My family and I anticipated a lot of new experiences when we embarked on the adventure of a lifetime and moved to Bangkok from Highlands Ranch, Colorado, in December 2018. But a pandemic? Definitely not on our radar.
Since mid-January we’ve felt as if we were on the front line. At times it’s been frightening to navigate this crisis while living in a country that in some ways has become so familiar, but is largely still very foreign to us. I’ve bounced through a range of emotions in the last few months. Disbelief. Anger. Fear. Sadness. Frustration. More fear. But I also know that we are incredibly lucky to have remained healthy thus far.
In early January I remember reading about a mysterious pneumonia-like illness that was sickening people in Wuhan, China. Something flickered in the back of my mind. If this disease began spreading, as the article suggested, I knew we’d be at high risk for exposure.
We live in the heart of the No. 1 most visited city in the world. I’m surrounded by tourists in my daily life at stores and on public transportation. My two children attend an international school with students and staff who travel widely.
It hit me: We simply wouldn’t have the luxury of ignoring this as something happening far, far away.
Thailand did have the first reported case outside of China in mid-January. For a few days, the numbers grew and reports said Thailand was poised for an outbreak. Although we tried to push it aside, panic started to creep into our lives. “How would Thailand handle a health crisis?” we worried.
A little more than a year into our expat life, we are far from having an intimate understanding of how things work here. We felt overwhelmed by the vast unknowns in front of us. Living in a foreign country—and a developing one at that—forces you to adapt and accept things in ways you just cannot fully prepare for.
Seemingly overnight, hand sanitizer and face masks disappeared from stores. Temperature checks at school, office buildings and shopping malls began. School events were canceled. Although many, including us, wear face masks because of the air pollution, everyone started wearing them indoors as well. Even at school. Worse, just when the virus seemed to be ramping up, the air pollution was at dangerous levels. We simply didn’t have the option to “get fresh air” to aid in staying healthy.
We tried to remain calm for the sake of our kids, but it was difficult. Dinner conversation revolved around “virus talk,” as our kids shared questions and concerns. We always tried to keep the conversations fact-based and not speculate, but believe me, my mind runs off into worst-case what-if scenarios all the time. My top concern is water. Tap water isn’t safe to drink here. What if the situation gets so dire that we no longer have access to safe drinking water? This fear is frequently top of mind.
“Will we be OK?” I asked myself again and again, as the weeks passed and things got more volatile by the day.
Compounding our anxiety was a planned trip to Colorado in early April. Eagerly anticipated, it was to be the first visit back to the U.S. for me and the kids since moving here. For weeks we agonized over whether to make the trip (my father-in-law is terminally ill, which made our decision that much more difficult), reading daily updates and knowing we’d likely be forced into quarantine at either end, or worse, be stranded somewhere.
By the time we made the decision to cancel the trip, the virus seemed to have made the decision for us. Things had become so bad in the U.S. that we didn’t want to go anymore. When we first moved to Bangkok, the idea of feeling safe here felt like the most foreign concept of all. And yet, there are moments when I catch myself thinking that I’d rather face this pandemic here than in the U.S. — the federal government has simply made one too many gross missteps for my comfort.
This isn’t to say that I’m at ease being here. Far from it. Some days I feel downright terrified. As a trained journalist, I want the facts, and they can be difficult to discern (and there is government censorship as well). We’ve also got the language barrier. Just a few days ago we received a notice that our entire apartment building was under forced quarantine. Thankfully, the message was an error, “lost in translation,” but not before we went into a sheer panic—and downed a bottle of wine in record time (might as well enjoy the quarantine we told ourselves!).
The number of cases has started rapidly increasing here, so the government took drastic action a week ago. In Bangkok, schools closed, as did restaurants, though they can still offer takeaway and delivery. A few days later all stores had to close except grocery stores and pharmacies. And just last week Thailand went into a state of emergency until April 30, which means that these measures now apply to the whole country.
In addition, travel into Thailand is shut down and travel within the country is discouraged. Songkran, Thailand’s most important holiday, has been canceled. It’s a little like canceling Christmas.
The good news? My kids are taking virtual school in stride and my husband still has a job (he works for a Thai hotel company, and the industry’s been hit hard worldwide).
I also draw immense strength from my friends here. Some are from countries like Spain and France, which have suffered badly, and yet these friends still smile and find joy in each day. Yes, we are all scared. Scared for ourselves. Scared for our loved ones back home and around the world. We all question if we should stay here or return to our home countries while we can.
We all moved here for different reasons, with different goals, with different dreams. Now we are thrown into this experience together, tossed around, some days not knowing which way is up. And when this is all over our bond will be stronger than ever. We’ll gather to talk about how we survived COVID-19 while living in Bangkok.
We’ll be okay. And I’ll bring the wine.
Susan Gerstenzang is a Colorado native currently living in Bangkok.