“How do you feel being the only one?” she asked, rather bluntly, with concern and interest in her voice.
I was sitting in a circle with the fellow American ESL teachers, surrounded by wine and beer bottles with a deck of cards in the center and some alternative rock playing from a laptop.
The only one. Those words echoed in my head for a couple of seconds. I didn’t know how to respond to such a question. We had been in Thailand for about 2 weeks, and the culture shock was strong. The smells, the sounds, the language, the food, the jet lag — the adjustment was as exciting as it was exhausting. Furthermore, I was experiencing a double dose of culture shock. Besides being a Ghanaian American girl in Thailand, I was also one of four persons of color in a group of more than 200 soon-to-be ESL teachers. I was alone in my culture and my race.
As audacious as her inquiry was, it was caring nonetheless. It was better than if she stated that our feelings are the same and as foreigners we are experiencing equal levels of culture shock and treatment from locals. Her question held a social awareness that is hard for some people to admit.
It was a fitting introduction to the cultural confusion and personal reflection that marked my experience as an ESL teacher in Thailand.
There was the time when students laughed at me for wearing a head-wrap to class, and one teacher approached me and asked if I was wearing a Thai skirt on my head. Shortly afterward, my coordinator pulled me aside to explain that in Thai culture, decorative scarves are traditionally worn as a skirt. I replied, “Well, in my culture, scarves can be worn as a headdress, to serve as statements of fashion, beauty and individuality.” I then gathered pictures from Google of some fine looking brown-skinned women in head-wraps, and showed them to my coordinator one by one.
There was the time when one of my students drew a picture of me, coloring me in with a black crayon.
Worst was the time when we saw a racially disturbing performance that broke my spirit. It was a burlesque show in which one of the performers posed as a pregnant woman with darker skin, short kinky hair and painted-on missing teeth while lip-synching an old jazz song. At the end of her piece, she pulled a tiny dark-skinned baby doll out from under her dress. The crowd roared with laughter. I stormed out the theatre and burst into tears.
There was the argument I had while having lunch at the local outdoor restaurant across the school campus. A man I had never see before sat at one of the tables across from me and asked where I’m from.
“Maajak America, kha,” I replied. He refused to accept that as an answer. This started the most insulting mini-verbal-war I have had in another language. We argued back and forth, him saying that I am not American and me wishing I brought a copy of my passport along with me.
He gestured to my skin and said “African!” in a disgusted tone. I finally explained that yes, I am African, but I was born and raised in America. He shut up, satisfied that he was correct.
Finally, there was the time I met a beautiful little girl with an (absent) Ethiopian father and Thai mother. The girl didn’t speak English, so she didn’t understand what I said while I hugged her tightly and told her how beautiful and special she is. After I left, I was filled with sadness. I wondered who will be there to understand her feelings when she grows up and realizes she is not like the girls around her. Who will show her pictures of African women? Who will teach her the other side of her culture?
And there were several other incidents that I want to keep inside. Or for a future memoir.
I eventually stopped being angry about the misconceptions some Thai people had about my race and culture. The racial stereotyping they had received from Western media is the same kind that we Americans ingest. Those messages travel much more negatively halfway across the world, especially within a culture that knows little or nothing about the history of Black struggles in America — slavery, Jim Crow, the Civil Rights Movement, police brutality and so on.
Colorism is also a huge issue in Thailand. There is a general desire for white skin, and a large market for whitening skin products. It was a challenge finding skin care products that did not have “whitening” on the label. I also had experiences of meeting dark skinned Thai people who jokingly referred to themselves as “black like me.”