Part 1: Depigmented in Thailand

A Brief Introduction

I have been developing this series of posts both on paper and in my mind since shortly after we arrived.  I have delayed posting this due to my desire to wait until the chaos of transition subsided, to recognize if it was more of a phenomenon related to the newness of our arrival, to read more about myriad social issues, and to process the significance of this in my mind. I am hopeful that this series of posts is coherent and thought provoking.

Part 1: Depigmented in Thailand

As a light-skinned, depigmented, or white person in rural, northeast Thailand, it would be an understatement to say that we are noticed. Thai culture is extremely polite and when people enter a room they bow and greet each person individually. It is time consuming, but it is just one example of how Thailand has a relationship-based culture. This custom is pretty consistently followed, especially where we live and where we work. People intentionally and individually acknowledge each other. Before we arrived, I joked that I would be the first person in a room or to a meeting to avoid the awkwardness of this custom in the face of my cultural norms. Just like at home, I am never the first person to a meeting, but I quickly adjusted to the custom. Every morning, I “Y” (the act of bowing) and say “sawat-dee-krahp” to each patient at my work.

Each time Susan and I go for a run, a bike ride or are just out, we are quickly reminded that we are noticed. We travel through towns and children yell “hello” or “helloooo” or “hi”, but adults will commonly do the same thing. People will also say things like “good job” or “run, run, run” or “awe gahm lahng guy” (which means exercise). As we pass, we also hear the Thai equivalent of “come look” or “hurry, hurry” to people in their house. Part of this is that running for exercise is less common, but part of it is not. Everyone smiles at us, people say hello and turn around to look at us as they speed by on motorbikes. We can be riding on a country road and people will wave and yell “hello” from 150 yards away. Many days we feel like even the staring cows take an abnormal amount of notice as we move past.

                               This is a water buffalo, but clearly he is staring!

                              This is a water buffalo, but clearly he is staring!

At other events, I have had men I have not met or been introduced to come and shake my hand or grab my arm. This happened at a farm, and again when we were leaving a day at the lake recently. When Susan and I hit the dance floor with the teenagers we accompanied to the Loy Krathong festival, there were adults joining our group and dancing with us (some of whom were inebriated). The teenagers we know are regularly posing for pictures with us to “show off” to their friends, but I attribute this more to our ‘foreignness’ than our ‘whiteness’ (the more likely cause is obviously our ‘coolness’!).

I suppose the point of today's post is - we are different here. We are noticed as being different, we are treated as being different, and it can be awkward and require some adjustment. We knew some of this before we came, but I am not sure we could have been prepared for how often and openly our difference is acknowledged. I am not sure I will ever get used to it, and next week you will hear about how the acknowledgement affects me.


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