Italia. My little sister asked me the other day if there was a place in Europe that it never snowed. I couldn’t think of anywhere, but Italy surfaced in my thoughts as I reminisced about Euroland. Florence is one of my favorite cities in the world for red roofs, the famous Medici family, and having a horrific sweet tooth, the gelato of course. In the two and a half days I was there with my friends, we ate gelato 13 times. I’m a little embarrassed to admit that. The only thing I would change about Florence is that amount of time I’ve spent there. And that will be fixed.
I know, I know, Barcelona has already had the honor of being a Tuesday Travel Photo, BUT given that I think it’s the most romantic city I’ve visited and Valentine’s Day happens to fall on a Tuesday this year…. phew take a breath, that was one long sentence. Barcelona has many of the qualities of my ideal city: near the water, beautiful streets to get lost, fantastic shopping, awesome architecture, clearly some music playing in the middle of a square, need I go on? As an added bonus, this is where I met RF.
Oh yeah, Happy Valentine’s Day!
Way back when, aka pre-Peace Corps life, I thought that when it was hot, it was totally suitable to wear the least amount of clothing possible. This seems like a perfectly sound theory until you move into the backwaters of Asia and you learn the rules of the playbook. For example, one would think in the hot humidity, an outfit such as this would seem appropriate…
and then I learned better.
I’m trying to salvage my fashion powers now, but it is difficult. There’s just not much to work with when you’re covering your body from mid-arm to knee-length in the tropics.
Montmatre is my favorite piece in a little town known as Paris, France. I’ve been there exactly once, but that was more than enough time for me to fall properly in love with it. Trade secret: I never liked Paris much until I took the time to visit the area that used to host the Moulin Rouge and Monet, Dali, Picasso, and van Gogh once frequented. Its bohemian attitude still lives on today despite that none of those artists could probably afford to live in this now fairly touristy area. With the return to my fashionista side though (details to follow), I can’t help but imagine myself strolling along the briskly chilly cafe riddled streets of Paris, doing a little people-watching, instead of being stared at chopped liver, and in a delectably autumn outfit. Sixteen more months, until then, c’est la vie!
Five Things I Miss About America
Never, ever again will I take my comfort foods for granted again: the ease of getting it, the vast abundance, and the taste…oh the taste. My Thai friends try to tell me it’s plain, but I’d rather have a plain cheese pizza ten times out of ten over the spicy, fried non-sense they want me to devour. A list: milk, dairy products, pizza, pasta, good bread, RF’s cooking, Mom’s cooking, cheese, oh cheese, bread and cheese, desserts, cheesecake, cookies, brownies, anything from an oven, a grilled chicken Cesar salad, a Cesar wrap, tacos, a cheeseburger, ranch dressing, pancakes with my Grandmother…get the picture? Just hearing people describe what they’re eating back home or watching a tv show in which people are eating and my mouth waters at an embarrassing rate.
Knowing What’s Going On
Not just with daily activities, because they don’t really tell me ahead of time, but in the world and the gossip of the people surrounding me. Part of that is a lack of familiarity and history with people, places, and the culture, I know one thing, I wish I could boost up on the kitchen counter and get the latest from my Mom while she makes one of the old favorites.
Speaking of my Mom, it would be really nice to have her around. With summertime (in the US) being the reunion time and people in my family starting to get married, it was a bit rough roasting in Thailand all on my lonesome. And don’t even get me started on missing out on the things I could be doing with my normal fellow twenty-somethings. And RF. I know I signed up for this, but I would give anything for just an easy day at home with loved ones…eating of course.
Obvious Fact: Thailand is fucking hot. While rainy season has kept things a little cooler, I would be lying to you if I didn’t say I wasn’t looking forward to cold season. I’ve heard rumors of sweaters, scarves, and wearing your hair down. Rumor mill, you know how to stir my innermost longings to the forefront of my conscience. I know I profess to be a summer girl, but I think in my heart of hearts, autumn has captured it. Is there anything better than pulling a blanket over your legs on crisp fall evening while you eat a homemade brownie sundae with vanilla ice cream just starting to melt… wait, this is the weather section. Damn you taste buds!
