Unlearning Everything You Know Is Part of Becoming An Expat
As an expat or even just a traveler passing by, you have to unlearn old habits from your home country, and relearn new habits in your new country. Not doing this can result in comedic mistakes or disastrous consequences.
On a lively night in Bangkok last March, I realized I was running out of cash and need to withdraw more baht. I head over to an ATM, insert my card, select English as the language, withdraw my money, and saunter off to the nearest party.
Only before I got there, I realized I had forgotten my debit card. I ran back to the ATM, and sure enough, there was no card sticking out. The ATM must have eaten it. Plus the bank was closed and wouldn’t reopen until the next morning.
Then I remembered a warning from my friend, who told me to be careful with the ATMs. They dispense the money first, and the card last. I was not used to the order of what gets dispensed first — in the US, ATMs dispense the card first, and then the cash.
Whenever I travel, I always bring two debit cards. One primary and one backup. Okay, I thought, so I’ll just use my backup card to tide me over until I either get my card back or pick up a new one in the mail when I get home.
But, as I had that thought, an ominous sense of foreboding came over me.
I pulled my wallet out. Is my backup debit card in there? Opened the wallet. I saw two credit cards, a drivers license, and an insurance card. But no debit card. My pulse starts racing faster. I frantically searched my pant pockets, pulled all my cards and cash out of my wallet, went through each card again, and searched every slot in my wallet. Nope. Nothing.
I had planned to bring two debit cards and one credit card on my trip. But one of my credit cards looked almost identical to my backup debit card, so I must have taken that second credit card by mistake.
I stand in front of the ATM, horrified and dejected. I’m pissed at myself for forgetting my friend’s warning. I could hardly breathe. I broke out into a cold sweat, despite the weather being 95 degrees (35°C) with 95 percent humidity.
All kinds of questions flooded into my mind
What if I run out of money?
What do I do now?
Was my other debit card stolen?
How am I going to get cash to pay for the rest of my trip? I have two and a half weeks left!
Do all places I plan to visit accept credit cards?
I should be okay at restaurants with credit cards only, so at least I probably won’t starve. But what about taxis? What do I do if I don’t have any cash?!
I started texting my friend who was also in Bangkok. I was freaking out and we were talking about him loaning me some cash which I’d pay back online through PayPal. I hated the idea of inconveniencing my friend, and hated the idea of borrowing money even more. He laughingly gave me shit for losing my debit card; he usually knows me as a super organized guy. Not wanting to borrow money, I told him I’d try to get my card back when the bank reopened the next morning.
It was past 3 am, and the bank opened at 7 am. No matter, the stress of losing my only debit card would prevent me from sleeping that night.
At about 6:30 am the next morning, I returned to the bank and staked the place out for half an hour until the employees approached the door. A man and two young girls. I planted myself between them and the door, and tried to explain the situation. Noticing they looked confused, I asked them if they spoke any English.
They shook their heads, “mai” (Thai for “no”).
I started reenacting the whole scenario: insert card in ATM, take money out, pretend to walk away, slap my forehead with a surprised expression on my face, drew a rectangular shape the size of an ATM card in the air, and pleadingly pointed to the ATM.
When they all lit up with comprehension, the man turned to the two girls, pointed to the ATM, and barked an order. My heart leaped, happy they understood what I was gesturing.
The girls opened the ATM and pulled out one card.
It was mine
Nightmare over. Lesson learned.
The next time I used an ATM I would stop myself for five seconds, saying to myself “remember to get your debit card back before you leave”, before proceeding with the ATM transaction. After almost two weeks in my new country, I still do this.