Relaxing at home in southern Thailand

Editor’s Note: This interview with Jim Mielke first appeared in Expat Focus. We thank them for allow us to republish the story.
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Who are you?

Originally from upstate New York, I’ve spent most of my adult life overseas, where at times I receive that gratifying comment: “Gee, you don’t seem like a typical American” – despite being permanently branded with the distinctive flat, nasally Buffalo accent, even when speaking Thai and Vietnamese.

Last in a line of preacher’s kids in a high-achiever family, simple living and service to others over the pursuit of material wealth has been the norm. I live in pure gratitude for all that has been given, and am dedicated to a life of meaning and creativity. I am up-beat, friendly, out-going and loving – and fortunate to be loved by many. As comfortable alone as I am in an intimate relationship, I laugh easily, enjoy simple living, and manage to keep fit with regular yoga, meditation, swimming, biking, hiking and a healthy diet. I don’t smoke, but I enjoy an occasional beer. I dress casually, but clean and neat – shorts, cotton shirts and sandals. I don’t own a pair of dress shoes, but can dress up if necessary.

Over the past 35 years, I have had the privilege of living and working in some of the poorest, most remote and under-served parts of the Asia-Pacific region (lived and worked in 23 countries so far) assisting governments, international aid agencies and communities to strengthen local and national heath systems, control communicable diseases, including HIV/AIDS prevention and care, and promote women and child health. I also enjoy adventure travel to exotic destinations throughout the world.

At present, I live in a quiet seaside setting in southern Thailand where until 2006, I was overseeing the health component of a major USAID funded Burmese refugee, migrant health and education project. In the past I moved frequently from one country to another for my work, and still do a bit of short-term health and development consulting in the Asia-Pacific region. In recent years, I have begun spending half the year teaching yoga and meditation as a volunteer at YMCA centers in Colorado and New York.

Where, when and why did you move abroad?

At age 19, major surgery corrected an intestinal disorder, and since that time I have worn a pouch on my abdomen. I continue to enjoy excellent health, with no physical or dietary restrictions. I felt like a new man almost immediately upon waking up with my ileostomy, (a surgically created opening in the abdominal wall, with an external abdominal pouch to collect intestinal output) suddenly free from years of pain and misery since age 14. For the next 3 years, I was in and out of several different hospitals for 11 major surgeries, including total removal of the large intestine and rectum, while also struggling to withdraw from the addictive pain medications and steroids prescribed to me over the years.

Following the ostomy surgeries, life simply took off with my fully recovered and excellent health. I re-entered university in Colorado in 1980, having been forced to withdraw earlier for health reasons, and managed to complete a BA in Recreation, with a minor in Camping – all the fun stuff!

Raring to go, I turned down a job promotion at my local YMCA and instead headed off for a 6-week volunteer internship with the Colombo YMCA in Sri Lanka, followed by three years with the YMCAs in Samoa and Fiji – and was hooked on international living. Except for a few years of graduate studies at University of Hawaii for Master’s and Doctoral degrees in Public Health, I’ve been overseas ever since

What challenges did you face during the move?

Asia – particularly South Asia – was a totally new and challenging experience for me. Although I had traveled and studied one summer in Europe, I was ultimately a product of the American Public School System (having grown up in Buffalo’s inner city), and had never heard of Sri Lanka! The tropical heat, spicy food, shocking poverty and filth, and the much slower pace of life all required getting used to.

But I thoroughly enjoyed my job at the YMCA, leading outdoor recreation and life skills programs for disadvantaged youth, and began looking for future overseas job opportunities. I was repeatedly turned down by the US Peace Corps, who did not understand that I was applying FROM Sri Lanka, and sent me pitiful form letters about “the risks” of working overseas with an ileostomy, and a final absurd one claiming their MDs in Washington DC had “examined” me and found me “unfit” for Peace Corps.


Managing a health project in northern Thailand

This was such an insult to my new-found health – my personal physician in the USA had described me as “healthier than 95 percent of the population.” Peace Corps later offered me a job after meeting the director while I was in Samoa, but by then I was beyond volunteering with the Peace Corps.

