On June 3, 2013, I was sitting at my gate in the Hong Kong airport waiting to board my flight to Bangkok, the flight that would mark my official move to a new country. I vividly remember the feeling of giddiness coupled with my statement, “I’m surrounded by all Asians! I love it!” (Cringey? Yes, maybe. Bear with me.)
See, I’d amped up my move so much during the short time frame I’d been given (two months) between acceptance into the sending organization and being sent. I’d been completely head-over-heels for Asia, Asian people, and, specifically, Thailand and Thai people for two full years already. June 3 meant that the time was finally here! It was completely and utterly here — and proven by my physical surroundings: a smattering of Asians of numerous nationalities, all on their way to Bangkok. With me.
My arrival in Bangkok was not unsettling or shocking in the slightest, as I’d visited for the first time in 2011, so two years later I was not surprised by the things that might hit you upon a first sighting (or first smelling, as some would say) of the city outside the airport. My arrival was, instead, heaped with joy, a sense of homecoming, and further giddiness over this new sensation of intimately knowing and loving a foreign land, and finally returning to it.
My first week back in Thailand: wonderful. I spent it at orientation in Bangkok with, yes, some new people, but I took them to first-timers’ must-sees like the Grand Palace and Terminal 21. My return to Thailand felt exactly as I’d expected it to: warm and cozy, like home.
The next fifteen months up to the present: largely disheartening. I haven’t put my finger on all the reasons why yet, and I honestly can’t plumb the depths of it all right this minute because I don’t yet have enough emotional or physical distance to do that. But I do want to attempt a fumble through a few possibilities.
It is obviously an upside-down experience for a blonde-haired, blue-eyed American girl to be a minority. Take me outside Bangkok, Chiang Mai, and Phuket (the three most heavily expat-populated cities in Thailand), and all — I mean all — eyes are on me. In some ways, it’s an introvert’s haven: you get on the song-thaew to ride to work, and no one speaks to you (language barrier like whoa) and no one smiles at you or otherwise acknowledges you, but everyone stares at you. Most stare until you look back at them; then they blink and turn away. But there are the few — not uncommonly — who will stare right back, unblinking, just s t a r i n g. Now, there are the very few times when no one will stare, and it is like a slice of heaven. But even with all the staring, I — an introvert — am otherwise unbothered. If people are talking all around me, I hear them but can’t understand a word of what they’re saying. It is rare that anyone attempts to talk to me. And, so, I can sit in a crowd of people (a crowd of stare-y people, more often than not) and feel as if I’m completely alone with my own thoughts. There’s no possibility for multi-tasked listening since I can’t understand the radio, the billboards, or the words of the person sitting beside me on my skirt hem. It’s just me, alone with whatever my thoughts might be. (Hint: they’re typically about how it could not be any hotter than it is right now.)
For the record, I cannot speak Thai. (Not for a lack of desire, mind you. I’ve met people who have lived in this city for years and have yet to find someone to tutor them. I’m telling you, this is no Bangkok.) But I’d say that my success rate at ordering lunch and dinner is at 90% and that, after some speech attempts plus hand motions, I can usually get my destination across to a motorcycle taxi driver, van driver, or bus station attendant. Sometimes these interactions go swimmingly; sometimes they are the worst. Sometimes my conversation partner is smiling and encouraging; sometimes she / he is visibly irritated and eye-rolling. And sometimes I’m on the receiving end of the irritation and eye-rolling before I even open my mouth to speak — simply because I’m a foreigner. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been applauded by Thai people because “I can speak Thai so well!” and then, the very next day or hour or minute I am met with laughter or frustration or actually being walked away from when I try to speak to someone else.
I have had people clap at me to get my attention. I’ve had fingers snapped in my face. I’ve had handfuls of people walk away from me when I’m trying to communicate something to them. I’ve had fistfuls of people turn to the person beside them and speak in Thai for minutes rather than answering my attempts. I’ve had servers see me approaching and they immediately sigh or roll their eyes or make someone else deal with me (that’s what it feels like).
