As a Female Farang in Thailand

Forewarning: I’m feeling a bit girl power (Spice Girls peace sign and everything) lately, so I’m pre-apologizing if this comes out a little man-hating. I quite dearly love the male form and gender. The men of Peace Corps Thailand are all caring, sensitive, amazing individuals, but this one is for all the (single) ladies (put your hands up!).

Another thing I’ve realized is that there is going to need to be more than one entry about this topic. This particular one deals more with female Volunteers more than Thai women, another complex and fascinating issue.

Every Peace Corps Volunteer has their own experience with their service. It’s hard to explain the particulars of our lives to others because this is a whole new world, seen through only one lens. The focus of that lens depends on the characteristics of each volunteer: their background, their race, their age, and the issue I want to cover today, their gender.

At this point in American history, women are on the badass rise. There’s more of us earning higher education, entering the workforce in jobs that were once considered only suitable for men, and most importantly we have more choices than our foremothers ever did. In my Sophomore year at Pitt, I took an American women’s history class from 1865-Present. At first, I was disappointed (I had to pick from women’s history and a random Native American class that was extremely specific to the concentration), but it ended up being one of my favorite classes I’ve ever taken. Learning about the struggle of the gals from the past made me appreciate the time and generation of which I was born. In America, I don’t feel confined by my gender and can choose: to marry my high school or college sweetheart, have babies, and live my days out chasing kids around and doting on my husband OR maybe just pick up and travel to the other side of the world to work in development (and I don’t just mean the country here, personal development is a huge part of this too).

Depending on the host country’s culture, gender roles are usually quite different from those we’re used to in the United States. Reading about some of the countries Volunteers are sent to and the gender issues they face, most of the time I’m happy that I ended up in Thailand. In a Buddhist and non-confrontational society, I often don’t have to worry about many safety issues that women in other PC countries face. However, Thailand does have an extremely hierarchical culture and subscribes to patriarchy, giving us a lot to get used to.

Fact: Men and Women in Peace Corps Thailand have a VERY different experience. Let’s dig into some details. During PST we were told to be considered ‘appropriate and complete’ or riap roy in Thai, most ‘good’ young Thai women don’t: drink, smoke, have male friends (that aren’t gay at least), show their shoulders, cleavage/below the collarbone, or leg above the knee.

Other things about women in Thai culture: young women usually don’t live alone (living with their family until they get married, my Meh in Ayutthaya was freaking out at the mere mention that I might live alone once I got to site), women are expected (by both men and women) to do the majority of the work within the home, at the job, in the community, or raising the kids (male teachers at my schools probably do ¼ of the work that the female teachers do and that’s a generous estimate), and are some of the most generous, giving, amazing, nam-jai people I’ve ever met in my life.

It was suggested, for our own safety, that to become respected members in our community, we too should abide by these cultural norms. (Can I side bar here and mention that the majority of the time in the entry, when I say ‘we’ I mean other female Volunteers.) Most of the time, I don’t have too much issue with it (except for the heat, in the comfort of my room I totally break the shoulder rule and wear tank tops, badass, I know).

What does this mean for female Volunteers in Thailand?
Especially in training when we first arrived in country, being a female in Thailand means having almost no independence at all. I’m often told what to wear or eat, where to sit, and who to talk to. This also has to do with hierarchy, but as a female, I’m automatically on the lower step of the chain than a male my same age. The process restarted all over again when I first got to site and was the only farang in sight.

During Song Kran (Thai New Year, also known as the drunkest time of the year), I was approached by scores of drunk men wanting to put powder on my face and dump water on me, totally normal activity for the holiday. My little sister and gang would literally create a wall around me and water rape these guys. Picture the scene: a group of 10-12 year olds about two kids deep forming a moving semi-circle around someone almost twice their height shouting in rapid Thai for the drunk offenders to go away. Looking back it makes me chuckle, but at the time I was getting a little annoyed being told at least fifteen times (translated) ‘That’s a bad person. Don’t talk to them. They are drunk.’ Thanks kids, I think I got it.

Anytime I make some sort of inclination of independence (exercise, buying my own groceries, traveling somewhere out of site), there is much cause for discussion and debate about it.

Exchange A: “Why are you biking 8 km each way to school? Let me pick you up.” “Thanks, but really, I want to bike.” “Hm, but what if it rains.” “Not a big deal.” “But you’re too pretty.” Well I knew that one already, but “I still want to bike, thank you though.” I think I’ve finally hammered this one home that I want to exercise. They won’t accept the reason that I like it, it makes me feel good, or it’s healthier for both me and the planet. Nay, the excuse that worked? “I don’t want to get fat” “Oh, ok then!”

Exchange B: “I’m going to go to Krabi.” “Wait, WHAT?” “I’m going to go to Krabi. There’s a van that will drop me off at the bus station in Bangkok and then I can get a coach bus.” “No, no, it’s too far. You should fly instead.” “It’s too expensive, don’t worry, I can talk to them in Thai if I get lost.” “No, no, person X will go to Bangkok with you and help you buy your ticket. Their friend lives in Krabi, call them when you arrive and they’ll help you.” At this point, I want to say, really guys, you think I’m this incompetent? But I don’t. I smile, let them worry because I’m a female oddity to them, and answer their questions and reassure them I’ll be fine, sometimes four or five times.

