Living in America, I always had a comfortable seat in the majority because of the color of my skin and the amount of money in my parents’ bank account. I grew up in a small town overrun by white, middle-class Americans with very little diversity. In college, although I encountered a significant population of African-American students, as well as many foreign students, the white students still easily outnumbered the others. When I arrived in Thailand, it was the first time I stepped into a space where I was part of a minority. The various brown skin tones that surrounded me made me look (and feel) more white than I ever had before. For the first time, I stood out. I had never known what it was like to be an oddity, to be an object of interest when walking along the street, or to be referred to not by my name, but by a term used for all white people. In many cases, my identity dissolved and became wrapped up in one word—farang.
‘Farang,’ which means foreigner in Thai, is not often used as an insulting term by the people of Thailand. It is simply a word used to identify you in a crowd. It is neither a compliment nor an insult and is meant to be taken as neither. It is more of a factual statement than anything else. I am a foreigner, and when Thais call me ‘farang,’ they’re acknowledging this. When walking down the streets of my village, I can understand very few words that pass between my neighbors, but ‘farang’ is not an uncommon one for me to pick out of their conversations. While they usually don’t mean to demean foreigners in any way by calling them by this name, it does work to set us apart. Being called ‘farang’ reminds us that we aren’t native, and that, because of this, we can never fully belong in Thai society. We are different. Our skin color makes us so. It gives us away, makes it impossible for us pass unnoticed. My skin is like a spotlight. Eyes are drawn to me as the thing that stands out in the room. My actions are watched and judged more than any Thai’s.
I’ve never had the experience of being looked upon as an object of fear or aversion, as many minorities in America have. I’ve never had to worry about what opportunities I would be denied because of the color of my skin. These things are still true now that I’m in Thailand. My experience and the experiences of minorities in America are vastly different. As a foreigner here, I am treated with respect, not fear. I have many opportunities for work simply because I speak English. I don’t know what it’s like to live as a minority in a country where many of the citizens treat those minorities as inferior. I don’t know what it’s like to deal with discrimination in daily life. I have only ever felt discriminated against with the Thai police. They rarely pull people over; more often, they will set up roadblocks and simply beckon random drivers to the side of the road to get checked out. In general, they will aim to pull over foreigners because 1) they know they probably don’t have an international driver’s license (an offense that comes with a 500 baht ticket) and 2) they expect foreigners to have more money which means they can ‘bribe’ the officer by giving him or her some money on the spot, lining the officer’s pockets and saving them the trouble of writing out a ticket. I’ve been stopped by the police three times during my seven months here, and two of those times I felt I would’ve been safe if I had had a different skin color (the other time I really did do something wrong). That knowledge is hard to swallow. Those experiences inserted a sizable dose of negative energy into my life here, and I can’t imagine what it would be like to deal with discrimination on a daily basis. Even the small taste that I have received here has caused me to have more sympathy and respect for minorities and the complications that title brings to their life.
Thai society, as I’ve explained before, is one of inclusion. My white skin does not mean I am shunned or excluded from daily life in any way. I am often invited to Thai events, my neighbors make an effort to talk with me in English, and most of my students respect me as much as they respect their Thai teachers. But I find that I am sometimes viewed as an anomaly or something to be played with (this is very likely unconscious on the Thais’ part). For example, I’ve been stopped while walking along the street several times just so a Thai can test their English skills. Shy children will approach me and say, ‘Hello!’ and then erupt into cheers and applause when I return the greeting. I understand how some foreigners would be upset by this, but my time here has taught me to enjoy these experiences for what they are, to laugh with the children, and be grateful that I am seen as something exciting and not something frightening. The place I am occupying in Thai society is offering me a new and enlightening experience. Then again, every day in Thailand offers me an experience that teaches me something. Maybe today I learn something about myself. Tomorrow, about human nature. The next day, who knows.