I have been living in Asia as a digital nomad/traveling expat since September 2018. My initial plan was to teach English to Thai children, but when I arrived, I fell in love with the country and how affordable living was. So I decided not to take a teaching assignment but rather take what I now call a “life break.”
I had quit my job in higher education when I reached a 10-year tenure status, collected my retirement funds, paid off my debt, and was ready for a life a little easier than the hustle and bustle I’d come to know as life in America.
Fast forward a year. I wanted to extend my time in Thailand, but visa restrictions were beginning to get complicated. Because I’d forgone the teaching position, I was not legally allowed to work in Thailand. Instead, I was a tourist. The travel visa permits entry and stay in the Kingdom of Thailand for a limited period (typically 60-90 days, depending on extension).
I started thinking my time was up in Thailand and time to move on to another country because the visa issues would require me to do more than I felt. So I took the summer of 2019, to do some traveling out of Thailand and figure out what I wanted my next move to be. Something was drawing me back to Chiang Mai, the city where I lived in Northern Thailand, a favorite among many Thailand visitors.
Leaving America to travel and do my own thing is the single best thing I could have ever done for myself. I grew in ways I couldn’t imagine. But living abroad had its drawbacks. I got a little tired of seeing new places and having new experiences alone. I prayed for a partner. I wanted someone I could connect with beyond surface-level encounters. I wanted to share new experiences and joys with someone else.
When Rethe and I met, our friendship deepened into much stronger feelings. We were together a few short months, but it was long enough to know our meeting was not coincidental. The connection was real and our paths were aligned.
I had a newfound motivation to stay in Thailand. I pursued a part-time job that would allow me to qualify for a work permit and legally stay longer in Thailand. The company I found were super helpful in sharing everything I needed in place to be employed.
One of the conditions was to exit the country and come back on a new visa. It is just the way things work.
That said, I settled on visiting Da Nang, Vietnam which is only an hour flight from Chiang Mai and was a popular destination among the Black expats I’d met. The city is endearingly nicknamed Chiang Mai by the Sea, and since being there, I completely understand why.
Rethe and I spent so much time together, we both dreaded the day I’d have to leave.
“I’m only going for 30 days, babe,” I told him.
Two weeks into my stay in Vietnam, I discovered I am pregnant. Having a baby just wasn’t in the plan—and neither was entering a global pandemic. The following week, in response to the Coronavirus, Vietnam announced a travel restriction. All domestic and international flights were canceled until further notice. I respect Vietnam’s response to COVID-19. After a year of lockdowns, bans and restrictions, the country was able to keep COVID-19 numbers ridiculously low. They did what needed to be done to keep their citizens and visitors safe. I could not leave the country and my partner could not enter.
“Certainly, it won’t be more than another month,” Rethe reasoned. “All these countries’ economies will suffer without tourists.” Yes, that was true. But safety trumped economic gains.
We anticipated the day the lockdown would ease up. We both thought it wouldn’t last long, but one month turned into another and another and another. It became crystal clear I would deliver my child without my partner. Thailand, too, had done what most countries worldwide had done to control and prevent the spread of COVID. My options were to stay in Vietnam or go back to the States. I stayed in Vietnam.
To be honest, I was lucky to get stuck in such a health cautious country, particularly as a Black women faced with high maternal morbidity rates. In the U.S. Black people were dying due to health disparities.
Medical costs in America are far more than what they are in Asia, for one. Because my partner is from Cameroon, his passport doesn’t travel as easily. Above all, the COVID cases in America were exponentially higher than in Vietnam. It was safer for many reasons for me to stay put. Albeit, I was alone in a foreign country, pregnant, and away from Rethe.
I befriended a guardian angel who I lovingly call Mama. She’s a fellow expat who got stuck in Da Nang as I did and she took me in like a daughter. On days I couldn’t get out of the bed, she brought me food. She accompanied me on doctor’s visits and eventually became my Mama Doula. She was with me every step of the pregnancy. I don’t know how I would’ve gotten through it without her.
Our baby was born on a sweet Saturday morning in November, quickly and safely, at a local Da Nang hospital. I have no regret choosing the local hospital over the “foreigner” hospital because the vibe was better and the costs were significantly cheaper.
My daughter’s nickname is Apple. I gave it to her after reading an article that stated, “Today, your baby is the size of an apple seed,” the size of my baby at six weeks, on the day I discovered her. existence. The name stuck–so did my anxiety of being a first time mom. I’m grateful to have had the support of a fellow mother who often comforted me when I was freaking out. She helped me get Apple’s legal documents in order, which included the birth certificate, mandatory translations and copies for both governments. It was a rigorous process given my immigrant status, inadequate Vietnamese language-speaking and non-marital status.
After much paperwork — between the Vietnamese government and the American embassy — I finally had an official birth certificate, passport and visa for Apple and everything required to leave the country. It took months, money, patience and determination, but we finally made it back to Thailand.
I’m thankful Rethe was consistently supportive — emotionally, financially and mentally. We went through a lot, to say the least. Not only were we learning one another on another level through an intense, unfortunate and unfamiliar situation, but we were cultivating a family. Through it all, he encouraged me. That’s what helped me stay strong–knowing that I wasn’t in it alone. Ever.
Apple and I arrived in Bangkok, Thailand, a whole year and a half later than intended. Baby girl had just turned seven months old. Despite the endless collection of photos, videos and video face time we shared, nothing compared to uniting with Rethe in the flesh.
Fresh off completing a mandatory 14-day quarantine, the hotel made a unique exception for Apple and me to meet Rethe in the lobby. They recorded the entire exchange, captured the first time he got to see and embrace his baby girl. That morning felt like Christmas Day, Valentine’s Day and a birthday rolled in one. I got to hug and kiss my man after an ordeal only my worst fears could conjure.
We made it. Our little family is back together in Thailand, the Land of Smiles.