Travel & Expat Lifestyle Magazine

On the importance of moving to an “expat neighborhood”

Chiang Mai Market

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

Central Hill Place Chiang MaiThe 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.


8 thoughts on “On the importance of moving to an “expat neighborhood”

  1. Hi Tom,

    I am glad you wrote this article, I read it all 🙂

    Too often new expats are told they should try to avoid other expats to learn about the local culture. That is not realistic if you don’t speak the language at all.

    That might eventually be a good advice for a short period of time when you are a young student who live abroad to learn a language. But if you plan to stay for more than a year, your spouse is not working or you have children, it is usually wise to connect with local expats to learn faster about the differences between your own culture and the local one by people who understand the way you think.

    Regarding languages, yes you learn better in total immersion but you need a minimum survival level otherwise you are struggling so much with the basics that you get easily frustrated and even depressed so you cannot learn.

    In most big cities in the world there are always expat support groups from your own country or the ones you speak the languages.

    There are also so many expat forums and expat blogs on the internet that it is very easy to get accurate information about best neighborhoods that match your lifestyle and family situation.

  2. When I lived in Spain I got aSpanish-English dictionary. Worked out great bur I don’t think it would have been workable if in your situation because Spanish uses the same alphabet with a couple additions.

    Not sqiqqly writing.

    Wouuld have been far more challenging. Really congratulate that you managed as great as you did. Thank you for sharing and the head’s up you did on behalf of others to learn.

  3. I’m kind of torn. On the one hand, I can understand and identify with what you’re saying. On the other hand, in my experience, much of what one learns from other expats is opinion rather than fact. In an unfamiliar environment, where cultural norms, not to speak of the language, is radically different from one’s own, you can only form opinions based on subjective experience. That’s often coloured by your appearance, attitude and expectations.

    For example, here in Cambodia, although no one is going to come right out and say it, tattoos and dreadlocks are viewed with suspicion and sometimes fear. This often attracts negative experiences with the local people. A frequent complaint here in Sihanoukville is that the “corrupt” police pick on foreigners, targeting them for minor traffic infractions and letting Cambodians go. Recently, a man made this claim to me even though we were the only two foreigners amongst the 5 who had been pulled over for not wearing helmets.

    That’s a minor example, but it extends to shopping, finding accommodations, doing business and day to day living as well. It’s not just a matter of learning from other expats, I think. It’s a matter of who you learn from as well as tuning in to local sensitivities.

  4. Rob, you make some great points. My Chiang Mai experience is unique in several ways, most notably because I only intended on staying for 3 months in the first place. In that case, I had to learn quickly or it would be too late, so the shorthand of other expats could have helped. In the longer run, I totally agree that many expats actually have a weirdly negative prism they are viewing the place with, so they are happy to spew terrible advice. And I agree that some people prefer to be victims even when they aren’t. Interesting look at things in Sihanoukville. -Tom

  5. @Tom, It is not because you share your experience with other expats that you give negative opinions or feel like victims, spending your days complaining about the “locals”. This is a terrible cliche about expats and I think it is judgmental and offensive. I have been living abroad for 20 years in several countries across continents and I think it is good to start with some help with people who usually love their host country and willing to help with logistic. You can forge your own opinion once you have enough experience and it s often a mixed feeling of positive and negative emotions. Your adventure in Thailand is more like a tourist experience not a real expatriation with kids going to school, dealing with health issues or a spouse looking for a job.

  6. @Anne

    So the only real expats are those with spouses, kids and health issues?

  7. Anne, I don’t disagree with you, but I’ve come across great numbers of bitter expats who seem to complain about their new countries more than anything else, and I’ve gotten many comments and emails from others who have experienced the exact same thing in countries I’ve yet to visit.

    So you might think it’s a cliche, but it’s a common situation that surprises many new expats so I think it’s worth mentioning rather than trying not to offend people because some might not like to hear about it.

    I’m not sure you are even commenting on this post because I’ve written much more on this topic elsewhere. But obviously if you can find someone who loves their new home city and who knows their way around that is ideal. But I’m not the only one who struggles to find those people in many places. -Tom

  8. @Tom, I actually commented on your comment here “I totally agree that many expats actually have a weirdly negative prism they are viewing the place with, so they are happy to spew terrible advice”.

    It is true that some and not that many people who are struggling living abroad are bitter and negative but it is also easy to find many other happy expats in any location.

    Advises of any kind, good or bad are always very subjective and you have to check for yourself what works for you in your particular situation. I like to gather as much information as possible before I move to a new country and expats have some information that locals are not aware of like working permit or international health insurance, retirement plans, tax management, etc.

    @Michele: I mentioned kids or spouse or health problems because it is usually more complicated to live abroad with a family than being a healthy single or a young couple without kids. I started living in Japan as a student with my husband we were 20+ something and it was a wonderful experience and since then we always lived abroad so we evolve and our lifestyle changed so we got different needs as we are aging and having growing children and old parents.

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