CLICHÉ ALERT: Part of the motivation to move abroad was to have an experience that could make me a better person (key word could, because who knows). I thought I’d be faced with challenges, work through them, be forced to operate outside of my comfort zone, and then one day BOOM, you’re changed for the better. So I knew that it would be hard coming into this, but I didn’t know exactly how that difficulty would take shape. Turns out, a good chunk of my experience living abroad is spent feeling humliated. Sometimes it feels like a constant onslaught of humliation, just one cringe worthy dose of awkard terribleness after another.
I’ll give you an example – Living in Thailand seems to be just about the worst thing possible for my skin. I am putting my skin through hell in this tropical sun. The UV rays are one thing, but the real issue is the heat. I’m constantly pouring sweat from all of my pores — really, all of them. I mean it’s almost impressive — and I feel like I’m back in high school with all of the breaking out going on. Every day, I put on makeup to cover up the breakouts, then I sweat off said makeup, put on more makeup (to continue pore clogging!), sweat that makeup off, put more on, and repeat this depressing cycle until I get home.
Even the breakouts aside, the sweating is enough to embarass the F out of me. I get to events for work where elegant Thai ladies in slacks and blazers are functioning gracefully and I am straight up soaking, my wet hair clinging to my face. It’s a delight. They look at me sympathetically as beads of sweat roll down my forehead and I try to escape small talk to run to the bathroom and dry off.
Ok so the good thing about feeling constantly humliated is that it really breaks down your ego. If I lost sleep over all of the cringeworthy moments, I would really not be sleeping ever. I’ve gotten to the point where I just have to tell myself, “well, this is happening so you better just roll with it” (or I guess it’s more of a “wow, just kill me. How is this real life?”). I have to accept the awful reality and keep on keeping on.
Ultimately, I survive! I’ve learned that even when I do something and feel completely terrible (like almost die at a company retreat HAHAHA), I make it through the situation and the consequences are usually not as bad as I predict they’ll be. Counterintuitively, my self esteem is getting better the worse that things get. I’m learning how to deal with my body, my personality, my strenghts/weaknesses and it’s all very uncomfortable and very real. The byproduct of this learning is making me a better journalist. I’m less embarassed during interviews I conduct because I’ve let go of hangups I can’t control. I used to think that I wasn’t qualified or worthy of talking to people as a writer and that obviously threw me off before the interview even started. Now that I no longer feel capable of impressing people based on social graces or appearance, I can just focus on being better at a job I love to do.
Hopefully, this is all part of the “becoming a better person” scheme.
TL;DR – I’m starting a new career, things are good
Ambition is downloading the Thai keyboard for your iPhone before moving to Thailand. Reality is the guilt that stems from switching to the English keyboard every time you open up your phone.
I thought I’d be texting and Googling in Thai by now, but that is 0% the case. Nearly six months in Bangkok and I can get around in a cab, order some food (incorrectly) and count. I definitely dropped the ball on the whole fluency thing. When I first moved here, I talked a lot of shit on farang who didn’t learn Thai. I preached about how rude it was to waltz into a country and not attempt to speak the local language. Lo and behold, here I am doing exactly what I openly chastised. In English, that’s what we call a hypocrite. Who knows what they call it in Thai.
Big changes for me over here in Bangkok. In March, I’m getting out of public relations and joining the Burda International‘s Prestige magazine as as a full-time writer. Backstory: I’ve always wanted to be a writer, but never thought it was a viable career option. I listened to people foreshadow the death of journalism for years and figured that even if it did survive, I didn’t have a chance in the industry. When I finished school, I got into public relations because it was safe, not because I particularly loved sending out press releases. See also – sell out.
I moved to Bangkok and did more of the same. My job at HotelQuickly was a blend of PR and copywriting, but at the end of the day I was still doing public relations instead of journalism.
Suddenly I found the motivation to change things. DON’T SQUANDER THIS FLEETING, PRECIOUS LIFEwas my main takeaway from the accident. I could only blame myself for not going after the life I wanted, so I actively pursued paid and unpaid writing gigs in my spare time.
I’d been freelancing for Vice Munchies, Coconuts Bangkok, and Lifestyle Asia for a while when Prestige came to me with a dream job offer. I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to grow as a writer and finally pursue a lifelong passion.
Don’t get me wrong, being a publicist was a great learning experience, and so working for HotelQuickly. Being a part of the Southeast Asian startup scene was exciting and the job was challenging. The team treated me like family, made me feel welcome here, held my bleeding skull together, etc. I can’t thank everyone at the company enough.
