On Race…in Thailand.

The Great Melting Pot is one of the most celebrated things about the United States. A bevy of races all living together, sometimes harmoniously, and as a result, with the variety of people, we learn about how others live and that when it all comes down to it, we all have the same needs as humans.

As a product of my generation, I grew up in a world not riddled with outright racism (although there are many arguments that hidden racism is a more finicky and troubling issue). I don’t remember any riots in my adult memory. Through school and sports, I learned how to work with people who had no resemblance to myself (and I mean that outside of tall, lanky, white gal).

The best part about it? My eyes were opened to brand new worlds of music, ways of speech, attitudes, ways of life, and the ideals that come with it all in an ‘on the ground’ or grassroots (ish) way. An education of the streets so to speak (the streets of Fox Chapel, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, yeah we’re real badasses there). I learned to judge people due to the qualities they possessed and portrayed to me (knowledge of their personal histories always helps too) rather than by the color of their skin.

Oh Thailand.
Imagine if you will, hearing about purple aliens your entire life. Your society covets their skin color, they come from a land you hear about for its riches and see in movies, your government requires you to learn their language, they have advancements in technology that you think will solve many issues in your country, and they’re coming to a city near you. Their money is 30 times the worth of yours and they have a lot of it in comparison to you and your family. Most of the purple creatures come to your country without learning the language or understanding your culture, but are happy to have you serve them while they lay on the beach or browse through the market buying trinkets you see by everyday. This is how most, but not all, Thai people experience farangs in this country (a sad, but unfortunate truth).

The rambling about racial acceptance and working together to understand each other is not exactly valid in this country. With an overwhelmingly majority of people being of Asian descent (duh Erin), the 6 foot German-Irish in me more than sticks out. Throw in blue eyes, pale skin, and the whole non-Asian face thing and you’ve got a certified sore thumb. For a country that has so much of the same thing, melting pots don’t really function and teaching about it (and that it can be a really good thing) is extremely difficult.

It’s also complicated to explain to the Thais that white people aren’t all the same either. We don’t all understand the same languages and we don’t all look the same. The variances of our bodies are confounding because as Thais, they have fairly similar features. People ask me the oddest questions all the time: Why are your eyes blue? Why are you so tall? Wait your family is that tall too? But your friend is shorter than you, why? Why are your arms so hairy (for the record, I think my hair to arm ratio is perfectly normal)? What are all those dots (freckles) on your skin? What do you mean you can’t understand Russian? Why are your eyes still blue after you take your contacts out? That person is Asian, how can they be American too? I’m never quite sure how to answer, but I always assure them how normal it is to find a blue-eyed (or green or whatever color), freckly, six-foot, or Asian-American it is (although that would be an interesting combination). I think the Thais find my cavalier-ness about the whole thing shocking.

What does this mean for Thailand as a country in development?
Cultural sameness, homogeneity, and a desire for social harmony all hamper the beneficial flow of different ideas that would aid Thailand in its development. Thai kids don’t get to play soccer with varied kids from the neighboring village and learn about other ways of life. There is no other way of life. It’s the Thai way or the rice field highway. You can’t really expect much else in the present circumstances. When something is so engrained into a culture, is there any hope (or reason) to change it?

I think that there is, a reason I should say, and I’ll even provide an example: the education of Thai children. The way it’s been done for years (from what I’ve learned in PST or through my own experience): rote (memorization) learning, classroom management in the form of a bamboo stick, teachers come and go as they please (whether they teach or not is left up to them), and students are convinced that their ‘superiors’ are interested more in how well they keep the school clean rather than educational growth (and I can’t help but agree). English class is held as the teacher saying a few words out loud, the students repeating them, and then maybe writing them down in their notebooks. I think it’s amazing they still show up to school, I would be bored to tears. What I find the most disappointing though is the denial of feeding the educational thirst that these students have. As the basis of the society’s future, the Thai education system should not continue on it’s set path. There needs to be change whether from internal motivation of the Thai people and/or government or a group of 60ish crazy Thai speaking purple aliens from America to help mix things up a bit.

Sidebar: For a great article about the current situation about Thai Education Reform, click here. I don’t agree with all of their ideas, but they have properly articulated a lot of my thoughts about the school system here in Thailand.

