Sunday, December 23, 2012

I notice you have a similar skin colour to me, let's be friends

Being the odd one out has never bothered me. Maybe my introverted brain didn't develop the circuits that drive people to be accepted as part of a tribe, or maybe those neural connections gave up when it became clear at an early age that I was never going to be the life of the party and should exert more energy watching Thunderbirds and writing stories about speaking wardrobes instead. But living in Asia for two years, I've never felt like I don't belong any more than I did during my insecure teenage years on the island I happened to be born on. So I'm British, so what?

Alright, so being born and bre(a)d in England leaves more of an impact than just genetics, and I frequently exhibit (what I imagine to be) typical British traits when I get uppity about impoliteness or bad table manners. I've also not let go of the values I absorbed while living in that society, which can be a frequent source of frustration as I spend most of my time in Thailand where values are, let's say, different. I've already confessed to being confined to British tastes too, but that's more to do with being busy and settled in my ways. How many new bands did you discover this year compared to when you were skipping lectures at 20?

But that doesn't mean that if I glimpse another British person in a crowded market in a foreign country, our shared heritage will be sufficient motivation for me to go over and strike up a conversation with him. I'm quite particular about my friends, especially when there's already a good chance he's a dick. I'm not saying I'm averse to making non-foreign friends in foreign lands (though I don't do anything to encourage it), but generally the more similar we are, the less interested I am in talking to you. I don't know why the reverse is often true for you.

Why don't you like foreigners?

Unless they're 20 years your junior and you have loose morals

If I was committed to upholding stereotypical British values abroad, I'd immediately track down the nearest guest house, restaurant and bar flying Union flags and with names like 'Sri Lancashire Guest House' (true) to get away from the funny foreigners, their confusing words and their strange food that you do, admittedly, sometimes eat back home, but you know where you are with a microwave meal. When I see those places, and see the beer-bellied, purple-faced, middle-aged ex-pat with his pint, fag and sports channel, seemingly unaware he's in a different continent where you're allowed to do something different with your Saturday, I cross the street to avoid them.

I'll be optimistic and assume it's largely because of the language barrier that foreigners abroad (I'm talking about English people, because they're the only ones I have the birthright to be racist about) prefer to seek out and talk to other foreigners rather than locals. But a lot of those locals can speak your language just as well or better than the French guy you're already struggling to converse with. Don't let a similar complexion cloud you or a different coloured face deter you.

I tolerated the occasional ignorant Thai teen wearing an unambiguous swastika T-shirt, but this is going too far. Would you believe they're selling this in Tesco?

Anyway, since when is English a white language? English teaching schools in some ethnically homogenous countries like South Korea have a reputation for summing up all the diverse people of a nation with a single caricature of a man or woman (paired up with a member of the opposite sex, obviously), but if you come from a multicultural country like the UK, you don't have that excuse. But I've seen the awkward expression on Brits' faces when someone of Asian appearance who they've been actively ignoring opens a dialogue with them, relaxing when they hear a familiar accent and the person reveals they were born in Coventry before emigrating later on, so aren't the sort of authentic foreigner you should be worried about.

On my trip to Ha Long Bay, a pair of particularly self-absorbed English girls didn't even acknowledge my girlfriend's existence for two days until she had some advice about avoiding venomous beasties that was pertinent to them, and they suddenly started paying attention. I heard a similar story from my Korean ex who went on a Trek America trip and was bundled into a group of Koreans, Australians and Brits - the Koreans were completely ignored by the English girls for the better part of a week, not for want of the Koreans trying, and to the confusion of the Australians, who it turns out are less racist. It's the same closeted clan mentality that makes more xtreme xenophobes not care about anyone outside of their immediate family. RIP, Nana.

The beasties actually had better manners

Or maybe these people just worry about lacking common ground, once they've got the conversations about travelling out of the way and want someone to talk with nostalgically about WWF wrestlers of the mid-90s or commentate on some of the key differences between American and Japanese porn as they watch it critically (I overheard this in Tokyo, it was nasty). These people might be surprised by the average Asian's knowledge of Western culture, sports and pornographic trends if they gave it a try, though the Asians in question are unlikely to have their open-mindedness repaid when trying to talk to the average Westerner about anything from Asia at all, beyond casual familiarity with Pokemon and tentacle porn. Not that I know what any of those are. I was far too old for Pokemon. Oh great, I'm going to get more of those search hits now.