Something about walking down the street without parting the Thai people sea is really appealing to me. To not be an ‘other’ but just another six footer in the crowd (yeah I have problems fitting in) for just a day would work restorative powers that Houdini would envy. I know one day I’ll miss having the spotlight shining bright on me, but at this moment, it would be nice to be in the audience rather than left alone on the stage ‘performing’ (aka living my daily life) entertainment for hundreds of people.
The Thai word for beautiful, which you only use with women and things/scenes, is pronounced like sue-aye, with a rising tone (otherwise it means bad luck). I often hear this word muttered among venders as I stroll down the market alleyways and I like to turn and flash a smile. Really freaks (new) Thai people out when they realize I just understood them sizing me up. If I had a list of top ten words I hear in Thailand, this would be one of them.
What do Thais consider beautiful? For a female, she should be as pale as possible, thin/all around narrowness, big eyes, big nose, young-looking, or basically not too Asian looking. Many of these characteristics go for men as well, but mostly the being western part really works for them here. You could be old, fat, and hairy, but if you’re a white man, there’s a ginormous chance that you’ll be called handsome (law) and your marital status will be the talk of the town.
So, as a relatively attractive, pale-as-a-sheet (I never thought that would come in handy) westerner, Thai people comment almost daily on my immense beauty. This does nothing to deflate my already puffed up ego. Seriously, what am I going to do when I don’t have people remarking on my awesomeness and loveliness when I show up places or do things like, you know, my job.
One day I was working hard on a lesson plan for my kids in full concentration mode, tongue sticking out, hair in a hot mess, and eyes scrunched up when my principal came over to admire my work. Or so I thought. Actually he just wanted to say hello and reassure me of my beauty. You know, in case I forgot or something. It helps my schools’ image to have me there, not just as a farang, but as a pretty one. (I wanted to remind them that I graduated from University and can form independent thoughts in two languages, but instead just gave my patient Thai smile.) My coteacher also informed me that our principal was so happy when he met me. When I asked why, she answered me in a voice that you would think she was speaking to a small child that he said he would send me (the Volunteer the school received) back if I wasn’t A: a woman, B: a good-looking one at that. That’s job security if I’ve ever heard of it. Being young and attractive both helps and hurts having my work get taken seriously here.
Thai people, women especially, go to great lengths to protect their beauty and skin. I might have mentioned it’s kind of hot here. That doesn’t matter if you’re working out in the field, riding on your motorbike, or going to spend 0.5 seconds in the sun, there are a few popular methods to deal with it like: long sleeves and pants, umbrellas, or full ski masks to cover their faces except for a small slit for their eyes. My Thai peeps actually want me to bike the 8km uphill ride wearing long sleeves in 90 degree heat. Seriously? I’ll take the risk of a farmer’s tan. But if does happen, a little unnecessary tan that is, don’t worry, there are more skin whitening creams then varieties of soap in my local store.
To Thais, and many other Asian cultures like Korea, China, and Japan, it’s vital to protect your whiteness like you would your reputation. To distance yourself from the dark-skinned and lower status farmers, many Asians want to remain as white as they possibly can, even if that means bleaching their skin. The whiter you are, the more attractive you are perceived, opening the doors to the kind of jobs that let you remain inside and get paid for being just that, pale and beautiful. This also lets you meet other lighter skinned, (usually) better paid people, and maybe even the jack-pot, a western pale face! A Thai woman told me once that she wanted me to teach her English so that she could marry a farang man. When I asked her why she wanted to marry someone she would barely be able to communicate with, she answered me, my children will be whiter and cuter (worth-loving is the direct translation) if they are half and half.
