my blog from abroad
Being different is different for me.
I’ve always blended in, more or less. I’ve always felt like I belonged, even in Australia where, unless I was wearing something really “dodgy” as Americans like me tend to do, my nationality was ambiguous until I opened my mouth to speak.
It’s different here. I’m different here.
Sometimes I feel like a total celebrity. One late night I was waiting for the bathroom at The Club when a Thai girl motioned to take a photo of me with her phone. I smiled for the bathroom photo, feeling somewhat flattered but also confused; what in the world was this girl planning on doing with a photo of me?
I mean, it’s really strange; I will be disgusting, greasy, wearing a T-shirt and shorts, my hair thrown up in a frizzy bun and the guys at the massage-chair kiosk at the mall will insist I am “very beautiful” and “very sexy.” They want my number. You want my number?? Have you seen me right now? I have like a nest of zits growing on my forehead. And I smell.
I’m walking down the stairs at school. The most beautiful Thai teacher I’ve ever seen turns to the student next to her (yes, the Thai teachers have this type of relationship with students, especially the high school girls) and comments, “Teacher suay mak.”
Suay mak mak. Very beautiful. It was one of the first things I learned how to say in Thai.
Oh my god, how could she – with the most perfect skin, the highest most feminine cheekbones, long silky hair, stunning almond eyes, bright white smile – how could she think I’m beautiful??
But being perceived as beautiful doesn’t mean I’m necessarily welcomed into Thai culture. I’m a spectacle, not an equal.
I feel all at once respected and ostracized; admired and feared. My white skin is beautiful. It makes me stand out. It makes me sexy no matter how sweaty and disgusting I may think I look. Thai people are interested to know where I come from, why I’m here…Teaching is generally a well-respected profession in Thai culture, whereas I imagine delivering the line, “I’m a preschool teacher,” in America can prompt some patronizing head nods and downward glances (“Mmm and all-of-a-sudden this drink in my hand has become reeeally interesting…”).
But it stops there, at suay mak mak. It’s challenging to make Thai friends, especially in the city. Here, let me put it this way: I went to a club to go dancing one night with some of my lady coworker friends (all farang). The white guys at the club ignored us in favor of the Thai girls, who were eager to talk to them as well. The Thai guys may or may not have been interested in chatting with us white ladies but they didn’t do so, possibly out of shyness or a fear of being rejected and losing face. The Thai girls definitely didn’t want to talk to us because, I guess, we were “competition” for the white guys’ attention. But we weren’t competition for anybody because, actually, nobody wanted us there at all. Now expand the club scene to Bangkok as a whole and you will see why it can feel very lonely living as a farang lady in the big ol city. We white girls gotta stick together.
Things would be different in a smaller town or village, of course; in a more community-oriented environment, I imagine we would be allotted a place within the community framework. Things are different when I travel down south: not only are the Thai people I meet friendlier, but the backpackers are open and friendly and fun and just assume I’m one of them.
Being different is different for me but strangely it has begun to feel normal.