On belonging

Last night I ate at Khun Churn again, a Chiang Mai institution. The wide selection of Thai-style vegetarian food is delicious, but I’m keen to try out new places since I’ve eaten there four times in four weeks. However, I didn’t have much choice yesterday — having dinner with a vegan yoga therapist who only eats light the night before teaching does make it hard to find a suitable restaurant. So Khun Churn it was, and this time I had mock chicken and garlic fried rice, along with a big bowl of rice vermicelli salad.

(There’s another vegan option I’m eager to try; Pun Pun at the nearby temple, Wat Suan Dok. They make flower petal salad, among other things, but it’s only open during the day.)

As for my dinner companion, Adriana is one of my neighbours. She’s a serene Colombian woman who has lived an almost nomadic existence for the past 11 years. After her mother died after a long fight with cancer, Adriana decided to sell everything and leave her homeland — and has never been back. She spent years living in India and Tibet, and she now moves around Asia teaching yoga therapy to individuals and small groups. She lives a very simple life and seems very content…on the whole. She’s not at all wealthy, has few possessions, and lives true to her beliefs — she doesn’t like to label herself anything but is sympathetic to Tibetan Buddhism. And although she feels that her spiritual homeland is India, it’s just too difficult to live there and, as she explained to me over dinner, she wants to live in Chiang Mai as long as possible. “I belong here,” she said in her very matter-of-fact way. I like the fact that she has such uncomplicated feelings about living in this city.

One part of her story which I enjoyed is how people always thought she was weird back in Colombia because she was a meditating vegan, and when she went to India she discovered so many people just like her — who think that meditating in an airport lounge while waiting for a plane is the most natural thing in the world. At some level I certainly relate to this. I grew up always feeling different to everyone around me and the first time I met one of my tribe was when I was 17. Marc was the first person I met who I instinctively knew was just like me in some fundamental way. And as I grow older I feel less and less different as I meet more and more like-minded people — and that’s what ‘belonging’ is all about, right?

So that being the case I don’t know that I could ever feel that I truly belonged to a place such as here, where I didn’t fully grasp the local language or wasn’t able to easily learn the cultural norms — and that will always limit me as to where I could live for a long stretch of time. I guess that’s why I’m very different to some of the foreigners who make their permanent home here. I’m learning Thai very seriously, making a concerted effort to understand Thai culture, and it’s definitely a worthwhile experience to be living here — but I find it hard to imagine why I would live here longer than I need to. I don’t know that if I really belong here and I don’t particularly enjoy being a wealthy expat in a country that is so much poorer than Australia.

But the interesting people I’m meeting seem to live so much more freely than me, completely unencumbered by stuff I worry about. Wealth disparity doesn’t seem to bother them as much, and they seem more comfortable with not being able to understand what’s going on a lot of the time. Generally speaking, maybe they’re also the sort of people who could end up in relationships with someone who comes from a completely different culture, who speaks a different language — a lot of retired men from the West here marry younger Thai women after all. So in some ways, communication occurs primarily through unstated feelings, rather than stated thoughts. I really get that it’s possible to live that way and be happy — but I also get that that’s not me at all. And anyone who knows me knows that I am all about communicating thoughts. Fast. In English. And occasionally in Vietnamese.

I love that Chiang Mai has room for all sorts:  the free spirits of this world who feel no need to justify where they make their home and belong wherever their heart is — and people who like me who are somehow the exact opposite to that. And we get along just fine.

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