“Living the dream: retiring abroad”
About Bernd Linnhoff: journalist, author, expat, blogger
Once chief soccer reporter for German news agencies Sport-Informations-Dienst (SID) and Deutsche Presse-Agentur (dpa), Bernd Linnhoff today publishes popular German blog Faszination Fernost (Fascination Far East), which features interesting, entertaining, and sometimes feuilleton-style articles on culture, travel, and life in Thailand and Southeast Asia.
Linnhoff, who heralds from the German region of Westphalia, lives and works with his wife in Chiang Mai, North-West Thailand. As we chat, Linnhoff shares with us his fascinating life in what is for many of us a very alien world. We also discuss whether the expat life is for everyone, and what you need to consider before making such a life-changing move.
Former soccer royalty
Before embarking on a career in journalism, Linnhoff was a professional soccer player in Germany’s second division, the 2. Bundesliga. Finding the right balance between his proximity to those still playing the game – many of whom he’d played against – and the inner distance necessary for his job was always a challenge for him. But the players did, and could trust him.
Since Linnhoff’s day, the game has become much faster, and the world of soccer more professional. Today, players on the pitch are able to make split-second decisions under the pressure of the game and need to be able to get themselves out of the trickiest of situations. Professional soccer has become something of an art. That’s why Linnhoff still loves watching soccer today.
The reason behind Germany’s 1990 World Cup win
DBJ: How has the profession of sports journalist changed?
Linnhoff: Sports journalists generally used to have a closer relationship with the players. Back then, only a handful of reporters ever travelled with teams to international matches. In 1986, there were just 30 of us at the World Cup in Mexico. As in Spain in 1982, we once again stayed in the same place as the German team, but no one was happy with this arrangement, and so in 1990, Beckenbauer – the German manager – arranged for the team to stay in different accommodation. That was probably one of the main reasons behind Germany’s 1990 World Cup win in Italy!
“My decision to move to Thailand was without doubt the best decision of my life”
DBJ: You subsequently spent a number of years working for yourself, and then, in 2008, you moved to Thailand. What made you decide to do this?
Linnhoff: The first time I went to Thailand was in 1994. I was going through a bit of a rough time and went out there with a colleague for Christmas. I spent four weeks in the Gulf of Thailand, visiting the islands of Koh Samui, Koh Tao, and Phú Quốc. While travelling, I realized just how few material possessions I needed to be happy. I had the most amazing time, and it left a lasting impression on me.
Afterwards, I went to Thailand on vacation every year, usually to the south of the country, but later also sometimes to Bangkok. Every year, I couldn’t wait to go back. To arrive in Phuket, and shortly afterwards be people-watching or dozing on the deck of a ferry, my head on my rucksack, was for me the ultimate freedom. A kind of freedom I’d never experienced before and that I felt an ever-increasing pull toward. Over the years, I also started making more and more friends among the locals.
Then, on New Year’s Eve 2007, I was standing on a friend’s balcony on the 21st floor, looking out over the bright lights of the capital. And that’s when it hit me. I said to myself: “God, there are so many adventures for you to have here, new people to meet, new experiences to enjoy!” That’s when I made my decision. I moved out here nine months later. I celebrated my 60th birthday as a new expat in my new home, Bangkok.
My decision to move to Thailand was without doubt the best decision of my life.
“I wanted to travel light”
DBJ: Did you have to leave much behind in Germany?
Linnhoff: I was single, and so had no ties in that respect. As for my material possessions, I in particular had to leave my over 1,000 books and vast collection of CDs behind. I wanted to travel light – both literally and figuratively. It’s a very strange feeling to close the door in Germany after 60 years of living there, knowing fine well there’s no going back.
The challenge of learning Thai!
DBJ: How well do you think you’ve integrated into life in Thailand?
Linnhoff: I generally know a lot of locals already. My wife’s Thai. By nature, though, I’m not really one for socializing and meeting people. I much prefer the company of my close friends. My two attempts to learn Thai have, admittedly, been a bit of a disaster. The grammar’s relatively easy to learn, but Thai is a very tonal language. So, one word can have completely different meanings depending on the tone. After once calling a mother “horse” because of my poor mispronunciation, I’m very wary about speaking Thai.
Europe isn’t the center of the world here – either on the map or otherwise!
DBJ: What challenges are there with the relationship between expats and the Thais?
