Being in Thailand is both isolating and uniting for me. I feel very “one with others” here, certainly more-so than I ever did in America. I think being in a new culture and surrounded by people who are very different from me has forced me to look for the things that make me similar to other people, rather than different or unique. In Fairbanks, I’m pretty average as far as physical appearance goes. Average height, average weight, and pretty average skin color. Here, I am an anomaly, especially in my very Thai neighborhood. For this post, I’d like to talk a bit about what it’s like to be white, woman, and…lingual? What is the word to describe the ability to only speak one language? American? (just kidding!)
As I’ve mentioned, I am very, very white. Even in Alaska, I’m considered pretty pale. Like, translucently white. And here in Thailand, I constantly sweat. So, shiny and translucent white. Check out the picture if you’re in doubt! I think you get the idea. Well, as irony would have it, in Asia where most of the population is a very healthy-looking brown, white is the new black (bad and confusing joke).
To be pale in Thailand means to have lived a life of privilege, of being able to stay inside out of the hot sun (and presumably the rice paddies) and pay other people to do your hard labor. As the quest for true beauty blooms eternal, Thai people are enthusiastic consumers of “whitening cream” (also in powder form!). I heard about this cream before I ever came over, but assumed it was just sunblock to keep dark skin from getting any darker. Turns out, whitening cream actually DOES make your skin whiter. How so, you ask? Simple: bleach. Yes, this cream has honest-to-God bleach in it, and it seems that everyone, even poorer families, use it. I’ve even seen it on infants as the lay in their shaded strollers. The desire to be white, or at least a paler shade of brown leads many people, especially women, to wear white powder foundations under their make-up, giving them a strange ghostly look. Quite often when I buy food from street vendors, the seller will comment on my skin and tell me that I am very beautiful. I’m come to the conclusion that my “beauty” has nothing to do with how I look, and everything to do with the color of my skin.
While on that subject, making comments about potentially embarrassing features of someone’s appearance doesn’t have nearly the stigma in Thailand that it does in America. I’ve always been particularly careful about commenting on other people’s appearance, as you just never know what will really bother someone. Asking about a new haircut is generally about all my comfort level can handle. In Thailand, it is perfectly acceptable to comment about people’s weight (and not necessarily weight lost), skin color, skin clarity (as was asked much to the mortification of my western co-worker, “why you have big pimple on your face?”), and other topics that I have always left alone. At first, it made me very self-conscious to have people constantly be commenting on my appearance, especially since their comments were aimed at a feature that really made me different from everyone else. It can be especially unnerving the way people will stare at me as I walk down the street, and little kids will touch my legs and rub my skin, as if expecting the whiteness to wear off. I constantly feel as if I’m being watched, though in recent weeks I’ve become more accustomed to it and now try to take it as a compliment when people gawk.
Asian people, especially Thais, tend to have very flattened noses. Some people have almost no bridge to speak of, with their nose disappearing into the plane of their face before reappearing between their eyes. Apparently, having a high nose is a sign of beauty (I haven’t figured out the reasoning behind this. I think it’s more of a “the grass is greener” situation), and women here actually get nose surgery to make their noses bigger and give them a more distinct bridge. For those of you who know me (and especially those of you who know my dad), large noses run in the family. Our profiles tend to be rather parrot-like, and in Thailand, my nose is apparently all the rage. When shopping with co-workers the other day, I had my friend Pa tell me how much she wished for a nose like mine. I couldn’t believe it! I tried to explain to her that I was teased as a kid for my nose, and that women in American tend to always want smaller noses, rather than larger ones. She didn’t understand, and insisted that my nose was beautiful and even showed me a picture of her friend who had undergone surgery to have one just like mine! While it is beyond bizarre how turned the tables are in Thailand in terms of western beauty ideals, it’s somewhat nice to suddenly be strange and beautiful in this new country.
Another thing I’ve observed in Thailand is the great respect people have for one another. Perhaps it’s because my inability to speak Thai shields me from overhearing any negative comments or gossip, but in general, Thai people have never been anything but kind, patient, and welcoming to me. If they speak any English at all, they always try to use it to communicate with me. If they don’t speak any English, they at least try to gesture and use hand signals to help me along. I don’t feel that being a woman puts me at any disadvantage here, though that may be because I’m white and am an exception to some Thai expectations for women. Being white and western aside, however, I feel that my age is the only thing that makes me more or less than someone else. Thais have a very strict hierarchy when it comes to age, and when an elderly person gets on a bus, a younger person will immediately stand up and give them their seat. No questions asked. People frequently offer to hold other people’s bags on busses if the original bag-bearer is standing, and even the crazy green buses from Hell will come to a complete stop if an older person needs an extra second to get on board.
The one thing I do notice, I suppose, is that Thais are impressively more modest than Americans. Part of this is wanting to shield their skin from the sun to prevent tanning, and part of it is that Thais are used to hot weather and feel cold even when I’m in danger of sweating to death, but mostly I feel that they are just very conservative. Every now and again you’ll see a woman in short shorts or a lower-cut top, but even the prostitutes on the streets in skeevier parts of town manage to look classy and beautiful rather than skanky. I have always been a pretty conservative dresser, but here I sometimes feel that even I push the envelope. I think part of it is that my blinding whiteness really stands out against the traditional skin tones of my neighborhood, but I also make sure to change into pants (or at least capris) after visiting the gym. Because of the heat, I usually wear tank tops everywhere with thick-ish straps, but even then I’ll sometimes feel that my arms show too much skin, and will wish for a tee-shirt. Strange, especially coming from a country where people of all shapes and sizes will show just about anything (or everything), but at the same time, I like the conservative feel.
I’ve also noticed that Thai people tend to be very loving toward each other, as is reflected in their pop culture. I constantly am seeing t-shirts, pants, buttons, etc. that have sayings reflecting a national feeling of love and acceptance toward others. Most of them are written in broken English, but seeing that their frequently sold in Thai markets rather than touristy areas suggests to me that they are aimed at the Thai population rather than visiting foreigners. I really like that attitude in clothing, and am finding myself shocked to visit white areas of town and see shirts with a picture of a hand flipping the bird, a naked woman, or other profane images.
In other news, Maura (western co-worker/friend) went out this weekend to Khao San Road and has a really wonderful time. There’s something very special about travelers. A overwhelming majority of the travelers I have met are outgoing, friendly people who are excited to meet people from other countries. I know that’s certainly how I feel, and Maura and I were fortunate to meet a dozen different people this weekend who all felt the same. We met people from Australia, England, Scotland, South Africa, Canada, Tonga, Sweden, France, Ireland, Norway, and New Zealand. And those are just the countries I remember! It was really fantastic to sit at a table and at any point in time hear up to five other tongues. Thankfully, laughter and a love for beer are universal languages, and we all had a great time even if we couldn’t completely understand each other. On an unimportant but related note, my ability to speak French is greatly improved by a couple of Blue Lagoons!
Anyway, thanks for reading, and look for my next post around this time next week!