Loneliness & Depression Abroad

Travelling and immersing yourself in foreign lands is not always a bed of roses (or in the case of Thailand, a bed of orchids) so in this post I want to touch on a darker subject, and share my experiences of loneliness and depression abroad:

A few days ago, my American boyfriend had a friend from home come and visit us. While I played host to a stranger very similar to my boyfriend, whom I know so well, I came across this thought: Both these guys are still foreigners to me, much like all my other friends and acquaintances abroad.

It got me thinking about all the other Americans that I have met or even befriended who couldn't name a famous fast food chain in my home country of South Africa, yet I could play Name the 50 States with them, and get a pretty good score. Or British peers who couldn't muster up more than two or three official languages out of our eleven, yet I am quick to question which regional dialect they're using – is it Cornish, Cumbrian, Coventry, Cockney? And then Australians that I have come across who might be better in this regard, as they are quick to praise our weather and beaches (which are both very similar to theirs) but then flippantly make assumptions that all South Africans want to emigrate because of crime, or even worse, that we're all horrid racists. All these people coming in and out of my life, all from various walks of life, and mostly knowing very little about me, assume I am just another one of them, or that we are the same. And that can leave you feeling pretty lonely a lot of the time.

On the other hand, Thai peers can be just as ignorant, but somehow I still relate to them more – they too grew up on American TV and British rock n' roll. They too felt the pinch of a foreign world closing in on theirs, which would always be so far removed and so little understood by the very foreigners that are closing in. Which is why it hurts, sometimes, to be judged by them, to have them look me over with distaste - distaste for what? Maybe my white skin or blonde hair, or perhaps the way I dress, or maybe it's just because I am a Westerner, or even worse, a farang. Hearing that word always reinforces my feeling of separation to Thais, and all the excuses from well-meaning Thai friends or argumentative foreigners won't change that.

Sometimes I feel completely alone, in my new world, surrounded by new people, the majority of whom have no connection to my past, and no real way to relate to it besides through stories. Sometimes I feel overwhelmed by the onslaught of new cultures, which I naively expected to be only Thai – now I'm grappling with several different ones while desperately trying to preserve my own. Sometimes I feel I'm the only real foreigner, in a big group of people all familiar with each other through their united nationalities and similar foundations. Sometimes I realise all these thoughts are a tad ridiculous, and I'm just a little sad that day, that's all.


Woody Harrelson Zombieland
Some great advice on happiness from American Woody Harrelson.

When I was very young, I had a tough time that I won't get into now, and as a result lost many years I should have spent being happy, carefree, and finding my place in the world, which is something I am focusing on now. As a result, I'm horrifically socially anxious, as well as being generally awkward and strange. So I don't care too much for knowing all the ever-changing faces of Chiang Mai's expat scene, and honestly, I'm tired of hearing how everyone just got out of college and decided to do a TEFL course. Thailand wasn't so much a grand adventure for me as it was a chance to escape. I finally took a break from the damage and destruction, and came to Thailand to heal.

Among other things, it took a year-long stint of living in and exploring England at age 21 to allow me to finally come back home to a happy place. At 22, I fell in love with my country for the first time. I fell in love with the people there, the food, the culture. I also fell in love with its darkness too – South Africa is a place that just wouldn't be as beautiful without its vulnerability, its countless struggles and triumphs, its inspiring journey to redemption, and its terribly disappointing downfalls. Now, when I think of the things I miss, they are the little things, which is why I should always remember to seek them out everywhere I go.


Durban South Africa Beach
A view of North Beach in Durban from a friend's apartment window.
Durban South Africa City
Another early morning beach view.

When I arrived in Thailand over a year ago, I was full of optimism and hope, and perhaps had too many stars clouding my vision. Yes, I am still on that same high, and I am very happy in Chiang Mai, but depression has always been a part of my reality, and I still suffer from it here, but now for different reasons. I've found I'm still susceptible to loneliness, even as part of a loving, supportive couple, and even surrounded by awesome new friends that I've come to love as much as the old ones. I still wake up some mornings and dread the day ahead of me, even though it will be unbearably sunny (no blaming Seasonal Affective Disorder - this is all on me). I deal with my anxiety every day, which used to be crippling as a teenager, and feel ashamed that as an adult, I still get overwhelmed by my new way of life. I still freeze up when somebody throws a string of fast Thai at me, and have sleepless nights over the frequent confusions, miscommunications, and misunderstandings I experience here. Sometimes, social gatherings are an absolute nightmare, whether they are with other foreigners or Thai people. Terrible homesickness overcomes me now and then, and leaves me yearning to be back with familiar faces in Durban.