This is how these exchanges would go if I were a man: “I think I’m going to go bike around the community.” “Ok, do you want a beer first or when you get back?” “I think I’m going to go out and do some work today.” “Stop overexerting yourself! Sit down and have some whiskey. Don’t bother pouring it yourself, we have a female that serves us.” I’m sitting at my desk diligently and “Hey, let’s go to the brothel to pick out a mistress for you.”

Alright, a bit of an exaggeration…actually wait, I’m pretty sure this has all really happened to various male Volunteers here. Not that they ask for it or think it’s right at all, but it’s a very different world for them. They can smoke, drink, and chat for the majority of the work day (or in front of kids at school) and they’d be patted on the back for fitting in so well with the Thai men.

The differences are the sharpest for the married couples in the same site, when the female Volunteer in the couple is sometimes completely overlooked as a person because her identity is attached to that of her husband. How is she able to represent herself? Easy, how well she takes care of her husband’s responsibilities so that he can continue to drink with the Thai men instead of working. I’d like to point out that this is also something that male Volunteers struggle with as well.

Here’s the thing, if I’m not already enough of an oddity in this country as a farang, I’m also a girl and not even married! Well and there’s that whole six-foot thing too. Female farangs are already on the minority side due to the vast numbers of FSDs (fat sugar daddies, the old balding types with the way-too-hot-and-young Thai women). Thai people tell me how brave I am, as a female, to live in Thailand alone.

But I’m not. At all. I may have to surrender my ‘go where the wind blows me’ spirit, but in return I’m treated like the daughter, sister, or precious breakable porcelain doll of the people in my community. And I truly feel that way, for better and worse. I’ve never felt this deep level of connection with so many people caring about my well-being and happiness. I work side by side with my Thai ladies and get to be a part of a kinship that male Volunteers never see or will ever be able to fully understand.

It’s definitely a rough trade-off and one that I struggle with every day because of the responsibilities that go along with it. It means watching my every move and thinking of all the other women in my circles before making a decision that would normally be just my own. This is one of those things I mentioned in an older post that you don’t expect you have to give up or change about yourself. If you do though, you’ll find your world expanding in ways you’ve never even imagined.

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4 thoughts on “As a Female Farang in Thailand

  1. Love your post Erin! Made me think about past conversations in a past life! For American women, I see the differences just between my generation and my daughters. That said, it is interesting to me that I have had similar conversations with my daughters that I had with my mom. The struggle between work and motherhood is ever present. And while women have the choice, men still make more money and who works and who cares for kids becomes an economic decision. Until motherhood is truly valued, that struggle will not go away. There is also the issue of single moms who are typically much poorer than their male counterparts.

    Being an older female volunteer I definitely have more freedom than you young female volunteers. But I still have my posse when I go somewhere. They are a great caring group!!

    • Erin, It’s amazing how much our brains are working over time on the culture part of our Peace Corps experience. I share the very same sentiments when I first arrived on site last year. It was hard for me to give up my independence and I felt instantly defensive when the women in my workplace would say I shouldn’t go to Bangkok without my husband or grab my wrists like a little girl to cross the street. A Thai woman who moved to my site a year ago had to explain to me that this is how Thai women take care of each other and they couldn’t understand why I wanted to do things myself. I think as American’s we’re taught to value our independence and value trying things that will challenge us. But as you say, Thai people build community and build relationships by helping each other. I realized that if I wanted to bond with the new women in my life I would have to let them help me, let them worry about me, and let us both take care of each other.

      I think the people in our community have learned a lot from seeing my relationship with Will. In the beginning, Grandmas would walk past our house and see Will ironing and ask shout “Why? Is Kat sick?” Guys would snicker at the sight of Will doing the laundry. Having a supportive husband that helps with the domestic duties is not something to flaunt around though. I don’t think the women my age can reverse the situation and all of a sudden demand equal duties. I don’t think we can see women and men share domestic duties until the bride price/dowry goes away. It instantly sets the women as a servant in the household.

      Thanks for posting this! – Kat (Group 122)

  2. Karen, you are so right about the economics of parenthood. I remember learning in that class that if you account for the hours that ‘stay at home’ Moms put in for the work they do, even at a modest minimum wage salary (of which at the time of the research was about $6ish/hour) they would be earning about $80,000 a year. That is insane to me when many women could only dream of making that kind of money WITH a college education under their belts already. I’m so glad to have gotten your perspective as a Mom and as one of our ‘seasoned’ ladies.

    Kat, so true about the wrist grabbing, my ten year old sister even does it to me, for my safety, not hers. What you realized about letting them help you and worry about you is so, so right. It’s taken awhile for me to get that they don’t think I’m stupid or incompetent, but just worry about me because they’ve accepted me as one of them. I am glad that some things seem to be changing with Thai women holding more control in the household, both of my host mothers have been these kind of women and I hope they help their daughters become that way as well. I had what you and will said at our diversity panel in mind when I wrote this and I’m glad that Will is setting a different kind of example for Thai men, even if all they do is snigger at first.

  3. Pingback: Friday Five « Erin Flew the Coop

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