Tag Archives: Thailand

Think you can’t live and work abroad because you have kids? Think again.

 

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The Bernhardts – living a life of adventure a long, long way from home

Are you putting off the experience of living and working abroad because you have kids?  Children are often the reason people give for not traveling and living internationally.  People seem to be very fond of telling Jammie and I that as soon as we kids we may as well pack our bags and head back to the US. We’ve never quite agreed with that assessment but since we don’t have kids we’ve had precious little to say in return.  Until now.  To find out more about raising a family overseas I have started interviewing people that are doing just that. For this post, I reached out to some good friends of ours, Daniel and Marlise Bernhardt to give me their perspective as parents who have chosen to raise a family far from home.    Here are my questions about their very international lives and Marlise’s answers:

Describe yourselves in 140 characters or less

We’re a married couple from Argentina living in Thailand. Daniel is managing a food factory, and I’m staying home with our son (expecting our second baby).

How did you grow up?

When I was six my parents went to Lesotho, Africa, to work in a mission hospital. We lived there for seven years before returning to Argentina, so most of my childhood memories are set in Africa.

Daniel’s dad was a pastor in Argentina. At that time, this meant being transferred every couple years or so to a new area. So he did 12 years of schooling in 8 different schools and 5 different provinces!

How did the two of you meet?

On the Internet! Daniel was living and working in Buenos Aires and I was doing some volunteer teaching in Thailand. I was a bit lonely and got into this denominational website to socialize, and well, I met “this guy” who was actually interested in my adventures and misadventures in Thailand. We soon found out we knew a lot of people around us, but just not each other – I knew some of his cousins and even his brother – and some of my friends had had Daniel’s dad as a pastor. It took us a while to actually start dating because I was afraid of getting into a relationship with someone I barely knew (even though everyone around me who knew him kept saying he was great!), but things worked out really well!

Why did you decide to move to Thailand?

When we started dating I moved to Buenos Aires to be closer to Daniel. Then, just as we were planning our wedding, we received an invitation to return to the university where I’d volunteered in Thailand. Daniel had flown to visit me while I still worked there, so the admin had gotten to know him personally. They happened to need lecturers for the Business and the ESL (English as a Second Language) Departments – and we both fit that profile. Then two and a half years later, Daniel was offered his current job, which allows me to be a stay-at-home mom.

Looking back, it’s surprising we made the move at all. We were both enjoying our jobs and our friends back in Buenos Aires, and the move to Thailand made no sense at all – not socially, nor financially. But something pulled us to go there – in my case, I had always dreamt of having an overseas experience with my husband, and this was our opportunity. In Daniel’s case, he’d always wanted to work abroad. He was willing to go even if it meant switching from corporate work to teaching for a while. We were free to travel then – no kids, no debt, our parents were healthy – if we didn’t go then, we knew we’d settle down in Argentina and live there forever and that moving abroad after that would become increasingly difficult. We could always come back after a couple of years and re-settle. So we took the leap, and we’re glad we did.

Thai sightseeing... unbeatable...
Thai sightseeing… unbeatable…

How do you like it in Thailand?

Thailand is a great country to live in! It’s safe, and salaries go a looong way here. There are so many beautiful (and affordable) places to visit, such an interesting variety of food, and it’s exciting to learn about a culture and language that is so different from our own. We’ve faced our cultural challenges and sometimes still do, but we love Thailand.

The village (i.e. gated community) we live in now is purely Thai, so we’re forced to learn more Thai to communicate with our neighbors, since very few can speak English. I’m glad we’re being pushed into language learning though – it’s helping us understand Thais so much more and it makes our stay much more pleasurable. A whole world has opened to us since we began learning Thai.

Maybe the hardest part about living here is being away from our family and friends. Thai people are warm, helpful, polite and friendly, but somehow making deep friendships is a huge challenge when you face cultural and linguistic barriers. In Argentina we were surrounded by warm friendships and loving family – and that is what we miss the most.

What we hadn’t expected was how living abroad would bring us even closer together. We went from being in a place where each of us had our own social circle to suddenly being just the two of us!

Looking back, we have no regrets about our move out of home – we feel it’s the best decision we’ve made together (besides getting married, of course!).