For awhile, I believed this was the exception to the rule. (This really is rare and shocking to Thai people I tell, but I’ve even had a group of servers laugh in my face and mimic me.) And really and truly, so many Thai people are exceptionally warm and forgiving and considerate. I’ve had people bend over backwards to make sure I get to my destination (i.e. calling friends to drive me to where I need to go; themselves driving me halfway across town to my hotel because the van dropped me off at the wrong location; and talking to bus station attendants in Thai for me to be extra sure I get on the correct bus). I’ve had countless people stop to tell me how beautiful I am. Dozens of kids have run up to me to say hello or to ask “How are you?” in English, and they’re always so tickled when I respond. The restaurant owners near my house have made every effort to make me feel included in their family amusements when I’m eating at their restaurant, and they’ve taken care of my bills that have shown up in my mailbox late and then need to be taken who-knows-where to be paid in-person, and they’ve watched my pets while I’ve been away.
The thing is, being one in a thousand (the one that sticks out?) is extremely, exceedingly draining. It has worn me down to the thinnest version of myself. I can totally understand why some foreigners grow bitter here: because the bad, the embarrassing, the awkward, and the cruel can stick out so, so, so much more than the outstanding, the kind, the selfless, and the gracious.
I’m not sure what the conclusion should be here. All I know is that I feel like I’m in the strangest position: a white girl being a minority — imagine that! (Obviously that’s not so bizarre if the scope of your day-in-and-day-out thoughts extend beyond North America and Europe.) I do know that I think constantly now about those who immigrate to America, or anywhere else for that matter. I think constantly about native-born citizens who are minorities within their own homelands. I imagine what the stigmas attached to them could be, and in some instances I know these stigmas all too well because they’re assumptions I’ve made about them in the past.
Oh my goodness, for the love, have everlasting patience with English language learners. Bear with them as they smile and point and turn a little red and try to eek out the English words they’ve been practicing over and over for this particular exchange. For the love, believe that a minority could actually be a native-born citizen with a higher pay grade and three times more education than you. It’s so possible. From my own exceedingly minimal and, in comparison, sososo painless experience as a minority in Thailand, I’m asking you to see human when you look at people unlike yourself. Enough awful interactions start piling up quickly after awhile, and life becomes miserable. As a “by appearance, typical” American, European, Brazilian, Kenyan, Indonesian, you have so much power to instill with hope those who typically get a bad rap. Note: This is not to say that minorities are weak and need the majority to uphold them and give them reason to live. But it is to say, Speak with love, take a deep breath and speak with patience, and golden rule it. Interact as you’d wish to be interacted with. It really makes so much difference.
A very important PS: If you know much about the employment of native speakers in the Thai school system, then you might be protesting what I’ve written in this post. Let me say, it is true that native speakers are highly desirable as English teachers here; it is not difficult to find a teaching job; and the salary is (I’d say, unfairly) higher for native English speakers than for non-native English speakers. (An example to underscore this last point: I’ve met Thais and Filipinos with fantastic English ability and a neutral accent who are either paid less or simply not hired in favor of a strongly-accented Brit, Australian, etc.) To me, this is unfair and quite obviously in favor of the white-skinned foreigner. All that to say, for me, living as a minority in Thailand can be quite cushy in terms of employment opportunities and salary. Hear me on this: I am not complaining about either or asking to be “elevated” to the level of a Thai person. (For the record, I’ve never even felt some kind of top-down Thai-foreigner hierarchy.) That is not the case at all. All I’ve wanted to do in this post is raise the very interesting issue of immigrating to another country where a) the tables are turned, and you are now the minority and b) your native language is not spoken with fluency or functionality by the majority of the country. What happens then? How does it make you feel? How does it affect your interactions with minorities in your native country and in others where you travel? That’s all.