So we didn’t win a million dollars but we do feel like we completed all 11 legs of The Amazing Race.Having flown 18,736 air miles via three different airlines on seven flights over the course of 30 days, visiting two counties and four cities, we’ve had our fill of what both our homelands feel like now that it’s been three years since our experimental overseas early retirement began. Since the blog is about our expat life, I wrangled with how to cover all the great stuff we did in New York, Vancouver, Calgary and Edmonton without rambling on like your average travel blog. But before we expatriated, I read extensively about the phenomenon known as “reverse culture shock” and ascertained it would take at least five years before it would hit us since modern technology keeps us in touch with what’s going on back there. I was wrong. Granted there was no way of knowing how a lunatic president would literally alter the course of North American culture but while we thoroughly enjoyed visiting family and friends, eating great food and experiencing a more pleasant climate, we’ve never been happier to be home (home for now, that is).
Back in my hometown
Having experienced so many differences between life in relatively peaceful Thailand and crazy, excitable and unpredictable North America, it’s hard to explain it all in one paragraph or even a single post. So instead of droning on about intolerance versus acceptance or complicated versus simplicity, I’ll stick to summarizing some highlights and gradually work into the details of each leg in upcoming posts. Understanding how different things are between developing nations and “over developed nations”doesn’t take too long after stepping out of the plane. Among the first things that jumped right out at us is the lack of retail employees in both the USA and Canada. Pioneered by tax cuts for billionaires that benefit nobody but big corporations and shareholders, the results of Trump’s trillion-dollar gift to the rich is highly visible. And despite the tax code differences in Canada, many major Canadian retailers sold out to American companies years ago which means they follow similar workflow models.
As expected, over half of all Fortune 500 companies in the USA used their tax gift to buy back their shares instead of creating jobs in America which is the stated purpose (albeit it a total lie). For those unfamiliar with financial jargon, this basically means their stock price drops which enriches wealthy investors and companies waste all potential savings on “the one percent”. Completely contrary to that, in Thailand, there’s so many employees in all areas of retail, it’s almost comical. Sometimes they’ll send over five or six staff members if they don’t understand what we want due to language barriers. Forgetting this, we visited a Starbucksin New York shortly after arrival thinking we’d have plenty of time before the Uber driver arrived at JFK. Almost taking longer to get two lattes than the 85 minute drive to Brooklyn, the pattern repeated in every Starbucks we patronized across three boroughs and two Canadian provinces. Often seeing stores using only two employees to do everything in the peak of commute hour, nobody complains because everyone’s been forced to accept a drastically short-staffed retail sector that affects everyone. Experiencing this everywhere from Old Navy in Midtown Manhattan to Sportchek in Calgary, finding someone to help went apparently the way of DVD’s and real presidents.
As 2017 progresses into its first full week and the temperature here in arctic Edmonton hovers around a seasonal minus twenty Celsius, my body says it’s desperately time to get outta Dodge and get back to the comforts of heat and humidity. Plagued with a three-week head cold, cracked dry skin, sore lips, caked up nose, tired bones and bundled up in double wool socks, vests on top of down coats, warm gloves and a hat, I’m longing for the comforts of shorts and t-shirts again. As much as I love Canada and will always call it my second home, there’s no denying that Canadian prairie winters really suck. Fortunately, when you sell a house in California an don’t need to buy another one, it’s relatively easy to become an overseas expat in a hot nation for about fifteen years.
23 kilogram limit: mostly food
Financially speaking, although we spent about six hundred bucks more than our thirty-day budget, we bought a cornucopia of quality brand name products at Boxing Day sale prices that end almost all our shopping needs for a year or two. Including about twelve Nike Dry fit t-shirts, two pairs of name brand hikers good for the jungle, new Ecco and Keens sandals, a new fanny pack and toiletry kit for travel and deodorant that actually works in the humidity, the shopping aspect is worth three flights, two layovers and almost 20 hours of flying time. Also horribly inconvenient for me since I’m legally blind in one eye, there’s only one brand of contact lenses that work well for me in any environment.
Filed under the mostly boring topic of returning to North America for the first time, I apologize ahead of time for the cushy little post about what we did on our winter vacation. In keeping with my blog’s slightly edgy but realistic views, I’ll start by pointing out that Americans worried about immigration can chill out because apparently, every immigrant bound for North America has mysteriously landed in Western Canada. In only eighteen months, the whitest place I’ve ever lived in morphed into a multi cultural center of ethnic, religious and racial diversity. Strolling through the streets and malls, we’ve seen literally thousands of non white immigrants blending in just perfectly with Canadians. Mostly dark-skinned Africans, head dressed Muslims from every conceivable nation and Hindus from nations other than India, it seems the like first course of action for the Trudeau administration was to stick it to the Trumpsters by letting tens thousands of immigrants call Canada their home.
