sampled a series of 3-month relocations around the world in 2013, we’ve decided to test living in one of them, Bangkok, for longer.  What’s “longer”?  Well, another 12 months, of course!

Here’s why we picked Bangkok for 2014:

We can’t stop now!!  –  2013 was hands-down the best year of our lives so far.  Jettisoning the predictable grind of our Northern Californian lives and taking off on the adventure of our lives was the most invigorating thing either of us had done.  There is something about intentionally designing a new life in a new place that is extremely fulfilling.  Previously we had basically accepted the default life options that were right in front of us.  When we decided that was a dead end we took off on our 2013 world service trip.  We have not once regretted it.  We are going to continue rather than return to the old.

Meaningful service opportunities - Intentionally taking out a year of our lives for service has only given us an appetite to do more of it.  In the last few weeks we have hunted down a whole range of volunteer activities for next year.  In addition to our original Bangkok projects (orphanage and prison visits), we may be adding visits to refugees in their homes, volunteer journalism projects and high school teaching.

Unbeatable continued travel options - We are definitely not done traveling.  The only thing that is changing is the model.  Bangkok is the ideal hub for discount flights anywhere in Asia (and, coincidentally, anywhere in the world) because of its popularity as a tourist destination.  In 2014 we plan to make Bangkok our base but be able to visit other parts of Asia on a frequent basis.  This may actually end up meaning more travel than we did in 2013.

A job offer I could not refuse - I’ve said in previous posts that this year has brought a lot of really interesting job opportunities our way.  I want to say a big thank you to all the CultureMutt readers that have gone out of their way to provide us with these opportunities.  You guys are amazing!  We really appreciate your looking out for us!

There was one offer I simply could not refuse: Business Development for a US-based educational company.  More details on this job will have to come in another post but for now I will say that it is a dream come true and will allow us to make a solid living during our 2014 Bangkok Experiment.  Thanks for this opportunity goes to yet another CultureMutt reader.  You know who you are.  Thank you for sharing our vision and appetite for service and global adventure!

Quality of life for a lot less.  Nowhere we have lived (or heard of) allows you to live as well as you can in Bangkok for so little. The extremely low cost of living in Bangkok allows you to save more easily than anywhere else we’ve lived.  In a world where it is hard to get a job and often even harder to make ends meet, let alone save, working in Southeast Asia offers an amazing alternative.  If you have a degree from a Western country and a little bit of work experience under your belt, the job possibilities in a place like Thailand are endless.   Thousands of Westerners live and work in Bangkok for this reason.  There is more work, you can often find decent pay and your living expenses are (even conservatively speaking) a third of what you were spending on scraping by in the US or Europe.  I have gone over actual dollar figures and why it makes a lot of economic sense to live in a country like Thailand before but if you want a brief recap, check out “Things I wish I’d known about long-term world travel before I quit my job”.

The future is Asia.  The writing’s on the wall almost everywhere we look: there is absolutely no place on earth that can match the pace of progress in Asia.  Yes, there are also risks, of course.  Those who follow the news know that Thailand is not immune to political turmoil.  But the fundamentals of life and work availability have not really changed in decades (no matter what set of politicians is ousted).  And foreigners are generally safer living in Bangkok than they are in most American cities.

No other part of the world that we visited in 2013 can match the frenzied pace of progress and the giddy optimism of Asia.  Everywhere you look, there is construction.  There is an obsession with education and advancement that absolutely blows the US and Western Europe out of the water in comparison.  It may upset some to hear it, but it is true:  the 21st century is the Asian century.  The balance of world opportunity, wealth and influence has shifted East.  For Millennials it makes a lot of sense to follow this trend and go where the opportunity is.

More updates to come.  We are home with family in Los Angeles for the holidays and head back to Thailand in January.  Do you have any tips for us as we tackle our first longer term relocation?  Hit us up in the comments.

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How to fight the sex trade in Bangkok

Nana... the main "sex for hire" area for expats in Bangkok

Huge risk

“They actually walk up to bar girls and other trafficked women in bars and brothels and try to offer them ways to escape.

I was listening to a friend of mine who I’ll call Kim.

“It’s a really bold approach. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it really backfires. When it works they can sometimes work with a UN agency that can transport the trafficked women back to their home countries. When it backfires the pimps find out, it gets ugly and you’ve got to get out quick.”

Jammie and I leaned in with interest. We had never heard of any organization tackling sex slavery this directly.

The trap of sex slavery

“Sometimes they can get enough time with the girls that they are able to befriend them.

The stories are so sad. Whether they are Thai women from up north or young Cambodian or Burmese girls, many come here because they are promised well-paid work through which they can support their families. When they get to Bangkok they are forced into the sex industry.”

Kim continued “It’s very hard to leave. Thai girls that are forced into prostitution are often controlled by pimps that threaten them and hold them in economic bondage.

Due to their low levels of education, prostitution is often the most lucrative work available. If they don’t bring in enough “work” they are fined by their handlers and they fall into debt. It’s nasty.

With foreign girls it is even worse because they are often here illegally. Unless they cooperate with their employers, they can be reported to the authorities and locked up at the Immigration Detention Center without documentation.”

It was deeply depressing to listen to.  And the results of what Kim was describing are on open display in Bangkok.

The sexpats that fuel human trafficking

Walk down the street after dark in areas like the Nana district of Bangkok (a major shopping and eating area) and you will see middle-aged male tourists leaning in to negotiate prices with Thai bar girls.

