I’ve noticed that most of my posts are a bit lacking. While they’re full of fun references and [ideally] clever wordplay and I do a lot to forward the “plot” of my Thailand experience, I haven’t really been doing much to uncover the underlying themes and the more cultural, foundational facets of my new six month reality. As entertaining as it would be to leave here with a blog full of different things I did in Thailand, I’d also like to be able to look back and examine the little things, the difficult things, and the things that only happened in my head.
So I’ve started a new series of posts entitled “A Little More Conversation.”I’ll try to make them shorter so as not to bore you, but I hope they engage yall, my friends and fam, in a different way. Enjoy!
Being black in this world, you learn pretty quickly that there are a lot of people in this world who don’t like the color of your skin or the culture they perceive to be associated with it. I’ve been blessed with enough naivete and good people around me that my most superficial of characteristics hasn’t played too negative a role in my life. At the same time, though, I’ve been an Asiaphile for as long as I can remember. Those close to me know that this trip to Southeast Asia is the culmination of a lifelong dream. In the back of my head, and in the center of my head, and in my prefrontal cortex, I always knew that the preferred skin color of the region is very, very far from mine and that many countries have an institutionalized racism that is substantially more overt than America’s subtle, often inadvertent one.
Surprisingly, though, I haven’t experienced any of the racism I expected to see in Thailand. This was likely primarily due to my familiarity with other South East Asian cultures and relative ignorance of Thai culture, but I was really really surprised by just how little anyone cared that I was black. People weren’t looking at me any more than they looked at any other farang, and though my students find random pictures of black guys and say “Teechaaa! It’s you!” and the people at the store call me Obama (which, to be fair, I’ve encouraged), those are about as harmless as racism can get and way more harmless than some of the “black jokes” I’ve gotten in the States. No one has asked if it is hotter for me during the summer or asked to feel my hair or any of the other things black people suffer.
I was having lunch with my school coordinator, who is a Godsend, btw, when I think I got a glimpse into the Thai psyche that explained why. We started talking about Muay Thai, which, of course, led to talking about Buakaw. Buakaw is revered amongst Muay Thai fans as an all around beast and basically the best kickboxer on earth. Youtube him and you’ll be able to see him wreck some very, very capable men.
Anyway, we were talking about Buakaw when she mentioned that Buakaw is his nickname, not his real one. This was before I knew all Thai people went by nicknames, so I was surprised. “Oh. What does it mean?” I asked, while riding a unicycle and juggling fiery chainsaws (I figured all this serious talk is getting boring for you dear readers).
She then explained that “Buakaw” means “White Lotus” and that it is a bit of a joke, given that his skin is really dark.
“He has dark skin, like you,” she said.
This probably doesn’t seem like a big deal to a lot of you, but I felt really…accepted? Comforted? I don’t know exactly what it was, but I had a good feeling in my chest when I heard her say that. In America, skin color is inseparable from race (for most). The idea that an Asian man could have skin “like me” had never crossed my mind. And the fact that this was a man who is an idol for Thai boys, respected by Thai elders and adults, among the most internationally famous and recognizable Thai people, and, most importantly, praised just as much for his discipline, skill, intelligence and demeanor as he is for his athletic accomplishments really meant a lot to me. All my wariness and confusion evaporated and I would’ve seriously hugged her if it wouldn’t have been odd and uncomfortable. I don’t think she understood how big of an impact her words had on me.
In Thailand, I’m not black, I’m just another shade of brown. Maybe I’m just at the cusp of acceptably dark skin and my brothers from Sudan are relentlessly persecuted here, but I don’t get that feeling. Thailand has a pretty diverse ethnic make-up and though they view pale skin as fashionable and beautiful, they seem to accept that skin color is only superficial.
And I love them for it.