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Parenting in tropical Paradise…

You are parents – how does it feel to raise a child overseas?

I guess having been raised overseas myself, I never had a problem with it! Especially in a country like Thailand, which is a great place to be with a baby or toddler. Thais love small children and are very helpful and understanding. We were pleasantly surprised to notice that right after our baby was born here in Bangkok. We live in a safe place, and our son gets to listen to three languages and taste food we didn’t get to try until we came here as adults. We feel that an overseas experience is very positive for any child – what was once strange for us is simply normal for him; he’s not limited to just one culture and one way of doing things. I feel that offering our children an enlarged worldview along with bilingualism or multilingualism is a huge gift we can give them.

In Thailand there are plenty of products, good hospitals and anything you might need to comfortably raise a child here.

What are the main challenges of having kids overseas and how are you tackling them?

I guess being so far away from the grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins. Both Daniel and I are quite close to our extended family, and we’d like our children to grow up with that same sense of belonging. We keep in touch often through Skype with our parents and siblings, and we go to Argentina once a year to visit for a month (hey, so many people see their relatives even less often than that!). We also look at family pictures with our son and say their names. As our son grows, we will have to find other ways to connect him to family.

With having extended family so far away, I often miss the support and help I’d get with the baby if my mom, mother-in-law or sisters-in-law lived nearby. If I’m sick, we need to pay someone to come and help me instead of just calling a close friend or relative. All our “date nights” are with our baby – good thing he loves restaurants and is fun to be with!

The other challenge is cultural identity. We’re still just beginning, but we often talk about how we will help our children forge some type of cultural identity. Even if they won’t totally identify with our culture, we want them to feel comfortable with it and a part of it, because that’s where their family comes from. As a Third Culture Kid (TCK) myself, I understand that if you’ve grown up overseas, it’s inevitable to be a bit of a hybrid. Yet somehow, I do feel more Argentinean than anything else and I do find value in feeling a connection to my roots. I hope we can offer the same to our children, even though they will be TCK’s themselves.

As our kids grow, there will probably be social challenges too – but we’re not there yet, so we’ll cross that bridge when we get there!

Gorgeous Thailand
Gorgeous Thailand

What do you think your son is learning from this kind of childhood that he would not had you stayed at home?

I kind of answered this in a previous question, but I’ll add one more thing: open-mindedness. I’m not saying that someone who’s never traveled is not open-minded, but traveling and living abroad are natural ways of opening yourself up to new experiences. I feel sad when someone has to be coaxed into trying a Mexican burrito, or refuses to take a bite of ruccula, just because it’s something they don’t usually eat. I want my children to not judge a person because they’re using a spoon or their hands instead of a fork – and to think that it’s normal for there to be different approaches to doing the same thing; that people have different accents or sometimes use expressions we don’t use, but are still trying to say something that as humans we can relate to. This open-mindedness can be so positive for building relationships with different kinds of people, and also for any other area in life.

We also believe that by choosing to live abroad, we’re helping our children break an invisible mental barrier that would give them greater freedom. They won’t be initially limited to only one country or culture. By exposing them to a multi-cultural setting, they will learn that there are other options, that if they want, the world can be their home. We believe that the advantages of being bi-cultural or multicultural far outweigh the disadvantages.

What would you say to young families that would love to travel but feel they can’t because of their children?

I won’t lie – it’s not as easy as traveling without kids, but it can still be very rewarding. Jet lag is harder to recover from when you’re forced to stay awake because your baby won’t sleep, and you probably won’t be able to sight-see as many places as you would without kids, because let’s face it, kids do slow us down. But that’s ok since we do have so much fun with him! Depending on the needs of your kids, you might need to plan around nap times, choose kid-friendly places – you know, that kind of thing. But this doesn’t mean that traveling with kids is terrible. We enjoy traveling with our son. We don’t let our kid become an obstacle to traveling, unless there are safety concerns. Last year on our way to Argentina we had a stopover in Austria and it was precious. Yes, there were limits to how much we could do, but I wouldn’t have changed it for anything. Our son, one year old at that time, got to experience using shoes and thick jackets and a blanket for the first time! That was a struggle!

