One of the dangerous generalizations that I’ll admit to perpetuating at times is that you can go almost anywhere and it’s relatively easy because “everyone there speaks English.” In fact, I learned the hard way that this is not true, even in places where you’d least expect. So this is a bit of a cautionary tale that hopefully will help future expats really think hard about choosing exactly where to live.
In this case I’m only talking about moving to a country where you don’t speak the common local language. If you can communicate with everyone you meet then obviously your range of good choices is much greater, but if you will be relying on local English speakers and the expat community, then it’s probably wise to move into the middle of things if you can.
Chiang Mai isn’t as English-friendly as I assumed
A couple of years ago I lived for 3 months in a serviced apartment in Bangkok, just off Sukhumvit 22, and it was a great experience. The apartment management spoke decent English, many fellow residents were also fellow English speakers, and I was walking distance to five different supermarkets and hypermarkets where almost all products were labeled in English.
After a tour of Laos, I headed to Chiang Mai in northern Thailand where I was looking forward to living for three more months in a cheaper, smaller, and cooler city. Chiang Mai is world famous as an expat mecca so I assumed things would be easy. When I arrived I checked into a cheap and central hotel (within the city walls) so I could quickly look at available apartments and move right into one.
The majority of the availabilities I found were on or near the main road that runs northwest from the northwest corner of the city walls. This area is also filled with shopping centers and Western restaurants, but almost all the serviced apartments I looked at were set up like hotel rooms, without even so much as a hot plate for a kitchen. Most even said they don’t allow cooking in the units, which isn’t a problem for most people because there are cheap restaurants and street stalls all over, but I prefer to cook for myself most of the time.
The nicest apartment I found was a couple miles away from this area, way into a maze-like neighborhood just south of Chiang Mai University. It was a large and comfortable apartment that had a little kitchen, although I did have to buy my own hot plate for cooking. The apartment building is quite new and it’s called “Central Hill Place” out front, also with a small version translated into Thai on the main sign.
The area was obviously very popular with university students, and I saw many small and trendy restaurants nearby, plus a couple 7-Elevens (of course), and a Tesco Express mini supermarket within walking distance. I loved the apartment itself so I rented it the day after I first saw it, and moved in the following day.
I was mistaken about the neighborhood
The Central Hill Place has two similar buildings with 100 total apartments in them. It took me about a week to realize that I was one of only two non-Thai people living there. The other was a fellow American who’d just been fired from his job teaching English (for repeatedly showing up late), and he moved out a few days after I met him.
My worst assumption was that university students in Thailand’s second largest city would all be learning English and be somewhat fluent after having been in school for so long. As it turns out, these Thai students (who mainly come from wealthy Thai families, I learned) speak almost no English. They probably took at least a couple of years of English in school, but many from a non-English teacher. I’m guessing that it’s very much like the situation in Japan, where locals don’t learn English very well and they have zero confidence trying it out with native English speakers. I don’t blame them and I’ve noticed that most people learn English only when they realize they can earn a lot more money by knowing it.
Another surprise to me was that out of about 15 cool restaurants in this neighborhood, only one that I could find actually had a menu in English. When you spend all of your time in Bangkok, Phuket, and Ko Samui, you stupidly assume that every restaurant menu in Thailand has English translations, but they don’t. So I kept walking into these little places and asking for a menu and then miming an “open book” when I realized they didn’t speak any English. In all but one case I was handed a menu that was only in Thai or left with the impression that they don’t have a menu at all. (Until you actually study Thai, it looks like squiggles, so even trying to translate from a book would be very challenging.)
Also quite surprising for a complex called “Central Hill Place,” only one member of the staff spoke English to a degree that I could get information or help, and she only seemed to be there about 30 hours per week.
It took at least ten days to completely sink in, but I had moved myself deep into a neighborhood where I was pretty much the only person who couldn’t speak fluent (or any) Thai. Needless to say, I felt pretty isolated, and I’ll admit that I was quite lonely too.
At least twice a week I’d take a 4-mile walk either into the expat shopping area or into the tourist district near the eastern city wall, but even then there was no obvious way of breaking into any kind of social circle.
Cutting my losses
If I had intended to stay in Chiang Mai for a long time I certainly would have moved into a different place in a more expat-friendly part of town, but I only ever planned on staying there 3 months, so by the time I realized what I had done and was able to give 30 days notice for the apartment, it was too late.
In the end, I left after the second month, even though it was quite cheap and pleasant in general. The social isolation was frustrating and I learned some valuable lessons.
All my fault, but don’t make the same mistake
This being the internet, I wouldn’t be surprised if someone would read the first few paragraphs of this story and would immediately jump down to the Comments area where they call me an idiot and also arrogant for assuming that everyone speaks English even though I don’t speak Thai. But I take full responsibility for misjudging the area, and the Thai speakers were always gracious and helpful when trying to deal with me. In the end, I shopped regularly at the (English-free) outdoor market nearby, and I found a few food stalls with items I liked and smiling locals serving me to the best of their ability.
The point of all this is to illustrate that if you don’t speak the local language then it can be critical to at least start by moving into an area where other expats are nearby. In many stops since then I’ve discovered that the “expat zone” in a town can actually be quite small, even in areas with many expats.
Some might think that the immersion of moving yourself into the heart of an expat-free neighborhood is the best way to get that authentic experience, but there are many downsides to that strategy too, some that you might not realize until it’s too late.