But, I am still happy, among all these dark splotches on the book I'm writing. I am still living my life, but more than that, I love living my life. And my solution is not just, "Oh well, nevermind, I've got a smile on my face." No, it's so much more than that. I have grown so much, and had so many people help me grow, closer and closer towards the person I want to be. I am more grateful than I've ever been: grateful for life, for shelter, for the countless opportunities I've landed upon. I have love, I have safety, I have a purpose - nearly everything I have is so much more valuable than my favourite pair of shoes or my prized camera. And on top of all that, I live in a nonsensical, exciting, mad and beautiful city halfway across the world from my home - how lucky is that? How lovely, to be able to soak in another culture, and be a part of another crazy world. And all that still doesn't mean I have to forget my past, my country, or my old way of life - they made me who I am today, wherever I am or whoever I'm with.


Baptism Durban South Africa
An African Zionist baptism I stumbled across on the beach one morning.
Durban South Africa Beach
The African Zionist baptism is a spiritual rebirth, performed at any age.

As it turns out, my boyfriend's American visitor pleasantly surprised me a few minutes after our first meeting, by saying, “Howzit, bru?”
“What? Why are you saying that?” I ask, bewildered.
“Am I saying it right? Or is it brah?”
He then goes on to tell me all about his Saffa friends in South Korea and how they get together for braais, where he's discovered boerwors, Savanna, biltong, and heard of the famous potjiekos and the delectable Nando's. Later on that night, we go out for some beers, and we keep going back to the subject of South Africa. We talk about the languages, the mix of people, the beautiful landscapes, and he impresses me with his arsenal of South African slang and banter. When he tells me he is soon visiting the city of Johannesburg, then road-tripping from Durban to Cape Town, and then making his way up to Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe, I feel a pang of jealousy, a tweak of nostalgia, and also a whole heap of happiness that a foreigner is going to experience that magical journey. I am also glad to be proved wrong: not everyone knows nothing about me, my culture or my country – in fact, some people surprise me in the best ways, and those who care about me are always willing to learn.

There is no telling when I will return home. I miss South Africa, my mother and friends, and everything else beautiful and magical about the country, and I would love to go back to visit. For now, my boyfriend and I plan to move on from Chiang Mai to another part of the world, and I doubt I will get home for a few years to come. This is why, although moving away was the best thing I ever did, I won't pretend it's all fun, friends, and inspirational quotes on pretty pictures. Moving abroad, or at least, travelling, are not for the faint-hearted, nor are they for the broken or fragile. But they are also some of the most invigorating, mind-expanding, insanity-inducing, crazy-beautiful things you can do with your life. And while I regret many things and many things that have happened to me, I will never regret travelling or deciding to live in a new place on the opposite side of the world, however lonely or depressed it might make me feel from time to time.

You can check out the blog of the awesome Saffa-influenced American traveller, Jason, over here at Kimchi Gypsy.

Some South African terms used in this post:

Bru/Brah - A term for brother or friend, similar to "bro" but used for men and women.
Saffa – A South African, usually used abroad: That Saffa over there is a handsome devil.
Braai – South African 'barbecue', which commonly consists of grilled meat, potato salad, beans, salad and rolls.
Boerewors – Sausage from the Afrikaners. Boer means “farmer” and wors means “sausage”.
Savanna – Dry, delicious cider, which is usually served with a lemon wedge.
Biltong – Cured meat, which has a bazillion variations, from peri-peri ostrich to black pepper kudu.
Potjiekos – Meat and vegetable stew made in a three-legged, iron cauldron outdoors. Means “small pot food” in Afrikaans and is typically served with potbrood (tasty warm bread from a cast-iron pot).
Nando's - a well-loved chain restaurant serving Portuguese-style chicken (yes, the Portuguese also hung out in South Africa back in the day).

And here's a small tribute to some of my favourite South Africans:



Caitlin, Phinda and Tom, hanging out at our campsite at a festival.
Gayle grinning the back of her car.
Phinda caught daydreaming.
The beautiful Nicole.
Minette in my old apartment.
And finally, the very vibrant Lerato, my best friend for over a decade.

Do you have stories of loneliness or depression abroad? Who do you miss the most from back home? How do you feel about your decision to move overseas? Please share with me in the comments below!

18 comments:

  1. I love how your posts don't paint a facade of never ending happiness abroad. Leaving your country and your comfort is liberating and invigorating but at times, overwhelming. You really spoke to me in this post and I respect you more for opening up your heart. Rule #32 can not be repeated enough. Stay golden blondie.

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  2. I really admire the candour in this post as most people will not admit to feelings of loneliness or depression or as you have said feeling that you are the only foreigner, even though you are also with other foreigners. I have not been away from home for as long a time as you but I can relate on two levels: because I am a loner and it takes me a while to trust people and let them in, and secondly, as I am from South Africa and privileged to be well educated I know a lot about the global village in which we live but very few people know about South Africa, never mind Durban. I remember being asked by someone in Sydney once if I knew someone, and it turned out they lived in Nigeria. Another person in Warsaw disliked me because I was white and I could just "pick up diamonds off the beach". There are many examples I could give of the things people have assumed about me, and South Africa but unfortunately most people I met on my travels knew nothing of the positives of living here. I love living in Durban even though I want to travel more. Thanks for sharing your ups and downs as you have been honest about what it is like to live in another country.

