Life in Thailand: a self-reflective look at difference.

Life in Thailand: a self-reflective look at difference.

“Children must be taught how to think, not what to think. If we are to achieve a richer culture, rich in contrasting values, we must recognize the whole gamut of human potentialities, and so weave a less arbitrary social fabric, one in which each diverse human gift will find a fitting place…Knowledge of another culture should sharpen our ability to scrutinize more steadily, to appreciate more livingly, our own…” -Margaret Mead

Being an “other” is something new to me. It’s something I can honestly say I’ve never truly experienced prior in my life. Well, there was that one time where I felt alienated, different, and alone at a new high school my junior year, but if I’m being honest that was more just my shyness and teenage insecurities shining through. I can’t honestly say that past experience represents me being any “other” when every other student at my new school looked just like me. So I say to that part of my conscience, Sorry Emily, overruled; the verdict’s in and, feelings aside, you’re still apart of the majority group.

These thoughts about being an “other” have been swimming around my mind over the past month or so. They didn’t really surface early into my time in Thailand, too many other exciting new feelings and emotions vying for space and attention. But I think about the time I really committed myself to looking for a new job after I finish out the semester, a new job outside of Thailand, and ideally outside of Southeast Asia, is when these feelings started surfacing more frequently than before.

That timeline also coincides with my first trip outside of Thailand, when I first experienced another part of Southeast Asia, my weekend trip to Cambodia. Although very short, and nowhere near a comprehensive look into the entire country, this trip really opened my eyes on some realities about living in Thailand that I hadn’t been acknowledging until very recently. Even further, what sparked my ideas for this blog was a BuzzFeed quiz that I took on Friday night, called “How privileged are you?”

Alright now I know I’m not talking about my experience with some profoundly intellectual character study into the habits of the human character, but each question that was raised on this quiz really got me thinking. A little context for you about what led me to this particular BuzzFeed quiz on a random Friday night in Thailand:

If you were following any other international news this past weekend besides the Olympics, you may have heard about a succession of bombs that hit five separate provinces on Thursday and Friday throughout Thailand. I’m fine, no need to panic, and these attacks weren’t near where I live either. But coincidentally, I had plans to be in the place of the first and second attacks over the long weekend.

Friday was the Queen’s birthday, also known as Thai Mother’s Day, and as such I had a three-day weekend and Friday off from school. As with my usual plans and routines, my first, second, or even third choice of where to go and what to do over a long weekend certainly wouldn’t include staying in Ayutthaya. But as it so happens, I sit here in my bed on a Sunday morning in my apartment, not having taken any profound or exciting trip this past weekend.

Truthfully, my first choice of where I wanted to spend this weekend was to head up north on my own. I haven’t been to Chiang Mai yet, as I was originally waiting till the semester ended and my mom was here, to spend five days or so exploring the northern province and its uniqueness. However, now that I’m moving to Germany, and I fly out of Bangkok to Frankfurt on 1 October, my plans have changed slightly and I need to fit in a trip up north prior to the end of the semester. Ultimately though, as you may have guessed, this week’s blog is not about my weekend trip to the northern province of Chiang Mai (perhaps the title gave it away…). Being a national holiday on Friday, many people shared my intended plans, and the trains north were completely full by the time I made it over to the train station to book my ticket.

Okay, on to my second choice for an exciting long weekend adventure. My friends and I had previously discussed where we’d like to spend the holiday weekend (before my end-of-semester plans changed) and we all agreed on a weekend away at the beach. Our agreed upon destination: Hua Hin. A resort town on the coast of Thailand, similar to Pattaya, in that it’s only a few hours outside of Bangkok, thus making it relatively easy to get to. Mid-way through last week, when I realized I wouldn’t be able to make it up north for the weekend, I again texted Alice, Isabelle, and Laura that my plans had changed, and I’d be tagging along to the beach with them after all.

