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Confessions of a Thai tai |


Confessions of a Thai tai

KISS ASS - Ana G. Kalaw - The Philippine Star

For the longest time, my career defined who I was. I was editor, fashion director, stylist. Stripped of these titles, I wasn’t so sure who I was anymore.

I am a cliché. I left my job, my career, my family and my country to be with the man I love. I left Manila to “move” to Bangkok, where I had no job, no visa, no plans. What I had were two suitcases filled with sundresses to battle the Bangkok heat, and the conviction that I was doing the right thing for our relationship.

It was good the first few weeks. I stayed in my pajamas the whole day and trolled Facebook and Instagram nonstop. I read books on my iPad and watched so many of the TV shows that I had missed out on the last 10 years.

I channeled energy into making a good home for my partner, even if I didn’t know the first thing about keeping house. Though I had moved out of my parents’ home when I was 24, I always had the benefit of live-in help. I’d wake up to breakfast on the table and come home to a made-up bed and folded, freshly-laundered clothes. When I came to live with him in Bangkok, my boyfriend asked if I wanted someone coming in thrice a week to do the cleaning. I declined, figuring that tackling domesticity should help keep me challenged and busy.

I slapped on sunscreen and explored Bangkok. I went to the malls, haunted the bargain markets and sampled the city’s street food. I met up with friends and family visiting the city.

I had become that woman I used to roll my eyes at: a stay-at-home partner with an allowance. Girl friends teasingly called me “Thai tai.” A few expressed how lucky I was to be with a man who was willing to provide for me enough that I wouldn’t have to work anymore. I was having fun, treating everything as a new experience, living life as an extended holiday.

And then boredom set in. I began to feel restless despite living in an extremely lively and energetic city. After weeks of visiting the same malls and watching the same shows on cable, I started to question my decision to leave everything behind for a life that yet had to promise certainty.

I may not have had the greatest job in the world back in Manila, but it was a very cool one. I interviewed people, some of them celebrities; I dressed up cover girls, I attended events, I reviewed fashion shows, I collaborated with creative people. I was part of an industry that was quite small and intimate. Everybody knew everybody. I was comfortable.

People would ask me what I did in Bangkok and I would tell them I was a freelance writer. Sometimes, if I was feeling cheeky, I’d say, “Oh, lots. I wash dishes, load the washing machine, clean toilets, do groceries…” Later on, however, the joke started to grate on my own nerves.

For the longest time, my career defined who I was. I was editor, fashion director, stylist. Stripped of these titles, I wasn’t so sure who I was anymore.

Dependency began to eat me up; idleness started to feed my insecurities. I remember having brunch with my circle of friends here in Bangkok. The conversation turned to long weekends and holiday breaks. All of them were working as expats here in Bangkok and were anticipating getting off work and going away for the weekends. One of my friends, probably noticing that I had gone quiet and probably wanting to engage me in the conversation, quipped, “Of course, for Ana, every day is like a holiday.” I know she said it teasingly, innocently and without any smidgen of malice, but it still hit me hard. I felt useless and insignificant, like some sort of living doll with wide, glassy eyes and a perma-smile.

The hardest part was not earning my own money. Although I was still writing for some publications and was still doing styling projects when I would fly back to Manila, the money I earned was usually just enough to pay for flights and living expenses. Beyond that, I was still dependent on my boyfriend. It was a thought that didn’t settle in nicely. I had been paying for all my personal expenses since I was 22.  If I wanted to buy shoes, I saved up on my salary. If I wanted to travel, I worked my ass off for it.  I was independent for nearly 10 years before coming to Bangkok, and it bothered me that I had to rely on someone else’s money if I wanted to fly to Hong Kong to visit my friends or if I wanted to buy the latest shade of lipstick.

I cringed through my whole spiel the first time I asked if I could use “the money in the drawer” to buy a dress for an occasion. My boyfriend was surprised that I would even ask. That money, as far as he was concerned, was for me to use as I wanted. He was always generous and gracious about things. Even so, the asking never became easier. I was always conscious of being indebted, always worried that I was getting beyond what I was due. I was grateful, but found it terribly difficult to say “thank you.”  

I tried applying for jobs. But in Bangkok, my line of work seemed to be reserved for “native English speakers.” When I finally did get a reply, I was informed that I was over-qualified for the job. I became even more despondent. 

The breakdown was inevitable. I was feeling particularly sentimental one night (and was probably PMS-ing too) and found myself crying to my boyfriend about how much I missed my family, my dog, my friends and my work in Manila. He was very supportive, but couldn’t really do much except offer to pay for my flights back home.

I knew I was being unfair to him. I should have been happy that I was not enduring a long-distance relationship, and that I was with a man who made sure I didn’t want for anything. I envied those women who found it so easy to make the jump from career woman to housewife, while I struggled with some misguided sense of loss.

Six months after I came to Bangkok, I had lunch with a friend who lived in the city. She managed a retail company that distributed fashion accessories in Thailand and all around Southeast Asia, and asked if I could help them market their products in the Philippines.

It was the trigger I needed to quit with the self-pitying act and pull myself together. I have a university education and experience to back me up and I used these along with 10 years worth of networking in Manila’s fashion industry to set up something that was both new and familiar.

I spoke to other women who did the same thing I did, and took some form of comfort in how they managed to turn their lives in another direction. Makeup artist Barbi Chan-Friebel, who moved to Europe and eventually to Malaysia to be with her expat spouse, is an inspiration. Aside from still doing makeup, she is now distributing dermal masks from Korea to beauty stores in the Philippines.

A friend told me that, when it comes to relationships, “You can lose your career but you must never lose yourself.” It is advice I took to heart. I started collaborating with friends on ideas and possible long-term projects. While I wait for investments to flourish, I continue to write — I am happy that it is at least one part of myself that I can take with me wherever I go. With the help of a friend, I also started contributing to a major English publication in Bangkok.

It may have involved a bit of drama and some emotional upheaval but I finally came to terms with my decision to leave Manila and what I wanted at this point in my life (and it doesn’t necessarily entail being a top-level editor). It used to be easy measuring my self-worth based on the salary I made, the number of events I got invited to, and the amount of press junkets I attended, but I have since learned to find pride in my ability to take whatever comes my way and making the most of it. It’s as if I have gone back to school; every experience can only prepare me for a different kind of future.

I have also finally accepted how lucky I am to be with a man who is willing to provide for me while I road-test my new life goals, one of which includes finally learning how to cook. My boyfriend, who works as a chef in a hotel, is teaching me how to properly chop onions, how to flip food in a pan, and how to trust my instincts and my palate. Though I’m far from being a gourmet chef, I am in a good place knowing that I can prepare something that we can both enjoy. When in the past an achievement would have been a really great interview with a celebrity or a well-received magazine cover, now it’s a perfectly-cooked French fry.

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