Linnhoff: I’m sometimes taken aback when I hear other expats complaining about the Thais. Sometimes there’s a certain feeling of superiority about it. I really don’t understand it when people say things like “The Thais never learn!” Understandably, the Thais get annoyed about it.
Imagine if it was the other way round, and Thai people living in Germany were always criticizing the Germans. I think the Germans would be annoyed, too.
In Western countries, we often tend to think our democracy’s the best and so all countries should follow the same system of government. But the very idea of imposing our democracy on to Thailand 1:1 is ludicrous. It simply wouldn’t work in such a completely different culture. Thailand is a very different world.
And Europe isn’t the center of the world here – either on the map or otherwise!
“Parents often have to rely on their children financially here in their old age”
DBJ: What’s the relationship like between the young and the old in Thailand?
Linnhoff: There’s effectively no old-age pension in Thailand. Parents still often have to rely on their children financially here in their old age. People work until they no longer can or want to work. Then they’re either supported financially by their children or are among the few who’ve managed to put aside some money.
Despite its growing middle class, Thailand is still very much an agricultural country. Just like in other countries, in Thailand, too, lots of young people move away from the countryside to the cities to work and send money back home to support their families. This brings its own set of, new, problems. For example, a young woman coming to Bangkok can earn 12,000 baht (€350) a month working in a supermarket, or triple or quadruple that working in a bar, if you get my drift. Not that I want to make any hasty sweeping judgements here.
“And if you want it badly enough, you can transcend all barriers” (Udo Jürgens)
DBJ: Lots of people secretly dream of moving to another country one day and making a fresh start. How can they know for sure that living in a foreign country, like Thailand, will be right for them?
Linnhoff: For some people, the main motivation behind their decision to move abroad is a rational one – for financial reasons, for example, because the cost of living is lower in the host country.
Most people, though – me included – start thinking about moving abroad because they feel an intense pull to live in another country. As Austrian singer and songwriter Udo Jürgens put it: “And if you want it badly enough, you can transcend all barriers.”
You need to think carefully about what you want and need. If you can, it’s a good idea to first spend three or four months in the place you want to move to. It’s always far easier to cope with a different culture when you’re on vacation than when you’re actually living there. In everyday life, Asian cultures are in many respects very different to western European cultures, and these are things you don’t necessarily notice on vacation.
Expats usually go through five stages before they feel at home in their new country.
- Culture shock
For me, this cycle went on for two to three years. Each stage has its positives. But none are necessarily obstacles. Many Europeans, Americans, and myself too are happy here and feel at home.
“This is Thailand – if you’re looking for an ‘ordinary’ life, then Thailand’s perhaps not the country for you”
DBJ: Throughout our conversation, it’s become clear that Thailand is a completely different world. To finish off, could you give us a few examples to illustrate this?
Linnhoff: I like bizarre things. And bizarre things happen a lot here. If you’re looking for an ‘ordinary’ life, then Thailand’s perhaps not the country for you. A lot of foreigners experience things that take them by surprise – me, too, of course. Here are three examples:
When tradition comes first
My wife and I were sat on the floor for a special dinner at the home of some family friends. Our host was preparing by hand a bite-size portion of fish and rice especially for me. I could tell even from quite far away that it was incredibly spicy and would be far too hot for me. I looked to my wife for help, but she didn’t react. I ended up having to get out of eating it myself. Later, my wife explained to me that she hadn’t been able to help me because it would have gone against Thai culture and tradition, according to which a woman cannot speak for a man older than her in such situations. What I wanted or needed right then obviously came second here.
When names bring luck
Naming conventions follow some very special rules in Thailand: If you feel like things aren’t going very well for you, you can change your name, in the hope that your new name will bring you better luck. You can change your last name, too, but your family must choose a name not already taken by another family. Two families cannot have the same last name.
When twins ‘get married’ to be able to live separate lives
In ancient Siam, Buddhism and animism (belief in spirits) coexisted peacefully. Today, Thai people are still very much interested in the supernatural. For example, parents of mixed-sex twins organize a kind of wedding ceremony for their children when they’re about two or three years old. It’s believed that brother and sister were lovers in a past life, but that their relationship, for whatever reason, ended before they could get married. Through their birth, they’ve been given another chance of finding fulfilling love. Holding the marriage ceremony ensures that brother and sister will live a life free of bad luck in the future – separate from each other.
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