Emigration is a mix of fear, excitement, waiting, tears, and an accelerated exchange of goods.
In 1999 my family sold all of their possessions and flew across Atlantic to Toronto. Since then I’ve lost a significant amount of my Russian identity and gained a prodigious dose of Canadiana. I kept my Canadian element wholly as my wife and I made a semi-permanent home in Asia, where we lived as expats for the past five years. At times, this history made answering “Where are you from?” somewhat tricky.
In Chiang Mai, our semi-permanent home in Asia, my wife and I were farangs (Thai slang for “foreigners”). Accepted and well-integrated, mostly liked, but never Thai.
July 1st, 2018. We’re sitting on plasticky, slick chairs at the airport, six o’clock in the morning. Waiting for our flight to Bangkok.
The suitcase is making rounds on a conveyer belt, underground, towards the airplane’s underbelly. In it, there are all of our clothes that didn’t fit into backpacks, a thick stack of exposed film and three cameras; photo albums, shoes, and all of our non-immediate documents, including a marriage certificate written in Thai.
Everything else is sold or given away.
We are “homeless” again. No bed to call our own, no permanent address. Close friends, coworkers, familiar routes, coffee shops, restaurants — all now beyond our reach. Sinking into long-term memory.
The boarding gate opens. We pass our tickets to the attendant and board the plane.
Stopover in Bangkok.
We land in Bangkok. A hot, busy metropolis with skyscrapers, open sewers, malls, and tuk-tuks.
Daily strolls and taxi boat rides take some pressure off our wary minds. It’s too early to feel truly worried, but there is a lot of inherent uncertainty about our ability to earn a living in Canada.
We count the days left until our savings run dry at the back of our minds as we walk, talk, eat and photograph.
A few days of Bangkok stay passed and gone. We pack our bags, check the hotel bedsheets for forgotten items and book a cab to Suvarnabhumi international airport five hours ahead of the scheduled flight.
In the cab, slothing through wavering traffic, I stare at the passing streets, trying to sum up how I got to where I am.
March 2013. Plumes of rolling dust at an empty Toronto apartment as I make runs to the garbage room, tossing paper and random items that didn’t sell on Craigslist. A signed release with the landlord, a backpack and a flight to Dalian. Hopping from city to city along northeastern China, taking detours to Japan, Korea, Hong Kong. Resuming the passage through Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, until the end of savings via sleeper buses and crammed, dusty trains. Refusing to go back to Canada, finding temp jobs, working on a laptop out of coffee shops, growing a business, taking job trips to Toronto, LA, New York, San Francisco. Getting married, having friends and family over, proudly showing around my hometown, Chiang Mai. Signing rental agreement, owning my first motorcycle, road trips, and more travel; Myanmar, Laos, Malaysia, Singapore, Taiwan, Sri Lanka…
Finally, our driver pulls up to the airport’s entrance gate.
I slump our suitcase onto the scale, nervously watching the numbers climb over the allowed twenty kilograms. We step aside and shuffle through neatly-packed boxes, a folded tailor suit I bought in Hoi An and my wife’s wedding dress. We redistribute the green leather shoes stuffed with socks and a bag of shrink-wrapped t-shirts into the travel backpack and line up again behind an unhealthily-tanned Japanese gentleman with a bagged surfboard.
The long, winding line through the immigration checkpoint is concluded with a smack of the departure stamp. A definite end of a life as an expat in Southeast Asia. Noted, July 11th, 2018.
We board our the plane for Haneda international airport, Tokyo, at midnight. I watch movies, complain about back pains, stretch, spend some time on a sky-high toilet and sleep for thirty minutes.
Stopover in Tokyo.
Tokyo is incredibly hot. The air feels much drier than in Bangkok, the heat is just as punishing.
I drag the suitcase across the uneven tiling of a subway station towards an elevator. It’s out of service. Shit.
A little disappointed at the amount of baggage on us, but I know we couldn’t bring any less. Five years ago I was able to fit a vacuum bag of clothes, toiletries, and a digital camera with prime, zoom, and wide-angle lenses (along with my Diana Mini) into a single backpack. That’s all there was to my name, with exception of the two guitars and a winter coat at my mom’s house. This time we’ve got more clothes, more toiletries, and a few film cameras along with developed images and negatives. We’ve also got the final destination marked; no longer roaming freely across counties, no need to conserve every gram for mobility.
Japan is our last mini-adventure for the foreseeable future. We’re less than a week away from our new home.
Our hotel is clean, friendly, and uncomfortable. One would expect a capsule to have some sort of a door, if not an air-tight hatch. Alas, there isn’t as much privacy as I’d hoped for, though a significant improvement over four dozen bunk beds across Asia and US I’ve slept on while traveling.
Amidst all of the stress associated with an impending profound life change ahead, we are thrilled to be in Tokyo, as most tourists are.
With luck, we meet Chi, a friend and a film photographer. We exchange gifts and chat over a nice, casual dinner.