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  3. Really enjoyed this read poppet x

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  4. I really enjoyed reading this. I can tell you for a fact that you are not alone in feeling this way. I think it is a common problem of being an expat. Always with slight variations in origin but still there. Everyone I know here in Thailand has had this kind of freak out, (everyone who cares to admit to us anyway), I'm glad I have sacha and a few close friends out here that I can confide in when things get too much. But still despite it all the highs way outweigh the lows being an expat here in CM. I don't regret it even when things are tough.

    By the way, we have Nandos in England too! Massively popular in London and the other big cities :-) . And you've taught me what a Saffa is, so thanks for writing this post. I feel educated ;-)

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  5. Thank you Anon #1. I agree that Rule #32 makes life so much better when things are not perfect - I look out my window for instance and see my little balcony garden, which is a small thing but makes me so happy.

    And thank you Anon #2 as well! So happy you got a good read out of this boo-hoo post =D

    Jmayel, I know what you mean. I still come across people who act like I'm crazy or just a big downer - but my close friends or those who've been here longer know what I mean. It's good to have each other, and of course being in such a great place makes things easier. I would hate to see what this post might have been if I was living somewhere miserable! And glad to educate you about Saffas - although I was under the impression they had already infested the entire city of London! ;)

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  6. You helped me so much with this post. I am in the same boat as you but no bf. Thank you and keep ur friends and family close x

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    1. Thank you Anon. Those are wise words!

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  7. I enjoyed reading this post very much and relate with your views re being an expat. For me, it's taking years it seems to attain a sense of peace and confidence that this was the right move.

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    1. Thanks for reading. Yes, I'm still adjusting, even though Chiang Mai won't be my permanent home. I guess I will have to feel this way wherever I go, but I'm learning that it's pretty normal!

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  8. This is such a great post! I found your blog recently while I was in Chiang Mai when we read about Bus Bar.
    I struggle to appreciate living in the now, as I get stuck in my need for routine. Arriving at a new place makes me nervous but when I can establish a routine and some comfort, it gets easier, finding healthy food and learning traffic patterns are my biggest struggle.
    I will be honest and say that after a week in Maui Hawaii, I was very hesitant to trek all the way to Thailand to experience sensory overload discomfort for 10 days. Our time in Thailand has been good though; good food, met nice people, learned things about myself and the world... Yet as I sit here at a 5 star resort in Koh Samui I cannot help but miss home and the confines of my routine, knowing next week I will miss the confines of my travel and all the joy, confusion, sadness, adventure and learning it brings.
    My favorite yoga instructor always tells us to enjoy now because we do not know what's coming next....easier said than done!

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    1. Thank you for the read and comment! I also struggled to find healthy food in the beginning, and was so wary of everything - but now I'm really happy with my diet, especially after learning some Thai to communicate the basics.
      And thank you for sharing so openly with me - I feel very similar at times and know exactly how you feel!

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  9. Loved your Blog this AM in Orlando Fl, learned some new words Saffa , Bra, borwereer, haha bad spelling , I am Tyger Lyllies infamous uncle sort of , i am really her third cousin, she just calls me Uncle. The ignorance of a person is not always bad, it can just be their bliss. I think that is gramaticly correct, but if not you know what i mean. Thank you for sharing some of your thoughts and travels. happy Holidays from the USA and me.

    Richard

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  10. Thank you. I'm glad you wrote this <3

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  11. What a wonderful, frank post - both about being a traveller and about depression. I've recently moved to Chiang Mai and have lived other places and your post has resounded with me profoundly. Good luck on your journey.

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  12. This is such a realistic take on what it means to relocate: thanks for this post. A lot of people just think the grass is always greener but its good to also acknowledge the other side of it as I think it can help you face up to the challenges.

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  13. Thanks for a thoughtful post: I live in Thailand and I've been an expat for about 30 years, in around 30 countries and never experienced before the vacuousness of the expats in CM, whether they be TEFLers, retireees, long-term overstayers, NGOers, or the ubiquitous self-proclaimed "writers" and "travellers". I'd say about 5% of the expats here are connected in a meaningful and healthy way to Thailand or themselves. How does this relate to your sense of depression? Well a lot of your sense of depression may well be a healthy reaction to what is a very limited expat society, psychology and lifestyle in Thailand.

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    1. At the risk of being a little too honest yet again in this post, I would have to agree with you, Anon. I also felt that many of the people I met there were perhaps too eager to proclaim their own "meaningfulness", when the truth is Chiang Mai is the perfect place for those in limbo or even without a purpose at all. There's nothing wrong with that, but it's also something no one wants to admit. I tolerated far too much arrogance and bigotry when I should have spoken up more, and by the time I left I was gasping to escape the insincere, self-important expat circles. All that definitely contributed to my depression while living in Chiang Mai.
      Even though I didn't belong there, Thailand will always hold a special place in my heart. There were many, many beautiful and kind people that I met, both Thai and foreign, that I still admire and respect. I think it's a pity that these gems get overshadowed by the nasties!

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