Everywhere you look, men are pulling purchased women into cabs and others are being stopped in the street by prostitutes pressured to meet quotas.

Fighting back

As much as most visitors to Bangkok are shocked by the strength of the sex industry, and while many Thais and foreigners agree that something must be done, most are left scratching their heads about what to actually do to help.

Which brings me back to what Kim was talking about. There are a handful of organizations that are tackling the issue aggressively.

To protect individuals and “undercover” organizations from unwanted mafia-like intervention, I am going to omit names of specific individuals and organizations.

Heroes

But I will say that I have the utmost admiration for their bravery and willingness to step up to the plate.

One lady that I talked to had moved to Bangkok from the US with her husband and kids to work with a ministry that taught ex prostitutes valuable life skills including how to make a decent living making jewelry.

A handful of organizations do what Kim described at the top of this post:  Female aid workers walk Nana, Soi Cowboy and Patpong (the biggest red light districts) and try to start a dialogue with bar girls, massage parlor (often a front for brothels) staff and other prostitutes.

They befriend their contacts and offer them alternate ways to make a living or ways to get the financial and legal means to return to their home countries if they are foreign.

It is hard work. Although prostitution is technically illegal in Thailand, police are paid off by pimps and bar owners to look the other way. So it is hard to count on support from the authorities.

Sometimes you feel like you are not even making the smallest dent in the problem. Everything feels hopeless and the challenges of fighting sex slavery seem insurmountable.

Not impossible!!

But I want to end on an admittedly sentimental note: As I write these words I am on a British Airways flight 32,000 feet above Russia. Jammie and I have completed our three months in Bangkok and are headed to Buenos Aires to start our work there.

It’s hard not to feel a twinge of emotion as I think back to the orphans we said goodbye to a few hours ago, the inmates that we had the privilege of working with and the dozens of friends that we made during our time in Thailand. We leave feeling incredibly inspired by the stories they have told us and the way each of them works to improve their community, their city.

One of the most inspirational things I got to personally witness happened during the coffee hour at a church I visited one Sunday.

I was quizzing an aid worker and she told me about the results of her organization’s work fighting the sex industry.

“There’s an entire table over there full of women that have been liberated from prostitution. They are now making a living for themselves and their families creating jewelry. This can work. They can have a brighter future!”

Indeed they can.

This, my final post before I start chronicling our Argentina adventures, is dedicated to the brave heroes that take the risks to rescue those that are currently enslaved. We will forever be inspired by your bravery, dedication and service. Thank you, thank you, thank you for what you do.

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Is it racist to only date people of your own race?

Me being all contemplative...

Is it racist to only date people of your own race?

Last weekend I ran into one of my ‘aunties’, a friend of the family from way back in the 80s when my family lived in Hong Kong. We were both surprised to be meeting the other over 20 years later in Bangkok.

She is Malaysian and was amused when I introduced her to my wife, Jammie who is Filipina American. “You know, a lot of you Western kids that grew up in Asia married Asians and my daughter married a white guy!”

The chance meeting and our conversation got me thinking about how common interracial dating and marriage is nowadays.  Whether it is as a result of online dating sites or in person meetings, interracial couples have never been more common.

In some circles it is so common to date across ethnic lines that those who refuse to do so are regarded suspiciously.

The question in the title of this post gets asked in different ways: “What’s up with that girl? Is she racist or something? How come she’ll only date her own kind?”

To automatically jump to this conclusion is obviously stupid. This is fundamentally flawed thinking and people that think this way are revealing their own stunted growth when it comes to race relations.  You would be foolish to take their dating advice.

Everyone should be given the benefit of the doubt.

Those that push back on such “easy” conclusions argue that, “Sure, there are prejudiced reasons to only date people on your race, just as there are prejudiced reasons to not date those of your own race or to date exclusively white girls, say. But the mere fact that you prefer your own race shouldn’t mean something is wrong.”

Where prejudice creeps in…

So far, I agree. Fair enough. But here’s where it gets dicey:

Dating only your own race is often explained as a matter of taste: “I’m just not attracted to any other race.”  But often this betrays deeper prejudice.

Like a distrust of those of another race that doesn’t allow for the attraction in the first place. This is prejudiced. Don’t blame taste when the underlying problem is your own narrow-mindedness.

Prejudiced parents

Similarly, often racism in your family’s cultural tradition leads to racist dating decisions in your own. “My parents would flip if I brought home someone of another race.”

I’ve heard it so many times. And yes, that is a legit concern. You generally want your parents blessing, right?  Sure, it is generally a good thing to listen to dating advice from your parents. But are you going to allow their prejudice to decide your future?

Are you going to let the outdated dictates of former generations decide how you impact the world? Don’t just opt for convenience. I’m not advocating a casual disregard for sincere parental dating advice. But somewhere the line will need to be drawn. Somewhere you must become your own person.

Love isn’t a political statement

On the flip side, dating and marriage is not about making social or political statements. Don’t just date cross culturally because it is trendy.  Love is unpredictable and irrational.  Be brave enough to accept this and not fret too much about racial close-mindedness.

I will say this from personal experience (and I’ve heard very similar things from other mixed couples): Taking a careful look at why we date like we do and being open to some adventure is something we all owe to ourselves.

Interracial dating and marriage can be one of the most fulfilling, meaningful life decisions we make.

So go forth and mix it up!

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Bjorn Karlman Bangkok, Thailand