Thursday, June 13, 2013

Not all Asian people are from Thailand

Being the only country in this part of the world not to be colonised by marauding Europeans, Thailand has a unique perspective on the world and its diverse peoples, and tends to favour classifying this diversity in stark black and white terms that are easier to deal with than all that complicated real-world stuff about ethnic and cultural diversity.

As a frequent visitor to this country, I'm familiar with what Thais think about white people, or 'farang' as they actually came up with a word for. We're all rich, obsessed with sex and have an irritating tendency to vocally complain when we're cheated and lied to. What a drag! One Thai person I knew had such a unified view of white people that she couldn't get her head around the idea of people from Eastern Europe looking for work in the UK or the World Wars being fought primarily between white people, even though she had no trouble appreciating her country's turbulent history with the likes of Cambodia and Burma where the people come from similar stock.

Another country where the people apparently look exactly the same as the Thais is the Philippines, as tour guides, street vendors, waitresses and hotel staff will unfailingly assume Jackie is from the same country as them and try to speak to her in Thai rather than cracking open their faulty English to talk to me, even though I speak more Thai than her. The only Thai Jackie's mastered is ฉันพูดภาษาไทยไม่ได้คะ ('I can't speak Thai'), though hearing her say this in Thai only drags the confusion out for longer, so we ended up switching to the lazy English option and I've convinced her to put on her best exaggerated American accent to avoid further ambiguity.

Mostly this is just a boring nuisance as we have to go through the same explanations and endure the forced merriment when the truth comes out that there are other countries out there where people don't look farang, black or Chinese. But the more it happens, the more it unreasonably pisses me off as the world continues to deny my girlfriend the chance to be treated equally as a fellow international traveller.

I just don't understand it

I do understand it. Completely. Filipinos may not be related to the Thai in any meaningful way (descending from Austronesians out of Taiwan whereas the Thai spread from Southern China), but when you take a broad or mildly racist view it's more or less the same thing: black hair, tanned skin, short stature, slim figure, dreamy eyes.

There's also the fact that Thailand doesn't get that many visitors from other South East Asian countries where the people look most similar to them, with most tourists being categorised as white (American, European, Australian, even South American as long as they're not black), Chinesey (not always from China) and the occasional intimidating black person.

And then there's the not exactly uncommon sight of a Thai woman on the arm of a white man (I could count the number of times I've seen the reverse coupling on one hand), so of course they make the logical leap that she's Thai. If they were presented with Jackie's image out of context and specifically asked to choose what country they thought she was from they might take a lucky guess, but otherwise they're just going to go for the simplest answer that would normally be the correct one if I wasn't so committed to leading an obscure lifestyle.

It's the same as when people always assumed I was an English teacher when they saw a rare white person hanging around in South Korea (ha ha! Wrong, losers!) or when tuk tuk drivers enquire whether I'd be interested in seeing a 'ping ping show' because I'm travelling alone (it's a night out, innit?)

Ohhh, I thought you meant... never mind, this could still take a dirty turn
(Image: TripAdvisor)

So what's the problem exactly?

So what if it's fair and understandable? It's got really annoying, especially when there seems to be some hostility behind the confusion, from local Thais and foreigners alike who may object to two similarly aged people from different countries holding hands for whatever personal reason. We get this in the Philippines too, where I'd defend our right to a relationship to the death, but tolerance isn't the point. It shouldn't matter even if Jackie was Thai, but she's not even Thai! She's travelling abroad the same as me, once we got past the obstacles trying to stop her getting out of her own country, and she deserves fair treatment. After all, there were some people in my classes at school whose families were 'pure' British (as pure as our mongrel nation gets) who were still tanned, had dark hair and were a little on the short side. So why don't you even consider she could be British or American or something?
Because those people have white skin, silly!
Oh yes, that's right. I forgot.

If the Thais had any interest in global events beyond their own country,
this would have seriously confused them (Image: AP)

Though as much as my country is a messed up melting pot thanks to a history of rapey conquests, there does seem to be something singularly 'English' in my appearance as opposed to German or American, as any celebrities or fictional characters I've been likened to have usually been English ones.

There's Harry Potter with my glasses on, Hermione Granger with glasses off (Jackie insists on this), Edward Cullen (this might just be white people from films she likes if we all look the same), Colin Firth when smiling, Mr Bean when laughing (that's a particularly complimentary one isn't it? From two people now). Though thinking about it, I have been compared to a couple of Philippines stars too - some people have said I look like this guy called Matt Evans and one slightly mad woman thought I was genuinely Filipino film star Jestoni Alarcon, so maybe everything comes back to that country.

People I don't look like, some more than others

So what are you going to do about it?

We're coming to the end of our Thailand trip now, so we'll see whether the people of Vietnam mistake Jackie for one of their own too (UPDATE: Did they ever! Angrier blog post coming soon). It happened a couple of times in Malaysia as well, where they thought she might have been Chinese or something, but because most of them speak English down there we didn't get it anywhere near as much. Jackie tells me she's also been mistaken for Chinese and Japanese in the past, and I've seen her fellow Filipinos asking whether she's Korean, so we have that to look forward to when we head in that direction later.

After all this mistaken identity, it'll be a refreshing change when we visit the UK and she's finally treated like an unwelcome outsider rather than as one of the locals. That's right, my country can be shitty too.

Oh by the way, we spent a few days relaxing in Hua Hin again, and there was nothing worthwhile to show you again. Just some fake Thai girl on a horse:

She is twenty-five years old

And this inexplicable local souvenir stall:

I won't be through psychoanalysing this country for a long time yet. Look forward to more massively offensive insanity ahead!

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