Gazing out from my ninth floor balcony in the heart of Chiang Mai, it is interesting to reflect on how we ended up retiring to a remote city in Northern Thailand half a world away from my family in Eastern Canada. How did my career path lead me to this part of the world and why have we chosen to resettle here as opposed to living a blissful life in Canada for our last few decades? Unlike many expats, we didn’t jump from North America to Thailand; it has been a long and winding path.
When I started my chemistry teaching career back in the early 70s, retirement was the furthest thing from my mind. And my only exposure to Southeast Asia at that point in my life had been the constant assault on the senses by the television coverage of the Vietnam War, a few years earlier. Actually, living in this part of the world never crossed my mind…. ever.
I have always been one to live for the moment. Five years into a successful career, I quit to the surprise of my colleagues and returned to school to study ceramic arts for a couple of years at the Banff School of Fine Arts. Suffice it to say that what began as a hobby soon turned into a passion that I was driven to follow. For the next ten years, I worked as a full-time studio potter on beautiful Vancouver Island, an experience that was to influence the rest of my life on so many levels, but that is another story. Although probably my first financially irresponsible moment on the path to retirement, it would not be my last! I wouldn’t have traded those wonderful years for anything, especially monetary gains.
When my two sons entered the picture, economics was only one of the deciding factors that put me back in the classroom. As rewarding and romantic as it sounds, the time-consuming novelty of being a starving artist wears thin when children arrive! For the next twenty years, I was again part of the “system”. I did my part as teacher, department head, and local union president, and loved it all. The British Columbia Teachers’ Federation has one of the best pension plans in Canada, if not the world. With a Canada Pension Plan, Social Security and teacher pension, we were looking forward to a well-funded retirement. However, as they say,”S**t happens!”.
Soon after I turned 50, I went through a divorce and lost about one-third of my pension and half the equity of our country home. But that is another story that I have already written about! My comfortable future disappeared before my eyes! Ten years from retirement is not a good time to deal with the aftermath of a divorce. But it didn’t take long to bounce back and develop a new picture of the future.
A few years later, I met my current wife, Nancy, online. It wasn’t even a relationship site, but only a chat site where members from around the world came together a couple of times each week to talk about life in their part of the world. While chatting one evening soon after we had met, I jokingly asked her if she would like to join me on a motorcycle tour across Canada. At that point, I didn’t even own a motorcycle! She accepted the invitation and the rest is history! Six months later, we headed out on my new 1500cc cruiser for our first “trip of a lifetime”. Over the next few years, we managed to chalk up over 50 000 km of cruising mileage throughout Canada and the United States. We have been together now for almost ten years and married for seven.
Two years after we got together, I received a phone call in the middle of a cold, Canadian winter night asking if I would like to teach Science in China. Without a lot of thought, and with much encouragement from Nancy, I agreed to take on the position. I had spent a year teaching in Scotland a decade earlier and realized what an incredible experience it is to live overseas for an extended period. This was probably another irresponsible action in terms of retirement planning! The sensible thing to do at that point would have been to stay in my current job, thereby contributing another ten years to my pension fund and ensuring a financially sound retirement. But come on, giving up a chance to move halfway around the world for a new series of unknown adventures, I don’t think so.
My history of financial irresponsibility continued as we sold or gave away all our possessions, except what we decided to bring with us. Within three weeks, we had both left our respective jobs and moved from our small rural town of five thousand to a city of over ten million. During our six years in China, we had the opportunity to travel throughout many parts of the country as well as nearby Southeast Asia destinations; Hong Kong, Macau, Malaysia, Indonesia, Japan and Thailand. We fell in love with Asia and all its idiosyncrasies.