The bad news for any English people who approach me in 7-Eleven just because of my skin colour or because they overhear my accent is that we probably don't share much common ground. The bottom line is, we wouldn't have been friends in England, so why would we be friends in Thailand? Are you that starved for company in a country of 70 million people that you need to build a tight, white enclave? I've got a better idea, why don't you go back to England?

Why I like foreigners

I don't discriminate. As long as you're not male or something, let's not get wacky

I'm a pretty antisocial guy and happy to spend most of my time alone or with my girlfriend, but when I do talk to other people, I get a lot more out of talking to foreigners. If you're English, you don't have a lot to offer me any more, sorry. I'm not including Americans, Australasians, Canadians and Europeans in this, you're still different enough. But if there's an Asian kicking around I'll talk to her first, I think that's fair.

Semi-ironic lust aside, I've generally found it easier to get along with girls than guys, with a few notable exceptions, since I left my ridiculous all-male school at 18 and went to university. And there are certainly some cultural barriers that could prevent me from ever having a true friendship with a Thai man, to take the example of the country I've spent most of my time in and I'm getting to know in detail, thanks to second hand knowledge from my girlfriend.

I'm sure there are plenty of good eggs, but the stories I've heard about Thai men's general attitudes, and some horrifying case studies in Wila's life in particular, would mean we lacked common ground on some pretty basic human rights issues. This is a problem in many parts of Asia really, especially countries where irrelevant, outdated and hateful beliefs are fed into the psyche from an early age, religious or political (the worst offending countries tend to be those where the two aren't mutually exclusive), and even in the more liberal South Korea I had a couple of awkward and disappointing conversations that saw friendships wilting before they'd had a chance to really develop. I understand that I shouldn't expect people in different countries to share my own dogmas, but if you're not going to accept the equality of female, gay and/or black people, I'm really not interested in anything that comes out of your mouth.

Living in a country where I look and sound different means I have to deal with people staring, pointing and whispering to their friends when I pass them on the street, which is just one of the trade-offs I have to accept if I want to be here for a long time. It's more annoying when it's adults doing it, who should really have been taught better (no one stared in Korea and Japan, even in the rural regions where foreigners are more of a novelty, so I think it's a cultural thing), but it's understandable when it's kids. When I was four, my parents invited (what they presumed to be) my brother's friends from playgroup and their parents around to our house for his second birthday party, and I remember spending most of that time gawping at a Chinese girl and her mother. I wasn't afraid, I just didn't get the chance to see many exotic people in my middle-of-nowhere village. I was intrigued.

That intrigue has never really gone away. The more different you look to me, the more interested I am in having a conversation with you, and I promise I won't stare. But perhaps the general dinner party etiquette of 'no politics or religion' should be extended to no discussions of gender, sexuality, race or animal rights either. That doesn't leave many topics, but I guess we could talk about Red Dwarf or something. What do you mean you've never heard of it? Where's a British person when you need one???


  1. My face currently appears on my blog homepage 11 times. Sometimes in a different ethnicity or gender, admittedly, but still a narcissism record.

  2. At least your blog isn't just a front for having a gallery of pictures of your face.

    1. Do you have to do word verification to leave a comment now, or is it the same?

      I selected that option a while ago when the spam stopped amusing me, and it has stopped it. But it doesn't make me verify anything, maybe because I'm special.

    2. Yeah, even after I've logged into my WordPress account it still makes me do some capcha things. I was going to mention it, but it seemed like a minor quibble. One mine there's a way you can let people with a certain number of approved comments do what they want. Do you have something similar that would make me feel like I was getting special treatment?

    3. I've also noticed that they keep wanting me to tell them house numbers. I presume this is in some way linked to me deciphering stuff for their maps system.

    4. I don't think so, sorry. If I didn't have word verification there's only the option to just let registered users comment, which seems to include all logged-in services, but sometimes my mum likes to comment anonymously to say 'That is disgusting. Love mum' and she doesn't have log-ins because she exists in the real world.

      I do appreciate your comments, considering most days I only say about four words (a couple of thank yous when buying overpriced soft drinks from newsagents - $4). So please keep doing unpaid deciphering for them.