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From the Land of Smiles

Benjamin H. Malcolm

Scouting the "New" World: Back in the USA

I have returned to live in the U.S. with my wife Tan. The reasons for our move are many, and have very little to do with economics. We were doing fine in Thailand, teaching and writing and enjoying a mainly middle-class existence in the far north of the country.

No, there are other, more emotional catalysts driving us, reasons that have been hammered out over the course of months. The most important of these is my desire to be closer for a time to my family and my stateside friends, especially my father, who is battling an onset of Parkinson's Disease. I imagine celebrating Thanksgiving and Christmas again, sitting down to drink coffee at tables from Maine to DC, and talking face-to-face with people I haven't seen in a long time.

Tan is nervous, yet excited by our decision, and also understands my deeper desire to be near family. In Thailand, family unity is the axis on which the rest of the world spins. And this will be an opportunity for her to live for a time in the U.S., to experience life in another culture, and to push herself outside her comfort zone. I have lived for about six years in Thailand, and she has never lived anywhere but Thailand. For an intercultural couple to thrive, to gain a deeper understanding of the other, I believe both should live for some time in the other's world. I know the process will be challenging for me. I have been out of the loop for years, starting over in many ways because I don't have the resume and clean lines of a typical goal-oriented career chaser. For Tan, it will be even harder.

She worries what she will do in the U.S. "I don't want to be a cashier in Wal-Mart. I don't want to be a waitress." She has worked in Thailand as a teacher, a language trainer, and a refugee camp worker. She knows many immigrants in the U.S. are forced to work long hours in factories or convenience stores.

"You have a Master's Degree," is my answer. "You've worked with the Peace Corps. You're creative. Our experience over there can be whatever we want it to be."

I really believe this, and yet there is also the realistic part of me that sees the unemployment statistics and recession figures, the continuing fractures of the red and blue divide, and of course, the ongoing costs of the War on Terror, and I wonder if we've made a smart decision.


We land at JFK on June 21st.

The sight of the Atlantic Ocean from the window, the choppy surf of the coastline below, fills me with a sense of homecoming as I listen to the normal exhalations and landing gear thuds of the dipping jetliner. We walk off the plane and into the early morning of New York.

Then we meet the immigration officials.

"Passport!" grunts the guard to Tan, ignoring me. We have just passed a sign which ensures visitors they will be treated with courtesy and respect. "Step over there! Go down that hall to the room at the end." These guards are professional at best, and at worst, brusque, unyielding, and unfriendly.

Tan looks like someone splashed cold water on her face, but she takes it well, grabs her passport with a quick "thank you" and heads for the back rooms.

I wasn't expecting open arms from my country's immigration, but I also remembered distinctly my latest Thai visa run to Singapore, a country known for its tough rules and first-world nose-to-the-grindstone attitude. The Muslim woman at the immigration window asked me with a pleasant disposition, after seeing my marriage certificate, if I wanted the three-month or the one-year spousal visa, and outlined the cost. She spoke politely, and waited patiently while I counted out my cash payment. I felt like a customer, not an inconvenient part of someone's long day.

Back at JFK, I follow Tan down to the aforementioned room, a depressing, noisy alcove where the newly arrived sit clustered and confused on a bench, and more guards bark at us to leave our bags at the doorway, then joke among themselves, keeping a clear distance. No one asks us where we've come from, and there are no smiles of welcome. Would it be breaking protocol that much to smile, or end sentences with "please" or "thanks?"

Maybe it's a New York thing. An American friend of mine flew through Seattle in 2004, and told me that the immigration official there greeted him and his wife in Thai, and smiled.

Tan is called into a private room, and I sit meekly on the bench. I want to be a chaperone for her, but we are already separated, and I imagine all sorts of unpleasant scenarios before she reappears with inky fingers, looking slightly bemused. The guards continue to issue short commands to her: "Go over there! Sit over there!" She laughs, and we speak Thai together to defuse our nervousness. We are legal, and have gone through the whole immigration process back in Bangkok, but it still feels tense in this room, like we're trespassing.

Tan is laughing and joking, but her mannerisms say something else. She leans forward frequently to ask me if her name has been called.

Every time I departed Thailand through Burma, Laos, or Singapore, I was nervous, thinking of the frightening aura of the despotic immigration official. Tan would always counsel me before heading out: "Don't worry, speak Thai, dress nice, and everything will be OK." She was always right. I never had a serious problem.

I flash back to another day where I stood before the glass window of a Thai immigration portal with a less-than-adequate, hastily-typed letter from my university, requesting a visa extension. The immigration person eyed me and the letter, admonished me gently with a "next time, bring better paperwork," and then stamped me through to the end of the term. That was perhaps my worst moment with Thai immigration.

Now, the situation has been reversed, and I watch her go through a much tougher trial. It doesn't matter how she dresses, or how good her English is.

Twenty minutes later, a guard at the front desk calls out her name, and she goes up to get her passport. She comes back and points out the stamp, which says "2007" and we both relax. We've made it. I briefly think about asking one of the guards what our next step should be for immigration once we've settled into our temporary home in New Jersey, but I don't get the sense that they're there to answer questions.