So now things are really falling into place. I have a new visa, new work permit, and a lot to look forward to in the coming months. Tonight, I’ll take an overnight train to Chiang Mai to see Haley and drink a lot of coffee. Next week I’ll be heading to Myanmar to spend time in Yangon and write some things for Vice. Time permitting, I’ll make a trip to Mawlamyine and check out an old, old distillery there. If anyone has any Myanmar tips, please shoot them my way.
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.
This is not one of those stories where a bad thing justhappens to a good person. This is a story where my unbridled spontaneity got me into very predictable trouble. Heads up, this post is long and contains ugly scar photos.
So here’s my mediocre cautionary tale:
It was a Friday, and I was so excited to be traveling to Petchaburi with 40 of my friends and coworkers for our HotelQuickly work retreat. We arrived at our remote hotel in the evening and gathered around the pool for dinner. We had barely finished eating when I saw my friend Gin getting thrown in the pool with all of her clothes on.
“Poor Gin!” I thought to myself.“I’ll jump in with her.”
I took off my shoes and trotted down to the pool to join her in solidarity. Without a second thought, I dove into the pool. In America most pools have deep ends. In Thailand, that fact is useless. My point is, this pool was shallow. Very shallow.
I immediately hit the bottom of the pool with my head.
Things went orange with pain for a second, and I was instantly embarrassed for the mistake. “I CAN’T BELIEVE I HIT THE BOTTOM! I HOPE NO ONE SAW ME!” were the first thoughts that entered my mind. As I came up for air, I realized that my neck and back were in extreme, tense agony. I kept my back to the group as I waded around waiting for the pain to go away.
I heard someone behind me ask, “Is that blood?” I was hoping no one had noticed my diving fail, and was really hoping that I wasn’t causing a scene with blood in the pool. I walked over to the edge of the pool and people rushed over to me. Everyone seemed panicked and I wanted everyone to know I was fine. “I’ll just walk it off, I’m totally fine!” They helped get me out of the pool and sat me down away from the group.
Thank God for shock, because I had no idea that my head was cracked wide-open, gushing blood.
My company’s Co-Founder and COO Christian (a former Captain in the Swiss military) and the QA Manager Kat (a first responder) sprung into action immediately. They joined forces to hold my split head together and stop the bleeding. Kat tried to keep me awake by getting my adrenaline going, yelling out things like “NAT, LOOK AT ME!” and “I can see her brain!” On the other side of the spectrum, Christian tried to tone down the situation and downplay the injury. The two balanced each other out perfectly, and I am deeply indebted to them both for their help coming to my rescue.
With the blood loss, I was beginning to drift off. My memory starts to dilute at this point and I can’t remember what exactly happened when the ambulance arrived. What I do know is that Christian, Tomas (the company’s Co-Founder and CEO), and Noi Na (the company’s Executive Assistant) climbed into the ambulance with me, and we left for the nearest hospital.
In the ambulance, everyone continued keeping me awake. We talked about Christian’s idyllic childhood in Switzerland and In-N-Out burgers to casually pass the time. Despite everyone else’s calm demeanor, I was having outbursts of sobbing. I was so embarrassed and horrified by what was happening. Was I fired? Was this going to cost a fortune? Would I ever walk again? Had I ruined the company weekend?
The ambulance came to a stop and I was rolled into the Petchaburi public hospital. I stared at a gecko crawling on the ceiling while the adults took care of business. I don’t know what I would have done if Noi Na (a native Thai speaker), Christian, and Tomas weren’t there to help. They didn’t wait passively for things to happen; they actively made sure I was properly cared for. While I wallowed in despair, they handled everything.
My memory isn’t great recalling what happened at this point, but we were ultimately told that the hospital could not handle my wound (NEWS FLASH FOR ME, THIS WOUND IS REALLY BAD). We had to go to a private hospital some 40 km away where there was a better/more clean operating room. I kept moving my toes and hands to make sure I wasn’t paralyzed yet.
Back in the ambulance, the shock was wearing off and I cringed in pain with every bump in the road. Far from chill, I was a hot mess crying in pain and embarrassment. We finally arrived at the second hospital. I had some x-rays, a CT scan, and it was finally time for the suturing.
Problem: I had to pee, badly. The nurses brought me a bed pan and encouraged me to relieve myself as they stood around waiting. My First World-conditioned body failed me, and I couldn’t do it. I was too shy to go, even though my bladder felt as though it was going to burst. A team of six or so prepared for the procedure. I asked if I could try going to the bathroom again, and again wasted everyone’s time. I gave up and they went back to, you know, saving my life.