So whiteness is important to being considered beautiful. Another thing that I chuckle about Thai perceptions of beauty is a little (well, not so little actually) thing I like to call the shnoz. Normal size noses are pretty good here, but if you have a shnoz, it will be worshipped in this country. Many Thai people, especially in the eastern area of Isaan, have very flat bridges on their noses. This is not considered a good thing by most Thai people (compounded by the fact Isaan is also the poorest part of the country, so flat nose + dark skin=poor looking). So the larger the bridge of your nose extends, the more awesome it is. I’m 23 years old and yet the older Thai ladies still love giving me a loving pinch on the nose. I think they want to make sure it’s actually attached.
In America, my hair color is boring, poop brown. In Thailand, it’s the rare shade of tawny brilliance. While my hair is normally wrapped up in a bun due to the heat, when I wear it down, my Thai peeps love to pet it and ask me if it’s my natural color. Dying the normal black to some shade of deep, dark magenta and/or burnt orange is very, very popular here. It’s weird to me, but now that I think about it, I’m probably an oddball in both the U.S. and Thailand for never dying my hair. Needless to say, Thai ladies, just like Westerners, love to mix up the hair color from black to anything else.
As in many cultures, remaining impossibly thin is also an unfortunate desirable trait. Most Thai women are tiny in both their waists and their heights. To say I tower over people here would be an understatement. I look like King Kong’s Godzilla. (So if King Kong was considered average, ha, then I would be Godzilla. Does that makes sense?) While I still get requests for a few centimeters of height, being petite is still vital to a woman’s beauty. There is not much in the form of exercise (mostly because it’s so freaking hot), so diets and ‘beauty’ supplements (aka laxatives and the like) are often taken to remain as slim as possible.
I had the nerve to be born with hips that stick out in the hour-glass shape and for the first time in my life, I’ve been called fat. I read this was likely going to happen before arriving in Thailand, but foolishly didn’t think it would apply to me. I’ll admit, my vanity took a pretty strong hit after that. Even though they called me beautiful, they thought I was fat and big? Luckily, Jeff Jackson, a fellow male Volunteer, came to my ego’s rescue and put things in perspective for me when he explained, Erin, your tallness is so different and unique in comparison to the normal Thai woman, it’s borderline incomprehensible to them. Phew, thanks man.
If you read nothing else in this blog, read this paragraph. But for a country in which most people look similar (dark-skinned, flat noses, slanted eyes, you get the picture), those that hold some uncommon characteristics set them apart from the atypical person and are considered more appealing. An imperative thing to note though is that while westerners are thought to be attractive, it’s their features, not their race, that make it that way. As foreigners and a minority, they only hold the unique facial quirks that many Asians value. Thai people don’t want to not be an Asian person, they only cherish the qualities in western faces because they are distinctly different from what they see everyday and therefore thought to be prettier.
The even more fascinating thing about Thais valuing the divergence in looks that a majority of people share is how much critical thought, the development of self, or encouraging individualism is not valued here. So you should try to not look like a farmer, despite it being the occupation of over a third of the population, but you shouldn’t take part of a lifestyle that deviates from the norm. What a conundrum. I love how much Thais don’t make sense. Perhaps it’s this uniqueness that endears them so much to me.
The last part I want to address is something that is relevant across the globe, but it really stands out to me here. The use of women’s sexuality has become engrained into Thai culture. This spans from the streets of Bangkok and Phuket filled with brothels/’massage’ parlors to high school girls dancing on the stage for a Monk ordination in the rural areas that Volunteers serve in. Thailand has become so well-known for it, when I told people about the strict standards of ‘riap roy’ dress as a teacher before I arrived in Thailand, they were surprised because they were thinking of the bar girls that populate the tourist areas.
