Monday, July 23, 2012

I Think I'm Turning Thai

A couple of weeks ago, it was brought to my attention that I may be turning Thai.

It was another hundred degree (38+ Celsius for those that don't speak American) Sunday afternoon in Northeast Thailand. Unlike Arizona's dry heat I grew up in, this is a nauseating type of humidity that makes sitting in an un-airconditioned room unbearable. So, I head to the local grocery store to catch an hour of air-con and pick up a few bits.

I wait on the street to catch songtaew number three to the grocery store. I wear long jeans and a conservative polyester short-sleeved shirt, an outfit I'd once deemed unfit for such brutal heat. With no nearby awning for shade, I pull out my umbrella for a momentary relief of the beating sun. The pink songtaew approaches, I wave it down using the Thai hand motion that symbolizes "come here" - a hand formation that closely resembles "go away" in my culture.

I step onto the vehicle, no longer phased that there are fifteen people crammed into a pick-up truck sized space. A gentleman offers me his seat and joins the other men who hang off of the back in a manner that once made me sure they'd fall off and die. Nestled in between an elderly woman carrying a basket of raw meat and a mother whose curious baby tugs on my bag, I reflect on my American friends' joking words from the morning skype session:

"You are so Thai."

I take a sip from my water bottle through a straw and glance around at the dark Laotion-toned locals, expecting to meet many curious glazes as usual on songtaew rides, given that such a close proximity allows the locals prime farang-staring time.

To my surprise, there were no wandering eyes; everyone seemed pre-occupied in their own thoughts and business.

"You are so Thai."

No, of course, I am not Thai. I don't look Thai. But perhaps, after ten months here, I am finally...blending in? Even just a little bit.
Photo from Vietnam - but I've perfected my squat after one too many squat toilets

Once upon a time, I would have never left the house in such weather wearing anything but a tank top & shorts or a sun dress. Back in Ithaca, I would have rolled out of bed in some form of pajamas for a quick market visit.

Thai people dress very conservatively, coupled with the fact they'll do anything to avoid a sun tan, and you won't likely see Thais wearing a tank top, or even a bathing suit while swimming (they wear clothes in the water). Pants are the most polite of choices, and yet I search their foreheads for any perspiration that might signal discomfort from their attire (nope!--I swear they don't sweat). They typically are well-dressed and take pride on their appearance, wearing outfits to the market that I might reserve for an occasion.

As a farang in a non-tourist region of Thailand, I stand out enough as it is. I've often counted my blessings that I'm not tall and blonde like some of my friends who really stand out like a sore thumb. Still, I am foreign looking, and in a culture where blatant staring is not rude, I've become accustomed to drawn-out looks. There is no need to attract further attention by behaving in a manner that Thais do not. Thus, over time, my daily repertoire of outfits and behaviors have changed. 

Trust me, you don't want to be the only one in an entire city whose shoulders are exposed. Despite the killer heat, I dress as modestly as I can bear and instead of comfortable but grungy attire, I try to put a bit more effort into what I wear (although I will always have a soft spot for a good T-shirt.)

The Thai hand gesture to signal "come here" has become first nature; my farang friends and I even find ourselves using it with each other. Anything else would feel unnatural.

Gulping open- mouthed straight out of a water bottle suddenly seems impolite. You're always provided with a straw when you buy drinks, and you best use it if you don't want to make a scene.

Umbrellas are a standard accessory for Thai people. If it's not raining, than the sun is likely shining, and heaven forbid some natural Vitamin D were to counter-act all that money the spent on whitening lotions and powders. Although I do still prefer my skin tanned despite my white-ish skin being a hot commodity in this culture, I admit an umbrella does take the edge off the heat.

I've forgotten how to properly use a knife. It feels awkward even putting a fork directly in my mouth. It's all about the spoon here and the fork is just the accomplice to move the food onto the spoon. 

It has become an instict to greet people with a "wai" - sometimes I find myself (slightly embarrassingly) starting to wai the other foriegn teachers.

I never enter my home with shoes on. I can't stand my beer without ice. When dishes arrive one by one to the table, we don't wait for each other to begin eating. I instinctually refer to anyone older than me adding a 'Pee' before their name out of respect. I function on Thai time - perpetually ten minutes or so late.

A couple weeks ago, my English friend and I were the only ones in a movie theater (why no one else wanted to stare at Channing Tatum for two hours, even if it wasn't dubbed in Thai, is beyond me). Before every movie in Thailand, the King's song plays and everyone stands in respect of their revered King. Despite being farang in an empty theater, we stood for the King's song.

These are just a few of the habits I've both sub-conciously & consciously developed from living as a minority in a very Thai region.

No one wants to feel out of place in their own home - so you do what you can to blend in, or at best, not attract unnecessary attention. 

Looking around that songtaew on that Sunday afternoon, I almost felt a sense of accomplishment. 

Maybe, just maybe, I look like I belong here.

I think I'm turning Japanese Thai


EllenmotherofSEAsiandaughter said...

I saw that movie this weekend with Eileen. Loved it!

Lani Cox said...

That's so sweet that you two stood up in the otherwise empty movie theatre! 555 I never thought the hailing a songtaew hand wave was like our "going away"...clever.

I certainly dress differently too. And not just the teacher clothes. I just know, even in "modern" CM that if I wear shorts I will be looked upon a certain way, I just have to be in the mood for that!

Love the new look of the blog, cheers from rainy CM :)

Alicia Messing said...

Wonderful article - you really know how to write....

EMELEE said...

Nice 'title' mom :)

Joni Sweet said...

Really great piece. I can absolutely relate to the part of adopting foreign mannerisms when you're in a new place long enough!

Anonymous said...

I know the feeling! On the airplane yesterday, even after several months away, the flight attendant didn't give me a second look when handing out the arrival cards to foreigners. The Buddhist nun next to me had to flag her down!
Great writing. Love your blog.

Andrea Eisinberg said...

Thanks for all the comments :)

Jess that is too funny. I am jealous you're back in Thailand - I miss that place so much already. Good luck!