When I was recruiting students to come to Thailand with my university’s study abroad trip in July, one of the comments I made was how people in Thailand are too polite to stare/point at us Caucasians. At the time, I completely believed my little anecdote. You see, while in South America, it wasn’t unusual for people to stare, point, shout and make it otherwise obvious that I was a head taller than the entire population and 8 shades lighter. In Thailand, especially in Bangkok, there are so many visitors and expats, seeing another white person is not a reason to comment. Then again, I live outside of the city center, and travel into a small residential area to visit friends and go home. In these areas, I do stand out. Still, no one has yelled about it – although I’ve gotten a few quizzical looks on the bus. Not only am I the only white person, but female and riding a form of transportation tht doesn’t even make it into the guidebooks. In the end, I know I’m an outsider but typically strangers don’t acknowledge that fact.
Until this past week. Saturday morning I suddenly manifested like a beam of Loud American Culture. I don’t know why. I wasn’t louder than usual, I hadn’t done anything special with my make-up or hair, and I was wearing a casual top and cotton knee-length skirt. Nothing special.
So, I’m riding the truck-bus and see a man on a moped come along side us from behind. He glances into the bus, straight at me, makes a face and looks away. Then turns his head again, glances at the road, and then continued staring at me. It was quite the spectacle. The headlines flashed through my head, “Thai Motorcyclist causes multi-vehicle Crash: Driver is quoted as saying he didn’t see the semi stop, he was looking at the white girl in the bus.”
Later that day, stopped in traffic, a group of young boys was walking along the sidewalk. They were probably all around 7 or 8 years old, and having a good ol’ time punching one another, giggling, and walking along. Then one of them notices the bus, looks in, nudges his neighbor and waves. I figured, maybe they saw a friend in the bus. But none of the other riders were responding. The rest ofthe little crowd was looking, giggling and waving when the bus finally started moving again. In a grand moment of cause-and-affect, the boys began running, too. Watching them, I still held illusions they were simply being silly, and their actions had nothing to do with me. Until they started practicing their English greetings, as they ran and waved. I finally waved back, and their grins nearly broke their faces in half. So much for being invisible.
That evening, once again on a bus, I was in a neighborhood right behind a mall. Some of the guards from the mall were out back, taking a smoke break. Since it was evening, it was hard to see anyone – but still they spotted the white American, and pointed me out for all to hear. In their best English, these guards yelled out every friendly phrase they could muster, calling to me and the world-at-large until I was too far to hear them.
I thought this was all a bit strange ( I still think it was all a bit strange), but moved on. Whatever, nothing painful happened, it was just odd.
Finally, Monday I was making my transfer from airport link (raised train) to the subway, walking the 2 blocks along the railroad tracks. These tracks run a very old, zero-comfort train from outside the city limits. Okay, I don’t know where it comes from – but that’s what I imagine. Zero-comfort is a fact- people are riding on the back deck, hanging out the side doors and the windows are down since there’s no AC. I’m walking along, moving around the passengers disembarking from this train, and essentially ignoring those still sitting inside, hanging out the windows in search of some air. Until one of them stopped ignoring me and yelled – and I do mean YELLED [which is uncommon in Thailand], “FARANG!”…Which means, “FOREIGNER!”
There you have it. My presence has been noticed in this Paris of Asia, and loudly noted for all to know.