We had our hotel booked, our bags were packed, and we were leaving Ayutthaya together at 9AM on Friday morning. The irony here, is that it had crossed our minds to leave on Thursday night after work, get into Hua Hin late, but have extra time to spend relaxing on Friday. For some reason, not really discussed by any of us, but probably for convenience sake, we just decided to wait till Friday morning to leave in the end.

However, at four-thirty in the morning on Friday, I woke to my phone’s Facebook Messenger alert. Another teacher had texted our group saying two bombs had been set off in Hua Hin, killing at least one person, and injuring many more. This was quite alarming and caught my attention fast, especially having heard about in a half-conscious state. But, even at four in the morning, I quieted my mind for the time being and still managed to fall back asleep, albeit a bit rattled, nervous, and unsure about our plans for the day ahead.

By nine though, we had all agreed not to let fear prevent us from enjoying our weekend, and I had made my way downstairs to Al’s and Iz’s rooms. Then, we would go meet Laura outside her apartment, before catching a van to Victory Monument. This was precisely the same time that we learned of two more targeted locations, Phuket and Surat Thani, coincidentally also Thai tourism resort towns. At this point, again our plans changed. We were all a bit nervous as to what these attacks could mean for the rest of the weekend. Feeling a strong sense of concern for those injured and affected by the attacks, as well as a sense of uncertainty as to whether or not to leave. So instead, we cancelled our hotel reservations, and after discussing where else we might go on such short notice, decided to stay in Ayutthaya for the weekend ahead.

But what does any of this have to do with me feeling like an “other” for the first time in life though? I was very surprised by the way these attacks were handled in the news, or even reported to all of us from our boss. News is highly censored over here. The King has ultimate control, and second to him would be the military. Last weekend the country voted in support, for, a referendum that offered a semi-democracy and seems to tighten military rule throughout Thailand. I found it quite surprising that although votes were for expanding military control throughout Thailand, the referendum was approved by more than sixty-percent. Perhaps this was because voter turnout was only in the fifty-percent range, it still came as quite a shock to me, someone who doesn’t even begin to claim to understand much about Thai politics or voting practices either. I’m no expert here, my thoughts merely represent those of a bystander reflecting on the political process of a new nation.

Now I didn’t hear any of this from my boss. Nor did I discuss the upcoming vote and/or its impact with any of my Thai coworkers at school. I made the choice to seek out this information on my own last week.

Therefore, following this weekend’s surprisingly violent turn of events, one might assume it had something to do with a loss of democratic voice for the people of Thailand. But rather than looking in the mirror, and recognizing the impact that such changes may have on a populace, authorities were quick to point to global terrorism as an explanation, as reported on early Friday morning. All the while, as events were unfolding, I began to wonder why my boss hadn’t reached out to update any of us on what was going on. It wasn’t until late afternoon, hours after the attacks had occurred, did she finally extend a word of advice.

Why do I feel like she should be responsible for updating us all? As employer of an agency of ex-pats, she brought us all over here to work, has sponsored our visas and work permits; I feel as though she should take some sort of responsibility for the safety and wellbeing of her employees. Yet it wasn’t until hours later, like I said, that any of us received word from her. And then, in the strangest, most casual and under-emphatic email, she addressed that, “the military has everything under control,” and we need not worry at all.

Excuse me, but I’m not one to quickly buy into fear mongering, but I do believe that a small amount of worry is warranted when the situation stands as such: the bombings targeted tourist and resort towns in Thailand. I’m a “tourist” who often frequents such locations. Now I’m not saying I was scared for my life, but I was a bit nervous concerning immediate levels of safety near the targeted locations. Especially considering my boss knew that many of us had plans to travel to Hua Hin for the weekend in the first place.

What I found strange, is that she gave us no clear warnings on what to expect or how to proceed throughout the next couple of days. She didn’t even advise a small use of caution when traveling. Her email was somewhat underwhelming in my opinion. But I guess, in the end, what do I know about the culture of violence in Thailand? Perhaps she was reacting in a typical and common way. I did however, receive such caution and warnings in the form of a security message for U.S. Citizens from the U.S. Embassy and Consulate on Friday morning.