This isn't Singapore anymore, Dorothy.

We head out to collect our bags, and Tan breathes a heavy sigh.

"OK … the big journey begins here," she says.

Every one else from our flight is already gone as we head into the baggage area. I go to collect the two luggage carts and see that to get them out of lock-down, I have to pay $3 for each.

I tell Tan this, as I maneuver the carts to our bags.

"Six dollars," she shouts. "You've got to be kidding!"

She's more riled by this than she ever was by the guards.

Money … It's a Gas …

With a base figure of 40 Baht to a dollar, we end up hemorrhaging money during our jobless summer. Ignoring for a moment the visa process, something which has become time-consuming and expensive since 9/11 (ours took at least six months and cost upwards of $500), the mere cost of traveling in America is enough to change all but the most determined travel plans. A few friends back in Thailand have said they won't be able to visit us here, it's just too damn hard to get a visa, and the leap up to American price standards is too high.

Tan compares what she pays in Thailand for what she pays for things in the U.S., a practice I try to discourage — it's comparing apples and oranges, I say -- and bound to lead to frustration. She starts this practice at the airport, when she goes to investigate an Au Bon Pain.

"Look at what this small cappuccino costs," she tells me, breaking out her calculator to multiply $3.50 by 40. "Maybe we should wait and have a coffee at your sister's house."

It goes beyond the fact that one plate of Pad Thai here is worth sixteen over there. In Thailand, our rental costs were 7 percent of our income, for a large 2-bedroom house with a yard in the countryside. In America, assuming we wanted to maintain the same standard, and were renting an apartment at $1,000 per month, we would have to make a combined $171,428 a year.

During the summer when I explore the idea of tailoring my favorite pair of shorts, which has lost its zipper, I stop in a tailor/dry cleaning store near my sister's house to get it repaired. A young, dour woman, with a Spanish lilt, quotes me $15 for parts and labor, and a pickup day a week down the road. I decline.

In Thailand, I can bring the same pair of shorts to a street side-tailor, pay roughly 50 cents, and get it repaired the same day, very often within the hour. Tan is shocked when I quote her the price, and repeats it throughout the day.

Each time this happens, I try to explain, but my answers seem weak, like something I'm vaguely remembering from an old economics book.

"Labor costs a lot over here," I tell her. "There's no skilled labor, so they can charge whatever they want."

"That's crazy," she says. "No wonder people go to Thailand to get clothes made. It doesn't make sense to buy anything here."

As our journey stretches into weeks, Tan's practice of comparing prices begins to wane and we face the problem the only way we can: we share food and coffees when we eat out to save money (American portions are about twice that of normal Thai portions, anyway) and we buy items on sale in the supermarkets. We were middle class to upper middle class by Thai standards. Who knows what level we're going to achieve here?

I try to maintain a sense of optimism, but I also get into a pattern of complaining and joking about it, and if anything else, it makes for good story fodder with my friends.

Ups and Downs

A few days after landing in the U.S., we head north to visit my parents, and we opt to stay long enough to take care of my driver's license and enjoy a few days of hiking and fresh New Hampshire air. I also get in my first interview in Concord, but nothing develops, and it turns into a mere test run for the future.

Tan, meanwhile, is busy studying this new, strange culture. In Thailand, it's considered normal for family members to wander off to sleep without announcing their intention, a logical extension of the Thai concept of "comfortable relations." In America, even in a relaxed family such as ours, there's usually an attempt to say "goodnight" or "see you in the morning" before heading upstairs. I explain this to her after she wanders off to sleep two nights in a row without a sound, and she finds this amusing.

"Why are people here always so vocal about coming and going?" she wonders.

On the night after my explanation, though, she makes sure to say "goodnight" to everyone.

She also is buying Ramen noodle packages left and right, and snacking on them, because they remind her of Thai hot soup, and because they are so cheap, perhaps the cheapest food item in America (in one supermarket, you can get eight packets for a dollar).

Food is always an issue. Thais adore their food, and Tan is craving native papaya salad, sticky rice, and barbecued chicken almost every night. Sandwiches are a snack in the Thai mind's eye, although she loves soup. Thais grow up with the notion that any real meal -- a breakfast, lunch, or dinner -- should include rice.

I urge her to experiment, and I take her to Chinese restaurants when she really needs a fix. Thai food costs a lot here, even if you buy it in an Asian market. Water spinach, one of the most basic vegetables in Thailand (you can pick it out of streambeds for free in the countryside), goes for $5 minimum.

We settle down for a time in Princeton, NJ and discover the local library, which has been recently refurbished, and includes high-speed internet access, acres of books, and a full DVD movie area. We spend day after day there, turning it into a temporary work station of sorts, exploring job opportunities on the Web and enjoying the air-conditioning. I missed libraries keenly in Thailand (Thais have much smaller, less modern, versions), and peruse the copious amounts of new fiction, movies, and display racks filled with the latest magazines. Tan gets lost in the library as well, diving into cookbooks and old copies of the Utne Reader, a compendium of alternative magazine articles.