Shopping, parks, camera stores with old men simultaneously admiring my Voigtländer film camera and annoyed at the fact that it, along with my mint-condition leather case manufactured in West Germany over sixty years ago, is brushing against my sweaty t-shirt. All in a thirty-degree heat. Tokyo is undoubtedly tiresome, still I find it to be tremendous fun non the less.
I take lots of photos as I feel justified by the occasion to expose my, now discontinued, Agfa Vista and Neopan Acros 35mm rolls. In Japan, it’s not difficult to spot novelty worthy of exposure for even the stingiest frame spenders.
Back at the capsule hotel, lying on institutional bedsheets, having no clear idea of what the next day, let alone next week would bring. I’m happy, my mind filled to the brim with new visuals, sights, tastes, and experiences.
Twenty-eight thousand (counted) steps did a number on my feet; I’m tired and have no difficulty falling asleep in a weird plastic tube.
In 2012, Betty and I made a pact to take our savings and spend them on travel. A few years after graduation we felt at a point when we had to choose whether to pursue careers and a mortgage in Toronto or leave and do something else.
The recent decision to leave our Thai expat life behind and go back to Canada felt uneasy. After taking on a romantic identity of travellers who’ve found a personal happy hideout, far, far away from home — we relocate. Though jagged, our migratory trajectory, a path of stop-and-go, is deliberate and satisfyingly opposite of stagnation; with time, we make peace with our own aggressive steering manoeuvres.
Vancouver is a stunningly beautiful city, full of rugged contrast, opportunity, and new challenges. And it’s only eight hours away from Tokyo. Our final flight.
Our first distant trip as a couple, as in one that requires airplane travel, was to Cancun in 2010. Vancouver 2011 was our next major adventure that took planning and discovery to the next level.
Seven years ago we boarded a plane to visit Betty’s relatives and school friends in Canada’s westmost province. The city felt remarkably distinct from Toronto. Surrounded by mountains on all sides, located next to the ocean, with different franchise restaurants and grocery stores, and unique urban culture. Since we were on a limited-time visit I took my tiny plastic film camera and photographed two subjects which I felt were most remarkable, and extreme opposites. The notorious Downtown Eastside “Four Blocks of Hell” neighbourhood and the majestic coastal mountains.
Seven years past, the city didn’t seem to have changed. With an exception of an increased density of condominiums, as expected.
Our rent at a newly-built apartment building not too far from downtown Chiang Mai cost roughly three hundred dollars per month. In Vancouver, we got a single room in a house with a shaky bed and a leaky communal kitchen faucet — for more than double the price. Which feels like the best deal in town. The job hunt, fuelled by the growing discomforts of our new place and the diminishing savings account has entered a new feverish phase.
To help battle the seemingly endless dance of rejections, applications, tests, interviews, and coffee meetings we spend the weekends as tourists in and around our new town.
Downtown trips; camera stores, thrift shops, coffee shops, photo walks.
Under the SkyTrain tracks in Burnaby, and all around the city, wild bushes of blackberries yield an endless supply of delicious fruit. A day of picking, an evening of making delicious jam and washing purple-stained t-shirts.
Another week of grinding, coding, studying, emails, invites, phone calls ends with a road trip to Squamish and a thirty-kilometre uphill hike through the stunningly-beautiful pine forests.
On the way up with friends, we chat about culture shock, changing diet, and acclimatization.
Culture shock did not manifest this time. Canada is a society I truly define as my own. Though painful at first, our flight to Vancouver got a lot cozier when I heard the stewardess walk from isle to isle, comically repeating “sorry” to every passenger. They were out of chicken; I felt a little closer to home. The first meal upon landing was a burnt Tim Hortons coffee with a bowl of poutine and a side of a doughnut, shaped like a maple leaf. Good to be back.
Nineteen years ago, mom, dad, and our fox terrier struggled through customs at Pierson International Airport. It felt definite that we have come to live a better life. Though I have no way of telling what would the living be like should I have never left Moscow; that flight has shaped me.
The gruelling culture shock of 1999 resettlement from Moscow to Toronto knocked me to my knees. An abrupt end to my childhood, as the new responsibilities, worries, and alienation piled on. I struggled with basic English, the family struggled with finances. I made calls to service providers, government agencies and watched our bank accounts dry up. And in downtime I waited for a phone to ring, perhaps by chance, with a friend on the other end — it hasn’t.
Though possible, it’s doubtful that I will ever feel the weight of moving to a different country as heavily as I have then. In part due to age and experience, international friendships, internet, and because I’ve learned to read, write, and speak English, tying it all together. The closest thing we have to a universal language.
It’s been three months since we landed in Vancouver. I got a job as a web developer for a small med-tech company, we moved to a nice apartment with a view onto cloud-wrapped coastal mountains.
It’s busy, beautiful, cold. I miss Thailand. We are settling into the mundane at yet another incredible city; growing roots — but not too deep.