There is racism that is intended and there is the innocent racism that arises out of ignorance. Let me give you an example of the latter…
Hmm….scratch that first draft.
I’m conjuring numerous instances of racism I’ve faced in Thailand, most notably in Buriram, and with each instance that currently comes to mind, there is the ever pervasive thought….I don’t know if that’s innocent, but I do know it wasn’t intended to harm, at least not overtly (in the way many of us Westerners have come to expect of racist remarks and/or actions). Rather, the intent was to remind me of my place.
In the Thailand I know, someone in a position of esteem and/or power reminding someone lower on the social ladder of their place in society is not a vice. For many, it seems both a right and a pleasure. The rich can remind the poor, the old can remind the young, the white skinned can remind those darker, men can remind women, women can remind children, the thin can remind the plump, the beautiful can remind those that aren’t deemed beautiful, those born in Bangkok can remind everyone else in the country…the list continues. There is a very distinct social order here that is rarely questioned and one’s value is often placed on that which they cannot control.
Perhaps a better way to rephrase is, from what I’ve experienced in Thailand, there is the racism that is intended to harm and there is the racism that stems from the belief that anyone not Thai is of lesser intelligence, culture, ability and value than those who were born of The Kingdom. Should you be the recipient of the latter, it is because the person delivering was of high morality to be kind to a lesser being. Should you be the recipient of the former, it just means they hate you. However, although public display of contempt is frowned upon, they won’t be held accountable for their actions, they’re Thai.
As a good Foreigner who was allowed in The Kingdom, you are to save face, a.k.a. keep your mouth shut and take it. Should you not, you not only embarrass and lose face for yourself, you do so for all of your People. You also prove to the person administering the hate, those present and those later gossiped to, that indeed you deserved it. Should you protest physically, be it in any form of perceived violence and/or aggression acted upon a Thai national or anything belonging to one, you are responsible for placing your physical well-being in danger, a.k.a. expect a beatdown by any amount of Thais in the immediate area. You further feed the perception that your kind is of lower standing, hence not worthy of the same respect as one who was born Thai.
(Please note, I’m not implying all Thai nationals are racist, the above is more of an explanation from my experience, of the forms racism takes in Thailand.)
A very common and basic example of the latter form of racism I encounter here, of the racism that is meant to remind me of my place in Thai society, which is that of The Other, The Foreigner/The Farang, The Not Thai…
Often people ask me about my romantic situation. Strangers, friends, anyone. This is normal. Sometimes people simply ask if anyone likes me. Should I answer and speak of a Thai male who has expressed interest(i.e. stating yes, someone does like me), the person I’m speaking to, regardless of age, gender, place in society, anything other than the fact they are Thai will often respond with something to the effect of,
“They’re only interested in you because they think you’re rich. They want your money.”
Should I disagree with their conclusion, I’m apt to politely retort with examples of why this assumption may not be accurate. Sometimes I present argument (note, not an argument) simply for the fact that I’m becoming weary of this automatic marionette-like response. Typically this elicits a number of reactions, not limited to: a smarmy head nod, the question – If it were not for the money, why would a Thai man want a Farang?; the claim that no matter what will happen, they will always have a Thai girlfriend and she will be Number One, because, I’m Farang; laughing as though what I’ve said is preposterous…the list goes on.
Sometimes I’m not told that they want me for my money, I’m told they have expressed interest because white girls are easy.
No matter the circumstance, it usually degrades to someone reminding me that I’m not Thai, thus of lower value.
A perfect example was uttered by a once close friend,
“Why would they want you when they have so many Thai women around?”
Funny I choose this as the kinder form of racism I’m faced with in Thailand. And racism is something I’m faced with often. Often meaning, sometimes daily, sometimes multiple times daily. Sometimes not for days. Most of it occurring in Buriram. I’ll give you an example today:
I walk into a local restaurant. Two men are seated in the back and to my right, eating. A woman, is seated beside them at another table. Her back faces me.
One of the men, a motorcycle taxi smiles and says, “Hello…?”
I smile back.
The woman mumbles some racist nastiness. How do I know? Because Farang, the Thai word for Foreigner slides out of her mouth, the way it does when it’s used as a derogatory slur. She is also dismissive, and turns her back towards me after a contemptuous frown.
