As a foreigner living in Thailand, I don’t blend in. I am visually present in every situation. I am noticed. I am gawked at. The Land of Smiles becomes the land of stares. After a year of living here, this attention is something that I still haven’t gotten used to. I moved to Bangkok from the DMV area where I could come and go as I pleased without anyone questioning my presence.
When taxi drivers or waiters hear me speak, they want to know immediately where I’m from. America is almost never a satisfactory answer. “No, your parents, your grandparents, your family. Where you from?” A few months after moving to Bangkok, I was walking down the street and asked another foreigner to please excuse me as I moved past him. He remarked in a clear mid-western accent that my English was really great. To which I answered, “So is yours. I’m also American.” If we were on this same street in Milwaukee he would have just moved out of the way.
It’s true that most people’s perspective is steeped in ignorance; but in 2015 when the leader of the free world is a black man, the overwhelming conflation of whiteness with America is incomprehensible.
In a city of over 8.5 million people, I am continually baffled that many refuse to readily acknowledge that black Americans exist. Particularly a city infamous for selling the highest quality counterfeit Beats by Dre headphones, Lebron James jerseys and Kobe Bryant sneakers. The same caddy who exclaimed “Tiger Woods” when my husband arrived at the golf course also asked him about his country and if he had Ebola. Whenever I travel with my son, people take pictures of him and try to touch his face and hair without asking permission. They are curiously obsessed that he is unquestionably black but has fair skin and light eyes.
I also can’t ignore the privilege that seems to come with my association to America. Even if the Thais don’t completely believe me, cab drivers take note that my condo is in extreme proximity the U.S. Embassy and that my accent is very American. I am definitely treated better when Thais believe I am not African, as if there is a hierarchy to blackness. I went to buy some bread from a bakery in my neighborhood and the woman behind the counter was quite rude and refused to help me, despite me pointing to the rolls I wanted and showing her my money. I went back to the bakery with my Thai maid, Kuhn Daeng, who explained to her what I needed and her whole attitude changed. She even spoke in English to me. On the silent walk back home, Kuhn Daeng patted me on my hand and said, “Madame, I tell her you not African. Everything ok.”
I’m black American, so I have dealt with my fair share of experiences with microaggression and intentional discrimination, but it’s always more troubling for me when people of color perpetuate these imperialistic ideals against other minorities. I don’t believe Thais are as racist as they are prejudiced. Every store in Thailand is stocked with lightening creams and potions. The women walk around with umbrellas in 90-degree weather to keep from getting darker. Obviously my dark skin is a reminder of what Thai culture has already conditioned them to dislike about themselves.
After a particularly horrible afternoon running errands, I came home almost in tears, ready to pack my bags and go home to my Mama. A security guard followed me around a store, a barista pretended I wasn’t waiting in line and attempted to serve a customer behind me and a cab driver threatened to leave me on the side of the road after I refused to pay more than the meter read. It all just felt so personal. I’m educated, clean, well-mannered, respectable — what other reason would people have to mistreat me? As I turned the key to open my front door, my Thai neighbor popped her head out from across the hall and rushed over to me with a plate of mango and sticky rice and outstretched arms. “Peuang Di!” Good friend! And just like that my day was made. Any day I can be treated simply as a person is a good day for me.
I continue to try to live my life, giving honor and respect to everyone I encounter. I hate when people say they don’t see color or race or ethnicity. These factors are part of what makes us who we are. I see all of these things, but just because I acknowledge these differences doesn’t mean I treat people any differently. Because humanity.