Primary Health Care Project in northern Thailand

Author’s Note: In this “Living and Working Abroad” series, my aim is to demonstrate how anyone can experience genuine fulfillment and self-discovery through different, freer ways of living – ones that are not narrowly focused on blind ambition, resume building, or saving the world, but more so on following your heart, discovering your life’s purpose, moving with the natural flow of your energy as it connects with the universal energy. By keeping it simple, easy and not forced, this may involve “living outside of the box”, experimenting with lifestyles learned from other cultures and different ways of living – being open to other priorities in life.

Have you ever dreamed of discovering other countries, learning multiple languages, relishing foreign cultures and living abroad like a local? Are you yearning for something beyond your national borders, beyond the mainstream tourist destinations, beyond material lifestyles and empty career paths?

Growing up in the inner city of Buffalo, New York, my family took camping trips around the USA and even to Europe. But Hawaii, for example, seemed like a far-off place only for the rich folks – and living in a foreign country was certainly never in my dreams. But all that changed with a six-week internship (that turned into 6 months) with the Sri Lanka YMCA, and 35 years later I’m still out in the world, having lived and worked in over 20 countries so far. I eventually made it to Hawaii for six wonderful years of “simple living” as a grad student at UH, and I currently live in a peaceful seaside setting in southern Thailand.

I have always preferred the far richer experience of living locally. Feeling part of a place, with a clear purpose, rather than simply passing through as a tourist or traveler. My early overseas experiences left me eager for more, but is the “expat” lifestyle really for you? An “expat” (ex-patriot) is someone who has left his or her home country to live temporarily or permanently in another country. This could be for a short-term internship, a professional position lasting several years or more, or retirement overseas.

If you haven’t been to a foreign country, you can’t imagine how slow, how different, how polite it is going to be. Let me help by sharing some of my experiences below, and in the forthcoming posts – as a YMCA volunteer in Sri Lanka and Samoa, then as a modestly compensated aid worker in Thailand, a UN official in Cambodia, a highly paid international health consultant, a beach comber between jobs, and now semi-retired in Thailand.

Forget the West regarding achievement, progress, schedules, freedom of expression, time, religious or other “commonly accepted” concepts. Work closely with a local counterpart for mutual learning and ease of transition upon your departure. Advise in private. Let it ferment in the mind of one person first, allowing your counterpart to save face, or make face – rebut your idea due to local views or problems. Selflessly give away ownership of your ideas, since it will be more acceptable coming from them anyway.

It’s OK to fail, to get angry, depressed, to start over. One of the great lessons you can teach is to admit “I was wrong and it didn’t work.” This can be a challenge for us Westerners, geared to ever-expanding progress (a myth) without failures. If you don’t fail at least a few times, you are not being daring enough in what you are trying to do.

Remember, the only effective role for the teacher is that of a student. When others sense your willingness to learn, they respond by learning. It takes time, so don’t rush it. Your big results will come with just one or two individuals, at most a handful of people. Things happen one-by-one within the larger contexts. Growth and influence are individual matters.

Work with kids whenever possible. They can assimilate and later use some of your ideas or spirit. And, when you are down, the kids will rejuvenate you. They will also teach you the everyday language and idioms which may not be included in formal language training.

The only place to plow forward relentlessly is with the language. Even your mistakes will endear you to them and provide a bit of humor. Know that the most dreaded things are fantasies – unreal. 

And by all means, travel the area where you are. It would cost many hundreds of dollars just to get to this starting point again, and you can travel so much cheaper while young enough to use local transport, eat in street stalls, and use advice from other backpackers.

Stay tuned for Part Two of this series, coming soon! 

You can read more about Jim’s backstory, here and here.

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