The expat experience
Situated in the Thai highlands not far from Myanmar and Laos, Chiang Mai is home to around 130,000 inhabitants, and its balmy climate and low cost of living have made it a top destination for expatriates, including digital nomads and retirees. According to some estimates, there are about 40,000 expats living in the city, many of whom are from the United States.
Since 2012, Gordana Nardini, a retired English-language teacher who is originally from Croatia, has spent much of each year in Chiang Mai. She fell in love with the city, she says, because it is close to Myanmar, where she spent several years in her youth when her father worked as a trade promotion officer in the city of Yangon, and because Chiang Mai’s multinational populace allows her to use many of the seven languages she speaks.
Nardini had been a member of the Rotary Club of Zagreb-Centar, Croatia, since 2000. In Thailand, she began attending meetings of the Chiang Mai International club to keep up her attendance but eventually decided to join outright. “In Croatia, my club was well established, while the club in Chiang Mai was struggling with membership,” she says. “I saw that I could do so much here.”
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A year ago, Nardini was planning to leave northern Thailand for a few months, as many of the region’s expatriates do at the beginning of what is known as the “burning season” — when farmers outside the city of Chiang Mai burn over their fields.
“We have some of the most polluted air on the face of planet Earth during burning season,” says Roger Lindley, the current president and a charter member of the Chiang Mai International club. “They burn the fields and the surrounding forests for mushroom production.”
But realizing that Thailand was doing much better than Europe when it came to controlling COVID-19 infections, Nardini changed her mind at the last minute. “I canceled my flight,” she says.
As it turned out, many flights were canceled. In June, Nardini managed to get a rare flight out, but then she couldn’t get back. Neither could five other members, who were stranded in places like Grenada, Portugal, and the U.S.
Year Rotary started in Thailand; Purachatra Jayakara, prince of Kampaenbejra, was the charter president of the Rotary Club of Bangkok
Year Chiang Mai, which means “new city,” was founded by King Mangrai
“Open access to Thailand did not exist,” says John Schorr, a past club president and a retired professor of sociology at Stetson University in Florida, whose wife is from Thailand. “Many of our members chose to leave in March and April with the intention of coming back in May or June.”
In April, the club began holding its regular meetings online — and those virtual meetings turned out to be a lifeline for a club that has always struggled with membership.
“Chiang Mai is a big retirement community for Westerners,” says Nancy Lindley, club treasurer. Lindley and her husband, Roger, both mechanical engineers who ran a specialty greenhouse in Michigan before retiring, moved to Chiang Mai in 2008. “So we have a very transient population. There are people who are here just for a year or two. Every year we have quite a turnover in our membership, which other Thai clubs don’t have to deal with.”
“That’s a challenge for maintaining continuity, leadership, and our sense of purpose,” adds Roger Lindley. “At one point, we were at almost 50 percent turnover per year.”
Recently, the club addressed the problem by instituting a special passport membership that allows people who have an interest in the club’s mission, or a connection to Chiang Mai, to join whether or not they live in the city. Even after the Thai government eased its lockdown to allow in-person gatherings at reduced capacity in late June, the club waited till July to start meeting in person again. It also opted to keep one monthly Zoom meeting so that passport members, along with members stranded abroad, could attend.
The club focuses on improving children’s health and education in northern Thailand, which falls under Rotary’s Area of Focus, saving mother and children.
Since its beginning, the club’s focus has been on improving children’s health and education in northern Thailand. After chartering in 2014, the club raised funds to support a clinic that provides medical care for some of the nearly 100,000 migrants who have fled conflict between the government in Myanmar and eastern ethnic groups. Members also worked with the BEAM (Bridging Educational Access to Marginalized People) Education Foundation and started a vision screening program in local schools. But perhaps one of the club’s most important projects is also one of the simplest: teaching local children how to swim. “It may not sound like an important thing,” says Schorr, “but drowning is the leading cause of death for children in Thailand, more than dengue fever, more than anything else.”
So far, some 2,000 kids have learned to swim through the program, which makes sure every fourth grader in Chiang Mai municipal schools gets 15 hours of swimming instruction. The program has been so successful that the Rotary Club of Patong Beach on Phuket, an island in southern Thailand, has adopted it; seven schools in the nearby Phrao district of Chiang Mai province are also participating, with the help of the club and funds from the local British community.
When they expanded the program to the Phrao district, members learned that two students had drowned there just weeks before, Roger Lindley says. “That kind of gets to you,” he says. “When you think about how kids can’t swim, and they’re drowning in drainage ditches and canals, with one kid trying to save another, or parents trying to save their kid, you know you’re doing some good. You know we’re making a difference.”
— FRANK BURES
• This story originally appeared in the March 2021 issue of Rotary magazine.