With regard to safety issues, what I recommend the most is getting in touch with people who’ve actually been or are in the country; they’ll know which places to recommend and what you should avoid. Embassies can tell you whether your family might need any vaccines. Most of the time, the news presents things as way worse than they really are, and people often get twisted ideas that make them more scared than they should be. Of course you need to be careful, of course you need to be informed – but get your information from people who actually know the place.

It helps to pack light when with kids – makes things so much easier. (Sometimes we still find that we’ve packed a thing too many!) Our son is usually more interested in us or the trip than in toys, for example. And we’ve found that if we really, really end up needing something, it’s usually available at our destination (this might not be the case for specific brands of healthy snacks or medicine, though).

If you’re thinking of a long-term overseas move, I’d say it’s different with babies/ toddlers than with school-age kids. Babies or toddlers will usually happily follow their parents and won’t have much input on the matter, but older kids will need more preparation, encouragement and emotional support for a move like that. But it can be done. When we moved to Lesotho I was six years old: old enough to miss my grandparents, cousins, and even a dog we had to leave behind. But my mom was very supportive and helped me through my grief, and now as I look back, the move to Lesotho was one of the best things my parents could have done for our family. A period of grief is healthy and normal when you make a move like this; don’t let it stop you – just do learn ways to help yourself and your kids through it. There are books that will help you with this.

How does the future look?  Do you plan to keep traveling and living in different countries?

A few years ago we would make plans and schemes… Then we were invited to Thailand, and things turned out so differently than what we’d imagined – but in a good way. So right now, we know that we won’t live in Thailand forever, but we’re not sure where we will go next. We trust that God will open doors at the right time. But yes, we do see ourselves living in yet another country. And if it’s back to Argentina, we’ll be OK with that too.

What happens when your son reaches school age?

If we’re still in Thailand by then, I’d like to homeschool him, at least for the first few years. I know plenty of families who homeschool or have homeschooled and for them it’s usually been a positive experience. There are International schools here, but they’re quite expensive and their school days are very long. We’ll see where we are when that time comes, and what the possibilities are.

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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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60 Seconds of Bangkok – Khao San Road

If you’ve seen The Beach, you saw Leonardo DiCaprio drink snake blood on Khao San Road. If you saw The Hangover Part II, you saw Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms and Zach Galifianakis panic all over Bangkok but, interestingly, none of the scenes were shot on Khao San Road. This may have been because Khao San Road has so many foreigners it doesn’t look remotely scary in real life. At any rate, this 60 Seconds of Bangkok video gives you some live night footage featuring the backpacker haven of Bangkok, Khao San Road. Enjoy!

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Bjorn Karlman

Bangkok, Thailand


Pride cometh before the fall – ignore my last post

Sick as a dog... like the blanket?:)

Some of you saw this coming: Swiftly on the heels of our most dramatic culinary adventure last week – eating raw durian (a fruit) and sticky rice – I was hit like a sledgehammer with the most violent food poisoning I’ve had since college. I mean it was brutal, out-of-both-ends stuff requiring Tarzan-like leaps out of bed to the facilities.

Oh, the irony

Even in my miserable state the irony of it all was too funny. In my last post I had confidently declared Thai street food fair game and now here I was, the ever-present occupant of my bathroom.

One thing was for sure: there was plenty of time to think. Plenty of time to analyze what had happened. Was I wrong to have taken the risk of eating Bangkok street food? Should I swear it all off?

A lesson

As much as my stomach was telling me never to eat Thai street food again, my brain knew better. This was a lesson in restraint and commonsense (the gooey fruit had been festering in a lukewarm milky substance for hours without refrigeration and I really should have known better than to think I could handle it). It was not grounds for a drastic retreat to peanut butter sandwiches for the balance of my stay in Bangkok.

My default MO is one of at least slight overconfidence. Often it pays off – I attempt challenges, assuming things will work out and then they often do. But occasionally you just end up loosening your bowels.

