“I still have absolutely no idea what I’m doing with my life,” a good friend of mine, age 20-something, said as we sat sweating it out over 40 baht bowls of spicy curry on a particularly stifling Chiang Mai afternoon. “That scares the shit out of me. But it’s also exciting, I guess. I’m here now, but I have no idea where I’ll be in a year, or even a few months. I could still be here, or I could be…anywhere.”
This pretty much sums up the attitude of our demographic as a whole. We’re full of big hopes and dreams of global experiences, self-actualisation and changing the world. We love Sangsom and Songkran. We occasionally still wear harem pants. We speak a rather dismal level of Thai and we’re often a bit naïve, but don’t you dare call us backpackers. We are the the 20-something expats of Chiang Mai, and we’re, well, not here to stay.
Escape from the Homeland
It has been exactly one year since I left the United States and decided to move quite literally as far away from home as possible: 24 hours on a plane plus 13 hours time difference. I arrived in Chiang Mai without a job, without a house, without a plan, armed only with a TEFL degree I wasn’t even sure I wanted to use.
Back in America, I had spent my two post-university years working three different jobs back to back that left me feeling dissatisfied and restless (well, four if you count my freelance writing gigs, which I always did “on the side” a.k.a. “for free”). After graduating from college with a seemingly useless degree in Creative Writing and entering America’s most dismal job market since the Great Depression, I felt that I should be grateful for each of the indubitably shitty occupations _ soul-sucking public relations, hair-tearing childcare, mind-numbing administrative work _ I managed to catch (and subsequently release). But I was grateful to be supporting myself, grateful not to be living in a cardboard box on a street corner, or worse, in my parents’ basement.
And I loved my life in the States. Having stayed in the same city in which I attended university, I was surrounded by good friends. We were all a bit lost and confused, slogging through our early 20s like puppies through mud, but we were lost and confused together. There were parties and concerts and weekend road trips. However, there was also something missing. Some part of me felt stagnant, unfulfilled and aching to move. At the same time I felt too aimless to simply relocate to a new city or start a new job _ for some reason the idea of either of those things filled me with anxiety. The thought of dropping everything and jetting off to some completely unknown corner of the world, however, felt exhilarating, invigorating, and just…right.
I narrowed “unknown corner of the world” down to Chiang Mai, Thailand through a combination of online research, peer recommendations and sheer whim. From there, all I had to do was pack my bags, say my goodbyes, have a few minor nervous breakdowns and set off. As fellow 20-something Jonathan Levine wrote last year in a New York Times article about why young people should move to China, “We live in grim times, but fortune favours the bold.”
I felt pretty damn bold.
Doors of Perspective
In her recent TED Talk entitled “Why 20 is Not the New 30,” clinical psychologist Meg Jay stressed the idea that one’s 20s are not the “throwaway decade” that popular opinion has, in some ways, come to consider them. “Forget about having an identity crisis and get some identity capital,” Jay advised. “Do something that adds value to who you are. Do something that’s an investment in who you might want to be next.”
And what better way to start building identity capital than coming to a new place and settling in, at least temporarily?
“Many are here searching for something, even if they don’t realise it yet,” says Carley*, a 27-year-old Brit who has lived in Chiang Mai for about a year and a half now. “Our 20s are a time when we’re still young, but soon we will have to make choices about our futures and responsibilities. You begin to question many things and work out who you are and what you want. Chiang Mai is a perfect place for that with the slow pace of life and beauty to ponder these things.”
Leigh, 25, agrees. “I moved overseas because there was nothing holding me in the US, where I am from, and I foresaw that the things that might eventually hold me there might hold me there for the rest of my life: long-term career, starting a family, becoming involved in a close-knit community,” she says. “So I thought, why not travel while it’s attainable, not a far-off dream? I chose Chiang Mai because it was recommended to me by many people as a place that was easy-going, affordable, and interesting; a good training ground for world travel.”
20-something expats living in Chiang Mai typically fall into one of three main categories when it comes to vocation: the teachers, the NGO workers, and the freelancers (which includes a growing number of digital nomads). Of course there are exceptions, and we tend to mix, mingle and sometimes overlap, but the uniting factor for all of us is that we probably won’t stay here for long.
