My experience in Bangkok has been a lot like my dinner the other night at Sun Moon Dumplings. It was a place I’d hyped up, a place completely out of my element where there would be abrasive servers, fluorescent lighting, and hopefully the food would live up to its reputation.
We got there and it was as harsh as predicted. Shortly after we sat down, the place filled up and a line began to form outside adding to the restaurant’s lore. We ordered some Singha beers and a handful of dishes to share.
The permanently annoyed server brought the plate of steaming shrimp dumplings to the table first. As a pescetarian, these shrimp dumplings were the only dumplings I could order on the menu. I bit into the soft doughy ball to find out it was 10% shrimp and 90% pork. Nothing like a mouth full of pork when your M.O. is avoiding pork. Chris, Etty, and Abhi continued on happily with those and the other pork-filled dumplings while I cleansed my palate with Thai lager.
We ordered some other food to fill my dumpling void. Eggplant Fries, Tomato Egg, and Sesame Balls sounded like good vegetarian options, but the place was out of Tomato Egg so we ordered another eggplant dish. The Eggplant Fries were coated in a sticky glaze and tasted like savory caramel sweet potato fries. They were good but you felt weird after eating a lot of them. A plate of pigs feet was put on our table by mistake before the second eggplant dish arrived. Hooray! More Eggplant Fries! I hadn’t looked at the photo in the menu closely enough and accidentally ordered the same thing twice. Also combining sweet and savory were the Sesame Balls that turned out to be fried balls of mashed taro.
I had envisioned being knee-deep in dumplings that night but ended up having a meal of weird dessert vegetables instead.
When I was moving to Bangkok, I expected it to be jarring, confusing, and overflowing with delicious food — and it is, but the experience is different than I thought. Now nearly five months of expat life under my belt, I have a completely new view of this city.
Everything is still so foreign that I find myself making stupid mistakes (like ordering the same Eggplant Fries twice) all the time. That being said, other glossy first impressions continue to get exposed, revealing less romantic realities. At Sun Moon Dumplings, a Chinese silk painting of eight horses had something written beautifully in the corner. I asked Etty what the text meant and it turned out to mundanely say “Eight horse picture.”
Every minute living in Thailand adjusts my image of the exotic Far East. Bangkok is a city with an Ikea and an Outback Steakhouse, a city where the locals’ go-to dumpling restaurant has a menu translated into English for Farang like me who feel like they’re the only foreigners to eat at the place. The real Bangkok is a mix of insane and unsexy normalcy.
Five months here has been a test of my willpower. Sometimes a warm memory will pop up in my head or I’ll scroll through Instagram and see something so homesickening that it feels like someone hit me in the chest. Those heart pangs are the real deal, and when that hurt/nostalgia wells up I tend to lose focus of what I’m doing here. Suddenly it’ll occur to me again how bizarre it is to be Bangkok.
I’m far away from so many things I love (Market Street, my family, burritos) and surrounded by a lot of things I don’t love (heavy pollution, bad pizza, monitor lizards). In the wake of a pang, I’ll open up Kayak.com and frantically look for an escape. Copenhagen, Los Angeles, Paris, Lithuania – I panic travel plan until I feel like I’m in control again. This wave of comfort washes over me when I remember I can buy a plane ticket out of this hot, tropical life at any time.
But things are good here, weird good like the Eggplant Fries. Every care and stress melts away when I hover over a plate of $1 Som Tam, which is excellent minus the rats in the gutter next to the table. It feels right to drink wine on the balcony at Small’s, even though the wine’s just mediocre and I’m sweating into the glass.
There are more days when I’m generally happy and not freaking out. My weeks are filled with rewarding challenges and fun times with people I like. I’m doing my best to live in the moment and stop seeing the months spent here as Girl Scout badges, something to collect for bragging rights. Each day here in Bangkok brings exciting opportunities to learn new things or find out non exciting things (like there are three Sizzlers here). Even when I head out and things don’t turn out the way I’d hoped, it’s still a pretty great feeling to know that I tried.