It’s never too late to follow your heart to Asia. Just ask American writer Janet Brown, who went to Bangkok at age 45 to teach English and ended up falling in love with her newfound home (and, for a brief time, a Thai local). She captured this experience in her memoir Tone Deaf in Bangkok, which reads like a valentine to the city and Thailand itself, the country where she feels most at home.
Then Janet returns to Bangkok at 60 and wonders: could she still remain closely connected to her two sons in Seattle and live happily in Thailand at the same time? That’s the question at the heart of her second memoir titled Almost Home, a book where she also explores the possibility of putting down roots in three other Asian locales — Beijing, Hong Kong and Penang.
Not surprisingly, while Janet currently calls Seattle, Washington home, she has just returned to Asia this year for some traveling and hopes to continue her love affair with the continent.
I’m delighted to introduce you to Janet Brown and her writing through this interview. Besides Tone Deaf in Bangkok and Almost Home, Janet is also the author of the forthcoming book Light and Silence: Growing Up in My Mother’s Alaska, which will be out September 1, 2014. You can follow her writer’s notebook at Tone Deaf in Thailand.
You’re currently in Hong Kong and have plans to return to Thailand. It must be exciting to return to two places that feel like second homes to you and reunite with close friends there. What does it feel like to be back?
Coming back to this part of Asia is always like leaving one life to step into another. It’s exhilarating and joyful and a tiny bit exhausting at first, because to enter one life you have to be prepared to completely leave the other, if only for a little while. I think we call this jetlag, but it’s really the effects of time travel.
As you chronicled in Tone Deaf in Bangkok, you fell in love with your Thai language tutor, who was much younger than you. Did your attraction to him surprise you and if so, how?
When I first met the man I fell in love with in Bangkok, I didn’t even think we’d be friends. He was so conservative and quiet, but that turned out to be a professional mask that covered the face of a rebel. I fought the attraction as it grew, telling myself it was one-sided and absurd, concentrating on the work of learning Thai and getting to know the person who was teaching me to speak it. Because of the age difference between us, I was hesitant right up until the moment that he first kissed me.
What did you learn from this brief romance? And what did it feel like to see him years later, as you recalled in your book Almost Home?
I learned that love takes many forms and can be expressed in ways that don’t depend upon a sexual relationship. After our physical intimacy ended, we continued a close and loving friendship up until his death. We met each time I came to Thailand on vacation and stayed in touch through email and photographs. I urged him to marry the woman who became his wife and celebrated the birth of their daughter. Even so, when he first brought his family to see me after I moved back to Bangkok and they came on vacation from Italy, it was much more difficult than I had expected. Although we had become friends, the underpinning of that relationship was still the memory of bodies in a dark room, laughing.
Perhaps the greatest gift he gave me was coming to see me without his family the very last time I saw him, ten months before he died. The bond between us was very strong and very tangible; I feel a deep and inerasable loneliness now that he is no longer in the world.
Where will you spend Chinese New Year? What are your plans?
I’ll be in Bangkok this Chinese New Year, as I was three years ago, on Yaowarat Road in Chinatown as the Lunar New Year celebrations began. It was wildly crowded and I left after an hour of walking and staring. I’d left my phone at home and when I entered my apartment, it rang. “I saw you in Chinatown a couple of hours ago. Why didn’t you answer your phone?” The voice at the other end of the line didn’t surprise me. We always found each other in unlikely circumstances, from the moment we first met. Now I find him in unexpected places, with memories that are so strong that they blot out the world for a minute and once again I’m in another life.
As someone who found a new life, love and adventure in Asia over the age of 45, you’re truly an inspiration. What advice do you have for women over 45 who want to follow in your footsteps, including dating men in Asia?
I think women in their forties now are much more open to adventure than their counterparts were twenty years ago. But to those who think they have to settle into a lackluster middle age, I urge them to take a risk and explore different ways of living—and loving. Skydive, damn it.