November 12, 2010

Better expat living through technology

I don't discuss expat life in Thailand much on this blog, probably because there are others who discuss it more insightfully and entertainingly, like my pal Greg (of Bangkok Podcast and Greg to Differ fame).

Lately, though, I've been thinking about the subject. Even when you speak the language, as I do, and get used to (most of) the quirks of your adoptive culture, life in a foreign country can still be difficult.

I've always liked technology, but I've never been an early adopter, nor had the budget for many gadgets. I bought my first iPod in 2007, and my first smart phone, an iPhone 4, not even two months ago. I also bought a Kindle 3 around the same time.

These new additions to my growing gadget collection made me stop and consider how technology has really improved my quality of life as an expat in small but remarkable ways.

Here are a few of ways that technology improves my life in the big, foreign city:

The daily grind: I have a 30-40 minute commute in the morning, and often longer at night. The ease of the iPod for loading podcasts and audiobooks really makes that time fly. Before I owned an iPod I used to download mp3 files for podcasts and burn them to disc to play in my car stereo. I know, right?

Living outside the US also means, if the entertainment cartels have their way at least, missing out on excellent services like Pandora, Rdio, and Radio (that last one you can get here, but it's not free like in the US). Thanks to VPNs, I can tunnel through to use these services when I really want to. I even use a VPN service on my iPhone, so I can use Pandora or Rdio on there. But it's still kind of a hassle, and the VPN connection cuts out sometimes. [Dear Thai government: I was just joking about using VPNs. Everybody knows those are illegal here and of course I would never, ever actually use one. *twitch*]

Literally two days ago, though I found another service that solves my longstanding problem of having a huge music library, but having no desire to take the time to divide it into playlists, or swap music in and out of my iPod/iPhone. The service is Audiogalaxy, and what it does is simple: it streams your music from your computer to your iOS (or Android) device. As of yesterday, I now have my full music library (100GB+) at my fingertips anywhere in Bangkok. This blows my mind. It's a game changer for me, and pretty much the definition of a killer app.

Social life: Sometimes I feel like I'm simultaneously a misanthrope and a social butterfly. Despite being married with two kids, I enjoy my alone time. But I do miss hanging out with friends from back home. Bangkok is my wife's hometown, so her high school, college, work friends -- they're mostly all still in Bangkok. It's an enviable situation that even people in the US don't really enjoy. One of the perks of a one-big-city country. Bangkok is the center of the Thai universe, and a sort of black hole that sucks everyone to it, to boot.

How does this relate to technology? One word: Twitter. Before Twitter I was much more of a solitary expat. I had friends but I didn't see or really even communicate with them that much. I've never lived in downtown Bangkok, and I've never frequented the Bangkok social scene. Never really been my style. This has started to change ever-so-slightly, though. Thanks to Twitter I've met quite a lot of great people who I don't think I would've met otherwise, and some have become my good friends. (There are still a few positions available--just fill out this form and submit an 8x10 glossy headshot if you want to apply.)

Keeping in touch: Obviously email, blogging, Facebook and all of that help me keep in touch with my family and friends from back home. But those are old hat. It's Skype that has really changed the way I communicate. Nowadays I use Skype-In to rent a local US number in my hometown, and use a little USB connector to hook my Skype up to an actual phone in my house in Bangkok. Now I have a number that anyone in the US can use to call me at home, and when I'm not there Skype forwards the call to my cell phone. It's pretty incredible, and it costs me single-digit dollars per month.

Not only Skype, though, but just having a smart phone makes it easier to keep in regular touch. A few weeks ago day my daughter was singing to herself and made up a cute song about her younger brother. I busted out my iPhone, opened the voice recorder app, and recorded it on the spot. From there, I edited out a few seconds on either side, and with another click or two I had emailed the clip to Grandma back in the US. It's not that I couldn't do any of this stuff before, but I just didn't because I'm lazy and it wasn't simple enough.

I'm also surprised by how much I dig video chat on my shiny new iPhone. My bestest friend since I was a dork-tastic 8-year-old recently got an iPhone 4, too, and while he and I would occasionally chat or call each other before, it's a totally different beast to be able to have a face-to-face conversation with him anywhere I go (that has wifi). It's been pretty great, and helps to quell the occasional uprising of mild homesickness. I hope Apple opens up the protocol to other devices. (In the meantime Tango offers cross-platform video chat, though.)

To sum up, none of this stuff I can do now is bleeding edge tech, it's just the convergence of many cool technologies that make life better, and make Bangkok seem a lot less far away from home.


  1. cause that's how we roll in the Big City Rikker !!

  2. I find that, by a long way, the most useful piece of technology available to me as an ex-pat is the Kindle app on my iPad.

    In the miserable old days (i.e. anytime before I succumbed to temptation in Siam Paragon in February) I'd have to make ridiculously inconvenient trips to crappy second hand bookstores, often tucked away in some godforsaken basement in the wrong neighbourhood of the wrong city of the wrong country, and I'd invariably find that my options were limited to Bravo Two Zero and dog-eared editions of the Lonely Planet.

    Last year I found myself living in Mongolia for a while, working on a charity rally that brought several hundred westerners to Ulaanbaatar. I put out word that everyone involved in the rally should leave the books they'd read on the long journey out so I could build a basic library at our headquarters. Naturally, I ended up with a huge pile of bloody Jeremy Clarkson books good only for kindling.

    Flash forward to today. I'm sitting in my apartment in Chiang Mai with a little hardback-sized device next to me that's loaded with a couple of hundred novels, guide books, non-fiction... anything I want to read is a couple of clicks away. A book released half a world away yesterday can be in my hands today. Before this, the lack of English language literature was one of the biggest problems with expat life, so this little device has had an enormous impact.

  3. Yes, I love the whole Kindle ecosystem. And the recent addition of free library borrowing via one's hometown local library is a great addition. (I'd read that this was coming, so I signed up for a library card in my hometown the last time I was in the US.)

    I especially love the WhisperSync feature, which syncs your current page between the Kindle itself, the Kindle apps, and the cloud reading app.