Canadian version of Malaysian wildlife
Being Canada, nobody cares, argues, stares, protests, tweets, spews hatred or otherwise argues. And much to the chagrin of angry white American voters, its obvious after one day visiting that not only are they all peaceful and appreciative to be here, they’re all employed and contributing to the local economy. Where there used to be teenage white kids staffing retail stores and old Indian men sweeping streets and filling custodial jobs, now there are Senegails, Gambians, Bangladeshis, middle easterners and oh, yeah, thousands of Syrians that the Canadian government welcomed with open arms. Demographically speaking, it makes sense because in every developed nation, someone has to do the service jobs and just like American teens, Canadian kids have grown out of mall jobs and now probably earn online income to support their insatiable smartphone habits.
Well this sure ain’t Malaysia. Making a brief two-day stop in Hong Kong just because we wanted some real Chinese food, Diane and I hopped on the Air Canada flight to Vancouver a few days ago and braved the twelve-hour insanity known as flying into yesterday. Unfortunately, the rain in Penang stopped long enough for another stretch of bright sunshine just before we departed that left my dehydrated and over-exerted body with a slight cold. Sadly, flying makes dehydration even worse and it turned into laryngitis as we collected our bags in Hong Kong. Not exactly known for its blue skies and perfect climate, Hong Kong defied expectations with three incredible days of bright sunshine and 23 Celsius degree perfection. Accompanied by Diane’s sister-in-law who just happened to be visiting her parents, we embarked on a one day tour, ate some delicious seafood and hoped for the best with my cold as we waited patiently at the Air Canada gate. And that’s when we possibly broke the Guinness Record for the biggest climate drop in human history from between flights.
Ah, real coffee again
Having left Penang on a 30 degree morning (86 Farhenheit) only a few days earlier, we arrived at Vancouver International Airport too late to make our connection to Calgary thanks to delays on both ends of the Air Canada flight. Well slept but still tired, we cleared the new and improved kiosk based customs, collected our bags, and headed upstairs to an endless line with about one-third of the frustrated 350 passengers that also needed re-ticketing. Usually opting for Cathay Pacific when flying a transcontinental route, some greedy CEOs decided to change economy ticket pricing to a three-tier system like Air Asia and other discount airlines. Charging upwards of $500 to “upgrade” your fare class to one that allows seat selection, choosing the reasonably priced cheapest fare means sitting twelve hours on whatever shitty middle seat in the back of the plane they assign you and not bringing any checked luggage without paying a fee. Yeah, that makes sense on a 6,000 mile trip. So we chose Air Canada despite their strange departure time from both sides of the Pacific because you can pick your seat and connect to Calgary on the same itinerary. But even one minor delay of an hour leaves them struggling so badly on the other side that it’s worth making sure there’s several flights after the one you’ve chosen in case of lengthy delays. They sent those traveling further east than Alberta to hotels for the night with a whopping ten-dollar food stipend that might buy a donut and coffee and they re-booked us on a later flight to Calgary.
No, there’s no such thing as salami laksa. But if there was, Canada would be the place to get it. Wrapping up our third house squatting experience as homeless souls in transition, the weather continued to be miserable here in Calgary as the first day of summer approached. Probably the only city in North America where everyone is wearing down coats, sweaters and even gloves, the severe thunderstorm watches and arctic like rain got old after a day or two. Having reunited with some of our old co-workers for lunches and dinners, there isn’t much left to do so Diane chose to hit the mall. Thinking I’ll be doing enough of that in Penang to escape the heat and humidity, I opted for one last Canadian culinary supermarket tour.
Returning to our old neighborhood in West Calgary, I embarked on a shopping spree to my favorite local supermarket. Strikingly different from any California store, my favorite thing about Canadian supermarkets is the deli department. Unlike Americans who eat only the crappiest processed garbage lunch meats and usually go to Subway or Panera anyway, Canadian deli counters are a cornucopia of fabulous meats, cheeses, specialty items and olive bars. Thrilled to find that the store improved and remade itself into a sort of gourmet superstore, I decided to document all the delicious things I probably won’t see in Malaysia. And of course I bought lunch for the next few days. Ironically, McDonalds is running a promotion this month featuring “Canadian specialty sandwiches”‘ and this week’s is an Atlantic Canadian Lobster Roll. Stumbling on the same promotion for a limited time only, I saw one left at Sobeys and it was even two bucks cheaper than McDonalds.
It was bound to happen. Anyone familiar with Western Canadian weather knows that even after two weeks of perfect summer-like conditions, the big change is right around the corner. Arriving in Calgary after a quick and easy drive down the highway known as the QE2, (named after the Queen which I never understood since nobody in Canada knows anything about royalty), we stopped for coffee and soaked up the 28 degree perfection. Almost willing to doubt the enormous provincial wide change in weather they’d been talking about for a week , I cringed at the thought of going from hot summer conditions to freezing rain, sleet, cold wind and two weeks of late winter crap. Hoping our last trip to Calgary during the holidays would be the last time in the cold, my memory of life in the Canadian prairies has apparently faded fast.
Naturally, as if to rub it in our faces that we had clothing only for suitable Malaysian heat and tropical humidity, we somehow time warped into another month, waking up to ominous dark clouds and a temperature fit for making snowmen. Never getting used to the insanely ridiculous weather changes associated with life in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, my body instantly revolted and went into a chilled state of confusion that continues today and probably won’t go away until we leave for Vancouver next week. While the rest of North America enjoys the last week of summer, we’ll be hopping in the car and retreating to the comfort of the warm cozy mall or hitting the gym for some fitness classes.