For the next 8 years, I worked with various voluntary organizations in 15 countries throughout the Asia-Pacific region. In general, nothing was planned – there was no grand strategy, no burning ambition, life-long dream or goal to achieve other than a desire to continue living this incredible, fulfilling lifestyle out in the world. It all just happened, and I came into these experiences largely by chance with no prior technical training, or formal preconditioning academically or professionally.

Thus, arriving as a “clean slate” I was open to learning from my experiences – learning by doing, and therefore naturally practicing what I later read about when I returned to school – the importance of sitting down with the local people, observing, listening, learning, and sharing whatever I had to offer.

Although clearly an outsider, I caught some glimpses of local situations and perspectives – working hardest at learning language, (during this time I picked up working levels of Samoan, Indonesian and Thai languages, and later became proficient in Vietnamese language as well) all of which further facilitated my understanding about some aspects of the world, about people, about culture and about life – a kind of understanding that can only come about from living these experiences.

Are there many other expats in your area?

I live in a quiet fishing village on the northeast coast of Phuket, and far from the congested and heavily touristed areas also frequented by expats – where the bars, restaurants and night life are located. The expats who live at my quiet villa complex are friendly and supportive, and it is comforting to know that they are nearby to call on for assistance, including for emergency transport to the hospital, if needed.

What do you like about the life where you are?

Quality of life, value for money, freedom, adventure, the food, the people, different cultures and ways of living, tropical beauty, and living outside one’s cultural and socially conditioned boundaries. I must admit also, that as a Western man living out in the world, you can become immersed in a certain ‘ego intoxication’ – because unless you are a total mess, in all the countries where I have lived, the people, particularly the women, tend to treat you very well, and Western guys over here may even begin to feel a bit like film stars. There are also some places where Western women tend to go to experience a similar effect – like Bali, with greater access to the local ‘beach boys’ who in their own way are exotic.

Affordable state-of-the-art health care. I have had excellent health care and life-saving surgery in the ‘private’ hospitals in both Thailand and Vietnam, with the latest modern medical equipment and facilities, well trained physicians, nursing care and services from warm, friendly and gentle care givers, and for a mere pittance compared to the outrageous heath care costs in USA. My professional work in these countries involves strengthening public health systems and services, which are often weak. But Thailand, for example, has a universal health care system that Thai nationals can access for a dollar.

The energy one feels in Vietnam, for example is very stimulating, and exciting. The majority of the developing world is made up of young people, with boundless energy and enthusiasm – the fires of youth, and Vietnam has really taken off, with open markets, extremely well educated, hard working, friendly and forward looking people, and the fastest growing economy in SE Asia. However, while it is a joy to work in Vietnam, I have chosen to retire in Thailand – also filled with a bright, well educated, ambitious youthful population, and a pleasant mix of modern conveniences with enduring traditions and culture. But for me, Thailand feels more laid back, and is also extremely friendly and welcoming.

My chosen lifestyle as an independent public health consultant allows me to take long stretches of time off between jobs – sort of like being semi-retired my whole life. So for example, after completing a large multi-year project in Vietnam, I rented a place on my buddy’s pearl farm on (at the time) a totally unspoiled, pristine tropical island – yet to be discovered by anyone. (It has changed now). I later moved to another beach where I rented a bungalow from a local family for $100/month, and stayed there for 2 years, leaving the island periodically for short consultancies in the region (Burma, Thailand, India, etc), and also during the rainy/ storm season, moving elsewhere to find the good weather.

What to you dislike about your expat life?

I moved to Phuket after joining responders to the 2004 Asian tsunami that devastated the area. I was also having some health issues at the time, and needed to be near modern health care, which is readily available in Phuket. But the heavy traffic and over-development have me looking for my next island hideaway – these natural, unspoiled places are becoming harder to find. Public transportation is typically widely available and cheap throughout the region, but not so in Phuket. And because I live in fairly remote rural area, after 20 years without owning or even needing a car, I finally had to buy one. I started with a motor bike, but after daily near-death experiences on the Thai roads, I opted for a car.

