I stopped off for an order of som dtom (a spicy green papaya salad) on my way home from work the other day. I typically visit this one vendor once a week, she knows my tastes now. I chat with her a little, in my stilted Thai, as I watch her prepare my salad, pounding the ingredients together in the big wooden mortar. My neighbors take note too, seeing the distinctive shredded flesh of the unripened papaya through the clear plastic bag I carry home, and when I pass by they say aloud, som dtom, not as a question, but as a statement. I smile and nod and repeat som dtom. Chai, yes. One woman asked if I got it spicy (pet). “Pet nit noi,” I reply, a little spicy. “Soong prik,” two peppers, I add. They get a kick out of this, knowing the foreigner doesn’t tolerate the heat as well as they do.
Whenever I visit one of the local market stalls in the village to purchase something people watch me intently, keeping an eye out to see what I buy. They will also take note of what I don’t buy, the things I pick up and put back down. As I walk back home they measure my stride and look at my plastic bags, the clear and translucent ones, and they tell their companions what I’ve bought, vocalizing my purchases as I pass. They remind me that I’m carrying mangos or eggs, bottled water or kanom (sweets or other treats) as if I didn’t already know. Everyone in town knows that I like my bananas. Before coming to Thailand with the Peace Corps I knew I was going to stand out, that I was going to be stared at, that I would be the subject of endless curiosities and conversations. It was going to be inevitable. I am, after all, a tall, white, big-boned American who was going to be living in rural Southeast Asia for two years. I knew from the start I was going to be a novelty, a conspicuous foreigner always on display, the subject of stares and whispers. I am a farang. There’s no getting around it and there’s no getting away from it. But after five months now of all this staring and gawking, it’s beginning to wear a little thin. How do celebrities do it?
The children tend to gawk more than the adults do, they outright stare with their months open. I know that children worldwide stare at things they’re unfamiliar with, so that’s nothing new. I expect it. Adults have better peripheral vision and tact, I think, they’re watching without me noticing. It’s draining being on stage, in the spotlight, a spectacle, knowing that everything I do is of interest, every action scrutinized and evaluated. There’s no escaping it and I’m worn out from it all. I’m the only Peace Corps volunteer in this province and the only white foreigner for miles around. I keep in touch with a small handful of fellow volunteers and with family and friends via email or instant message, but any commiseration is devoid of the non-verbal cues and pregnant pauses of empathy. There’s no one to sound off to, no one to share the frustration with, no one to nod knowingly and reach out a hand to touch yours and tell you everything’s going to be okay. Some of the images that many Thais carry of farangs are unflattering. We are the visitors who come with backpacks or briefcases for the beaches or the brothels. We come for a spiritual awakening or we come for a wife. We are the ones who show little respect for the culture and the crown and when we get back home we open our VISA statements to check Bangkok or Phuket off our bucket list. Often times these portraits are true, and it is part of my job as a Peace Corps volunteer to help change those images. I’m not saying that Thais aren’t friendly and accepting, they are, very much so, but they are wary. When I walk around my village each day many of the children yell out Hello in English. In hearing that I remember I am an ambassador. I smile and say hello back and am quick to add sa wat dee, krap. If they can greet me in my language I can, and should, greet them in theirs.
So I endure the stares and the snickers and when I sit on my patio after work and apply a spritz of mosquito spray to my exposed self, I look up and make eye contact with whoever is watching. I smile and blurt out the word yung, mosquito, and with that they nod and smile and continue on their way.