A few weeks ago was the Queen’s Birthday and Mother’s Day here in Thailand. My town had a surprisingly large celebration with a huge market and concert to boot (there was actually a murder at the concert, freaky isn’t it? I wasn’t there and only heard about it through the Thai grapevine). I don’t know if it was because they knew there was a market there, the holiday, or my town is now a hotspot for tourists (HAHAHA), but there they were, a double-decker bus full of farangs flooding the Mother’s Day market. This was weird.
I was on my way to our regular, daily market and Pi-Chaai and I couldn’t help but stare at and talk about the visitors. I giggled as they took pictures of things I see everyday, struggled through simple Thai interactions, and were the perfect definition of big group of fonzies. When I see clusters of these guys, my inner Thai person just comes flowing out and this was no exception. To distinguish myself from the rest of the farangs, I started chatting to the market people and my fellow village buddies. I was still getting stared at by Thai people, but it was different now. The hot, bright spotlight was shining on someone else now. Now they were just glancing at me for being the one that could speak Thai. My Thai friends like to tease me and push me to talk to other westerners, telling me to greet them. Telling my peeps that I only speak Thai, not English, we have a laugh at the expense of the other farangs that can’t understand what we’re saying.
This went largely undetected from the notice of the foreigners until Pi-Chaai stopped to coo over a set of farang babies. The mother was looking over as Pi-Chaai waved their arms and she asked if they were twins. I translated for her and the mother told me they were. This is when it got weird. It took them a minute, but the family realized that I was speaking Thai to Pi-Chaai and I now realize that people have no manners about staring no matter where they come from. The older child of theirs actually had his mouth hanging open and they watched for my next move. Oddly, my next move was awkwardly mumbling at them in Thai, take that farangs! Not my swiftest exit.
When I got back home, I realized the true magnanimity of the event: farangs and Thais alike, I don’t truly belong to either set. I’m a border-walker with half of me on each side. Well, it feels more 75% Thai at this point, but there’s that whole non-Asian face thing (that I honestly forget I don’t have, all the time), the troublesome tall thing, and let’s get real here, my Thai isn’t really that great either. Three characteristics I can’t really hide amongst my Thai friends and will always prevent me from fully immersing and being Thai. The reasons why I’ll never be able to walk down the street of the country I now call my home without being stared and questioned. Why I’ll never be able to just be.
I laid down on my bed and felt the world circling above me. They tell you about the loneliness you’ll feel being totally isolated at site with no one being able to understand you. I get that part of my service and have learned to deal with it. Thai people stare at me everywhere I go. They slow their cars and motorcycles down as they pass my house to try to see what I’m doing. Even the ones that know me! And that’s ok, well not sure how ok it is, but it’s a piece of my life here.
But Peace Corps forgot to mention the part about how peculiar you’ll feel amongst your fellow westerners again. Or maybe I just haven’t gotten to that part of the Volunteer mental health book. It was a strange experience feeling how mentally distant and separate I was from the people who are supposed to understand me, but here they were, giving the Thai people a run for their stare-down skills. This is a distinctive breed of seclusion that exists on a whole new plane.
Luckily I have a group of fellow border walkers with me in the form of other Peace Corps Volunteers, and not just the ones serving in Thailand. It’s amazing both the differences and similarities we have in our countries of service. Fellow Volunteers are invaluable because they are the only other ones that can truly understand what it’s like to be in such a unique position because it’s their position too. This is one of the reasons why outsiders (people who have never been Volunteers) are incapable of fully understanding what it’s actually like to walk in our shoes. For me, fellow Volunteers are my connection that all humans, as communicative individuals, need to survive: to feel like we’re not alone.
So there Thai people AND fonzies, I’m not so bizarre after all!