Hey look! A Thai person!

Walking the streets of any large American city, you see someone who isn’t of European descent.  You shout – loud enough for your friend and the non-white person to hear – “A foreigner!”

How do you think you’ll be perceived by the “foreigner” and your friend?  Your friend’s going to think you’re obnoxious and the foreigner is going to take offense of your stereotyping.

Imagine shouting “foreigner!” to a Muslim walking the streets of Minneapolis.  This kind of behavior is obviously not polite.

It is in Thailand, or so they tell us.  It’s one more adjustment I’ve had to make.  I say I’m being stereotyped by the color of my skin and the Thai people tell me it’s a friendly gesture being called a “foreigner,” or “farang” in Thai.

I have not gotten used to it.  I grew up in a society where it was impolite to stereotype people based on race, religion, gender, occupation and ability to name the state capitals.  The Lutherans didn’t stand outside my church yelling, “Catholic!” every time mass finished.  Walking down Ford Parkway in St. Paul, I wouldn’t yell to the guy in the yarmulke, “Jew!”

A lot of behavior changes over the 7,000 miles between me and America and this is one I’m still getting used to.

I’ve been told repeatedly by Thai people and Peace Corps staff that being called a farang is not a derogatory statement.  When I speak English, I’m not speaking English, I’m speaking farang.  When I eat eggs, bacon and coffee for breakfast, I’m eating farang food, or foreigner food.

It’s not so bad when I’m in a big city and I hear “farang” when I walk by someone.  They don’t know me.  It really bothers me when I’m near my home and I know people know my name, but still call me a farang.

They don’t mean anything by it, Jeff, I tell myself.  Be cool. 

Yes, I’m a foreigner.  But it feels like if in my eighth grade class I pointed to the one African-American and said, “Hey, a black person!”  Yes, he’s black.  That’s quite obvious, but to stereotype him to such a broad category is demeaning.

Not over here!

My thought is if I’m just a foreigner then you’re just a Thai person.  Sometimes I day dream of biking through a village and shouting “kon Thai” (Thai person) at everyone I see.

They really don’t mean anything.  It’s just their way of identifying foreigners who are few and far between – especially compared to the states.  These people are wonderful.  I just need to remind myself they don’t do a lot of traveling, let alone to places like New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago and Cloquet, Minnesota.

But that’s one of the reasons I’m here.  I tell the students in my classes how impolite it would be in the states if you called someone a foreigner.  Since bringing this up, I have seen students chastised by others for calling me a farang.

“Don’t call him a farang!  His name is J.J.!”

They’re learning.  I’m learning more.

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1 thought on “Hey look! A Thai person!

  1. That was one of the hardest adjustments I never could make. I realized that while we aren’t colorblind in the US, we have standards that make it more comfortable to be different.

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