Farang is the Thai word for “someone of European ancestry” or “white person”, and it’s a word I’ve heard over 100 times a day since arriving in Thailand a month ago. Though the word is not meant as an insult, it serves as a constant reminder that I am an outsider in this land.
Just to give you some background: at 5’8” I am generally a head taller than everyone here, blue-eyed, extremely pale and freckled (thanks Irish-Scottish ancestors!), and have a mane of curly blonde hair. To put it bluntly: in no way, shape, or form do I blend in in Thailand. Often times I feel like some towering pasty alienesque creature as I crouch to avoid hitting my head for the 500th time on a street cart awning as the Thai vendors smile at me.
Two weeks ago I moved from Hat Yai, a big city in southern Thailand, to Ronphibun, a small subdistrict located a few hours north, to start fieldwork for my internship project. I was slightly nervous about the move; in Hat Yai I had the company of a few other UMichigan interns at Prince of Songkla University (PSU), but in Ronphibun I would be on my own as the only native English-speaker and likely the only foreigner in the entire area. This was, in fact, confirmed once I reached Ronphibun: my presence was met with excitement, lots of rapidly spoken Thai, and me being told that I would be the only farang to have ever lived in Ronphibun. Ever. [Update: since I wrote this blog I have met 2 other farangs in Ronphibun, an English teacher my age from Louisiana and a hilarious elderly Scotsman, so not sure why they told me this?] “You are a VIP here in Ronphibun,” said Morn, the Thai PhD student from PSU whose project I was assisting with.
A slightly more accurate term would be VSAP (Very Stared At Person). In urban Hat Yai I was given curious glances and brief questioning looks, but here in more rural Ronphibun I have never been more stared at in my life. Heads turn, scooters and bicycles slow down, and entire rooms of people have swiveled 180° to look at me. Two weeks later and I can confirm the staring doesn’t stop. I am not the type of person that likes to be the center of attention and being stared at can feel very isolating and objectifying at times. There is a lot of pressure when your every movement is being analyzed. I wish I could say there is some magical method to dealing with the constant attention, but it basically boils down to accepting it and reminding yourself this is a minor annoyance in an overall amazing experience you’ve been given. When people here stare it’s not meant to be rude or intimidating, it’s mostly surprise to see someone that looks like me in this area. I obviously stick out, so it helps to have fun with it: I always smile and wave at anyone I see staring at me and they usually excitedly return the smile and occasionally say, “Hello!”. But there is the rare day (possibly after several people come up to the glass window your desk is behind and proceed to watch you for 10 minutes like a zoo animal) when you just want to put a bag over your head and scream, “Stop staring at me, I know you saw me yesterday!”
Each day here I walk down the streets of Ronphibun with Morn and a local health volunteer, going from door-to-door to collect toenail and saliva biosamples to analyze for arsenic concentrations and genetics (a future blog post will go more in depth on this study). Once villagers see me, they stare and smile curiously and ask questions to Morn that involve the word “farang” several times. “Khun poot pah-sah thai dai mai kha?” they ask me (Can you speak Thai?). “Mai dai kha,” I say smiling and shaking my head apologetically (No I can’t), or more recently, “Nit noy kha” (A little!).
My inability to speak their language doesn’t seem to phase them and they appreciate my efforts to speak Thai. Usually they pull out an electric floor fan as we sit down and point it towards my profusely sweating face (Thailand is HUMID) and bring out glasses and a bottle of water for the research team during the interview portion. During the visits, some of the older women like to stroke my arm and say “kaow mahk” (very white) and “soo-ay, soo-ay” (pretty, pretty) as their crinkled eyes beam up at me. This always lifts my spirits as I sit there dripping with a smelly mixture of sweat, DEET (no dengue for me, please and thanks!), and sunscreen, feeling quite the opposite of pretty.
It is amazing how much you can pick up through non-verbal language during the interviews. Most of the day I have absolutely NO idea what is being said, but picking up on tones and body language I can usually guess what’s going on (or Morn sees my blank face and tries to explain things to me). I’ve learned to never underestimate the power of a smile. When two people don’t share a language, a simple smile can bridge the gap, create a connection, and make someone feel welcome and accepted. Luckily Thailand is known as “the Land of Smiles” and this reputation is well deserved!
The past 2 weeks here I have been amazed by the friendliness, warmth, and giving nature of the Ronphibun locals; I’ve had so much fun meeting everyone. They have made me feel welcome despite the fact I am an obvious outsider that can’t speak their language. I am excited to work on a public health project here and look forward to the rest of my summer!