The man facing me, is shocked, then everyone laughs. The woman is wearing an apron. I wait for a few minutes. She neither looks in my direction, calls out to someone in the back room to help me, nor stands up. As I am trying to decipher what is happening and determine if she is the cook, a Thai man in his forties, enters the building.
The woman turns, smiles and walks towards him.
The man politely informs her that I was waiting first.
More angry mumbling and the word Farang being spit out like a bitter worm. The man is left shocked and uncomfortable. We look at one another. He realizes I understand the situation. I glance at the woman who refuses to meet my gaze. She asks the man what he would like to eat.
I leave the restaurant.
I turn back to see the man, the new customer, sitting and appearing ashamed as the woman cooks his meal. (Thank you for your kindness).
I’d love to be flippant about these circumstances, to be able to laugh off these situations, but the reality is, this racism, this constant abrasion is wearing me down. It doesn’t matter how resiliant I may think I am, this and many instances like this are lending to a hatred deep inside. One that surprises me. One that saddens me. A hatred that shames me.
I’ve learned a number of lessons here in Thailand, but one I wasn’t prepared to face was of how hate breeds hate. I’m not proud to write this. I try to acknowledge this burning passion inside me. I try to listen to it. I try reason with it. I try to quell it. But as of late, it has a mind of its own.
I’m thankful for my friend Alfred. He’s a sixty-two year old African American from Los Angeles. From first seeing Alfred, I knew he was a man that hasn’t had an easy life. Sometimes it’s just in the way someone moves, you see it. It’s in the way some people glide in the world. There’s a knowing in their movements. A heaviness that doesn’t erode with time, rather it becomes another appendage. It integrates with the body. Alfred has it and I know he was someone I could ask about facing racism. Growing up in pre-civil rights America couldn’t have been an easy start at life.
As much as I thought I had a grasp on racism, from the few times I dealt with it in North America and from witnessing it, I realize I was sorely mistaken and naive. My understanding was intellectual, not emotional. Nothing I ever experienced could have prepared me for the racism I face in Thailand. The sometimes soft, gentle picking away of your self esteem, your self love and your peace of mind. The first time, the tenth, the hundredth, the thousandth…with no recourse. No justice. No change.
I’ve realized over the past years living in Thailand, I’ve become hyper critical of my looks. At a North American size 5/6, I’m often called fat, sometimes in the way that Thais say it as a natural fact, sometimes not. I’ve been told I have the body Thai women do after they have children (not a compliment). People have laughed at my eating habits and pointed out how lithe and beautiful Thai women are. It has been commented that I must be so fat because of all of the pizza and hamburgers I must eat…The first time, the tenth, the hundredth, the thousandth. Different words, similar sentiment.
I go through moments, sometimes days, weeks, a blur of time when I try to disappear in the crowd. I shrink. I’m afraid to shine. I fear being beautiful as much as I criticize myself for not being beautiful enough. All on a deep, hidden level. On a level that should I not pay careful attention to it, the self criticism will hum away softly and erode my soul. Perhaps this is from where this hatred stems. It’s that fight inside. Out of control.
Thai friends have told me that the people who overtly send nastiness my way are simply jealous. Perhaps for some, as more often than not, it’s women who are showing me this hatred….but when will this end? Will it?
How does it feel to be a white woman in Thailand? If I were to be asked that question, I’d mirror what Alfred has said about being a black man in L.A,
“It’s like a pressure. Always on your back.”
I have some decisions to make.
I hope if you’re of the many who live in or visit Thailand, you have fared better than I. I’ve spoken to a number of men, including those in Buriram, those who have been here for years, even decades and they’re shocked by my stories. I suspect my experiences are heavily influenced by that fact that I’m female, that I can speak Thai to a fair degree (most instances are in Thai language and by people who can’t speak English) and that I’m not passing through. A couple other women I know share similar experiences in other cities.
If you have a story and/or thoughts, I’d love to hear them. Let’s keep the conversation free of bashing. I’m not trying to promote hate here. Positive experiences are welcome too! Thanks!
Saturday, October 22, 2011
Read my follow-up post, Racism in Thailand: The Lasting Effects
Read the next memoir, The Beauty Of Sickness, The Grandeur Of Silence.
Read the previous memoir, KO’d At Sitmonchai.