Facing the Reality of Retirement Overseas

retirementWe found the perfect house to live in retirement.  Paid cash for the place plus have no property taxes.  Live a pretty easy life, better in the material things than I thought I would end up with.  Have a decent newish car and the weather is good where we are living.  We are retired and have few responsibilities and obligations to worry about as we are settled in the Southeast Asian tropical kingdom.   It is certainly better than if we retired to a trailer park outside of Dayton, or a little shack in Tulsa or an apartment in Pasadena.  But we have crossed that line into retirement that has drastically changed our lives, no matter where our habitat happens to be.  It is certainly a major adjustment, and not all of it is easy.

Now I no longer wear a watch because I don’t want to know what time it is.  That’s a big adjustment from a time when every minute counted and I would not waste a drop of it during a workday.  I shave about once every three days now, only when it gets a little too scratchy for me.  I wear sandals on my feet and can’t remember the last time I polished my shoes.  I have settled in. 

In this part of the world, if a retired couple can count on an income of about $1500 a month or more, they can live comfortably with a nice home, car and plenty of food.  In most of the US, they could probably still get by but on a lower scale for sure.

When we first came to live in Chiang Mai, there was a natural excitement.  We tested out a lot of strange new restaurants, visited all the tourist sites several times, found new places to shop, and took thousands of pictures.  We met other expat couples, many younger than us with different needs as they still were managing a growing family.  Other retired expats come here  from all over the world, and interacting with their different perspectives are quite interesting, but then after some time we wonder why they don’t see things the way we do (but of course they spent their entire lives in a different place than we did).

We found a lot of expats spend a lot of time watching satellite TV from back home.  Some spend a lot of time playing on Facebook to keep attached to the people back in the USA.  Many seldom leave the neighborhood (or moobaan, a gated community of homes most expats live in around Chiang Mai, or else they might live in a condo apartment building).  We all had very simple activities that would have been the same if we had stayed back in the States.  We were all hitting the reality wall of retirement.

The routine details of everyday life in remote, exotic Chiang Mai seemed nearly impossible to completely manage when we first arrived have been pretty much managed now.  The nervousness that we would wake up to everyday about how we were going to be able to do something has worn off.  We know how to live here now, and some of the mysteries and exoticness have revealed themselves and are not so much a mystery or so exotic.  There are fewer unknowns and unfamiliar situations.  A routine has been established, and we are seeing the same difficulties of coping with simple retirement that everyone has no matter where they live.

The situation we have is exactly what we were looking for in the first place.  We wanted a cheaper, better version of what we had at home, and we found it.  We shed a lot of baggage when we left the US to live in Thailand.  All retired expats have a very content feeling once they realize they have succeeded in their quest.  Finding a good place to live — one materially much better than what they could have back home and with longer, nicer, lazier sunny days all affordable with an income that probably will not grow — is what we all strive for as we approach this age.  There are a lot of places in the world that could fit the bill for most, and we chose Thailand which was a good decision for us.

A few expats arrive in Chiang Mai full of enterprising ideas and put them into action with a restaurant or a shop or a little hotel.  This adds a lot of interesting flavor to the city with such an international diversity of small businesses here.  But eventually even those entrepreneurs will start slowing down and settle into a regular living routine here.  The adrenaline rush gets a little weaker.

An expat coming to Chiang Mai for retirement (or any other exotic environment, for that matter) needs to have realistic expectations.  Many — perhaps most — expect that the very act of moving overseas will change everything in their lives, to end up completely different from the person they were back in their home country.  And after the adjustment time has completed they wake up to see that they are the same people, living life much the same way as before but now in a more colorful location, they are dismayed.

The truth is that after a long period of adjustment, for some it is just a few months and for others maybe a couple of years, they have finally figured things out in their new country well enough that life has become routine in the new environment.  When we and all the other expats here moved from their homelands, they left a lot of undesirable baggage, but we did not change ourselves.  We are the same people that we were back home.  We are not one person in Fresno (or wherever home may be) and wake up in Chiang Mai the next day as a different person.

With that all being said, there is something about retirement and about moving overseas that opens up, and it may appear to be new.  No longer encumbered by the routines built over many years back home, little things about ourselves start to reveal themselves.  Maybe we are really a writer or an artist or a farmer or teacher that never had a chance to blossom when we were striving to pay the bills for many years while the family was maturing.  For instance, when I was doing my jobs in business at a younger age, I never imagined that I could write and publish my thoughts on a blog (this one).  I still feel the pangs of guilt occasionally because of my obvious laziness (translate laziness to mean not stressing out on a job making money).  My always-ambitious wife is finding her niche in the garden in Chiang Mai, now getting involved in hydroponics and unusual fruit trees (we may have to grab an extra small piece of land that she can grow her little farm on).  Others we know have become photographers and chefs and painters.  Some have found that their intense interest in Asian Art turns into an enterprise, locating product to export back to the US for relatives there to sell.

Some expats become totally immersed in the culture of their new homeland, learning the language to near fluency (which in Thailand is a real challenge for native English language speakers), studying the history of their new environment or the predominant religion (which in Thailand is Buddhism).  These are all major steps beyond the routine, and perhaps over time the long-term resident does become a different person.

Sometimes I just marvel at the different changes we all go through as we walk down that path of life.

Please share with others in the comments how you may have coped or are learning to cope with maturity in a strange new environment.

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3 thoughts on “Facing the Reality of Retirement Overseas

  1. I have been living as an expat for about 35 years. The only thing which has kept me sane, if you can call it that, is study when I have had the time and opportunity, and my interest in Asia. It also does not matter at what age one moves to a new place and culture, there is no other option but to make every attempt to learn the new language as soon as one can.
    I, like you, do not wear a watch. But that is not because I do not care what time it is, I choose to not wear a watch because I fear someone might ask me the time. Has anyone here tried to master the complicated concept of telling time in Thailand? It is not easy.
    The way we feel about a new country when we first move in is not the way we will feel 1, 2, 5 and 10 years later, and we never know how we will feel about it 20 years down the line until that day arrives.
    I am very glad that I am in Asia and I know that I made the correct choice to come here. I have not had a TV in about 10 years, and I do not watch many films since Woody Allen does not seem willing to make many. It is best to just enjoy books and the internet and the natural environment if you can find a place which is less spoiled.
    I really believe that if one can enjoy books, nature, and the local culture, all will be fine. Don’t come to a place where you do not like the food, and when you arrive eat what most people eat. Don’t set foot in a Foreign Franchise, or at least I never do. If you are planning to come to Thailand, I imagine it will take a few years just to eat your way from one end to the other. After that, you can start again from the beginning.

  2. Nice and insightful, as usual. Unfortunately, there is also a group of expats who end up washed up on the shores here. These people are usually bitter and resentful either because they came here too young to look forward to a retirement with a pension, and are now trapped in by the low wages, or they were married (and then divorced) a bargirl who took them to the cleaners naturally for everything. This is not counting those people who are here to escape a justice back home and spend the proceeds of their crimes. Fortunately, In Chiang Mai, unlike Pattaya, this group is the minority.

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