It saddens me to think of young Thai girls equating beauty with being ‘sexy’ and that’s a good thing. Yes they have the word sex-eeeee in Thai. The first (and sometimes only) job teenage girls have is dancing half-naked on stage and think of it as a viable use of their ‘assets’ to lead to a steady and prosperous income. Even more sad is that part of it is true. For many women, especially from rural areas like Isaan, there is no feasible economic opportunity given their education levels (that they can’t raise because of the state of the education system there) as well as bearing the fiscal responsibilities they have at home.
One of the most disturbing things I’ve ever seen in this country was a video recording of a young girl dancing provocatively, bumping and grinding making any stripper proud, in next to nothing on the bed of a truck. My friend’s two-year-old host sister was copying the moves. Her father was proud.
If I could give anything to Thai girls, it would be to help them understand that they’re beautiful already and can have a choice to do anything they want. They don’t have to choose to only be beautiful or go to university. If dancing in their underwear while drunk men jeer them on is what they truly want, go and work it! But they can choose something else if they want instead. I want them to know how powerful they are and can be. I hope I’m in Thailand for women’s liberation to come around. How does that translate into Thai?
A co-blog written by fellow Volunteer, Jeff Jackson, and myself. We’ve been sitting on this since Reconnect and hopefully will write some more things together.
A strike of similarities rushed through our minds as suddenly as the backfire of a Thai motorcycle that would have been taken to the junk yard in America years ago; we are Peace Corps Volunteers living in Wal-Mart … a Wal-Mart the size of Thailand.
Finishing dinner at The Pizza Company, walking out of Vasa Mall in Suphan Buri, we witnessed a gruesome scene. A PJ’s-clad child screaming and as we shuttered away from it, Erin asked Jeff, “Why do Thai parents dress their kids in pajamas in public?”
“I know,” Jeff said. “It’s like we live in a giant Wal-Mart.”
Like the redneck who lives with his mother and wakes at noon after his night shift at Taco Bell, followed by a four-hour session of his DVD box set of Season 3 of Two and a Half Men and a bottle of Southern Comfort, he spends the $2 on a Sunday paper for the sole purpose of the Wal-Mart ad and finds that 10W-30 generic motor oil is on feature and needs to get a ride from his mother right away to purchase a case of the oil for the car he doesn’t have; ideas like this need a ride from the local tuk-tuk driver to be splat out onto a computer screen.
White people stick out more than a Muslim woman in a Texas Wal-Mart
We walk down the street and heads turn. We sit at a restaurant and any manners against staring are dropped. We are the minority, much like the Asian exchange student shopping in Billings, Montana. Luckily for us, we’re not looked down upon like the Wal-Mart customers, but that doesn’t stop the local curiosity and sniggers about our language skills.
Everything is made in Southeast Asia
Fortunately for us, we’re not living in a capitalistic society and there are hardly any overhead costs. Cheap products that might last three months are priced a hair above the cost to make them here, whereas in the states it’s not just the production of the product that needs to be paid for but also everything from the greeter’s salary (luckily there are no health benefits) to the cost to make up for all the shoplifting.
Apparently, Guns Are Cool
Though the differences between the two cultures are staggering, each representing different ends of the spectrum, guns hold a special spot in both societies, much like Justin Bieber in the hearts of 13-year old girls across the globe. You might not see a physical piece (packing heat, gat, or nine mm, if you will), but like the weekly NRA meetings in the church basement, you see images of guns on signs, t-shirts, and of other pieces of cotton in Southeast Asia.
Horrible Politically Correct Pop and Country Music
“Because of you I never stray too far from the sidewalk …”
“How do I live without you?”
“Loving you too much, so much, very much…” (Editor’s note: Erin actually loves this song.) (Other editor’s note: Jeff just rolled his eyes.)
Under the great fluorescent lights of Thailand are nothing but “a happy song with a catchy chorus and beat so they can sing along.” Pardon me if I eat my candy with pork and beans, but I like my literature and music to have the ability to make me think about things and not simply tap my foot. Sure, the sandal-tapping tunes are good to have now and then, but variety sure is grand.