Although Edmonton has more summer festivals, most people know Calgary thanks to the world-famous Calgary Stampede. Easily the biggest event if the year, the annual rodeo, grandstand shows and carnival attracts thousands of tourists from around the world. Although businesses don’t technically shut down like Chinese New Year in Asian countries, most employees break out some casual western wear and many companies hold pancake breakfasts or other events to celebrate the event. Basically nothing gets done during Stampede Week and I learned from experience that the best time to do any business with the Federal Government is during Stampede Week when the offices are empty and the staff members are happy. Taking advantage of this, I brought my permanent residency application to the office in July, 2001, where a cheerful agent pulled it from a pile of dozens of others, giving me instant residency status and a welcome message of “Welcome to Canada”. Perhaps the fastest landed immigrant in the nation, it took less than two months to become an American expat in Canada
Winding up two weeks spent squaring at Diane’s parents house in Edmonton, Alberta, Diane and I anticipated her mom spending two days cooking a specialty item hardly made by anyone under 60 anymore. In the spirit of an Anthony Bourdain episode in Penang where he visited someone who cooked an obsolete dish practically gone from existence due to the time and effort involved, we ate an item known by different names, depending on who does the speaking. Known as Joong in Cantonese, Zoongi in Mandarin and Bahtzang in Taiwanese, it’s basically sticky rice and a host of interesting items wrapped in a green leaf similar to a banana leaf. Understanding the ingredients takes some poking around and I believe the main items are Chinese sausage, peanuts, pork fat, dried split mung beans, dried shrimp , duck eggs and chestnuts.
Having spent a week in British Columbia and a week in Alberta, I’ve observed how different the two provinces are. Part of the problem with living in Canada is you can’t have your cake and eat it too. Aside from higher taxes in exchange for socialized health care, a GST that raises the price of your Starbucks latte by about 89 cents and the metric system that’s not completely used in consumer products, certain things are strikingly different depending on where you live in this enormous country. In the spirit of the now defunct David Letterman show, here’s my Top 10 List of differences between Alberta and British Columbia.
Whoever said living at home with the in-laws is no fun obviously wasn’t married to an Asian whose father cooked for a living. Having now been in Edmonton for a week, Diane and I have reaped the benefits of living with parents that don’t mind house squatters. Enjoying the amenities, we’ve made some great progress towards getting settled and organized in Malaysia next month, albeit with a one month phone contract that provides hotspot access in this very unconnected internet-free home. With summer approaching, every day feels like two days with the light leaking through the window at about 4:45 AM and darkness setting in somewhere near midnight. Adjusting to “sleeping in” (anything past 6 for me) is difficult for someone used to a routine (what Diane calls “being anal”) but I’m trying to change my habits and prepare for a place where life only begins after sundown due to torrid heat and humidity.
Receiving excellent news the other day, we’re happy to report that our MM2H application has officially been bypassed for “selection of banking verification” a tedious process recently implemented by the Ministry that basically amounts to a triple check of information already provided in the application package. According to our agent, we can expect the approval letter to come through sometime around early August (it would normally be late July but that falls during a period of high holidays and we’re still getting used to the very un-American concept of business and industry shutting down for an entire week). Clearing the way for an early arrival to Penang with expectations of an approval letter about a month later, we’ve decided to keep our plane reservations as-is and search for housing on a three-month tourist entry while the visa makes its way through the ministry’s red tape.
Haggling is not my thing. Come to think of it, almost all white people I know are not very good at this very important skill. Usually unable to bargain the way people in markets around the world do every day, North Americans get accustomed to paying “sale” prices only when TV and media tell them there’s a sale. Knowing how important negotiating prices is when travelling throughout Southeast Asia, I was initially concerned but realized we have an undue advantage that I call “The Ethnic Advantage”. As any white guy married to an Asian will attest, marrying an Asian woman comes with certain benefits not available to Caucasian couples. Almost everything you can buy in Asia comes with a “foreigners price” and a “local price” . Being armed with an Asian wife often means getting prices somewhere in the middle even without haggling.
Unexpectedly, a perfect example of the ethnic advantage arose right here in South Surrey, British Columbia at a local cellular store. Needing accessibility to a wi-fi connection while staying at Diane’s parents old-fashioned and Internet-less home, we shopped around for a “no contract” plan that we can cancel after one month. Using our friend’s old IPhone, we learned of a plan with Bell, one of Canada’s leading cell providers, that allows unlimited Canada wide calling and texting and 10 Mb of data for only $65 per month in exchange for using a Saskatchewan phone number. Satisfying our data needs as well as having an emergency phone while making the 900 mile drive across the province, we went into the local store and explained our situation to a middle-aged Chinese employee. Already having an advantage over the obnoxious kids that work at American cell kiosks and usually have knowledge of absolutely nothing, we expected we’d get what we need with the Chinese guy.