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On Being Different

Being different is different for me.

Being different while living in Thailand

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.

14 comments

  1. Anna says:

    Some more good observations Michelle. I find people often feel almost a sense of guilt for only being friends with other ex-pats, as if they’re not making enough of an effort to become involved in Thai culture, but it’s so difficult to make friends with the local people in Thailand. Luckily it’s not a universal phenomenon

  2. Ulyana says:

    It’s an interesting perception. I worked there for a month just recently and found that yes us ‘farung’ are considered beautiful, even though like you there was no way I was looking good haha. The humidity, the hair…I found that people from Bangkok are very different from the rest. I was based in Hua Hin, a small town but would attract loads of Bangkok-ians on the weekends. You can pick the difference a mile away! Like you said the more community based areas are the nicer to be in, even if a little slow. Good post πŸ™‚

    • mishvo says:

      Thanks for your comment Ulyana! Bangkok does sorta feel like a whole different universe compared to the rest of the country. I originally wanted to live here because I wanted to be sure I wouldn’t be the only English-speaker in town but in doing so, I guess I sacrificed my chances of making Thai friends.

  3. Ruth says:

    Good thoughts, mishvo. I agree – it can be really easy to feel alienated as a farang woman. I feel this sometimes even though I’m married – like, “her husband could do so much better if he ditched her for a Thai.” I know that I’m probably exaggerating… but I don’t think the alienation is just in our heads.

    • mishvo says:

      It’s not just in our heads but it is hard to know – hard to say, really – what exactly makes us feel so “alienated.” It’s subtle, just like Thai culture itself. And honestly, it’s okay this way; I’ve learned a lot about what it feels like to be an “outsider.” Definitely will play a huge role in the way I treat “outsiders” when I’m once again an “insider” in my own country (whenever that may be…)

  4. Vaughan Merlyn says:

    Another great post – and most thought provoking! If you don’t end up in a career in writing, I’ll eat my proverbial hat!

  5. nitinsaboo says:

    I rather think, lot of times people avoid talking to westerners here in India is because a) the expats tend to stick in their own formed groups and b) I have observed this (but I maybe wrong) there is a huge difference in communication culture…and what westerners want is that even when they are the guest in a different country – it is expected that the host adopts the right speaking habit, that which is considered right by the traveler. I think it should be the other way round, the traveler needs to adopt to the traveling country;s speaking habits.. and the local manners. I dont know if i made sense in communication my thought process.

    for eg- if it is considered not correct to wear short clothes in India, then it is how it is. I wouldnt necessarily want someone telling me how backward the whole tradition is or how wrong it is.

    • mishvo says:

      Hey Nitin! I couldn’t possibly agree with you more. It makes me so upset to see how some backpackers talk to Thai people. I’ve seen them become visibly frustrated by the language barrier and lash out at a song taew driver who didn’t understand or know the name of the hotel they needed to go to. Losing face is such a huge no-no here, and I guess I’ve been here long enough to where it actually makes me uncomfortable to see travelers lose face in these types of situations.

      I’ve seen many a traveler be rude and impatient with Thai people or not respect certain Thai customs, like taking off your shoes before entering a shop. On the other hand, there are many people who come here to explore the culture and learn the language. It would be a real shame if the former have just completely ruined Thais impressions’ of westerners, but I guess I could understand since I’ve witnessed the disrespect with my own eyes.

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