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Bjorn Karlman

Bangkok, Thailand


How to Eat Thai Street Food

OK, yes (as I admitted a couple posts ago) we are eating food from the Bangkok street stalls. And we haven’t gotten sick yet. The food is unbelievably delicious. But there are a few things to remember before you head to your first food stall:

Be brave!
Yes, it takes some courage to start eating food cooked by the side of the road in a foreign country. But this is one experience you need to have. I have simply never had such good, inexpensive food. You can get a great meal of Thai street food for $1.50. So be brave, walk up to the food stall serving the food you are most dying to eat, point at what you want and you will be well on your way to enjoying a genuine, Thai experience.

 

Eat cooked food
To ensure a decent level of hygiene, only eat food that has been cooked in front of you. The heat will kill the bugs. Steer clear of raw fruit or veggies (at least for the first few days while your stomach adjusts) as they may be washed in water that has not been purified. The locals can handle it but be careful here.

Living life dangerously! We are bad examples. We had raw fruit smoothies within our first week in Thailand... not generally a great idea but an expat friend talked us into it:)

Try new stuff
There is amazing range so don’t be afraid to branch out. We have been experimenting a lot with different dishes. The first night it was pastries, an omelet, spicy chicken, basil, rice and a fried egg. Since then it’s been a bit of a free for all. Curries, soups, stews and an embarrassing array of desserts. There is endless variety so there is no excuse not to indulge your inner foodie.

I'd like.... everything.

Skip Monday
A lot of Thai street food stalls close on Monday so you may want to stay indoors for your meals as the work week starts… Eat at the mall instead. In fact, a lot of the popular street stalls have their own branches in Bangkok malls (which stay open.). I’ll dedicate an upcoming post to the malls here but let me just say right now that they are so large they really should issue customers GPS devices.

The water issue
To avoid spending all night on the throne, stay away from tap water in Bangkok. It is not fit for drinking. However, restaurants that serve water generally serve purified water so you are typically OK having some.

To drink or to suffer curry burn... that is the dillemma.

Go with the crowd
There is safety in numbers when it comes to Thai street food. Hit up the busy stalls. They are busy for a reason and can be trusted more than the ones that get less traffic. This is one time it is absolutely appropriate to bow to peer pressure.

Have you had street food in Thailand? What did I miss? Feel free to add to the list in the comment section.

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Bjorn Karlman

Bangkok, Thailand


With a little help from my friends – Bangkok with the hookups

blast from the past... my friends from the good old days in the Philippines

The mist of confusion lifts when you make friends in a new city. Everything becomes easier.

Lucky

We headed to an English-speaking church in Bangkok this weekend hoping to meet as many people as possible.  Because we had taken the wrong route to the church we got there super late. So instead of actually going to church we started talking to those outside.

We asked all the questions that the language barrier had kept us from asking earlier in the week:

“Are there any good apartments around here?”
“What’s the best way to navigate Bangkok?”
“What are some cool charities that we could volunteer for?”

Luckily they had lots of answers and ideas. We started exchanging numbers with people and jotting down suggestions.

Blast from the past

And then it got even better. “Hi Bjorn!” I looked up and in front of me were some childhood friends that I had grown up with in Philippines.  One of them worked in Bangkok and this weekend the whole family was visiting from the Philippines.  I couldn’t believe it! The relief at seeing familiar faces was immense. We were automatically invited for lunch and then a potluck for dinner.

Want a job?

By the end of the day we had two work opportunities and some info on an NGO (non-governmental organization) for which we could volunteer. Both work opportunities required fluent English – one was for office work for an international company, the next for English language teaching in one of the leading Bangkok universities.  The breakthroughs were mind blowing.

just looking at this Saturday night potluck pic makes me hungry again....

Bottom Line: the 80/20 Principle

This experience really drove home what is commonly called the 80/20 principle.  Here’s how lifestyle design blogger and bestselling author, Tim Ferriss puts it:  “80% of the outputs result from 20% of the inputs,” or, “80% of the results come from 20% of the effort and time.”  This has definitely been true of our time in Bangkok so far.  All our time spent reading and hunting for info did not produce anything near the results of a handful of conversations with the right people.