We while away the long days of summer with my sister and my brother-in-law, enjoying leisurely dinners out on the porch, playing with my nephew and niece, drawing chalk towns on the driveway, playing baseball games in the front yard, and chauffeuring them to summer camps and out for ice cream. We even squeeze in a trip to a minor league baseball game for 4th of July.

Not everything is going well, however, and storm clouds begin to grow. One librarian I talk to (an immigrant herself) offers an ominous assessment of the current political climate: "America has changed a lot since you left." We don't fit in, we don't know where we're headed and our anxiety is growing.

Meltdown and Renewal

"What the hell am I doing here?"

Tan is in tears, ripping up fistfuls of grass and tossing them into the wind. We are sitting on the edges of the soft grass of the Mall in Washington, DC, ground zero of American politics. We have driven to the city to meet up with friends and to scope out the possibility of moving back to DC.

The grass continues to fly into the wind.

Tan's anger, which has been rising for the length of our 45-minute Metro ride from Virginia, has finally surfaced. We are on our way to the new National Museum of the American Indian, and have stopped abruptly only minutes from the Metro exit.

I've seen Tan angry before, but this is more intense, sharper, and more vocal than I've ever seen her. I'm desperate to calm her down and to get back to that feeling of unity we spoke of before we left Thailand. But how do I do that when I have no immediate job prospects, and my own doubts are still running roughly equal with my hopes?

"What am I doing here?" she screams. Tourists shuffle by on the dirt path, intent on the Smithsonian more than us. "I want to go back to Thailand!"

Later I learn that Tan feels unmoored. She feels like she has entered Kindergarten again. Everything just feels "wrong," or at the very least, "not quite right." It's all overwhelming her. She wants her own space, her own life, and she wants to be able to explain it all in her own language. Communicating with so many people in fast-speed, slang-heavy English all the time exhausts her.

I feel hopeless, like I've lost her at the very beginning of our journey. "We both have to have patience with this process," I say. "It isn't supposed to be easy. It's not easy for me. I'm sorry if you feel like I've let you down."

I try to think of good things to say to her in Thai, as I have done in the past. Just hearing her language has a calming effect, but Thai seems so far away from me now that I have trouble forming a coherent sentence.

I can only say simple phrases: "jai yen yen" or "keep a cool heart." It's not enough. I want to be wise, a mentor in this foreign culture, and I also want to believe, for myself, that I've made the right decision. I reach back to the beginning and those nights we spent hashing things out.

"Remember the reasons we talked about," I said. "This is about family, this about us being creative with things. We've got to be strong now."

Tan listens, and then she sighs. The anger has receded, but it's not over.

"You should go to the museum," she says. "Leave me here. I just want to lie on the grass for now, and connect with the earth. You can go wherever you like, whatever …"

I wanted to share the museum with her, like I shared the library in Princeton. I want to see her happy. "Trust me," I say, again gently touching her hand. "Come with me … I need to know you're safe."

I say these words again and again, urging her to go with me, and she finally relents. We are quiet at first on our way back to the Metro, and then I tentatively begin to joke, to play with her, to put my arms around her shoulders. When she cracks a brief smile, and laughs at something I say, I know we're over the hump.

The next day, we return with fresh energy to the National Museum of the American Indian. In 2002, we also traveled to DC and spent a day wandering the museums. I want to recapture the energy of that time, when we did not have the weight of the move on our shoulders.

We revel in the design of the building, a mesa-inspired mix of stone, wood, and fountain, and the scene inside, a community-inspired potpourri of Indian culture from North and South America which includes alcoves of different tribes and live volunteers with set-up displays. We settle into the cafeteria and dig into some fry bread, baked plantains, and hot coffee.

I can feel Tan looking at me.

"Hun," says Tan. "I'm actually glad that happened yesterday, because I needed to release that. I'll still be unhappy with things from time to time, but I promise it's not going to be this intense again."

She touches my hand, as I did the day before.

"Hun, I'm really sorry," she says. "You said good things, and the most important thing was that you didn't leave me. I appreciate that."

We continue eating and look out at the kids playing in the fountains outside the museum, and I feel tears collect at the corners of my eyes. It's been hard, but it feels good again, fresher. The same day, we head home to NJ and back to the patterns of the library and our borrowed life in Princeton.

In the North

We move to Burlington, Vermont, around Labor Day.

In a lot of ways this area fits us. We are in the North again (like we were in Thailand) and are hoping to find a good balance between work and quality of life in this smaller, highly-rated city, which teems with organic food and liberal attitudes. It's also about three hours away from my parents in New Hampshire.

We arrive in time to enjoy fall, the beauty of the leaves changing, and a month of exercise along the rails-to-trail bike path that runs by our house and continues up the side of Lake Champlain all the way to the old railway causeway that juts into the water.

We settle into our $725/month apartment on September 8th. Tan breaks out the calculator.

"One month's rent is equal to ten month's rent in our old Chiang Rai home!" she says. She sighs, smiles, and then we both laugh.

We begin to unpack.

Columnist Benjamin Malcolm will continue next issue with his new column, "Scouting the New World."


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