This experience sparked a lot of discussion between myself and other ex-pat friends this weekend about our thoughts and feelings living in Thailand over the past several months. Alas, we have come back to my original story, I have never before been apart of the “other” in my life. I was so confused and perplexed by the way such an event was handled that it made me realize how little I really know about Thai culture; how little I have actually assimilated to life over here, despite my original impressions. But making such a statement, as never having been the “other” before, immediately shows that I’ve lived a privileged life. Hence, the BuzzFeed quiz came up in conversation on Friday night.

My friend Isabelle asked if I had seen/taken this quiz, and I immediately looked it up on Google. I’m very glad I did and glad that I took the quiz too. You’re instructed to “Check off all the statements that apply to you.” The first statement is, “I am white,” followed by, “I have never been discriminated against because of my skin color.” I stopped and wondered, do I answer these questions from my perspective prior to or after moving to Thailand? I decided my answers would be more honest if I excluded any emotions or events I have since experienced upon arrival in Thailand.

Well, as you may very well be able to guess, the results were less than surprising. Very clearly, prior to moving to Thailand, I had experienced little to no cultural bias, except for the few gender related questions that came at the end. Now clearly, I didn’t need a BuzzFeed quiz to tell me any of this. In fact, I often joke with friends about how “vanilla” my life is. I was born and raised in white, middle-class, suburbia. I didn’t grow up around racial differences, income inequality, poverty, or anything of the sort. What has been so surprising then, and honestly probably a good thing for me to have experienced for the first time, is joining the “other” while in Thailand.

Being a white female in Southeast Asia has meant that I am exposed to a new perspective. I am constantly being talked about and not even behind my back; rather right under my nose. Anytime I hear the word “Farang!” whether at school, at a restaurant, using public transportation, in line at the 7-11, it’s me they’re talking about, doesn’t matter where I am. I get pointed at, stared at, laughed at, it’s tough. I’m not trying to paint some pity story about being the token white girl in Asia, I can certainly handle the mistreatment, but sooner or later it starts to weigh more heavily on one.

That time has now come for me. I’m honestly just tired of it all. I feel betrayed by a population that has been deemed the “Land of Smiles.” I don’t think everyone here deserves this title. If Thailand truly were the “Land of Smiles,” I feel as though I shouldn’t be constantly under scrutiny. I’m constantly shoved aside in line, constantly served last at the counter, all because of the way I look; all because I am different; all because I am the “other.”

My experiences over the past four months have given me a new perspective on social justice and change. I am proud to be a person who doesn’t point at, talk about, or laugh at people who are different than me. I used to think this was just a regular quality that any decent human being retains, but I’ve been given a new perspective over here. I am proud to have grown up, maybe not with first-hand experiences, but at least learning about the inequities in our society.

My education has afforded me with an understanding of what it means to be tolerant and accepting. I am grateful to have been raised by parents who encourage social justice and change. I am proud to be a member of an American political party that strives for equality for ALL, not just the few. And surprisingly, I am grateful for my recent first-hand experience as a member of the “other” while living in Thailand. Yes, it’s been tough, frustrating, and even at times emotional. But over the past four and a half months I have gained a greater understanding and appreciation for my values just listed.

First-hand experience is an invaluable way to learn. You can’t put a price on the knowledge, understanding, acceptance, and humility that I’ve gained over the past several months. I am very excited and eager to start a new chapter of life in Germany when October rolls around, but I do not regret for one second, my decision to come to Thailand. I am a better person for seeing first-hand, a different part of the world. I have gained new perspectives that I will take with me wherever I go in life. It hasn’t always been easy, but it’s definitely been worth it.

William Faulkner once wrote, “No man can write who is not first a humanitarian.” By leaving behind the comfort of my life at home, by stepping outside of my comfort zone, saying goodbye to familiarity, safety, and a cushioned lifestyle, I am truly learning the power behind such words. I am finding a new level of my voice to write about everyday, and I am grateful for it all.

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