Nowhere was this more true than with our Bangkok apartment rental efforts:

We had spent hours online, pouring over Bangkok apartment listings. We had painstakingly narrowed down our search to the options that fit our budget. We spent a lot of time looking up locations on Bangkok Maps. In all the time we had spent so far we hadn’t even gotten to calling any of the landlords up (I was dreading doing so because I was anticipating a mountain of language barrier problems.).

One conversation on Saturday made all the difference. “I’ve got a great, cheap apartment that I think could work,” said the husband of one of my childhood friends. He then hooked us up with one of his friends that negotiated an amazing deal.

It was humbling to realize that this one conversation had produced far better results than our hours spent wading through online listings. The Bangkok apartment our friend found us cost $130/month (less than half of what we had budgeted). It was in a safe area and right next door to a friend.

Do-gooding

Our next major priority is finding some nonprofits to work for. We will be pooling the suggestions we get as well as visiting a few different organizations. We will be giving all recommendations submitted on this blog special preference so please submit your ideas in the comment section.

Please leave a comment with your suggestions. Know of a good Bangkok-based orphanage? An after school program? A program working to prevent underage human trafficking? We don’t need pay. Just an interesting project. Have a think. Maybe you can help us….

Looking forward to hearing from you…

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Bjorn Karlman

Bangkok, Thailand


Straight Talk: Sin or Virtue?

Lips zipper 2I had been away from Asia for several years when I returned on a business trip in 2004. By my second or third meeting in Bangkok, it was clear that “getting down to business”, “straight talk” and a Western “no-nonsense” approach to negotiations were not going to fly. Meetings started with a shockingly robust round of pleasantries by American business standards. In fact, it seemed that the actual “business” portion of the meeting was limited to very brief statements, sandwiched between a prolonged inquiry into how my colleague and I were enjoying Thailand at the start of the meeting, and another succession of questions and suggestions at the end as we covered how best to entertain ourselves in Thailand for the rest of the trip. My host did a superb job of making sure everyone felt at ease and there was a sense of harmony to the meeting that I had rarely witnessed in the Western “cut-to-the-chase” business etiquette that I was used to.

I can’t say that I have a definite preference when it comes to approaches to business etiquette. I can definitely appreciate the Eastern prioritization of group harmony over directness. I really enjoyed my time in Bangkok and from a business point of view, the deals we were able to negotiate by playing by the local rules proved to be very lucrative successes. On the flip side, straight talk can be enlightening because it minimizes the guessing game. I was raised by Scandinavian parents that encouraged clarity in communication to the point of bluntness. They felt that this kind of communication was honest and correct. I have countless examples of how openness and directness, however uncomfortable they may be in the short term, end up saving a lot of time and heartache in the long run. Former General Electric CEO Jack Welch, on his website The Welch Way, claims that candor is a principle of business communication that is necessary and helpful in any work context, anywhere – a veritable one-size fits all.

This is where I beg to differ. Millions of dollars are lost every day on business deals gone south because we as humans seem only to think about communication in terms of what is culturally accepted in our societies. We know, in theory, that people communicate differently in different parts of the world, but habits are hard to break. It seems that subconsciously, we expect others to see relationships and communication the way we do.

As a result, cultures that believe group harmony to be paramount may come across as evasive and even dishonest in cultures such as those of North America and Western Europe, where directness and clarity are the guiding force. On the other hand, Western candor often comes across as bullish and rude in many Asian countries and can be alienating to the point where deals collapse. AsianAmerica.net, an online service to promote cultural, educational and economic ties between Asia and North America, puts it like this: “It is estimated that more than half of all international joint ventures fail within two or three years. The reason most often given is cultural myopia and lack of cultural competency – not the lack of technical or professional expertise.”

There is no magical third way to completely avoid this clash of communication styles that leads to business disasters. Do your homework before you take off on international business trips or before you start negotiations with anyone from a different culture. What will their expectations be in terms of etiquette and what can you expect from them as far as their communication style?

Asian.American.net says “Customizing the learning experience is the most effective way to address specific issues and objectives and maximize the impact cultural competency can have on the company’s bottom line. In today’s global marketplace, being culturally savvy is no longer just “nice to have” but a key ingredient in building and maintaining a competitive global advantage.”

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Bjorn Karlman