“Chiang Mai is a transient place for 20-somethings,” says Kate, a 23-year-old NGO worker from Australia. “Most of the ones I know stay here for six months to two, maybe three years max. Then it’s on to the next place _ usually some other foreign country. I think many of us plan on living our lives abroad, but most of us aren’t sure where we want to settle yet, if anywhere.”
In a way, we 20-somethings are the demi-expats of Chiang Mai. We have not yet resigned ourselves to absolute expatriation. We have not renounced our native lands, nor have we accepted Thailand as our eternal resting place. We still might (and probably will, at least temporarily) go back to our respective home countries; we have family there, and friends, and potential careers. This experience _ these six months to three years in Chiang Mai _ may be an extended gap year adventure, a jumping off point or just an early stop along a lifelong journey.
This almost unanimous claim to transience creates an interesting quandary that all young expats quickly come to understand: it’s easy to make friends, but hard to hold on to them.
“Social life here was easy to begin with but has become much harder as people tend to come and go in waves,” says Jack, a 26-year-old climbing guide. “It’s hard to connect closely with people and invest tonnes of time when they will be leaving in a few months.”
Ways of coping are varied. Many 20-somethings who have been here a relative while confessed to screening potential new friends, only getting involved with those intending to stay for six months or more. Others admitted that the difficulty of constantly saying goodbye was a big factor in their eventual decisions to leave Chiang Mai themselves. But many of us soldier on, learning what we hope are valuable life lessons in the process.
“I’ve lived as an expat in several different countries, and have been the one doing the leaving and the one being left,” says Amanda, a 28-year-old freelance writer from the States. “It has made me look at relationships differently but also made me more independent. I’ve met many people who are wonderful and I want to know for a long time to come, but I’ve learned to accept the transient nature of my lifestyle and find ways to continue building those friendships when we are not in the same city. It’s always sad to say goodbye to people you’ve come to enjoy, but I am grateful for the times we’ve shared, excited for whatever is next and hopeful that we’ll meet again somewhere in the world.”
Of course, social media tools like Facebook have revolutionised the way young travellers interact in the long term. It’s easier to say goodbye when you know you can reconnect again at the click of a button, be it via a simple life update or a full-blown plan to reunite. “The few friends I’ve made in Chiang Mai who were not on Facebook for whatever reason were anomalies, and once they left it was weird, almost like they were never here at all,” says Adam, 25. “I don’t know what that says about me or my generation. Maybe something scary.”
Square of Despair
Darker implications aside, Facebook provides not only a way to keep in touch but also a way to connect while living here. My friends and I maintain regular threads where we discuss everything from what to do this weekend to what the hell happened last night. There is also a wide assortment of official Facebook groups catering to expats living in Chiang Mai, and joining one can be a great way to create a sense of community within a large, ever-changing and highly disparate group. It’s also a great way to stay abreast of everything that’s going on, from charity events to art exhibitions to parties and pub crawls.
“Chiang Mai is definitely a work hard, play hard place for me,” says Jenna, a 24-year-old English teacher. “Teaching is not easy; it’s exhausting, so sometimes it’s hard for me to go out on weeknights. But believe me; I make up for it on the weekends. It’s almost like college, part two.”
Perhaps this is because the situation is similar to a university setting, where you have a bunch of young people suddenly arriving in a new place for a short amount of time who want to have fun and make the most of it. People have their cliques but we also want to come together, because we know our friend group could disintegrate at any time. “There are a lot of theme parties, and drunken meet-ups at Zoe,” added Jenna.
Ah yes, Zoe, a.k.a. “the square of despair” _ a backpackers ghetto that anyone who has spent more than a night or two in Chiang Mai needs not explained. For short-term travellers, it’s perfect: Sangsom buckets, house music, strobe lights, the occasional fire dancer and plenty of sweaty young voyagers looking for a fling. For long-term expats, it’s like an abusive relationship that you keep coming back to despite the fact that it usually ends up kicking you in the face. Or an ugly suitor that only looks good when you’re drunk. “It’s weird when there is an entire population of people your age that you just sort of have to avoid,” said Sasha, 25. “But it just gets so old, having that same conversation – they just want to tell you where they were last and where they’re going next and blah blah, and then they’re gone in three days. It’s great for an occasional one night stand if that’s your thing, but eventually you just lose interest.”
