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Living in Southeast Asia: An Expat Speaks Out

Eric Rosenkranz left the United States in 1982 and has since lived in seven countries on four continents. For the first 20 years he worked for a big multinational company that sent him to a new place every few years. In 2004 he went out on his own, starting a strategic consultancy. He’s taken two Asian companies public and worked on everything from a microbrewery in Cambodia to a multi-country digital ad network. He currently splits his time between homes in Singapore and Phuket, Thailand.

Q: What’s one thing most tourists don’t know about where you live?

A: Southeast Asia is incredibly diverse. It has the largest Muslim country in the world (Indonesia), the largest Catholic country in Asia (Philippines), and the largest Buddhist country in the world (Thailand). Singapore is home to all ethnicities where Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs and Confucianists live together in harmony.

Q: What’s the worst culture shock you experienced as you settled into your new home?

A: It’s shocking when you realize not that people are different worldwide, but that they are all the same. No matter what your color, nationality or religion, people everywhere want to raise a family in peace and quiet, love and be loved. Culture shock is the worst when you realize that the jungle native beside you shares your deepest dreams.

Q: Do you find that living in a foreign country makes you a better traveler when you visit other places? If so, how?

A: When you realize that people are the same, you can look beyond superficial trappings and begin to enjoy travel on a deeper level. Seeing the world-famous sights is always exciting, but sharing a meal with a family whose language you don’t speak is equally as fascinating. The more one travels, the more comfortable one gets with the incredible diversity of the world.

Q: Which tourist attraction in Southeast Asia is most overrated, and where should travelers go instead?

A: The two “must-see” places in Southeast Asia are the monumental Buddhist structure of Borobudur in Indonesia and the half Hindu/half Buddhist complex of Angkor Wat in Cambodia. Both of these are UNESCO World Heritage Sites and well worth the hype. Take a boat ride down the Khwae Noi River in Thailand (jump off and float downstream if you like), but avoid the modern day “Bridge Over the River Kwai” in Kanchanaburi, an ugly modern structure bearing no resemblance to the bridge blown up in the classic Alec Guinness movie (which was shot in Sri Lanka!).

Also worth seeing: The “American War” museum in Hanoi, which opens your mind to a different perspective on the Vietnamese conflict of the 1960s. Dive in the Philippines and sit by a log fire in a cottage in the Genting Highlands hills of Malaysia outside Kuala Lumpur.

Q: No one should visit Southeast Asia without tasting __________.

A: Southeast Asian cuisine is best tasted as street food. Every night at 7 p.m. Singapore closes Boon Tat Street to traffic and satay stalls are erected. Get a selection of chicken, prawn and lamb skewers, dip them into peanut sauce, and enjoy them with an ice-cold beer. Have a local take you to a roadside seafood restaurant in Ho Chi Minh City (still called Saigon by those who live there) and eat fresh clams, mussels, prawns and crab with your fingers while sitting on a plastic stool. Eat fried grasshoppers in Manila and spicy papaya salad in Isaan (northeast Thailand).

Q: What’s the toughest thing about being an expat? The most rewarding?

A: The toughest thing about being an expat is when you cannot speak the language and an entire culture is closed off to you. Conversely, the most rewarding time is when you are able to communicate, and share hope and pain and sorrow and dreams with someone of an entirely different upbringing. Even without a common language, it is amazing how well you can get along with just hand signs and a smile.

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