The nurses gave me local anaesthesia and waited for my head to go numb. I didn’t like the idea of being awake for the process, but OH WELL, WHO AM I TO MAKE REQUESTS? The team covered my eyes with cloth and strapped my arms and legs to the operating table which was extremely unsettling. I must have been loopy during part two when they lowered a metal cage/shield over my head and torso. Only my scalp and legs peeked out of the mechanism, but I wasn’t aware of what was happening thanks to the drugs and confusion.
After an hour of disgusting flesh-pulling noises, a panic started to boil inside of me.
I became very aware that my limbs were strapped to a table and my eyes were covered and I couldn’t breathe and I couldn’t move holy fuck get me out of here what is happening I can’t breathe.
“I NEED AIR, I NEED AIR!” I cried out from under the shield. “I WANT TO MOVE MY LEGS!”
Despite the language barrier, the doctor stopped suturing and the nurses scrambled to unstrap my legs and one arm. They put ice packs on my legs and removed the cloth from my eyes. The machine monitoring my pulse beeped wildly.
Like any good nightmare, they couldn’t fix the major cause of my terror. No matter how panicked I was, they 100% could not lift the cage/shield more than a few inches. The whole point of the contraption was to keep the area sanitized. I pawed at the green padding that covered the cage, and strained to look through the opening. The staff waited for me to get myself together before getting back to the stitching.
To distract myself from the hell, I tried to recall all of the Michelin star restaurants in the Bay Area. It worked for a while, but soon the claustrophobia flared up again. This time was more intense than before, and I wept as I begged for the cage to be lifted. They explained that they could not meet my request, and I sobbed in panic and misery. I was really losing it.
The nurses did their best to help me. They sang, held my hand, and told me that I only had 15 more minutes to go. There was nothing I could do but weep quietly and try to keep things in perspective. Nothing bad was going to happen to me because I was in a small space.
Skull tissue cleaned and 20 centimeters of 6o stitches later, the procedure was finished. I cried tears of joy as the cage was lifted.
Still desperately needing to pee, I was rolled out of the operating room into a lobby. I was surprised to find more of my friends had come to support me after the accident. True to form, I began to cry.
At about 2 am, I was taken to the ER where I would be monitored for at least 24 hours. The doctor needed to watch for signs of serious brain injuries. TOO MUCH INFORMATION ALERT: I was on my period and forbidden to use the restroom alone. What is a hospital staff to do? Swaddle me in an adult diaper of course! Just some icing on the cake.
After the pampering, I could finally go to sleep across from my new Thai roommates. Across the room, a middle aged guy who made no noise and one of the oldest men I’ve ever seen laid peacefully. Unfortunately, the peace would not last long. The old man would vomit loudly throughout the night and into the morning.
At 6 am, I was woken up for a congee-like breakfast that tasted great, but I couldn’t eat it. I was too nauseous to down the shrimpy porridge.
I drifted in and out of sleep as doctors and nurses briefed me on my condition. A neurologist looked at my CT scan and x-rays and determined there wasn’t any major damage to worry about. HALLELUJAH! The doctors wanted more time to decide whether or not I needed t0 stay a second night for observation.
Christian, Noi Na, Chris, Gin and Abhi came back to the hospital that afternoon, and we soon got the good news that I would be released. The doctors were confident that my brain was ok, and I could return to the resort where I had ruined a perfectly good evening the night before.
The sun set over beautiful Petchaburi as we drove back to the resort. The hotel gave me good will gift basket – jars of bird’s nest and essence of chicken for my health. Instead of partaking in the fun company retreat activities, I tucked into bed and slept.
For the best recovery, I was told to return to a hospital daily to get my wound cleaned. On Sunday morning, my friends and I hopped into a hotel truck and went to the Petchaburi public hospital as ordered. The bumpy ride was bad, but not as bad as spending hours getting your head stitched back together.
At the hospital, the other patients were in pretty bad shape. One woman had a motorcycle accident and a hot part of the bike had burned her leg to the BONE. Another woman had been BITTEN BY A SCORPION. I felt lucky to be in little pain (in addition to feeling lucky for being alive, not paralyzed, mentally unscathed, and so on).
We returned to Bangkok as a company, and I stayed the night with Chris and his girlfriend Etty in case I needed to get to a hospital in an emergency. Not to repeat myself, but I am so completely grateful to the people in my life who were here to help me. In the morning, I was even treated to a homemade breakfast by Chris before we headed to Bangkok’s St. Louis hospital for more x-rays and stitch cleaning.
On Monday night, I had another source of help come to my rescue. My family was so worried about me that my mom bought a plane ticket and traveled more than 13,000 kilometers to help me recover. Although my injury was horrible, it reminded me of how much love and support I take for granted.
Hospital visits, countless naps, foot massages, pill swallowing, head wrapping – the week after the accident was leisurely , complete with constant spoiling from my mom. My recovery was moving along quickly, and I would be back to work in no time.