Indeed, one thing living in Chiang Mai has taught me is to branch out of my own age group – just because you are a 20-something expat doesn’t mean all your friends should be 20-something expats. Fostering relationships with both older expats and local Thais makes for a far richer experience overall. Not only are they the ones more likely to stick around, but they also know things that our same-age peers do not. Meg Jay agrees, noting that “the urban tribe is overrated…[and 20-somethings] who huddle together with like-minded peers limit who they know, what they know, how they think, how they speak and where they work. That new piece of capital, that new person to date, almost always comes from outside the inner circle.”
Back to the Future
I asked Jake, a 27-year-old freelance web designer, why he chose the expat lifestyle over the backpacker. “I enjoy living somewhere more than just passing through,” he replied. “There’s a different level of comfort and familiarity that you can only achieve by spending months in a certain place. If I had just passed through Chiang Mai, or any other city I’ve lived in, it wouldn’t be the same place that it is to me now.”
And ultimately that is what we’ve gained, we transient 20-somethings: a place to call home, at least for a little while. A place to settle, to learn, to gather our thoughts and create for ourselves a certain level of comfort we may not have thought possible to find in a country so far from the one we came from. We’re not sure what’s next. When I asked about future plans, the answers were as varied as if I’d asked a group of kindergarteners what they want to be when they grow up. “I’m moving to Ukraine to teach for another few years, then hopefully Africa after that but who knows?” said one. “I’m heading back home for grad school and then maybe South America?” said another.
“I have no set plans,” said a third. “I take it as it comes. I am sure one day I will just get sick of it here and move on.”
*All names have been changed. Why? “I wish to remain anonymous because of the nature of the internet, given how quickly information spreads and is then documented indefinitely in cyberspace,” explained one 20-something. “Since I am in such a transitory period of my life (not just physically, but mentally as well), the things I say today may not represent my views years from now, and I’d rather not have my naive 20-something self following me around into my later years.”
Tips for Newbies:
Okay, so you’re a 20-something expat newly arrived in Chiang Mai. Where do you go? What do you do? How do you make friends? Here’s a list of places (both physical and digital) to check out.
* Couchsurfing: Even if you’ve never surfed a couch in your life, the group’s city meetups are the number one way to jumpstart your Chiang Mai social life. Every Friday night at Kafe Otto, located at JJ Market on Atsadathon Road., dozens of friendly expats and travellers alike show up to share beer, popcorn and good conversation, led by affable Chiang Mai ambassador Shayne Rochfort. www.couchsurfing.org/n/places/chiang-mai-thailand www.facebook.com/groups/friendscmcs
*Prom CNX: Regular dance parties geared toward bringing people together to hear and see local artists at various hotspots around town. www.facebook.com/PROMCNX
*Bars: Check out these popular expat hangouts and share a Sangsom with your future friends.
– Small House: The ultimate expat standby, now in a new location on Sermsuk Road, just off Huay Kaew across from the mall.
– Bar Eve & Griffin: Two increasingly popular late-night hangouts for young expats in the know, hidden in a small strip off Chaiyaphum Road, just behind Van Bar.
– Sangdee Gallery: Frequented by a mix of loyal expats of all ages, with different theme nights all week along with rotating art exhibits and events on Sirimangkalajarn Soi 5. www.facebook.com/sangdeegallery
– Taku Boutique Cafe: A hip chill-zone for the young and artsy, both Thai and farang, featuring regular live music and art, just steps away from Wat Phra Singh.
*Specialty Spots: Because not all socialising has to happen at bars.
– Chiang Mai Rock Climbing Adventures (CMRCA): Great place to meet fellow young climbing enthusiasts. You can practice on their bouldering wall or join a trip to the crag. www.thailandclimbing.com
– Documentary Arts Asia (DAA): Holds free film screenings twice a week along with regular photography exhibitions, attracting a variety of young and old expats. www.doc-arts.asia
– Yoga Tree: Farang-friendly studio with a variety of yoga, dance and meditation classes attended regularly by expats, perfect for meeting fellow yogis. www.theyogatree.org
* Facebook Groups: Just search these key words and join the community!
– What’s Happening in Chiang Mai
– I ? Chiang Mai
– What, Where, When – Chiang Mai
– Chiang Mai Book and Wine Club
– Seconhand Chiang Mai (sic: notice that it’s spelled without the first “d”)
– Chiang Mai Fitness
– Salsa Club Chiang Mai
– Chiang Mai Wellness Community