Earlier this summer, Thai Immigration announced a crackdown on foreigners who had been staying in Thailand on back-to-back tourist visas. Rumors and reports swirled: people were being denied entry even with proper visas, border runs were no longer allowed, anyone Immigration suspected of living and working on tourist visas would be given the boot.
My first reaction to this was Ugh, not again. I had just gotten back from a visa run to Laos, where my boyfriend and I had both gotten double-entry tourist visas that gave us six more months in the country. As always, I had a few moments of fleeting fear, wondering if this would be the time they decided I had been a tourist in Thailand for too long.
I was on my fifth visa and had a hefty number of border run stamps (the term "border runs" refers to traveling to a Thai border, crossing out through Immigration and returning the same day to get a re-entry stamp that extends your stay in the country). But the consulate had approved my application, slapped the visa into my passport, and Immigration hadn't batted an eye when I came back to the country. I figured I was good to go.
Immigration officials had announced a crackdown in early May but confusion ensued in July when the reports of entry denials began to fly. For a good two or three weeks, Heath (my partner) and I debated the merits of attempting to activate our second visas, which would require leaving the country and possibly not being allowed back in. Neither of us had planned to leave Thailand until at least November and there were compelling reasons to try getting back in using our second visas. Moving to a nearby country such as Vietnam was also an option, but not an especially attractive one at the time.
One evening, Heath emailed with a suggested plan: I would fly out to somewhere like Malaysia when our first visas were about to expire and try to get back in. If I was allowed back, great. If not, I could hop a cheap flight to Vietnam and hang out there. He would pack up both our apartments, sell our stuff, get our security deposits back, and come meet me a month later. It was a solid plan. A reasonable plan. One that made a lot of practical sense.
I hated it.
I burst into tears as soon as I finished reading the email and gave myself a good 10-minute crying jag before replying. We agreed that, considering that the mere notion of doing the visa run sparked a mini-breakdown, we would table the topic until we had a chance to talk in person a few days later.
A few months earlier, Heath's plan probably would have appealed to me. Spend a few days exploring Penang or Kuala Lumpur? Sure, sounds like an adventure. And if I couldn't get back in the country, I'd head to Vietnam and it would just be another good travel story.
But now, the prospect of spending a few hundred dollars to fly out for a few days and fly back in, not knowing whether my visa would be honored, not knowing whether I'd have to hop the next flight out of Thailand, leaving Heath to collect the pieces of my life scattered around my shithole of an apartment... That didn't sound like an adventure. It sounded like a fucking nightmare.
So I waited a couple days until we could come up with a game plan for our next move together. But I already knew what I wanted the next move to be.
I wanted to go home.
Never Say Never
I want to go home. Even as I said it to myself that night, the phrase sounded strange on my lips. Home. Where was home these days? The last place I lived before moving overseas was Washington, D.C., and though I had some good times there and still have friends in the area, it wasn't the gleaming halls of government or preppy storefronts of Georgetown that were beckoning.
Before that, I spent a year in New York City and four in Maryland while I was in college. Both great places but I wasn't sure those were right either. New Jersey, land of my youth? Though I'm learning that that whole "You can take the girl out of Jersey but you can't take the Jersey out of the girl" thing actually rings pretty true, I realized it wasn't really a specific place that was calling me back. It was the idea of a place where I could build a home.
I've known for a long time that Thailand isn't where I want to build my future. Don't get me wrong, it's been a great two years here in a lot of ways. Lots of amazing people, experiences, and memories. But in other ways, it hasn't been so great — for me, anyway.
The longer I've been in Thailand, the more disillusioned I've become with the political system, certain aspects of society, and the recklessness I see all the time. Thailand has one of the highest road death rates in the world. A spate of horrifying bus crashes in the past year or so raised a sharp fear every time I had to get on a bus. When boarding a bus to Mae Sai for a visa run, I had to make sure my trusty supply of Xanax was in my purse, lest the driver's manic navigation of mountain roads and the terrifying statistics swimming in my head push me to the brink of nervous breakdown before I made it to the border.
People die every day, everywhere in the world. I know that. But somehow the headlines about this farang (foreigner) being stabbed or this one disappearing, this bus plunging into a ravine or that one crashing on a sharp curve grated on me in a way that started to make living in Thailand feel unbearable.
A lot of this is my own stuff. I've felt more vulnerable here than I have anywhere else in the world. I've had food poisoning four times in the past two years (though to be fair, one of those was in Burma) and have been dealing with anxiety and panic attacks since shortly after I arrived here in July 2012.
The shoddy state of some of the hospitals, the horror stories I've heard from people about getting the wrong meds and diagnosis, and my own hospital experiences leave me feeling less than reassured that if I need something, I can get it. There are some really good hospitals and great doctors in Thailand, don't get me wrong. But when you're always running these calculations about the likelihood of getting sick or hurt, and the likelihood that you can be understood by the medical staff and that they will accurately diagnose the problem, you can start to feel mentally worn down.