Despite the luxurious care, the time was still rough emotionally. I held back tears at dinner explaining my fears of mental damage to my mother. I was left feeling so weird and confused. I had to fight to stay positive.
“I’m so lucky it wasn’t worse” I constantly thought, and by constantly thought, I mean constantly think – present tense. I’m still afraid that I’ll never be as mentally sharp as before. I’m worried people will think, “Natalie was never the same after the accident.” Did I ruin my chances of achieving my life goals? Will my hair grow back normally? Should I change completely? Should I abandon this authentic self that keeps getting me in trouble? Should I start running marathons and work for a nonprofit?
This New York Times article couldn’t have popped up on my Twitter feed at a better time. The author had suffered a trauma much worse than mine, but I could still relate to her recovery experience. She offered an explanation to make sense of why I felt like I did.
I instantly felt better after reading her conclusion “I’m not a better person. I’m the same person. Which is actually kind of a miracle.” I feel less pressure to reinvent myself. I can appreciate that this stupid, stupid accident left me pretty unscathed, and it’s time to be thankful for the life I still have. I am overwhelmed with the support from my family and friends.
As far as cautionary tales go, this one is mild. I am miraculously walking away from this trauma with just a scar, and I will go on to sweatily explore Bangkok another day.
Milk tea, Singha, milk tea, milk tea, iced latte, Chang, Singha, mojito, Chang. Two months in Bangkok and my drinking history was embarrassing (and way too full of dairy). The city is crawling with well-reputed cocktail bars, and I could sadly count the number of Negronis I’d sipped on one hand.
When some freelance writing opportunities came around, I decided to focus my stories on Bangkok’s food and beverage culture. I spent all day dreaming of street food and amaro, why not write about them? First stop on my ever-growing list of places to try was U.N.C.L.E., a convenient two streets from work.
The façade reminded me immediately of LA or San Francisco (until a lizard scrambled behind the neon sign). U.N.C.L.E. is a speakeasy tucked above Lady Brett, a tavern in the Sapparot Group portfolio. My friend Mike and I crept up the stairs to the bar uneasily, because it definitely feels like you’re going the wrong way. We successfully found the right room and grabbed spots at the four seat bar. The Swedish bars owners were personally slanging drinks, and we delighted in the carefully crafted libations.
A few drinks and a shot of Fernet later, we left in a happy daze. This place was leaps and bounds better than the watered-down cocktails served at many Bangkok watering holes. I would definitely be back.
My buddy Abhi and I started Sunday right with brunch at Brooklyn Baker. We had egg-y comfort food at the restaurant, which is nestled in a relaxing spa down a street I could never find again on my own.
After brunch, we cut through Bangkok’s treasured Lumpink Park and I suddenly stopped in my tracks. I had seen my street food white whale – ไอติมขนมปัง, or the Thai ice cream sandwich. People told me about this wicked treat, but I had never come across it on my own.
Holy mother of God this thing is good. What is not to love about a white bread bun, sticky rice, fresh coconut ice cream, drizzled in condensed milk? WHAT IS NOT TO LOVE. Type 2 Diabetes? Worth it.
Post ice cream sando, Abhi and I lazily walked through the park in the blinding heat. I was literally dripping sweat when we emerged on the other side of the beautiful park. We parted ways and I went to Vesper Cocktail Bar & Restaurant. This place gets me – barrel aged Negronis, uni, antique maps. I am putty in its imaginary hands.
My mission was to photograph some of the cocktails, although I was distracted by the torrential downpour of sweat I was drowning in. Being 9 million degrees outside, I was unable to cool down when I got to the swanky bar. I continued to sweat excessively throughout the shoot, soaking through the paper towels I swooped from the bathroom. Clearly my body was meant for places like France or Antarctica, not tropical Bangkok.
In addition to the many other wonders (like the magical, dry ice finished War of the Roses), Vesper has a fun selection of cocktails to share that are served from a teapot. The sweaty struggle aside, I was semi-confident I got the photos I needed of the bar’s precisely executed drinks. I thanked bar manager Colin for his time and went back into the heat. Instead of being cash conscious and heading home, I went around the corner to the highly-revered Eat Me Restaurant.
In an attempt to be frugal, I ordered but a snack at one of Asia’s 50 best restaurants, guzzling the complimentary mint-laced water to rehydrate. I had the delightful Zucchini Carpaccio along with most of the free bread.
After spending a day and a half spending money like it was on fire, it was time to figuratively cool it on the semi-fine dining front (for at least a meal). Dinner was spent in my go-to coffee shop,Glur, where the green curry is delicious and the staff extremely welcoming.