Attack of the Greeters
Buying last-minute things at Wal-Mart before coming to Thailand (stupid, stupid idea) and being greeted by a mildly-toothless geriatric that looks like he’s being held up by puppet strings was a bit of a disillusioning experience. In Supan Buri we walked into Swensen’s to get some legit ice cream. We were bombarded by a chorus of no less than four people cheerfully calling out “Sa-wat-dee!” Jeff tried to tell Erin that they don’t do that in America. And then she reminded him about Wal-Mart.
Incredibly Poor Fashion Decisions
A friend of ours once said, while strolling through a Thai mall, ‘I feel like I’ve stepped back into the eighties. Does anyone actually dress like this anymore?’ And then we looked around and saw Thai people and the answer was a resounding, hell yes. From bedazzled suit coats (we witnessed a co-teacher with a tricked out hot pink suit coat complete with sequins), to camouflaged hats, t-shirts, and pants (worn together of course, sometimes with gun embellishments), to blinding shades of neon pink, orange, and yellow (also worn together if at all possible), to the lady-boys that dress in these neon shades, often with added bedazzlements, it’s clear to see that Thai people take their fashion cues from peopleofwalmart.com.
Exercise Routine: A Stroll through the Liquor Aisle
The Thais have a huge advantage over Wal-Mart customers in this category, although they don’t really realize it. Neither demographic enjoys exercise, but many Thais spend their days doing back-breaking work in rice fields allowing them to maintain a thin frame despite the mass consumption of carbohydrates. However, both Thai and Wal-Mart men (and women) enjoy drinking alcoholic beverages like a lonely single man getting free refills at Burger King to wash down his Whopper.
People Spend Their Money on Stupid Shit
Peace Corps provides sufficient funds for us to rent what are sometimes the best houses in our villages and we have certain security regulations we are required to live by. Just because we don’t live in the wooden shacks that are literally standing on their last legs (many houses here are built on stilts to account for both the heat and floods) doesn’t mean that we don’t see them on a daily basis. There are skinny kids running around barefoot, no means of running water, or any furniture to speak of, but hey, they’ve got a ginormous satellite dish that takes up their entire front yard (and by front yard we mean the mud pit that the family roosters pick through in the hopes of finding food). A question we find ourselves asking both Thai and American friends is, “Why did you buy that?” Some differences in the items include: a projector for a classroom that has no computer to actually control said projector vs. the iPhone 4…just because, principal’s buying aquariums for their schools that remain behind locked doors instead of providing a viable source of drinking water for their students vs. an aquarium because Mr. Smith next door just bought one too, government officials squandering public money to provide for second and third wives/mistresses…oh wait, that happens in America too. So maybe wasteful spending is more of a global problem, but nothing quite beats the logical answer to our question ‘Why did you buy that?’ like the ‘I don’t know’s of the Thai/Wal-Mart subjects.
Thais are courteous people, until they get to Tesco-Lotus. Moving a few inches to allow a cart to pass through does not take precedence to the sticker books they’re looking at. Like Wal-Mart, there are also dozens of children running unsupervised, not looking where they’re going until they’re stiff-armed by the one white guy/girl in the store and later whimpering until their parents agree to buy the plastic toy that won’t outlive the rainy season.
Thais are known not to rush to anything. They walk, drive and bike slow. This all changed the closer we got to the register. We were surrounded by people who weren’t afraid to let their extremities rest on our backs, butts and hips. Some of them even cut in front of us. Apparently, there’s no rush to Thai life until that whitening cream is almost in their grasp.
One Big Family Under One Roof
Thai families live together from generation to generation because it is their custom, whereas some Wal-Mart families stay together because Cletus knocked up his sister, and you know where they’re going to register for the baby shower…
Do people really act like this in Thailand and in Wal-Marts across America? Is this blog an exaggeration? Yes, however, there is one big difference. We actually like Thailand.