What’s He Doing Now?

som dtom, shredded green papaya salad, with sticky rice on the side

som dtom, shredded green papaya salad, with sticky rice on the side

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.

IMG_1668

My som dtom maker, note the red mortar with pestle on her left.

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?

Students from my local school in Ranong Province

Students from my local school in Ranong Province

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.

It's the rainy season.

This farang’s best friend during rainy season

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.

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About rich1019

A new adventure is just around the corner. While not an adventure seeker by nature, I'm open to new experiences. Peace Corps. Life is calling.
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10 Responses to What’s He Doing Now?

  1. meiyan2014 says:

    I just love your writing style. And I must add, I can completely relate to the staring. Being a person of color abroad is challenging at times because the staring and name calling (heise ren -black person or waiguo ren -foreigner) never ends. All in all, you get used to it and find ways of dealing with it. Thanks for sharing 🙂

  2. Sounds like you’re doing just fine. At my Peace Corps site in Armenia, I sometimes like to challenge the townspeople by openly making a spectacle of myself. As I never remember to look up the word for mouthwash before I shop, when at the store I just throw my head back and make a gargling sound. The ensuing laughter creates a bond between us. I find that more and more people start to talk to me instead of just stare. Or I’ll ask people in line at the store what the Armenian word is for something I’m pointing to. Then I repeat it, struggling with the rolled “r’s” and other nuances. They love it. It gives us a relationship beyond the barrier of cultural difference. We become humans. Before I came to Armenia I thought I might dye my ash blond hair a darker color in order to blend in more. Recently, I had my hair highlighted with even blonder strands. Now I really stand out. Armenia is trying to encourage tourism. Well, to get tourists they’ll have to be more accepting of foreigners. As a Peace Corps volunteer I’m on that frontier. I’m beginning to enjoy challenging the town residents to accept me. The Armenian population is 98% Armenian. They all look roughly alike with their fair, greyish skin and black hair. Lots of women wear tight tee-shirts that say “New York” on them in glittery letters. Well, I’m from New York. I’m the real thing. I’m blond and gutsy and funny and wear western clothes. It’s time they get used to it. So enjoy your bananas and spray away!

  3. rich1019 says:

    Yes, you are a gutsy, gorgeous New Yorker and I’m proud to know you. I love your interactions and you’re right, they do help. I’ve tried a few myself.

    • And YOU are a gutsy New Yorker guy and a a lot of other things like tall, muscular and handsome! Those tiny Thai women must follow you everywhere with their eyes. I don’t blame them at all. I can only imagine what they’re saying while they’re checking out your vegetables 🙂 You’ll just have to get used to it, Mr. Buff. And yes, tease them right back.

  4. Darryl Benson says:

    …know for a certainty that even in the midst of a thousand people, I can sometimes feel that “set apart” feeling. A feeling of being different than my fellows. Love, and a sense of purpose knows no bounds, and is a great unifying force for those who care. I’m sure that in the days to come, as your journey draws to a close, this feeling will be considerably different. For them, and for you. “All that is required, is that I be as enthusiastic as I can be!” Be well my friend. You are missed at home! ☺

  5. jackwjw@aol.com says:

    Wonderful to read your updates, what is your daily job? Jack

  6. Ed Denehy says:

    Hey Rich, just think that you and you alone have the ability to change the image of the farang in your village. It’s a power and a privilege to be able to do so. We try to do it in our travels, but we usually only interact with people in the tourism business. You are influencing the real folks.

    • rich1019 says:

      Thanks Ed. Are you and Diane going to add Thailand to your travel list?

      • Ed Denehy says:

        Sure, but it’s a very long list. Great to hear back from you. If you ever want to email me, my address is eddot98@yahoo.com
        I don’t have one for you. I check your blog every day for a new entry, sometimes reading them to Diane in the car.

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