But it wasn't just those things. I realized I just wasn't excited about being here anymore. Rather than revel in the warm weather, the cheerful cries from tuk-tuk and songthaew drivers trying to round up passengers, the crowded but colorful markets, the boozy Sangsom-fueled nights, I wanted nothing to do with it. I had been here, done all that and it no longer appealed.
What I wanted was comfort, security, a place where I could nest, a place that felt familiar. Staying in Thailand another six months, eight months, a year felt like wasting time I could be building other areas of my life. I was starting to think the cons were really outweighing the pros, at least for me. I mean, if the idea of doing another visa run so you can stay in a place makes you feel physically ill, it's probably a sign it's time to be moving along.
When Heath and I met up later that week to discuss our options and what we each wanted to do, we quickly realized we wanted the same thing: to go back to America.
A Direction Home
Of course, deciding to leave Thailand didn't necessarily have to mean moving back to the States. I've always got a list of potential places to move in the back of my mind, cities that I have no doubt are full of life, history, interesting people and stories. Places I'd love to visit and possibly live in, places I hope I get to see someday. Just not this day.
There was a time when I couldn't imagine moving back to America. When I read blog posts and articles written by people who gave up long-term travel or expat-hood for a return to the States, I thought, That'll never be me. I love traveling, I love being an expat. I'll be doing this for years to come. And I have been. I've been living abroad and traveling for four and a half years.
It's hard to put into words how incredible and life-changing those four and a half years have been, but I'm working on it and will likely write a separate post about that. Still, a longing for America has been creeping up on me for several months now and finally came bursting forth when it was time to make some fast decisions on whether or not to try to stay in Thailand.
There's a B.B. King song called "The Thrill is Gone." I kept thinking of that song when considering whether to stay abroad or go back to America. That's how I feel right now. The thrill of living in a place where I don't speak the language, of crossing borders and applying for visas, of living off whatever fits in a backpack and two duffel bags, of being surrounded by the push and pull of the developing world - it's been replaced by a deep exhaustion and a desire to be back among who and what are most familiar.
I don't think that thrill of travel and life abroad has disappeared for me. There's still so much of the world to see and I suspect I will miss the nomadic, expat existence sooner and faster than I expect. That's OK. Moving to the States isn't necessarily a permanent decision. But so far it's been a rejuvenating one.
I miss the familiarity. I miss the people. Technology is great for staying connected to friends and family but I miss being able to hang out in person, be there for the big events, or for the wine nights, the dinners, the bar crawls, movie nights. There was a time I had a really tight community in Chiang Mai, but a lot of those people have left. There are still some great people here who I will miss but I've been feeling adrift for awhile now.
When Heath and I were deciding what to do if we couldn't get back into Thailand and where we might want to move next, we spent a lot of time discussing our goals and priorities for the next year or so. Happily, a lot of what we wanted individually aligned with each other. And we realized that, at least for now, America is what makes sense. It's where we feel we will best be able to pursue a lot of our goals while reconnecting with people, which is a lot easier to do when you're all on the same side of the planet.
I wasn't expecting to move back to America, but I'm happy that I am. As I sat crying at my desk, feeling physically averse to the idea of going through another visa run, another visa application process, packing all my goods into my backpack and arbitrarily choosing a place to live if Thailand kicked me out, I knew what I needed to do. The nomadic, ready-to-leave-at-a-moment's-notice, not-sure-where-I'm-headed-next lifestyle is fun and exciting and rewarding. It's great. But for now, it's no longer right for me.
I'm glad I didn't rush going back and waited until I could trust that I was ready. I don't want to stay abroad for the sake of staying abroad until I'm bitter and hateful and can't appreciate the gift of the experience. This lifestyle is certainly something I can see in my future again. But I'm excited to try America back on for size, to nest a bit, and experience living in a different part of the country than I have before.
Questions and fears linger about whether I'll like being back in America or whether I'm just looking at it through rose-colored glasses, about whether the reverse culture shock will be too much to handle, whether I'll feel out of place in my home country, whether I'll ever be able to adjust to not living in a foreign place again. I don't know the answers to any of those.
I tell myself it'll take time to adjust but it'll be a new and different kind of adventure. Moving in with Heath, living in a new city, exploring opportunities and interests I had put on hold while over here - these are all things I look forward to.
When it comes down to it, I guess I just feel ready and have that gut sense that it's the right time to go back. Does it make me all kinds of emotional? Oh yeah. I've already had several nostalgic crying spells and expect more before I leave. But it's still the right call. I miss the people, I miss this place that was always home before and maybe could be again.
I've spent so much of the last year wondering where I should go next, what place was right for me, what I should be doing. For months I weighed different options, agonized over the direction of my life. And then this visa thing came along as a little kick in the ass and I just knew. And I've got to say it feels good to have a clear direction again.