How does this relate to being a Peace Corps Volunteer?
We’re sent to the areas that Westerners usually (ok, hardly ever) visit. For many people, I’m the first foreigner that they’ve ever spoken to (it helps that I speak their language, otherwise we’d have to resort to the hilarious acting out people sometimes use with me before I break the news that I can in fact, speak Thai dai, it’s a fun trick I love playing on people) or seen and if I’m biking by an unknown neighborhood, I often hear the calls of ‘farang, farang, farang!’ (Something that I am not a fan of, I didn’t spend two and a half months in PST hell for nothing.) As a person of a different race in an extremely homogenous society, I’m thusly treated as such, different.

It’s fine if you’re only going to stay for a few weeks or only going to stay in touristy areas/big cities. That’s where those crazy purple guys seem to congregate. The ironic thing is as we’re sent to the more remote areas to live and integrate with Thai people, but these are the places that we stick out more and treated more like aliens. (And yes, I really do often feel like an alien here. I’m certainly stared at enough for it. This is what they do to get back at me for my little language game I play on them.

The times it makes me the most uncomfortable though is when people treat me with a ridiculous amount of respect, much more than a 23-year-old Thai female (gender and hierarchy rants are forthcoming issues I want to tackle) would normally get. Parents of students call me adjaan (which is the equivalent of professor, expert, master of their subject etc. and ridiculous to call me, in my opinion), multiple people feel the need to essentially become my personal assistant (this past weekend I had three people help me clean my room, my books are carried from my bike to my desk in school, and people fetch me chaa nom yen even when I don’t ask for it-the last one I find difficult to complain about), or when people get really excited when I do something that Thai people do all the time and Americans not so much (eat sticky rice, speak Thai, shower three times a day). Ok, so garnering respect is cool, but I’d rather earn it for something other than for the color of my skin.

The occurrence that helped me decide to write this blog was when I really rocked the boat at school last week.  Here’s the set up: Ban Boong School, a meeting of all the principals in my area, my coteacher is serving them water, coffee, and snacks. I’m sitting at my desk twiddling my thumbs looking for something to do (there is a lot of that as a PCV). I ask my coteacher if she wants my help and she hesitates for a second, deciding whether disturbing my comfort of sitting in boredom is worth it or not. She decides it’s not. I insist and she smiles. I know it’s worth it getting them back on the whole ‘considering other people’s (greng jai) needs’ thing. Spending three months as a waitress did not prepare me for what was about to happen. I do the simple activity of bringing a cup of coffee and tray of snacks to one principal. It starts to quiets down. Not really concentrating on what they were saying in Thai, I bustle along my way and bring the next tray over. It gets even more quiet. I’m on the way with my third tray when I shake myself out of my revelry and realize that the most important educational people in my area are all staring at me in utter silence. Uh oh, what cultural trip line did I totally just detonate? Smiling awkwardly, my go to activity when these things happen, I back off to my coteacher and she smiles at the look on my face. They make an exchange in rapid Thai, most of which I don’t understand except for the words, Erin, farang, and kon Thai (Thai person).

What was the issue you’re pondering to yourself and fear not. I’ll answer you swiftly. Hold onto those hats people, this is groundbreaking news: I’m a farang. That’s the problem. I’m the purple alien and I was serving Thai people food. The idea is so odd to them that they stopped in the middle of a meeting to stare (making me feel my own oddity even more) at me going about what I considered a totally normal thing. It left me speechless, enough to write a blog about it!

As an outsider not just peeking in a window, but being pulled through and offered multiple dishes of cultural and personal lessons from my Thai community members, I’m presented another ‘on the streets’ look at this beautiful country I get to call my own for two years. Sometimes I feel like I’m treated unfairly, whether given too much respect or written off too quickly (some people don’t even try to listen to me when I speak Thai to them, I know my tones aren’t that off). Sometimes it feels a bit hopeless because no matter what I do, how well I learn cultural nuances, or how well I speak Thai, I will always get the turn of the head, the curious look, and calls of farang. I’ll always be a purple alien, at least on the outside. However, if that means it’s for the betterment of my new home, adding new color to the blender of my community, you can call out alien all you want! I’ll even wave back!

So what’s the point of this entry? Maybe pointing out the obvious (all those things PC talked to me about before I left take on new meaning when actually living here) will help me adjust and re-adjust as I learn how to live and work (hopefully productively) here. Realizing what it would be like if there were actually purple aliens back home and how curious I would be about them (just like the Thais are of me). Maybe though, it’s nice to remind myself that America is pretty cool for accepting everyone as is (well at least the cool Americans do so, maybe we should send the crazies to live in a village in rural Thailand and see if they’ll continue making fun of people) no matter what their skin color.

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