I have typically made friends easily where ever I have been – usually a local girlfriend and a few other close friends comprising the center of my social life. But moving every few years, or even after a few weeks or months has never been easy, especially when it involves an intimate local relationship. I have forever been searching for a lasting partner to stay with and move with – but no luck so far.


Sailing in the South Pacific

This frustration extends to expats as well – especially in Phuket, where I haven’t managed to connect with the mostly ‘business’ expat crowd here. And the cycling groups, for example, tend to be heavily focused on competition and training – or drinking parties afterwards. I’m not at all into competition or the bar scene or late night drinking parties. So after 12 years, I haven’t found many expat friends to hang out with other than a few of my long-time friends and neighbors at my villa complex. I have met some interesting expats at the meditation centers here, but this tends to be a transient, tourist crowd. Traffic also discourages me from going to other parts of the island where I might meet other expats.

What is the biggest cultural difference you have experienced between your new country and life back home?

In general, I feel much safer living in the Asian and Pacific countries than in large American cities. On my last visit to Hawaii, where I used to live and still own a home, I had to literally chain down my bike in Honolulu – where bike theft is rife – and as a result of this problem, there is the additional annoyance of being stopped by police whenever carefully walking my bike through Waikiki at night – suddenly treated as a suspected bike thief, forced to prove my innocence, show my registration, but when all is in order the bad experience lingers, having been made to feel like some sort of criminal.

In contrast, in Thailand, where I live now, (rural settings in the USA may be similar) I never even consider locking my bike, let alone chaining it to some stationary object – an absolute necessity in Honolulu.

American culture also seems much more competitive and aggressive than the ‘non-confrontational’ feeling I have grown used to in the Asian societies where I live. Even the intense direct eye contact in the West is too much for me now, having lived in Asia for so long, where interpersonal interaction seems somehow less intimidating. In Thailand, perhaps it’s the influence of Buddhism on the culture.

What advice would you give to anyone following your footsteps?

There is so much to learn out here in the world. Perhaps my strongest desire is for more of our American youth to get out of the bubble at home, and taste a bit of what our world has to offer, before getting buried in debt, corporate pressures, mortgages, marriage, family, and a dubious retirement – to experience something beyond the overly material world. I would encourage anyone, at any age, who may feel that their physical or financial condition bar them from international travel or overseas living.


Tibetan Pilgrims at Mount Kailash

Just one overseas experience can make the difference. A summer internship, backpacking to tropical islands, a silent meditation retreat, full-moon parties, or a trek through Nepal to join Tibetan pilgrims for the challenging circuit around sacred Mt Kailash at 18,000 ft elevation, or a 30-day yoga and meditation training course in a Hindu ashram where the Ganges rushes out of the Himalaya. It’s these kinds of experiences that have life-changing power – especially when experienced while still young – to avoid missed opportunities, and may even save a lifetime of meaningless work 30 years later.

What are your plans for the future?

We’ll see which way the wind blows. I seem to be transitioning from my health consulting work in Asia, to seasonal volunteer jobs in interesting places teaching yoga and meditation. I particularly enjoy the YMCA family conference centers in the USA – 6 months here, 6 months there. At once, both at peace and ecstatic with life – and it is getting better all the time! The only problem is that it’s going too fast!

But there is another wonderful thing about living in these traditional societies, as they are not so youth fixated. In fact, the older you get the more respected you become. And having recently made it to 60, I feel doubly blessed to have lived this long, and to be well accepted in these societies where I live and work, and I can reasonably look forward to many more years of good health and full, active living.

Once again riding the currents of change – I am happy, content, and increasingly exhilarated to be carried along with the flow, wherever this river of existence sends me. Life is full of mystery, uncertainty and opportunities, and the possibilities are endless. I am so excited about the next chapter about to unfold, I can hardly stand it! I am also finally writing some stories, drawing on 40 years of personal journal entries. You can read them at: Hawaii Reporter and at my blog.

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